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People are doing all they can to get ready for the final game of the college football season.
Alabama will face Clemson for the National Championship and it will undoubtedly be a battle until the very end. Until then, we get to watch a hilarious video full of things that will actually never happen but are fun to imagine.
A Cincinnati radio station is getting ready for the Steelers in more ways than one.
700 WLW sent out a fake Ben Roethlisberger warning for all the women in the area. This stems from the rape allegations that surrounded the Steelers quarterback a few years ago. Bengals fans may find it hilarious, but the Steelers no doubt want to steer clear even if it is a joke.
"All females ages 18-40 are to use extreme caution, especially if heavily consuming alcohol," the warning states.
The final game of the NFL's Wild Card Weekend resides in Washington, D.C., where the Redskins host the Packers. In a weird twist, Washington fans were rooting for a matchup against Green Bay considering how the Packers limped to the finish line. Imagine what would have happened if Aaron Rodgers didn't complete that Hail Mary against the Lions in Detroit just a few weeks ago? Well it did happen and now Green Bay gets a crack at the smoking hot Redskins and Kirk Cousins. There is a bit of postseason history between these two teams with their last meeting coming in 1972 when the Skins took a 16-3 contest.
NFC Wild Card: Green Bay at Washington
Kickoff: 4:40 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Spread: Packers -1
Three Things to Watch
1. You Like That?!
One could argue that Kirk Cousins is the hottest quarterback in the league right now. Cousins has thrown for more than 4,000 yards and 29 touchdowns to just 11 interceptions. Just two of those picks have come at home, where his QB rating is 117.0. Over the past two months he has completed better than 70 percent of his passes with 13 TDs and just one interception. Almost any number you look at involving the former Michigan State Spartan represents something positive. Cornerback Sam Shields has been out for the Packers as he continues to deal with an injury. On paper, the numbers look good for Green Bay, who has held nine straight opponents to fewer than 300 yards through the air. But with tight end Jordan Reed and wide receiver DeSean Jackson both healthy for Washington, that streak will be under fire. Reed's potential has finally been reached and it's no coincidence that it's because he's healthy and actually playing without injury. The same could be said for Jackson, who has dealt with nicks and bruises, but played through them to be the burner that the Eagles sorely needed, but let go.
2. Discount Double Check
Oh yeah, there's a pretty good quarterback on the other side too. Aaron Rodgers has thrown for nearly 33,000 yards in his career yet he's struggling mightily this season. Rodgers has thrown an interception in three straight and five of his last six games overall. That's coming after he had just three total through the first 10 contests. The two-time league MVP desperately misses Jordy Nelson, as Randall Cobb just hasn't been as effective. Cobb has failed to top 50 yards receiving in three straight and five of his last seven games. James Jones is getting some discussion, but it's mostly because he's wearing a hoodie on the field. Finally, ask fantasy football owners about how much love they had for Davante Adams. Well that never came to fruition, as he has 50 catches and one touchdown on the season. The lone bright spot it seems is tight end Richard Rodgers, who was on the other end of the Hail Mary in Detroit a few weeks ago. Washington's vulnerable in the secondary, as the team recently signed veteran Cary Williams to help out. Bashaud Breeland is very good at cornerback, but Will Blackmon, Williams and Quinton Dunbar are just “names” on the other side.
3. Run, Run, Run Away
The most important factor for this game could be which team gets their anemic run game going. The Packers have shown more flashes of brilliance, but I might take the Skins’ backfield in this one. Alfred Morris picked up more than 100 yards rushing last week against a solid Cowboys defense. Mix in a little Matt Jones and Chris Thompson or Pierre Thomas and you have a group that can do a lot to hurt you on the field. Green Bay's run defense has given up 100-plus yards on the ground in six straight games. On the opposite side, you've got a vulnerable Washington run D taking on Eddie Lacy and James Starks. Green Bay wants to run the ball so it takes the heat off a mediocre offensive line, but it's just not getting consistency. Lacy has 117 yards rushing over the last three games after putting up 124 on the Cowboys back on Dec. 13. The squad that is able to ground out some yards is going to win this one.
You've got the postseason veterans in the Packers playing the upstart Redskins on Sunday. It seems very easy to take Washington because the Skins are playing better and they are at home. While working on this preview, I went back and forth on which team I would pick. That Vikings game on Sunday night was awful to watch, as the Packers’ offense just didn't look right. In fact, this unit hasn’t looked right for a while and while I'd rather have Aaron Rodgers over Kirk Cousins if I'm starting a team, this is just one game. The Skins’ defense adds to Rodgers' misery and Washington gives us another week to fire up our "You Like That" vines.
Prediction: Redskins 24, Packers 16
— Written by Matt Josephs, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @MidMajorMatt.
The Minnesota Vikings (11-5) secured their first NFC North division title since 2009 with a 20-13 win at Green Bay in Week 17. But after earning the No. 3 seed, the Vikings face a tough opening matchup in the NFC playoffs.
The Seattle Seahawks (10-6) look to continue their recent postseason success but this time as a wild card team. The Seahawks have made the NFC Championship Game in each of the last three seasons and the last two Super Bowls – including a victory in 2013.
Both teams are coming off strong finishes to end their regular seasons and look like two potential sleepers in the NFC bracket. Here's a look at Sunday's matchup in Minneapolis:
NFC Wild Card: Seattle at Minnesota
Kickoff: 1:05 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Spread: Seattle -6
Three Things to Watch
1. Freezing weather could play a crucial role
Minnesota is hosting its first outdoor playoff game in more than 39 years. The Vikings had since played in the Metrodome and missed the playoffs last season in their first of two renting out TCF Bank Stadium at the University of Minnesota.
In case you didn't know, it's unbearably cold in Minnesota during the late winter months, which used to play to the Vikings' advantage during their early years. Though it's not like Seattle is Arizona or Miami coming from a warm climate, the 1-degree forecast could play to Minnesota's advantage.
Still, with both teams having two of the league's best running backs the frigid weather shouldn't provide too much of a drastic change in the game plan.
2. Seahawks look to continue hot streak
In contrast with the weather, Seattle has been one of the league's hottest teams in recent weeks. The Seahawks have won six of their last seven games including a 38-7 rout at Minnesota on Dec. 6.
Seattle also is coming off a 36-6 win last week over NFC West division champ Arizona to split their season series. The Cardinals played their starters, despite having already secured the No. 2 seed in the NFC playoffs, so Sunday's win was huge for the Seahawks' momentum.
Seattle has made two consecutive Super Bowl appearances for a reason. The Seahawks know how to get hot at the right time.
The team has looked more like its past self in the last few weeks than it did during its disappointing 2-2 start.
3. Will Teddy step up in the postseason?
Teddy Bridgewater has done everything asked of him in his second season. Many label him as a "game manager," which is all the Vikings have needed to win their first division title since 2009.
Bridgewater's numbers aren't going to win him an MVP, but aside from Adrian Peterson, he's been the most important individual player to the team's success. He's been consistent throughout 2014 and stepped up when needed.
But he's set to play his first career playoff game in frigid weather against a recent Super Bowl and reigning NFC champion. Can the second-year quarterback prove once again that he's a franchise quarterback? He'll need to for the Vikings to pull off an upset at home.
Minnesota had two losses that defined its season: Green Bay in Week 11 and Seattle in Week 13. Both teams humbled the Vikings, who had previously won seven of their first 10 games and looked like one of the most balanced teams in the NFC.
Minnesota has since returned to form with three consecutive wins to end its season including an answer to Green Bay's previous
victory with a 20-13 win Sunday night to take the NFC North.
Seattle's recent success will make most think that it's primed for another Super Bowl run, but it’s hardly the same team. There are some flaws that the Vikings should expose on Sunday and earn their first postseason victory since 2009.
Prediction: Vikings 20, Seahawks 17
— Written by Jason Hall, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and works for Fox Sports Florida. Follow him on Twitter @jasonhallFSN.
Merriam-Webster defines "outrageous" as "exceeding the limits of what is usual." Think about that definition before you read any further.
NFL Wild Card Weekend is upon us, and everyone from bloggers to bookies has an opinion on how they think things will shake out. The problem is, many of those opinions are very similar. Where's the fun in that? Why should we watch the games? Why should the teams even play? Because given the one-and-done nature of the NFL playoffs, the outrageous is bound to happen. There is no tomorrow without victory, so the teams will take every risk and pull out every stop to move on.
Outrageous Predictions for NFL Wild Card Weekend
The Redskins blow the Packers out
Washington has won four in a row — scoring 32.75 point per game in that stretch. Kirk Cousins is a man on fire with an endless supply of weapons at the skill positions and a confident offensive line protecting him. Green Bay limps into the playoffs on the heels of two straight losses where the Packers put up a grand total of 21 points. Before that, they had a three-game winning streak against three teams who are not in the playoffs. Aaron Rodgers is not himself and I don't blame him. His receivers can't stay healthy and his running back forgot how to run the ball. The Redskins are going to do too much damage on offense for this discombobulated Packer squad to hang with them in a shootout.
AJ McCarron outduels Big Ben in a shootout
Don't expect McCarron to play the role of game manager. This is where his experience playing for championships at Alabama comes in handy. Look for him to exploit an average Steeler secondary with a not-so-average corps of receivers. McCarron is always looking for the big play in the big game, and that'll be the case on Saturday. On the other side of the ball, the lack of any real threat in the Steeler running game means the Bengals will be coming after Big Ben with their ears pinned back all night. That means plenty of rushed and ill-advised throws downfield, as the Todd Haley bubble-screen game won't be enough to get the job done this time.
The Vikings shock (and freeze) Seattle
This is going to be one of the coldest games in NFL history. Don't think that'll scare off the Viking faithful. They live for the cold and they'll be the 12th Man in this one. I like Minnesota's secondary to blanket the Seattle receivers all day. When that happens, Russell Wilson will find himself on the run behind what has been shaky pass protection against an athletic group of linebackers led by Anthony Barr. On the flip side, look for a classic NFC North game plan from the Vikings, pounding the rock straight at Seattle and controlling the tempo. You won't hear Richard Sherman's name much in this low-scoring, frigid slugfest.
Houston plays (and wins) like a division champion
Records don't matter anymore. J.J. Watt is healthy again and Brian Hoyer is ready to put everything he learned sitting behind Tom Brady in the postseason to good use. Look for the Texans to counter the Kansas City pass rush with a healthy dose of draws and short, quick passes. Watt and Whitney Mercilus will be foaming at the mouth to get after a Chiefs offensive line that allowed 46 sacks during the regular season — tied with Seattle for sixth worst in the league and second only to Green Bay among playoff teams. Look for the Texans to win a close one on the back of a defensive touchdown.
It was announced on Wednesday that the University of Tennessee football program and defensive coordinator John Jancek have decided to mutually part ways. Jancek had served as defensive coordinator for the Volunteers for three seasons under head coach Butch Jones. He also served as defensive coordinator under Jones at Cincinnati from 2010-12. The duo's relationship goes back to their time as assistants at Central Michigan from 2003-04.
Jancek has been credited with turning around an abysmal Volunteer defense that ranked among the worst in Tennessee history under former coordinator Sal Sunseri. In 2015, the Volunteers finished 36th nationally in total defense and 16th nationally in scoring defense. Now that Jancek is no longer with the program, let’s take a close look at four potential candidates that could replace him at Tennessee.
Bob Shoop, Penn State defensive coordinator
Shoop has become one of the hottest commodities in college football and with good reason. Shoop’s Nittany Lions’ defense ranked 14th nationally this season, and he is largely credited with turning a terrible Vanderbilt defense into one of the top units in the country before following James Franklin from Vandy to Penn State.
Shoop has already turned down offers from powerhouse programs such as LSU and Auburn. In addition, he recently signed a new three-year deal with Penn State that would pay him close to $1 million annually. That is almost double the amount Tennessee was paying Jancek. There may be some interest on Shoop’s part if the price is right, but it seems like it would take a lot to lure him from Happy Valley.
Gene Chizik, North Carolina defensive coordinator
Chizik is another name that has been bantered about on the interwebs as a potential replacement for Jancek at Tennessee. There is no doubt that Chizik has an impressive resume. He took home numerous coach of the year awards in 2010 after leading the Auburn Tigers to an undefeated season and a national championship as head coach. He also served as co-defensive coordinator and assistant head coach for the 2005 Texas Longhorn team that won the national title.
This season was Chizik's first as North Carolina's defensive coordinator. He helped the Tar Heels win 11 games in a season for the first time since 1997 and improved one of the worst defenses in FBS in 2014. He also was one of the finalists for the Broyles Award, which goes to the nation's top assistant coach. That being said, North Carolina still finished just 95th nationally in total defense this season. Poor defensive performances against Clemson in the ACC Championship Game and Baylor in the Russell Athletic Bowl were largely to blame. Chizik is often regarded as one of the better defensive minds in college football, which is reflected by his resume, but his resume also reflects a couple of really bad performances as well.
Todd Orlando, Houston defensive coordinator
If the Vols decide to go the “up-and-coming” route, Orlando would make an ideal candidate. Orlando’s aggressive brand of defense would fit in nicely at Tennessee and the SEC in general. While Orlando’s Houston Cougar defense ranked just 53rd nationally in total defense on the season, his squad showed tremendous improvement down the stretch and ranked at or near the top of the FBS in several key categories. The Cougars ranked first in the nation with 35 forced turnovers and eighth in the country against the run.
Orlando’s best performance as Houston's defensive coordinator came against Florida State in the Peach Bowl. The Cougars held a previously impressive Seminole rushing attack to just 16 yards on the day, while forcing five turnovers. Orlando also found success in his previous job as Utah State's coordinator. The Aggie defense ranked seventh nationally in scoring defense (17 ppg) in 2013 and 12th (19.7ppg) in '12 under Orlando's tutelage. Orlando would likely come fairly cheap for the Volunteers and based on his track record, success should follow.
John Chavis, Texas A&M defensive coordinator
Most Tennessee fans would welcome “Chief” back to Tennessee with open arms. Chavis played as a nose tackle for the Volunteers from 1976-78. He also served as a Tennessee coach for 20 seasons, 14 of those as defensive coordinator under Phillip Fulmer. Chavis' defense played a significant role in the Volunteers' run to the 1998 national championship.
Chavis served as defensive coordinator at LSU from 2009-14, producing some of the best defenses in the nation year after year. He won the Broyles Award in 2011 while at LSU. Chavis most recently signed a lucrative deal to serve as defensive coordinator at Texas A&M. Chavis helped the Aggies' defense improve from 104th in the nation to 51st in 2015. Given the recent upheaval in College Station, it might just be the ideal time for Chavis to return home to Tennessee. For that to happen, the Volunteers would have to be willing to open up the wallet. Chavis is reported to earn somewhere in the neighborhood of $1.6 million next season at A&M.
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. McVey is a diehard Tennessee Volunteers' fan who loves singing "Rocky Top" every opportunity he gets. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.
In a shocking move to most people, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers fired head coach Lovie Smith in just his second season on the job. Smith was 8-24 in his stint in Tampa.
"After careful consideration, we informed Lovie that we have decided to make a change," Buccaneers co-chairman Joel Glazer said in a statement on Wednesday night. "I want to thank Lovie for his hard work and dedication to the Buccaneers during his time here."
While the Buccaneers finished 6-10 in 2015, most people felt like the team was on the upswing. Smith did lose his final four games as head coach in 2015, but because of rookie quarterback Jameis Winston and the NFL's fifth-ranked offense, the team’s arrow was pointing up.
Tampa Bay hired Smith in 2014 in part to bring stability to an organization that hasn’t had any since Jon Gruden was the head coach from 2002-08. When Smith's replacement is named, he will be the fourth head coach the team has hired since 2009.
So who are the names to look at when it comes to the Bucs' head coaching job?
For the Bucs to make a surprising move just days after Black Monday, the team must have a plan in mind for its next head coach. That plan could be to promote the current offensive coordinator, Koetter.
According to NFL Media National Insider Ian Rapoport, Koetter appears to be the front-runner to land the Buccaneers job after the stunning move to fire Smith. Rapoport says Tampa will "go through the process," but the eventual target seems to be an obvious choice.
Reportedly, Koetter also has been drawing interest from the Miami Dolphins and the San Francisco 49ers for their head coaching vacancies. Koetter has been a head coach at the collegiate level at Boise State and Arizona State, but never in the NFL. He has been an offensive coordinator since 2007 when the Jacksonville Jaguars hired him.
In his first season in Jacksonville, the Jaguars set franchise records for total points scored and yards gained while helping the team to an 11-5 record. Koetter's best success came from 2012-14 as the offensive coordinator of the Atlanta Falcons. He helped quarterback Matt Ryan and the offense come up one game shy from reaching the Super Bowl before losing to the 49ers in the 2012 NFC Championship Game.
It makes sense that the Bucs would name Koetter the head coach as they wouldn’t want Winston to have to learn a second offensive system in only his second season in the league.
If for some reason Koetter didn’t get hired by the Bucs, Gase could be a guy the team could look at. Gase is a hot candidate in a lot of circles and he has improved offenses during his time with the Denver Broncos and the Chicago Bears.
Jay Cutler enjoyed one of the best statistical seasons of his career under Gase, as he finished 16th in the league in passer rating with a career-high 92.3 rating. Cutler also had his second-highest completion percentage (64.4) and threw 21 touchdowns against 11 interceptions.
During Gase's two-year run as the Broncos' offensive coordinator, the team had one of the best units in the NFL. In his first season, Peyton Manning won MVP honors after throwing for an NFL-record 5,477 yards and 55 touchdowns. The Broncos also set the single-season mark with 606 points that season, which ended with a Super Bowl loss to the Seattle Seahawks.
If Tampa Bay wanted to think outside of the box, the team could decide to hire Kelly, who was just fired as the Philadelphia Eagles' head coach.
Philadelphia cut ties with Kelly reportedly after team chairman and CEO Jeffrey Lurie wanted to take away his hand-picked head coach’s personnel power and Kelly refused. While Kelly's personnel decisions didn't turn out so well, the head coach did enjoy success in his first two seasons in the NFL.
Kelly posted back-to-back 10-6 campaigns, with the Eagles making the playoffs in 2013. In 2015, the team recorded their second losing season at 7-9 (6-9 under Kelly) since 2005. Philadelphia was 4-4 at one point with a chance to make a run at another NFC East title before losing five of its next eight games.
Kelly is probably a long shot, but someone the Buccaneers could consider.
— 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 Saturday prime time AFC Wild Card playoff game features the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals, presumably for television to take advantage of the Steelers’ national following. But you’ll excuse these teams if they’d prefer to play on Sunday.
That would mean one more day for Cincinnati quarterback Andy Dalton’s right thumb to heal. One more day for Pittsburgh running back DeAngelo Williams’s sprained right ankle to get better.
Williams was described as being “day-to-day” by Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin earlier in the week, but was subsequently ruled out on Friday. Dalton had a cast removed from his hand on Monday, but the expectation is that AJ McCarron will start at quarterback.
So whichever team loses this game will be blaming injuries. Ironic, because prior to Dalton’s broken thumb Dec. 13 against the Steelers the Bengals were noted for their ability to stay healthy thanks to their practice schedule, while Tomlin has been lauded for getting the Steelers into the playoffs despite the fact that 18 players are currently on an injured reserve list.
AFC Wild Card: Pittsburgh at Cincinnati
Kickoff: 8:15 p.m. ET (Saturday)
Spread: Steelers -1.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Who is hurt more by injuries?
The answer to this question is the Steelers since they already know that DeAngelo Williams won't play. It’s somewhat déjà vu for Pittsburgh, which entered last year's playoffs with Le’Veon Bell injured. This forced the Steelers to go with Ben Tate, who they claimed off of the waiver wire, as their starting running back.
Tate was unimpressive and the Steelers’ offense was one-dimensional against the Ravens in their wild card matchup. Pittsburgh had not lost to a division rival in the playoffs since 1947. But that changed when the Ravens beat the Steelers 30-17 at home.
That loss also is one of the reasons why the Steelers signed Williams this offseason. Last week, Williams' replacement, Fitzgerald Toussaint, could only muster 24 yards on 12 carries.
AJ McCarron, meanwhile, has not thrown an interception in his three starts and has won two of them, albeit against weak teams (San Francisco and Baltimore).
But when he came on in relief of Dalton against the Steelers in their last meeting, the Alabama product threw an ugly interception to William Gay on a swing pass that was returned for a touchdown. McCarron also slumped at the end of a 20-17 overtime loss to Denver in Week 16, eventually fumbling away Cincinnati’s final possession in a game that would have given the Bengals home-field advantage throughout the playoffs had they won.
McCarron hasn’t thrown more than 200 yards in any of his starts, which speaks of head coach Marvin Lewis playing conservatively (against San Francisco the Bengals ran the ball 36 times against only 21 passes in a 24-14 victory).
Don’t discount McCarron’s game manager skills, however. Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has thrown at least one interception in all but two games this season, including three in a 16-10 loss to the Bengals back in Week 8.
And while Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard may have been unspectacular this season, they did split the workload of the Cincinnati running game, keeping them fresh and healthy.
Cincinnati also could be without two additional players. Backup defensive tackle Brandon Thompson is out, while tight end Ryan Hewitt, known primarily for his blocking, not only missed the Baltimore game last week he also has yet to return to practice.
2. Can the Steelers’ pass defense stop whomever the Bengals play at quarterback?
Prior to last Sunday it seemed the Pittsburgh secondary could be counted on to allow one long touchdown pass a game. McCarron himself threw a 66-yard touchdown pass to A.J. Green against the Steelers on Dec. 13.
The Steelers have the 30th-ranked pass defense in the NFL, and are at the bottom when it comes to AFC teams. No team with as porous a pass defense has ever won the Super Bowl, though the 1983 Washington Redskins and 1996 and 2011 New England Patriots lost Super Bowls with similar and worse rankings.
But Pittsburgh’s secondary has been improving as cornerback Brandon Boykin gets more playing time, and the Steelers lead the NFL in sacks from defensive backs. The rush often comes from the short side of the field, so the Bengals may be more inclined to run plays in the center or right side of the field to protect their quarterback’s blind side.
One of the best ways to judge a coach is to see what he does in the playoffs. For the most part the talent is equal, so often strategy wins out.
Bengals-Steelers games tend to be physical, or, if you prefer, dirty. Injuries are commonplace. So the team that wins this game may be the team that is most disciplined; not taking penalties fueled from emotion.
Still, Marvin Lewis has never won a playoff game as a head coach in six previous postseason trips. Mike Tomlin has not won one in five years, and if the Steelers lose it will be the franchise’s longest such drought since The Immaculate Reception.
The losing coach will take plenty of heat. Lewis can’t afford to go 0-7, and whenever the Steelers lose Facebook lights up with memes comparing Tomlin unfavorably to his predecessor, Bill Cowher.
Imagine if Tomlin loses in the playoffs to a former Cowher assistant.
At least Pittsburgh knows that DeAngelo Williams won't be available. This isn't new territory for the Steelers, but it's also a situation that hasn't worked out well, as we saw last year (and in 1976) when they are reduced to starting their third-string running backs.
That said, it is 2015, and every other time Pittsburgh has made the playoffs in a year ending in “5,” the Steelers went to the Super Bowl (1975, 1995, 2005).
Ten years ago the situations were eerily similar. The Steelers were the sixth seed in playoffs, the Bengals third. Ben Roethlisberger was the starting quarterback for Pittsburgh, and Cincinnati had to rely on a backup after Kimo von Oelhoffen knocked Carson Palmer out of the game. But remember the Steelers won't even have their backup running back available for this matchup, and running the ball is critical come playoff time.
Prediction: Bengals 24, Steelers 20
— 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.
Braden Gall, Mitch Light and David Fox analyze every angle of the 2015 College Football Playoff:
- Will the fans finally get a great game?
- Is the country rooting for Clemson and why?
- How would a loss change the perception of Dabo Swinney and Clemson?
- Will Alabama be able to scheme for DeShaun Watson?
- What individual matchups are the most intriguing?
- Can Wayne Gallman and the traditional running game be effective?
- Which team has the significant special teams advantage?
- Will Jake Coker continue his superb play against a stingy Clemson defense?
- What are our official predictions and MVP picks for the title game?
Send any ideas, questions or comments to @BradenGall @AthlonMitch or @DavidFox615 or email [email protected]. The podcast can be found on athlonsports.com/podcast, iTunes, Stitcher and our podcast RSS feed.
How in the world did two teams that started their seasons 2-5 and 1-5 make it to the AFC Wild Card Round of the NFL playoffs? I’ll tell you how in two words: coaching and defense. The coaching jobs that the Texans’ Bill O’Brien and Chiefs’ Andy Reid have done this season are nothing short of minor football miracles.
One couldn’t help but feel for O’Brien at times this season. O’Brien was forced to choose between two unproven, journeymen quarterbacks in Brian Hoyer and Ryan Mallett during training camp. Hoyer proved to be an inconsistent player and Mallett proved be an inconsistent professional.
Even after replacing Hoyer, twice, Mallett was dismissed from the team for constant tardiness. Hoyer would return, play well, then become injured — several times. Consequently, O’Brien was forced to turn to two more unproven, journeymen quarterbacks in Brandon Weeden and T.J. Yates — and still won the AFC South — Oh, and all without his most reliable offensive weapon in running back Arian Foster. Sounds easy, right?
After a dominating win against these same Texans in in the season opener, things were looking up for the Kansas City Chiefs. But things went south fast for Andy Reid and company, as the Chiefs lost their next five games as well as their most reliable offensive weapon in running back Jamaal Charles to a torn ACL. Reid and his squad didn't cave. Instead, the team leaned upon its stout defense and veteran quarterback to win 10 straight games and charge into the AFC playoff picture.
AFC Wild Card: Kansas City at Houston
Kickoff: 4:20 p.m. ET (Saturday)
Spread: Kansas City -3
Three Things to Watch
1. A Tale of Two Quarterbacks
Dare we say it, that Alex Smith is — a good quarterback? Smith has been called a lot of things in his 11-year career, but “good” hasn’t been expressed too often. He’s been widely known as a “game manager,” “reliable,” and even “efficient" — but rarely as “good.”
But this season, Smith is running Andy Reid’s West Coast offense to perfection. Smith’s numbers (3,486 yards, 20 TDs, 7INTs) won’t jump off the stat sheet, especially in today’s pass-happy offenses. But in Reid’s scheme, Smith doesn’t need to be Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers. Smith has only thrown for more than 300 yards in a game once, and three touchdowns once (Week 1 vs. Houston), and didn’t even break the 200-yard mark the last five games.
Despite the ho-hum numbers, Smith has been exceptional. During the current 10-game winning streak, Smith has been special, completing better than 67 percent of his throws, with 14 touchdowns and only four picks — two of which came against the Raiders last week.
Smith’s finest quality is his ability to get the ball to his best playmakers, wide receiver Jeremy Maclin and tight end Travis Kelce, who have combined to account for 43 percent (159 receptions) of Smith’s completions and 56 percent (1,963 yards) of his passing yards.
When the Chiefs traveled to Houston in Week 1, Smith and Kelce took advantage of poor linebacker coverage for two first-quarter touchdowns. Smith and Kelce have been tormenting defenses all season long, as the athletic tight end has collected 72 catches for 875 yards and five TDs.
The Texans’ Brian Hoyer’s season resembles that of his own team: tumultuous. After being named the starter ever so awkwardly via HBO’s”Hard Knocks” by Bill O’Brien, Hoyer was benched in the opener after just three quarters. In that game, his first throw was a pick that led to a touchdown and he was sacked four times before being pulled for now ex-Texan teammate Ryan Mallett. Hoyer has played in just 11 games, starting nine, as a mix of injuries (concussion, ankle) and bad play has put him on the bench for stretches at a time.
If the Texans have any hope of moving on to the next round, Hoyer needs to be the quarterback that was reliable, throwing 10 TDs and only three picks during the Texans’ 4-1 stretch in the middle of the season. Finding the Texans’ best weapon, wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins, is going to be paramount for Hoyer’s success.
2. Establishing the Run
Smith has been surprisingly good, but the Chiefs’ running game, without All-Pro Jamaal Charles has still thrived thanks to a committee of ball carriers: Charcandrick West, Spencer Ware and, yes — Smith (498 yards, 2 TDs). Even without Charles, Kansas City has run for 2,044 yards — 1,037 of which belong to West and Ware. That total is more than the 1,033 that Charles put up in 2014. The combination of West and Ware give the Chiefs a unique one-two punch that the Texans haven’t seen, as neither back played against Houston in Week 1.
The Chiefs have turned the loss of Charles into lemonade, while the Texans have struggled to run the ball after losing Arian Foster to a torn Achilles in Week 4. Backup Alfred Blue has been hit and miss as Foster’s replacement, but has become more reliable in recent weeks, rushing for more than 100 yards in two of the last three games. But Blue is still averaging less than 50 yards per game, and there is really no threat backing him up. Chris Polk and Jonathan Grimes are averaging roughly 20 yards per game apiece, and have a combined two rushing touchdowns on 155 carries. Establishing a running game to avoid a stellar Chiefs pass rush will be important for the Texans to protect Hoyer and take care of business at home.
3. Pass-rushing Powers
Both the Chiefs and the Texans have relied upon excellent defensive play to lead them back from the abyss. The Chiefs have given up 20 or more points just twice during their 10-game winning streak for an average of 12.8 points per game, while the Texans have held five of their past nine opponents, dating back to Week 8, to exactly six points.
Both teams make their defensive living attacking the quarterback. The Texans’ J.J. Watt is doing what the two-time Defensive Player of the Year typically does: creating havoc, forcing fumbles, and leading the NFL in sacks (17.5). But Watt isn’t alone in getting to the passer. He has built quite the rapport with fellow defensive end, Whitney Mercilus, who has 12 sacks in the last 11 weeks after not starting until Week 6.
Where the Texans have a deadly combo in Watt and Mercilus, the Chiefs attack the quarterback by committee. Not a single Kanas City defender has more than 7.5 sacks, but seven players have at least four. The Chiefs’ leading pass rusher, Justin Houston, will return on Saturday after missing the last five games. In Week 1, the Chiefs’ defense dominated the Texans’ O-line, sacking Houston quarterbacks five times.
Both teams’ defenses cancel one another out. The key in the season-opening matchup was turnovers, in which the Chiefs were able to capitalize on Houston miscues. This game very well could come down to one or two plays. Both teams have explosive wide receivers in Jeremy Maclin and DeAndre Hopkins, and both running games have been more reliable as of late, that leaves the QBs as the determining factors. Give me the game manger, Alex Smith.
Prediction: Kansas City 20, Texans 17
— Written by Jake Rose, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @JakeRose24.
Earlier this week, we took a look at three prospects Nebraska could pick up that would help them in the short- to long-term on offense. Now it’s time to look at some potential future Blackshirts that could do the same for Mike Riley in his second season in Lincoln.
DE Tramal Ivy
The Nebraska defense didn’t have a true pass rusher last season and that unfortunate fact hurt, as quarterbacks had plenty of time to pick apart the secondary. Losing one of the hardest-working members of the team in defensive end Jack Gangwish doesn’t help matters.
Enter JUCO defensive end Tramal Ivy. He hasn’t seen Lincoln yet, but it sounds like he’s hearing plenty of love from the Husker coaches.
Nebraska just might be the spot for me💯😤— Almighty Ivy (@Allthewayivy25) January 5, 2016
How Ivy Can Help Nebraska: To say the Huskers had absolutely zero pass rush in 2015 is blunt, but true. The only player that got anything close to repeated heat on quarterbacks was defensive end Freedom Akinmoladun.
With signal-callers knowing they could just sit back in the pocket for as long as they cared, any uptick in pass pressure is valuable for the Huskers and Ivy could help assist with that immediately.
CB Tony Butler
Nebraska finds itself with a bevy of speed in the secondary in Eric Lee and Avery Anderson, both coming off of redshirt years. Someone who could find himself working his way into playing time should he commit would be Butler, considered a high priority on the Big Red’s list.
How Butler Can Help Nebraska: Cornerbacks were frequent targets last season as they adjusted to first-year defensive coordinator Mark Banker's scheme. As a result, Nebraska finished a hideous No. 122 in defending the pass.
Lee and Anderson could take Butler under their wings while hopefully helping the Huskers cut that number in half (if not by more) as he gets used to playing college football. Like Lee and Anderson, Butler has the speed necessary to force takeaways and set up coverage sacks.
S/ATH Lamar Jackson
The safety position is one that Nebraska’s not lacking bodies for, but Jackson’s talent could help him see time early both at that spot and on special teams. Again, during the 2015 season, opponents tried to take advantage of Nebraska’s safeties with success more often than not.
How Jackson Can Help Nebraska: One player can’t make a team or even one side of the ball, but Jackson has all of the tools necessary to help the Huskers get back to keeping quarterbacks on their toes.
If he joins the ranks of Nate Gerry, Aaron Williams, Antonio Reed and incoming commit Marquel Dismuke, Nebraska’s weakness at the safety spot could tighten up in a hurry. It’s also important to point out valuable depth Jackson would provide should injury strike and as mentioned with the cornerbacks, he adds more of that crucial speed.
We close the book on the NFL regular season and now head to the playoffs where things start to get fun in terms of matchups and handicapping. Depending on where you look, all four road teams are favored this weekend. I'll tell you this, there's no way that all four of them will pick up victories.
I closed out the regular season on an incredible run and will provide my thoughts and/or selections on every game the rest of the way. Let me say as an aside that there is a ton of value out there to make the Super Bowl with some of the teams playing this weekend. I wouldn't hate it if you told me you could get the Chiefs to win the AFC at a decent price.
Record: 42-23-2 (3-1 last week)
Kansas City Chiefs (11-5) at Houston Texans (9-7)
Saturday, 4:35 p.m. ET
Just in case you didn't know, the Chiefs enter this one having won 10 in a row. Lost in the storylines, I don’t feel like enough is being made of a 10-game winning streak. They don't do it with flash, as their quarterback is Alex Smith and the starting running back is Charchandrick West. Kansas City does just enough on offense to make things easier for its defense that has allowed 20 points or fewer in five straight games. Detractors will point out the quality of opponent the Chiefs played down the stretch as being fairly weak, but they do have a win in Denver back on Nov. 15.
On the other side, you have a Texans team that has won three straight and also is playing dominant defense. Houston allowed just 22 points in its last three games, all against AFC South foes. Last year these two teams played in Houston with Kansas City winning 27-20. I really want to take the Texans to win this one outright, but I think we've been tricked a bit by how well they've played as of late. It's not hard to slow down Matt Hasselbeck, Zach Mettenberger and a checked out Jags team. SELECTION: Under 40 (Kansas City 20-17)
Pittsburgh Steelers (10-6) at Cincinnati Bengals (12-4)
Saturday, 8:15 p.m. ET
Funny how the NFL goes. Just two weeks ago, the Steelers were the team you didn't want to play in the postseason and then they lost to the Ravens in Baltimore. Last week, you didn't want to play the Jets and then they lost to the Bills and now Pittsburgh takes that title over once again. There are several things that concern me entering this matchup. Pittsburgh is most likely going to be without DeAngelo Williams, which means it's Jordan Todman and Fitzgerald Toussaint in the backfield. This means Cincinnati can blitz and worry more about Ben Roethlisberger. The Steelers’ QB called out Martavis Bryant on Tuesday for not being tough enough and I don't know if that's the message I'd want to send. Everyone knows how good Antonio Brown is, but I feel like Big Ben forces the ball to him way too much, which often results in turnovers.
These two teams each won on the other's home field earlier this season. Pittsburgh lost 16-10 back on Nov. 1 at home in the game where they lost Le’Veon Bell for the year. Cincinnati's turn to lose at home came on Dec. 13 in the game where Andy Dalton got hurt. AJ McCarron hasn't been awful for Cincy although the offense has tried to run the ball more to protect him. Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard are big threats out of the backfield. The Steelers’ secondary is pretty bad and A.J. Green should be able to go off if McCarron can get him the ball. Tyler Eifert being healthy helps as well as Pittsburgh has been vulnerable covering tight ends. The Bengals are 12-3 ATS this season and 13-4 ATS the last three years as an underdog. SELECTION: Bengals +3 (Cincy 24-23)
Seattle Seahawks (10-6) at Minnesota Vikings (11-5)
Sunday, 1:05 p.m. ET
This one was an ugly contest back on Dec. 6 with the Seahawks rolling 38-7 over Minnesota at its place. Russell Wilson threw for 260 yards while the Hawks’ ground game put up 173. The Vikings managed just 125 yards of total offense in the loss. What's changed since then? Well, Seattle won three of four, including dominating victories at Baltimore and Arizona. The defending NFC champions outscored all four opponents 118-48 with an odd loss to the Rams somehow thrown in the middle.
Minnesota lost to the Cardinals on the road, but then ripped off three wins on its way to an NFC North title. The Vikings are like the Chiefs of the NFC. Their offense does just enough to keep their solid defense rested on the sidelines. Teddy Bridgewater had been doing a good job reducing his turnovers before the win in Green Bay where he had an awful interception. The game plan against Minnesota seems relatively simple as you load the box and force Bridgewater to beat you through the air. The funny thing is that I'm sure a lot of teams have tried to do that, but have been unsuccessful.
The way too early forecast for Sunday is the temperature will be three degrees, which will be cold that Seattle hasn't dealt with in a long time. Something to watch as the week goes along is the status of Vikings defensive tackle Linval Joseph, who has been out with a toe injury. He is pretty necessary in this game especially if Marshawn Lynch returns. I really struggled with this one, because it seems too easy to take the Seahawks. This is the pick I feel the least confident about. While I'm picking a blowout victory for the road team, I feel more "confident" that it's lower scoring. SELECTION: Under 39.5 (Seattle 31-6)
Green Bay Packers (10-6) at Washington Redskins (9-7)
Sunday, 4:40 p.m. ET
Redskins fans were rooting for a matchup with Aaron Rodgers during the Sunday night game. This line has moved all over with each team being favored at one point. Kirk Cousins is putting up Rodgers-like numbers especially at home where he has just two interceptions. I sat at Redskins training camp and saw a defense that was going to be a force for teams to deal with. We are finally getting to see that group although the secondary is vulnerable. Any time you need to sign burnt toast corner Cary Williams, you know you are in trouble. Because of an injury to Kyshoen Jarrett, Washington will have to find someone to fill that hole. The Redskins are a terrible favorite ATS going 54-87 since 1992. There will be an incredible energy in this one as it's a fan base that was dying for a winner and finally got one. SELECTION: Redskins +1 (Washington 24-16)
— 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 2015 college football season is down to its final game, as Clemson and Alabama are set to meet on Jan. 11 in Glendale, Ariz. to decide the national championship. The Tigers handled Oklahoma 37-17 in the Orange Bowl on Dec. 31 to clinch a spot in this game, while the Crimson Tide thoroughly dominated Michigan State 38-0 in the Cotton Bowl.
These two programs are separated by over 300 miles, but there are plenty of similarities and one big connection. Clemson coach Dabo Swinney was a walk-on receiver at Alabama from 1990-92 and later worked as an assistant with the program under Gene Stallings (1996) and again under Mike DuBose (1997-00). Swinney has shaped Clemson into one of the nation’s top 10-15 programs, winning at least 10 games in five consecutive seasons. The bar at Clemson has been raised under Swinney’s direction, and a win on Monday night would give this program its first national championship since 1981. The Tigers are college football’s lone unbeaten, headlined by an explosive offense and an athletic, shutdown defense.
College Football Podcast: Alabama vs. Clemson Preview
Playing for national championships, recording double-digit victory totals and winning SEC titles has become the norm at Alabama under Nick Saban. The Crimson Tide set the standard for the rest of college football, claiming at least 10 victories in each of the last eight seasons. Additionally, Alabama is 3-0 in national championship appearances under Saban and is the only team to claim back-to-back playoff appearances. The Crimson Tide’s path to the national championship game featured an early loss to Ole Miss this season, but Alabama rallied by winning its next 11 games – with only one result coming by 13 points or less.
Alabama leads Clemson 12-3 in the all-time series between these two teams. The last matchup between the Tigers and Crimson Tide took place in 2008, as Nick Saban’s team won 34-10 in a neutral site game in Atlanta to open the season.
National Championship: Alabama vs. Clemson
Kickoff: Monday, Jan. 11 at 8:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Alabama -7
Three Things to Watch
1. Alabama’s Defense Against Clemson QB Deshaun Watson
Mobile quarterbacks and spread, up-tempo offenses have provided the most trouble for Alabama’s defense under Nick Saban and coordinator Kirby Smart. The Crimson Tide have made a few tweaks in recent years, and this unit is more adept at matching spread offenses. But Monday night will be the biggest litmus test for this unit from the 2015 season. Quarterback Deshaun Watson and one of the nation’s best offensive lines lead Clemson’s explosive offense. Watson threw for 3,699 yards and 31 scores this year and added 1,032 yards and 12 touchdowns on the ground. Co-offensive coordinators Jeff Scott and Tony Elliott limited Watson’s rushing attempts early in the year but asked more of the sophomore in the second half of 2015. Watson rushed for 100 or more yards in five out of Clemson’s last six games and finished the year with a healthy 5.5 yards per carry mark. In the 37-17 win over Oklahoma, Watson’s accuracy (51.6) was off, and the sophomore managed only 187 passing yards. It’s no secret Watson is the driving force behind this team. If he struggles, Clemson has no chance to win on Monday night. While the Tigers’ offense is the toughest Alabama will face this year, there’s also an important counter point – Clemson hasn’t faced a defense like the one the Crimson Tide bring to Glendale, Ariz. on Jan. 11. Alabama has limited opponents to 4.09 yards per play, 13.4 points a game, ranks first with 50 sacks generated and only one team (Ole Miss) scored more than 25 points. Watson’s rushing yardage and ability to keep plays alive with his legs are two of the keys to watch on Monday night. If Watson is stuffed on running plays and Alabama’s defense has a couple of sacks, Clemson is likely to be facing a deficit on the scoreboard. But if Watson has success on the ground, that’s a huge advantage in favor of the Tigers.
2. The Battle in the Trenches
While all of the attention in Monday night’s game is likely to follow Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson and Alabama running back Derrick Henry, this matchup will be won or lost in the trenches. Both units for Clemson and Alabama – offensive and defensive lines – are among the best in the nation. Clemson’s offensive line returned only one starter this fall but emerged as a strength behind true freshman left tackle Mitch Hyatt. The Tigers allowed only 16 sacks in 14 games and averaged 4.9 yards per rush. Alabama’s defensive line is the best in college football, so this will be a monumental challenge for Clemson’s front five. A’Shawn Robinson is the headliner for the Crimson Tide’s front seven, while ends Jonathan Allen (12 sacks) and Jarran Reed are capable of wrecking plenty of havoc. Linebacker Tim Williams (10 sacks) is another asset for Smart and Saban in the pass-rush department. This unit is capable of generating pressure or controlling opposing team’s ground attack with just its defensive line and linebackers.
When Alabama has the ball, it will face a similar challenge against Clemson’s defensive front. The Tigers are loaded with athleticism and speed in the trenches, headlined by end Shaq Lawson and tackle Carlos Watkins. But this unit is a bit of a mystery for Monday night’s game. Lawson is dealing with a knee injury and may not be at full strength. If Lawson can’t play or is at less than full strength, it’s a huge blow for a defense that limited opponents to 3.6 yards per carry and generated 43 sacks in 2015. The Crimson Tide’s offensive line is anchored by left tackle Cam Robinson and center Ryan Kelly, and this group showed steady improvement over the course of the season. In the Cotton Bowl win over Michigan State, Alabama altered its usual approach and came out throwing to alleviate the pressure on running back Derrick Henry. Quarterback Jake Coker responded with one of his best efforts of the season, completing 25 of 30 passes for 286 yards and two scores. Can the Crimson Tide’s offensive line protect Coker and successfully open up holes for Henry to run through against a tough Clemson front seven?
3. The Playmakers
Some of college football’s top skill players will be on display in the national championship. Alabama running back Derrick Henry was relatively quiet (75 yards) in the Cotton Bowl, but the low production was largely by design on the strength of Michigan State’s front seven. The Heisman Trophy winner faces another talented front on Monday night and will look to get back on track by recording another huge performance to close out the season. Receiver Calvin Ridley is quarterback Jake Coker’s go-to option in the passing game, but he will be matched against Clemson’s shutdown cornerback Mackensie Alexander. Will Ridley break free of the secondary for any big plays?
When Clemson has the ball, this offense has its own set of playmakers at running back and receiver. Wayne Gallman might be one of the nation’s most underrated running backs. In 13 games, Gallman has rushed for 1,482 yards and 12 scores and gashed Oklahoma for 150 yards in the Orange Bowl. Receiver Artavis Scott plays a key role in establishing the screen game for Clemson’s offense, and the sophomore has recorded 89 catches for 868 yards this year. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Alabama devote most of its attention in the secondary to stopping Scott and forcing the other receivers to make plays. Will the game’s biggest plays come from the players in this group? Or will a few unsung heroes make the biggest difference on Monday night?
Three Under-the-Radar Numbers to Know
Turnover Margin: Alabama +9, Clemson -1
Third-Down Defense: Clemson No. 2 nationally, Alabama No. 5
Plays of 30+ Yards or More Allowed: Alabama: 16, Clemson: 26
Position-by-Position Breakdown of Alabama vs. Clemson
The national championship isn’t a new experience for Alabama and coach Nick Saban. The Crimson Tide are looking for their fourth title in seven seasons and are considered by the Vegas odds to be a touchdown favorite. Clemson has won plenty of big games during coach Dabo Swinney’s tenure, but this is the program’s biggest stage and toughest opponent from the 2015 season. In order to beat Alabama, the Tigers need to win the battle at the line of scrimmage, press the tempo, allow quarterback Deshaun Watson to make plays with his legs, and force the Crimson Tide to win by going to the air and not grinding it out with running back Derrick Henry. Also, Clemson can’t afford to lose the turnover battle or consistently take field goals instead of touchdowns once it reaches the red zone. Alabama’s gameplan for Monday night is simple. Win the battle at the line of scrimmage, contain Watson and get Henry on track to open up downfield shots for Coker and Ridley. Will Clemson claim its first title since 1981? Or will the Crimson Tide add another title to the trophy case in Tuscaloosa?
|Derrick Henry, RB|
|Calvin Ridley, WR|
|Derrick Henry, RB|
|Derrick Henry, RB|
|Derrick Henry, RB|
|Deshaun Watson, QB|
|Calvin Ridley, WR|
|Deshaun Watson, QB|
|Derrick Henry, RB|
|Tim Williams, DL/LB|
|Derrick Henry, RB|
|Deshaun Watson, QB|
The Vikings and Seahawks are facing off in a Wild Card matchup, and they should know the drill by now.
"The Tonight Show" host Jimmy Fallon gave them what has become a tradition when you have the primetime spot by giving them the customary "NFL Superlatives."
Once the high school football season ends for seniors in any given year, before matriculating onto the college campuses and before signing letters of intent there is one last opportunity for players to strut their stuff – in all-star games. There are several large high school All-American games that attract some of the top talent in the nation every year and the U.S. Army All-American Bowl is one of the best.
The 2016 addition is set to be played at the Alamodome in San Antonio on Jan. 9, with NBC providing the coverage. The game will feature 90 of some of the best players the 2015 season had to offer on the high school level. Many of the recruits have already verbally committed to top programs but some remain uncommitted while others may be looking for one last opportunity to showcase their skill set in hopes of landing an offer from their dream school.
2016 U.S. Army All-American Bowl
Kickoff: 1 p.m. ET (Saturday)
Location: Alamodome (San Antonio)
The following is a list of some of the top talent to watch for in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl, along with the schools that are showing interest or the program each has committed to along with some highlights of their senior season.
Note: All rosters subject to change
DT Dexter Lawrence (committed to Clemson)
The recruits don’t get much better or much bigger than Lawrence. Lawrence is a 5-star recruit across the board after tearing it up for Wake Forest (N.C.) High School. Listed at 6-5, 230, Lawrence jumped onto the recruiting scene as a sophomore coming up with 56 tackles, 19 tackles for a loss, and five sacks. He took a step forward in production in 2014 with 55 stops, 25 tackles for a loss, and 10 sacks. His senior year was outstanding, tallying 91 tackles, 21 tackles for a loss, 13 sacks, and 16 quarterback hurries in just 12 games.
Lawrence had over 20 offers including Georgia, Florida State, Arkansas, Miami, Ole Miss, Notre Dame, Michigan and Penn State. The finalist, based on official visits, were Florida, Ohio State, NC State and Alabama, before Lawrence committed to Clemson on Dec. 14.
RB Tavien Feaster (committed to Clemson)
Widely considered the top running back in the 2016 recruiting class, Feaster is an every-down back with gifted breakaway speed. The Spartanburg (S.C.) High School star has been consistent with his production, rushing for 1,429 yards and 15 touchdowns as a sophomore and before adding another 1,153 yards and 15 scores as a junior in 2014. The Vikings went 12-2 in 2015 before a tough 38-35 loss to Lexington in the third round of the South Carolina high school playoffs. Feaster once again led his team in rushing coming up with 1,121 yards and 10 touchdowns off 155 carries. Flashing his all-around abilities, he also caught 64 passes for 976 yards with another 12 scores.
All colleges need a guy with Feaster’s talents and many came calling. Alabama, Tennessee, North Carolina, Florida, Florida State, Auburn and Notre Dame all tried, among others, but Feaster has been locked in with Clemson since Feb. 4.
OL Tommy Kraemer (committed to Notre Dame)
One of the many highlights of Notre Dame’s 2016 recruiting class is this offensive lineman from Ohio. Kraemer helped Elder High School to a 9-4 record in 2015 opening holes for his running backs and keeping his quarterback’s jersey clean as the team’s left tackle.
Kraemer (6-5, 310) had double-digit offers but could have had more had he not committed to Notre Dame so early in his recruiting process. Despite offers from Boston College, Tennessee, Penn State, Kentucky, Iowa, Duke, Vanderbilt and in-state power Ohio State, Kraemer committed to the Fighting Irish way back on Oct. 4, 2014.
LB Shaquille Quarterman (committed to Miami)
No team is complete without a do-it-all linebacker that can stop the run and defend the pass and that is exactly what Quarterman has done for Oakleaf (Fla.) High School throughout his career. Quarterman helped his squad to an 8-2 record doing a little bit of everything, including being a short-yardage running back picking up three touchdowns on five carries. Where the 6-foot, 235-pound recruit made his mark was on defense, coming up with 101 tackles, 6.5 tackles for a loss, 2.5 sacks, four passes defended and one forced fumble along with a fumble recovery.
Quarterman is another player that could have seen his offers go through the roof but he committed early to the Miami Hurricanes, effectively ending the process on June 25. Despite numerous teams like Tennessee, Ohio State, Penn State, Georgia, Alabama, Ole Miss, Florida and Auburn extending offers, Quarterman has stuck with the Canes through the Al Golden era and into the newly started Mark Richt tenure.
RB Kyle Porter (uncommitted)
Curious who the top running back for one of if not the top team in the nation was in 2015? It was Porter. Porter helped Katy High School to a 16-0 record, punishing six teams along the way to a Texas high school state title, including a 35-17 win over Manvel before topping Lake Travis 34-7 for the trophy.
Porter (5-11, 194) rushed 147 times for 1,006 yards and 17 touchdowns while adding 34 receptions for 276 yards and five touchdowns as a junior after a sophomore season when he rushed for 1,877 and 23 touchdowns on 255 carries and was named the District 19-5A Co-Newcomer of the Year.
Porter has not committed to a program yet with offers from Houston, TCU, Tennessee, Maryland, Baylor and Wisconsin among others. The recruiting race is reportedly down to Arkansas, Texas and Oregon.
CB Shyheim Carter (uncommitted)
The Kangaroos won a Louisiana state title in 2015 thanks in large part to their shutdown cornerback. Carter helped Kentwood High School to a 13-1 record topping Haynesville 40-7 in the championship game for state bragging rights.
Carter has rare size and speed listed at 6-0, 190, and clocked in the 4.3 range in the 40-yard dash. Colleges love Carter’s athleticism able to line up at corner, safety, wide receiver, and could return punts if needed. The double-digit offers have been narrowed down to a run-off between Georgia, Alabama, Ole Miss and in-state power LSU.
QB K.J. Costello (committed to Stanford)
Rancho Santa Margarita Catholic High School did not have a season to remember, finishing 5-5 but that is life playing in Southern California against the likes of St. John Bosco, Servite and Mater Dei. Costello still had a solid season passing for 2,347 yards with 18 touchdowns against nine picks and added four more scores on the ground. The 6-foot-4, 215-pound, gunslinger forged a powerful one-two connection with another U.S. Army All-American invitee, wide receiver Dylan Crawford (6-1, 175). Crawford worked his way into being a 4-star recruit, catching 51 passes for 822 yards with seven touchdowns.
Crawford is in the neighborhood of 20 scholarship offers but remains uncommitted after official visits to Miami (Oct. 23), Michigan (Oct. 16), and Oregon (Nov. 20). As for Costello, his savvy, size, and big arm has him rated as a top-five quarterback in the 2016 recruiting class with double-digit offers. This prized recruit has spurred offers from other in-state powerhouse programs like USC, UCLA and Cal for a chance to play for Stanford next season.
QB Shea Patterson (committed to Ole Miss)
There are two top pro-style quarterbacks in the 2016 recruiting class and Shea Patterson is one of them. The Ole Miss commit, and one-time LSU and Arizona commit, won two Louisiana state titles with Calvary Baptist in 2013 and '14 before transferring to IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., over the summer of 2015.
Patterson was an Elite 11 finalist making the list with a great throwing motion, accuracy, and footwork in the pocket. Listed at 6-2, 195, he may not be one of the biggest quarterbacks in the 2016 recruiting class but Patterson's abilities running an offense and reading defenses has made him one of the best of the best among his peers. The other top quarterback, Jacob Eason (Georgia commit), may have the stronger arm of the two but any college coach would love to have both pocket passers on their roster for the next four years.
LB Mique Juarez (uncommitted)
The U.S. Army All-American game is stacked full of players with unique talents and unbelievable storylines but few are as captivating as Juarez’s. He led North Torrance (Calif.) High School to a 9-3 record as a two-way star playing linebacker and quarterback. The 6-foot-2, 222-pound athlete had 23 touchdown passes, 36 rushing touchdowns, and even returned a kickoff for a score. He also has made his mark at linebacker, coming up with 146 tackles, 21 tackles for a loss, and five sacks. Adding to the folklore, this was Juarez’s first year playing quarterback for the Saxons.
Juarez was a USC commit until things started unfolding with former Trojans head coach Steve Sarkisian midseason. Once Sarkisian was dismissed, Juarez opened his recruiting back up. The four-year starter remains uncommitted but has taken official visits to Oklahoma State, Washington and Oklahoma with UCLA and Alabama also thought to be in the running for his services.
— 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.
(Photos of players participating in 2016 U.S. Army All-American Bowl courtesy of www.usarmyallamericanbowl.com)
With less than a week before the end of the 2015 college football season, Kirby Smart is taking his time on filling out his coaching staff at Georgia. I mean the guy is still trying to win another national championship at Alabama. But while getting prepared for Clemson, coaching up his defense and handling the media while still trying to explain that Nick Saban dance, Smart had time to find his tight ends and special teams coordinator in Shane Beamer.
The move to hire a special teams coach is one that I’m sure all of Bulldog nation will be thrilled about as it became somewhat of a hot topic in recent years as former head coach Mark Richt chose to split the responsibilities of the special teams coordinator between his assistants throughout his 15-year career at Georgia. The move to hire one guy to coach the special teams is one that I believe will please Bulldog fans. And in my opinion, this is the best hire Smart has made since taking over at Georgia.
The hiring of Beamer signals more than just a hiring of a coach. Beamer, 38, also will bring a youthful energy to Athens. Beamer, the son of legendary Virginia Tech head coach Frank Beamer, has spent the past five seasons in Blacksburg as the Hokies’ running backs coach and assistant head coach to his father.
But Shane Beamer is no stranger to the SEC. He spent three seasons in Knoxville as a graduate assistant under Phillip Fulmer before going to Mississippi State in 2004 to serve as a cornerbacks coach under Sylvester Croom. Beamer was then hired away in 2007 by Steve Spurrier to coach among other things, cornerbacks, linebackers and special teams at South Carolina. Beamer also served as a recruiting coordinator for both programs and is widely considered a top-30 recruiter.
Beamer also will coach tight ends at Georgia, a position that was previously held by John Lilly. With Bryan McClendon leaving to join Will Muschamp in South Carolina, it was vital that Smart bring in another top recruiter. Beamer knows the south and was very successful in this role at his previous SEC stops. The University of Georgia provides one of the best backyards for recruiting in the nation. I have no doubt that Beamer will continue his success as a recruiter in Athens. Georgia has averaged a top-10 recruiting class in the last 10 years and I don't expect a drop off with great recruiters like Smart, Sam Pittman and now Beamer.
But Beamer's role as special teams coordinator is where he will be able to shine. Beamer is no stranger to special teams, as he was a walk-on wide receiver turned long snapper at Virginia Tech. Beamer was the long snapper during the 1999 season in which the Hokies played for a national championship. He has also had the great fortune of learning everything he could about special teams from the best in the business, his father. The nickname “Beamer Ball” was due in large part to the Hokies’ awesome special teams play, which the elder Beamer oversaw during his tenure in Blacksburg.
With all of that being said, none of this means Beamer will succeed as a tight ends coach or special teams coordinator. What it does mean is that Smart realizes how important it is to give that role to one coach instead of using multiple coaches for the position. Richt came under some heat at Georgia multiple times for his decision to not assign or hire just one special teams coordinator.
For now, it seems as though Smart does not intend to follow in his predecessor’s footsteps when it comes to that decision.
— Written by Justin Nails, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @justinnails.
(Top photo courtesy of Getty Images)
It's no secret that the Golden State Warriors are doing well after Mark Jackson was ousted a couple years ago.
The team has won the championship, boasted the NBA MVP in Steph Curry, and are pace to get back to the Finals again. Some would point the finger at Jackson's departure as reason for the team's success. One of those people is definitely journalist Bob Ryan.
During a visit to the "Dan Le Batard Show" Ryan was asked about the Warriors now that they are being led by Steve Kerr. Ryan was adamant that the reason the team is flourishing is solely because there is no more Jackson on the sideline.
"I am on the record, thank God, publicly saying two years ago, I looked at the NBA and I looked at the rosters and looked at what was going on, and I said the most talented team one through eight, at least, in the NBA is the Golden State Warriors," Ryan said. "I know if they had a real coach, not some bible-pounding phony that Mark Jackson is, you know, when he isn't really a legitimate bible pounder... And I can't believe they took him back on that broadcast. Oh my God, you know, he's a con man and he's done very well at it. I give him credit for being a great one."
Skip to the 7:20 mark to hear Ryan's thoughts on Jackson.
Alabama and Clemson will meet on Jan. 11 in Glendale, Ariz. to decide the 2015-16 college football national championship. Both teams earned convincing wins in the playoffs, setting the stage for an intriguing matchup at University of Phoenix Stadium. There’s no shortage of star power for the Tigers and Crimson Tide in this game. Alabama running back Derrick Henry won the Heisman Trophy, with Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson finishing third. In addition to Henry and Watson, players like Clemson running back Wayne Gallman, cornerback Mackensie Alexander and Alabama lineman A’Shawn Robinson are just a few of the superstars taking the field on Monday night.
While Henry, Watson and the other All-America or all-conference players from Alabama and Clemson are critical to the outlook of either team’s chances of winning the national title, there are always a few x-factors that deliver a big (and perhaps unexpected) performance. Let’s examine 10 potential x-factors to watch on Jan. 11.
10 X-Factors for the 2016 College Football National Championship
Jake Coker, QB, Alabama
With Michigan State’s strength in the trenches and a gameplan to stop running back Derrick Henry in the Cotton Bowl, coordinator Lane Kiffin asked more of Coker. The Crimson Tide came out throwing against the Spartans, and Coker responded by completing 25 of 30 passes for 286 yards and two scores. The performance in the Cotton Bowl continued a string of solid performances by Coker. He’s tossed zero interceptions over the last four games and completed at least 60 percent of his passes in 10 straight contests. Considering the strength of Clemson’s defense in the front seven and its ability to stop the run, Alabama might have to throw or open up the offense more than it prefers. Can Coker pick up where he left off in the Cotton Bowl?
Kenyan Drake, RB, Alabama
It’s no secret the focus of Alabama’s backfield is with Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry. But the Crimson Tide’s stable of running backs isn’t just a one-man show. Drake has the ability to be the lightning to Henry’s thunder. The senior averaged 5.4 yards per carry this season, recording 407 yards and a touchdown on 76 attempts. Drake was also a valuable weapon out of the backfield, catching 27 balls for 255 yards and a score. In the Cotton Bowl win over Michigan State, Drake recorded 60 rushing yards on four carries and caught three passes. Don’t be surprised if Kiffin finds a way to get Drake more involved against the Tigers.
Cyrus Jones, CB, Alabama
The secondary was Alabama’s biggest concern this preseason, but the defensive backfield finished fourth nationally in pass efficiency defense (up from 30th in 2014) and limited opposing quarterbacks to a 46.4 completion percentage in SEC games. Jones earned Cotton Bowl Most Outstanding Defensive Player honors after recording three tackles and one interception against Michigan State. Additionally, he scored on a 57-yard punt return in the third quarter. Not only is Jones critical to the success of Alabama’s pass defense, but his ability to change the game with one return is an underrated storyline to watch on Monday night.
O.J. Howard, TE, Alabama
At 6-foot-6 and 242 pounds, Howard is one of the most physically gifted tight ends in the nation. However, Howard only has 33 catches for 394 yards this season and has yet to reach the end zone. Could that change on Monday night? After two games – Auburn and Florida – with zero receptions, Howard recorded three for 59 yards against Michigan State. While Howard’s blocking is valuable, the junior should have opportunities to attack the middle of the field against Clemson.
Mitch Hyatt, OT, Clemson
Clemson’s offensive line returned only one starter this fall and entered the year as a question mark. The emergence of Hyatt at left tackle was a big reason why this group was one of the best in the nation by the end of 2015. The true freshman started all 14 games at left tackle for Clemson’s high-powered offense and helped to lead the way for a line that allowed only 16 sacks in 14 contests. Hyatt more than held his own in 2015, but Monday night’s matchup against Alabama in the national championship will be his toughest assignment this season. Will Hyatt win the battles against A’Shawn Robinson, Jarran Reed and Jonathan Allen and keep quarterback Deshaun Watson upright in the pocket?
Shaq Lawson, DE, Clemson
If quarterback Jake Coker is the biggest x-factor for Alabama, Lawson is the No. 1 pick for Clemson. The junior was among the nation’s best at defensive end this season, recording 10.5 sacks and 23.5 tackles for a loss. However, just how healthy is Lawson? The junior suffered a knee injury against Oklahoma and may not recover to full strength by Monday night. If Lawson plays, how effective can he be against a stout Alabama offensive line? And if Lawson is limited or can’t play, will Kevin Dodd, Austin Bryant and Richard Yeargin match his production?
Reggie Ragland, LB, Alabama
Mobile quarterbacks seem to provide the most headaches for Nick Saban and Kirby Smart’s defenses at Alabama. While Smart and Saban have made a few tweaks to combat spread offenses, containing Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson is a tough assignment for the Crimson Tide defense. In addition to throwing for 3,699 yards and 31 scores this year, Watson added 1,032 yards and 12 touchdowns on the ground. The sophomore recorded at least 100 rushing yards in five out of the last six games. Will Alabama utilize a spy to contain Watson in the pocket? The Crimson Tide should be able to generate pressure with its defensive line, allowing the linebackers to make plays in space or devote attention to keeping Watson from hitting the edges. Ragland is one of college football’s top linebackers, and as the anchor in the middle, he will play a key role in getting Alabama’s defense aligned against Clemson’s spread attack.
Hunter Renfrow, WR, Clemson
Clemson’s receiving corps suffered a setback when big-play threat Deon Cain (17.1 ypc) was suspended for the Orange Bowl and national championship. With Cain sidelined, the Tigers needed some of other options to step up and take some of the pressure off of leading receiver Artavis Scott. Renfrow delivered a clutch performance against Oklahoma, catching four passes for 59 yards and one touchdown. With Scott expected to draw a lot of attention from the Crimson Tide secondary, Renfrow should see more opportunities on Monday night.
JK Scott, P, Alabama
Scott is one of the nation’s top punters and a weapon on special teams for Alabama in the battle for field position. The sophomore averaged 44.4 yards per kick in 2015, placed 22 of his 63 punts inside of the 20 and boomed 20 kicks for 50 yards or more. Scott averaged 46.5 yards per punt on six tries against Michigan State, placing four of those inside of the 20. If Scott is able to consistently pin Clemson’s offense in bad field position, that’s a huge advantage for Alabama.
Cordrea Tankersley, CB, Clemson
Mackensie Alexander is one of the top cornerbacks in the nation, and the sophomore could be matched on Alabama freshman receiver Calvin Ridley on Monday night. If Alexander takes on Ridley, that leaves Tankersley against ArDarius Stewart or Richard Mullaney. While the Crimson Tide needs to get the ball in Ridley’s hands, don’t expect quarterback Jake Coker to test Alexander too often. Instead, Coker could utilize Stewart and Mullaney more, attacking Tankersley and the other Clemson cornerbacks. According to CFBFilmRoom.com, Tankersley allowed four completions on seven targets against Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl.
In 1993, Ken Griffey Jr. had only scratched the surface of a Hall of Fame career. Then 23, Griffey was coming off what was then a career-high 27 home runs and 103 RBIs. He had already garnered three All-Star appearances (including one MVP) and three Gold Gloves.
Yet only four years into his career, there was a sense more was on the way, particularly as the last-place Mariners began to build their franchise around The Kid.
The following is a feature by John Owen from the 1993 Athlon Sports’ Baseball Annual in the preseason before Griffey hit 40 home runs for the first time and finished second in AL MVP voting.
Griffey discussed his challenges before becoming a pro, including thoughts of suicide, his battles with fan perception and the vast amount of potential that would await him for the rest of his career.
Ken Griffey Jr. admitted his failure. He set his goal and simply couldn’t measure up. Inadequacy is a sensation he has seldom experienced. But this time he was forced to confront his personal defeat head-on.
“It’s not going to work,” the Seattle Mariners’ center fielder admitted during the offseason. “I tried. But it’s not going to work. Learning kanji (Japanese system of writing) shouldn’t be so difficult. There are only a couple thousand characters to memorize.”
You see, Griffey embarked upon a major league barnstorming tour with one conviction. Before he left Japan, he was going to learn the language.
The box score of last winter’s tour credited the athlete known to the Japanese as Junior-san with a .353 batting average and a series-high nine RBI. But he was zero for 2,000 against the language.
And a sign of relief swept through the American League. Junior Griffey had finally confirmed there was something he couldn’t do. It’s news to Tom Kelly of Minnesota.
“He doesn’t seem to have a ceiling I can see,” the American League manager commented after Junior was voted the Most Valuable Player of the 1992 All-Star Game.
This may be the summer Griffey explores the outer reaches of the stratosphere. His Seattle Mariners have a new manager in Lou Piniella.
They also have a new hitting coach. When the latter’s credentials were questioned, he responded with a smile. “I taught Junior how to hit.” Yep, Ken Griffey Sr. is beginning his first season as the Mariners’ batting coach. “Junior has always listed to what I have to say.” And if anything changes, he’ll turn The Kid over to Birdie.
Birdie is Ken’s wife and Junior’s mother. She also has some qualifications as a scout.
“That boy loved baseball from the day he could walk,” she reports, adding that he walked unaided at the age of 7 months and was running the bases a month later.
She remembers the first time her son made an out in a Little League game. Ken Jr. broke into tears. “I had to explain to him that there are gong to be a lot of games when you don’t get hits,” Birdie says.
Well, maybe not a lot. Her son was blessed with good genes.
In the 1980 All-Star Game, Ken Sr. singled and hit a home run and was voted MVP. Last July, Junior hit a single, a double and a home run. The father-son All-Star Game home runs and matching MVP trophies made major league history.
About the time he was contemplating a curveball thrown by a Japanese southpaw in Fukuoka, Junior-san learned he had also be awarded a 1992 Gold Glove Award for outfielders back in the United States.
At the age of 23, Griffey has already reached what would be considered lifetime goals for most athletes.
In his first year in the majors, a candy bar bearing his name was marketed in Seattle, and there was a stampede of customers that produced 800,000 sales. As a rookie, he was already on a merchandising par with George Herman (Baby) Ruth.
Griffey’s first minor league hit was a home run. He doubled in his first official major league trip to the plate in 1989 as a rookie. In his first appearance in Seattle’s Kingdom, before the hometown fans, he hit an opposite-field homer on his first swing. When the Mariners advanced their promotional schedule and gave away Ken Griffey Jr. posters, the rookie blasted a game-winning home run against Charlie Hough of Texas. It was the first time Griffey had ever batted against a knuckleballer.
However, the popular conception that everything came quick and easy for Griffey was dispelled last spring when the Mariner center field revealed in an interview with The Seattle Times that he occasionally contemplated suicide as a teenage and that he was admitted to a hospital in Mount Airy, Ohio, in 1988 after taking 277 asprin tablets.
“It seemed like everyone was yelling at me in baseball, then I came home and everyone was yelling at me there,” Griffey said. “I got depressed. I got angry. I didn’t want to live.”
Griffey said he went public with his confession in the hope that it might dissuade some other depressed youngsters seeking the same “solution” for their problems.
“Don’t ever try to commit suicide,” he pleaded. “I am living proof of how stupid it is.”
There is possibly no more vibrant figure in baseball than The Pride of the Griffeys as he enters his third season in the majors. Although the Mariners have had only one winning season in the history of the franchise, Griffey polled over 2 million All-Star Game votes nationwide in each of the last tow seasons, leading all American League players in 1991. He has been a .300 hitter in each of his last three seasons and ranked third in the American League in extra base hits last summer with 70.
Admirers of his defensive skills claim Griffey chases fly balls like Willie Mays and has an arm like Roberto Clemente. Griffey has taken many extra-base hits away from slugging rivals.
“I like playing defense because it’s the only time I get to see somebody else besides me get mad,” he laughs.
Griffey will chase baseballs through an outfield fence and hit them over the wall, yet, oddly, he convinces some fans that he is playing at three-quarters speed.
“My intensity is always there, but when I step to the plate, maybe it doesn’t always show,” Griffey analyzes. “I want to be the best player I can be. It may seem that I’m being selfish, but if I am, it’s for the good of the team.”
Griffey has a congenial relationship with all in management. With tongue firmly lodge in cheek, Seattle president Chuck Armstrong complained that although Griffey is the offensive and defensive leader of the team, he had not yet obtained a multimillion-dollar TV contract for the Mariners or sold out the Kingdom in April or October.
The next time Armstrong walked through the Mariner locker room, he heard Griffey call his name. “You didn’t tell me you wanted me to negotiate a new TV contract. When do I start?”
As for Piniella, he promises that players and fans will see a new Junior Griffey this summer, one exercising leadership skills.
At one time last fall, while the Mariners were shopping for a manager, Griffey questioned out loud whether he wanted to play for Piniella. Some hurt lingered, he admitted, from the 1990 season when Ken Sr. was used sparingly by Piniella in the Cincinnati lineup. Senior eventually got his release from the Reds and joined Junior in the Seattle lineup.
If Junior had some misgivings about Piniella, the feeling was not reciprocated. Piniella says he treasures the memories of his son, Lou Jr., growing up with Ken Jr. around the Cincinnati ballpark. Even before Piniella took the Seattle job, he says, the most prominent piece of “art work” in youngest son Derek’s room was the poster of the Griffeys, father and son.
“His dad for years talked about how good an athlete his son was,” Piniella recalls.” He had a cocky, having-fun approach, telling his dad he could do better than him. He’s not offensive-cocky, just a happy, smiling kind of kid.”
Once in a while last year, when the Mariners were mired in one of their lengthy losing streaks, the smile disappeared. Griffey like Seattle. At the same time, he would also like to play for a team capable of remaining in pennant content past April Fools’ Day.
“If we continue to have the worst record in baseball, he’s not sure this is where he wants to play his entire career,” Armstrong acknowledges.
But to most Seattle fans, the loss of Griffey would mean the loss of this franchise’s last measure of credibility. Of course, his father’s presence on the Mariner bench is a definite positive factor for Seattle.
Wherever the Mariner center fielder’s baseball career takes him in the next decade, he will be traveling on fast wheels. His automotive tastes run to BMWs, Mercedes Benzes and pickups or vans that vibrate down the road on a sonic cushion of subwoofers, tweeters and amplifiers. Before he was able to drive himself, Kenny (his family nickname) was sometimes driven to Little League games in the family Rolls Royce.
By contrast, Ken Sr. grew up in a housing project in a single-parent welfare family. He worked as a grocery store clerk, a meter “maid” and in an armaments factory before he was drafted in a late round by the Reds in 1969. Junior’s dad swears that his signing “bonus” consisted of a Reds jacket, an athletic supporter and a pair of sweat socks. If he held out, the Reds might have thrown in a Japanese dictionary.
But Ken Jr. is the world traveler. At first he wasn’t considered for last winter’s trip to Japan because the major leagues had a no-repeat rule, and Junior made the tour in 19890. He was named MVP, and Junior-san has been a Japanese sports hero ever since. Asian writers saw Griffey conclude a long day of baseball by dancing up the 102 stairs of the Chiba Marine Stadium and out the exit with a farewell wave.
That rated an encore. The major leagues decided to allow Griffey to revisit Japan last winter as a tip of the cap to the Mariners’ new non-voting majority owner. Hiroshi Yamauchi had never before seen major league baseball as it is played in the United States. Nor had he ever met Junior-san, whose earning potential may soon approach that of the Nintendo founder.
His selection for the 1992 team also afforded Griffey and his bride the opportunity to honeymoon at Disneyland in Tokyo. Junior breathed easy when he learned that Mickey Mouse spoke English.
While Nebraska’s 6-7 2015 record isn’t anything to celebrate, recruits don’t seem deterred by it. In fact, several seem psyched about what they could potentially contribute to Mike Riley’s program.
The Cornhuskers already have a basket of quality recruits in the Big Red boat such as offensive guard John Raridon, safety Marquel Dismuke and quarterback Patrick O’Brien.
With less than a month to go until National Signing Day, the Huskers are looking to bring in a haul to make the Big Ten conference — and perhaps some in the college football world — a bit envious.
Today, we’ll look at a few recruits on offense that Big Red fans should keep their eyes out as potential Husker commitments and why:
Nebraska has one of the best wide receiver corps in the Big Ten and the Huskers aim to keep it that way.
Dynamic receivers return such as Jordan Westerkamp, who nearly eclipsed Johnny Rodgers’ single season receiving record. Stanley Morgan had a fantastic freshman year and should be able to build on that.
How Fitzpatrick Can Help Nebraska: Fitzpatrick looks to be the type of receiver that Riley enjoys using for screens and deeper passes that result in yards after the catch. With blockers like wide receiver Brandon Reilly, the screen game could be a valuable asset for the Huskers' offense thanks to Fitzpatrick.
OL Matt Farniok
Hailing from Sioux Falls, S.D., Farniok has visited Nebraska so many times, you’d swear he has an assigned seat to take in the games he visits for.
How Farniok Can Help Nebraska: Those who are in the “run the ball” camp should be thrilled with the Huskers’ offensive line recruiting class so far and the addition of Farniok would be one big cherry on top of the sundae.
TE Noah Fant
Surprised? I know plenty of people will be reading Fant’s name on this list. Nebraska’s been in contact with Fant, who is currently committed to Iowa. While the Hawkeyes had an overall successful season, they also received commitments from two other tight ends. That happens to be the position Fant wants to play.
How Fant Can Help Nebraska: The Huskers lose three tight ends after this season in Carter, Trey Foster and Sam Cotton, so the need is there. As was shown down to the final snap of Nebraska’s season, tight ends get to have a lot of fun in this system as a blocker, receiver and even ball carrier.
College football’s 2016 season is still several months away, but it’s never too early to predict next year’s top 25 teams. It’s no secret a lot will change in terms of the personnel, coaching or outlooks for teams once all of the key returners or departures are settled for all 128 teams.
Needless to say, expect several tweaks to this top 25 ranking between January and August or before the 2016 officially starts.
Here is Athlon’s very early look at the top 25 teams in college football for 2016, followed by 10 other teams to watch this offseason:
Very Early College Football Top 25 for 2016
The Crimson Tide have their share of personnel losses and question marks to address, but talent certainly isn’t an issue in Tuscaloosa. Star running back Derrick Henry is expected to leave for the NFL, while quarterback Jake Coker and center Ryan Kelly expire their eligibility after the national championship. Coordinator Lane Kiffin will start the process of reloading on offense with two talented running backs in Damien Harris and Bo Scarbrough, as well as receiver Calvin Ridley and left tackle Cam Robinson. Redshirt freshman Blake Barnett is expected to take the reins at quarterback. The losses on defense will be heavy, but there’s enough talent and depth returning for new coordinator Jeremy Pruitt to keep this unit among the best in the nation. The schedule features road trips to Ole Miss, LSU, Arkansas and Tennessee, as well as a neutral site game against USC to open the 2016 season.
Quarterback Deshaun Watson returns for another run at the Heisman Trophy in 2016, and the junior has a strong supporting cast in place, including left tackle Mitch Hyatt and standout receiver Artavis Scott. The receiving corps should receive a boost with the return of Mike Williams (57 receptions in 2014), who missed nearly all of 2015 due to a neck injury. Coordinator Brent Venables has holes to fill on defense, but this unit remained one of the best in the nation despite losing a handful of key contributors from the 2014 group. Cornerback Mackensie Alexander and end Shaq Lawson are expected to leave for the NFL, while the linebacking corps must replace standout B.J. Goodson. One huge road block to a repeat for the ACC title – a road date at Florida State.
College Football Podcast: Early 2016 Top 25 Breakdown
The Sooners showed marked improvement in 2015, rebounding from an 8-5 record in 2014 to a playoff spot and an 11-2 mark overall. The eight-win season in 2014 sparked the need for change in Norman, as coach Bob Stoops hired four new assistant coaches, including offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley. The addition of Riley and transfer quarterback Baker Mayfield paid big dividends for the Sooners. Oklahoma’s offense led the Big 12 (conference-only matchups) in points per game (47.2) and yards per play (7.04) in 2015. Receiver Sterling Shepard and center Ty Darlington are the biggest losses on offense, but running back Samaje Perine, receiver Dede Westbrook and freshmen linemen Orlando Brown and Dru Samia join Mayfield as key returners on offense. The question marks are bigger on defense, as linebacker Eric Striker and end Charles Tapper expired their eligibility, and cornerback Zack Sanchez and linebacker Dominique Alexander declared early for the NFL Draft. The path to the playoffs won’t be easy. Oklahoma plays Houston and Ohio State in non-conference matchups and have road trips to TCU, Texas Tech and West Virginia in league play.
4. Ohio State
The Buckeyes were one of the teams hit the hardest by early departures to the NFL Draft. In addition to defensive tackle Adolphus Washington, offensive lineman Taylor Decker and linebacker Joshua Perry expiring their eligibility after the Fiesta Bowl, Ohio State lost nine players to the next level, including end Joey Bosa, linebacker Darron Lee and running back Ezekiel Elliott. The rebuilding effort for coach Urban Meyer starts at quarterback, as J.T. Barrett finished the year on a high note (19 of 31 for 211 yards against Notre Dame). Barrett will be the unquestioned No. 1 quarterback next season, but Meyer has to reload at the skill positions and on the offensive line. Linebacker Raekwon McMillan and end Sam Hubbard should be the new standouts for a defense under the direction of new co-coordinator Greg Schiano. A road trip to Oklahoma and back-to-back matchups against Michigan State (Nov. 19) and Michigan (Nov. 26) will play a huge role in just how high the rebuilt Buckeyes can climb in the playoff picture.
5. Florida State
2015 was a rebuilding year for Florida State, yet the Seminoles won 10 games and played in a New Year’s Six Bowl (Peach). Under coach Jimbo Fisher, Florida State has won at least 10 games in five out of the last six seasons and is poised to push Clemson in the ACC next year. Nearly everyone is back on offense for Fisher, including Heisman Trophy candidate and running back Dalvin Cook. The junior will be running behind an offensive line that should improve over the offseason and is anchored by left tackle Roderick Johnson. Finding a quarterback is Fisher’s top priority, as Sean Maguire will compete with sophomore J.J. Cosentino and freshmen Malik Henry and Deondre Francois for the starting job. After giving up 5.5 yards per play in 2014, the Seminoles’ defense showed marked improvement in 2015. Florida State ranked second in the ACC by holding opponents to 4.68 yards per play, second in scoring defense (17.5 ppg) and generated 32 sacks (up from 17 in 2014). This unit has a few key players to replace – tackle Nile Lawrence-Stample, linebackers Terrance Smith and Reggie Northrup – and cornerback Jalen Ramsey left early for the NFL. A huge schedule advantage for Florida State in 2015 – Clemson, North Carolina and Florida all visit Tallahassee next season.
6. Notre Dame
The Fighting Irish were one of the teams hit the hardest by the injury bug in 2015. 38 different players earned a start for coach Brian Kelly’s team, with starting quarterback Malik Zaire lost for the season after Week 2. While the injuries were a huge hit to Notre Dame’s playoff hopes in 2015, the added depth and experience should help this team in 2016. Zaire will compete with DeShone Kizer for the starting nod at quarterback, while Tarean Folston returns from injury to team with Josh Adams at running back. The biggest losses on offense will be at receiver (Will Fuller) and on the offensive line (Ronnie Stanley and Nick Martin). The overall performance of the defense has to improve after giving up 5.5 yards per play in 2015, but tackle Sheldon Day is gone and the status of linebacker Jaylon Smith is uncertain after a serious knee injury in the Fiesta Bowl.
The Wolverines took a step forward in Jim Harbaugh’s first season, winning double-digit games (10) for the first time since 2011. And despite a few personnel losses, Michigan is positioned for a run at the Big Ten title in 2016. Finding a quarterback to replace Jake Rudock is the No. 1 priority for Harbaugh, but the offense returns leading rusher De’Veon Smith, and the top three receiving options – wide receivers Jehu Chesson and Amara Darboh and tight end Jake Butt. New defensive coordinator Don Brown was one of the top assistant hires for 2016 and inherits a group that finished third in the Big Ten in scoring defense (16.4 ppg). The Wolverines are stocked up front and in the secondary, but the linebacking corps loses all three starters from 2015. Michigan’s road schedule in conference play is brutal, as trips to Iowa, Ohio State and Michigan State await next season.
The Volunteers will open 2016 as the clear favorite in the SEC East. Coach Butch Jones has brought steady improvement over the last three years, increasing the team’s win total by two in each of the last two seasons after a 5-7 debut in 2013. Quarterback Joshua Dobbs and running back Jalen Hurd headline an offense that averaged 31.3 points per game in SEC contests in 2015. An area of focus and development for coordinator Mike DeBord this offseason is generating more big plays in the passing game after recording only five of 40 yards or more in 2015. The Volunteers return their deepest and most talented defense under Jones in 2016. Only three senior starters – tackle Owen Williams and safeties Brian Randolph and LaDarrell McNeil – depart from the starting 11 from the Outback Bowl. End Derek Barnett, linebackers Darrin Kirkland Jr. and Jalen Reeves-Maybin and cornerback Cameron Sutton anchor the defense next season. The schedule is manageable, but Alabama visits Knoxville and the Volunteers play at Georgia in early October.
LSU isn’t hurting for talent, but coach Les Miles’ team still has question marks on offense. Running back Leonard Fournette returns for another run at the Heisman Trophy and is expected to be the focal point of the offense once again. The receiving corps is anchored by Travin Dural and rising star Malachi Dupre, and the offensive line is in good shape despite losing standout tackle Vadal Alexander. However, the Tigers won’t push Alabama in the SEC West if quarterback Brandon Harris doesn’t take the next step in his development. Dave Aranda is one of the top assistant hires for 2016, and the new defensive signal-caller inherits talent on each level of the defense, including end Arden Key and safety Jamal Adams.
Injuries derailed Baylor’s playoff hopes in 2015, and despite a few key losses in personnel, coach Art Briles’ team could be the biggest threat to Oklahoma for the Big 12 title. Quarterbacks Seth Russell (neck) and Jarrett Stidham (leg) are expected to return to full strength in 2016, but standout receiver Corey Coleman and four starters on the line must be replaced. The improvement of Baylor’s defense is an underrated part of Briles’ tenure, and coordinator Phil Bennett will have a busy offseason searching for replacements at end (Shawn Oakman and Jamal Palmer) and cornerback (Xavien Howard). Even with new faces stepping into key roles, Baylor won’t take a huge step back in the win column in 2016.
11. Michigan State
Coach Mark Dantonio is losing several key pieces from the 2015 edition that won the Big Ten Championship and earned a playoff spot in the Cotton Bowl against Alabama. While the Spartans are due to take a step back in the win column, Dantonio has this program on solid ground and a quick rebuild is in store. Tyler O’Connor and Damion Terry will battle this offseason to replace Connor Cook at quarterback, while Dantonio must find replacements for receiver Aaron Burbridge and center Jack Allen. End Shilique Calhoun and linebacker Darien Harris will be missed on defense, but tackle Malik McDowell is back, and linebacker Ed Davis returns after missing all of 2015 due to injury.
The Pac-12 will be an interesting league to watch in 2016. The expected frontrunners for both divisions feature big question marks, so this conference could be on the outside of the four-team playoff picture once again. Even though the Cardinal is losing a handful of key players, coach David Shaw’s program has earned the benefit of the doubt after winning at least 11 games in four out of the last five years. Running back Christian McCaffrey returns after a historic 2015 season, but he will be taking handoffs from a new quarterback and an offensive line featuring three new starters. The defense has some retooling to do up front, at linebacker with the loss of linebacker Blake Martinez, and the secondary must replace safety Kodi Whitfield and cornerback Ronnie Harris.
13. Ole Miss
The Rebels have increased their win total in each of the last three seasons after a 7-6 record in coach Hugh Freeze’s first year (2012). Can Ole Miss take the next step and win the SEC West in 2016? For Freeze to elevate this program into the SEC Championship game next season, he needs a big year from quarterback Chad Kelly. The junior college transfer is one of the few proven quarterbacks in the SEC for 2016, but he won’t have standout receiver Laquon Treadwell or left tackle Laremy Tunsil in the supporting cast next year. The defense loses tackle Robert Nkemdiche and defensive backs Mike Hilton and Trae Elston but returns end Marquis Haynes (10 sacks) and safety Tony Conner. Freeze has recruited well, so there is promising young talent in place to fill some of the personnel voids.
14. Oklahoma State
The Cowboys finished 2015 on a three-game losing streak, but coach Mike Gundy’s team has momentum from a 10-win campaign and a good chunk of its depth chart returns in 2016. Quarterback Mason Rudolph headlines the offense, with big-play threat James Washington (20.5 ypc) returning as the go-to target. The top priorities in offseason workouts for Gundy will be improving the offensive line and jumpstarting a rushing attack that averaged only 3.6 yards per carry in 2015. End Emmanuel Ogbah is expected to leave for the NFL, and top cornerback Kevin Peterson expired his eligibility after the Sugar Bowl. While Ogbah and Peterson will be missed, coordinator Glenn Spencer has a solid core to build around this spring. Oklahoma State’s path to a Big 12 title is on the road in 2016, as trips to Oklahoma, TCU, Kansas State and Baylor dot the schedule next fall.
The second year of coach Tom Herman’s H-Town Takeover in Houston could be just as successful as the 2015 version. The Cougars capped an impressive debut under Herman with a 13-1 record and a victory over Florida State in the Peach Bowl. A strong core returns for Herman to build around in 2016, including quarterback Greg Ward (281.1 total yards per game in 2015), receiver Chance Allen and offensive lineman Will Noble. The defense loses a handful of key contributors – linebacker Elandon Roberts, safeties Adrian McDonald and Trevon Stewart and cornerback William Jackson III – but coordinator Todd Orlando should keep this unit performing at a high level. Houston also has a huge showcase in next season’s opener – a trip to NRG Stadium in Houston to take on Oklahoma.
Related: College Football’s Awards for 2015
The Trojans will be one of the nation’s most intriguing teams in 2016. New coach Clay Helton begins his first full season as the program’s head coach, and USC returns enough talent to win the Pac-12 South once again. Max Browne and Sam Darnold will battle this offseason to replace Cody Kessler at quarterback, but the offense can lean on running back Ronald Jones II and Justin Davis and a solid offensive line until the passing attack develops behind a new signal-caller. Receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster will be one of the best in the nation in 2016. The defense is Helton’s biggest concern, especially in the front seven where Delvon Simmons (DT), Antwaun Woods (NT) and linebacker Su’a Cravens depart. The secondary is anchored by standout cornerback Adoree’ Jackson and rising star Iman Marshall. A brutal schedule is on tap for USC next season, starting with a neutral site affair against Alabama in Week 1 and includes road dates at Stanford, Utah, Arizona, Washington and UCLA. Additionally, USC hosts Notre Dame, Oregon and Arizona State next year.
Kirk Ferentz 3.0 was nearly enough for Iowa to reach the College Football Playoff in 2015. The Hawkeyes won’t fly under the radar in 2016, as Iowa should open next season as the favorite in the Big Ten’s West Division. Quarterback C.J. Beathard had a breakout season in 2015 and returns to anchor the offense. Replacing running back Jordan Canzeri, receiver Tevaun Smith and offensive linemen Jordan Walsh and Austin Blythe top the priority list for coordinator Greg Davis this spring. The Hawkeyes finished fifth in the Big Ten in scoring defense and received a boost with the announcement top cornerback Desmond King would return for his senior year. All-Big Ten defensive end Drew Ott was limited to six games due to injury and applied for an additional year of eligibility. The schedule is also a huge advantage for Iowa, as Wisconsin, Michigan and Nebraska all visit Iowa City in 2016.
18. North Carolina
In addition to the ACC Coastal title, the Tar Heels are coming off their first double-digit win total for the first time since 1997. The momentum for coach Larry Fedora should continue in 2016, as North Carolina is the early favorite to win the Coastal once again. Mitch Trubisky will replace Marquise Williams at quarterback, and running back Elijah Hood is poised to build off a strong sophomore campaign (1,463 yards). The biggest losses on offense will be guard Landon Turner and receiver Quinshad Davis. The defense showed marked improvement in Gene Chizik’s first season and returns largely intact next fall. North Carolina’s schedule features a few intriguing games, including a road trip to Florida State and a neutral site matchup against Georgia in Week 1.
Looking for a sleeper pick to win the Pac-12 in 2016? Take a look at Chris Petersen’s Huskies. Washington was slated for a rebuilding year in 2015, and this team finished with at three-game winning streak to get to 7-6 overall. The biggest reason for optimism in 2016 is the return of quarterback Jake Browning and running back Myles Gaskin after impressive freshman seasons, while the defense returns nearly intact after leading the Pac-12 in scoring (18.8 points per game allowed) and the fewest yards per play (4.9). The Huskies visit Oregon next year but Stanford, USC and Arizona State visit Seattle.
It’s a new era in Athens, as Mark Richt is out after 15 seasons on the Georgia sideline. New coach Kirby Smart knows his way around the SEC as a former Georgia player and assistant under Nick Saban at Alabama since 2007. The first order of business for Smart and new play-caller Jim Chaney is to address an offense that averaged only 22.9 points per game in SEC contests. Five-star recruit Jacob Eason could be the immediate answer at quarterback, while running back Nick Chubb is slated to return in 2016 from a serious knee injury. Smart’s specialty is defense, and the first-year coach inherits a group that limited opponents to 16.9 points per game in 2015. There’s a solid core of talent in place for Smart on defense, but the linebacking corps loses Jake Ganus, Jordan Jenkins and Leonard Floyd.
The Horned Frogs were a trendy pick to reach the College Football Playoff in 2015, but injuries and roster turnover on defense prevented a run at the Big 12 title. However, playing time for young players in 2015 should help with the transition in 2016. Coach Gary Patterson’s team will have its share of question marks this offseason, starting at quarterback with Trevone Boykin’s replacement. Texas A&M transfer Kenny Hill is the frontrunner to replace Boykin, but the Horned Frogs lose four starters on the offensive line and receiver Josh Doctson is out of eligibility. Defense should be a strength for TCU in 2016 with the return of cornerback Ranthony Texada, linebacker Sammy Douglas and end James McFarland from injury, along with returning seniors Josh Carraway (DE), Aaron Curry (DT) and safety Denzel Johnson. The schedule features a favorable home slate, including games against Arkansas, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Kansas State.
The Cardinals finished 2015 by winning six out of their last seven games and the arrow is clearly pointing up for coach Bobby Petrino’s team for 2016. Quarterback Lamar Jackson capped a solid freshman season with 453 total yards in the Music City Bowl win over Texas A&M and is poised for even bigger things next fall. The Cardinals also return every key receiving threat from 2015, running back Brandon Radcliff and left tackle Geron Christian (started all 13 games as a true freshman last season). The defense has been a strength for Petrino over the last two years and will be one of the best in the ACC once again. Linemen Sheldon Rankins and Pio Vatuvei and linebacker James Burgess are the biggest losses for coordinator Todd Grantham. A strong core is in place for Grantham 2016, which includes linebacker Keith Kelsey, tackle DeAngelo Brown and defensive backs Shaq Wiggins and Josh Harvey-Clemons. The Cardinals have to play Clemson and Houston on the road next year, but Florida State and rival Kentucky visit Louisville.
23. Washington State
The Cougars opened 2015 with a disappointing loss to Portland State but ended with nine wins, a Sun Bowl victory over Miami and optimism for 2016. Coach Mike Leach’s team will be a factor in the North Division next season, as quarterback Luke Falk returns and receiver Gabe Marks is back to anchor a deep receiving corps. The biggest concern on offense is the loss of two linemen, including standout left tackle Joe Dahl. Washington State’s defense took a step forward under first-year coordinator Alex Grinch by holding opponents to 27.7 points per game in 2015. This unit needs to retool a bit in the front seven, but cornerback Darrien Molton and safety Shalom Luani are key pieces for Grinch to build around next fall. The Cougars have a favorable schedule in conference action by missing USC in crossover play and visits by UCLA, Arizona, Washington and Oregon to Pullman.
The Ducks are one of the hardest teams to slot in an early top 25 for 2016. Coach Mark Helfrich’s team still has a cast of talented skill players in place, including running back Royce Freeman and receiver Darren Carrington. However, the line loses standouts in tackle Tyler Johnstone and center Matt Hegarty, and the quarterback position is up for grabs, with Montana State transfer Dakota Prukop the favorite to replace Vernon Adams. Oregon’s defense is in need of repair after giving up 6.03 yards per play in 2015. Play-caller Don Pellum was demoted to linebackers coach, and the new coordinator inherits a group losing standout end DeForest Buckner and linebackers Tyson Coleman, Joe Walker and Rodney Hardrick. But the Ducks catch a break in scheduling, as Stanford and Washington visit Eugene in 2016.
Jim McElwain’s first season at Florida was a successful one due to the SEC East title, but the Gators struggled on offense at the end of 2015 and lose a handful of key contributors on defense. Needless to say, McElwain has his work cut out for him this spring. Finding a quarterback is McElwain’s biggest priority, and Oregon State transfer Luke Del Rio is a name to watch in the battle to start under center. Receiver Antonio Callaway will be even better as a sophomore, but running back Kelvin Taylor is leaving early for the NFL Draft. Improving the offensive line is also a necessity for McElwain after this unit allowed 45 sacks in 2015. The strength of last season’s team was its defense, but lineman Jon Bullard, linebacker Antonio Morrison and cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III leave big shoes to fill.
10 Teams to Watch
Quarterback Brandon Allen, running back Alex Collins (assuming he leaves for the NFL) and tight end Hunter Henry will be difficult to replace. However, coach Bret Bielema has established a solid foundation in Fayetteville to prevent a significant drop-off in 2016.
The Tigers were one of the nation’s most disappointing teams in 2015. Can coach Gus Malzahn get this program back on track? There’s a lot of talent, but Auburn won’t push for a spot in the top 25 without an answer at quarterback.
The Broncos took a step back in coach Bryan Harsin’s second year, but there’s a lot to like about this team in 2016. Quarterback Brett Rypien and running back Jeremy McNichols return to anchor an explosive offense, and the schedule is favorable with Washington State, Colorado State and Utah State traveling to Boise State.
It wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Hurricanes sneak into some preseason top 25 lists with new coach Mark Richt at the controls. Richt will have plenty of talent to work with, including junior quarterback Brad Kaaya and running backs Mark Walton and Joseph Yearby.
Wildcats were anchored by a standout defense in 2015, but coach Pat Fitzgerald’s team needs more from the offense to contend in the Big Ten West next year.
Willie Taggart has South Florida trending in the right direction after an 8-5 mark in 2015. The Bulls return quarterback Quinton Flowers and running back Marlon Mack, while the defense looks to take another step forward under coordinator Tom Allen.
Is 2016 a make-or-break year for Kevin Sumlin at Texas A&M? Landing Trevor Knight as a graduate transfer at quarterback helps to alleviate some of the concern under center, but the Aggies have to take another step forward on defense and find the right answers on the offensive line.
The 8-5 mark by UCLA in 2015 was its lowest win total under coach Jim Mora. However, the Bruins should be USC’s biggest obstacle to a Pac-12 South title next fall. Running back Paul Perkins is gone and the offensive line has a few concerns, but quarterback Josh Rosen is back after a standout freshman season. The defense has holes to fill with the departure of linebacker Myles Jack and tackle Kenny Clark to the NFL.
Justin Fuente was one of the top coaching hires of college football’s coaching carousel, and his background on offense should pay dividends for a program that’s struggled on that side of the ball in recent years. The defense remains in Bud Foster’s hands, but the line must be overhauled in 2016.
The Badgers quietly won 10 games in 2015, with two of their losses – Northwestern and Iowa – coming by six points or less. And the other loss? Alabama. Running back Corey Clement returns next fall, and the defense returns one of the top linebacker units in college football. However, coordinator Dave Aranda will be missed, a new quarterback must be found, and the secondary loses standouts Darius Hillary and Michael Caputo.
Video has emerged of a high school varsity basketball coach head-butting a referee during the last 30 seconds of a game Tuesday evening.
Jerry Devine, in his 10 season as a Pennsylvania varsity head coach, evidently wasn't pleased with the call and took matters into his own hands, or head. He head-butted the referee and was hit with his second technical of the game which garners an ejection.
It's unclear if there will be charges filed but a WBCB broadcaster gave his account of the situation.
"The coach went crazy," Chris Ermer said. "He came out and made contact with the official and took him off his feet. He was indicating with his body language that he didn't mean to do it. I think he intended to get in the guy's chest. But as he he did, he was off balance and went down. You can't say he didn't intend to make contact, but I don't think he was trying to head-butt the ref."
The police are currently reviewing the situation.
We have come to take No. 1 versus No. 2 matchups to determine college football’s national championship for granted with the BCS and now the College Football Playoff and that’s a good thing. Prior to 1998, the top two ranked teams met in bowl games only 11 times. Now, a national title game is the end to every college football season.
In some years, the national title game is one for the ages. In others, it’s pretty ho-hum. But between the pre-BCS No. 1 vs. No. 2 pairings and the national championship games, there have been some classic moments. Here are the top 10.
10. Jan. 8, 2007 – Ted Ginn Jr. Returns Opening Kickoff for Touchdown
Ohio State had the most explosive team in college football and that was apparent when Ginn took the opening kickoff, cut right and raced 93 yards for a touchdown. Things pretty much went to hell in a handbasket after that, as Ginn was hurt in the celebration and Florida bounced back to take a 34-14 lead at halftime en route to the national title. Nevertheless, no other national title game has started off with such a bang.
9. Jan. 3, 2003 – College Football’s Most Controversial Pass Interference Call
The 2003 Fiesta Bowl is one of the greatest games college football has ever produced. It is a shame that is remembered for a controversial pass interference call. Few outside of the Midwest gave No. 2 Ohio State a chance against defending national champion Miami, who had won 34 straight games, but both teams were tied 17-17 at the end of regulation. Miami scored on its first overtime possession when quarterback Ken Dorsey hit Kellen Winslow Jr., with a seven-yard touchdown pass. Ohio State then faced fourth-and-three on Miami’s five-yard line. Quarterback Craig Krenzel attempted a pass to Chris Gamble, but it bounced off his hands and fell incomplete. Miami players rushed the field, but a late flag for pass interference on defensive back Glenn Sharpe gave the Buckeyes new life. Commentator Dan Fouts quickly criticized the call, but Krenzel then scored on a one-yard touchdown run to tie the game. In the next overtime, Ohio State scored a touchdown and then stopped Miami on downs to win its first national title since 1970. To this day, the pass interference call remains a point of contention amongst both teams, as well as fans and sportswriters.
8. Jan. 1, 1996 – Tommie Frazier Breaks Seven Tackles
The 1995 Nebraska Cornhuskers are one of the best teams in college football history and it was never more apparent than in their 62-24 beatdown of No. 2 Florida in the Fiesta Bowl. The game’s most memorable play came with the Huskers up 42-10 late in the third quarter. Frazier, Nebraska’s dynamic dual-threat quarterback, took the snap and broke seven arm tackles on his way to a 75-yard touchdown run. After the loss, Florida head coach Steve Spurrier hired Bob Stoops to overhaul the Gator defense.
7. Jan. 2, 1987 – The Fiesta Bowl Becomes a Major Player
Since its launch in 1971, Arizona’s Fiesta Bowl had always put together solid matchups, but in 1986 it was a uniquely positioned to host the national championship. Miami was No. 1 and Penn State No. 2 and both teams were independents at the time. Since the Sugar, Rose, Orange and Cotton Bowls had contracts with conferences and the Fiesta Bowl did not, it was able to sign both schools to play for the national title (Penn State upset Miami 14-7.). If anyone wonders how the Fiesta Bowl was part of the Bowl Championship Series and now in the College Football Playoff “New Year’s Six,” they can look to this game.
6. Jan. 1, 1993 – “The Strip”
Miami entered the game ranked No. 1 and heavily favored to win its fifth national title. Alabama entered the game sporting one of the nastiest defenses in college football history. The Crimson Tide dominated the game, beating Miami 34-13 and picking off Heisman Trophy winner Gino Torretta three times. The game’s signature play came in the third quarter when Torretta hit wide receiver Lamar Thomas with a long bomb that looked like it would be an 89-yard touchdown pass. But Alabama defensive back George Teague chased Thomas down and then took the ball away from him on the 15-yard line. Although the play was negated by an offside call, it completely summed up the tone of the entire game.
5. Jan. 1, 1963 – Wisconsin Looks “Respectable”
The Rose Bowl featured the first No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup since 1946 and for three quarters, it was clear why USC held the top spot. The Trojans led Wisconsin 42-14 with 14 minutes left in the game, when Badger quarterback Ron VanderKelen told his team, “Let’s at least go out and look respectable.” They did just that. Wisconsin scored two touchdowns to make the score 42-28. Then with 2:40 left, USC center Larry Sagouspe snapped the ball past punter Ernie Jones into the end zone for a safety. Wisconsin got the ball and VanderKelen hit Pat Richter in the end zone to make the score 42-37. A USC punt gave Wisconsin the ball again, but the offense ran out of time. In the end, the Badgers did accomplish their goal.
4. Jan. 1, 1994 – Three Field Goal Attempts in 76 seconds
Down 15-13 with 1:16 left in the game, kicker Byron Bennett booted a 27-yard field goal to give No. 1 Nebraska a 16-15 lead over Florida State. Two penalties gave the Seminoles excellent field position and Heisman Trophy winner Charlie Ward drove his team inside Nebraska’s 10-yard line where kicker Scott Bentley kicked a 22-yarder with 21 seconds left to give FSU an 18-16 lead. A decent return gave Nebraska the ball back on its 46-yard line and quarterback Tommie Frazier hit tight end Trumane Bell with a pass to get the Cornhuskers to the Seminoles’ 28-yard line. Time seemed to expire and FSU head coach Bobby Bowden was doused with Gatorade. However, officials determined there was one second left and Bennett lined up for a 45-yard attempt. This one went wide left, giving Florida State and Bowden their first national titles.
3. Jan. 1, 1979 – “The Stand”
Penn State entered the Sugar Bowl ranked No. 1 and Alabama was No. 2. In a hard-fought game, the Crimson Tide was up 14-7 in the fourth quarter when a botched pitch gave the Nittany Lions the ball deep in Alabama territory. Penn State worked its way all the way down to the one-yard line in what became a testament of Bear Bryant’s tenure in Tuscaloosa. On third down, linebacker Rich Wingo stopped fullback Matt Suhey in mid-air short of the goal line. Then on fourth down, linebacker Barry Krauss stopped halfback Mike Guman. The Crimson Tide hung on for the win and the national title. Paintings of “The Stand” are wall art in homes throughout the state of Alabama.
2. Jan. 6, 2014 – A Perfect Ending to the BCS
The Bowl Championship Series (BCS) rating system for determining the two teams to play for the national title was generally maligned by fans and sportswriters in every one of its 16 years of existence. That being said, it ended on a high note. Second-ranked Auburn, the most exciting team in college football that season, jumped out to a 21-3 second quarter lead over Florida State. The Seminoles fought back, finally retaking the lead at 27-24 on a 100-yard kickoff return by Levonte Whitfield with 4:31 left in the game. Auburn went back in front when Tre Mason raced 37 yards into the end zone with 1:19 left in the game. Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston then led the Seminoles down the field and hit Kelvin Benjamin for the game-winning score with only 13 seconds left. ESPN’s Gene Wojciechowski called the 34-31 win “the perfect ending to 16 years of an imperfect BCS system.” None of the five subsequent College Football Playoff games have produced a fraction of the excitement of this game.
1. Jan. 4, 2006 – Vince Young Sprints to a National Title
The 2006 Rose Bowl was a storybook game for two storybook teams. Undefeated USC was riding a 34-game winning streak and looking to claim its third straight national title. Standing between the Trojans and glory was undefeated Texas and Young, the Longhorns’ talented dual-threat quarterback. In a game that saw six lead changes, Young threw for 267 yards and ran for 200 more. What is arguably college football’s greatest game has been covered in detail in numerous documentaries, but the image we all remember is Young taking the snap on the USC eight-yard line and sprinting into the end zone with 19 seconds left in the game to secure the win and the national championship. There is no question that this is the most memorable moment in national title game history.
— 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)
Shortly after Alabama’s 38-0 annihilation of Michigan State in the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic College Football Playoff semifinal last Thursday, Crimson Tide head coach Nick Saban, a man of few words, broke protocol to comment about his team’s mindset regarding this year’s chances.
In typical Saban fashion, his remark remained frank.
"I think last year when we came to this game, we were just happy to take part in the game," he said. "I think this year we wanted to sort of take the game and really thought our guys had a vision of what they wanted and everybody paid the price for what they had to do in preparation."
While Alabama basked in its semifinal victory in Arlington, Texas, Clemson had long sewn up its spot in the national championship game following a 37-17 dismantling of Oklahoma in the Capital One Orange Bowl College Football Playoff semifinal in South Florida on New Year's Eve, courtesy of 530 yards of total offense in a performance that left the Sooners bewildered.
With their wins, both schools secured passes to the 2016 College Football Playoff National Championship on Jan. 11 in Glendale, Ariz. Since both teams' first meeting in 1900, Alabama is 12-3 in games against Clemson, with its most recent win being a 34-10 season-opening one in 2008.
The following are 10 stats you need to know for Monday's national title tilt.
117: Consecutive games in which Alabama has scored in the first half
Alabama’s freshmen football players were just 10 years old the last time the Crimson Tide failed to score in the first half of a football game – a seven-point home loss to Florida State. Since that loss, Alabama has scored in the first two quarters of their past 117 games, a streak that leads the nation.
1,122: Number of plays Clemson has run from scrimmage this season
Although former offensive coordinator Chad Morris is now the head coach at SMU, the hurry-up offense most certainly hasn't departed Clemson. Entering this game, the Tigers have run 1,122 plays (second most in the nation) for 7,168 yards – 3,200 rushing, 3,968 passing. The Tigers do most of their damage on first down, as they have rushed 320 times for 1,814 yards and 12 touchdowns, while averaging 5.67 yards per play. Even more staggering is that Clemson has produced 21 plays of 20-plus yards on first downs.
75-0-1: Clemson's record when rushing and passing for 200 yards in the same game
Clemson’s offensive line imposed its will against Oklahoma on New Year’s Eve, paving the way for 312 rushing yards and 218 passing yards. It was the 10th consecutive game in which the Tigers totaled 500 yards of offense. The Tigers are 75-0-1 in games when the offense produces 200 yards on the ground and through the air.
12: Points per game Alabama's defense has allowed on the road this season
Alabama’s opponents are all too familiar with the home-field advantage that comes along with playing at Bryant-Denny Stadium. Unfortunately, the results haven’t been too favorable for teams hosting the Crimson Tide this season either. In Alabama’s seven road/neutral-site games, the Tide have held their hosts to 12 points per game and have only allowed eight touchdowns and nine field goals. In SEC road games against Georgia, Texas A&M, Mississippi State and Auburn, Alabama surrendered a total of four touchdowns.
17th: Clemson's national rank in red zone offense
Clemson ranks among the nation’s best as it boasts college football’s 17th-most efficient red zone offense (.891 percent). In five games in October, the Tigers’ offense netted points on all but one (17-for-18) of its red zone attempts, scoring 12 touchdowns and kicking five field goals. Clemson scored on every such possession in wins against Notre Dame, Boston College, Miami and NC State, and went 3-for-4 inside its own 20-yard line against Georgia Tech on Oct. 10.
788: Rushing yards Alabama's Derrick Henry has in eight career games played in domes
Before winning the Heisman Trophy, Henry ran his way into the national spotlight against Oklahoma two years ago in the Sugar Bowl. The then-freshman power back ran for 100 yards on just eight carries in a game that was played in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. It was just the beginning when it came to Henry's performances indoors. In eight career games played in domed stadiums, Henry has rushed for 788 yards and 12 touchdowns. This season alone he has run for 411 yards and six scores in two games at AT&T Stadium (vs. Wisconsin, Michigan State in College Football Playoff) and one in the Georgia Dome (SEC Championship Game vs. Florida).
18th: Clemson's national rank in rushing defense
Everyone knows about Alabama’s vaunted run defense. But Clemson’s defense has put together its own noteworthy campaign against the run this season. The Tigers currently rank 18th nationally, surrendering just 124.4 rushing yards per game. In the Orange Bowl, Clemson’s run defense neutralized Oklahoma running backs Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon, who had combined for 2,040 yards rushing entering that game, holding the tandem to 67 yards and one touchdown.
4: Number of punts returned for a touchdown this season by Alabama's Cyrus Jones, a school record
With his 57-yard, third quarter punt return for a touchdown against Michigan State in the Cotton Bowl, Jones became Alabama's single-season leader with his fourth such return this season. The cornerback/return specialist broke the former mark held by Crimson Tide greats David Palmer and Javier Arenas. Half of the senior's season total came in late November in a game against Charleston Southern when he scored on punt returns of 43 and 72 yards.
9: Number of non-offensive touchdowns Alabama has scored this season
The aforementioned Jones’ third-quarter punt return for a touchdown didn’t just cement his name in Alabama’s record books, it also gave the Crimson Tide its ninth non-offensive touchdown on the season – Arkansas State leads the nation with 11. In 2015, Alabama has scored on four interceptions, four punt returns and on a blocked punt. Under Nick Saban, Alabama has scored a total of 45 non-offensive touchdowns.
9: Number of wins in NFL stadiums Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney has in his career
Over the past couple seasons, Swinney has successfully managed to deflect rumors concerning his possible departure for the NFL. But perhaps he shouldn’t be too quick to dismiss that talk as he’s had success in games played at professional arenas. Since taking over at Clemson, Swinney has rattled off nine wins in games played at NFL stadiums, against four losses. A win at the Arizona Cardinals’ University of Phoenix Stadium next Monday would push him to a career 10-4 in pro venues.
— 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.
Jeopardy features the smartest people... or so we thought.
Those who are book smart are sometimes not too well-versed in sports. One man answered an incredibly easy question with the wrong Alabama team. The correct answer is, "Who is Alabama?" and this guy uttered the words one should never say if you're even somewhat familiar with college sports.
😂 dawg https://t.co/m5r8R0sTmv— Jasmine Watkins (@JasmineLWatkins) January 6, 2016