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The opportunity to claim the AFC championship was there for the Houston Texans in 2012. Then they folded down the stretch. As a new team takes shape, fans are still grumbling about how the 12–2 Texans needed only one win to secure the AFC’s No. 1 playoff seed but inexplicably lost at home, 23–6 to Minnesota, and then failed in the season finale, 28–16 at Indianapolis. A 41–28 playoff exit at New England in the second round reminded this franchise just how important postseason home-field advantage can be.

The Texans didn’t need to overhaul the roster, but they added some components, namely Pro Bowl safety Ed Reed and Pro Bowl punter Shane Lechler. The stars are still in place — running back Arian Foster, wide receiver Andre Johnson, defensive end J.J. Watt, quarterback Matt Schaub and inside linebacker Brian Cushing — but a prevailing question still stands: Is this team a bona fide Super Bowl contender or just another pretender?

Athlon Sports AFC Power Ranking: 3rd

Related: 2013 Houston Texans Schedule Analysis

Offense
Offseason offensive needs were obvious: Find a wide receiver to go with Johnson, and resolve the right tackle position. The Texans drafted Clemson wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins in the first round and selected North Carolina offensive tackle Brennan Williams in the third round. If right tackle Derek Newton is slow to return from patellar tendon surgery, look for Williams to get his shot immediately. The Texans aren’t deep at wide receiver, so Hopkins will have every opportunity to prove he’s worthy of a starting spot. Johnson gets so much attention on the other side that Hopkins will see man coverage and can expect to get his share of the workload if he proves himself in preseason.

The right guard position also should improve. Ben Jones is a second-year pro who was considered one of the NFL’s top center prospects when selected in the fourth round a year ago. He eventually won the job at right guard, starting 10 games. His progress and the right tackle resolution will be vital to how the team moves forward.

That’s because when talking Texans, this offense is built around Foster. The 2010 NFL rushing champ and three-time Pro Bowl star has been nothing short of phenomenal in his three years as a starter. The problem is, the Texans can’t always count on just handing off to him because defenses crowd the box. This is especially evident in the red zone, when too often the Texans have tried simply to run it in. Foster did have 15 rushing TDs in 2012, but conservative play-calling doesn’t always produce touchdowns. Too many times, ideal scoring chances resulted in field goals.

To that end, Schaub has to be more consistent in big games. He made his second Pro Bowl last season, passing for 4,008 yards with 22 TDs and just 12 interceptions, but he was seriously outplayed in losses to Green Bay and New England by quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady. This season, Schaub will go up against Baltimore’s Joe Flacco and San Francisco’s Colin Kaepernick on the road as well as Brady and Denver’s Peyton Manning at home. Schaub has to show something in those games, or the questions will linger about whether he has the right stuff to get his team to the Super Bowl.

Schaub won't be able to do it alone, however, which was why Foster's late arrival to training camp generated a lot of attention in early August. Originally held out because of a lingering calf injury he sustained during OTAs in May, Foster was later hampered by a back issue. The good news is he returned to practice right before the team's third preseason game and there is no real concern regarding his Week 1 availability at this point. In the end, his prolonged absence could help him stay fresh during the regular season and, hopefully, the Texans' extended playoff run.

Defense
Watt couldn’t have been more dominant as NFL Defensive Player of the Year with a league-best 20.5 sacks and 16 passes defended. Every opponent has to game-plan for the disruptive defensive end. But the Texans have to shore up other areas around him.

The Texans dropped from No. 3 in pass defense to No. 16 and allowed 29 TD passes compared to 18 the year before. Rodgers burned them for six TD passes, Manning for two and Brady for a total of seven in two games. And it wasn’t only the big-name quarterbacks slicing them up. The Texans edged Detroit 34–31 in overtime on Thanksgiving Day, but the Lions had 525 total yards with Matthew Stafford passing for 441 yards and two scores.

That’s why the Texans went out and signed Reed and drafted safety D.J. Swearinger in the second round. Reed is known as one of the NFL’s greatest ball-hawks, and the Texans hope his presence will discourage teams from throwing deep as often. Reed's recovery from offseason hip surgery has taken longer than initially anticipated, so it's possible he will miss the first few games of the regular season. Swearinger will push Danieal Manning at safety, although Manning should keep his job as the rookie transitions to the league. The Texans are pretty much set defensively everywhere else.

The October loss of Cushing to a knee injury was a huge blow. The 3-4 scheme needs its anchor back healthy. They drafted outside linebackers Sam Montgomery and Trevardo Williams, which suggests sliding linebacker Brooks Reed inside. Wade Phillips’ defense ranked seventh in yards allowed (323.2 ypg) and tied for ninth in points allowed (20.7 ppg).

Specialists
Randy Bullock takes over as placekicker for Shayne Graham. A fifth-round pick in 2012, Bullock has yet to attempt an NFL field goal because he suffered a groin tear in preseason and ended up on injured reserve. A lot of eyes will be on him. The former Lou Groza Award winner displayed a strong and accurate leg at Texas A&M, making 29-of-33 field goal attempts as a senior.

The Texans had to pay handsomely for Lechler, a seven-time Pro Bowl punter. Houston coughed up $5.5 million over three years with a $1 million signing bonus. But he’s worth it. And he’ll love punting in climate-controlled Reliant Stadium. Expect Lechler, who has a career 47.5-yard average in 13 seasons, to help the Texans earn an edge in field position.

Second-year wide receiver Keshawn Martin is a promising returner, averaging 23.9 yards on 31 kickoffs with a long of 54 yards and 12.1 yards on 22 punt returns with a long of 71.

Final Analysis: 1st in AFC South
The Texans must make the Super Bowl or many of their fans will be convinced that the window of opportunity is closing. That’s how high the bar has been raised in Houston. And the Texans realize this. They saw Baltimore win the championship last year, the same Ravens whom the Texans annihilated 43–13 at Reliant Stadium in October. It’s not a question of whether the Texans have the talent; it’s how they perform down the stretch and in the playoffs. The first objective has to be to secure what eluded them at the end of 2012, the AFC’s No. 1 playoff seed and home-field advantage.

Schaub has to raise his game against the NFL’s elite, which means throwing the ball down the field more and taking some chances when they present themselves. Foster can’t carry the offense, although having him ensures that the team will win most weeks.

The playoffs are about which team can get hot at the right time. The Texans have won the AFC South title each of the last two years but weren’t at their best in the playoffs. If they don’t seize the moment this year, when will they?

Order your 2013 Houston Texans Athlon Sports NFL Preview magazine here

2013 Athlon Sports NFL Team Previews:

AFC EastAFC NorthAFC SouthAFC West
BuffaloBaltimoreHoustonDenver (9/3)
MiamiCincinnatiIndianapolisKansas City
New England (8/30)ClevelandJacksonvilleOakland
NY JetsPittsburghTennesseeSan Diego
    
NFC EastNFC NorthNFC SouthNFC West
DallasChicagoAtlantaArizona
NY Giants (8/30)DetroitCarolinaSt. Louis
PhiladelphiaGreen BayNew OrleansSan Francisco (9/3)
WashingtonMinnesotaTampa BaySeattle

 

Teaser:
Houston Texans 2013 NFL Team Preview
Post date: Thursday, August 29, 2013 - 10:00
Path: /nfl/green-bay-packers-2013-nfl-team-preview
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Having paid out a whopping $55 million in signing bonuses to quarterback Aaron Rodgers and outside linebacker Clay Matthews, the Green Bay Packers successfully locked up their two biggest stars. But they have also caused a segment of their passionate fan base to worry that with so much money tied to only two players, the salary-cap ramifications will be disastrous.

But while Rodgers (five years, $110 million) and Matthews (five years, $66 million) certainly didn’t come cheap, general manager Ted Thompson’s annual draft-and-develop youth movement, a salary cap that won’t be flat forever and the structure of each deal mean that the Packers will remain Super Bowl contenders as long as their $176 million men remain healthy. “I like where we’re at,” Rodgers says. “Obviously, there were some (fans concerned) about not doing a lot in free agency. (But) the Packer way (is) where you draft a guy in your system.”

For yet another offseason, Thompson avoided signing any outside unrestricted free agents, marshaling his resources to pay his stars and again relying on the draft to fill holes. And  there were still holes that needed to be filled.

Athlon Sports NFC Power Ranking: 3rd

Related: 2013 Green Bay Packers Schedule Analysis

Offense
Coach Mike McCarthy loves to call his offense “quarterback driven,” but for the first time since Ryan Grant put together back-to-back 1,200-yard rushing seasons in 2008 and 2009, Rodgers might not have to be behind the wheel all the time. There’s no doubt that at age 29 he is on top of his game, even though he wasn’t as statistically dominant in 2012 as he was when he won the NFL MVP in 2011. He’s as good as it gets against the blitz, but the problem for the Packers’ offense last year was the steady diet of Cover-2 defenses it saw, as opponents had no reason to fear the running game.

That could finally change after the team drafted Alabama’s Eddie Lacy in the second round and UCLA’s Johnathan Franklin in the fourth. In his previous eight drafts, Thompson had selected a total of four running backs, so this would indicate a shift in offensive philosophy. Perhaps McCarthy can do for Rodgers what Mike Sherman did for Brett Favre in the early 2000s, when Pro Bowl running back Ahman Green improved the QB’s quality of life. McCarthy says he made some “scheme adjustments” even before the draft, clearly hoping that a respectable running game will mean that Rodgers won’t see two deep safeties every time he drops back. The backfield depth took a hit during training camp when third-year pro DuJuan Harris injured his knee and was placed on injured reserve.

While the free agent defection of Greg Jennings and the retirement of Donald Driver erased two beloved names from the depth chart at receiver, Rodgers still has plenty of pass-catching talent around him. Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb and James Jones still make for a pretty impressive 1-2-3 combination if all three can stay healthy. Cobb, in his second NFL season, led the Packers in receiving in 2012 with 80 catches for 954 yards and eight touchdowns in regular-season play; Jones set career highs in 2012 in receptions (64), yards (784) and touchdowns (an NFL-best 14); and when Nelson was healthy for a full 2011, he caught 68 passes for 1,263 yards and 15 touchdowns. Nelson missed a significant amount of training camp after undergoing knee surgery in early August and it's possible he could miss the first week or two of the regular season. Unheralded Jarrett Boykin also caught the quarterback’s eye as the No. 6 receiver last year and could blossom. The team also paid starting tight end Jermichael Finley his $3 million roster bonus on March 26, meaning he’s back for his sixth season in Green Bay with an $8.25 million cap number — and even higher expectations.

The offensive line must improve. Not only did the unit allow Rodgers to be sacked 51 times last season, but the running game also ranked No. 20 in yards per game and No. 22 in yards per rush. At center, Evan Dietrich-Smith is under the microscope after assuming the starting job from now-retired Jeff Saturday late in the regular season. The line also took a big hit during training camp when starting left tackle Bryan Bulaga tore his ACL, ending his 2013 season before it even got started. Bulaga's loss puts even more pressure on fourth-round pick David Bakhtiari, who is penciled in as Bulaga's replacement as Rodgers' blindside protector.

Although Rodgers' durability is one of his greatest assets, the Packers did shuffle the deck somewhat behind him during training camp. In early August, Green Bay signed 2006 No. 3 overall pick Vince Young as a free agent. Young, who went to two Pro Bowls (2006, '09) as Tennessee's starter before getting released and signing with Philadelphia in 2011, then proceeded to beat out incumbent backup Graham Harrell, who was released on Aug. 25. Unfortunately, Young didn't do enough to secure one of the final roster spots, so for now, the Packers will go with last season's seventh-round pick B.J. Coleman as the only other quarterback on the roster.

Related: Green Bay Packers' Game-by-Game Predictions for 2013

Defense
On defense, the unit is trying to get past its epic season-ending embarrassment, as the San Francisco 49ers rolled up 579 yards — and Colin Kaepernick ran for more yards than any quarterback in a game in NFL history (181) — in a 45–31 NFC Divisional Playoff thrashing. The healing must start in the front seven. Even as good as Matthews is, there are still issues on the line. Defensive end Mike Neal’s emergence was encouraging — playing just 322 snaps as situational pass-rusher, he finished with 4.5 sacks — but he, like big-bodied inside guys Ryan Pickett and B.J. Raji, is going into the final year of his contract. The addition of first-round pick Datone Jones should help tremendously, adding some much-needed speed.

Matthews’ new deal was not the only move at linebacker. A.J. Hawk agreed to a pay cut; Brad Jones re-upped for three years, $11.75 million; Robert Francois re-signed as a restricted free agent; and unrestricted free agent Erik Walden (Indianapolis) and untendered restricted free agent Frank Zombo (Kansas City) both departed. Fill-in starter D.J. Smith was jettisoned, too. Inside, there are plenty of players, but it’s debatable how many of them are good. Desmond Bishop, the team's leading tackler in 2011, was released during the summer as the Packers weren't pleased with his ongoing recovery from the serious hamstring injury that kept him out all of 2012. Jones is slated to replace Bishop as the other starting inside linebacker opposite Hawk. Outside, Matthews, 2012 first-round pick Nick Perry and under-the-radar second-year man Dezman Moses all generate pressure, but in a scheme predicated on outstanding play from that position, it seems thin.

In the secondary, gone is future Hall of Famer Charles Woodson, released in a cost-cutting move. Cornerback Tramon Williams, considered in 2010 to be one of the top-five cover men in the league, still isn’t the player he was before suffering nerve damage in his shoulder in 2011. Cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt expects a four-way competition for the two starting jobs involving Williams, Sam Shields, Casey Hayward and Davon House.

Specialists
Longtime kicker Mason Crosby got a case of the yips that may or may not be resolved. A year after going 24-of-28, he was a league-worst 21-of-33 (63.6 percent) on field goal attempts. In a close game, can he deliver? Meanwhile, Tim Masthay has quietly become one of the top punters in the NFL, but the return game is an issue, too. Given that Cobb emerged as the Packers’ top pass-catcher, has he become too valuable on offense to continue as the full-time return man? It’s a question McCarthy continues to wrestle with.

Final Analysis: 1st in NFC North
The Packers certainly “lost” the offseason, as NFC contenders San Francisco and Seattle did more to improve their teams on paper. But this is how the Thompson and McCarthy regime works. They’ll count on their own guys to either emerge out of nowhere or improve by leaps and bounds and count on their star veterans to keep delivering at the highest level. It’s not the sexiest approach, but the Packers are 53–27 in the regular season since Rodgers took over at quarterback, with a Super Bowl XLV title to show for it. As disappointing as back-to-back NFC Divisional Playoff losses have been, the Packers remain solid contenders in a stacked conference.

Order your 2013 Athlon Sports NFL Preview magazine here

2013 Athlon Sports NFL Team Previews:

AFC EastAFC NorthAFC SouthAFC West
BuffaloBaltimoreHoustonDenver (9/3)
MiamiCincinnatiIndianapolisKansas City
New England (8/30)ClevelandJacksonvilleOakland
NY JetsPittsburghTennesseeSan Diego
    
NFC EastNFC NorthNFC SouthNFC West
DallasChicagoAtlantaArizona
NY Giants (8/30)DetroitCarolinaSt. Louis
PhiladelphiaGreen BayNew OrleansSan Francisco (9/3)
WashingtonMinnesotaTampa BaySeattle

 

Teaser:
Green Bay Packers 2013 NFL Team Preview
Post date: Thursday, August 29, 2013 - 10:00
Path: /nfl/pittsburgh-steelers-2013-nfl-team-preview
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General manager Kevin Colbert chafes at the notion that the Steelers are rebuilding after the kind of roster turnover that qualified as astounding given his organization’s reputation as one of the most stable in the NFL. Coach Mike Tomlin insists that the Steelers are simply in transition after an 8–8 season. Whether transition is merely a euphemism for rebuilding will be determined by how the Steelers respond after missing the playoffs for just the second time since Tomlin took over in 2007.

For the second consecutive year, the Steelers cut ties with a handful of key veterans, and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, strong safety Troy Polamalu, cornerback Ike Taylor and tight end Heath Miller are the remaining core players from the team that played in three Super Bowls and won two of them during a six-year period. Miller, the Steelers’ 2012 MVP, likely won’t be 100 percent at the start of the season after sustaining a torn ACL at the end of last season. That puts even more pressure on Roethlisberger, Polamalu and Taylor to stay healthy if the Steelers are to challenge Baltimore and Cincinnati for supremacy in the AFC North.

Athlon Sports AFC Power Ranking: 4th

Related: 2013 Pittsburgh Steelers Schedule Analysis

Offense
The fragile union between Roethlisberger and offensive coordinator Todd Haley enters its second season. For all of the psychoanalysis that is devoted to the relationship, Roethlisberger was having a Pro Bowl-caliber season before sustaining a rib injury in November. He struggled after returning to the starting lineup, and it may not get any easier this season, even if Roethlisberger stays healthy. The Steelers lost one of the NFL’s top deep threats when wide receiver Mike Wallace bolted to Miami in free agency. Miller, who has long been Roethlisberger’s security blanket and one of the top all-around tight ends in the league, may take some time to get back to full speed. The Steelers will depend on veteran Matt Spaeth, second-year man David Paulson and another tight end coming off a torn ACL, David Johnson, until Miller returns.

Wallace’s departure means the Steelers will rely heavily on Antonio Brown in the passing game. Brown, the Steelers’ MVP in 2011, took a step backward last season. The fourth-year man won’t have the luxury of having a burner opposite him on the field. Emmanuel Sanders replaces Wallace, and the fourth-year veteran has shown flashes but has also been injury-prone and inconsistent. Plaxico Burress won't be able to help the passing attack, as the long-time Steeler sustained a season-ending shoulder injury during training camp. The passing game will be helped immensely if third-round draft pick Markus Wheaton makes an impact as a rookie.

There are also questions about the skill players who will line up behind Roethlisberger. Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer are not every-down backs, and the Steelers drafted Michigan State’s Le’Veon Bell with the hope that he will develop into their feature back. Bell's NFL debut, however, will be delayed as he injured his foot in his first preseason game. The good news is that Bell did not need surgery and the injury is not deemed serious. The bad news is that he will more than likely miss at least the first month of the regular season. With Bell sidelined, the Steelers will turn to Redman and Dwyer to carry the load, as well as LaRod Stephens-Howling, who was signed to provide depth and serve as a receiving threat out of the backfield.

The Steelers did not draft an offensive lineman in 2013 because they invested so heavily in that area in previous drafts. Four of the projected five starters are either first- or second-round picks. All-Pro center Maurkice Pouncey anchors the line, with the Steelers also expecting big things out of right guard David DeCastro. Tackles Marcus Gilbert and Mike Adams both have to stay healthy and become more consistent. The Steelers are dangerously thin up front.

Defense
The Steelers finished first in the NFL in total defense last season, but that proved to be fool’s gold. They did not put enough pressure on opposing quarterbacks and did not force enough turnovers. Gone are five-time Pro Bowl nose tackle Casey Hampton and outside linebacker James Harrison, who was cut after the two sides couldn’t agree on the amount of a pay cut for the former NFL Defensive Player of the Year. The Steelers also lost starting cornerback Keenan Lewis to the New Orleans Saints in free agency.

The Steelers are high on former undrafted free agent Steve McLendon, who replaces Hampton and can also play defensive end. They must get more out of former first-round picks Ziggy Hood and Cameron Heyward at defensive end. Hood is going into his third season as a starter but has been, in Tomlin parlance, just another guy. Heyward has shown very little in two seasons, and that is a concern since Brett Keisel, 34, whom he backs up, isn’t getting any younger.

Lawrence Timmons, who should have made the Pro Bowl last season, and veteran Larry Foote return at inside linebacker. One of the biggest questions on the team is whether the outside linebackers will provide the necessary pass rush, which is critical to the defense’s success. Former Pro Bowler LaMarr Woodley had only four sacks last season. Jason Worilds gets the first crack at replacing Harrison, and the former second-round pick has played well in spots. First-round pick Jarvis Jones should provide help at outside linebacker even if he is only a situational pass-rusher.

The loss of Lewis thrusts Cortez Allen into the starting lineup, and Allen looked like a viable long-term starter after filling in for the injured Taylor last season. Taylor is still one of the better cornerbacks in the NFL, and the Steelers signed William Gay, who spent the 2012 season in Arizona, to play nickel back.

Polamalu is the wild card. The 2010 NFL Defensive Player of the Year gives coordinator Dick LeBeau a piece to move all over the field, and Polamalu is a game-changer when he is healthy. The problem is that Polamalu has missed 22 games since 2009, and his age (32) and aggressive style of play don’t bode well for getting an entire season out of the seven-time Pro Bowler. Free safety Ryan Clark is 33 but seems to get better with age. Perhaps the biggest issue the Steelers have at the back end of their defense is the lack of proven depth.

Specialists
Shaun Suisham is entrenched as the kicker, and the ninth-year veteran was close to automatic last season. Drew Butler returns as the punter after a decent rookie season. Stephens-Howling has returned three kickoffs for touchdowns during his career, and Brown is a dangerous punt returner. Tomlin would love for a younger player to emerge there so he can minimize Brown’s exposure to big hits.

Final Analysis: 1st in AFC North
A franchise quarterback like Roethlisberger is always going to give his team a chance to contend for the Super Bowl, which is the only goal in Pittsburgh. Roethlisberger must have a capable supporting cast, and it would help if the investment the Steelers have made in the offensive line started paying off. A healthy Polamalu and a return to form by Woodley would make the defense more opportunistic. There are a lot of ifs, however, and if Pittsburgh’s marquee players do not lead the way — or are not able to because of injuries — the Steelers are looking at another third-place finish in the AFC North and another long offseason.

Order your 2013 Pittsburgh Steelers Athlon Sports NFL Preview magazine here

2013 Athlon Sports NFL Team Previews:

AFC EastAFC NorthAFC SouthAFC West
BuffaloBaltimoreHouston (8/29)Denver (9/3)
MiamiCincinnatiIndianapolisKansas City
New England (8/30)ClevelandJacksonvilleOakland
NY JetsPittsburghTennesseeSan Diego
    
NFC EastNFC NorthNFC SouthNFC West
DallasChicagoAtlantaArizona
NY Giants (8/30)DetroitCarolinaSt. Louis
PhiladelphiaGreen Bay (8/29)New OrleansSan Francisco (9/3)
WashingtonMinnesotaTampa BaySeattle

 

Teaser:
Pittsburgh Steelers 2013 NFL Team Preview
Post date: Wednesday, August 28, 2013 - 10:00
Path: /nfl/seattle-seahawks-2013-nfl-team-preview
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Without being asked, Seahawks coach Pete Carroll informed beat writers on a conference call that then-rookie Russell Wilson would be his starting quarterback to open the 2012 season.

Dead silence.

Because of Wilson’s 5'11" stature, plus his first-year status, no one had pressed Carroll about this possibility. No one realistically envisioned this happening. A year later, Wilson at the offensive controls makes perfect sense. The diminutive quarterback was the ignition point for an explosive zone-read offense, tied Peyton Manning’s rookie record for touchdown passes (26), and was as responsible as anyone for the Seahawks getting into the playoffs and coming up with their first postseason road victory since 1983.

Wilson’s presence has created so much momentum for the franchise — making it the preferred destination for high-impact free agent Cliff Avril and newly acquired (and well paid) Percy Harvin in the offseason — the Seahawks have people convinced that anything is possible this season.

Athlon Sports NFC Power Ranking: 4th

Related: 2013 Seattle Seahawks Schedule Analysis

Offense
All Seattle had to do was find a steady quarterback to get this team over the hump. Free agent signee Matt Flynn was supposed to be the guy. Wilson relegated him to three mop-up appearances, and Flynn now plays for Oakland. With his strong right arm, Fran Tarkenton-like scrambling ability (489 yards rushing) and high-level efficiency (a club-record 100.0 passer rating), Wilson created nonstop problems for opposing teams. His challenge will be to counter the defensive adjustments that will come his way a second time around the league.

Yet the Seahawks took a proactive step to ease the pressure on Wilson and further frustrate opposing defensive coordinators by acquiring the triple-threat Harvin. He was the one thing the Seattle offense sorely lacked — a legitimate breakaway threat. He was expected to upgrade the team’s weakest offensive position area and allow the Seahawks to be more creative than ever. That was, however, until Harvin decided to undergo surgery in early August to repair his injured hip. Harvin will miss a significant chunk of the regular season, if not all of it, which changes the entire outlook of the receiving corps. Now Wilson will need to lean on wide receivers Sidney Rice and Golden Tate, who led the Seahawks with 50 and 45 receptions after battling chronic injury and inconsistency, respectively, even more than originally expected. Rice's surgically repaired knee remains a concern and it would help Wilson and the offense if tight end Zach Miller could become a little more reliable and productive. Harvin's absence also presents an opportunity for third-year wideout Doug Baldwin or rookies Chris Harper and Jermaine Kearse to emerge and provide more depth.

The slashing and durable Marshawn Lynch remains one of the NFL’s most productive running backs, regardless of who’s at quarterback. He was better than ever when on the receiving end of Wilson handoffs, coming up with a career-high 1,590 yards rushing (third in the league). He relishes his role as a violent runner.

When Carroll took over the franchise, he made rebuilding a sorry offensive line his first order of business. It took a while, but the coach finally got the desired results. Left tackle Russell Okung and center Max Unger stayed healthy for the first time in the same season and became Pro Bowl starters. Big and mobile, Okung is the closest thing to a dominant Seahawks lineman since Walter Jones retired. Okung has the ability to get out and run and mow people down. That said, he still needs to address a lingering issue: He and right tackle Breno Giacomini were two of the most penalized offensive linemen in the league, flagged for 13 and 12 infractions, respectively, making them drive-killers at times. Unger is deceptively strong and quick. Left guard James Carpenter boasts star quality but has been injury-prone. Converted defender J.R. Sweezy finished his rookie season as a starter and is the top candidate at right guard. Paul McQuistan started all 16 games last season and will serve as the first guy off the bench if he doesn't retain his starting job.

Defense
The back seven boasts as much speed and big-play ability as any in the league, but the line has been merely adequate. The lack of a pass rush was responsible for multiple fourth quarter defeats last season. Deeming this position a priority, the Seahawks added veteran tackle Tony McDaniel and ends Michael Bennett and Avril, the latter strong enough to bring added pressure and agile enough to play linebacker. They also drafted three more D-linemen. Avril (29 sacks over the past three seasons) is a ready replacement for Chris Clemons, whose timetable for a return from a playoff knee injury is unclear. Run-stuffing Red Bryant and speed-rusher Bruce Irvin are productive as situational ends.

The linebacking corps might have been the Seahawks’ most questionable group entering last season. Bobby Wagner made it one of the most secure. Another ready-to-play rookie, Wagner was surprisingly savvy and speedy while stepping in from the outset and leading the team in tackles (140). K.J. Wright and Malcolm Smith, who moves up from a reserve role to new starter, man the outside spots, and few linebacking corps cover as much ground as these guys. There’s a big falloff in talent, however, with the backups.

The secondary is easily Seattle’s biggest stockpile of talent. They’re game-changers in every sense, with three of the four starters scoring twice each on interceptions or blocked kicks in their brief careers. Three of them have been Pro Bowlers. Cornerback Richard Sherman, the only one in his backfield who hasn’t gone to Hawaii yet, had a team-high eight picks, 24 passes defensed and plenty of swagger. He also returned a blocked field goal 90 yards for a score. Fellow corner Brandon Browner has nine interceptions in two seasons, two for scores. Free safety Earl Thomas is a productive center fielder and a two-time Pro Bowler, and strong safety Kam Chancellor is a ferocious hitter. Seattle also signed three-time Pro Bowl selection Antoine Winfield as its nickel back.

Specialists
Dependable placekicker Steven Hauschka and punter Jon Ryan are accuracy guys rather than boomers. Hauschka connected on 24-of-27 field goal attempts, with each of his misses coming from 50 yards or more. Ryan dropped 30 punts inside the 20-yard line. Harvin's acquistion initially made Pro Bowler Leon Washington expendable. Now someone else will need to step up in that department with Harvin sidelined for much of the regular season. Tate will more than likely handle the punt return duties.

Final Analysis: 2nd in NFC West
Wilson is one of 20 starters returning, and one of six Seahawks players who went to the Pro Bowl. Offensive firepower abounds. All the pieces are in place for the Seahawks to make a deep playoff run, if not a second Super Bowl appearance in eight seasons. Wilson and Wagner, the precocious team leaders on each side of the ball, need to avoid sophomore slumps. The newcomers, minus Harvin, also need to contribute. There hasn’t been this much hype surrounding a Seattle team entering a season since 1985, and that one couldn’t handle it, finishing 8–8. Can these Seahawks measure up? Certainly the element of surprise with Wilson behind center is long gone. But don’t rule out anything with this team.

Order your 2013 Athlon Sports NFL Preview magazine here

2013 Athlon Sports NFL Team Previews:

AFC EastAFC NorthAFC SouthAFC West
BuffaloBaltimoreHouston (8/29)Denver (9/3)
MiamiCincinnatiIndianapolisKansas City
New England (8/30)ClevelandJacksonvilleOakland
NY JetsPittsburghTennesseeSan Diego
    
NFC EastNFC NorthNFC SouthNFC West
DallasChicagoAtlantaArizona
NY Giants (8/30)DetroitCarolinaSt. Louis
PhiladelphiaGreen Bay (8/29)New OrleansSan Francisco (9/3)
WashingtonMinnesotaTampa BaySeattle

 

Teaser:
Seattle Seahawks 2013 NFL Team Preview
Post date: Wednesday, August 28, 2013 - 10:00
Path: /nfl/atlanta-falcons-2013-nfl-team-preview
Body:

Say this about the Atlanta Falcons: They don’t rest on their laurels. Coming up just 10 yards short of the Super Bowl and winning an NFC-best 13 games apparently wasn’t good enough for GM Thomas Dimitroff and head coach Mike Smith. They overhauled the roster despitea recording the No. 1 overall playoff seed for only the second time in franchise history. Eight new starters will line up for the Falcons this season, including prize free-agent additions Osi Umenyiora and Steven Jackson.

The Falcons enter the season as one of the favorites to represent the NFC in Super Bowl XLVIII in New York. After steadily fortifying the roster in recent years, they appear ready to take the next step in the hyper-competitive NFC. “I think this team really believes now this team truly can strap it up against any team in this league,” Dimitroff says. “There is not the intimidation factor that there once was. And I love that feeling.”

Athlon Sports NFC Power Ranking: 5th

Related: 2013 Atlanta Falcons Schedule Analysis

Offense
The Falcons feature a premier quarterback in Matt Ryan and boast an arsenal of playmakers as deep and talented as any in the NFL. Wide receivers Roddy White and Julio Jones are big, physical playmakers on the perimeter who can score from any down-and-distance scenario. Both are good enough to be No. 1 receivers on most NFL teams. White sprained his ankle during the Falcons' second preseason game, but it should not prevent him from being out on the field for the season opener in New Orleans. Mercurial Harry Douglas is established as the third receiver, but the team believes he has big-play potential that hasn’t been fully utilized in the past. The big-play opportunities should be there for him with defenses concentrating on White and Jones. He needs to capitalize on them.

Tight end Tony Gonzalez is Ryan’s favorite target, especially in the red zone and on third down. He was targeted 124 times and produced 93 receptions and eight TDs last season. He keeps himself in great shape, so another big year is possible for the perennial Pro Bowler.

Jackson has a lot of wear on his tires but remains remarkably productive. The classic workhorse back, he will try to notch his ninth consecutive 1,000-yard rushing season. That the NFL record is 11 by Emmitt Smith says a lot about Jackson’s dependability and durability. He’s the perfect complement to the Falcons’ high-powered passing attack and will be a significant upgrade over Michael Turner, who had clearly lost explosiveness last season. Scat back Jacquizz Rodgers is the check-down option. He needs more touches, and like Douglas, could have a breakout year with defenses focused outside the hash marks on White and Jones.

Ryan set career highs in passing yards (4,719), completion percentage (68.6) and TD passes (32) last season. He’s the consummate field general who can make every throw. He’s become a more vocal leader in recent years and has earned the trust and respect of his teammates.

The Falcons’ failure to score from the 1-yard line on three downs in their heartbreaking loss to the Saints was the impetus to overhaul the offensive line, which will feature three new starters. The goal is to get more physical and athletic up front. Tackle Lamar Holmes and guard Garrett Reynolds form the new right side. Both are bigger and more physical than their predecessors. Peter Konz replaces longtime veteran Todd McClure at center and is much stronger and more powerful at this stage of his career. Left tackle Sam Baker enjoyed a strong rebound season in 2012. He’s not spectacular at anything but does everything well.

Defense
Coordinator Mike Nolan plays multiple schemes but prefers to operate out of a 4-3 base. The Falcons are unfailingly consistent on defense. They annually rank among the league leaders in interceptions and near the bottom in sacks. Rushing the passer continues to be their most pressing concern. To that end, the Falcons replaced the aging John Abraham with Umenyiora, who is three years younger. Umenyiora’s production has declined precipitously the past two years. The Falcons are hoping a change of scenery and the Georgia Dome fast track will turn things around for him. Kroy Biermann makes plays with his hustle and non-stop motor, but he can be overpowered at the point of attack and is a liability against the run. The underrated Jonathan Babineaux is the Falcons’ best lineman. He’s undersized but is one of the league’s best interior penetrators.

Linebacker Sean Weatherspoon is the leader of this defense. He’s an elite athlete who makes plays all over the field from his weak-side spot. Akeem Dent and Stephen Nicholas are solid if unspectacular in the middle and strong side, respectively. Depth is a big concern.

The Falcons wanted to upgrade their play at cornerback despite allowing an NFL-low five touchdowns on passes outside the painted numbers last season. Asante Samuel is a boom-or-bust proposition at left corner. He intercepted five passes but also can be burned for big plays because of his penchant for gambling. Rookie Desmond Trufant plays with a similar swagger to Samuel. He has the athleticism and ball skills to start right away. The nickel back position has been a major problem spot for the Falcons. It’s basically a starting spot with so many high-profile passing attacks in the NFC. Rookie Robert Alford should be an immediate upgrade over the undersized Robert McClain. Safeties Thomas DeCoud and William Moore form one of the best tandems in the league. Both are aggressive hitters with range and improving ball skills.

Specialists
The Falcons’ special teams are solid. Matt Bryant is one of the best clutch kickers in the NFL, as evidenced by his game-winner against Seattle in the playoffs. He has a range of just over 50 yards and is very accurate and dependable from inside the 50. He has enough leg to consistently send his kickoffs into the end zone.

Punter Matt Bosher needs to improve his directional punting and get-off time. He had two punts blocked last season. Still, he boasts a solid combination of distance and hang time.

Rodgers and Dominique Franks are average return men. The coverage units are solid and should improve with the influx of fresh legs in the draft.

Final Analysis: 1st in NFC South
For all of their recent success, there’s been something missing from the Falcons. For whatever reason, they’ve lacked the aggressiveness and competence of their NFC rivals in Green Bay, New Orleans and San Francisco. They’ve been good, but not good enough.

The Falcons are and should be the favorites to repeat as NFC South champs. They are the most complete team in the division and have several young players emerging into stars. Their window of opportunity to win a Super Bowl in the Ryan era is still wide open. If Jackson and Umenyiora can produce at their former levels and the defense can improve just a little, Atlanta should cruise to its fourth consecutive playoff appearance and challenge San Francisco and Green Bay for superiority in the NFC.

Order your 2013 Atlanta Falcons Athlon Sports NFL Preview magazine here

2013 Athlon Sports NFL Team Previews:

AFC EastAFC NorthAFC SouthAFC West
BuffaloBaltimoreHouston (8/29)Denver (9/3)
MiamiCincinnatiIndianapolisKansas City
New England (8/30)ClevelandJacksonvilleOakland
NY JetsPittsburgh (8/28)TennesseeSan Diego
    
NFC EastNFC NorthNFC SouthNFC West
DallasChicagoAtlantaArizona
NY Giants (8/30)DetroitCarolinaSt. Louis
PhiladelphiaGreen Bay (8/29)New OrleansSan Francisco (9/3)
WashingtonMinnesotaTampa BaySeattle (8/28)

 

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Atlanta Falcons 2013 NFL Team Preview
Post date: Tuesday, August 27, 2013 - 10:00
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The Bengals think of themselves as Super Bowl contenders. Their roster says they should be in the hunt for the Lombardi Trophy. So does their experience. All that’s left for them to do is to prove it on the field following Wild Card playoff losses at Houston the last two seasons.

The entire starting offensive unit returns, but after struggling down the stretch last season, there is much room for improvement. The offense produced just seven touchdowns in the final six games. There are plenty of weapons in the lineup in Andy Dalton’s third season, so if the Bengals are to take that next step it is on the shoulders of their red-headed quarterback.

The defense is top-10 quality with the ability to dictate and win games, headed by All-Pro defensive tackle Geno Atkins.

They have no excuses.

Athlon Sports AFC Power Ranking: 5th

Related: 2013 Cincinnati Bengals Schedule Analysis

Offense
The numbers say Dalton improved in 2012, and surely by simple maturity he did, but it’s hard to get past those final five regular-season games and the postseason game in Houston and not have questions. Will Dalton be more than what he is now? Have defenses figured out his limitations? Does negating wide receiver A.J. Green render the rest of the offense manageable for the defense?

Dalton and the Bengals weren’t as effective passing deep in 2012 compared to 2011, with an accuracy percentage of just 26.0 percent and 633 yards, according to Pro Football Focus. By comparison, they gained 922 yards and were accurate on 43.1 percent of Dalton’s deep throws in his rookie season.

Green, who has 162 catches, more than 2,400 yards and 18 touchdowns in two seasons, will win his one-on-one battles and a good percentage of his double teams, but Dalton has to be able to go elsewhere with the ball with confidence. Tight end Jermaine Gresham has three straight 50-plus-reception seasons, but he disappears at times and leaves Bengals fans wanting more too often. He had 10 drops in 99 targets last season.

The selection of tight end Tyler Eifert and running back Giovani Bernard in the first two rounds of the draft were aimed at giving Dalton more options. Expect more two-tight end formations, and the Bengals will even split both Gresham and Eifert out at the same time. Bernard is the speed complement to BenJarvus Green-Ellis’ power style.

Three of the five offensive line spots are secure with left tackle Andrew Whitworth, right tackle Andre Smith and right guard Kevin Zeitler. Kyle Cook should win back the center position now that he’s healthy after an ankle injury last season. That said, Trevor Robinson gained valuable experience playing in Cook’s absence. Left guard will come down to Clint Boling and veteran Travelle Wharton.

Defense
Everything starts up front for the Bengals, who have developed one of the more dominant defensive lines in the NFL. Atkins is stout and quick, forcing teams to game plan for him. Ends Michael Johnson and Carlos Dunlap are long and have learned to play hard every down. The rotation goes seven deep, and the pressure from the down linemen means defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer doesn’t have to blitz to get to the quarterback.

Signing outside linebacker James Harrison from Pittsburgh should help bring an edge in attitude. The Bengals are betting that Harrison, entering his 10th season, still has plenty left on the field even as he has to make the adjustment from the Steelers’ 3-4 zone blitz concepts to Zimmer’s 4-3 base. How well Harrison and middle linebacker Rey Maualuga can work in coverage will be key to the defense maintaining its top-10 level of play. The Bengals are leaving Maualuga in the middle and Vontaze Burfict outside. Burfict showed good ability to shed blocks last season, something that has hampered Maualuga in his career.

Cornerbacks Leon Hall, Terence Newman and Adam Jones are versatile enough to play inside or outside, and each of them can play the man-to-man style Zimmer wants out of his corners. The addition of Dre Kirkpatrick, last year’s No. 1 pick who had an injury-plagued rookie season, provides more depth. Kirkpatrick is taller (6'2") than the other corners but doesn’t yet have their savvy.

Finding a second safety to play alongside Reggie Nelson is paramount. The Bengals had to sign Chris Crocker after the season started last year to fill the void. Rookie third-round pick Shawn Williams is going to get every chance at winning the starting role over Taylor Mays. Nelson will roam the field and take chances sometimes, so whoever wins this spot is going to have to be disciplined.

Quality depth at linebacker and safety is a concern. The players the Bengals do have as backups don’t have much experience.

Specialists
Mike Nugent missed the final month of the season with a calf strain but was re-signed in the offseason. He’s made 83.8 percent (67-of-80) of his field goal attempts in three seasons with the Bengals, including a club record-tying 55-yarder last season. Nugent has been consistent with his kickoffs, both in their depth into the end zone and placement away from the middle of the field, enabling the Bengals to become one of the top coverage units in the NFL.

Punter Kevin Huber was signed to a five-year extension, signifying how much the franchise values him. His career average of 44.0 yards is the best in team history. Huber has become adept at pinning opponents not just inside the 20-yard line but deeper as well; his 11 punts downed inside the 5-yard line were the highest total in the league.

Jones is a threat to go the distance every time he touches the ball in the return game, especially on punts when the action is quicker to happen. He reads blocks well and still has that second gear, which helped make him a first-round pick of Tennessee back in 2005. The trouble is, he can’t be a full-time returner because of his importance on defense. Bernard has returned punts in college and is going to get a look on kickoffs as well. Brandon Tate and Bernard Scott have experience in these roles but will be in a fight to make the roster.

Final Analysis: 2nd in AFC North
The Bengals are good enough defensively and on special teams to win the AFC North and be a threat to reach the Super Bowl. But are they good enough on offense? Can Dalton take a step forward in his third year in the league? Can another playmaker emerge to complement Green, one of the truly elite wide receivers in the game? This offense has done enough to reach the playoffs in each of the past two seasons. But just enough won’t be enough this year. Dalton & Co. need to do more.

Order your 2013 Cincinnati Bengals Athlon Sports NFL Preview magazine here

2013 Athlon Sports NFL Team Previews:

AFC EastAFC NorthAFC SouthAFC West
BuffaloBaltimoreHouston (8/29)Denver (9/3)
MiamiCincinnatiIndianapolisKansas City
New England (8/30)ClevelandJacksonvilleOakland
NY JetsPittsburgh (8/28)TennesseeSan Diego
    
NFC EastNFC NorthNFC SouthNFC West
DallasChicagoAtlantaArizona
NY Giants (8/30)DetroitCarolinaSt. Louis
PhiladelphiaGreen Bay (8/29)New OrleansSan Francisco (9/3)
WashingtonMinnesotaTampa BaySeattle (8/28)

 

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Cincinnati Bengals 2013 NFL Team Preview
Post date: Tuesday, August 27, 2013 - 10:00
Path: /college-football/7-threats-alabamas-dynasty
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If it wasn’t already, the Sabanization of college football is officially here. The national conversation has changed from how to stop the SEC’s dynasty to how to end Alabama’s dynasty. Three BCS championships in four years by Nick Saban leave Alabama with a title run that not even Bear Bryant accomplished.

As if to rub salt in everyone else’s wounds, Saban then landed his fifth mythical recruiting national championship in six years. Eight of the past 11 No. 1 classes by Rivals.com won a national title within three years.

The recruits continue to sign. The players continue to develop. The crystal balls continue to be raised.

Wash, rinse, repeat.

So what can stop Alabama? There are some potential pitfalls.

7 Threats to Alabama's Dynasty

1. Nick Saban leaves

Every year Alabama fans read tea leaves and convince themselves that Miss Terry won’t let her husband leave Tuscaloosa for another college job, the NFL or a lake house in Georgia. And every year, Saban slams the door on the NFL more loudly than ever.

“I closed the door,” Saban said of the NFL on ESPN Radio’s “Mike & Mike in the Morning” in January. “The damn hinges are wore off, dog.”
The truth is, Saban has the best job in the world for him. He’s a control freak who wants to impact players and not be hamstrung by salary caps and salary egos.

Saban, who spent two years with the Miami Dolphins, could win in the NFL. But he could never win as much as he does at Alabama. Bill Belichick, Saban’s buddy, won three Super Bowls in four years and hasn’t won another in the eight years since.

NFL teams have multiple front office voices who draft one new player each round. At Alabama, Saban’s one voice makes the final call while signing as many talented recruits as he wants — or as the rules allow.

Never say never about coaches leaving. There’s too much money, ego and pressure ever to rule it out. But unlike with the Dolphins, Saban’s words and actions continue to line up at Alabama.
 

2. Complacency

It’s the most dangerous obstacle in sports to a team on top. Alabama experienced it in 2010 after its first national title under Saban, turning a talented team (albeit a young one on defense) into a three-loss Capital One Bowl team.

It’s always a fight at the top. Every opponent gets fired up for Alabama, leaving no room for feelings of entitlement.

Go ask Florida. The Gators won two BCS titles in three years under Urban Meyer. Then they collapsed to 8–5 in 2010 after Saban destroyed a 2009 Florida team that may have been Meyer’s most talented — and most entitled — team in Gainesville.

Go ask USC. Pete Carroll won two national titles and played for a third within three years. In Carroll’s final season, USC slipped to 9–4. Today, the program is depleted, partly due to Lane Kiffin and partly because of No. 3 on the dynasty-killer list.
 

3. NCAA penalties

This would be the quickest way for Alabama’s dynasty to end. The NCAA would have to hit a program like Alabama hard to have an impact. Imagine Ohio State’s postseason ban for lying about tattoos, rather than Alabama’s probation for impermissible sale of textbooks.

Forgotten in Alabama’s dynasty: The Crimson Tide won its first BCS title while on NCAA probation. In fact, in January 2012, Alabama and LSU staged the first BCS Championship Game in which both teams were on NCAA probation.

This isn’t to suggest that Alabama finds itself in danger of being hit by the NCAA. But rival coaches and fans are always on the lookout for players’ curious photos, vehicle purchases and living arrangements — especially if those players are on the No. 1 team.

4. SEC challengers

This just in: No SEC coach plans to kneel and kiss Saban’s feet. They’re paid too much money and are under too much pressure to play for second place.

Texas A&M’s Kevin Sumlin beat Saban last year. The Aggies are on the rise with their new SEC brand while Texas is declining, opening up even more talent in their football-rich state.

LSU’s Les Miles is 3–4 vs. Saban since 2007. The Tigers may take a step back this year, but Miles takes games personally against Saban, and LSU isn’t going anywhere.

South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney is a once-in-a-generation pass-rusher. What happens to Alabama’s dynasty should Clowney dominate the SEC Championship Game, which has essentially become a BCS semifinal?

Georgia’s Mark Richt (left) could have been a national champion and the Saban vanquisher right now if not for falling five yards short at last year’s SEC Championship Game. Georgia and Florida — where Saban protégé Will Muschamp resides — both acquire enough talent annually to challenge Alabama in Atlanta.

Sign of the times on how the SEC won’t cave to Saban: James Franklin of Vanderbilt — Vanderbilt! — vowed to outwork “Nicky Satan.”


5. No-huddle offenses

Tempo is the name of the game now in some SEC circles. Saban hates the no-huddle, because it impacts his substitutions over the course of lengthy drives. Alabama mixes and matches defensive personnel based on down and distance as if it were an NFL team.

Days after facing Ole Miss’ up-tempo offense last season, Saban questioned how fast college football should allow the game to go for player safety.

“It’s obviously created a tremendous advantage for the offense when teams are scoring 70 points and we’re averaging 49.5 points a game,” Saban said. “With people that do those kinds of things, more and more people are going to do it. I just think there’s got to be some sense of fairness in terms of asking, is this what we want football to be?”

“Yes!” shout many coaches challenging Saban.

Texas A&M shredded Alabama with tempo last season. Gus Malzahn rejoins Auburn, after giving Saban fits in 2009 and 2010. Even Hugh Freeze’s no-huddle offense produced Ole Miss scoring drives of 13 and 16 plays against Alabama last year.


6. Mobile quarterbacks

Quick: Name the past six quarterbacks to beat Alabama.

Florida’s Tim Tebow. Utah’s Brian Johnson. LSU’s Jordan Jefferson (twice). South Carolina’s Stephen Garcia. Auburn’s Cam Newton. Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel.

They have one trait in common: Mobility. Some were more elusive than others. Almost all of them could make plays with their feet, either to move the chains on designed runs or to escape pressure for a scramble or throw downfield.

Manziel befuddled Alabama last year with his arm and legs, amassing 92 yards rushing. Think Saban and defensive coordinator Kirby Smart spent the offseason watching film for the Sept. 14 rematch in College Station?
 

7. Luck runs out

Alabama may have dominated its three BCS Championship Game victories, but it did lose one game in two of those three seasons.

In 2011, if Oklahoma State hadn’t lost to Iowa State, if Boise State hadn’t missed a field goal against TCU, if Oregon hadn’t scheduled (and lost to) LSU, or if Stanford hadn’t fallen to Oregon, Alabama wouldn’t have played for the BCS title. In 2012, if Stanford hadn’t upset Oregon or if Baylor hadn’t stunned Kansas State, Alabama would have stayed home.

The BCS is around only one more year before a four-team playoff arrives with the whims of a selection committee instead of computers and polls. The SEC is already wondering aloud what happens if an elite team loses in the SEC Championship Game, positioning itself for the chance to have two teams in the playoff.

Dynasties are constructed with that type of forward thinking. Eventually, though, they always end.

Sometimes you never see it coming.

Written by Jon Solomon for Athlon Sports. This article appeared in Athlon Sports' 2013 SEC Regional Preview Editions. 

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Teaser:
7 Threats to Alabama's Dynasty
Post date: Tuesday, August 27, 2013 - 07:14
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The Saints enter the 2013 season as one of the most mysterious — and potentially dangerous — teams in the NFL. Are they the one-dimensional 7–9 squad that allowed an NFL-record 7,042 yards last season? Or the formidable 13–3 unit that set an NFL record for most yards gained in a season in 2011? The truth falls somewhere between the two extremes.

Coach Sean Payton’s swagger and offensive creativity should return the edge to the sideline and locker room. So should the arrival of defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, who has installed a pressure-based 3-4 defense. But whether the Saints have enough to keep pace with rising NFC powers San Francisco, Atlanta and Seattle remains to be seen. One way or another, we know they won’t be boring.

Athlon Sports NFC Power Ranking: 6th

Related: 2013 New Orleans Saints Schedule Analysis

Offense
As long as Drew Brees is under center, the Saints will have a puncher’s chance against anyone. Brees is the great equalizer for a team with a shaky defense and inconsistent running game. He spearheads an offense that has ranked first or second in total yards in five of the past seven seasons. The consummate field general, Brees understands every facet of Payton’s sophisticated offense and consistently keeps the Saints a step ahead of the defense with astute pre-snap reads and audibles. His anticipation, accuracy and pocket awareness rank among the best in the NFL. Indeed, Brees’ greatest strength might also be his biggest weakness. He can be interception-prone because he sometimes forces ill-advised throws.

Payton wants to re-establish the running game and become more physical up front. Mark Ingram should be the beneficiary of this renewed emphasis. The former first-round draft pick runs with power and balance and rarely is tackled by the first defender. It’ll be interesting to see if he can regain the acceleration and explosiveness he showed before injuries ended his rookie season in 2011. Payton plans to put the ball in Ingram’s hands more often this season. Pierre Thomas does a little bit of everything but lacks a special quality. He’ll continue to work his way into the rotation and make plays, especially on screens. The diminutive Darren Sproles makes plays as a runner and receiver whenever he touches the ball in space.

For the third consecutive year, the front line will have to find a replacement for a departing Pro Bowler. Jermon Bushrod’s departure in free agency leaves a gaping hole at left tackle. Former second-round draft pick Charles Brown will get the first crack at the starting spot, but the staff is high on rookie Terron Armstead. Both are excellent athletes who lack experience and prototypical bulk and power. When healthy, Brown has played well in cameo appearances. Reclamation project Jason Smith is the fallback option. The rest of the line returns intact, led by road-grader guards Jahri Evans and Ben Grubbs.

The receiving corps lacks a superstar talent but is versatile and deep. Marques Colston doesn’t possess prototypical speed but has excellent hands and body control. Few players make more clutch catches. Lance Moore is expected to assume Devery Henderson’s starting receiver spot. He’s one of Brees’ favorite targets in the red zone, where he uses his quickness and field vision to find seams in opposing zones and move the chains. Joe Morgan, who the Saints were hoping to utilize his big-play ability, tore his ACL during training camp, putting more pressure on second-year wideout Nick Toon and rookie Kenny Stills to contribute this season. Tight end Jimmy Graham is a freakishly talented athlete who uses his 6'7" frame to make big plays in the middle of the field and in the red zone.

Defense
Ryan’s pressure 3-4 scheme will be a welcome change for the Saints defenders, who never appeared to buy into Steve Spagnuolo’s complicated system. The Saints have invested a number of high draft picks on defensive players in recent years and need a few of them to enjoy breakout seasons if the team is to rejoin the NFC elite.

Up front, the search for a pass rush continues. Defensive end Cameron Jordan assumes the mantle as the top pass-rusher with Will Smith on the tail end of his career. Jordan lacks elite strength and explosiveness but is a solid technician who knows how to use his long arms to keep blockers at bay. Smith is expected to hold down the other end spot. The 32-year-old vet is smart, tough and reliable, but he’s no longer a double-digit pass-rushing threat.

Instead, the Saints will look to outside linebackers Victor Butler, Junior Galette and Martez Wilson to bring the heat on opposing quarterbacks. Butler is undersized but is strong and explosive off the edge and will get first crack to start on the right side. Galette will have to make the transition to linebacker but has the burst and acceleration to be a double-digit pass-rush threat off the edge. The lanky Wilson needs to turn his flashes of ability into production.

Defensive tackle Brodrick Bunkley was a disappointment as the interior run-stuffer and could be replaced by massive rookie John Jenkins. Inside linebackers Curtis Lofton and Jonathan Vilma form the heart of the defense. Both are smart, instinctive leaders. Vilma did undergo surgery on his knee during training camp, but the hope is he will be ready to play by Week 1.

Finding cornerbacks who can hold up in man-to-man coverage is critical to Ryan’s pressure packages. Jabari Greer thrived in Gregg Williams’ old system but struggled in 2012. He’s an excellent athlete but might have lost a step. The signing of cornerback Keenan Lewis is an indictment of Patrick Robinson, a former first-round draft pick who struggled in his first full season as a starter. Lewis has the size and speed Ryan likes. Safeties Malcolm Jenkins and Roman Harper are looking to rebound after subpar 2012 campaigns. Harper’s ball skills are rudimentary, and he’s become a popular target in coverage for opposing quarterbacks. That’s where rookie Kenny Vaccaro comes in. The athletic combo safety from Texas will see the field early in passing situations and could be the Saints’ answer to defending opposing tight ends.

Specialists
Punter Thomas Morstead and placekicker Garrett Hartley form a solid one-two punch. Morstead finally earned his first Pro Bowl berth. He has a powerful leg and is a master at directional punts and rugby-style backspin kicks. Hartley is solid but might have lost some range last year after his knee injury. The elusive Sproles had a terrible season on punt returns. Courtney Roby is a standout on kickoff returns and as the gunner in punt coverage.

Final Analysis: 2nd in NFC South
How bad was the Saints’ defense in 2012? The Saints ranked third in scoring offense and second in total offense and still finished just 7–9. If the Saints can make modest strides under Ryan, a return to the playoffs is not just possible — it’s likely. But that’s a major question considering the club’s history of struggles on that side of the ball. The Saints appear to lack the defensive firepower to challenge the NFC elite, but they’ll undoubtedly be a factor in the race. And as always, they’ll be one of the most entertaining teams in the league.

Order your 2013 Athlon Sports NFL Preview magazine here

2013 Athlon Sports NFL Team Previews:

AFC EastAFC NorthAFC SouthAFC West
BuffaloBaltimoreHouston (8/29)Denver (9/3)
MiamiCincinnati (8/27)IndianapolisKansas City
New England (8/30)ClevelandJacksonvilleOakland
NY JetsPittsburgh (8/28)TennesseeSan Diego
    
NFC EastNFC NorthNFC SouthNFC West
DallasChicagoAtlanta (8/27)Arizona
NY Giants (8/30)DetroitCarolinaSt. Louis
PhiladelphiaGreen Bay (8/29)New OrleansSan Francisco (9/3)
WashingtonMinnesotaTampa BaySeattle (8/28)

 

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New Orleans Saints 2013 NFL Team Preview
Post date: Monday, August 26, 2013 - 10:00
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The Ravens’ second Vince Lombardi Trophy is prominently displayed in the lobby of their training complex underneath a painting of the late owner Art Modell. But that doesn’t mean that the defending Super Bowl champions are overly sentimental when it comes to making tough roster decisions.

The Ravens traded wide receiver Anquan Boldin to the San Francisco 49ers following a contract dispute. They cut strong safety Bernard Pollard and allowed free safety Ed Reed, linebackers Dannell Ellerbe and Paul Kruger and cornerback Cary Williams to leave as free agents.

“It wasn’t that one day we woke up and decided that we were going to let a lot of really good football players walk away and play for other teams, but we had a plan in place,” says general manager Ozzie Newsome, who’s also dealing with replacing the leadership of retired middle linebacker Ray Lewis. “We had to allow the plan to unfold.”

The Ravens have significantly overhauled their roster and are confident they’re built to compete again after qualifying for the playoffs for five consecutive years under the leadership of coach John Harbaugh. “I think we like our football team,” Newsome says. “I’d like for someone to be able to tell me that we aren’t good enough to go to the playoffs right now. Can anyone say that? OK then.”

Athlon Sports AFC Power Ranking: 6th

Related: 2013 Baltimore Ravens Schedule Analysis

Offense
Rewarded with a blockbuster $120.6 million contract after being named the Super Bowl MVP, quarterback Joe Flacco is a strong-armed pocket passer who delivered 11 touchdown passes and zero interceptions during the playoffs and has become much more accurate, particularly on the deep ball. He’s willing to take calculated risks with his most trusted targets. Flacco is capable of greater production and will be granted significant freedom due to his growing comfort with the offense and a growing rapport with offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell.

Trading Boldin takes away the Ravens’ most proven receiver, which means that Torrey Smith is being thrust into a more prominent role. Primarily a deep threat, Smith has incorporated more short and intermediate patterns to add polish to his game. Pro Bowl return man Jacoby Jones could become a regular starting receiver this fall. Possession receiver Tandon Doss, speedster Deonte Thompson and David Reed will compete for playing time.

Entering training camp, the Ravens seemed to be set at tight end with sure-handed Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson in the fold. That was before Pitta, who has nearly ascended to a Pro Bowl level, dislocated his hip and Dickson injured his hamstring. Pitta is most likely lost for the season, while Dickson's inability to practice resulted in the team adding veterans Billy Bajema, Dallas Clark and Visanthe Shiancoe to the roster. Once considered a position of strength, tight end has become a rather large question mark headed into the season.

Running back remains an important position in the offense. Ray Rice is one of the most dynamic all-purpose backs, eluding defenders in the open field. Although he’s short in stature, Rice is a physical inside runner and creates mismatches out of the backfield as a receiver. Hard-nosed backup runner Bernard Pierce provides a complementary style to Rice. He prefers to run over linebackers but also has the speed to go the distance. Vonta Leach is a devastating lead blocker who punishes defenders, but his playing time has been reduced because of the fullback only having a part-time status in Caldwell’s offense.

The Ravens re-signed Bryant McKinnie to play left tackle, meaning four of five starters are back after six-time Pro Bowl center Matt Birk retired. McKinnie’s weight and conditioning are lingering concerns. Marshal Yanda is a gritty right guard who pulls well. Michael Oher has settled in at right tackle after previous stints on the left side. Kelechi Osemele appears best suited to play left guard next to McKinnie. Gino Gradkowski, the younger brother of NFL quarterback Bruce Gradkowski, is an undersized technician who steps in for Birk at center.

Defense
Defensive coordinator Dean Pees faces a daunting task: He must replace a pair of former NFL Defensive Players of the Year in Lewis and Reed.

Athletic rookie inside linebacker Arthur Brown could fill the void created by Lewis’ departure. Brown is undersized and fast and has drawn some comparisons to a young Lewis. Brown first has to prove to the coaching staff he deserves the opportunity to play in Lewis' spot, which is why the team signed veteran Daryl Smith to a one-year deal in June. Smith, who is the Jaguars' all-time leading tackler, can step in until Brown is deemed ready, while also helping mentor the rookie in the process.

Outside linebacker Terrell Suggs, another former NFL Defensive Player of the Year, had an injury-plagued year with a torn Achilles tendon and a torn biceps, hampering his contribution. The Ravens are banking on him returning to form. Inside linebacker Jameel McClain is coming off a spinal cord contusion suffered last December.

Following a bizarre fax debacle, Elvis Dumervil was cut loose by the Denver Broncos and joined the Ravens as a $35 million bookend pass-rusher to work in tandem with Suggs. Haloti Ngata is a dominant interior force when he’s healthy, but he has dealt with nagging injuries for the past few seasons. Arthur Jones is coming off a breakthrough season and returns at left end, but he could be pushed by veteran defensive lineman Chris Canty. Nose guard Terrence Cody has reached a career crossroads after a bad season and is recuperating from offseason hip surgery. Keep an eye on rookie Brandon Williams, Cody’s chief competitor for the job. Marcus Spears figures into the mix as a valuable rotation guy at end and tackle. Outside linebacker Pernell McPhee had offseason groin surgery.

Michael Huff is the new center fielder. He has range and tackling ability but lacks Reed’s game-changing instincts. Rookie Matt Elam, the Ravens’ first-round pick, is expected to replace Pollard at strong safety.

A huge key to defensive improvement — whether $50 million shutdown cornerback Lardarius Webb can make a sound return from a torn ACL. Jimmy Smith had some encouraging moments in the Super Bowl. He will compete with Corey Graham for the nickel back spot and will get a look as a potential starter as well.

Specialists
This is an enviable kicking game. Justin Tucker beat out Billy Cundiff as a rookie and connected on 30-of-33 field goals and made four kicks from 50 yards or longer. Punter Sam Koch has excellent hang time and is also adept at the coffin corner. He is coming off a career-best season with a 47.1 average. In his first season in Baltimore, Jacoby Jones returned three kicks for touchdowns during the regular season and ran a kickoff back for a score in the Super Bowl. The Ravens are looking for new blood in kick coverage after cutting former Pro Bowl special teams ace Brendon Ayanbadejo during the offseason.

Final Analysis: 3rd in AFC North
As long as the offense continues to trend upward with Flacco, the Ravens should be able to score enough points to be competitive in every game. If the new-look defense is better than last year’s vulnerable outfit, the Ravens could return to the playoffs for the sixth consecutive year. Defending a title is always a huge challenge, but the Ravens shouldn’t be overlooked considering their consistent track record in the Harbaugh era.

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2013 Athlon Sports NFL Team Previews:

AFC EastAFC NorthAFC SouthAFC West
BuffaloBaltimoreHouston (8/29)Denver (9/3)
MiamiCincinnati (8/27)IndianapolisKansas City
New England (8/30)ClevelandJacksonvilleOakland
NY JetsPittsburgh (8/28)TennesseeSan Diego
    
NFC EastNFC NorthNFC SouthNFC West
DallasChicagoAtlanta (8/27)Arizona
NY Giants (8/30)DetroitCarolinaSt. Louis
PhiladelphiaGreen Bay (8/29)New OrleansSan Francisco (9/3)
WashingtonMinnesotaTampa BaySeattle (8/28)

 

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Wisconsin Preseason Top 10

1. Arrowhead Warhawks (Hartland)
The defending Division 1 state champs won the title with a junior-heavy roster last season. Tackle George Panos (Wisconsin), defensive tackle Billy Hirschfeld (Wisconsin) and linebacker Sam Seonbuchner (Iowa State) have already committed to FBS programs, and more will follow.

2. Sun Prairie Cardinals
The reigning Big Eight Conference champs have defensive tackle Craig Evans anchoring the defense and Ryan Curran, a three-year starter at quarterback, running the offense.

3. Kimberly Papermakers
Fourteen starters return to a team that reached the Division 1 state quarterfinals last year. One of those players, All-State receiver Scott Schreiber, will get a look at quarterback.

4. Homestead Highlanders (Mequon)
The offensive line will be tough, and the return of tackle Brandon Hines and linebacker Bryce Juedes gives the defense potential.

5. Appleton North Lightning
Few programs can match North’s 41 victories and four conference titles over the past four seasons.

6. Waunakee Warriors
There are just two returning starters on either side of the ball, but until proven otherwise, the Warriors are among the state’s elite.

7. Oak Creek Knights
Among the Southeast Conference champs’ 12 returning starters are the quarterback, a running back and three offensive linemen.

8. Mukwonago Indians
The offensive line is well stocked, and quarterback Aaron Nixon is back for his second year as a starter.

9. Hamilton Chargers (Sussex)
The return of running back Drew Patterson and the program’s overall depth could make this a special season.

10. Badger Badgers (Lake Geneva)
The Badgers have a lot of pieces back from a team that nearly beat Sun Prairie in the state semifinals last year.

Three Can't Miss Matchups

8.30 – Arrowhead at Homestead
Two of the biggest winners in southeast Wisconsin face each other in a non-conference showdown.

9.6 – Waunakee at Mount Horeb/Barneveld
Can Waunakee reload again? This game will give us an idea of where the Warriors stand.

9.27 – Appleton North at Kimberly
North’s string of four straight conference titles could hinge on how it fares against the Papermakers.

2013 Preseason Offensive Player of the Year
Drew Patterson, RB, Hamilton (Sussex)
Senior, 6-0, 205

Patterson’s seek-and-destroy running style makes him fun to watch, but his sprinter’s speed makes him a game-breaker. He’s pretty productive, too. He ran for 1,969 yards on 222 carries and scored 26 touchdowns in 2012. Patterson has offers from Army and Air Force.

2013 Preseason Defensive Player of the Year
Craig Evans, DT, Sun Prairie
Senior, 6-3, 315

Good luck getting some movement up the middle against this 6'3", 315-pound defensive tackle. He finished with 84 tackles, including 18 for a loss, and even scored six touchdowns in his role as part-time fullback. The 4-star prospect committed to Wisconsin in March.

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Washington Preseason Top 10

1. Bellevue Wolverines
A year after a program-defining win over Euless (Texas) Trinity and an undefeated run to a fifth straight 3A state title and 10th since 2001, the Wolverines will again have one of the top teams in the West. Two-way speedster Budda Baker and a loaded offensive line lead the way.

2. Camas Papermakers
After a run to the 4A semifinals last year, the Papermakers will attempt to take the next step behind an offense that features productive quarterback Reilly Hennessey.

3. Bellarmine Prep Lions (Tacoma)
Last year’s run to the 4A state final was powered by a junior (now senior) class that includes running back Lou Millie and wide receivers Garrett McKay and Drew Griffin.

4. Skyline Spartans (Sammamish)
The two-time defending 4A champions were hit hard by graduation. Transfer quarterback Kilton Anderson replaces prep All-American and current USC freshman Max Browne.

5. Eastside Catholic Crusaders (Sammamish)
Deion Fetui is a terrific defensive tackle to build around, while leading rusher Henry Jarvis returns to a team looking to knock Bellevue from its 3A perch.

6. Mount Si Wildcats (Snoqualmie)
Quarterback Nick Mitchell is the top returner for a team that suffered its only two losses to eventual champion Bellevue.

7. Bothell Cougars
The Cougars figure to be improved this fall behind an offense that should light up the scoreboard with quarterback Ross Bowers.

8. Federal Way Eagles
Putting up points will not be a problem with quarterback Keenan Curran and explosive junior running back Chico McClatcher.

9. Newport Knights (Bellevue)
Running back Connor Baumann and tight end Drew Sample are two of the best in the state at their respective positions.

10. Ferris Saxons (Spokane)
There is experience all over the roster. The defensive line will be especially strong behind Adam Martin and junior Keegan Bray.

Three Can't Miss Matchups

9.6 – Jesuit (Portland, Ore.) at Camas
One of Oregon’s best programs will be a good early litmus test for the Papermakers.

9.7 – Bellevue vs. Skyline at the University of Washington
This highly anticipated showdown may be a year late but will be a must-see nonetheless.

9.20 – Ferris at Gonzaga Prep
This will be an early separation game between two of the top Greater Spokane League squads.

2013 Preseason Offensive Player of the Year
Isaiah Brandt-Sims, RB, Wenatchee
Senior, 5-11, 180

After rushing for approximately 1,400 yards and accounting for 25 touchdowns as a junior, this speedy back, who happens to be one of the top track sprinters in the state, has verbally committed to Stanford after being pursued by BCS-level and Ivy League schools.

2013 Preseason Defensive Player of the Year
Budda Baker, DB, Bellevue
Senior, 5-11, 180

Another speed merchant out of Bellevue, this playmaker on offense, defense and special teams has college suitors projecting him as a safety at the next level. So far, the list of offers includes Notre Dame, USC, Boise State and Oregon.

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Utah Preseason Top 10

1. Jordan Beetdiggers (Sandy)
The loss of several offensive linemen is a concern, but this team returns the best quarterback in the state in junior Austin Kafentzis and productive running back Clay Moss. The schedule is brutal with two stout out-of-state tests and a date with 4A contender East.

2. Alta Hawks (Sandy)
Quarterback Chipper Lucero will look often in the direction of receiver Mack Richards behind one of the state’s best linemen in Baron Bruce. Linebacker Jaden Johnson will pace the defense.

3. Bingham Miners (South Jordan)
Versatile tight end Dalton Schultz is one of the most highly sought-after players in the state. The offense once again should have a punishing ground game behind an experienced line.

4. Lone Peak Knights (Highland)
New coach Mike Mower will look to dual-threat quarterback Baron Gajkowski and a top-shelf defensive line to lead the way.

5. East Leopards (Salt Lake City)
The Leopards are led by Wisconsin commit Ula Tolutau at tailback and Arizona State commit Korey Rush at defensive end.

6. Northridge Knights (Layton)
The loss of running back David Adams hurts, but explosive junior running back/defensive back/return man Dayan Lake is back.

7. Brighton Bengals (Salt Lake City)
Junior running back Osa Masina already has multiple BCS offers. He will run behind a stout offensive line.

8. Timpview Thunderbirds (Provo)
The returning 4A champs will be formidable again with a defense that boasts experienced linebackers Emmett Tela and Pio Stowers.

9. Syracuse Titans
Defensive lineman Kaden Craig and linebacker Wyatt German power what should be a strong defense.

10. Logan Grizzlies
Ultra-productive quarterback Luke Falk is gone, but his favorite target, Taylor Compton, is back.

Three Can't Miss Matchups

8.31 – Alta vs. Lone Peak (at Rice Eccles-Stadium)
Coach Mike Mower’s debut at Lone Peak will come against one of the state’s best.

9.7 – Bingham at Valor Christian (Colo.)
The Miners will try to duplicate last year’s exciting 21-20 victory over this Colorado powerhouse.

9.14 – Bergen Catholic (N.J.) vs. Jordan (at Rio Tinto Stadium)
The Beetdiggers get an early chance to knock off one of New Jersey’s powerhouse programs.

2013 Preseason Offensive Player of the Year
Austin Kafentzis, QB, Jordan (Sandy)
Junior, 6-1, 195

As a sophomore, Kafentzis threw for 3,018 yards and 32 touchdowns and rushed for another 1,884 yards and 26 scores, so expect more fireworks this fall. He had offers from both BYU and Utah but committed to Wisconsin during a visit to Madison in June.

2013 Preseason Defensive Player of the Year
Bryan Mone, DT, Highland (Salt Lake City)
Senior, 6-4, 310

A University of Michigan commit, this disruptive force in the middle finished last season with 70 tackles, including 10 for a loss, and three sacks. Mone has the body type and athleticism to be an elite defensive tackle for the Wolverines in the Big Ten.

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Oregon Preseason Top 10

1. Sheldon Irish (Eugene)
The Irish lost some key personnel from the 2012 Class 6A state championship team, but Sheldon has proven it can reload and remain among the state’s elite. Seniors Mitch Herbert, Tanner Davies, Liam Talty and Yadie Dunmore will form the core of Lane Johnson’s squad.

2. Central Catholic Rams (Portland)
Central Catholic made it to the 6A quarterfinals in 2012 with a very young team. The Rams bring most of their talent back, led by two-way lineman and U.S. Army All-American Connor Humphreys.

3. Jesuit Crusaders (Portland)
Jesuit lost its entire offensive line — and all five signed with Division I schools — but most of the Crusaders’ skill players are back. Linebacker Joey Alfieri leads the defense.

4. Southridge Skyhawks (Beaverton)
Southridge made a surprising run to the 6A quarterfinals last season. Now a year older, the Skyhawks are poised for a deeper run.

5. Tigard Tigers
The Tigers rely on aggressive defense and a ball-control offense. A.J. Hotchkins is a two-way threat at fullback and linebacker.

6. Roosevelt Roughriders (Seattle)
What used to be one of the state’s worst programs is now loaded. Five players had Division I offers going into the summer.

7. Lake Oswego Lakers
The 2012 6A runners-up lost a ton of talent, but one of the state’s best coaching staffs always finds a way to make the playoffs.

8. West Albany Bulldogs (Albany)
Senior running back Jake LaCoste hopes to break the state rushing record held by current Oregon freshman Thomas Tyner.

9. Lakeridge Pacers (Lake Oswego)
The Pacers struggled in 2012 while playing a very difficult schedule. The ’13 club brings back almost every key player.

10. Sherwood Bowmen
The 5A powerhouse program lost a ton of talent, but the Bowmen bring back some key pieces on both lines.

Three Can't Miss Matchups

9.6 – Central Catholic at Sheldon
This could be a preview of a playoff rematch. Sheldon won last year in the regular season, 33-26.

9.6 – West Albany at Sherwood
Two 5A powers clash in a game that will feature two of the state’s top rushing teams.

9.20 – Central Catholic at Jesuit
College coaches always flock to the Holy War to scout some of the best players in the state.

2013 Preseason Offensive Player of the Year
Jake LaCoste, RB, West Albany
Senior, 5-11, 185

Thomas Tyner stole the headlines in recent years, but LaCoste is closing in on 6,000 yards rushing and 60 touchdowns in what has been a brilliant career at West Albany. Last year, he averaged 11.1 yards per carry en route to a 3,000-yard season.

2013 Preseason Defensive Player of the Year
Joey Alfieri, LB, Jesuit (Portland)
Senior, 6-3, 220

Alfieri enters his third year starting at Jesuit and has developed into the state’s No. 2 prospect. He recorded over 120 tackles as a junior and is also the starting fullback. Alfieri has offers from Oregon State, Stanford, California and Washington, among others.

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Nevada Preseason Top 10

1. Bishop Gorman Gaels (Las Vegas)
The Gaels haven’t lost to a Nevada school since Nov. 21, 2008. The team lost four-year starting quarterback Jarrett Solomon as well as its top two receivers to graduation. But Randall Cunningham Jr., a 7'3" high jumper, takes over at quarterback and will lead with his athleticism.

2. Liberty Patriots (Henderson)
The Patriots have won 11 games in each of the last three seasons but will have to continue that streak without Kai Nacua  and Niko Kapeli, the school’s career leaders in passing and rushing, respectively.

3. Arbor View Aggies (Las Vegas)
The Aggies went 10-1 last year and return five backs who rushed for more than 350 yards, led by senior Anthony Smith (735 yards).

4. Green Valley Gators (Henderson)
Quarterback Christian Lopez is coming off an outstanding sophomore season (2,081 passing yards, 531 rushing yards) and looks to lead the Gators to bigger things.

5. Palo Verde Panthers (Las Vegas)
The Panthers return a trio of two-way standouts in Jake Ortale, Josh Hamilton and Mike Hughes but must reload at running back.

6. Reed Raiders (Sparks)
The Raiders suffered huge graduation losses but have become the top large-school program in Northern Nevada.

7. Centennial Bulldogs (Las Vegas)
Linebacker Toby Lopez (126 tackles) returns to anchor a defense that held opponents to 14 or fewer points five times.

8. Spanish Springs Cougars (Sparks)
Nevada-commit quarterback Hunter Fralick (2,899 passing yards, 22 TDs) returns along with leading rusher Jeff Jurgensmeier.

9. Canyon Springs Pioneers (North Las Vegas)
The Pioneers return plenty of talent on defense but must replace big-time back Donnel Pumphrey, who is now at San Diego State.

10. Truckee Wolverines (Truckee, Calif.)
One of five California schools that compete in the NIAA, Truckee won its fourth straight Nevada state title in 2012.

Three Can't Miss Matchups

9.26 – Las Vegas at Rancho
The state’s oldest rivals fight for “Sir Herkimer’s Bone,” a cow bone that goes to the winner.

10.4 – Liberty at Coronado
A rematch of last season’s Sunrise Region title game should be a key Southeast League contest.

10.4 – McQueen at Reed
A key High Desert League contest that could be a preview of the Northern Region title game.

2013 Preseason Offensive Player of the Year
Hunter Fralick, QB, Spanish Springs (Sparks)
Senior, 6-2, 190

Fralick displayed great accuracy as a junior, completing 62.1 percent of his passes for 2,899 yards and 22 touchdowns. He was picked off only three times and added six rushing TDs. Fralick committed to Nevada at the end of May.

2013 Preseason Defensive Player of the Year
Rayshawn Henderson, DT, Canyon Springs (North Las Vegas)
Senior, 6-1, 275

Henderson can dominate at the line of scrimmage, and he recorded 76 tackles, including 11 for a loss, along with seven sacks as a junior. He even picked off a pass, and he is nimble enough to log time at fullback for the Pioneers.

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Minnesota Preseason Top 10

1. Eden Prairie Eagles
Feared for their physical style yet loathed for their success, the Eagles are favored to become the first program to win three consecutive big-school state titles. Expect large helpings of bruising running backs Dan Fisher and Anthony Anderson.

2. Wayzata Trojans (Plymouth)
Less-heralded players gained experience when starting seniors suffered injuries in 2012. Expect a sound defensive unit and capable offensive line.

3. Totino-Grace Eagles (Fridley)
Though much smaller in enrollment than most Class 6A schools, Totino-Grace succeeds thanks to a few stars and lots of smart, disciplined football players.

4. Maple Grove Crimson
The Crimson welcome back 12 starters, most of them offensive linemen with good size and defensive players who can run.

5. Minnetonka Skippers
Quarterback Nick Rooney, running back Ian Cote and seven defensive veterans plan to keep the Skippers in the hunt.

6. Cretin-Derham Hall Raiders (St. Paul)
A one-and-done playoff run should have the Raiders hungry. Graduation took a toll, but few programs reload like Cretin-Derham Hall.

7. Edina Hornets
The surprise team of 2012 could turn heads again, as 11 starters return for the Hornets.

8. St. Thomas Academy Cadets (Mendota Heights)
Favorites to win the Class 5A title, the Cadets boast a stable of running backs with complementary styles few defenses can solve.

9. Rosemount Irish
A young Irish team improved all season, culminating in a Class 6A state tournament appearance. Rosemount will wear a target this fall.

10. Owatonna Huskies
Continuity on the offensive line and nine defenders who saw action in the Class 5A title game loss give the Huskies a solid foundation.

Three Can't Miss Matchups

9.7 – Joliet Catholic (Ill.) at St. Thomas Academy
The Cadets, favorites in Class 5A, hope to shine at home against the storied Hilltoppers.

9.12 – Eden Prairie at Totino-Grace
Totino-Grace rebounded from a rout in 2011 to top Eden Prairie last fall.

10.11 – Wayzata at Eden Prairie
The state’s two largest schools collide, likely for the Lake Conference title.

2013 Preseason Offensive Player of the Year
Jeff Jones, RB, Washburn (Minneapolis)
Senior, 6-0, 200

Jones used great burst and breakaway speed to compile 1,002 yards (9.0 yards per attempt) and nine touchdowns in eight games. He added 105 yards and three TDs receiving. Millers coach Giovan Jenkins called the Minnesota commit “the total package.”

2013 Preseason Defensive Player of the Year
Andrew Stelter, DE, Owatonna
Senior, 6-4, 250

Stelter set his school’s single-season record with 12 sacks. He uses quickness off the ball and strength (he squats more than 500 pounds) to get off blocks and into opposing backfields. The 3-star prospect spurred Owatonna to the Class 5A title game last season.

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Kentucky Preseason Top 10

1. St. Xavier Tigers (Louisville)
After losing to Trinity by a point in last year’s 6A playoffs, the Tigers may be ready to knock their crosstown rivals from their perch atop the state. A big, experienced line and a deep stable of backs have this team poised to win its first state title since 2009.

2. Trinity Shamrocks (Louisville)
Despite some heavy graduation losses, the Shamrocks return one of the state’s best athletes in Louisville commit Reggie Bonnafon, who takes over at quarterback after a strong season at receiver.

3. Highlands Bluebirds (Fort Thomas)
Perennially one of the top offensive teams in the region, the Bluebirds will again put up points in bunches with receivers Luke Brockett and Brandon Hergott and tight end Nick True.

4. Bowling Green Purples
The two-time defending 5A champs have won 30 straight games, including two in a row over St. Xavier.

5. Scott County Cardinals (Georgetown)
The Cardinals nearly shocked Trinity in last year’s playoffs and return one of the top receivers in the state in Scott Daniel.

6. Covington Catholic Colonels (Park Hills)
Expect another strong defense, as linebacker Sam Burchell anchors the front seven.

7. Central Yellowjackets (Louisville)
Linebackers Donald Styles and Phillip Francis pace the defense for Central, winner of five 3A state titles in the last six seasons.

8. Conner Cougars (Hebron)
Quarterback Drew Barker should keep this offense humming at a high level, while the defense figures to be improved.

9. Pleasure Ridge Park Panthers (Louisville)
The Panthers look to duplicate last year’s offensive showing behind an experienced line and emerging back Delvon Dunn.

10. John Hardin Bulldogs (Elizabethtown)
Only two offensive starters return for new coach Chad Lewis, although one is leading rusher Khalil Frazier.

Three Can't Miss Matchups

9.6 – Bowling Green at St. Xavier
An early chance for a statement game by two teams with legitimate state title hopes.

9.28 – Highlands at Covington Catholic
Covington Catholic was one of only two teams to hold Highlands under 40 points last year.

10.4 – St. Xavier vs. Trinity (at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium)
Trinity owns a six-game winning streak in this rivalry between the state’s marquee programs.

2013 Preseason Offensive Player of the Year
Drew Barker, QB, Conner (Hebron)
Senior, 6-4, 210

For his career, Barker has thrown for 3,104 yards and 26 touchdowns and rushed for 2,971 yards and 41 touchdowns. The 4-star prospect committed to Kentucky over South Carolina this summer in a huge recruiting victory for the Wildcats’ new staff.

2013 Preseason Defensive Player of the Year
Matt Elam, DT, John Hardin (Elizabethtown)
Senior, 6-6, 350

A powerful and athletic presence anywhere you line him up, Elam can make an impact rushing the passer, stuffing the run or blocking kicks and punts. He’s a 4-star recruit who has offers from a host of SEC powers as well as Louisville.

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Colorado Preseason Top 10

1. Valor Christian Eagles (Highlands Ranch)
Despite a coaching change, there is just too much talent on the four-time defending state champions (won in three classifications) to pick against them. The offensive line features five 300-pounders paving the way for the state’s best player (Christian McCaffrey).

2. ThunderRidge Grizzlies (Highlands Ranch)
Routinely in the mix these days, the Grizzlies were ranked No. 1 in the state deep into the playoffs last season and have enough returning to make another run.

3. Cherokee Trail Cougars (Aurora)
The Cougars are a rugged team that didn’t allow an opponent to score more than 21 points in a game last season, and they held mighty Valor Christian to nine in the state championship game.

4. Ralston Valley Mustangs (Arvada)
Quarterback Jacob Knipp returns for his senior season after completing nearly 70 percent of his passes for 2,646 yards with 28 touchdowns as a junior.

5. Pomona Panthers (Arvada)
Running backs Chris Benefiel, Konner Burns and Chris Marquez lead the Panthers’ potent rushing attack.

6. Cherry Creek Bruins (Greenwood Village)
Coach Dave Logan, now in his second season at Cherry Creek, always seems to have his team in the mix for a conference title.

7. Monarch Coyotes (Louisville)
The defending 4A state champion reloads with the addition of quarterback Jay MacIntyre, the son of Colorado’s football coach.

8. Denver South Rebels
The 2012 runner-up in Class 4A has the bulk of its key contributors back and just might be the favorite.

9. Arapahoe Warriors (Centennial)
This team lost only twice last season, both times against powerhouse programs. The Warriors have key components coming back.

10. Pueblo West Cyclones
Last season, four players rushed for at least 398 yards as the Cyclones went 12-1.

Three Can't Miss Games

8.24 – Central (Fresno, Calif.) at Valor Christian 

A quality opponent should give Valor Christian a tough test as it begins its bid to repeat in the state’s top classification.

9.7 – ThunderRidge at Ralston Valley 

An early top-five matchup in non-league play will give one of these powers a leg up.

10.4 – Cherokee Trail at Cherry Creek 

Both of these teams will have something to say about who wins the Centennial League.

2013 Preseason Offensive Player of the Year
Christian McCaffrey, RB, Valor Christian (Highlands Ranch)
Senior, 6-0, 195

The youngest son of former NFL wide receiver Ed McCaffrey plays both running back and slot receiver for his team and could do either when he heads to Stanford next year. He’s a threat from any spot on the field and also returns kicks.

2013 Preseason Defensive Player of the Year
Evan White, S, Cherokee Trail (Aurora)
Senior, 6-3, 190

White is a bruising athlete who might be a linebacker in college but has the speed to stick in the secondary. He intercepted seven passes as a junior in his first season playing primarily as a defensive back. He also helped his track team win a state championship in the 4x200 relay.

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Pennsylvania Preseason Top 10

1. Gateway Gators (Monroeville)
Loaded with Division I athletes, Gateway is the favorite to finally capture district and Class 4A state titles. Star wideout/defensive back Montae Nicholson headlines a half dozen D-I prospects, and new coach Donnie Militzer might have one of the elite secondaries in the state.

2. St. Joseph’s Prep Hawks (Philadelphia)
Prep lost in the district final, but some youthful Hawks, including junior running back Olamide Zaccheaus, should challenge again.

3. Central Catholic Vikings (Pittsburgh)
Linebacker Niko Thorpe and defensive back Tre Tarpley lead a defense that pitched five shutouts last year.  

4. West Allegheny Indians (Imperial)
Now juniors, quarterback Andrew Koester, running back Chayse Dillon and linebacker Armand Dellovade could challenge for a state title.

5. Archbishop Wood Vikings (Warminster)
The 2012 Class 3A state runners-up will go with a youth movement behind sophomore quarterback Tom Garlick and junior linebackers Andrew Guckin and Jake Cooper, all D-I prospects.

6. Bishop McDevitt Crusaders (Harrisburg)
Running backs Rashad Lawson (1,002 yards, 12 TDs) and Andre Robinson (1,034 yards, 18 TDs) both return.

7. North Allegheny Tigers (Wexford)
The defending Class 4A state champs reload with senior two-way star Elijah Zeise (four TDs, three INTs) and junior linebacker Layne Skundrich (96 tackles, six sacks).

8. Coatesville Red Raiders
The Class 4A state runners-up return athlete Daquan Worley (1,779 yards, 20 TDs) and linebacker Tyler Burke (208 tackles, 11 sacks).

9. La Salle College Explorers (Wyndmoor)
Jimmy Herron leads the offense, and linebacker Zaire Franklin headlines the defense on a team that’s won four straight district titles.

10. Cardinal O’Hara Lions (Springfield)
Transfer running back J.T. Blyden joins quarterback Dashawn Darden (1,607 yards, 20 TDs) and receiver Thaddius Smith (eight TDs).

Five Can't Miss Matchups

8.31 – Harrisburg at Bishop McDevitt
McDevitt opens its new field, and both teams get a chance to make an early statement.

9.7 – St. Joseph’s Prep at Don Bosco Prep (N.J.)
SJP hops the state line for a game against a perennial top-100 team in the country.

10.4 – Cathedral Prep at McDowell
A heated public/private rivalry game in Erie, the game’s been played every season since 1958.

10.4 – Gateway at North Allegheny
Top challenger Gateway gets a shot at dethroning the defending Class 4A state champs.

11.28 – Phillipsburg (N.J.) vs. Easton
Financial woes nearly ended Easton’s program, giving the nation’s oldest interstate Thanksgiving game a new perspective.

2013 Preseason Offensive Player of the Year
Robert Martin, RB, Harrisburg
Senior, 6-0, 191

Martin missed his sophomore year at Steel-High, but his transfer to Harrisburg injected life into the moribund program and shot him onto the recruiting radar. Martin ran for 1,812 yards and 18 touchdowns in 14 games as a junior and is poised for a dominant encore performance in 2013.

2013 Preseason Defensive Player of the Year
Dravon Henry, DB, Aliquippa
Senior, 5-11, 190

Henry has 15 interceptions in two seasons, and early comparisons are being made to fellow Aliquippa grad Darrelle Revis. Henry’s also an accomplished running back for the perennial contender. He chipped in 1,919 rushing yards and 31 touchdowns to go with his presence in the secondary.

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Post date: Friday, August 23, 2013 - 17:25
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Oklahoma Preseason Top 10

1. Jenks Trojans
One of the state’s premier powerhouse programs is loaded again. The Trojans are strong on defense with a secondary that includes Steven Parker and Dylan Harding. But coach Allan Trimble’s offense will be looking for playmakers to step into primary roles.

2. Tulsa Union Redskins
The Redskins have combined with Jenks to win every Class 6A state championship since 1996, and this year doesn’t look to be any different, with Union trying to take the title back.

3. Broken Arrow Tigers
Broken Arrow has the most Division I talent in the state, but the Tigers have to make it count on the field. Quarterback Coleman Key and running back Devon Thomas lead the high-powered offense.

4. Owasso Rams
Owasso must replace talented leader Jaylen Lowe at quarterback, but the Rams have several other tools to work with.

5. Edmond Santa Fe Wolves
The Wolves return several pieces of a strong offense, starting with quarterback and Oklahoma commit Justice Hansen.

6. Edmond North Huskies
The Huskies return a powerful run game, led by 210-pound Arizona State commit Michael Farmer, who averaged 8.8 yards per carry.

7. Norman North Timberwolves
The Timberwolves reached the Class 6A finals last fall, but they’ll have some holes to fill, particularly on defense.

8. Carl Albert Titans (Midwest City)
The Titans won the 5A title behind quarterback Stevie Thompson, who rushed for 1,926 yards and 36 touchdowns as a junior.

9. Lawton Wolverines
With overpowering linemen on both sides of the ball, the Wolverines should bounce back after missing the postseason in 2012.

10. McAlester Buffaloes
The Buffaloes rebounded from an 0-3 start to reach the 5A semifinals and return much of the starting lineup.

Five Can't Miss Matchups

9.13 – Jenks vs. Union
The state’s most noted rivalry is set for the second week of the season at the University of Tulsa.

10.4 – Carl Albert at Bishop McGuinness
Carl Albert avenged last year’s midseason loss in a Class 5A semifinal showdown.

10.11 – Clinton vs. Anadarko
This is a budding rivalry. Clinton won the meeting in the 2012 Class 4A state championship game.

10.11 – Broken Arrow at Jenks
The winner is likely in the district driver’s seat, and no other game in the state will put as many Division I prospects on the field.

11.8 – Tuttle at Blanchard
Defending Class 3A champion Blanchard’s only loss last year was at rival Tuttle, so plenty will be riding on this Week 10 matchup.

2013 Preseason Offensive Player of the Year
Justice Hansen, QB, Edmond Santa Fe
Senior, 6-3, 200

Hansen completed 58.2 percent of his passes (185-of-318) with 36 touchdowns and only nine interceptions last year while showing his ability to run the ball effectively as well. In his senior season, Hansen and the Wolves will try to snap Jenks’ and Union’s 6A championship dominance.

2013 Preseason Defensive Player of the Year
Deondre Clark, DE, Douglass (Oklahoma City)
Senior, 6-3, 240

Clark had 22 sacks last year to set the Douglass single-season record, regularly overpowering the Class 4A offensive linemen he faced each week. His speed and power made him a national recruit. This year, he’ll try to help the Trojans end a two-year run of first-round playoff exits.

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Post date: Friday, August 23, 2013 - 17:17
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Athlon Sports monthly, the world's largest sports magazine (9.3 million monthly circulation), is now offering a digital edition of its popular product. Featured under the "magazine" tag on AthlonSports.com, the digital version of the print monthly allows sports fans access to stories and features that were once only available to readers of Athlon's 500 newspaper partners. 
 
The first digital edition is Athlon's August 2013 issue, featuring Johnny Manziel, along with Athlon's College Football Preview, 5 Bold NFL Predictions, high school football, the NBA offseason, and a look at the newest sports channel, FOX Sports 1. 
 
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Athlon Sports Monthly Goes Digital
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Post date: Friday, August 23, 2013 - 17:15
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Mississippi Preseason Top 10

1. Brandon Bulldogs
Brandon returns the bulk of its Class 6A runner-up team, including junior quarterback Gardner Minshew (3,001 yards, 27 TDs). Senior defensive end Michael Brooks Jr. and junior tackle Fletcher Adams each bring more than 130 tackles back on a loaded defense.

2. South Panola Tigers (Batesville)
The Tigers won their seventh title in the last 10 seasons, beating Brandon in December. Now a senior, quarterback Rip Kirk threw for 2,358 yards and 27 touchdowns in 2012.

3. Olive Branch Conquistadors
The Conquistadors went 11-2 but will have to replace Memphis football and basketball recruit Sam Craft, who combined to run and throw for nearly 3,000 yards and 30 touchdowns.

4. Meridian Wildcats
The Wildcats return a talented backfield, and the defense features one of the nation’s top safeties in C.J. Hampton.

5. West Point Green Wave
Running back Aeris Williams is one of the state’s top recruits and will line up behind a new full-time quarterback, junior Josh Ewing.

6. Picayune Maroon Tide
The Tide’s only loss came in the playoffs to South champion Pascagoula. Preston Dedeaux (1,451 rushing yards, 20 TDs) returns.

7. Madison Central Jaguars
The Jaguars again had their championship plans foiled by South Panola, but they did beat 5A champ Starkville.

8. Petal Panthers
The Panthers welcome back top linebacker Forrest Harvey, but their top receiver, running back and quarterback all graduated.

9. Oak Grove Warriors
The Warriors return quarterback Kirk McCarty, who threw for 2,356 yards and 31 touchdowns, as well as receiver Cameron Myers.

10. Bassfield Yellowjackets
The Class 2A champions must replace their top runners, but Trodrick Daniels had 811 yards and 11 touchdowns as a sophomore.

Five Can't Miss Matchups

8.22 – Brandon at Madison Central
Brandon, the 2012 South 6A champ, battles a Madison Central team that is eager to make an early season statement.

8.29 – West Point at South Panola
These teams opened last season, and it came down to a last-second field goal for South Panola.

10.4 – Olive Branch at South Panola
Only one can get to the Class 6A championship. This will be one intense division game.

10.11 – Picayune at Pascagoula
Pascagoula ended Picayune’s perfect season in the playoffs last season.

10.18 – Ridgeland at Callaway
Callaway is loaded with individual talent. A division win here can stamp the Chargers as a team to be reckoned with.

2013 Preseason Offensive Player of the Year
Aeris Williams, RB, West Point
Senior, 6-1, 205

Williams will again be the featured ball-carrier for the Class 5A favorite — and rush-heavy — Green Wave after running for 1,893 yards as a junior. His offer sheet is starting to fill in nicely, with Florida State, Mississippi State, Ole Miss and Wisconsin already on board.

2013 Preseason Defensive Player of the Year
C.J. Hampton, S, Meridian
Senior, 6-1, 190

The state’s top-ranked safety, Hampton had 48 tackles and three interceptions last season. An Ole Miss commit, Hampton added an offer from Alabama in May and also has offers from Auburn, Mississippi State, Stanford and Tennessee. He has accepted an invitation to play in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl.

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Post date: Friday, August 23, 2013 - 17:10
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Michigan Preseason Top 10

1. Cass Tech Technicians (Detroit)
The Technicians could again be the deepest and most talented team in the state this fall, with several future FBS players on the roster, including linebacker/defensive back Deon Drake (committed to Michigan State) and corner Damon Webb (Ohio State).

2. Grand Rapids Christian Eagles
The defending Division 3 champs bring back Preseason Offensive Player of the Year Drake Harris and Northwestern-bound tackle Tommy Doles.

3. Brother Rice Warriors (Bloomfield Hills)
Last year’s Division 2 state champions will be led by senior running backs Brian Walker and Shon Powell, who combined for 35 touchdowns and nearly 2,400 yards on the ground in 2012.

4. Clarkston Wolves
The Wolves return several standouts, including running back Ian Eriksen, tight end Cole Chewins and defensive lineman David Beedle.

5. Muskegon Big Reds
With Western Michigan commit Kenny Finley leading the way up front, the Big Reds could win their fourth state crown in nine years.

6. Ithaca Yellowjackets
The Yellowjackets will go for their fourth consecutive state title this year under the leadership of signal-caller Travis Smith.

7. South Christian Sailors (Grand Rapids)
The Division 4 champs in 2012, the Sailors will be led by Jon Wassink, who threw for 2,564 yards and 23 TDs as a sophomore.

8. Country Day Yellowjackets (Detroit)
Rutgers-bound senior quarterback Tyler Wiegers has one of the state’s top targets in Michigan commit Maurice Way.

9. St. Mary’s Prep Eaglets (Orchard Lake)
The Eaglets lost a heartbreaker in the Division 3 championship but bring back stud athletes Tyson Smith and Jalen Watts-Jackson.

10. Southfield Bluejays
Transfer Malik McDowell forms the most intimidating defensive tandem in the state with Michigan commit Lawrence Marshall.

Five Can't Miss Matchups

8.29 – Grand Rapids Christian at South Christian
This cross-town rivalry features two defending state championship squads.

8.30 – Cass Tech at Southfield
The Technicians could get their biggest regular-season test in this Week 1 contest at Wayne State.

10.4 – Brother Rice at St. Mary’s Prep
Brother Rice didn’t lose another game after falling to St. Mary’s 24-14 last September.

10.18 – Zeeland East at Muskegon
Muskegon hopes to avenge a 40-39 loss, while Zeeland East’s Spencer Viening tries to replicate his 137-yard, three-TD showing.

10.19 – Warren De La Salle at Detroit Catholic Central
This matchup usually delivers some drama. Central escaped with a 31-30 win last fall.

2013 Preseason Offensive Player of the Year
Drake Harris, WR, Grand Rapids Christian
Senior, 6-3, 170

Harris tallied more than 2,000 receiving yards as a junior, including a record 243 in the Division 3 state title game win. A Michigan commitment, he averaged 22 yards per catch and scored 25 TDs. He might struggle to replicate those numbers with the added attention he’ll get this season.

2013 Preseason Defensive Player of the Year
Malik McDowell, DE, Southfield
Senior, 6-6, 280

McDowell, who earned Division 7-8 Player of the Year honors from the AP after dominating small school competition (70 tackles, 15 sacks) for Loyola (Detroit) last season, will try to do it against top competition this year. He forms a formidable tandem with Lawrence Marshall, who is trying to get McDowell to commit to Michigan, too.

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Post date: Friday, August 23, 2013 - 16:57
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Maryland/D.C. Preseason Top 10

1. Our Lady of Good Counsel Falcons (Olney)
Coming off a fourth straight Washington Catholic Athletic Conference championship, the Falcons will look to replace two-way standout Kendall Fuller. Good Counsel averaged 33.2 points in its six regular-season WCAC contests in 2012.

2. DeMatha Stags (Hyattsville)
The Stags went 9-3 and are set to return a host of talented seniors, led by quarterback John Lovett and his band of receivers. Getting past rival Good Counsel is the annual challenge.

3. Gilman Greyhounds (Baltimore)
The Greyhounds lost to Good Counsel 20-19 in overtime last season, then won nine in a row and the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association “A” Conference crown.

4. Henry A. Wise Pumas (Upper Marlboro)
The reigning Class 4A state champs played a thriller in the title game, and will have quarterback Isaiah Black returning.

5. River Hill Hawks (Clarksville)
The Hawks overcame a 14-6 halftime deficit in the 3A state title game to beat Huntingtown 18-14 and win their 24th game in a row.

6. Dunbar Poets (Baltimore)
The Poets are state championship veterans, with three straight 1A crowns. But they’re moving up a classification to 2A this fall.

7. Middletown Knights
The 2A state champion Knights boast an all-state offensive lineman in senior Justin Falcinelli (6-4, 300).

8. St. Paul’s Crusaders (Brooklandville)
The Crusaders capped a perfect 11-0 season by beating John Carroll in the MIAA “B” Conference title game.

9. Calvert Hall Cardinals (Towson)
The Cardinals’ season ended with a 35-7 loss to rival Gilman in the MIAA “A” Conference title game.

10. Friendship Collegiate Academy Knights (Wash., D.C.)
The Knights are loaded with college recruits, and topping the list are sought-after cornerbacks D’Andre Payne and Jalen Tabor.

Five Can't Miss Matchups

8.23 – Good Counsel vs. Gilman
Private powers collide before most teams get started this year at Towson University.

9.1 – Manatee (Fla.) vs. Gilman
A tasty interstate matchup in Baltimore featuring Florida’s Class 7A power against the Greyhounds on ESPN.

9.6 – Middletown at Westminster
Last year’s 2A state champs come to Ruby Field to face the 4A state semifinalist for the first time.

10.11 – Don Bosco (N.J.) Prep at Friendship Collegiate Academy
One of New Jersey’s (and the nation’s) premier teams takes on the Knights in the nation’s capital.

11.28 – Calvert Hall vs. Loyola
The Turkey Bowl is in its 94th year and likely will be played this year on the campus of Towson University.

2013 Preseason Offensive Player of the Year
Demetrius Johnson, ATH, Annapolis Area Christian
Senior, 6-2, 205

The Annapolis Area Christian program is relatively new and didn’t win a game last season, but Johnson is set to emerge as one of the state’s premier prep stars. He played wide receiver and defensive back last fall and has earned a roster spot in the 2014 US Army All-American Bowl in Texas.

2013 Preseason Defensive Player of the Year
Melvin Keihn, LB, Gilman (Baltimore)
Senior, 6-3, 225

The speedy Keihn racked up 13 sacks to lead a stingy Greyhounds defense, and he reportedly has offers from close to 20 FBS schools. Keihn helped Gilman to a Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association “A” Conference title and a 9-2 record.

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Post date: Friday, August 23, 2013 - 16:46
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Arkansas Preseason Top 10

1. Har-Ber Wildcats (Springdale)
Nine starters return, including heralded senior defensive lineman Josh Frazier. Offensive tackle Isaac Johnson and defensive end Jake Hall also have major college offers. Senior quarterback Kyle Pianalto completed 123-of-214 passes for 1,903 yards and 26 touchdowns last fall.

2. Bentonville Tigers
A solid cast of returnees for the Tigers includes senior tight end Jack Kraus, who has committed to Arkansas, and junior offensive tackle Ean Pfeifer, who had 26 knockdown blocks last fall.

3. North Little Rock Charging Wildcats
Coach Brad Bolding says this could be the fastest team he’s had. The program received a boost in the offseason with two transfers — senior linebacker Tim Quickel and junior utility back K.J. Hill.

4. Southside Rebels (Fort Smith)
The Rebels are led by athletic senior quarterback Isaac Jackson and his younger brother, Ian, a junior linebacker.

5. Cabot Panthers
The Panthers improved to 6-5 last season after finishing 3-7 in 2011. Five three-year starters return to the offensive line.

6. Fayetteville Bulldogs
The two-time defending Class 7A state champions could start as many as 16 underclassmen, including several promising linemen.

7. Greenwood Bulldogs
Greenwood is seeking to become the first Arkansas school to capture four-consecutive state championships since 1989.

8. Conway Wampus Cats
The Wampus Cats return 11 starters, seven on defense. Junior kicker Matt “Thunderfoot” Cummins is one of the state’s best.

9. West Memphis Blue Devils
West Memphis had won or shared eight consecutive conference championships before tying for third last fall.

10. Jonesboro Golden Hurricane
The program continues to flourish under alum Randy Coleman. Defensive lineman Chuks Ota headlines nine returning starters.

Three Can't Miss Matchups

9.6 – Webb City (Mo.) at Har-Ber
Webb City, which won last year’s meeting 30-15, is riding a 45-game winning streak.

9.27 – Har-Ber at Bentonville
Caps a brutal four-game stretch for Bentonville, which has beaten Har-Ber five consecutive times.

10.25 – Greenwood at Fort Smith Southside
This may be the toughest regular-season test for Greenwood, which has a 38-game winning streak.

2013 Preseason Offensive Player of the Year
Jabe Burgess, QB, Greenwood
Senior, 6-2, 200

Burgess, a Tulsa commit, made a seamless transition from backup to starter, completing 219-of-296 passes for 3,128 yards and 36 touchdowns last fall for the Class 6A champion. He is the cousin of former Greenwood and Arkansas star Tyler Wilson.

2013 Preseason Defensive Player of the Year
Bijhon Jackson, DT, El Dorado
Senior, 6-2, 320

Jackson was a starter as a sophomore on El Dorado’s Class 6A state championship team in 2011. The Arkansas commit had six sacks last fall and also won the state weightlifting title in April, bench-pressing 385 pounds and power-cleaning a record 335 pounds.

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Post date: Friday, August 23, 2013 - 16:26

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