Articles By Athlon Sports
History is made during the course of every NFL season, and while some of the milestones will be etched on a Hall of Fame bust (Tom Brady’s six Super Bowl starts), some are a little more obscure (LaGarrette Blount’s seven career playoff touchdowns against the Colts).
Certainly, the 2015 season will add to this list of monumental and not-so-monumental firsts.
As the NFL season nears, let’s take a look back at 2014’s weird firsts.
2014 was the first time…
• Won a game by 17 points after being shut out by at least that many points in the first half (Eagles over Jaguars).
• Shoveled itself out of 14-point second-half deficits to win each of its first two games of the year (Eagles).
• Opened a season 3–0 despite trailing in each game by at least 10 points (Eagles).
• Won a game on the road that it once trailed by 25 points (Browns).
• Fielded a running back who rushed for four touchdowns (Marshawn Lynch) and a quarterback who rushed for 100 yards (Russell Wilson) in the same game (Seahawks).
• Lost at least nine of its first 10 games for a third consecutive season (Jaguars).
• Scored 28 or more first-half points in four consecutive home games (Packers).
• Won three games in a row by 20 or more points against teams who were at least three games over .500 (Patriots).
• Fielded a rookie rusher (Andre Williams) and a rookie receiver (Odell Beckham Jr.) who each piled up at least 130 yards in the same game (Giants).
• Went 14 consecutive seasons without being swept in a multiple-game series by a team in its own division (Patriots).
• Allowed an opposing QB to complete 80 percent of its passes and throw for three TDs in three games of a season (Bears).
• Rushed for as many as 355 yards and lost (49ers).
• Had two different backs who broke runs of 85 yards or longer in the same season (Bengals: Gio Bernard and Jeremy Hill).
• From the NFC South won its division for a second straight year (Panthers).
• Got a non-offensive TD from 10 different players (Eagles).
• Limited another team to as few as 78 yards in a postseason game (Panthers vs. Cardinals).
• Dropped a fourth consecutive opening-round playoff game (Bengals).
• Fell to 0–7 in postseason road contests (Bengals).
• Overcame a deficit as large as 16 points to win a conference title game (Seahawks).
• Blew a fourth-quarter lead as large as 10 points to lose a Super Bowl (Seahawks).
• Passed for 400 yards for the 14th time in a career (Peyton Manning).
• Compiled a TD-to-INT ratio as high as 18-to-1 the first seven games of a season (Aaron Rodgers).
• Threw a fifth TD pass less than 20 minutes into a game (Joe Flacco).
• Passed for 300 yards and rushed for 100 in the same game (Russell Wilson).
• Completed more than 85 percent of his passes (min. 20 atts.) in a game against a defending Super Bowl champion (Austin Davis).
• Completed seven game-winning TD passes inside the two-minute warning in his first six seasons (Matthew Stafford).
• Passed for 350-plus yards in five consecutive road games (Andrew Luck).
• Completed at least five TD passes in a game nine times in a career (Manning and Drew Brees).
• Threw 418 consecutive passes without an interception in home games (Rodgers; still active).
• Threw for at least three TDs without being picked off in four straight road games (Tony Romo).
• Lost his first 20 road starts against teams that finished with a winning record (Ryan Fitzpatrick).
• Attained a 100.0 passer rating in a sixth consecutive season (Rodgers).
• Lost nine one-and-done starts in the postseason (Manning).
• Started two Super Bowls in his first three seasons (Wilson).
• Started six Super Bowls (Tom Brady).
A RUNNING BACK
• Began a season with eight consecutive 100-yard games (Murray).
• Caught 102 passes in a season (Matt Forte).
• Rushed for seven career TDs against one particular team in postseason play (LeGarrette Blount vs. Colts).
• Made at least five catches for 50 or more yards in 32 consecutive games (Antonio Brown).
• Age 35 or older caught 400 yards worth of passes in his first four games (Steve Smith).
• Went more than nine years between 80-yard touchdown catches (Brandon Lloyd).
• Caught a dozen or more TD passes from the tight end position in successive seasons (Julius Thomas).
• Collected more than 100 yards in a season debut that was as late as Week 12 (Josh Gordon).
• Got to 10,000 yards in as few as 115 games (Calvin Johnson).
• Age 36 or older caught a pass of at least 80 yards (Reggie Wayne).
• Threw a TD pass of longer than 50 yards in a postseason game (Julian Edelman).
• Scored an overtime TD on the only pass he caught in a playoff contest (Jermaine Kearse).
This story and more appears in the 2015 Athlon Sports NFL Preview Magazine, available online now and on newsstands everywhere.
The Denver Broncos continue to lead this division, with Peyton Manning leading the way. However, Manning's not getting any younger, and the Chiefs and Chargers both made some personnel upgrades after each just missed out on a wild card spot last season. They are certainly not far behind, and the Raiders finally appear to have some pieces to build around too. The Broncos remain the team to be beat, but the gap is narrowing.
In order to get an accurate assessment of how the AFC West is shaping up heading into the 2015 season, Athlon asked NFL scouts to talk anonymously about the Broncos, Chiefs, Chargers and Raiders.
Note: These scouting reports come directly from NFL scouts and do not necessarily reflect the views of Athlon's editorial staff.
“No one will ever know what would have happened if Peyton Manning didn’t agree to take a ‘haircut’ on his contract and go from $19M to $15M for 2015."…
"Nevertheless, he returns for what might be his last season, although at 39, he feels that a high level of play is still attainable."…
"If it is, it will likely be because Gary Kubiak’s emphasis on the run game and play-action will take some of the load off the future Hall of Famer."…
"Kubiak takes over for John Fox, who flamed out in the postseason for the third year in a row."…
"TE Julius Thomas left in free agency for Jacksonville, but WR Demaryius Thomas was first tagged and then signed to a long-term deal. He is a supremely talented player that has prospered under Manning’s guidance."…
"Emmanuel Sanders filled the slot role well in 2014, but how much will that change under Kubiak?"...
"2014 second-round pick Cody Latimer must take a big step forward after catching only two passes as a rookie."…
"The offensive line is sort of ordinary, but they get by because the QB simply doesn’t hold the football."…
"LT Ryan Clady is clearly their best lineman, but the rest are just guys."… [Editor's note: Clady will miss the 2015 season because of a torn ACL.]
"On defense, they are set up front with Sylvester Williams, Derek Wolfe and Malik Jackson in their base 3-4."…
"Von Miller, DeMarcus Ware and first-round pick Shane Ray will form one of the best pass-rushing trios in all of football."…
"At safety, T.J. Ward always brings the right kind of demeanor, and former Raven Darian Stewart was signed during free agency."…
"With Aqib Talib, Chris Harris and Bradley Roby at the corner spots, the Broncos have enough variety at the position to match up with most everyone."…
"Despite Peyton’s protests, the theme of the season will be can the Broncos make a final run with No. 18 at the helm? And, if not, what is the plan going forward at QB and for the entire organization?”
“Despite no wide receivers catching a single touchdown pass and a defense that was 28th in the league vs. the run (127.3 yards per game), Andy Reid and Co. still finished with a 9-7 record."…
"With zero explosiveness in the passing game, KC allowed Dwayne Bowe to walk and probably overpaid for the Eagles’ Jeremy Maclin."…
"They are very high on second-year wide receiver Albert Wilson who had 12 of his 16 catches in the final five games and look for De'Anthony Thomas to get an increased role in 2015 as a ‘satellite’ player."…
"Their two best offensive producers are RB Jamaal Charles and TE Travis Kelce."…
"Charles had his third straight 1,000-yard season and caught 40 passes, while Kelce came back from a ‘redshirt’ season and latched on to 67 throws."…
"The offensive line allowed 49 sacks (26th in NFL) and Rodney Hudson left for the Raiders in free agency."…
"They are banking on Eric Fisher getting healthy and playing well at LT, while they traded for the Saints’ Ben Grubbs to fill the LG spot and drafted Missouri OL Mitch Morse to compete at center with Eric Kush. This unit may be the most worrisome on the entire roster."…
"Internally, the organization believes in Alex Smith as a starting QB, but his impending contract situation will tell the world what they really think long-term."…
"Defensively, KC gave up 17.6 points per game (2nd in league), where they were particularly stingy down in the red zone."…
"NT Dontari Poe is a Pro Bowl-caliber player and upped his sack total to six in 2014…Their biggest losses were sustained in Week 1 when both LB Derrick Johnson DE Mike DeVito went down with torn Achilles and their absence left a crater in the middle of the D."…
"Justin Houston was franchised and then signed to a massive deal after a 22-sack season and he has really developed into a complete outside linebacker."…
"His counterpart, Tamba Hali, continues to plug along and will always chip in 6-10 sacks per year."…
"The Chiefs took CB Marcus Peters from Washington with their first-round pick and they are gambling that his character and personality can be managed."…
"He will line up opposite of Sean Smith with the thinking that the Chiefs now have the athleticism and length to compete with the receivers of the AFC West."…
"This division has bunched up some during the offseason, so with Reid at the helm, they should again be competitive and in the hunt for a playoff berth.”
“Everything that was said about the Raiders going into the 2014 season, came true: no firepower on offense and too many aged players on defense."…
"The good news is that GM Reggie McKenzie hit on OLB Khalil Mack, QB Derek Carr and OG Gabe Jackson with his first three picks of the 2014 draft and they are all good, young players to build around in the future."…
"Dennis Allen did not survive the season, so Tony Sparano finished up as the interim coach and now Jack Del Rio gets his second chance as a head coach in the league."…
"Carr is their greatest asset, so they chose Alabama WR Amari Cooper with the fourth overall pick and Miami-FL TE Clive Walford in the third round to give him more options."…
"Cooper is a pro-ready talent that can line up anywhere and help Carr immediately, while Walford is a gifted pass catcher that can threaten the seam."…
"The offensive line should be bolstered in the middle with former Chiefs’ center Rodney Hudson, but still not sure they are good enough on the edges with Donald Penn and Austin Howard."…
"Defensively, Mack was sensational as a rookie and looks to be a star-in-the-making."…
"LB Sio Moore has had two solid years of production and really plays hard…The back end is a work-in-progress and this part of their roster could derail everything."…
"With only Charles Woodson established as a starter, they signed FS Nate Allen from Philadelphia."…
"If they played a game tomorrow, D.J. Hayden and Travis Carrie would be the opening corners, but Keith McGill (’14 fourth round) is expected to challenge for play time."…
"The Raiders were deplorable in total offense and then scoring offense and defense, but their bigger issue was not taking care of the football. They were minus-15 in the turnover margin category (32nd in league) and that is the area Del Rio must clean up first and foremost for them to escape the basement of the AFC West.”
“Word got out this spring that QB Philip Rivers would play out his contract and was not interested in going to LA, if in fact, the Chargers were on the move."…
"Rumors swirled before the draft that San Diego would trade him to the Titans in exchange for the chance to pick Marcus Mariota at No. 2."…
"None of that happened, so now it’s back to trying to work through an extension for the 33-year-old QB."…
"RB Ryan Mathews signed with the Eagles, so SD moved up two spots in the draft for Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon who should help their 30th-ranked rushing attack (85.4 yards per game)."…
"The offensive line has been surprisingly effective over the past two years, especially LT King Dunlap. He has far surpassed most scouts’ expectations as a full-time starter."…
"D.J. Fluker is huge on the right side and has become a staple figure along their front wall."…
"TE Antonio Gates just keeps going, but has indicated that 2015 will be his last season."… [Editor's note: Gates is suspended the first four games of the season for a violation of the NFL's policy on the use of performance-enhancing drugs.]
"Keenan Allen and Malcolm Floyd give them a set of legitimate WRs and they helped them finish fourth in the league in third down conversions (45.1 percent)."…
"Most of the success of the 3-4 defense stems from the pass rush and the Chargers were 29th in sacks with just 26 last year."…
"They are banking on Melvin Ingram and Jerry Attaochu to stay healthy and produce better results in 2015 (6.5 sacks between them)."…
"Safety Marcus Gilchrist left for the Jets and Eric Weddle is sitting out the spring, except for the mandatory minicamp, due to a contract dispute."…
"The Chargers are smallish in the back end, but Jason Verrett is a nifty cover man who has to demonstrate that he can survive the rigors of the NFL."...
"San Diego has won between seven and nine games for five straight seasons and nothing seems to indicate that 2015 will be any different.”
As far as strange and bizarre happenings, IK Enemkpali’s sucker punch of starting quarterback Geno Smith — knocking the QB out for 6-19 weeks with a broken jaw — over a matter of $600 qualifies for the calendar of the weird.
On that note, let’s look back at all the strange developments from the 2014 season:
Aug. 30: The Vikings waive linebacker Mike Zimmer, depriving him of the opportunity to play for unrelated head coach Mike Zimmer.
Sept. 7: The Rams open the season with three undrafted quarterbacks on their active roster.
Sept. 7: Vontaze Burfict, attempting a sack, must leave with a concussion after spearing Joe Flacco in the cup.
Sept. 14: Every quarterback who throws an interception sees his team lose the game.
Sept. 14: Jacksonville’s first snap in Washington territory comes with 8:45 left in the contest.
Sept. 21: There are 25 points scored in the Patriots victory over the Raiders — 10 by Stephen Gostkowski, nine by Sebastian Janikowski and six by Rob Gronkowski.
Sept. 21: The Cardinals have only nine guys on the field when they block a 49ers field goal.
Sept. 21: Lions linebacker Stephen Tulloch tears his ACL celebrating a sack, then claims afterwards, “I’d do it again, brother.”
Sept. 28: The Packers top the Bears, 38–17, as for just the second time in NFL history, neither team punts.
Oct. 6: Percy Harvin has three touchdowns against Washington called back, including two on successive plays, because of penalties.
Oct. 12: For a few minutes of real time, all four games currently underway are tied during the second quarter.
Oct. 12: The Bucs run a dozen consecutive plays that fail to gain a yard against the Ravens.
Oct. 26: The Cardinals and Eagles combine for 104 passing attempts, yet no quarterbacks are sacked.
Oct. 26: For the second time in three seasons, the Patriots score three touchdowns in less than a minute.
Oct. 26: Jets quarterback Geno Smith completes more passes to the Bills (three) than to his own team (two).
Nov. 2: Carson Palmer wins for a fifth straight time when he is intercepted in his first drive.
Nov. 8: Justin Bieber attends the Steelers’ weekly Bible study.
Nov. 9: After winning their previous two games with scores at 0:00 and 1:48, Detroit does it again at 0:29.
Nov. 9: Anquan Boldin drops as many passes (four) in the first half as he did in all of 2013.
Nov. 9: After recording only one takeaway in their first nine games, the Jets come up with four in an upset of Pittsburgh.
Nov. 9: Jay Cutler falls to 1–10 with 22 interceptions against his team’s archrival, the Packers.
Nov. 13: The Bills have not scored a TD on their last 21 “drives.”
Nov. 16: The Chiefs dump the Seahawks, 24–20, despite completing only two passes (for nine yards apiece) to wide receivers.
Nov. 16: Mark Sanchez tops 300 yards and throws for multiple TDs in his first start for the Eagles — something he never did in 62 starts as a Jet.
Nov. 17: Ben Roethlisberger moves to 18–0 when opposing a rookie quarterback.
Nov. 18: After his Wikipedia entry lists him as deceased, Emmanuel Sanders tweets a photo of himself surrounded by comely females, which he captions, “I must be in heaven.”
Nov. 20: When the Raiders upset the Chiefs, teams with QB Matt Schaub on their roster end their 24-game losing streak.
Nov. 27: Although there never before had been two games ending in a 19–3 score in any NFL season, the Seahawks prevail 19–3 for the second straight week.
Nov. 30: Washington ends its drought of nine entire games and 38 futile attempts by converting a play of 3rd-and-10 or longer into a first down.
Nov. 30: Home teams outscore the visitors 72–16 in the early-kickoff portion of the slate.
Nov. 30: The Steelers tie an NFL record for first downs in a loss by recording 36.
Dec. 3: Peter King calculates that Colin Kaepernick uses 87 words to respond to the 32 questions asked of him at San Francisco’s weekly presser.
Dec. 3: Thirteen years after being released by the Cowboys, Ryan Leaf is released from prison.
Dec. 4: Arian Foster conducts his entire post-practice interview speaking with a British accent.
Dec. 4: For just the second time ever, a quarterback (Tony Romo) completes 80 percent of his passes and a teammate (DeMarco Murray) rushes for more than 175 yards.
Dec. 7: The Panthers, who had scored a total of 30 first-quarter points in their first 12 games, hang 17 on the Saints in the first nine minutes.
Dec. 7: After never having allowed a single player to record more than 3.0 sacks in a game against them in their history, the Dolphins do so for a third time in 2014.
Dec. 7: St. Louis’ captains for the pregame toss in Washington are the six players who were taken with the draft picks dealt for Robert Griffin III.
Dec. 7: The Seahawks limit a third straight foe to its season low in points and yards.
Dec. 14: Seven different Packers receivers drop one pass apiece in a loss to Buffalo.
Dec. 15: Of Jay Cutler’s five “completions” that travel more than 10 yards, three are caught by the Saints.
Dec. 15: Jets owner Woody Johnson, who employs John Idzik as his GM, accidentally “favorites” a tweet from a fan that says: “@woodyjohnson4 You really need to #FireIdzik at this point. The roster is garbagio.”
Dec. 21: The Bucs, Bills and Colts combine for 30 rushing yards on 37 carries in their losses.
Dec. 28: On the 229th pass of his career, Ryan Lindley throws his first touchdown.
Dec. 28: Antonio Brown takes a punt to the house for the third time in his career — all against Cincinnati.
Dec. 28: Kansas City is the third team (and first in 54 years) to go through a season with no TD catches by a wide receiver.
Dec. 28: Russell Wilson fumbles for the 12th and 13th (and final) times of 2014 — all of them recovered by his own team.
Dec. 28: Seattle ends its regular season with a 29th victory by 10 or more points since suffering its last loss by that margin.
Jan. 3: Ryan Lindley averages 1.3 yards on his 32 dropbacks in Arizona’s wild card loss to Carolina, failing to gain yardage on 21 of them.
Jan. 4: Matthew Stafford falls to 0–18 in his career (playoffs included) in road games against teams that finished the season over .500.
Jan. 4: Andy Dalton starts and finishes his fourth playoff game without ever having thrown a pass with the lead.
Jan. 18: Russell Wilson targets Jermaine Kearse six times in the NFC Championship Game, the first four of which are intercepted, the fifth falling incomplete and the last resulting in a TD to win the game in OT.
Jan. 18: For the eighth consecutive time (including the last four in which the winning team trailed in the fourth quarter), the NFC title contest is decided by seven or fewer points.
Jan. 29: The LOWEST price of a Super Bowl ticket on the NFL ticket exchange website, three days before the game, is $10,375.
Jan. 30: New Buffalo coach Rex Ryan, whose arm is tattooed with his wife wearing a Jets jersey, has her shirt re-inked from green to blue.
Feb. 1: Russell Wilson’s late interception to hand New England the Super Bowl title is the first thrown by a quarterback from the opponent’s 1-yard line all season.
This story and more is available in the 2015 Athlon Sports Pro Football Preview Magazine, available online and on newsstands everywhere.
The AFC South was very unbalanced last season, with the Colts and Texans well ahead of the Jaguars and Titans. Indianapolis has dominated the past two seasons, and they don't seem to be in any type of regression this year. They have the only truly established quarterback in the division. With the Colts as the favorite, can any of the other teams compete with them? Will the Jaguars and Titans get better, or will they finish near the bottom of the NFL again?
In order to get an accurate assessment of how the AFC South breaks down entering the 2015 season, Athlon asked NFL scouts to talk anonymously about the Texans, Colts, Jaguars and Titans.
Note: These scouting reports come directly from NFL scouts and do not necessarily reflect the views of Athlon's editorial staff.
“In his first season, Bill O’Brien managed a difficult QB situation and rode the Texans’ opportunistic defense to nine wins last year. Ryan Fitzpatrick moved on to the NY Jets, so they signed Brian Hoyer from Cleveland and will now have two quarterbacks with New England ties battling for the position."…
"Maybe the greatest Texan in club history, WR Andre Johnson departed in free agency and will face his old club twice a year as a member of the Colts."…
"DeAndre Hopkins took over as the No. 1 receiver last fall and he will get support from newly acquired Cecil Shorts (from the Jaguars)."…
"RB Arian Foster ran for 1,246 yards and eight touchdowns, but missed three games, and that allowed Alfred Blue to sub in and gain 528 yards of his own. Foster’s injury history is always a concern, but Blue showed the ability to be a competent stand-in, if something happens long term."…
"The offensive line did enough to help Houston rank fifth in rushing (135.1 yards per game) and tied for fourth in fewest sacks allowed. LT Duane Brown has proven himself to be a quality NFL player, while second-round pick Xavier Sua’Filo is expected to become a starter at LG this year."…
"Despite not getting anything from No. 1 overall choice Jadeveon Clowney, defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel maximized the use of all-world DE J.J. Watt and he dominated with 20.5 sacks, five fumble recoveries and a pick-six. He is truly a special player and arguably the top player in the league."…
"Clowney had microfracture surgery, so his effectiveness and long-term impact will be questioned until he can get on the field and prove himself."…
"The Texans signed Vince Wilfork to be part of their rotation and train up last year’s third-round pick, Louis Nix."…
"LB Brian Cushing continues to play at a high level, but Whitney Mercilus has been just OK in his first three years."…
"CB Kareem Jackson was re-signed before he hit the market and Jonathan Joseph has been a solid addition for GM Rick Smith."…
"They drafted Wake Forest CB Kevin Johnson in the first round as the future at the position."…
"’QB and Clowney sum up the major questions for the Texans to surpass nine wins in 2015. O’Brien can figure out the first part in time, but many have serious concerns about Clowney living up to his draft status as an available, big-time player.”
“Chuck Pagano has a 33-15 record through three seasons with the Colts, yet he will go into 2014 on the last year of his deal."…
"You get the sense that everyone here feels the pressure of advancing one more step to the Super Bowl and anything short of that goal will result in major coaching staff changes."…
"With that said, they used Pagano’s University of Miami background to sell RB Frank Gore and WR Andre Johnson on the idea that this is a team ready to win a ring. Gore continues to defy the odds at his age and with significant knee issues earlier in his career, while Johnson should have enough left to take some of the onus off T.Y. Hilton, one of the most exciting and productive players in the NFL."…
"Watch out for WR Donte Moncrief, the third-rounder from Ole Miss, who flashed as a rookie with 32 receptions and three touchdowns."…
"And yet, they had a curious first-round selection in Miami speedster, Phillip Dorsett."…
"The tight end group is very solid with Dwayne Allen, Coby Fleener and Jack Doyle."…
"The offensive line is adequate at best with no dominant player in the starting five."…
"The central figure for the entire organization is Andrew Luck. He is a transcendent talent that makes every responsibility of being a QB look easy, on and off the field."…
"Every level of the defense could use a boost."…
"Upfront, they will use a ‘wave’ of defensive linemen."…
"They are hoping DE Robert Mathis can return to form after missing 2014 with a suspension and Achilles tear."…
"Former 2013 first-round choice Bjoern Werner had four sacks last year, but must continue to improve as a rusher."…
"Trent Cole was signed during free agency, but he’s on the back nine of his career."…
"Jonathan Newsome quietly came around as the 2014 season unfolded with 5.5 sacks in the final eight games."…
"The corners are better than average with a pass rush and when healthy. The trade for Vontae Davis has worked out well and people inside the building really like Greg Toler."…
"Safety is a huge hole on their depth chart and they passed on Alabama’s Landon Collins in the draft."…
"The hope is that between the veteran and rookie additions this offseason, it will be enough to advance the Colts another rung up the ladder and Pagano will continue as their coach.”
“Owner Shad Khan appears to be in lockstep with head coach Gus Bradley and GM David Caldwell, but after a 3-13 season in 2014, the urgency to take a big step forward is there for this next season."…
"Bradley has done an impressive job of keeping the team’s focus and energy high, but the truth is, the results must improve and almost the entire operation is riding on QB Blake Bortles."…
"Originally, they planned to let him sit behind Chad Henne, but that lasted all of three weeks and the No. 3 overall pick in 2014 was inserted into the lineup. With rookie receivers, no legitimate running game and a porous line, Bortles did well to survive with 11 touchdowns and 15 interceptions."…
"The Jags found three rookie receivers in Marqise Lee, Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns that should develop on the same track as Bortles."…
"At TE, they spent a boatload on free agent and former Bronco Julius Thomas and Marcedes Lewis re-upped, so they should be set there."…
"OT Luke Joeckel bounced back from appearing in only five games as a rookie and opened all 16 in 2014. A capable line is in the works with LG Zane Beadles and RG Brandon Linder."…
"Second-round pick RB T.J. Yeldon should be an instant starter and will pair off with Denard Robinson."…
"Greg Olsen is the new offensive coordinator and he is charged with pulling this group out of the bottom of the barrel (31st in yards and 32nd in points)."…
"Defensively, they spent the third pick in the draft on Florida's Dante Fowler Jr. and he will be a star player in the league."… [Editor's note: Fowler is out for the season after tearing his ACL during rookie minicamp.]
"This unit has made incremental strides under Bradley and Bob Babich, but they have been woefully short in terms of having difference-making talent."…
"DT Sen’Derrick Marks tore an ACL in the last game of the season, but he is an underrated player and along with Tyson Alualu and newly signed FA Jared Odrick, this group should be better."…
"LB Paul Posluszny is a steady-Eddie, while Telvin Smith proved to be a nice late-round pick in 2014."…
"CB Aaron Colvin returned from a pre-draft knee injury to play in the final six games and should line up opposite of Dwayne Gratz or Davon House, who was signed from Green Bay."…
"Jonathan Cyprien and Sergio Brown will man the safety spots."…
"It’s obvious things intensified with ownership after the season, because it felt like Bradley was forced to rebuild his offensive staff."…
"The bottom-line here is that the Jags had a minus-26 sack differential, despite the defense having 45, which tied for sixth in the league.”
“After the Buccaneers selected Jameis Winston as the No. 1 overall choice in this year’s draft, the entire league focused on what the Titans would do at No. 2."…
"Now, we know the answer, they opted to stay put and pick Marcus Mariota and will attempt to get him up to speed as fast as possible in terms of transitioning from the spread he ran at Oregon to a more traditional NFL offense."…
"Jake Locker was a free agent, but retired unexpectedly, and Zach Mettenberger went 0-6, before going down with a shoulder last season, so the Mariota pick really makes sense."…
"RB Bishop Sankey was disappointing as a rookie (569 yards/3.7 ypc/2 TD), but part of his struggles were tied to an underachieving offensive line that should be improved in 2014 with Taylor Lewan firmly entrenched at left tackle, a healthy rebound from Andy Levitre at LG and Chance Warmack rounding back into shape at RG."…
"They signed Byron Bell from Carolina in the second wave of free agency as a stop-gap fix at RT."…
"TE Delanie Walker has more to give with better QB play, he caught 63 passes and four touchdowns despite the passing game issues last year."…
"The Titans do not have a legit No. 1 wide receiver, however, they do have hope for the continued development of Kendall Wright (57 rec./6 TD) and Justin Hunter (28 rec./17.8 ypc/3 TD) and drafted former Missouri WR Dorial Green-Beckham (6-5, 237), who hasn’t played since 2013 due to off-field issues."…
"Ken Whisenhunt has to fix an offense that finished 30th in points (15.9 per game) and 31st in third down conversions (30.1 percent)."…
"Dick LeBeau arrives from Pittsburgh and will orchestrate the defense even though Ray Horton has the coordinator title."…
"Tennessee added three free agents of note in former Redskins pass rusher Brian Orakpo, Bills safety Da’Norris Searcy and 49ers cornerback Perrish Cox."…
"In addition, they re-signed OLB Derrick Morgan, so if all of these veterans can stay healthy, LeBeau may have enough to work with here."…
"The Titans ranked 31st against the run (137.2 yards per game) and gave up 27.4 points per game (tied for 29th in NFL), so there is a ton of work to get done in Nashville."…
"DT Jurrell Casey can play and GM Ruston Webster found a keeper at LB in Avery Williamson last year."…
"In the secondary, they should be set with Cox and Jason McCourty at the corners and Searcy and veteran Michael Griffin at the two safety spots."…
"There is talk of an impending ownership change in league circles, so after a 2-14 campaign in 2014, it’s imperative for the Titans to show progress for the Whisenhunt/Webster administration to continue beyond this season.”
In 2014, the AFC North sent three teams to the playoffs. The division is once again poised to be a battle and continues to rank among the most competitive in the NFL. The Steelers, Bengals, and Ravens all have very legitimate chances to make the playoffs again. But what about Cleveland, which hasn’t made the postseason since 2002 and has had a revolving door at both head coach and starting quarterback since rejoining the NFL in 1999?
In order to get an accurate assessment of how the AFC North looks heading into the 2015 season, Athlon asked NFL scouts to talk anonymously about the Ravens, Bengals, Browns and Steelers.
Note: These scouting reports come directly from NFL scouts and do not necessarily reflect the views of Athlon's editorial staff.
“In a year dominated by the Ray Rice episode, Baltimore used a familiar formula to maintain their focus on the field and made the playoffs for the sixth time in seven seasons under John Harbaugh."
"They led the league in sack differential at plus-30 when they allowed only 19 sacks and racked up 49 of their own."
"Under former offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak, they ran the ball well and found the needed balance to protect and help QB Joe Flacco."
"Kubiak departed for another head coaching opportunity with long-time friend John Elway in Denver, so Marc Trestman takes over as the OC and he must stay away from taking the Ravens down a pass-happy road again."
"They let Torrey Smith walk as a free agent, but got great mileage out of Steve Smith and drafted UCF WR Breshad Perriman and TE Maxx Williams in the first two rounds of the draft."
"The offensive line rebounded in 2015 and stabilized with Eugene Monroe and Ricky Wagner playing the tackle spots, while Kelechi Osemele and Marshall Yanda were solid on the interior."
"It took a year, but the Baltimore defense returned to the top 10 statistically in 2015 after some growing pains the previous season without Ray Lewis and Ed Reed."
"With Haloti Ngata on the verge of being cut due to his high cap number, GM Ozzie Newsome was able to swing a trade with Detroit for two mid-round draft picks."
"He had that luxury because of the play of young DTs Brandon Williams and Tim Jernigan."
"The Ravens pressured the QB with the formidable duo of Elvis Dumervil and Terrell Suggs."
"Pernell McPhee was lost to the Bears in free agency, but he is another in a long line of defenders that have left the organization for bigger riches after being quality support players here."
"C.J. Mosley was a gift at pick No. 17 (fell due to concerns about his shoulder) and emerged as an elite linebacker as a rookie."
"This will be a huge year for LB Arthur Brown and FS Matt Elam, who have both been major disappointments in their early careers."
"Jimmy Smith finally put it all together in terms of his consistency and availability on the field, and they will cross their fingers that Lardarius Webb will stay healthy in 2015."
"PK Justin Tucker and P Sam Koch may very well be the best combination of placekicker/punter in the entire league."
“Marvin Lewis received a one-year contract extension through 2016, so that will lessen some, but not all the pressure on the Bengals as they try to get a breakthrough win in the playoffs. Along with QB Andy Dalton, the focus is squarely on a team that has been a consistent winner during the regular season, but a failure in the postseason."
"Cincinnati has a very solid group of offensive players with a true superstar in WR A.J. Green."
"They could definitely use another wide receiver right now, but opted for two tackles in early part of the draft, Texas A&M’s Cedric Ogbuehi and Oregon’s Jake Fisher, for future use."
"TE Tyler Eifert will have an expanded role in 2015 with the departure of Jermaine Gresham in free agency."
"RB Jeremy Hill had a big rookie year and with a healthy Giovanni Bernard, they should be even more dynamic this season."
"Defensively, the Bengals were dead last in sacks with 20 for the entire campaign. DE Michael Johnson inked a huge deal with Tampa Bay, only to be released a year later and re-signed here. They have to get more production from Wallace Gilberry and Margus Hunt in order to get their defensive line rotation back in order."
"The Vontaze Burfict micro-fracture surgery is a major concern, so A.J. Hawk was brought in to provide some insurance at the position."
"The secondary is going through a transition with the emergence of CB Dre Kirkpatrick who should take over a starting full-time role, while Darqueze Dennard will be assessed as the heir apparent to Leon Hall."
"It’s hard to imagine Lewis and Dalton getting a sixth year together if they don’t win a playoff win in 2015, but the Brown family likes them both and the stability they have brought to the organization.”
“2014 was almost a repeat of what has gone on in Cleveland since the organization returned in 1999. High hopes during the draft weekend, signs of progress at different times throughout the season and then a full meltdown in December."
"The Ray Farmer/Mike Pettine combo will return this year, but the GM faces a four-game suspension over texting staff members during games about personnel use and play-calling. In the fallout of Textgate, offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan worked his way out the door and QB coach Dowell Loggains went, too."
"The Johnny Manziel era was put on hold initially because Brian Hoyer led the team to a 7-5 record before he hit the wall. Manziel started two games, looked out of place, got hurt and ended up in rehab for 10 weeks during the offseason. He was released mid-April and is back in the building, but the Browns signed Josh McCown as the 'new bridge to a yet-to-be-determined QB."
"Statistically, the Browns have lost because offensively they cannot convert on third downs (32nd in NFL/29.5 percent) and defensively they have not been able to stop the run (32nd in NFL/141.6 yards allowed per game). With that said, after missing 11 games in 2014, Josh Gordon is out for the entire season this time around after being suspended again, while TE Jordan Cameron opted for Miami in free agency."
"Dwayne Bowe was signed from Kansas City and Andrew Hawkins is a quality No. 3/4 receiver, but neither will require special game-planning from a defensive coordinator... Amazingly, LT Joe Thomas has not missed a snap since he was drafted in 2007. Cleveland’s run game went down after center Alex Mack suffered a season-ending knee injury, so they picked Florida State OL Cam Erving to play RG/RT in preparation for another injury or Mack’s contract expiring."
"LG Joel Bitonio was their best rookie and should be a fixture in the lineup for the next several seasons."
"Both RBs Terrance West and Isaiah Crowell flashed ability, but the question remains if one or the other can be a major difference-maker, or if third-round pick Miami’s Duke Johnson can become a factor."
"As for the defense, Washington DT Danny Shelton was the choice at No. 12 overall to shore up the porous run defense."
"OLB Paul Kruger bounced back from a sub-par 2013 with 11 sacks, but Jabaal Sheard left for New England in free agency."
"Barkevious Mingo has been marginal in his first two seasons, so they selected Utah’s Nate Orchard in the second round."
"Karlos Dansby was adequate in the middle and Donte Whitner provided some leadership in the back end with CB Joe Haden continuing to perform at a high level."
"Buster Skrine departed for the Jets and Justin Gilbert’s rookie season was one to forget, so corner is still a concern.”
“There is good news and bad news in the Steel City."
"The offense clicked to the tune of 411.1 yards per game, but the defense has aged out and is under construction with a coordinator not named Dick LeBeau."
"QB Ben Roethlisberger got an extension after he performed at a very high level in 2014. He played superb football all year and finished with 32 touchdowns against only nine interceptions."
"WR Antonio Brown might spend the offseason squawking about his current deal that has two years left, but he has become one of the most exciting players in the entire league. He had a remarkable 129 receptions and 13 touchdowns as the Steelers averaged over 300 yards per game through the air. Markus Wheaton responded with 53 catches, while rookie Martavis Bryant surprised with 26 grabs, including eight touchdowns."
"TE Heath Miller has been underappreciated his entire career and has now accumulated over 500 catches."
"The offensive line held up last year, because Pittsburgh actually ran the ball some in 2014."
"RB Le’Veon Bell had a breakout campaign with 1,361 yards rushing and 83 receptions. He is a superstar in the making, but will miss the first two games after he and [former Steeler, now Patriot] LeGarrette Blount were cited with marijuana last summer."
"Defensively, Pittsburgh finished 18th in total yards allowed and scoring defense, mainly because of their struggles to pressure the QB and create turnovers."
"OLB Jason Worilds actually retired at age 27 and former first-round pick Jarvis Jones has three career sacks in two seasons."
"James Harrison is back, but the need was so substantial that they took Kentucky LB Bud Dupree with the 22nd pick overall."
"LB Lawrence Timmons is a quality player and they are hoping Ryan Shazier can return to form after missing seven games with separate knee and ankle injuries."
"The secondary will be completely remade in 2015 with Troy Polamalu and Ike Taylor both retiring."
"Major help is needed at corner and safety."
"Mike Mitchell and Shamarko Thomas will open at the safety spots, but the two corner positions are wide open."
"Big Ben will be expected to carry the team while the defense is reconfigured. This team can have a winning record and even make the playoffs, but they are not good enough to make a deep run.”
Winners of 11 of the last 12 division titles, the AFC East has been dominated by New England ever since Bill Belichick and Tom Brady joined forces in 2001. However, with Brady's four-game suspension, along with the departure of several key defensive players, this prolific run could be in jeopardy. Meanwhile, the Buffalo Bills and New York Jets have new coaching staffs and has added some key pieces, while the Miami Dolphins reeled in the biggest fish on the free agent market this offseason. This division seems more up in the air than in the past several seasons. Can a new team claim supremacy, or will the Patriots find a way to hold on to their crown for a seventh straight season?
In order to get an accurate assessment of how the AFC East shapes up entering the 2015 season, Athlon asked NFL scouts to talk anonymously about the Bills, Dolphins, Patriots and Jets.
“In one of the strangest coaching developments in recent memory, Doug Marrone opted out of his contract three days after a 9-7 season and landed in Jacksonville as an assistant. The Bills went with an opposite personality and hired Rex Ryan who had been released by the Jets and he will bring his open-book, player-friendly approach to western New York."
"Since trading their 2015 No. 1 pick last year for WR Sammy Watkins, GM Doug Whaley and the organization have continued with their aggressive tactics to try and add more talent to this roster. They traded for RB LeSean McCoy and QB Matt Cassel, signed TE Charles Clay to an offer sheet as a restricted free agent, inked OG Richie Incognito and also brought WR Percy Harvin into the fold."
"And yet, the question still remains, is EJ Manuel the long-term answer at QB? If he’s not, Cassel will serve as a stop-gap insurance policy, since Kyle Orton decided to retire... The OL is really ordinary to below average without a single big-time starter, although offseason reports indicate that LT Cordy Glenn is in the best shape of his career."
"Their defense is outstanding with quality players across the front, including DTs Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams, plus edge rushers Mario Williams and Jerry Hughes... Buffalo gave up LB Kiko Alonso in the McCoy trade, but he missed the entire 2014 season with an ACL and the D still finished fourth overall and first in third downs (33.2 percent)."
"The corners, Stephon Gilmore and Leodis McKelvin should give Ryan and defensive coordinator Dennis Thurman the freedom to use their pressure packages, while they added Florida State CB Ronald Darby in the second round as a potential nickel... With Rex’s energy and ability to motivate, don’t be surprised to see the Bills pull the new pieces together and break their 15-year playoff drought.”
“Cut it any way you like, but owner Stephen Ross brought in former NY Jets GM Mike Tannenbaum to evaluate and determine the fates of head coach Joe Philbin and GM Dennis Hickey following the 2015 season."
"It’s a one-year trial for them and a huge season for QB Ryan Tannehill."
"The Dolphins wanted to make a splash and they did so in free agency by signing DT Ndamukong Suh to the richest defensive player deal in league history. He is a major league talent and the expectation is that he will help control the run game and pressure the interior of the pocket, especially against New England."
"While the front is solid, DEs Cameron Wake and Olivier Vernon are maybe the most underrated pair of pass rushers in the league, the linebackers are second-rate and someone has to step up at corner opposite of Brent Grimes."
"Offensively, Miami has rebuilt the offensive line in two short years, but lost TE Charles Clay as an unrestricted free agent to Buffalo. He is a significant loss for Tannehill because the Dolphins also shipped WR Mike Wallace to Minnesota and traded for the Saints’ Kenny Stills."
"WR Jarvis Landry was a nice second-round find last year out of LSU and caught 84 passes as a rookie, but the hope is that first-round pick DeVante Parker can become the complete receiver Tannehill has lacked in his early career."
"TE Jordan Cameron was added from the Browns, but he’s had documented concussion issues despite being a quality receiving target... None of their RBs scare anybody, so Boise State product Jay Ajayi could get on the field right away despite a knee issue that deflated his draft stock.”
“After ten years of tantalizing frustration, the Patriots finally pushed through for their fourth Belichick-Brady Super Bowl title and you get the sense that they are enjoying this one unlike any before. With those two at the helm, everyone else seems to respond and play above themselves."
"Julian Edelman and Brandon LaFell complement each other well and became reliable targets in conjunction with TE Rob Gronkowski. It remains to be seen if Aaron Dobson can become a player, but with their offensive line in need of interior help, they added Florida State OG Tre' Jackson and Georgia Tech OG Shaq Mason in the fourth round of the draft."
"The Pats face three formidable fronts within the division as all of their opponents want to attack the base of the pocket and make Tom Brady move off his spot."
"LeGarrette Blount will miss the opener with a personal conduct policy suspension and they let Shane Vereen depart in free agency, but Travaris Cadet was signed from the Saints and there is great hope for James White to become a factor in 2015."
"NE has gotten amazing mileage out of their linebacker corps in the absence of Jerod Mayo over the past two years."
"Jamie Collins is the most versatile piece of their defensive strategy and has become a top player at his position."
"Dont'a Hightower is finally playing to his potential and reminds you of a 1980s New York Giants’ linebacker."
"Rob Ninkovich has thrived in New England because of his motor, technique and scheme fit."
"They did not exercise the Darrelle Revis option and Brandon Browner signed with the Saints, but they didn’t address the position during the offseason, so Logan Ryan, Malcolm Butler, Bradley Fletcher and Robert McClain are the current top four cornerbacks."
"Devin McCourty was retained as was Patrick Chung, so they are set at safety."
"One of their iconic figures in DT Vince Wilfork was allowed to walk (he went to Houston), but rarely have older players found the same kind of success elsewhere and the Pats are well-equipped to handle his loss with Alan Branch and Sealver Siliga providing some girth up front along with their past two first-round choices, Florida DT Dominique Easley and Texas DT Malcom Brown."
“After sweeping out GM John Idzik and head coach Rex Ryan, the Jets embarked on a cumbersome search for new leadership. Longtime NFL executive Charley Casserly was instrumental in the selection of his former understudy Mike Maccagnan as GM and Todd Bowles as the new coach."
"In an odd twist, both should send thank you notes to Idzik for leaving plenty of cap space, because the Jets have been as active as any team in this offseason."
"Defensively, they brought back the cornerback tandem of Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie, plus signed Buster Skrine from Cleveland and safety Marcus Gilchrist from San Diego. Those moves speak volumes about their faith in former first-round pick Dee Milliner as he now sits as the fourth cornerback and appears to be on the outside of their secondary plans."
"The front seven should be very good again with Muhammad Wilkerson, Sheldon Richardson and emerging LB Demario Davis as the primary playmakers up front." Editor's note: Sheldon Richardson will miss the first four games due to a suspension.
"And despite the defensive line being the strongest unit on their team, give Maccagnan credit for taking the ‘best available’ player in USC DE Leonard Williams who fell in their laps at pick No. 6."
"The fact remains that Geno Smith is the biggest unknown on this football team, and the new regime drafted an excellent developmental candidate in Baylor’s Bryce Petty... They traded for WR Brandon Marshall who will play for his fourth team in ten years. In spite of his career production, it’s hard to predict how this chapter will play out."
"The OL should be steady with James Carpenter being brought in from Seattle, but D’Brickashaw Ferguson and Nick Mangold have played their best football in the past."
"The Jets need Jace Amaro to step up as a second-year pro, because Jeff Cumberland is really just average."
"Stevan Ridley arrives from New England with a surgically repaired knee, but if healthy, he should bolster their backfield-by-committee, which also included a draft-weekend trade for the Rams’ Zac Stacy."
"Everything truly hinges on the QB play and what new offensive coordinator Chan Gailey can create with a bottom half of the league group of skill players.”
The college football fan of 2015 has unprecedented access to their favorite programs. Three major conferences operate their own television networks. Most athletic programs have in-house video content on their web sites.
There’s one area, though, where we’d like to see college teams take a cue from HBO and NFL Films. Every season, HBO provides an inside look at training camp for one NFL team. On Tuesday, the 10th season of Hard Knocks premieres with a behind-the-scenes look at the Houston Texans. The series has shown a rarely seen side of the pro game, from the personalities of players to the gut-wrenching process of cutting a player or being cut.
College football, too, should provide plenty of content for a Hard Knocks-style program. Certainly, TV networks and the schools themselves have shown glimpses, but all feel a little sanitized. Here are the schools we’d like to see get the full-on Hard Knocks treatment.
A behind-the-scenes look at the inner workings of the quarterbacks — the competition and the chemistry — would be compelling on its own, but Ohio State’s preseason preparation will be so much more. Whether he’s the starting quarterback or not, Cardale Jones is one of the more interesting players — or at least Tweeters — in the sport. Braxton Miller is a two-time Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year moving from quarterback to H-back. Sophomore linebacker Darron Lee is a character. Defensive end Joey Bosa might be the best player in the country at any position. And this group seems to genuinely like each other. Plus there’s all the defending national champion/preseason No. 1 drama. No team’s preseason camp will be more interesting.
For the second consecutive season, coach Nick Saban has mentioned that chemistry and/or leadership was lacking as the Crimson Tide fell short of a national championship. Oh, the horror, of simply winning the SEC and entering the College Football Playoff as the No. 1 seed. The standards are different at Alabama, and it will be curious how the Tide respond to Saban’s concerns in the ultra-competitive SEC West. Any insight into the quarterback situation would be worth monitoring as Jacob Coker makes a second bid for the starting job, this time against redshirt freshman David Cornwell. Lane Kiffin worked wonders with this offense last season, but Amari Cooper may have had something to do with the unit’s newfound explosiveness.
No SEC coach is having more fun than Bret Bielema. With Steve Spurrier getting all defensive this week, Bielema seems like the only SEC coach having any fun. He’s self-deprecating. He has colorful ways to describe gratifying kneel downs in bowl games. His goal is to make offensive linemen famous. And he cooks. In a league where most coaches take themselves too seriously, Bielema’s freewheeling attitude is refreshing. Have we mentioned this is a team that’s on the cusp of big things after winning four of the last six last season? This is a great time to join the ride.
A trip inside the world of Les Miles would be compelling TV in any season, no question. This season at LSU is particularly interesting. The Tigers slipped a spot down the SEC standings for the fourth consecutive season, and there’s an idea that LSU is out of excuses. The defense should be back to its normal depth and talent levels, particularly with Ed Orgeron whipping the defensive line into shape. Running back Leonard Fournette is a budding star. The question, as always, is quarterback. The SEC West isn’t getting easier, and LSU will be under pressure to turn the momentum.
With the way Jim Harbaugh has attacked this offseason, perhaps a look at preseason practice in Ann Arbor will be a let down. Harbaugh is a challenging figure with the media, but he’s at home coaching football. And at Michigan, he has a lot of work to do on the offensive side of the ball, starting with a crowded quarterback position. No coach wants to deal with off-field issues, but if a player has to describe a petty theft to the head coach, we wouldn’t complain.
The Seminoles have lost one game during the last two seasons, but the offseason narrative seems to be what’s gone wrong in Tallahassee. Only months after the Jameis Winston era (Saga? Drama?) ended, Jimbo Fisher dismissed a freshman quarterback for hitting a woman in a bar, and is watching for his star running back face his own allegations of violence toward women. Major actions are already being taken internally. Fisher says his team decided as a group to ban themselves from bars and clubs. And while FSU tries to improve its off-field image, the Seminoles still fashion themselves a playoff contender — and one with a transfer quarterback (Everett Golson) trying to pick up a complicated offense in short order.
Art Briles is in an interesting place. His program is on top of the Big 12. Baylor has become something of an “it” program with an exciting offense, new stadium and eye-catching uniforms. Briles can also claim underdog status, all of it in his own Texas-spun way. And that’s just the coach. Shawn Oakman is an outspoken personality even if he doesn’t know the name any of his competitors for Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year. And he already owns a python and plans to own an octopus some day. LaQuan McGowan is a 400-pound touchdown machine. And Seth Russell is stepping into a quarterback position where Robert Griffin III and Bryce Petty have thrived.
The Nittany Lions are going in the right direction in the second season under James Franklin. The question is how much improvement Penn State can make in one season. The two big questions are the offensive line, which happens to be coached by a man who was making his TV debut on Chopped this time last season. The other question is Christian Hackenberg’s headspace. The frustrations boiled over at times last season. Some of that had to do with the offensive line, a new coaching staff and untested receivers. But he is a high-level NFL prospect who needs a bounce-back year.
The Bruins have 10 returning starters on offense. The 11th starter could be the top freshman quarterback prospect or the 22-year-old son of the previous coach. And have we mentioned that this is a school where a rap mogul got into a tiff with the strength coach?
The Volunteers are on the cusp of returning to relevance in the SEC, and there’s nothing quite like watching a program making a long-awaited leap. Just ask Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Arkansas last season. The Josh Dobbs-is-an-aerospace-engineering major is dangerously close to being the SEC cliché of the year, but it’s still a compelling storyline. Linebacker Derek Barnett may be the best defensive player in the conference, and coach Butch Jones is already a rock star in Knoxville.
Hugh Freeze probably isn’t in as a great a mood as he should be even though his program is in the middle of a steady ascent. For one, his program is still smarting from a 42-3 bowl loss to TCU. His projected starting quarterback is looking to “change his story” after a short, but troubled tenure at Clemson. His most explosive wide receiver is recovering from a devastating broken leg. And his top offensive tackle is embroiled in NCAA questions after an altercation with his stepfather. That's a formula for some preseason intrigue in Oxford.
It's not easy getting college football coaches to honestly comment on another coach, player or team. Most coaches don't want to give opposing teams billboard material, which is why there is a lot of coach speak or overused cliches used during the year.
Note: These scouting reports come directly from coaching staffs and do not necessarily reflect the views of Athlon's editorial staff.
Big 12 Coaches Anonymously Scout Conference Foes
“They always seem to have not one, but three receivers. They always have a good running back. And their trigger man has been a guy who can run that offense.”
“Their issue has been defense. I don’t know if they’ll be much better this year. That always seems to be the thing that holds them back.”
“Art Briles has transformed the whole perception of that program. They were once great under Grant Teaff, then they hit a bump and lost sort of their tradition and the shine on the program. Art has brought them back with really good recruiting and great relationships with high school coaches and a system that works at a place like that.”
“You look traditionally at defenses that pair up with that style of offense, they don’t match up well at times. Then when you get to a power team, you haven’t seen it in the spring or the summer and it can get you. There’s some disadvantages in that. You’ve got to build yourself in this league to play, basically, five corners. Then you come up against somebody who wants to run the ball and you’ve got to change your mindset. It’s not easy to do it.”
“For seven or eight years now, I keep saying, ‘Oh good, they’re going to lose so-and-so at quarterback.’ Then all of a sudden the next guy comes in and breaks all the records. (Robert) Griffin, (Nick) Florence after him, and then Bryce Petty. The new quarterback isn’t bad, either.”
“They have a tremendous supporting cast. Scheme-wise, they spread the field and their athleticism at wideout and running back is where they’ve gotten better over the years.”
Related: Big 12 2015 Predictions
“They never seem to give up, no matter what their record is. They’re tough and disciplined. They always seem to have a playmaker, good linebackers. They’re solid in the kicking game.”
“Recruiting is difficult for them. They go all over to find kids and they don’t get the first pick, obviously. They have to go get some kids from Florida and obviously get into Texas. Not a lot of players in their backyard. It’s tough.”
“I thought schematically, what Mark Mangino does, he’s so good at studying the opponent and tweaking what he does week to week to move the ball.”
“The quarterback, Sam Richardson, is a guy who’s proven he can move the ball.”
“They’ve had a missing piece as far as a big-time playmaker. With Quenton Bundrage and Allen Lazard, they’ve got a chance to be better in that area. Those guys are talented.”
“If they lose (Luke) Knott, who’s been injured, that’ll be tough. To lose an experienced linebacker like that would be a blow. Depth is always a concern for them anyway, so a couple of injuries can really affect their team.”
“Not very often are they just blown out on the field.”
“The tough thing about them is when you play them in Ames, they’ve got an attitude about them and there’s a mystique. The crowd gets into it and they really support them. They’re different up there.”
Related: Big 12 Breakout Players for 2015
“I definitely think there will be excitement in the program. I think David Beaty brings excitement with his approach. He’s hired a bunch of young coaches who coach enthusiastically and with excitement.”
“They have a junior college resource right there in state that is probably as good as any junior college situation in the country. Maybe they can lean on that.”
“They’ve just got to create more consistency. They’ll have a skill guy here and there, but they never have a lot of them. Still, they’re not that far removed from going to the Orange Bowl, so it can be done.”
“They have to get rid of that basketball stigma and approach football with a different attitude, which I believe David will bring.”
“David knows Kansas. I don’t think he’ll complain about what they don’t have. I think he’ll buy into just making it work with what they have.”
“They’ve gone heavily into the junior college recruiting route recently, and sometimes those kids pan out better their second year. They might have some guys sitting in the wings that not many people know about, who could make a big improvement from their first year to their second.”
“They have some interesting guys at quarterback, guys with some skills, but I’m not sure either of the two are premium guys. And it takes a premium player at that position in this league.”
“Keeping Clint Bowen as defensive coordinator was smart. They’ve been pretty good on that side of the ball, and he’s a big part of that.”
“Two words: Bill Snyder. They’re the most well-prepared, well-disciplined team we play all year. We say the same thing every year, but he’s amazing. It’s incredible what he’s done since he came back (out of retirement).”
“They always seem to find a skill guy who can hurt you. And they always seem to find a quarterback who can run his system. Now, they have to do that again this year, losing Tyler Lockett and Jake Waters, but I always expect them to plug their holes.”
“Offense, defense, special teams, they don’t hurt themselves. When they play ‘perfect football,’ you’ve got to match them, or else every mistake is going to cost you in the game. I think they sort of grind you out until you make a mistake.”
“Kansas State was probably the most physical game we played last year. That’s sort of who they are every year. And you better be ready to get after it against them.”
“Thank goodness their quarterback is gone, because he was dynamic. I thought he was really underrated as far as a guy who could make things happen, throwing and scrambling.”
“They’ll be solid. They’ll be sound. And then they’ll be a very tough team. And they’ve got enough back on defense that they should be in every game.”
“Some teams are more aggressive in their schemes — Kansas State isn’t a big blitz team. They don’t bring a lot of pressure. So they might give up some yards. I don’t see them giving up a whole lot of explosive plays, though. So you have to really earn what you get on offense.”
Related: Big 12 Quarterback Rankings for 2015
“I think what Bob Stoops has done with the staff is try to create a new identity. It comes down to this offense being successful, not only in this league but across the country. Going that route, I think he’s going to restore excitement.”
“They were thin at receiver and they’ll have to be better there.”
“I don’t know who’s going to be the quarterback. And that’s a question mark. But they obviously have great running backs.”
“It’s hard to fathom them not having a great quarterback, but everybody misses in recruiting at times. And then if you miss on a guy like the quarterback, that can set you back. They’ve always been good at recruiting skill guys.”
“Lincoln Riley will bring an offensive philosophy similar to what Oklahoma State does, West Virginia does, Baylor, TCU. He’s a young coach with a great opportunity to be at a special program. I think he can breathe new excitement into it.”
“I’ve seen East Carolina play and I know the family tree — (Riley’s) not necessarily pigeon-holed into doing exactly what’s been done by Mike Leach and that family. He’s moved the ball against some great defenses. That’s what scares you. Watch what East Carolina did without maybe the talent and the recruits that everybody would say he’s playing against. He’s beaten a lot of those ACC teams that supposedly can recruit better than them. I haven’t looked at the stats, but I doubt there’s been a year where he’s been average on offense. That’s why he’s at OU now.”
“They have to find a quarterback, but they can probably win more games than they lose without throwing it one down, and just handing off to that No. 32 (Samaje Perine).”
“Wow, things really turned for the better for them in a hurry. And that all comes down to the quarterback. The (Mason Rudolph) kid was impressive, getting thrown into the fire late and handling the situation so well. Showed great maturity and calm. He looks like a really good one.”
“They were forced to play a lot of kids last year, and it really showed in some games. They got exposed in spots. But now those guys should benefit from the experience and turn depth into a strength, especially on defense.”
“(Emmanuel) Ogbah is a man. He’s so disruptive on the edge, with great speed and power and athleticism. And I think he’s going to be better after a full year as a starter.”
“They lost two really solid and underrated inside guys on the defensive line (James Castleman and Ofa Hautau). That’s not easy to replace, and it’ll be a big question mark going into the season.”
“(Brandon) Sheperd is a hoss when he’s really locked in. But he can drift, too. He was a man in the Oklahoma game and in the bowl. He could be their next stud at wideout, if he figures it all out.”
“They’ve always prided themselves on balance, but the running game was pretty ordinary last year. O-line improvements should help, but is there a game-breaker back there? They’ll be counting on the junior college kid (Chris Carson) to provide some juice.”
“They really miss Tyreek Hill, as much on special teams and for what he did to defenses as his production. You had to be aware of him at all times.”
Related: Big 12 Predictions for 2015
“They’re very skilled. Very well-coached. You can’t say enough about their skill guys. And with everybody coming back, the coaching staff coming back, there’s continuity there on the staff and on offense.”
“Anytime Gary Patterson is involved on defense, they’re going to be good. They’ve lost a lot on defense, but I see them not losing a step.”
“(Trevone) Boykin can be even better. The second year in the system, I’m sure (Doug) Meacham has learned what he can and can’t do and will tailor the game plan to what he does best. He was a completely different quarterback a year ago.”
“Right now, if you go down the schedule, you’d say they’re favored in every game. Now, that doesn’t mean anything now, other than they’re really talented and figure to be the solid favorite in the league. They still have to go out and do it. But they’re capable.”
“In the second year of Meacham’s offense, you don’t see them doing anything but getting better. And that’s scary.”
“They’ll have some tricky road games, at some tough places to play. But they’ve got the program to where that shouldn’t bother them.”
“Their biggest issue will be how they handle success. And how hungry they’re going to stay. That’s the thing you never know about. They rose up last year and had a great year and look like they’ve turned a corner. But you never know.”
“They’ve got the greatest recruiting hotbed in the country. They’ve got tireless workers in recruiting. I just think they’re going to take another step forward.”
“What’s held them back the past couple of years, they’ve gotten commitments early in a kid’s high school career and some of those kids didn’t pan out. And they’ve had some injuries. And some discipline problems where they had to remove some guys from the team. I think it’s a combination of all of that.”
“They could probably contend, because they can fill a few holes and be a lot better.”
“I see a normal progression. Just like Year 2 with players, that next year they’re more mature and they know the expectations, a lot of that same stuff is true for coaches in Year 2. They’re very proud down there. They’re very talented. I don’t think that staff’s going to let them accept mediocrity.”
“They need the quarterback position to develop. Tyrone Swoopes was good at times last year, really good sometimes. But there needs to be consistency. With another year of teaching and watching film and reps, he should get better. And to win a lot of games down there, I don’t think you have to be phenomenal at quarterback. You just have to be reliable.”
“They’ve got some inside receivers who are really good and cause some matchup problems. And the running back is back, and he’s a good one, so they’ve got some talent on offense.”
“This will be what, Kliff Kingsbury’s third year now? I’m sure he’s more comfortable with what he’s doing. And their staff as well. Sometimes it takes some time in transitioning to a new coach and a new system. Kliff has to have time to do that.”
“Defense is the question. They weren’t very good last year. I see that as a weakness.”
“I think the quarterback, Pat Mahomes, he’s a competitor. Last year, I think people saw him as a guy who could do what Kliff wants. I bet this year, he’s really going to give people fits, because he’s seen how people have attacked him, he’ll know where to throw the ball quicker. He can make a play when it’s not there. I was impressed with him last year. Their whole team will be a lot more sound, but he’s going to be the key for them.”
“They’re getting more recruits who fit to their scheme.”
“The defensive coordinator they got from Houston, David Gibbs, he’s highly respected. He does a lot of great things to bother quarterbacks, putting defenders in their eyes.”
“The overall maturity of their team is a question. There’s still youth in some areas.”
“How many dynamic playmakers they have? I’m not so sure. They don’t have as many as other people do, that when a game’s on the line, a guy makes a tremendous play.”
“They lost their quarterback (Clint Trickett) but could really be better there. The (Skyler) Howard kid was good when he got his chance last year. And they’ve got some competition there, too. And Dana Holgorsen knows what to do with good quarterbacks.”
“They’ll need some new receivers, losing two to the NFL. And Kevin White was a monster. He was so good last year, probably the best receiver in the nation. So that’s something to watch, to see if they can find the guys needed to keep that offense humming. They’ve been in this spot before and plugged in replacements. But it’s never automatic.”
“They’re much different and much better in Morgantown. They still have to prove they can go on the road and win big games.”
“They’ll go as far as their defense allows them to go. Speed on that side of the ball has been an issue, although they’ve had a few years now to recruit and build a defense better suited to handle the spread offenses of the league. You would think they will be better.”
“If it’s a close game and they need a kick to win, they’ve got one of the best field-goal guys around in (Josh) Lambert. That kid’s got a big leg. And he’s accurate, too. I don’t want to see him lining up with the game on the line. That is such a luxury to have — a kid who can step up and make a big kick.”
“They’ve got some experience and stability in the secondary, which they haven’t had since they’ve been in the Big 12. (Karl) Joseph is a playmaker back there.”
It's not easy getting college football coaches to honestly comment on another coach, player or team. Most coaches don't want to give opposing teams billboard material, which is why there is a lot of coach speak or overused cliches used during the year.
In order to get an accurate assessment of teams heading into 2015, Athlon asked coaches in the Big Ten to talk anonymously about their opponents.
Note: These scouting reports come directly from coaching staffs and do not necessarily reflect the views of Athlon's editorial staff.
Big Ten Coaches Anonymously Scout Conference Foes
“We broke down games with Sudfeld and without him, and they looked like two different teams. Teams just loaded the box and made it tough for (Tevin) Coleman to run the ball.”
“They also lost Tre Roberson before the season, who went on to take Illinois State to the (FCS) championship game.”
“The true freshman (Zander Diamont) has some ability, I guess, but they didn’t trust him to do much. Became very one-dimensional. They wanted to redshirt him.”
“I think their offensive scheme is really good. I think Kevin Wilson is a very good coach.”
“Their offensive line was one of the better lines we played against last year.”
“Coleman was a legit back. I was nervous every time he touched the ball. You were just thrilled every time you held him under 10 yards. He had so many big plays.”
“Defensively, they still have issues. They just haven’t been able to get the type of players on defense that they have had on offense. Maybe that’s because Kevin Wilson is an offensive guy, but they just don’t have the talent on that side of the ball.”
“They are just okay. They aren’t bad.”
“They had a sixth-year quarterback. You would like to think they could have done better with so much experience at that position.”
“They weren’t very good up front on offense, and they weren’t very good defensively. They just changed coordinators, so we will see how that plays out.”
“Offensively, they were a week-to-week operation. They were very opponent-specific in their game plan. One week you might see a lot of one thing and not see it much the next week. You weren’t 100 percent sure what they were going to do, so they were hard to prepare for.”
“I thought (wide receiver) Stefon Diggs was pretty good. Maybe a little overrated. He will be a loss. We didn’t have a specific gameplan for him, though. He struggled to stay healthy. I think their other wide receivers were pretty good.”
“Their skill guys were pretty good. Strongest part of that program.”
“Their talent level was down a bit, but they still had some good players.”
“Their offensive line was a big problem. They kind of had the same problems that Penn State had.”
“I think Devin Gardner was better than people gave him credit for. He is a unique athlete who was capable of throwing the ball. He could have been a great college football player in the right system.”
“They had one of the most dangerous receivers in the league in Devin Funchess. They had two or three five-star running backs. They had a slot receiver (Dennis Norfleet) who could make some plays. So I don’t think it was a lack of skill.”
“They lacked confidence. That was a big problem.”
“They lost some tough games. They lost to Minnesota and looked bad, and then they changed quarterbacks because everybody was busting their chops.”
“It’s not like they were horrible. By no means did I think they lacked talent.”
“(Cook) is very clutch. Just knows how to make the big plays. He was huge in the bowl game.”
“Everybody talked about Pat Narduzzi and the Michigan State defense, but they averaged over 500 yards of offense last year. That was the story with that team.”
“The offensive line is a machine. They have a good stable of receivers. Losing Jeremy Langford will hurt. He was a really good running back.”
“They have a lot of talent. It’s better than they make it out to be. Their schtick is that they don’t have as much talent as other teams, but they have a bunch of really good players.”
“They have a great quarterback and a ton of great skill players. But Mark (Dantonio) is a great coach. I have a ton of respect for him and his staff. They do a great job.”
“Losing Narduzzi will be interesting. He was there for so long and did such a good job. Will be interesting to see how big of a loss he turns out to be.”
“I didn’t think J.T. Barrett was that great until we played him. He was very impressive in person.”
“We saw Cardale Jones on film in some mop-up duty on film, but he never threw any passes. And I’m embarrassed to tell you that I didn’t think he was very good. But we hadn’t seen him do much. Then you watch him in a game, and he was great. He has a big arm, and he’s big and strong.”
“Urban Meyer does a great job tailoring his offense to what the quarterback can do.”
“Ezekiel Elliott was fantastic down the stretch. Hottest running back in the country. He will be on a lot of Heisman lists heading into next year.”
“I wasn’t surprised they won (the national title). I thought they would win it. I told everybody who would listen that I thought they would beat Alabama and Oregon. They were one of the best looking teams I have ever seen in person. And they are well coached.”
“That offense was so good late in the year. A lot of it was confidence.”
Related: Big Ten Predictions for 2015
“I’m not big on how you play in a bowl game carrying over into the next season, but they may be the exception because it showed their guys they can figure some things out until they get on the other side of the sanctions. I think it was a big buy-in win for their staff that will pay dividends down the road.”
“They were a trainwreck on offense. I know the quarterback (Christian Hackenberg) is a good player, but my gosh, he got hit more times than I can count.”
“They’re still a year away from solidifying that offensive line, but it’s going to be better. With the group they bring back and a couple guys coming off redshirts, they’ll have a little bit of depth. They’re still not out of the woods.”
“I’ve got a lot of respect for Hackenberg because he wasn’t dealt a great hand, but he showed some toughness and hung in there. He’s got a big arm, but it makes the game really hard when you don’t have time step up in the pocket and throw the way he was taught to throw. Most of his mistakes start right there, but the reality is it would be really ugly if he wasn’t back there.”
“They’re really good on defense, really well-coached, great scheme.”
“Their main guys up front and in the secondary are probably going to be as good or better than they were last year, but linebacker could be an issue for them because the guy they lost (Mike Hull) was really the heart and soul of their whole defense.”
“Anthony Zettel is a guy who can cause problems on the interior because of his quickness; they’ve got a good combination there.”
“The quarterback (Gary Nova) had his best year under Coach Friedgen. They scored a lot of points, especially at the end of the year. Losing him will be a significant loss.”
“They lose Nova, but they have a good quarterback coming in, the transfer from LSU, Chase Rettig. He is supposed to be a pretty good player.”
“Their talent level is in the middle of the league. I thought they were good enough to compete with most teams in the league. I thought the offensive line was very good. The running back (Paul James) was good, but he got hurt.”
“You could confuse Gary Nova into throwing some interceptions. That hurt that team all season and really, all throughout Nova’s career.”
“Leonte Carroo is a really good player, one of the better receivers we saw. We were very aware of him. He made a lot of big plays. They ran a lot of play-action and then hit him deep. He was a perfect ‘X’ receiver for what they were trying to do.”
“I’m interested to see what they do this year. They were probably better than everyone thought last year.”
“They were fortunate to win some of the games they did late in the season. Penn State probably should have beaten them, and they got lucky and didn’t have to face Trevor Simien in the Northwestern game. But give them credit. They won.”
“Their defense was terrible. Almost everybody scored a ton of points on them and gained over 400 yards.”
“I can’t think of anybody on their defense that jumped out at you, where you thought, ‘Hey, that guy can really play.’”
“Offensively, Wes Lunt is okay. His injury obviously hurt him and the offense.”
“That slot receiver, Mike Dudek, is a really good player. Losing him is a really tough blow. Such bad luck. He is in the mold of a Wes Welker and Julian Edelman. He did it all for them last year. He runs routes, returns punts. I have a tremendous amount of respect for him.”
“Other than Dudek, they didn’t have any weapons on offense. Everything seemed to be a struggle for them.”
“That’s an interesting job. You would think that it’s a great job because it’s in Illinois and you have Chicago to recruit to, but they’ve never been able to win consistently there. Very strange.”
“You want to talk about a team on defense that you know what they’re going to do, they know what they’re going to do, and they just line up and play their 4-3. They know all the weaknesses of it and how to combat the weaknesses, so I’ve got a lot of respect for them defensively because they don’t try to do it with smoke and mirrors. They line up and try to out-fundamental you and out-leverage you and out-tackle you.”
“I still think Jake Rudock is a quality player, but they got sideways on offense too many times and it was definitely weighing on them to figure out why it wasn’t working. They might miss him.”
“The other kid (C.J. Beathard) probably gives them more of what they need because he can sling it around a little bit and run if he needs to, which is what you want from your quarterback when you don’t have a bunch of guys who can separate from the defense.”
“I think the key to their whole team is what happens at offensive tackle. For the way they play, they’ve got to be able to run the ball, and you’re losing two excellent tackles who played almost every snap the last couple years. I don’t know how you replace that.”
“They’re going to beat you with defense and ball control, and they can. They have just enough talent now to beat you.”
“They won eight games last year and they didn’t have a wideout with more than 18 catches. Except for maybe the service academies, that’s unheard of in this day and age.”
“You’d think they’d throw it more just by accident looking for some screens, open it up a little bit when they’re behind. But they’re going to do what they do and they’re very committed to how they play.”
“The tight end (Maxx Williams), I don’t know how they’ll replace him.”
“They may have to adjust their passing game a bit and get the ball out to the perimeter a little bit more, maybe add some tempo to just to give people a different look. I don’t think they’re going to change what they do dramatically, but they have some guys who are capable of catching it if the quarterback can get it there.”
“That tailback (David Cobb) was a hell of a player, but I know they like a couple of the guys they brought in.”
“The quarterback is kind of a reflection of their team. He’s a big, tough dude, but they need him to be more accurate.”
“They’ve been a great team defensively, probably one of the top two or three in the conference the last couple years. It’s a tough group.”
Related: Big Ten Predictions for 2015
“They bring back a lot of starters on both sides of the ball, but they lose the monster defensive end (Randy Gregory) and Ameer Abdullah, so those are two big pieces they’ll have to replace right off the bat. They’ll have a different look.”
“Tommy Armstrong is just a guy. He’s probably better than Taylor Martinez, but I don’t think he’s great. His skill set doesn’t really fit the system they want to run because he’s so limited throwing the ball. They may have to get creative and mix in some zone-read stuff to keep him comfortable unless they want to just start over at quarterback, but I don’t see that happening to a guy who’s started two years there. It’s going to be a square peg in a round hole until they can bring in the guys who fit their offense.”
“Do they have another 1,500-yard (rusher) waiting in the wings? They’ll probably have to do it by committee. I think they’ll still be able to run the ball, but I don’t know if they have that one guy who really scares you.”
“They’ve got some speed on offense. (De’Mornay) Pierson-El was a weapon in the return game and looked like he could be a pretty darn good slot receiver.”
“I don’t think you replace a guy as good as Randy Gregory, but the defensive line might still be the strength of their team.”
“That’s a pretty powerful combination inside. Maliek Collins is really athletic and has great hands, quick hands.”
“I thought they were one of the weirdest teams last year. I think they would have gone to a bowl game if the quarterback (Trevor Simien) hadn’t gotten hurt. They would have beaten Illinois in that last game. They only won five games, but they beat Wisconsin, Notre Dame and Penn State. That’s pretty good.”
“Their running back, Justin Jackson, is very good.”
“I think their scheme is very good. They are well coached.”
“They have a good receiving corps, but they dropped an incredible amount of passes. They had guys wide open, and they would drop the ball. They could have beaten Cal and Northern Illinois if they would have caught one or two more passes. They could have beaten Michigan too.”
“I’ve heard the name Zack Oliver. Don’t know much about him, but I’ve heard he’s a pretty good quarterback.”
“I like Fitz. I can’t speak for anybody else. He is the type of coach I like. Hard-nosed. Bright guy. Perfect guy for the job there.”
“I have no doubt that they will be back in the mix in the Big Ten West in the next few years.”
Related: The Big Ten's Best Alternate Helmets
“I thought they made a lot of strides last year offensively. I know it might not have shown on the scoreboard, but they were moving the ball at times. They put some scares in people. In this profession, that doesn’t mean much, but there was marked improvement offensively.”
“They haven’t been real consistent at quarterback. They got better after they settled on (Austin) Appleby in the middle of the year, but it’s always tough for a coach when your most productive guy isn’t your most talented guy.”
“(Akeem) Hunt was the one guy who could really run away from you, so they’ll have to find a way to replace him as a big-play threat.”
“I don’t think they have any choice but to ride it out and let Darrell (Hazell) try to fix the roster. Once some of their redshirt freshmen and sophomores start playing a little more you’ll have a better idea what direction they’re headed.”
“The linebacker (Ja’Whaun Bentley) is a guy they can build around. He was pretty explosive.”
“Losing their two safeties puts them in a tough spot from a depth standpoint. I think they’re going to have to move some people around or just play a bunch of freshmen to cover all their bases in the secondary.”
“Paul Chryst was who Barry (Alvarez) wanted in there after Bret Bielema. I’m not saying they got away from their identity when Gary (Andersen) was in there, but Paul is going to embrace everything about the program. He’s a natural fit and there are no surprises on either side.”
“I think the change will help Joel Stave a whole bunch. The mental part of the game is obviously big with him, and now he’s back with the guy who recruited him and believed in him from the beginning.”
“It will be interesting to see who they’re going to plug in at tailback. It seems like they’ve had a great tailback there for 10, 12 years straight.”
“I would think Corey Clement is capable of sliding over as the No. 1 guy, but having a second tailback is pretty important in their offense too. That’s probably the biggest question mark, and the other is whether they’re going to be as good up front.”
“The linebacker position is a red flag when you go from having two battle-tested seniors inside to a couple guys who haven’t played that much.”
“They don’t have a bunch of great cover guys in the secondary, but it didn’t matter as much because of how much pressure they put on the quarterback. They need the front seven to help them out.”
"I think their defense is fantastic. I was happy to see Chryst keep Dave Aranda because I think that’s the right thing to do."
It's not easy getting college football coaches to honestly comment on another coach, player or team. Most coaches don't want to give opposing teams billboard material, which is why there is a lot of coach speak or overused cliches used during the year.
Note: These scouting reports come directly from coaching staffs and do not necessarily reflect the views of Athlon's editorial staff.
SEC Coaches Anonymously Scout Conference Foes
“Who’s going to be the quarterback will have a lot to say about how their season goes. Treon Harris was effective at times, but I’m not sure that’s the answer long term. The old staff thought Will Grier was their most talented guy, but we’ll see.”
“If you look at what Jim McElwain did at Colorado State, he zeroed in on one guy early and developed the heck out of him. I bet he’ll do the same thing at Florida. He’ll pick the guy who gives him the best chance to win down the road and ride him through the ups and downs. I just don’t know who that guy is.”
“Whether it was injuries or lack of depth, offensive line was a big issue the last two years. With a new system, how will it affect them? If the offensive linemen they recruited are as good as advertised, they’ll have a chance to be good down the road. It’s hard to win playing freshmen in this league.”
“Who are their playmakers? The Demarcus Robinson kid has a chance to be pretty special at wideout, but who else? There’s a reason they struggled to score points.”
“Will Muschamp recruited some talent there so they have players on defense, but they lost three guys up front. It’s not easy to replace a Dante Fowler.”
“I would think their back end should be as good as anyone.”
“Hargreaves may be the best corner in the country”
“Geoff Collins had the No. 1 red-zone defense in the country last year at Mississippi State and one of the better third-down defenses. He’ll bring a lot of energy.”
“The quarterback situation is a big unknown. Who’s the guy? How will they use him? Will he be a guy who has to make plays or a guy they ask to just not get them beat? I’m sure Brice Ramsey is the guy they’re counting on, but he hasn’t played a lot of meaningful snaps. Is there a Plan B if he can’t get the job done? I’m not sure.”
“I don’t understand why people there gave Mike Bobo a hard time. Look at the numbers. Offense wasn’t their problem.”
“Nick Chubb is phenomenal, and he’s a great young man, by the way. Brian Schottenheimer will come in and build it around him. I don’t expect they’ll change much philosophically.”
“I think Jeremy Pruitt does a great job with their defense. They were a little bit inconsistent, but they were significantly better than the year before. You could see his DNA starting to impact the way they played.”
“Lorenzo Carter has a big-time future. I thought he was a very impactful linebacker as a freshman, and I expect him to have a breakout year. He could be a difference-maker for their entire defense.”
“I was surprised Leonard Floyd came back. He should be an All-SEC guy without question.”
“They lost some solid linebackers, and they finally got Damian Swann to play to his potential at cornerback last year. That’s a lot of experience to lose at key positions, so how they replace them will go a long way in determining how dominant they are.”
“He’s (Stoops) done a really great job recruiting, but it’s still hard at Kentucky to get the same level of player they face week in and week out. I know this, though: He’ll get the most out of the defensive talent he has.”
“The schedule caught up to them last year, but from afar it seemed like they made strides turning the culture around up there. Unfortunately, it doesn’t get any easier in this conference; plus they have to play Louisville. In any other league, they would’ve been a bowl team, but with their schedule they needed to pull an upset or two.”
“It was tough to scheme for them because they change up what they do offensively week to week. They played at a real fast tempo. Neal Brown left (for Troy), so it’ll be interesting to see how they make the adjustment and how they deal with staff changes because they had pretty good continuity early on.”
“I really like Patrick Towles. He’s big and he’s more athletic than you think. He doesn’t get a lot of publicity because he’s at Kentucky, but I think he’s one of the better quarterbacks in the league.”
“They have some nice-looking skill guys and do a good job spreading the ball around, but you still have to get it done up front in this league to win big.”
“They’ve never been a team that’s going to wow you with who’s on their depth chart, but they play hard, they play sound, they don’t beat themselves and they just win. There’s something to be said for that.”
“You can say the East has been down, but you don’t think Georgia or Florida would’ve liked to go to Atlanta the last two years? Hell, South Carolina has only gotten there one time ever since they’ve been in the league. It’s pretty amazing what they’ve done there over the last decade.”
“Dave Steckel was the most underrated defensive coordinator in the league. Just look at the guys they’ve developed on the defensive line the last two years.”
“They may not be as good on the edge without Shane Ray, but from a scheme and preparation standpoint they shouldn’t miss a beat with Barry Odom. He was with Steck for a number of years. He knows the style Pinkel wants to play, and he proved himself as a coordinator at Memphis. He’s real good.”
“Maty Mauk is definitely not the most accurate passer in the league, but they know what he is, he knows what he is and he’s won games for them. That counts for a lot.”
“What people overlook is how talented they’ve been at receiver. When they had Dorial Green-Beckham, L’Damian Washington and Bud Sasser two years ago, they were as good as anybody. I’m not sure they’ve replaced those guys with the same level of talent. But they have a veteran at quarterback, and if he can play a little bit better, they can be a real threat.”
“I think what happened to them defensively last year was more of a fluke than a trend because they’ve been really good for four or five years before that. I expect them to bounce back and be much better.”
“They were definitely the biggest disappointment in the league, but they had some crazy losses. If they don’t blow big leads against Mizzou, Tennessee and Kentucky, it’s another 10-win season and they go to Atlanta. Shows you how fast things can change in this league.”
“Who’s going to replace Dylan Thompson? He was a tough customer. I really don’t know much about their young guys. This is really the first time in awhile they’ve gone into the fall without a pecking order at quarterback, but Coach Spurrier always does a good job with their offense and you’ve got to think he’ll figure it out.”
“Mike Davis didn’t have the year they expected, but he was a big part of their team. Who knows, they may be just as good running the ball. Brandon Wilds has had some big games for them.”
“They lost some guys, but they have playmakers at receiver. The variety of ways they use Pharoh Cooper will make them hard to gameplan for. They can line him up in the slot, out wide or under center and get first downs when they need to.”
“If they do have a quarterback, you have to like their chances in the East.”
“Even though Mike Bajakian left (for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers) right when they were starting to figure things out offensively, I know they feel really good about Josh Dobbs and the direction they’re going to go. Stylistically, I think they’ll probably be a lot like Auburn with Nick Marshall, a guy who can put pressure on the defense with the way he runs it.”
“Their wide receivers are big-time. They can run and they’re long.”
“Jalen Hurd, that dude is going to be a stud. They have a ton of skill coming back.”
“My question is can they run the football well enough outside of the quarterback? They had to overhaul the offensive line last year and they need some more consistency there to take the next step.”
“A.J. Johnson was their best defensive player in my opinion. He was really good and I don’t know if they can replace everything he did.”
“Cam Sutton is an excellent cornerback. He finds ways to make plays on the ball.”
“They’ve upgraded their talent level overall, but I just don’t know if they have a bunch of difference-makers on defense.”
“The next couple years, I think if they can keep some guys healthy and win a close game or two it wouldn’t surprise me to see them at nine wins.”
“Defensively, they did some really nice things. They’re sound, they’re fundamental. It was a no-brainer for (Derek) Mason to take a more active role in the defense. It can be tough for a first-time head coach to get a feel for how much involved to be on one side of the ball, but if he thinks their defense will be better if he’s more hands-on, it’s the right move.”
“I know just from talking to people that they do feel like the intensity in spring ball was a lot higher than last year. They said it was a positive, noticeable change and I would expect them to be better.”
“It was a complete trainwreck offensively last year. They couldn’t settle on a quarterback, and I think moving them around so much hurt their whole team. It didn’t seem like they knew what they were offensively or what they wanted to be. Once they establish who their quarterback is going to be, they’ll get better in Year 2. But who is that guy? I have no idea.”
“I still don’t know if they have dynamic playmakers. The Webb kid played pretty well for them as a freshman, but that was about the only bright spot offensively.”
“I’m guessing they may struggle to score again, so they’ll need to be really good on defense.”
“It’s an NFL-style attack on both sides of the ball, and they have big people that understand the system and play really well together.”
“They do a lot of different things with motions and shifts, and they’re very sound fundamentally.”
“Their defensive front will be as good as it’s been the last five years. They’re two-deep — at least — at every position. They eat up a lot of space and don’t let you run the football. That’s what they’re built to do.”
“They don’t have a C.J. Mosley-type at linebacker, but Reuben Foster is unbelievably talented. That’s a good solid part of their defense.”
“Teams hurt them on the back end of their defense last year, but they have guys returning in the secondary who are great athletes. They should be better there. Teams picked on Tony Brown a little bit last year as a freshman, but he’s a really talented corner. I’d be shocked if he doesn’t take the next step.”
“The quarterback question is interesting. With (Jake) Coker, throwing the ball isn’t the issue. They tried like crazy to make him the guy last year, but (Blake) Sims just outplayed him. Does (Coker) have the moxie? That’s the intangible you need to go out and win games in this league.”
“Nobody in the league was real sad when T.J. Yeldon and Amari Cooper declared for the draft, but the way they’ve recruited you know they’ll have playmakers on the perimeter.”
Related: SEC Predictions for 2015
“The thing that comes to mind with them is just how big they are. They’re freaking huge, and they’re physical. Yeah, they do a lot of shifts and motions offensively, but the big thing is they’re going to establish the run game, pound you and try to wear you down.”
“The defense is sound. They play with great fundamentals, and they’re not going to beat themselves. They’re going to let the offense eat the clock up.”
“Robb Smith did as good a job as anybody in the country last year with that defense. His scheme is very sound, very solid and he doesn’t ask those guys to do too much, but he puts them in position to make plays. He’s really good scheming up his opponent and taking away what they do best. I was really impressed with the way he had those guys playing by the end of the year.”
“Losing the (Darius) Philon kid early will hurt them up front. He and (Trey) Flowers were two difference-makers.”
“Bijhon Jackson is their best inside guy, and Deatrich Wise is a really good long player at defensive end that can maybe be similar to what Flowers was for them.”
“I don’t think they have elite guys on the back end, but they don’t play a lot of man. They’re a zone team and his scheme allows those guys to play well with what they do.”
“Brooks Ellis is a solid player at linebacker. He made great strides last year from the year before. I think he’ll be very good.”
Related: SEC Breakout Players for 2015
“They’re really, really fast. They had a dynamic quarterback for what they did in Nick Marshall, but the times you saw Jeremy Johnson come in, he’s got legitimate arm talent. He’s proven in games what he can do.”
“Getting Duke Williams back for another year was huge for them. He is bigger than they list him. He’s a big, big man and he can run — great hands, great catch radius.”
“They lost Sammie Coates, but I don’t see a big drop-off at receiver. They have a bunch of guys who can make plays.”
“They’re surprisingly physical. The spread gets a misnomer that it’s not a physical attack, but their base play is power, and their second play is a buck sweep.”
“They weren’t as good at the H-back position without Jay Prosch, but the word is they have some physical young guys who can play that position so their running game may be better.”
“They’re younger in the backfield and don’t have the one big-name guy like Tre Mason or Cameron Artis-Payne, but they may be more talented overall.”
“On defense, a healthy Carl Lawson will be huge. He can impact the game in a big way. Auburn’s defensive line will be about as good as anybody in the league, but will there be the depth there they need?”
“Can they get consistent play on the back end? That’ll be the key. Jonathan Jones made a bunch of plays last year, and he’s pretty good.”
“(Johnathan) Ford is in position to have a monster year at safety. He’s about as fast as anyone in the SEC.”
Related: SEC Quarterback Rankings for 2015
“I’m mystified why they haven’t been good offensively. They have dynamic receivers. Their offensive line is big, and (Leonard) Fournette is phenomenal. They have talent on the perimeter. Really, they have everything they need. If they can get better quarterback play, they’ll be one of the better offenses in our league.”
“Brandon Harris is as gifted as any player as you can find throwing the football. Can he win the job or can they make him fit into their system? If it works itself out, he’s very talented. If he’s not the guy they’ll be very similar to last year, really conservative.”
“They’ll be great in the secondary. They always are. They have long athletes that can cover and run.”
“It’ll be interesting to see which direction they go schematically with Kevin Steele.”
“Kendell Beckwith has a chance to maybe be the best linebacker in our league. He’s big-time. He’s what you think of when you think of an LSU linebacker, and their other backers are good, too.”
“They struggled a bit at defensive tackle last year, and it may be a lot of the same, but Davon Godchaux is going to be great. He played a lot as a freshman and he’ll be a factor.”
“They don’t have the defensive ends they’ve had in the past. Maybe (Kevin) Steele will have a different scheme that allows the guys they do have to be what they need, but they don’t have those typical LSU guys you’re scared you can’t block.”
“Dak Prescott isn’t the most talented guy, but I just think he’s a winner. As long as he’s there, they can be really, really good.”
“There are some defensive question marks, but I think with the bulk of the offense coming back, they’ll be fine.”
“De’Runnya Wilson is one of the most underrated receivers in the league. He’s a little bit raw, but if he takes another step forward he’s going to be a big-time player.”
“Defensively, they lost a bunch up front. Chris Jones will still be a big factor, but they were six or seven deep on the defensive line last year. They would roll their second unit in and sometimes they were just as good as the first unit. I can’t see that happening again.”
“Losing Benardrick McKinney will hurt them at linebacker. He was a really good player. He was the key to the style of defense they played, and I’m not sure how they replace that.”
“I think Geoff Collins did a great job there, but Manny Diaz plays a different style completely. Geoff had more of a ‘bend, but don’t break’ type defense. You could get yards, but he didn’t give up many points. Manny’s style is really good at forcing turnovers. He’s probably a little more aggressive and creates a little more havoc.”
Related: SEC Quarterback Rankings for 2015
“They’re just as athletic as anybody in our league. They may have the most athletic front, and (Robert) Nkemdiche can really move for a big guy.”
“People don’t really talk enough about Isaac Gross. I thought he was the best nose tackle we played last year.”
“Their ends aren’t big guys, but they can really rush the passer.”
“Losing Senquez Golson hurts them at corner, but they’ll be solid on the back end. Trae Elston was their best safety the last two years. Cody Prewitt got all the accolades, but we thought Trae was the better player all along.”
“Dave Wommack is just so sound and his guys play hard.”
“If you don’t have a quarterback in our league you’re going to struggle. That’s a big question for them, but they’ll be talented at wideout again if (Laquon) Treadwell comes back healthy.”
“They’re different because they don’t really try to run the ball. They just run it because they have to, to keep you as honest as they can.”
“If the (Chad) Kelly kid can become a player they’ll have a chance to contend because their defense is going to be good enough. I just don’t know if their depth on the offensive line is that great.”
“Do they have a big-time SEC running back? If not, your quarterback better be special. As good as Bo Wallace was, everybody knew he’d beat himself a little bit, too.”
“Who knows if Kelly can produce, but they have talent.”
“You could see Kyle Allen progress as the season went on. I’m not sure why he didn’t start from Day 1. Everyone was talking about Kenny Hill after that first game, but Allen was the more talented player all along. It was only a matter of time before they made the switch.”
“I really like how they used Speedy Noil. He’s a dynamic guy you can move around, do different things with. I’d try to get him as many touches as possible and I’m sure that’s what they’re planning to do, but with smaller guys like that you have to be careful not to wear them down.”
“They’ll be better on defense with John Chavis, no question. You know what you’re going to get with him. He’s been so good for so long. He’s just going to do what he does.”
“Schematically, what you’ve seen from LSU the last decade is what you’re going to start seeing from A&M.”
“They probably have the most talented defensive player in our league in Myles Garrett. He’s the one guy for sure that you know you’re going to have to give your tackles help with. He’s phenomenal. He was hard to block as a freshman, so what he’s going to be in Year 2 is pretty scary. He’s not real physical against the run but as a pass rusher he’s the best in our league — and it’s not even close. He can really change a game by being that kind of player alone.”
“They lost a lot in the secondary and have some guys back in the middle, but I’m not sure how elite they really are.”
It's not easy getting college football coaches to honestly comment on another coach, player or team. Most coaches don't want to give opposing teams billboard material, which is why there is a lot of coach speak or overused cliches used throughout the offseason or regular season.
In order to get an accurate assessment of teams heading into 2015, Athlon asked coaches around the nation to talk anonymously about their opponents.
Coaches Anonymously Scout BYU for 2015
“Without Taysom (Hill), they were very average. I think he gives them a chance to be an elite team because he’s a difference maker.”
“It will be interesting to see if they can rebuild it around him (Hill) without having him full speed in the spring.”
“They’ve got some dudes that when they walk off the bus, they look like the real deal.”
“Offensively, their skill guys really stand out in some of the finer details. Their blocking out on the perimeter is really key to what they are able to get done with their style of offense.”
“I love their center (Tejan Koroma). He was a freshman last year, and he was just dang good already.”
“It really hurt their running game when Jamaal Williams got hurt. Just like Taysom, if he comes back healthy, they’ve got a chance to be really good. But that’s a big question mark.”
“Their personnel can be tough to scout because they’ve always got guys coming back from (LDS) missions, but you know they’re going to be loaded at linebacker. That’s just who they are.”
“They lose pretty much the entire back end of their defense, so they probably have some question marks there.”
“I think they’re a team that is a little bit up and down emotionally for whatever reason.”
Pac-12 Coaches Anonymously Scout Conference Foes
“They were really a handful of plays away from going 8–5, and most of it was because of their young kids, so that bodes pretty well for the future.”
“With Jared Goff, the numbers weren’t dramatically different from his freshman to sophomore year, but the film was much better. He’s pretty accurate throwing to all three levels, he doesn’t throw interceptions, and he doesn’t get sacked very often. That’s what you need in Sonny Dykes’ system. He had a clear conviction about the guy throwing him out there as a freshman, and it’s probably going to pay off this year.”
“They don’t have receivers that blow you away athletically, but they’ll go four or five wide and try to find a good matchup on the perimeter.”
“When they’re in a rhythm and playing at a high tempo, that’s tough to stop.”
“They had some issues defensively, and I think you’ll see a lot of new personnel on the back end because teams just threw it over the top on them all day long.”
“They brought in some juco guys, so we’ll see if that makes a difference. I know they feel like their depth has improved across the board.”
“Their pass rush was basically nonexistent last year.”
I think they’ll be better, but there aren’t a lot of easy wins in this league. They can definitely get to a bowl game, but it’s a thin line when you’re still trying to plug holes and rebuild.”
“It’s not like this is the first time they’ve lost key guys and had to re-boot a little bit.”
“I read a bunch of stuff after the championship game about how their window was closing without Marcus Mariota, but they’re still going to be really good.”
“I haven’t really studied the quarterback from Eastern Washington (Vernon Adams) yet, but I’m sure they did their homework and feel like he’s got a chance to help them. Without having him in the spring, it’ll be interesting to see how much ground he can make up.”
“Their depth at receiver is sickening, and a lot of those guys can do different things. It’s not just all speed; they’re pretty good blockers too.”
“They’re so talented on the perimeter — I don’t think the next guy has to come in and be Marcus Mariota.”
“I’m not sure it would have made a difference against Ohio State, but I think losing Devon Allen in the Rose Bowl really hurt them.”
“Royce Freeman is already a grown man. He’s everything you want in a running back, and he’s only going to get better and stronger. He was as good as anyone the last half of the season.”
“They won’t be as good up front, but they got experience for some of their younger guys last year when Jake Fisher and Hroniss Grasu got hurt.”
“Switching Charles Nelson over to defense is classic Oregon. They recruit the guy to play receiver, he’s great down the stretch and then he willingly moves to defensive back because they needed more help there. That says it all about the culture they’ve got there.”
Related: Pac-12 Predictions for 2015
“They were one of the most prolific passing teams in the country the last two years, but unless one of their freshman quarterbacks is all-world, they’re going to have to completely change their identity and play more ball control like they did at Wisconsin. I don’t think that’s what they want to be long-term because they brought in Dave Baldwin to run the spread, but they just have a lot of question marks at quarterback.”
“Storm Woods is pretty talented, but he’s never been the focus of their offense. I don’t know exactly how the new staff is going to use him, but I’m sure those guys put in some tape of Melvin Gordon and said, ‘Let’s go,’ to fire him up, which is really half the battle. If he buys in, they’re experienced enough up front that they’ll be decent running the ball.”
“From a personnel standpoint, they’re pretty much starting over on defense, so your guess is as good as mine.”
“We know what Kalani (Sitake) did at Utah, but they’re going to need some time to get the right kind of players in there to run that system.”
“I don’t know why it hasn’t totally clicked with Kevin Hogan. He looks the part and he doesn’t get them beat, but for whatever reason he just hasn’t gotten to that next level everybody envisioned when he played so well as a freshman.”
“You can’t totally judge him (Hogan) on the numbers because of how conservative they play on offense. Still, it was a struggle last year. If they hadn’t turned it around the last three games, I’m not sure he’d have stuck around.”
“If he comes back with a big senior year, they have a chance because their tight ends, receivers and running backs are all good enough to win games in this league. It’s a solid group.”
“Ed McCaffrey’s kid (Christian McCaffrey) is going to be a big-time player for them. They’ve got to figure out a way to get him more touches.”
“Defensively, I think it’ll be hard for them to get back to where they were a couple of years ago.”
“It looked like their young guys got better as the year went on, but I just don’t see another Trent Murphy or Shayne Skov out there.”
“You can talk about system and player development, but you still need some difference-makers. (Blake) Martinez is good, he’s just not at that level. If the defensive end (Solomon Thomas, who redshirted in 2014) is as good as advertised, maybe he could be that guy.”
“From the outside looking in, it seems like Chris Petersen had to clean up some stuff off the field from the previous staff, and that’s never easy. At Boise, he had the best talent in the league and everyone in the organization understood their culture. I think he figured out pretty quick this is a different deal.”
“When you look at some of the big-time guys they lost, I think they may take a few steps back before they move forward.”
“You have to give their staff the benefit of the doubt until some of their guys (they recruited) hit the field, but they’re going to have some personnel problems this year.”
“It’s hard to get a feel for the offense because they’re completely new up front and they’re basically starting over at quarterback. That’s not usually a great formula for success.”
“The backup from last year (Jeff Lindquist) has some experience, but they may have better options with their newcomers. It’s just hard to say until you see them on the field.”
“I don’t see how they’re going to rebuild the front seven on the fly unless all the guys who were backups last year are ready to start. They were pretty good there last season, but they lost a ton.”
“The secondary is probably the most established group on their team. Budda Baker was one of the better freshmen we saw last year. He could be one of those guys people just don’t throw on.”
“I hate to say this, but it may have been a blessing in disguise that Connor Halliday got hurt last year because they got a look at the other kid (Luke Falk) and probably have a pretty good idea what they’re working with going into the season. I don’t really know how good he is, but he threw the ball seventy-something times against Arizona State (45-of-74) so it’s not like they tried to hide him.”
“They bring back their entire offensive line back, and those guys were solid last year. They’ve got kids in the program now who know the system and what to expect.”
“They’re going to need some newcomers to show up ready to play on defense. They had one of the better linemen in the league last year (Xavier Cooper), but he and the nose tackle who was pretty good (Kalafitoni Pole) are both gone, so I’m not sure who they’ve got in there.”
“With a new defensive coordinator, I think they’ll make some changes schematically and look at some guys who maybe didn’t play a lot last year.”
“When you play like they do offensively, you’ve got to cause some havoc with your defense, and they just didn’t create a lot of turnovers.”
“You can say they got some breaks, and they did, but to come in with a (redshirt) freshman quarterback (Anu Solomon) and a freshman tailback (Nick Wilson) and win the best division in college football outside of the SEC West is pretty tough to do.”
“It seemed like Rich was playing mind games with the kid (Solomon) all season, and then he ripped him after the bowl game and said he had to win the job again. I laughed at that one. The guy threw for 4,000 yards as a freshman and is probably going to have a great year.”
“Their receivers and running backs are just fast across the board. Austin Hill was their third option in the passing game last year, and he’d probably be a front-line guy just about anywhere in the league. Cayleb Jones did nothing at Texas and instantly becomes a 1,000-yard guy in that system.”
“The tough thing about playing their defense is you can’t really scheme for Scooby Wright. Your guys know where he’s coming from and what he’s trying to do, but his motor is just off the charts, and he’s going to get five or six opportunities to make a game-changing play just off effort. He’s a special dude.”
“They need to find another guy besides Scooby who can pressure the quarterback.”
“People are going to try to throw over the top on them until their DBs prove they can cover. Boise State exposed them a little bit in the bowl game.”
“I can’t speak to their locker room dynamic last year, but I’m not sure they were playing the right quarterback. I know Taylor Kelly was their guy and they couldn’t take his job over an injury, but to me, they were more dynamic when Mike Bercovici was in there. He’s got legitimate arm talent.”
“Jaelen Strong made their passing game look better than it was last year. They had pretty good skill on the perimeter, but he was just so much physically stronger than the DBs in this league, it was almost comical. That’s a big loss for them.”
“The reason they’re moving D.J. Foster to the slot is because Demario Richard is the real deal. Physically, he looks like a grown man and runs like it too.”
“Todd Graham ran the no-huddle back going back to Tulsa, and his teams have always put up a lot of points, but people forget he’s really a defensive guy. They’re probably more established in what they want to do on that side of the ball than they are offensively with everyone coming back but the safety (Damarious Randall).”
“He likes to blitz and get your offense out of rhythm. They switch up their pressure so much your QB has to really be on his toes and figure out where it’s coming from.”
“They’re one of the tougher teams to prepare for.”
“When you’ve got two senior cornerbacks and an all-conference guy like Jordan Simone on the back end, you can take some chances with your pressure.”
“I don’t think there’s a tougher rebuilding job in the country when you think about how far down they were coming into the Pac-12 and all the sudden everyone else in the division has it rolling a little bit.”
“They’re doing the right things to get on a level playing field from a facility standpoint, and they’re getting better. It’s just hard to get the momentum going until you start winning games.”
“You’re just not going to win very much giving up as many yards as they did in the running game (204.8 ypg) and not creating turnovers or sacks.”
“I think it’s pretty simple. If they don’t get better up front with the schedule they play, they might struggle to win a game in the league.”
“They’re maturing on offense. Sefo (Liufau) has a lot of snaps under his belt, and if he can be a little more consistent in his decision-making he can be really effective before it’s all said and done.”
“(Nelson) Spruce is just a fantastic route-runner. I was a little surprised he didn’t put his name in the draft after blowing up last year, but I’m not sure if the NFL guys are sold on him because of his (lack of) speed.”
“With what they’ve got coming back in the running game, I think their offense is going to be a net-plus.”
“I don’t think they’ll mind coming in a little bit more under the radar this year. The media got so fixated on the quarterback (Brett Hundley) last year, it kind of glossed over some of their other issues. This year people are going to talk about the new quarterback and forget that they’re bringing, like, everybody else back.”
“I don’t think they’re as talented player-for-player as SC, but they’re not that far behind.”
“(Jim) Mora is a hell of a recruiter.”
If they’re not a dominant team running the ball this year, I’ll be pretty surprised.”
“They took their medicine up front last year, but they were figuring it out by the end, and they’re going to be deeper with that group coming back.”
“I’m not sure how many people even realize Paul Perkins ended up the leading rusher in the conference. He’s not a guy with electric speed, but he’s a pretty smooth runner. He’s a bigger weapon than people give him credit for.”
“Everyone on the West Coast saw the (Josh) Rosen kid in high school, and he’s going to be really good. He’s a big, fluid, pro-style guy who probably fits what they want to do better than Hundley. It’s just a matter of whether they want to throw him out there right away. Getting him in the spring is huge.”
“If they figure out who’s going to play linebacker for them they’ll be the best defense in the league because they’re loaded up front and on the back end.”
“Kenny Clark is really the key in that three-man front. You can put two guys on him, but he’ll still make plays or free up space for their linebackers. He’s a monster.”
Related: Pac-12 Predictions for 2015
“They may have the best player in the country at a few positions, including quarterback.”
“I’m not sure people nationally caught on because of what Marcus Mariota did, but in any other year Cody Kessler would have been the Pac-12 Player of the Year by a pretty big margin. He’s such an accurate passer and so good in the pocket, it makes the game pretty easy when you surround him with the kind of athletes they’ve got.”
“Unless they just have a bunch of injuries, I don’t see too many people slowing down their offense.”
“They’ve got everything you need. Great quarterback, great at receiver, good enough in the running game, experience on the offensive line and some big-play guys they can throw to down the field.”
“They’ve got some questions on their defensive front, but it’s not about talent. They just need a couple of the younger guys to figure it out.”
“If Su’a Cravens could have entered the draft last year, he would have.”
“You lose to Boston College last year and you can talk about scholarships, but I don’t think they’ve got any excuses this year.”
“I think they’ve got the best center in the country, which helps them play at the tempo Sark wants.”
“They don’t do anything unique on defense from a scheme standpoint, but they’re just really physical, they get off blocks and they fly to the ball.”
“They’re not going to give up easy scores, and their ability to disrupt you with a sack or turnover can turn a game around pretty quickly. That’s why you saw them play over their heads a little bit at times. I think they’ll be the same kind of team this year.”
“Nobody really blocked Nate Orchard all year, but a lot of that was because their defensive front was so good across the board. They probably can’t replace his production in terms of sacks and TFLs and things like that, but they’re still going to rush the quarterback because of their scheme and the long, athletic guys they bring off the end.”
“They kept going back and forth at quarterback until the kid from Oklahoma (Kendal Thompson) got hurt, and they’re probably going to be right back in the same boat this year.”
“They’re probably the only team in the league that truly doesn’t mind playing field position.”
“The big left tackle is gone (Jeremiah Poutasi) and that could hurt them. It’s a younger group up front, but they’ve got some guys who played last year that they can move around.”
“I like the tailback a lot (Devontae Booker), but they just don’t have enough firepower on offense overall.”
ACC Coaches Anonymously Scout Conference Foes
“They don’t do anything to get themselves beat.”
“The coaching staff there has done a real good job, and they’ve gotten better every year, so I imagine they’ll continue to get better.”
“They’re mostly a zone team. Before Steve Addazio they were 100 percent zone, but they’ve started to play a little more man. Their defensive coordinator loves pressure, and from a preparation standpoint they’re probably the funkiest team we play because of how many looks they’ll give you. It takes a lot of time and practice just to get ready for the different blitzes and stuff you see on film that you’ve got to get right.”
“Personnel-wise, nobody really jumps off the page from the front seven and they’re nothing special in the secondary, but they do a real good job against the run and that will keep them in almost every game.”
“They’re starting over on the offensive line. They’re still going to try to run the ball and be physical up front because that’s Addazio’s personality, but they were a pretty mature team last season.”
Podcast: Complete 2015 ACC Preview and Predictions
Related: ACC All-Conference Team for 2015
“They spread you out and based on your numbers in the box, they’ll run it or throw it and try to isolate you in space with their playmakers and get you playing at their pace. They weren’t as successful at it last year because they struggled at quarterback when Watson was hurt and their running game was average, but I think they’ll be improved across the board.”
“It’s really tough to measure up to guys like Sammy Watkins and Martavis Bryant, but No. 7 (Mike Williams) was probably their best player and No. 3 (Artavis Scott) created a lot of big plays on the fly sweep and they’re both back. If (Charone) Peake is healthy, they’ll be as deep at receiver as they were a couple years ago.”
“They’ve never been great on the offensive line, but they’ve recruited some more talented players that should start to pay off for them.”
“They’re going to be talented on defense — I just don’t know how quickly they’re going to figure it out because of how much experience they lost.”
“Defensive line is probably the biggest question mark for them.”
Related: ACC Predictions for 2015
“That’s going to be a heck of a battle for them at quarterback. You know what you’re getting with (Sean) Maguire. I wouldn’t be surprised if they looked at (Deondre) Francois coming in as a freshman. He’s a real raw kid, but he’s got the ‘it’ factor. I don’t know if either of those guys is going to be as good as Famous Jameis, but they’re gonna be fine down the road.”
“It may be a little scary for them up front because they lost almost everybody but they’ve got one of the best offensive line coaches in the country. I’ve got a lot of respect for what (Rick Trickett) does with those guys.”
“I know they lose (defensive end) Mario Edwards, but I don’t think they’ll have much of a drop-off; I really don’t. They’ve always got defensive linemen. They may have a bigger drop-off in the secondary.”
“The biggest thing we’ve seen scheme-wise is I don’t think they’re as aggressive with Charles Kelly as they were with Jeremy Pruitt two years ago.”
“They’re probably the best defense we played last year, no question about that, and I think everyone in the league would tell you the same thing. From a personnel standpoint as well as an athleticism standpoint, they were outstanding. They lost a couple guys up front and the safety who had an unbelievable year (Gerod Holliman), and we knew (Lorenzo Mauldin) was a cat daddy, so it’s good to see he’s gone.”
“Will they be as good as they were? That’s tough to tell, but I don’t see a huge drop-off because they recruit pretty well and they’ve got some transfers they can plug in.”
“The safety from Georgia (Josh Harvey-Clemons) is going to help them big time.”
“There’s no question their secondary was probably the most physical we played, and top to bottom they gave us fits protection-wise. They really get after you.”
“The receiver (DeVante Parker) was as good as anyone we saw on film and was even better in person. They’ll miss him a great deal because he was the one guy who really jumped off the screen offensively. I think they’ll be OK at the skill positions.”
“My question is how good they’ll be up front because they do lose three starters and it’s a different style blocking scheme.”
“Their quarterback (Jacoby Brissett) didn’t play great against us compared to what we saw on film, but he is a really good player. He can make a couple special plays a game just taking off and running with it if things break down, and he’s better than advertised throwing the ball. He wasn’t real consistent at times, but he’s one of the more dynamic players in the league. Now that they’ve seen him, I imagine they’ll do stuff schematically that will help him a little bit more and play more to his strengths.”
“They were probably the most improved team in the league last year, and I think they’re only going to get more talented because that staff is doing a good job recruiting.”
“I don’t know if they’re going to put it all together this year, but they’re definitely a team you have to play well against to beat. Even when they’re bad that’s always a tough place to play.”
“They don’t have anyone on defense that we said, ‘Uh oh, we’ve got to account for that guy,’ but they’ve significantly improved on defense. Their front seven was pretty good, fairly physical, but they did have a lot of seniors so that may be a little bit of a problem. They were decent in the secondary and they’ve got most of those guys back.”
“They play a lot of zone and blitz a lot but whatever the book says, they’ll do the opposite. If it says you’re supposed to sit back and play coverage, they’re coming. As a play-caller, you’re trying to get in a rhythm and build one thing into the next, but they’re coming from everywhere.”
“I don’t want to say they’re unsound, but they’re just always turning guys loose and if you can get the ball out you have a chance to hit them in the mouth, and if they have a busted protection you’re going to hit them.”
“They struggled offensively before the quarterback (Terrel Hunt) got hurt and struggled even more after he got hurt.”
“Watching them on film, it seemed like they were trying to do way too much to compensate for the fact that they didn’t have enough playmakers. The probably outsmarted themselves a little bit.”
“What’s their bread and butter? If they can figure that out they may have a chance because their defense will keep them in some games but they’re probably not going to beat you throwing the ball.”
“They really had problems all over the place, but they just weren’t very physical up front and everything kind of spiraled from there. They were in 2nd-and-long and 3rd-and-long almost every drive with a freshman quarterback.”
“Under the circumstances, I don’t think the quarterback (John Wolford) was bad by any means. They’ve got to get better around him but that’s a tall order.”
“Their skill against ours, I’d take ours and I’m not sure we’re that good. I think they recruited pretty well last year and a lot of those guys are probably going to play.”
“The two players that come to my mind that were really good were the two senior corners. Every scout that came to our place asked us about them. There’s probably going to be a drop-off there because they were pretty good on the outside.”
“Under Jim Grobe they were a 3-4 and now they’re a 4-3, more multiple-look-type of defense which probably helps them a little bit, because if you’re playing a three-man front you better have linebackers who can move, and their backers are big, but they can’t really move that well.”
“They have some pretty good players that always play hard and they make the right plays. They don’t give up a lot of explosive plays and don’t have blown coverages defensively. They’re just very sound in what they do.”
“They’re probably starting over a little bit on offense losing the quarterback (Anthony Boone) and the receiver (Jamison Crowder), who was probably one of the more underrated players out there.”
“Probably the best thing they do defensively is their third-down and red-zone attack. That kept their scoring defense numbers pretty good. You get in the red zone and they’ll mix up their pressure — they’ll all-out blitz and play straight cover-zero at times. There’s good variations in the timing of how they do that. To hurt them, you’ve got to do it early in the count and get some explosive plays on first and second down. When they got to third down or play on a small field, that’s when they were able to create some negatives for offenses.”
“Personnel-wise I don’t recall a lot of standouts, I just know they do a really good job in their third-down packages defensively and that can really have a big impact on the game.”
“The quarterback is their engine and the guy they’ve got now (Justin Thomas) is probably as good in the triple-option as Paul (Johnson) has had since he’s been there. By the end of the year, nobody was stopping him. He doesn’t necessarily scare you throwing the ball, but they can pick their spots with him.”
“They’re not going to do anything defensively that jumps out at you, but they’re opportunistic and their offense helps them out. They played a lot of zone, which is pretty much the same thing they’ve done for awhile.”
“I thought some of their guys in the secondary were decent. The nose tackle (Adam Gotsis) is a guy you have to account for and make sure you know where he is.”
“It’s one of those offenses where if it’s clicking that day and you’re a little bit off, it’s going to be a long day because they’re capable of scoring just about every time.”
“If you’re an offense that makes a living on the fast-paced stuff, playing them can be brutal because your mindset as a play-caller is you want to go, go, go and hit the big play, and if you don’t do it against those guys you’ve got to go to the sideline. And then it’s in your head a little bit because you’re not getting the ball back for 10 or 12 minutes and you can’t get into a rhythm.”
Related: ACC Predictions for 2015
“You do look at it sometimes and wonder how that bunch didn’t dominate the Coastal last year.”
“They did lose a lot of big-time players; obviously Duke (Johnson) is one of them, but Clive Walford gave us all kinds of problems and (Phillip) Dorsett was dangerous on the outside. But one thing you know about Miami is they’re going to have athletes all over the place.”
“Schematically, they’re going to do things to protect the quarterback and keep him back there and isolate their skill on yours and hope to get the right matchup.”
“Brad Kaaya is a guy I think they limited what they were doing with him in the passing game, maybe a little too much. He can really spin it. Their approach was pretty much run the ball to set up their play action and take a deep shot every now and then. I think that’s who they want to be: a team that plays with a tight end or two and can run the ball when they want to run it. They had enough skill last year to be a spread-it-out type of team, but that’s just not really who they are.”
Related: 5 Areas of Concern for Miami in 2015
“They had no depth defensively, and I think it really showed up in the front seven with how much they struggled to stop the run.”
“They really should be better because I think they’re close to full strength from a numbers standpoint and obviously they’ve got a new (defensive) coordinator who’s won national championships in Gene Chizik. The unknown is how the kids are going to adapt because they’re going from a defense that was a little more unconventional to the 4-3 he’s going to want to put in there.”
“They’re going to be prolific offensively with everybody coming back. They have great skilled athletes all over the field, and the offensive system they run fits their personnel.
“They go as fast as Clemson, if not faster, and they’ve probably got the deepest group of receivers in the league. They’ve got four or five guys who could go for 100 yards on a given day.”
“The quarterback is a little bit hot and cold, but when he gets hot he’s really, really good. You can’t let him get into a rhythm.”
“James Conner is a load, but they gave him a ton of carries early in the season and he might have worn down a little bit. I don’t blame them because they weren’t real consistent at quarterback, but they weren’t as effective running the ball from mid-October on.”
“Tyler Boyd is a home-run hitter and if you add safeties to the box, it’s tough to double him. He finds a way to get open and he sort of looks effortless in how he can go up and get it, which is how the really good ones do it.”
“I think last year was a learning experience for their quarterback (Chad Voytik). They tried to make it simple and straightforward, and he did a good job staying away from turnovers, made some plays here and there. He played better at the end of the year.”
“We’ll look at what Pat Narduzzi did defensively at Michigan State because I don’t think they’ll be anywhere close to the same team from a scheme standpoint. He’s a guy who likes to aggressively pressure you, and the last staff had a completely different philosophy.”
“They’ve recruited extremely well.”
“Instability at quarterback has been their No. 1 issue, no question. Very little continuity from year to year. If you can’t settle on one guy and get him to perform, it’s hard to get over the hump. Both of their young guys got experience last year, but they were nothing special. I think they’re really just hoping one of them improves enough to grab a hold of that thing because they were still very limited offensively.”
“Their pass rush last year was phenomenal, which is what you expect from Jon Tenuta. He’s going to bring guys from everywhere and mix up his blitzes and make it tough for your offensive line to block everybody. It’s tough to prepare for.”
“I know a couple guys turned pro early, but they’ve recruited some long, talented guys on defense. They’re probably one of the most athletic defenses we faced all year.”
“We tried to recruit Quin Blanding a little bit early on, and he’s everything we thought he could be watching him in high school. You can put him in the box or drop him. He takes great angles, he’s a good tackler, very cerebral player.”
“They’re just probably looking to put it all together because they haven’t really had an identity offensively and that’s hard to overcome. They’ll have a chance because they know who the quarterback is, they’ve got stability with the coaching staff and the system, and they bring all their skill guys back. But it’s still all about execution.”
“We watched the Ohio State game on tape and (Michael) Brewer was rolling. He can make all the throws, extend plays with his feet. We thought he was good. But obviously in other games he was pretty inconsistent with his decision-making and he took a lot of sacks. It’s one of those deals — you just hope to play him when he’s not playing well.”
“It’s tough to prepare for their defense because where they’ve got guys playing is just a little different. They’re going to play that robber coverage, which is something Bud Foster has been doing for 30 years.”
“They’re deep in the secondary, and they recruit that way to fit their scheme, but they’ve also got elite guys in the secondary. They almost always do, but when (Brandon) Facyson and Kendall Fuller are healthy that’s maybe as good a pair of cornerbacks as they’ve had.”
It's not easy getting college football coaches to honestly comment on another coach, player or team. Most coaches don't want to give opposing teams billboard material, which is why there is a lot of coach speak or overused cliches used throughout the offseason or regular season.
In order to get an accurate assessment of teams heading into 2015, Athlon asked coaches around the nation to talk anonymously about their opponents.
Coaches Anonymously Scout Notre Dame for 2015
“The big thing is just finding consistency on the offensive side because they’re going to have some weapons. Their receivers and their backs are really good, and I think their O-line and tight end group is one of the best in the country.”…
“They’ll probably get back to being one of the top teams if they can get consistency in quarterback play.”…
“Everett Golson wasn’t a real big guy and he can turn it over. He put the ball in jeopardy quite a bit. They went back and forth in the bowl game (with Golson and Malik Zaire) trying to find some consistency…” …
“They were trying to adjust to a new system last year. I like what Brian VanGorder does. He attacks. He’s blitz-heavy and tries to bring a lot of different pressures and different looks coverage wise.”…
“They struggled a lot against tempo offenses trying to get adjusted to some of the calls and those things, but I think they’ll be pretty good because they’re big up front and they’ve got linebackers that can really run.”…
“I think they were kind of young in the secondary and those guys will get better. Their pressure packages are pretty extensive.”…
In 2014, Florida State lost four starters from its defensive front seven and regressed dramatically in run defense. Oklahoma State returned just eight total starters and went from the top 20 to barely bowl eligible.
Ohio State went from very good to great in recruiting and did the same on the field. Texas’ recruiting regressed, and the Longhorns obtained just middling success under a new coach.
Alabama was awesome in 2013 and remained awesome in 2014.
We think we know how to figure out who’s going to be good or bad from year to year, who’s going to surge or collapse — and we’re mostly correct. You start with how good a team was last year, then you look at returning starters (and stars), then you look at recruiting, and voila! We love that you’re an Athlon Sports reader, but virtually any preview of any kind is going to take that approximate approach.
But how much of a difference do these factors make? Are we ignoring other key indicators when we look at whether a team will improve or regress? Are we overvaluing the starters who left or those who return? And are we interpreting recruiting rankings the right way?
To begin to answer these questions, we’re going run some correlations. Remember those from math class? How a correlation of zero means there’s no relationship between variables, but a correlation approaching 1 or negative-1 means the relationship is strong?
Let’s look at the strength of the correlations between a given indicator — returning starters, last year’s output, et cetera — and two numbers: A team’s percentage of points scored in a given year (it’s more detailed and descriptive than simple win-loss record) and a team’s advanced stats.
We’ll look at percentage of points scored instead of win percentage because it is a more accurate descriptor. Florida State finished both 2013 and 2014 with a 13–0 regular-season record, but the Seminoles entered the 2013 postseason having scored 83.2 percent of the points in their games. In 2014, they had scored only 60.2 percent. One FSU team was demonstrably better than the other despite identical records.
Meanwhile, for advanced stats, we’re going to lean on the work of Football Outsiders (a site for which I have played a role since 2008), namely the F/+ ratings, the official FO college football rating. F/+ compares a team’s per-play and per-drive output to a baseline expectation (based on the opponent) and tells you how far above or below average that team performed. For instance, Ohio State finished 2014 ranked first in the F/+ ratings at plus-69.6 percent, Eastern Michigan finished 128th at minus-65.9 percent, and 87 of 128 teams finished between plus- and minus-30 percent.
F/+ is a healthy, robust, and (most important) opponent-adjusted number, and it is good for these purposes. But you can use your computer rating of choice, and it is likely to tell you a similar story as the one you find here.
This feature from Bill Connelly of SB Nation can be found in ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC issues of the Athlon Sports college football preview annual.
It is an undying, somewhat boring truth in college football: How you played last year is the best indicator of how you will play this year. Some teams change, but only so many do, and it is difficult to find a sport as rigid as college football, despite parity measures like the current 85-man scholarship limit.
Correlation between your F/+ rating from last year and your F/+ rating from this year: 0.742. Correlation between last year’s percentage of points scored and this year’s: 0.466.
In a given season, about 54 percent of FBS teams’ F/+ ratings are within 15 percent of what they were the year before. Things change, and things stay the same.
But in some cases, using just last year’s data can give us a blurry picture if a team suffered from injuries, suspensions, drastic turnover or any other maladies that affect teams. If we use a weighted five-year history, in which seasons from two to five years ago are given about eight to 10 percent weight each, we can raise the above F/+ correlation to about 0.747. That’s not much of an improvement, but it’s something.
So what does this mean for 2015? The chart below shows last year’s top 15 teams according to F/+. A good portion of them will be in or near the top 15 again this fall.
|Final 2014 F/+ Rankings|
A good system of opponent-adjusted ratings can start the conversation in the right place. When thinking about how good a team was or wasn’t the year before — the starting point of any sort of projection or prediction — something like this gives you a clearer picture than “they went 11–2.”
One thing to keep in mind regarding advanced stats: Wins and losses don’t mean a lot. The numbers are designed to look at every non-garbage time play and drive and project how teams may have performed over a much longer period of time, not just 12 games. Yes, Ole Miss finished ahead of TCU; that’s because Ole Miss was much better than TCU for the first two months of the year before fading rather dramatically.
You work with the tools you’ve got. Most of us understand that boiling an offense’s or defense’s turnover into a number between 0 and 11 is over-simplification. The quality of the backups matters, and besides, if two players start six games each at a given position, and one was a senior, is the other a “returning starter”?
There are flaws, but in a “perfect vs. good” kind of way. In the absence of perfect tools, we use decent, readily available ones. If it were possible to standardize a higher level of data — percentage of rushing yards returning, percentage of career starts on the offensive line, etc. — that would be fantastic, but even that tells us only so much about quality. We can apply extra weight to the quarterback position or to lost starters who were drafted or given All-America or all-conference honors, too, if we want to.
For now, though, we’ll stick to the basics. While the standard returning starter data is flawed, it’s still pretty useful:
Correlation between returning offensive starters and your advanced offensive ratings: 0.290. Correlation between returning offensive starters and your percentage of points scored: 0.254.
Correlation between returning defensive starters and your advanced defensive ratings: 0.271. Correlation between returning defensive starters and your percentage of points scored: 0.215.
These aren’t significant correlations, but they’re solid. And looking at year-to-year averages, you can see a pretty clear trend. If we convert a team’s FO efficiency ratings (offensive and defensive) into a per-game point total, you can start to see the impact starter experience can have on average.
|Effect of the number of offensive returning starters on a team's offensive production|
|Off. returning starters||% of all teams||Avg. change in adjustment points per game||Avg change in percentage of points scored|
There is some blurriness on the edges — teams with four returning starters regressing more than teams with one to three, teams with 10-11 returning starters improving only a marginal amount — but that’s a sample size issue. There’s a potential range of six to 10 points per game between those returning almost no starters and those returning almost everybody. And if you return six or seven starters, you’re basically breaking even.
The lines are similar on the defensive side of the ball.
|Effect of the number of defensive returning starters on a team's defensive production|
|Def. returning starters||% of all teams||Avg. change in adjustment points per game||Avg change in percentage of points scored|
There will always be plenty of exceptions. Just last year, Wisconsin returned three defensive starters and still fielded a high-caliber unit, while TCU returned three offensive starters and improved dramatically. Those exceptions are why the correlations exist but aren’t incredibly significant. But these starter figures still tell us quite a bit about where to set the bar. If the above averages held true, the chart to the right shows what kind of shifts we might see from last year’s top-ranked teams.
Red alert, Mississippi State and Clemson fans. You better hope Dak Prescott and Deshaun Watson are even better (and healthier) than they were last year.
|Returning starters for last year's final AP top 20 teams|
|Rk.||Team||Returning starters (O, D)||Last year's scoring margin per game||Projected scoring margin in 2015|
|1.||Ohio State||14 (7, 7)||+22.8||+1.4|
|2.||Oregon||12 (7, 5)||+21.8||-0.6|
|3.||TCU||15 (10, 5)||+27.5||Even|
|4.||Alabama||9 (2, 7)||+18.5||-3.4|
|5.||Michigan State||13 (6, 7)||+21.5||-0.3|
|6.||Florida State||10 (3, 7)||+8.1||-3.4|
|7.||Baylor||17 (8, 9)||+22.7||+4.1|
|8.||Georgia Tech||14 (7, 7)||+12.1||+1.4|
|9.||Georgia||12 (6, 6)||+20.6||-1.6|
|10.||UCLA||18 (10, 8)||+5.4||+1.8|
|11.||Mississippi State||7 (4, 3)||+15.2||-9.8|
|12.||Arizona State||13 (6, 7)||+9.0||-0.3|
|13.||Wisconsin||12 (5, 7)||+13.8||-0.8|
|14.||Missouri||12 (6, 6)||+6.7||-1.6|
|15.||Clemson||6 (4, 2)||+14.2||-9.8|
|16.||Boise State||17 (9, 8)||+12.9||+3.4|
|17.||Ole Miss||16 (9, 7)||+12.3||+3.6|
|18.||Kansas State||11 (6, 5)||+12.6||-2.3|
|19.||Arizona||11 (6, 5)||+6.3||-2.3|
Recruiting rankings are worthless! Recruiting rankings are everything! Arguing about the potential and usefulness of the work Rivals, 247Sports, ESPN, Scout and others do has become a permanent part of the college football calendar each January and early February. And to be sure, these assessments are tricky.
If you’re a brand-new recruiting service, and you’re looking to use every piece of information available to you to craft the strongest possible prospect ratings, what’s one piece of information you’d be incredibly smart to use? Offer lists. If Alabama (or Ohio State, or USC, or Florida State, or any other national power) offers a player, there are strong odds that this player is pretty good. To say the least, the Tide and others like them have track records.
One problem with this: If you use offer lists to make your ratings more accurate, you’re also introducing a bit of circularity. If an Alabama offer gets a player ranked more highly, then Alabama is always assured of a high team ranking. Successful teams will then always end up with good recruiting rankings, both because they’re landing the best prospects (and they are) and because prospects they land get a boost, or as angry fans have long called it, a Bama Bump.
Recruiting services certainly don’t admit to changing or rethinking ratings based on offers, but if such circularity does exist, it doesn’t change one simple fact: Recruiting rankings are awfully predictive.
Correlation between your five-year recruiting averages and your F/+ rating: 0.666. Correlation between your five-year recruiting averages and your percentage of points scored: 0.428.
If you want to be suspicious about recruiting rankings, know this: Correlations with two-year rankings are even higher.
Correlation between your two-year recruiting averages and your F/+ rating: 0.680. Correlation between your two-year recruiting averages and your percentage of points scored: 0.454.
Since most of your two-deep is going to consist of players who were signed more than two years ago, that suggests that there is a relationship between recruiting rankings and performance that ties mostly to recent performance, not the actual ratings of your players on the field.
Either success leads to better recruiting, which leads to more success, or success leads to more benefit of the doubt in recruiting, which leads to better ratings.
Regardless, here’s a look at Athlon’s preseason top 20 teams and their recent recruiting averages:
|Recruiting Rankings for Athlon's 2015 Top 20|
|Team||2-year recruiting rank||5-year recruiting rank|
|1. Ohio State||9||4|
|7. Michigan State||22||24|
|9. Florida State||3||3|
|11. Ole Miss||21||21|
|12. Notre Dame||11||10|
|13. Arizona State||24||35|
|18. Georgia Tech||37||42|
|20. Texas A&M||8||18|
Luck and randomness
The game of football, played with a pointy ball, brings to the table quite a bit of randomness. There’s no way around it. But we don’t necessarily take that into account when we set expectations for a given team, and we probably should.
In 2013, Oklahoma and Houston were insanely lucky teams. The Sooners recovered all nine fumbles that occurred in late-season wins against Kansas State, Oklahoma State and Alabama, and turnovers played heavy roles, especially in each of the last two wins. Recover only five of those nine, and the Sooners probably don’t beat either Oklahoma State or (if they still made the Sugar Bowl) Alabama. And if they don’t beat those teams, they don’t head into 2014 with what turned out to be unreasonably high expectations.
Houston, meanwhile, nearly broke the turnovers luck scale in 2013. The Cougars seemingly overachieved, improving from 5–7 to 8–5 and threatening for a while to steal the AAC title from UCF and Louisville despite playing a freshman quarterback. Their turnover margin was a nearly incomprehensible plus-25, but according to national averages for fumble recovery rates (which always trend toward 50 percent over time) and the ratio of interceptions to passes broken up (on average, a team intercepts one pass for every three to four breakups), it should have been closer to about plus-4. They recovered more than 60 percent of all fumbles, they intercepted an unsustainably high number of passes, and their opponents dropped an unsustainably high number of potential interceptions.
On paper, Houston improved in 2014, but the Cougars’ luck regressed drastically toward the mean (expected turnover margin: plus-6; actual: plus-8), they lost badly to UTSA, finished 7–5 (before a miraculous bowl win), and saw their head coach fired.
Is there a correlation between your turnovers luck (i.e. the difference between your expected and actual turnover margins) and your year-to-year improvement or regression? A bit.
Correlation between your turnovers luck and next year’s F/+ rating: 0.130. Correlation between your turnovers luck and next year’s percentage of points scored: 0.186.
Since ratings systems like F/+ are normalized to ignore a lot of luck factors, you would assume it would be less affected by luck than actual points scored. Turnovers bite randomly, and the effects will be pretty selective. Still, it’s a factor with correlations only slightly weaker than returning starters. That makes it worth noting.
And as you would expect, the correlations get stronger for those who were particularly lucky or unlucky. Much stronger.
Correlation between your turnovers luck and next year’s percentage of points scored (for only teams in the top and bottom 10 percent of turnovers luck): 0.357.
So if you were particularly lucky or unlucky last season, that luck is probably going to change this fall, and it could make a pretty significant difference in the amount of points you score and allow. Who needs to be on the lookout in this regard?
|2014's Most Fortunate Teams According to Turnovers Luck|
|Team||Expected TO Margin||Actual TO Margin||Difference|
Luck is part of the game of football, so it probably isn’t a surprise that two of last year’s top six teams in the pre-bowl College Football Playoff rankings (No. 2 Oregon and No. 6 TCU) are on this list. No. 5 Baylor (plus-6.4) barely missed inclusion, too. Still, it might be difficult for those teams (not to mention other poll darlings like Michigan State) to repeat last year’s success. The inclusion of Georgia and Ole Miss is also noteworthy.
Meanwhile, some pretty interesting names appear on the unlucky list, too.
After the luck of late-2013, Oklahoma’s karma was pretty awful in 2014, and this doesn’t even include “good kickers missing untimely kicks” luck like what hurt the Sooners against Oklahoma State and, particularly, Kansas State.
|2014's Least Fortunate Teams According to Turnovers Luck|
|Team||Expected TO Margin||Actual TO Margin||Difference|
|San Jose State||-3.5||-12||-8.5|
Some other teams that fared far worse than expectations show up here: Oklahoma State, Texas Tech, Miami. Colorado and Washington State were also expected to do better than they did, and luck played a role in that disappointment.
But the two most interesting names on this list are two teams that enjoyed plenty of success: Alabama and Marshall. These teams went a combined 25–3 in 2014, with 16 wins coming by a margin of at least 19 points. But they were probably even more dominant than the scores would attest, and in their three losses, these teams had a minus-four turnover margin.
How good will your team be this year? Ask yourself these questions in this order: How good were we last year? And how good have we been for the last five years? How are our recruiting rankings — getting better or worse? Are we returning more or fewer than about 6-7 starters on offense and defense? And how lucky were we last year?
Not everybody actually wants to set realistic expectations for their team, but asking those five questions is the best roadmap for doing just that.
Ohio State announced today that four key players would miss the Sept. 7 season opener against Virginia Tech. While it’s a big enough news story in and of itself, especially since one of the players suspended is All-American defensive end Joey Bosa, what about the impact on the field?
Urban Meyer’s Buckeyes are the defending national champions and the overwhelming favorite to defend their title. However, the team will now be without Bosa and wide receivers Corey Smith, Dontre Wilson and Jalin Marshall when Ohio State travels to Blacksburg, Va., to play Virginia Tech, which also happens to be the last team to defeat the Buckeyes.
So will these suspensions matter against the Hokies or do Ohio State fans have nothing to worry about come Labor Day night? AthlonSports.com contributors Chip Minnich and J.P. Scott offer their two cents.
Why the Ohio State suspensions matter against Virginia Tech
The news that Ohio State would be without four players for the opening game at Virginia Tech arrived on the first day of The B1G Media Day like a ton of bricks. Rumors had been percolating that there would be suspensions of some manner or variety, but when the news was released that the players involved were Joey Bosa, Correy Smith, Dontre Wilson and Jalin Marshall, it would be fair to say that the strong confidence Ohio State fans may have had going into the season opener had been dramatically diminished.
Offensively, Ohio State has enough players to compensate for the losses of players such as Marshall, Smith and Wilson. However, I would like to raise the following concerns that Ohio State fans may need to contemplate.
With the suspensions of Marshall, Smith and Wilson, Ohio State is now down to only Michael Thomas from their top receivers of a year ago. Remember that Devin Smith and Evan Spencer have moved on. With the suspensions, Thomas is the lone experienced receiver that either J.T. Barrett or Cardale Jones will have played with from last season from the wide receiver corps.
At H-Back, both Wilson and Marshall were experienced at the position. Those individuals citing the move of Braxton Miller need to remember that a) Miller has never played the position before in a game-time situation b) Miller is coming off two labrum surgeries. Ohio State may be looking at a truly inexperienced H-Back, such as Parris Campbell Jr. for the opening game. Not impossible, just inexperienced.
Defensively, Ohio State has plenty of talent returning across the board. Of these returnees, none were or are held in such high esteem as Bosa.
Ohio State was already projecting TyQuan Lewis at the opposite defensive end from Bosa. Sam Hubbard, Darius Slade, and Jalyn Holmes are possible contributors who may rotate at Bosa's position throughout the Virginia Tech game. Similarly to what I have written regarding the offensive positions, these are talented players, but very inexperienced, and not as reputable as Bosa.
Compounding the loss of Bosa is the fact that Ohio State is still trying to adequately replace the departed Michael Bennett along the interior. Without Bosa at one end continually being accounted for, the Virginia Tech offensive game plan may be to attack the interior of the Ohio State defense, as Adolphus Washington is the only established player along the entire Ohio State defensive line.
Can Ohio State win the game at Virginia Tech, even without the four suspended players? Certainly. Needless to say, the road to repeating as national champions was just made that much more difficult with the announcement of these suspensions.
Why the Ohio State suspensions won’t matter against Virginia Tech
Unlike 2014, the 2015 matchup between Ohio State and Virginia Tech is a high-profile one. The Hokies are not about sneak up on the Buckeyes again, as Urban Meyer is going to have his squad prepared, both mentally and physically, for their trip to Blacksburg.
Although Joey Bosa could very well be the best player in the nation, his suspension is the least of Ohio State’s worries. He’s still just one player on a defense with six legit Bronco Nagurski Award candidates. It’ll be an excellent opportunity for one or more of Ohio State’s talented underclassmen to step into the defensive line rotation in place of Bosa. In short, Ohio State’s defense is going to be good enough to dominate their side of the ball in most games with or without Bosa. He simply raises them to another level.
The offensive side of the ball could be a different story, but again, there is still enough talent on the Ohio State depth chart to get the job done. Whether the quarterback is Cardale Jones, J.T. Barrett or both, they’ll still have the luxury of Ezekiel Elliott behind them and one of the best offensive lines in the country in front of them.
In terms of other weapons, Michael Thomas, Braxton Miller, Curtis Samuel and Nick Vannett are all more than capable of producing enough big plays and posing consistent threats to keep the Hokie defense on its heels.
As good as Ohio State is and despite being the No. 1 ranked team in the nation by basically everyone, people still continue to doubt or just flat out not understand just how talented this team is. Suspensions or not, I’d be shocked if the Buckeyes didn’t win the game by two touchdowns.
Somebody from an NFL team told Ryan Hewitt he would be drafted in the fourth round last year, so he figured he was set. Maybe the fourth was a little too high, but he would definitely find a home by the sixth round. Seventh, for sure.
The Bengals weren’t as bullish on Hewitt as a fourth-rounder, but they were definitely thinking about choosing the Stanford fullback/tight end/H-back during the final two rounds. But, as things often go on draft day, there were other needs to be addressed, bigger holes to be filled. Cincinnati never selected Hewitt.
Nobody else did, either. Throughout the draft’s third day, Hewitt heard from a couple teams that told him that he was a possible sixth- or seventh-round pick. Stay tuned, they said. Be ready. He was ready, all right. He was also left out on the street.
“It’s tough,” he says. “You work your whole career, and you want to hear your name called on TV.”
When it was all over, when even Mr. Irrelevant had received the Happy Call, things started to get really weird. A guy who hadn’t drawn enough interest to get a single team to choose him in three days of drafting all of a sudden could have used about four more phones. Teams were calling him. His agent was calling him. Teams were calling his agent. His agent was calling teams. After spending almost three days experiencing nothing but dashed hopes and dreams, Hewitt was in serious demand.
“I spent 15 minutes on the phone with my agent and different teams trying to figure out where to go,” Hewitt says.
That was it. Hewitt had only 15 minutes to decide. So did hundreds of other players throughout the nation. The minute the draft ends, and sometimes even before it ends, NFL teams embark on a high-speed chase for undrafted free agents, in order to sign those who weren’t chosen. In some cases, the goal is to fill out a roster for mini-camps, OTAs and training camp. But in the case of players like Hewitt, it’s much more. Cincinnati director of player personnel Duke Tobin had spent some time with Hewitt before the draft and had made a note to pursue him if nobody chose the Stanford product. The Bengals sold Hewitt on a chance to compete for a roster spot, not just be a body to step in during spring and summer drills. Sure, he was a “tweener,” and his versatility hurt him because he didn’t have one specific position. But he was a tough, talented football player, and the Bengals liked that.
“We had laid the groundwork with Ryan,” Tobin says. “Throughout the pre-draft process, we had visited with him, and when the draft was over, we immediately recruited him.”
Things worked out well for Hewitt. He made the team and played in all 16 games as a tight end, fullback and special teams performer. Hewitt caught 10 passes, ran the ball once (for no gain) and made four tackles as part of coverage units. He certainly wasn’t on any short lists for Rookie of the Year, but Hewitt contributed to the team’s playoff run and impressed coach Marvin Lewis, who was talking about Hewitt’s 2015 opportunities as early as last August. Though he had plenty of suitors in those frenzied minutes after the draft, Hewitt made a good choice.
“I chose Cincinnati because of its style of offense and the personnel they had,” Hewitt says. “I thought I could make an impact and beat people out. It was the best fit.”
Teams bring in around 15 undrafted free agents each year, usually with little or no fanfare. But while the vast majority end up getting cut or finding spots on practice squads, there are some big success stories, and plenty do make teams’ 53-man rosters. As of October 2014, there were 74 undrafted rookies playing on Sundays.
Jeff Saturday spent 14 years playing center for Indianapolis (13) and Green Bay (one), reaching six Pro Bowls and earning two first-team All-Pro nods. And one of the heroes of last year’s Super Bowl, Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler, was not picked in the 2014 draft. This isn’t just a recent phenomenon. There have been dozens of great NFL performers who were not chosen, even when the draft used to encompass more than seven rounds.
Quarterback Kurt Warner, tight end Antonio Gates, defensive tackle John Randle, wideout Wes Welker and even legendary cornerback Dick “Night Train” Lane made it through the annual “Player Selection Meeting” unwanted. In today’s world of highly specialized scouting, it’s unlikely we will see too many Hall of Famers joining the league from the streets; but there are 15 undrafted players who have made it to Canton. There are only 13 No. 1 overall picks there. Every year there is talent left out of the draft, and teams work hard to identify and sign players who can help them.
“Once you get to the seventh round, the difference between getting picked and not getting picked is almost none,” Tobin says. “If you fit a team’s needs better, you get picked. But it’s difficult to know what guys aren’t going to get picked.
“After the draft, it’s surprising. You say, ‘Oh, he didn’t get picked. Oh, he didn’t get picked. Oh, he didn’t get picked.’”
• • •
Saturday remembers the moment when his confidence in the NFL Draft process began to waver. He was standing against a wall during the 1998 NFL Combine when someone yelled out how long his arms had measured. One of the ways teams often judge a lineman’s potential is by reach. A player with longer arms is more capable of fending off the advances of enemy defenders. Those who allow opposing linemen to get closer are at a disadvantage. Or so the reasoning goes. Although Saturday was a two-time first-team All-ACC center, he didn’t fit the NFL stereotype for the position. He was listed generously at 6'2" and weighed just 285 pounds. And then there were those arms.
“When they yelled out my arm length, everybody looked down at their clipboards and started writing,” Saturday says of the assembled scouts and personnel execs. “I said, ‘That’s not a good sign.’ Later, my agent called me and said not to worry. I told him, ‘These are the same arms I played so well with in college.’”
The Combine markdown was the beginning of a tough stretch for Saturday, who despite being the third-ranked center heading into the annual poke-and-prod session, wasn’t chosen. A couple teams had called during the second day (the Draft didn’t expand to three sessions until 2010) to tell Saturday that he was being considered, but none had made the Big Call. To make things even more difficult, Saturday’s agent, Ralph Cindrich, represented UNC defensive end Greg Ellis, who had been a first-round pick of the Cowboys. Cindrich was traveling to Dallas the second day of the draft, and he wasn’t available to help Saturday navigate the free-agent morass.
As a result, it took Saturday a week to hook on with Baltimore. But the relationship didn’t last too long. In fact, Saturday didn’t even make it to training camp with the Ravens.
“I got to Baltimore, and they had franchised their center Wally Williams (ironically another undrafted free agent) and had another center, Jeff Mitchell, that they had drafted (the year before),” Saturday says. “I walked into the offensive line meeting room, and it was full of giants. Everybody weighed 330 pounds, and here I am at 285. It was not the room for me.”
Saturday spent almost a year working as a manager at an electrical supply store in Raleigh. He was staying in shape, but it wasn’t as if NFL teams were suddenly realizing the colossal error they had made and begging him to sign with him. It took his former college roommate, Nate Hobgood-Chittick, to make it happen. In 1999, Hobgood-Chittick had been picked up by Indianapolis, and though he had no professional cachet, he went into Colts GM Bill Polian’s office and told him he had to sign Saturday. Polian, who had been in Carolina while Saturday played at UNC, remembered the center and signed him. Once there, Saturday fit into line coach Howard Mudd’s system, which emphasized speed and intelligence over brawn.
“(Polian) gave me a shot,” Saturday says. “Howard Mudd told me he wanted an aggressive football player who did exactly what he said. It worked out well, and I spent 14 years in the league.”
• • •
The months leading up to the NFL Draft can seem like weeding a giant flowerbed that has been untended for months. As many as 6,000 players are eligible to be chosen. Of course, most of them have no business being in an NFL team’s building, much less on the field every Sunday. Once the easy work is done, and about 90 percent of the players are eliminated from consideration, it’s time to find the prospects who might just be able to play for a team.
A team can have 250 players on its draft board. Or 300. Maybe only 200. That’s a lot of people to consider when there are only seven rounds. The key component for all of them is fit. Houston may only have 150 of the same players on its board that the Jets do. Not everybody thinks the same way about each prospect, particularly if one plays a 3-4 defense, and the other is a 4-3 squad.
“We look at players who can come in and compete for roster spots,” Seattle director of college scouting Scott Fitterer says. “We don’t have a set number on the board.”
It’s pretty obvious that certain players will be gone well before the frenzied rush to sign free agents begins. That’s not something Fitterer and his fellow executives worry about when trying to decide who will be there. Their focus is on the late-round prospects — like Hewitt — who could escape the sixth and seventh round. According to Fitterer, the Seahawks treat every collegian the same way, analyzing strengths and weaknesses, the better to get an idea who would best fit their roster. Tobin says he and his staff evaluate and speak before the draft with players who weren’t invited to the Combine or who may not have performed well in Indianapolis. The Bengals bring dozens of players to their facilities to work them out, interview them and determine whether they will fit the team’s needs.
Teams all over the league have had success mining the undrafted ranks. Fitterer estimates “five or six” players on Seattle’s Super Bowl XLVIII-winning team were free agents. Jermaine Kearse, who caught the winning TD in overtime against Green Bay in last year’s NFC Championship Game and two weeks later made the amazing reception in the waning moments of the Super Bowl, was signed by the Seahawks in 2012, after he wasn’t selected. Another Seattle wideout, Doug Baldwin, wasn’t chosen in 2011 but impressed Seattle enough that it gave him a three-year, $13 million extension last spring.
“We’re looking to find extremely competitive guys with athletic ability and a skill set that fits our style,” Fitterer says. “If there is a 6’1” corner that runs a 4.4 (40-yard dash) but is undeveloped, we’re intrigued. We look at him as a developmental project. Our coaches are teachers.”
Even if a player is cut by a team during training camp, he still has film on his play from practices and preseason games that he can use to pitch his talents to someone else. Just being with a team confers a status on a player and makes it a little easier for him to find a spot with someone else. It’s rare that someone like Saturday or Warner, who spent a lot of time out of football, gets a position. That’s why it’s important that while teams are evaluating them, the players do their homework and figure out what team is best for them. A prospect could receive calls from five or six teams during the half-hour following the draft’s completion. If he merely signs with his childhood favorite, he could be making a big mistake. Players and their agents must pay close attention to teams’ styles and how crowded their particular position is on the roster.
“The kids are more educated than ever,” Fitterer says. “They are able to search on-line and look at depth charts. They are informed.”
While undrafted players need to make informed decisions, teams’ desires to sign them continue to grow. The thrill of unearthing a talent and having him contribute is a victory; adding a piece to the roster at a low cost, most often at the rookie minimum, has equal appeal. When the Seahawks won the Super Bowl, they did so with a large number of players whose salaries were quite manageable. Teams able to stock the shelves without bestowing gigantic contracts on all of them are able to strike a fine balance between their stars and everyone else. It may sound somewhat unfair, but the rigid, salary cap-driven economics of the league mandate that approach. Teams love to find young players they can use for special teams and spot work on offense and defense.
The bonus is that those who make teams from the “streets” are highly motivated to prove themselves. They were left out of the draft pool, and they want to make everyone aware of their mistakes. Fitterer remembers that Baldwin and Kearse elevated themselves to “special” status due to their drive to show that they belonged in the NFL.
“They have a chip on their shoulders when they come in here,” Fitterer says. “And the guys with the chips on their shoulders often separate themselves from the rest.”
• • •
Hewitt enjoyed his first year with the Bengals, and he’s looking forward to enlarging his role in 2015. He doesn’t, however, expect any favors. He knows the team will bring in a player — or perhaps more — to compete with him this year. He isn’t a first-round pick with a guaranteed contract, or even a middle-round choice with a bit more job security. When the Bengals convene for training camp, the next Ryan Hewitt could be on the field, looking to impress and defy convention by grabbing a roster spot.
“I am expecting them to bring in competition,” Hewitt says. “Iron sharpens iron. I expect them to bring in a stud who can help them. That’s not my concern. They have to do what’s best for the team.”
And they look just about everywhere to do so.
-By Michael Bradley
The Patriots have been a part of the NFL’s ruling class for the better part of the last 14 seasons, winning 12 AFC East titles, six conference titles and four Super Bowls. The AFC has long taken aim at Tom Brady, Bill Belichick and Co., and it appeared the Patriots were on the ropes last season at 2–2 after a 41–14 dismantling in Kansas City. Brady looked old, Rob Gronkowski wasn’t 100 percent, the offensive line was in disarray and the defense was below average.
But New England rose from the dead, won its sixth straight division title and captured its fourth Super Bowl title in thrilling fashion against the Seahawks. The Patriots remain an upper-echelon team, but free agency took a serious toll on the defense. And perennial Pro Bowlers Ndamukong Suh (Dolphins), LeSean McCoy (Bills), Brandon Marshall (Jets) and Darrelle Revis (Jets) all joined division rivals in the offseason. The Pats are AFC East favorites, but the gap is narrowing.
Brady, the three-time Super Bowl MVP, will turn 38 in the preseason. His dedication to fitness has allowed him to maintain his elite level of production and has even improved his one major weakness — mobility. Brady picked up 11 first downs on the ground in 2014, his second-highest total of the last six seasons, and he was more willing to scramble than in previous years.
With Brady's four-game suspension upheld by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, the Patriots should at least prepare for the likelihood that Jimmy Garoppolo, the team’s second-round pick in 2014 who threw 27 passes as a rookie, will start the season. Another possible option could be veteran Matt Flynn, who was signed in June.
If Brady is the No. 1 piece to the Patriots offense, Gronkowski stands firmly at 1A. The big tight end from the University of Arizona has had an enormous effect on the team — when healthy. The best illustration of his impact may have been last fall. Gronkowski played less than half the snaps in the first four games of the season as he continued to recover from knee surgery, and he sat out the season finale against Buffalo when the Patriots had wrapped up the No. 1 seed. In those five games, the Patriots averaged 17.8 points and went 2–3. In their other 14 games, including the playoffs, the Patriots averaged 34.8 points and went 13–1.
The threat of Gronkowski makes the receiving corps of Julian Edelman, Brandon LaFell and Danny Amendola much more dangerous than it would otherwise be, as defenses dedicate multiple linebackers and/or safeties to him. The Patriots added another receiving tight end in the offseason, signing Scott Chandler from Buffalo. Tim Wright (released in June) never emerged as the second receiving tight end Belichick likes to feature after the Pats traded Logan Mankins for him, so look for Chandler to get that chance.
The offensive line will have to replace one starter, as Dan Connolly, who started at guard but also saw time at center, has decided to retire. Tackles Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer and center Bryan Stork are all plus-players at their positions. Guard play is a bit of an issue.
At running back, the Patriots lost Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley in free agency. Vereen emerged as a critical piece of the offensive arsenal, outgrowing his third-down role and becoming an every-down contributor. He played three times the snaps of any other running back on the team in the regular season and 50 of the 74 snaps in the Super Bowl, according to ESPNBoston. James White is the early candidate to be the pass-catching, third-down back, while LeGarrette Blount, Jonas Gray and Brandon Bolden will handle the work between the tackles.
Three key starters departed in free agency, leaving some significant questions as the season approaches. Revis (Jets) and fellow cornerback Brandon Browner (Saints) will need to be replaced, and the defensive philosophy the Patriots employed the last three seasons will likely be altered as well. With Revis last season and Aqib Talib in 2012 and ’13, the Patriots had a lockdown corner who allowed them to play man-to-man on the opponent’s best receiver and let the rest of the secondary handle the remainder of the field. Logan Ryan and Super Bowl hero Malcolm Butler are not in the class of Revis or Talib, so expect much more zone. The Patriots did invest in safety Devin McCourty with a five-year contract, and fellow safety Patrick Chung was also re-signed, but the cornerback situation bears watching.
Defensive tackle Vince Wilfork is the third starter who needs to be replaced after he departed for Houston after a highly successful 11-year run in New England that included five Pro Bowls. The 325-pounder bounced back from a ruptured Achilles in 2013 and played 74 percent of the defensive snaps, far and away New England’s leader along the line. First-round draft pick Malcom Brown will be given an opportunity to step right in and compete with veterans Sealver Siliga and Alan Branch. Second-year pro Dominique Easley will be expected to take a larger role at the other defensive tackle spot. Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones are back at defensive end, two players who have had their moments but can also disappear for stretches.
The Patriots’ starting linebacker corps is loaded after Jerod Mayo decided to restructure his deal and return to the team after the second of his two injury-shortened seasons. With Mayo, Jamie Collins and Dont’a Hightower, the Patriots have one of the finest starting trios in the NFL. Hightower was tremendous after Mayo went down after six games, and the athletic Collins continues to improve all aspects of his game and appears on his way to a Pro Bowl very soon.
The Patriots are in very good shape in all aspects of their special teams. Stephen Gostkowski has been incredibly accurate the past two seasons, connecting on 73-of-78 field goals (including 6-of-7 from beyond 50). Edelman is the NFL’s active leader in punt return average at 12.3 yards per return, and Amendola proved to be a serviceable kickoff return man when he took over halfway through last season (24.9-yard average). The Patriots were 11th in net punting with left-footed Ryan Allen at the controls.
On paper, the Patriots do not appear to be as good as last season’s Super Bowl champions, but no AFC team can safely be called an overwhelming favorite. Brady has shown no signs of slowing down, and his top receiving targets will all be back except for Vereen. Expect the offense, with a healthy Gronkowski, to continue to produce at a high level. The question is whether the defense can be championship-quality. After ranking 25th or worse in total defense every year from 2010-13, the Patriots improved to 13th last season with the addition of Revis. Will they regress without him, or will a strong linebacking corps continue the improvement? It will be Belichick’s challenge to try to win without a shutdown corner. The goal for the Patriots should be to secure a first-round bye for the sixth straight year and be in the mix for a return trip to the Super Bowl.
Prediction: 1st in AFC East
Entering 2015, the race for the No. 1 overall pick appears to be as wide open as it has been in recent years, thanks in part to Le’Veon Bell’s suspension, which upon appeal was reduced to two games. Pittsburgh’s All-Pro running back led all non-quarterbacks in fantasy points, but there’s a pretty big difference when it comes to the possbility of missing three games to the reaility that he will miss just two.
How big of a difference you ask. Big enough that a number of Athlon Sports editors and fantasy football contributors weren’t in complete agreement when they were asked who they would take with the No. 1 overall pick.
Le’Veon Bell for No. 1
A strong argument can be made for a couple of RBs at the No. 1 spot, but I have to go with Bell. Sure, the early suspension limits his value and will require a little patience from fantasy owners. However, the All-Pro finished second in the league with 1,361 rushing yards last season and ranked No. 2 among running backs by catching 83 passes. He also totaled 11 overall scores in 16 games.
While Bell is going to miss a couple of games, the third-year back is only getting better, and Pittsburgh’s offensive line has improved significantly over the last few seasons. Additionally, the Steelers will have to lean on their offense even more in 2015, as the defense is still a unit in transition. Yes, the schedule is difficult, and Bell’s suspension has to be taken into account. However, Bell might be the league’s best all-around back, and the overall versatility is a huge bonus in PPR leagues. I’ll take the risk on the suspension for an All-Pro RB entering the prime of his career with the opportunity to still play 14 games in 2015. — Steven Lassan, Athlon Sports
Le’Veon Bell for No. 1
Who’s No. 1 this year? I hope I’m not drafting in that spot. But if I need to pick someone ... it’s still Le’Veon Bell. In PPR leagues, Bell finished among the top 24 running backs every single week last season. He’ll remain Pittsburgh’s workhorse and one of the league’s best receiving backs when he takes the field this year, so a repeat in that category seems possible. Thirteen fantasy-starter weeks would have still beaten every other back in the league last year besides DeMarco Murray and Matt Forté. So why not favor those guys? Murray moves to Philly, where he’ll probably fall well short of 300 carries. (Chip Kelly has said he doesn’t want to over-work Murray.) Forté loses Marc Trestman’s reception-heavy scheme, which threatens to reveal an aging back who gained just 3.9 yards per rush last year.
Rob Gronkowski looked like a No. 1 candidate before Tom Brady’s suspension. Eddie Lacy sits closest to Bell on my board but isn’t as good a weekly bet for touches. He averaged 2.7 fewer carries and 2.6 fewer catches per game than Bell last year. Give me the latter, in a strong offense and perhaps fresher at playoff time after his early-season break. — Matt Schauf, DraftSharks.com
Eddie Lacy for No. 1
If not for the two games that Le’Veon Bell will sit out at the beginning of the season, he would be my no-doubt No. 1. As it is, instead I’ll go with Bell’s 2013 draft classmate, Eddie Lacy. Last season, Lacy finished seventh in rushing with 1,139 yards. What’s more important, however, is that he raised his yards per carry average from 4.1 as a rookie to 4.6 in 2014.
Lacy also improved his receiving numbers, reeling in 42 catches for 427 yards. His 13 total TDs were tied for fifth in the NFL, and only two backs (Marshawn Lynch, Jamaal Charles) had more. Since Bell won’t be able to play a full season, I’ll take my chances on another young, do-everything back entrenched in a lead role in an explosive offense. — Mark Ross, Athlon Sports
Eddie Lacy for No. 1
Le’Veon Bell’s two-game suspension alone doesn’t scare me off, but it has to be considered. His receiving production was also off the charts last season; it nearly matched his rushing total from the year before. That’s unlikely to happen again.
So looking elsewhere, I find myself down to two Green Bay Packers: Aaron Rodgers and Eddie Lacy.
Rodgers is a sure thing, the best quarterback in the game with all kinds of weapons around him in a system which has brought him success. Thing is, there are plenty of quarterbacks who can get you numbers; if you wait until the end of Round 2 to take a back, you might not like what’s left.
So I’ll take Lacy. The Packers seemed to find a way to keep him fresh last season without cutting into his production, and there are going to be plenty of scoring opportunities on perhaps the league’s best offense. — John Gworek, Athlon Sports
Adrian Peterson for No. 1
In 2015 with the No. 1 pick I am going with Adrian Peterson. I am a Vikings fan but that isn't the only reason. We all know what AP can do when healthy, and the year off did not leave him out of shape or behind the curve. His work ethic is phenomenal. Add to it that He's happy with his new contract and has an underrated offensive line, and that makes me excited about this season, and feeling safe about Peterson's fantasy prospects. The only other close option for me would be Antonio Brown. — Chris Meyers, AthlonSports.com fantasy football contributor
Adrian Peterson for No. 1
With the first pick in a 2015 fantasy football draft, I am going to take Adrian Peterson. Let me preface my rationale by saying that I understand the arguments for at least three other guys, however, give me Peterson. Yes, he missed last year, but it was not because of injury. He's as healthy as he could be (and reportedly in great shape at training camp), he's motivated to show the league how good he is, and he is on a team that can put together a high-powered offense.
In the six seasons where Peterson played at least 14 games, he has had at least 1,200 rushing yards. If you add up the rushing yards from Peterson, Joe Banyard, Matt Asiata and Jerick McKinnon in 2014, they total 1,271. That's to say that the four backs are equal to one back, but when that one running back is Peterson, with a year of experience behind Teddy Bridgewater, barring injury, he should come close to 2,000 rushing yards again. He's one of the few backs in the league that will be an every-down back, and he is poised to put up No. 1 numbers in 2015. — Sarah Lewis, AthlonSports.com fantasy football contributor
Adrian Peterson for No. 1
If I had the No. 1 pick in my fantasy football draft I would choose Adrian Peterson in 10 milliseconds. Why? Because he’s fresh after a year off and he wants to remind people why he's one of the best running backs of all time. I know he’s now the dreaded running back age of 30, but I’ll take a pissed-off, take-no-prisoners Adrian Peterson any day. If the Vikings are going to do anything this year, it will be on the shoulders of Peterson. His backups are Jerrick McKinnon and Matt Asiata, who both had a chance to show their stuff last year and what showed was that the Vikings need “All-Day” on the field. Which is why the word coming of out Vikings land is that AP might not come off the field. I’ll take close to 300 touches, 1,500 total yards and over 12 touchdowns all the way to the bank. — Michael Horvath, AtlhonSports.com fantasy football contributor
Jamaal Charles for No. 1
Looking at some of the top running backs from 2014, it’s relatively easy to come to the conclusion that Charles should be the No. 1 overall pick again in 2015, much like I said last year. DeMarco Murray changed teams. Le’Veon Bell is automatically out a few games from suspension. Charles, meanwhile, runs behind an offensive line that is still jelling, and he was still able to rush for 5.0 yards per carry last season.
Charles also scored more total touchdowns (14) than any RB but Marshawn Lynch (17). Lynch is a year older than Charles, and he has 50 percent more career touches. Eddie Lacy might be the only option other than Charles. But I like Charles’ gamebreaking ability better, and the Chiefs added some weapons in the passing game around him, which should keep defenses more honest. — David Gonos, FanDuel/SoCalledFantasyExperts.com
Jamaal Charles for No. 1
This has been one crazy summer, and there’s no Bobcat Goldthwait. There also is no clear No. 1 pick in fantasy football, in all honesty. Adrian Peterson is coming off a lengthy absence and has reached the dangerous age of 30. Le’Veon Bell is coming off a late-season knee injury and is suspended for the start of the season. Marshawn Lynch had back issues last year and is now 29. DeMarco Murray heads to Philly, where LeSean McCoy struggled last year and where Ryan Mathews might also be sharing touches.
Eddie Lacy and Jamaal Charles have fewer question marks. I just flipped a coin and went with Charles at No. 1, but you might just be best off picking in the middle of Round 1 and not having to make the choice yourself. — Eric Mack, FanDuel
Marshawn Lynch for No. 1
This is the most wide-open race for No. 1 that I can remember. Every player in the conversation has massive upside, but all have question marks as well. Le’Veon Bell is going to miss two games due to suspension. Jamaal Charles, Eddie Lacy, Arian Foster and DeMarco Murray have injury concerns. And there is too much depth and value to take a quarterback.
My debate falls to the most talented runner on the planet who also is extremely rested, Adrian Peterson, and the most durable player with the highest floor, Marshawn Lynch. I’ll take Lynch over Peterson because he will be force-fed the ball as Seattle runs all of the tread off his tires over the next few seasons. — Braden Gall, Athlon Sports
Rob Gronkowski for No. 1
Gronkowski checks all the boxes for factors that could lead to his being selected No. 1 overall. If the tight end can only be used as such, he is head and shoulders above the rest of his position mates in the league, and you crush at the position. He was tops in targets (130) and yards (1,124) and tied for most touchdown receptions (12) among TEs last season. If a TE can be started as a flex, he’s going to dominate that spot as well. He would have scored as either a top-10 RB or WR last season. PPR leagues only amplify his value. He was 21st in the entire league in catches, was tied for fourth in TD receptions, and was 15th in receiving yards. Simply put: Gronk. Scores. Points. — Corby Yarbrough, Athlon Sports
Jim Harbaugh posted a 44–19–1 record in four years in San Francisco, never had a losing record and took the 49ers to the NFC Championship Game three times. John Fox went 46–18 in four years in Denver, never had a losing record and took the Broncos to a Super Bowl. Yet, when Harbaugh and Fox parted ways with their teams after last season, the NFL reacted with a collective yawn.
“I’ve seen it too many times,” Hall of Fame general manager Bill Polian says. “Who knows why these things change. There’s always internal dynamics that you can’t really put your finger on. That’s the way it looks. But it’s been done before, and I’m sure it’ll be done again.”
Harbaugh and Trent Baalke went through a messy divorce, with the coach claiming it was not nearly as mutual as the general manager depicted. Philosophical differences sent Harbaugh to the University of Michigan, leading to the 49ers’ elevation of little-known assistant Jim Tomsula to head coach.
Fox became the first Broncos coach in 30 years not to have final say in all football matters. And he and general manager John Elway eventually reached a point where they agreed to disagree, parting ways when the Broncos failed to get over the hump in three years with Peyton Manning as their quarterback. Fox moved on to Chicago, and Elway hired good buddy Gary Kubiak as the Broncos’ new head coach.
“In any relationship, whether it be player-coach, coach-GM, you’re always going to have bumpy patches,” Elway said at the press conference announcing Fox’s departure. “I think the main thing between John and I was we disagreed on how to get to the next level. We accomplished so much, four AFC West championships. But I think the biggest miss between us was how we can take that next step and what it was going to take to get to that next step. I think that’s where the disagreement came from.”
Why can’t they all just get along?
More than 21 years have passed since Jerry Jones and Jimmy Johnson parted ways. Yet, they continue to play tug-of-war over credit for the back-to-back Lombardi Trophies the Cowboys won with them. Their five-year relationship ended after a public feud, with Johnson claiming his “girlfriend knows more about football” than Jones, and Jones countering that “any one of 500 coaches could have won those Super Bowls.”
Johnson walked away with a $2 million payoff, and Jones’ Cowboys won another Super Bowl two years later with Barry Switzer as the coach. They haven’t won one since.
The coach Johnson succeeded in Dallas, Tom Landry, lasted 29 years with president/general manager Tex Schramm. Former Bears general manager Jerry Angelo says his research revealed that the Landry-Schramm union stands as the only one in the modern era to last its whole tenure.
“Nobody was jealous of who got the credit,” says Gil Brandt, player personnel director for Dallas from 1960-89. “We got along even though we didn’t always agree. The funny thing is we all lived within a mile of one another. But I’ll say this: It was just a lot easier then than it is now with the salary cap and everything else that goes into it.”
The ugly divorces have become far more common than the long marriages. The Chargers fired Marty Schottenheimer after a 14–2 season and a one-and-done playoff exit in 2006, citing a “dysfunctional situation” between the coach and general manager A.J. Smith.
Sometimes the coach loses the battle; other times it’s the general manager who goes. The Titans fired Floyd Reese after the 2006 season to end a power struggle between the general manager and coach Jeff Fisher.
Fisher worked with general managers Reese and Mike Reinfeldt and president/CEO Jeff Diamond during his 16 seasons in Houston/Tennessee. He enters his fourth season with Les Snead as his general manager in St. Louis.
“It takes a lot of work. It takes a lot of trust,” Fisher says. “Communication is important. The responsibilities are so different. You have to share those responsibilities and respect those responsibilities. It starts from Day 1. There are going to be issues and disagreements.”
One of Bill Parcells’ most memorable lines came during his departure from the Patriots after the 1996 season when he said, “If they want you to cook the dinner, at least they ought to let you shop for some of the groceries.”
Yet, Parcells’ Super Bowl titles came with George Young as his general manager.
Mike Holmgren, seeking more power, left Green Bay after the 1998 season despite going 75–37 with two Super Bowl appearances and a Vince Lombardi Trophy. With Ron Wolf having final say concerning personnel, Holmgren went to Seattle for the dual role. Yet, Holmgren ended up being stripped of his general manager title in Seattle, going 86–74 with one NFC title in his tenure as head coach.
It’s the reason few owners allow the coach to have control over all football decisions.
Bill Belichick, of course, wields the power in New England, with those around him understanding their roles. Nick Caserio, Belichick’s trusted right-hand man, recently signed a contract extension with the team through the 2020 season. Caserio enters his 15th season with the organization, including his eighth as the director of player personnel, apparently comfortable with Belichick getting most of the credit.
The Eagles became a coach-driven franchise this offseason when they gave coach Chip Kelly all-encompassing power. Howie Roseman lost his title of general manager, which included authority over the draft.
The Cowboys have operated the other way since Johnson left in 1994, with owner Jones also carrying the GM title and having final say. But most organizations split the duties between the general manager and the coach.
“I’ve never wanted the GM to have the authority to hire the coach,” Texans owner Bob McNair says. “I think that puts too much power in the hands of the GM. That’s still my responsibility. The GM and coach have to appreciate each other’s responsibility. They have to understand how we operate, and that they’ve got to get along with each other and respect each other and listen to each other.”
Breakups aren’t always over power. Sometimes, like in Dallas with Jones and Johnson, it comes down to credit.
“Ego,” says Angelo, who spent 11 seasons as the Bears’ general manager. “That’s what it is. It comes down to ego. Who’s getting the credit? The funny thing is, there is so much credit to go around when you’re winning. Everybody is getting the credit. But somebody always thinks they are getting the short straw. That’s unfortunate, because great teams, great organizations win it. It’s not a great coach or a great player or a great owner or a great general manager. It’s a combination of all those things. When one feels like he should be treated more special than the others, that’s when we have a problem.”
The friction between Jon Gruden and Rich McKay began almost the moment the Buccaneers acquired the coach in a trade with the Raiders. The Bucs won a Super Bowl in their only full season together, but Gruden ripped McKay’s personnel decisions and deactivated receiver Keyshawn Johnson. It led to a split in the middle of the 2003 season, with McKay leaving for a division rival, the Falcons, where he remains as their president/CEO.
Both Gruden and McKay continue to take the high road in discussing the fallout.
“It’s as simple as one word — trust,” McKay says. “I don’t think you need to go too far beyond that word. If you trust each other and your agendas are the same — and they’re always the same — then you have a great opportunity for success. As soon as it becomes clear to one of them, whether real or not, that there are different agendas, they can’t necessarily trust them in the way their message is being conveyed to some other party — whether it’s the media, another coach or whoever that may be — then you’ve got a problem. Trust has to be built. The way trust is built up is you work together, and you make concessions together. You don’t go in and say, ‘We’ve got to have this defensive end.’ You go in and say, ‘We want this defensive end. This is why I like him. This is the case for him.’ Then, when I give you a counter-case, you’ve got to take that into account, and you have to reach a joint decision. Trust will go away if one or the two of you decides to become the unilateral decider of fact.”
Sometimes the general manager and coach have different outlooks. Coaches, who generally don’t last long with one team, have a goal of winning now. They rarely are promised next year. General managers, who often have longer leashes, might look more toward the future. They build with a long-term plan in mind.
“There are a lot of dynamics,” Snead, the Rams’ general manager, says. “…You’re trying to come up with the best solution to a problem, so you talk through the different points of view. Often, it’s the head coach going to his staff and the general manager going to his staff to get other points of view and trying to mesh those together to make the best decisions for the organization.”
Most view the Steelers as the model organization. They have had only three head coaches since 1969, and since owner Dan Rooney gave up his general manager duties after the 1970 season, the Steelers have had only three general managers or de facto general managers.
Bill Walsh served as head coach/GM during his 10 years with the 49ers, winning three Super Bowls. In his book, Building a Champion, Walsh wrote of the relationship between general managers and coaches: “The advantage of having a coach and a general manager is obvious: You have two people with clearly defined responsibilities who can concentrate on their individual areas of expertise. There’s certainly enough work for two men.”
If the team wins, there’s credit enough to go around, too.
“Everyone has to check their egos at the door,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid says, “and they have to do what it takes to work together.”
-By Charean Williams, Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Save for a single program, the Big 12 didn’t budge in the annual offseason coaching carousel. And that’s despite another year of upheaval in the old Southwest: The familiars aren’t as formidable, while two private schools — Baylor and TCU — have leapt up to dominate the league on offense and defense.
But the lack of new names at the top doesn’t mean the Big 12 isn’t riding big changes at the coordinator position: While Texas is still settling in with Charlie Strong, Oklahoma cleaned house after a late-season offensive implosion. And as offense continues to rule this league, Air Raid stalwarts like Texas Tech are at a crossroads to try to moderate their famous shootouts. And at the league’s bottom, Kansas resigned itself to the fate of the modern game: If you can’t beat the Air Raid, join it.
Here are three key coordinator hires to watch in the league this season, each tasked with equally unique and daunting projects.
Meet: Lincoln Riley, offensive coordinator
Formerly: Offensive coordinator, East Carolina
Style: Air Raid
No new hire in the Big 12 will be as scrutinized this season as the 31-year-old Riley, who replaced Jay Norvell and OU legend Josh Heupel after the Sooners’ tumultuous 8–5 season ended with a home loss to Oklahoma State and a 40–6 beatdown by Clemson in the Russell Athletic Bowl.
The Sooners averaged 36.4 points per game but faltered when it mattered most. Against Big 12 co-champion Baylor, OU scored twice in the first quarter but failed to score over the final 45 minutes of the game. In the bowl game, the Sooners managed only six points against Clemson (and former OU defensive coordinator Brent Venables).
Riley is a Mike Leach disciple who was promoted to a full-time assistant coach position at the age of 23. He followed former Texas Tech defensive coordinator Ruffin McNeil to East Carolina, where his offenses averaged 82 plays per game and posted the four best offensive seasons in school history.
Riley’s offenses at East Carolina had more balance than typical Leach-coached Air Raid attacks. To that end, his scheme leans more toward the Dana Holgorsen branch of the Leach coaching tree, which is just fine with Stoops. After all, the Sooners welcome back Samaje Perine, who rushed for 1,713 yards as a true freshman last season. Running the ball will no doubt be a big part of the OU attack this fall.
In recent years, Riley had the luxury of a veteran quarterback (Shane Carden) to run the show. In Norman, he’ll have to identify a reliable starter. Trevor Knight struggled for much of last season, meaning that Texas Tech transfer Baker Mayfield, who played in the Air Raid for one season in Lubbock, could be the favorite.
Unlike Gibbs and Likens, Riley isn’t tasked with a reclamation project. But he still faces a daunting challenge.
The task from Stoops, as stated at Riley’s introductory press conference, is simple: Adapt to the personnel and be successful. Now.
Meet: Rob Likens, offensive coordinator
Formerly: Receivers coach/assistant head coach, California
Style: Up-tempo Air Raid
It’s no shock that Kansas finished dead last in the Big 12 (and 115th nationally) in total offense last season. The death-rattle of the Charlie Weis pro-style era in Manhattan ended with a paltry 17.8 points per game. That number is terrible enough on its own but horrific by comparison with other Big 12 teams: League leaders Baylor (48.2 ppg) and TCU (46.5 ppg) were almost three times more productive. The Jayhawks would’ve needed 10-12 quarters per game to keep pace with the top half of the highest-scoring league in the Power 5.
Enter Likens, an offensive assistant for Sonny Dykes’ Cal and Louisiana Tech offenses. In 2012, Dykes’ Bulldogs led the nation in scoring (51.5 ppg), and in two years at Berkeley, the “Bear Raid” increased output from 23.0 to 38.3 points per game, second only to Oregon last season.
Likens is tasked with installing an attack in Lawrence that’s familiar to almost every conference rival — an aggressive pass-first philosophy that spreads the field at a breakneck pace.
Kansas’ offense could be one of the toughest reclamation projects of 2015: Under Weis the Jayhawks ran a huddled, pro-style attack in the 7-on-7 hellfire of the Big 12. KU averaged 70 plays per game; most Air Raid and hurry-up attacks push for a minimum of 85.
“It’s really frustrating when you first get to a new program and install this offense,” Likens says. “But then next year and the year after, you start to see the players respond faster and faster. Right now we’re just trying to work through mistakes.
“The first day of spring ball, it’s a billion mistakes. You go through and fix those but then you’ve also got to put different plays in, which create more mistakes. You usually skip a day in spring practice, so you’re on a three-day cycle of building, correcting, repeating.”
To Likens, Year 1, Week 1, Day 1 of installing an up-tempo Air Raid is about speed and positivity. Kansas will emphasize tempo to build conditioning, but to also free players from overthinking.
“Repetition builds muscle memory,” Likens says. “Going at our pace allows for as many reps as humanly possible, because this offense is about calling the perfect play, it’s about playing with close to perfect technique.”
Likens and new head coach David Beaty, formerly the receivers coach at Texas A&M, have to identify a starting quarterback. Consistency at the position plagued the Weis and Turner Gill years in Lawrence. KU has entered the season with a new starter in six consecutive years. Junior Montell Cozart and senior Michael Cummings are the front-runners for this season, but two more quarterbacks will join the roster in June.
That’s an immediate concern. Of long-term concern is the fact that Kansas is bringing in an offense that is very familiar to the rest of its Big 12 neighbors. Nowhere in college football is the Air Raid better understood, coached and coached against than Likens’ new league.
“You certainly want to be doing something different. You want to have a kind of uniqueness,” Likens says. “That’s a fine line you have to determine, but right now we’re consumed with understanding the basics. I can’t imagine what it’s like to be a player out there right now. You’re going as fast as you can and you’re getting yelled at for mistakes non-stop. So honestly, the toughest task right now is to stay positive with these guys and make them believe.”
Meet: David Gibbs, defensive coordinator
Formerly: Defensive coordinator/interim head coach, Houston
Style: 4-3 Hybrid
Last season, Kliff Kingsbury’s Red Raider offense rolled up the predictably gaudy numbers (504.1 yards and 30.5 points per game) but finished 4–8 thanks largely to a horrific defense that gave up a league-worst 41.3 points per game. Among the grisly moments were games in which Baylor and TCU — the league’s co-champs — rocked the Tech defense for 48 and 82 points, respectively.
To combat years of stigma and to survive in a league dominated by the Air Raid, Texas Tech hired Gibbs, who’s operated with a distinctly Big 12 defensively philosophy for most of his career.
“Don’t worry about total yards allowed,” Gibbs says. “Don’t worry about passing stats. Don’t worry about getting beat on third down, because sometimes that’s going to happen. The goal is to give your offense more opportunities than theirs.”
Gibbs ran a hybrid 4-3 at Houston with a flexible rush end/down lineman who, depending on the call, would stand back as a linebacker or put his hand down as a lineman. This allowed Houston to change looks without huddling, the exact philosophy up-tempo offenses have been using for years.
“Playing good defense is giving your offense the ball back with a chance to win in the fourth (quarter),” Gibbs says. “That’s common sense, but if it’s 49–48 or 27–26 and we can get the ball back for the offense, you’re doing your job.
“Some people see it as craziness, I see it as opportunity.”
Gibbs’ defenses at Houston were wildly opportunistic, forcing an incredible 43 turnovers in 2013 — eight more than any other team in the nation — and 30 last season. The Texas Tech defense forced only 15 turnovers last season.
Turnovers have long been considered uncoachable and “chance opportunities,” but Gibbs increases his defense’s odds of taking the ball away by giving the opposing offense multiple looks as well as encouraging hyper-aggressive ball-strips and allowing his defensive backs to jump routes. It’s a gamble, but Gibbs believes the current offense-centric focus of the game leaves defenses no choice.
“The tempo and point production in this league are unmatched,” he says. “I thought we went fast at Houston, and then I saw Coach Kingsbury’s offense practice. For so many teams in one conference to score this much, wow. As a defensive coach it’s like, ‘Holy cow, man. Good luck.’”
-By Steven Godfrey, SB Nation
Jim Delany knew. Maybe he knew more than most. By the time Ohio State had wrapped up the national championship victory over Oregon — the Big Ten’s first in over a decade and first of the College Football Playoff era — he was far more subdued than a week prior in New Orleans, when the No. 4 seed Buckeyes came from behind to beat No. 1 Alabama and end a decade’s worth of unfriendly talking points against the Big Ten.
“College sports can be very cyclical. So maybe this is our time now,” Delany said on the field of the Superdome amidst an explosion of scarlet and gray relief.
It was one game, not even the national title game, but it was far more significant to a sport that’s been reduced to fierce provincialism. Ohio State’s win over Alabama silenced the foremost criticism of the league: That in a best-on-best situation, the Big Ten can’t hang with the SEC. Well, the Big Ten’s best beat the SEC’s best, and that’s the situation entering 2015 no matter if the Buckeyes’ quarterback is Cardale Jones, J.T. Barrett, Braxton Miller or even Urban Meyer himself.
“When the playoff was being formed in the final weeks of the season, I watched the tape and thought Ohio State was deserving of being one of the best four,” Big Ten analyst and former SEC and Big Ten head coach Gerry DiNardo says. “When the (semifinal) game was announced, I went right to the coaches’ tape for Alabama, then the coaches’ tape for Ohio State, and I came away thinking it was an even matchup athletically.”
Naturally, the 2015 offseason has featured a pendulum swing of bragging rights, but the Big Ten still has a tremendous amount of work to do.
“That game meant one thing: Ohio State is back. Ohio State is one of the nation’s absolute best programs. But it doesn’t mean the Big Ten is back, not yet,” DiNardo says.
In fact, the future of the Buckeyes likely won’t hinge on whatever team the SEC or Pac-12 produces to face them in the playoff. It will likely be more about how Ohio State’s own league fares. For the Buckeyes — and possibly Michigan State, Penn State and (eventually) Jim Harbaugh’s Michigan — to compete for a playoff spot, the well-being of programs such as Indiana is crucial.
Take a look at the 2014 top 50 rankings for Big Ten schools in Football Outsider’s F/+ advanced rankings, which weighs teams on everything from offensive drive efficiency to explosive plays.
And now compare that to the SEC’s top 50 F/+ ranked teams in 2014.
|2015 Football Outsiders F/+ Ratings|
|1. Ohio State||2. Alabama|
|11. Michigan State||4. Georgia|
|25. Wisconsin||5. Ole Miss|
|30. Nebraska||7. Auburn|
|37. Minnesota||9. Arkansas|
|45. Penn State||13. Mississippi State|
|38. South Carolina|
|42. Texas A&M|
Twelve out of 14 SEC schools finished in the top 50, while well more than half the Big Ten was missing. And regardless of the Buckeyes’ title, 2014 was representative of the norm: In a five-year average of season-ending F/+ rankings, the SEC places 12 of 14 teams in the top 50 and nine in the top 25 (including No. 1 Alabama). The Big Ten manages only seven in the top 50 and three in the top 25 (No. 5 Ohio State tops the league’s list).
Throw aside your politics, conspiracy theories and fan bias — when a one-loss Crimson Tide team seems incapable of dropping out of the playoff field while a one-loss Ohio State has to lobby, pray and sneak into the field in the final bracket, it’s not ESPN’s fault.
Now that the Big Ten has a statement win and regained the national championship, how does the league as a whole begin to close the gap? It’s a four-part struggle that can’t be faced by Brutus Buckeye alone.
1. Create three or four more Ohio States (at least).
Even Alabama falters once and again, and no one expects Ohio State to be perfect from here on out. In fact, imperfection might actually help. Save for a few elite names, the SEC trades top-tier contenders depending on the year. One season South Carolina might be a legit contender, then Mississippi State the next. The Big Ten might never have the ability to create the same depth of potential top-10 teams (we’ll get there in a second), but it can create a top tier to share space with Ohio State.
“On paper, this Ohio State title does the same for the Big Ten what Florida State’s did for the ACC last year: absolutely nothing,” DiNardo says. “The difference in those conferences, however, is that I think you can find a group of programs — Ohio State, Michigan State, Wisconsin, Penn State and now Michigan again, with no ceiling. There is no ceiling on those teams. I think it’s hard to say the same about the ACC.”
The blueprint for the Big Ten might be closer to the Pac-12 than the ACC. As recently as the early 2000s, USC was the only perennial national title contender in the league. With six Pac-12 teams in the final AP top 25 in each of the last two seasons, that, obviously, is no longer the case.
“I always said you had to rise up or get left in the dust,” says first-year Nebraska coach Mike Riley, who witnessed the Pac-12’s renaissance while the head coach at Oregon State. “One of the things that helped that was that there was a tremendous investment in football. Just about every school made major moves in coaching, in salaries, in facilities. It’s vastly different than a decade ago. You’ve seen major moves in a lot of ways in that conference to help everything basically get better.”
The ingredients are in place at several Big Ten schools to make a significant leap in the near future.
Michigan State under Mark Dantonio has been criminally overlooked by the national media. The Spartans are 53–14 since 2010 and would’ve likely been a third or fourth seed had the Playoff started in 2013.
“Mark Dantonio is always going to do things differently than the Ohio States or the Michigan of old,” says Barton Simmons, director of scouting for 247Sports. “That program can take a three-star that might play like a three-star at another program who seems to somehow evolve into an elite-level guy in East Lansing.”
One thing Sparty needs: A clean September résumé. In the last four seasons, Michigan State has dropped a non-conference game (Oregon in 2014 and three consecutive losses to Notre Dame) and fallen off the radar. Their best chance for a statement in 2015: when the Marcus Mariota-less Ducks visit East Lansing.
It’s too early to determine Penn State’s worthiness as a national title contender under James Franklin, but his early returns in recruiting are inarguable. The Nittany Lions landed their second consecutive top-25 class in February (No. 14 nationally according to the 247Sports Composite, up from No. 24 in Franklin’s abbreviated post-hire debut). And don’t think PSU’s foray into Atlanta-area recruiting camps has gone unnoticed, either by rival league coaches or Franklin’s former neighbors down south.
Wisconsin has been the quiet bell cow of the league, but another coaching change raises larger questions about the program’s stability. Then again, Paul Chryst is, according to multiple coaching insiders, the most friendly hire yet to Barry Alvarez’s hands-on management style. And the Badgers stand to benefit for years to come in the East/West division alignment. Pick your metric: recruiting, coaching talent or wins. It’s hard to see the West as anything more than a two-team race between Wisconsin and Nebraska.
And those expectations for Jim Harbaugh? A seven-year, $35 million base contract in the offseason’s splashiest hire for an alumnus who has coached in the Super Bowl? No matter what Brady Hoke left for him, the time is already now.
2. Embrace the new pledges.
Delany’s expansion of the conference during college football’s era of radical realignment was arguably the most shameless of any commissioner’s resource grab. Utah and Colorado fit the Pac-12. Texas A&M fits the SEC. Maryland and Rutgers? They fit a Nielsen ratings list, a census flowchart and little else. But if you’re a Big Ten fan, learn to love it. Quickly.
“Those schools have a ton of potential now. Maryland and Rutgers already have more resources than Indiana, Purdue, Iowa, Minnesota, and I could make a case they’ve got more potential than Nebraska, believe it or not,” DiNardo says.
“No (Mid-Atlantic region) four- or five-star is going to unofficially visit Nebraska, but they are Rutgers and Maryland because it only costs them a tank of gas.”
The move also allows for more consistent television and recruiting exposure in the highly populated I-95 corridor of the Northeast. What the Terrapins and Scarlet Knights give Big Ten football on the field will be marginal at best for the next few seasons, but their additions bump the Big Ten footprint above 80 million people. That’s still third behind the SEC and the Boston-to-Miami reach of the ACC.
It’s no coincidence that Ohio State at Maryland, a lopsided affair to say the least, was a national game on ABC, or that the Buckeyes’ inaugural trip to Rutgers was moved into prime time on the newly expanded Big Ten Network.
Fans in Happy Valley might not like to hear it, but the new blood arguably benefits Penn State the most. Both additions could loosely be considered rivals for the near future (just ask the Terps, who refused to shake hands with PSU players before their game). Penn State wants to absorb Pennsylvania talent much the way Ohio State does in Ohio, but the I-95 additions allow for an uninterrupted region of football talent to be staked as Big Ten territory, much the same as the SEC across multiple states or Pac-12 along the West Coast.
Franklin has rebuilt Penn State into a homegrown machine, but the definition of where “home” ends has become a sticking point: He’s repeatedly told boosters and fans that he considers the state of Maryland to be Penn State’s territory, no doubt to tweak the Terps, Franklin’s former employer who passed on naming him head coach before he headed to Vanderbilt. Depending on which recruiting service you prefer, Penn State is fighting for as many as six top Maryland recruits for 2016. But the Terps aren’t backing down. “That staff is doing everything they can to win their state, and they can succeed that way,” Simmons says. “You have to get creative, but you also have to protect your home state.”
3. Fight for “have-not” legislation.
Oh, Nebraska. Once an inarguable inclusion on any list of national powers, the Huskers have seen isolated locale and coaching unease transform them into the Big Ten’s biggest question mark. They’re joined by a group of schools — Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Purdue — that are fighting a national shift in population density toward warmer climates and more urban locations.
Some rival fans might shrug at these woes, but getting to the playoff is a lot easier when these teams are at least formidable. DiNardo, himself a former Indiana coach, offers a stark but simple plan: Change how you recruit, and recruit harder than you ever have before. Or else. Of 247Sports’ top 25 recruiters for the 2015 cycle, only two Big Ten assistants made the list, and both (Kerry Coombs and Stan Drayton) work for Meyer in Columbus.
“If you don’t like Twitter, too bad, like it. If you don’t like Facebook, too bad, go somewhere else. I don’t care about your ‘impressions’ about social media,” DiNardo says. “Go somewhere else. If I’m running one of those schools, the offensive coordinator, defensive coordinator and recruiting coordinator would all be paid the same money. We can spend hours and hours debating who’s going to get the ball on 3rd-and-short, and only 20 minutes calling the top running back. It needs to be the other way around.”
It’s certainly no coincidence that the western half of the Big Ten features three names — Indiana’s Kevin Wilson, Purdue’s Darrell Hazell and Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz — listed among the coaches on the hot seat in this magazine. For every feel-good, break-out year like Jerry Kill and Minnesota had last season, there are two more programs floundering to keep up with the modern game.
“And Minnesota doesn’t even have a 100-yard practice field! Build your facilities!” DiNardo adds.
And if you can’t recruit well enough to keep up? Get the lawyers.
“Every rule in the NCAA is a ‘have’ or ‘have-not’ rule. College basketball is different, it has 300 D-I schools. The ‘haves’ in basketball are in the extreme minority, whereas the ‘haves’ in football are at about 50 percent so it’s very hard to get legislation through.”
DiNardo, who routinely visits each school’s coaching staff, advocates for an aggressive overhaul of recruiting guidelines that would allow for high school juniors to take official visits at a school’s expense. “I’ve got to get that kid to my campus, away from his home in Florida or Louisiana, to see that whole new world. We’ve got to get him on our campus before he’s forced to make a decision by SEC schools he can drive to anytime.
“Show the best players in the country that new world. Maybe it’s not for them, but maybe it is. You have to show these players and their families what a Big Ten education is, what a Big Ten campus is. Then you’ve got as good a chance as anyone.”
4. Above all else, start your own chant.
Big Ten fans, administrators and even some coaches have expressed their annoyance with the “S-E-C!” chant. It’s braggadocio and it’s at times hypocritical (tell us how excited you are about that Bama conference title, Auburn!). But it’s one hell of a business mission statement.
Save for maybe Vanderbilt and Kentucky, every team in the SEC will enter 2015 with less-than-insane reasoning as to why it can win the conference this year. And because of the depth and parity in the SEC, winning the title game in Atlanta likely means your school will be invited to compete for a national championship.
When Alabama dismantled Missouri in Atlanta, after the game Nick Saban acknowledged the inevitable Playoff spot the Tide had earned. Contrast that confidence with a cold night Indianapolis. Ohio State pulled out every stop possible to humiliate Wisconsin 59–0 in an effort to lobby a skeptical Playoff committee.
“All I can speak to is, I’ve been around teams that have competed and won national championships,” Meyer said. “And this team, the way it’s playing right now, is one of the top teams in America.”
Meyer had to prove Ohio State’s worthiness on the field but also off of it. A stronger, deeper, meaner Big Ten prevents uncertainty. And we all know what happened to Alabama after that.
-By Steven Godfrey, SB Nation
The countdown to the 2015 NFL regular season has begun. Rookies for three teams are scheduled to report to training camp today with more and more joining the fray until the full rosters for all 32 squads are back on the field by Aug. 1.
With the coaches and players going back to work, the countdown to the Sept. 10 opener between the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers has begun.
As in every season, the storylines heading into 2015 are rich. Uncertainty around Tom Brady and the Patriots stemming from Deflategate will be worth monitoring until the quarterback takes a snap. The Seahawks’ blunder on the goal line in the Super Bowl may be a cloud over the season in Seattle. Quarterbacks like Sam Bradford, Jay Cutler, Johnny Manziel and Robert Griffin III are reaching career crossroads.
As camp breaks around the country, here is a look at the top storylines:
1. The Seahawks’ recovery
The Seahawks spent the entire offseason picking up the pieces from the ill-fated, goal-line play in Super Bowl XLIX. It might take more than duct tape and Super Glue to put the team’s mojo back together. Coach Pete Carroll took responsibility for the second-down play call from the 1-yard line that resulted in a Russell Wilson interception with 20 seconds left.
The call now arguably ranks as the most second-guessed in NFL history, with even running back Marshawn Lynch questioning why the Seahawks chose not to run the football. Conspiracy theorists, including some Seahawks players, wondered whether the Seahawks were positioning Wilson to play the part of hero instead of Lynch.
Carroll and his staff will have to regain the trust of the locker room before they begin a quest to become the first team to reach three Super Bowls in a row since the Buffalo Bills (1991-93).
2. Watt the MVP
The chants began in NRG Stadium at midseason: “M-V-P!” And Texans defensive end J.J. Watt became a serious contender for the award after the Texans finished 9–7, a seven-win improvement over 2013. Watt had 27 tackles, 11 sacks, 20 hits on the quarterback, a touchdown (while playing tight end) and a safety in the final five games when Houston went 4–1. He finished with 20.5 sacks to become the first player with at least 20 sacks in two different seasons.
Although Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers won the award with 31 of the 50 votes, Watt became the first defensive player this century to garner more than three votes; he finished second with 13 votes.
Watt already owns two Defensive Player of the Year awards and should match Lawrence Taylor with three. But Watt stands a decent chance of becoming only the third defensive player ever to win MVP honors, joining Taylor (1986) and Alan Page (1971).
The Colts went 11–5 and lost in the wild-card round in 2012. They went 11–5 in 2013 and won a wild-card playoff game. They took another step last year, going 11–5 and winning not only a wild-card game but also reaching the AFC Championship Game with a road victory over the Broncos in a divisional game.
Indianapolis got older in the offseason, adding running back Frank Gore (32), receiver Andre Johnson (33), linebacker Trent Cole (32) and offensive lineman Todd Herremans (32). Chuck Pagano insists that the Colts also got better. But the coach enters 2015 as a lame duck. Is it Super Bowl or bust for him?
4. Cutler’s last stand?
The Bears’ new braintrust — general manager Ryan Pace, coach John Fox and offensive coordinator Adam Gase — has no ties to Jay Cutler. They have not given the quarterback a vote of confidence, either. Cutler’s contract, which has a salary-cap hit of $16.5 million this season, offered them no choice but to ride with him this season.
Cutler, 32, has earned a reputation as a “coach killer.” He has played for three other head coaches besides Fox, and Gase becomes his sixth offensive coordinator. Cutler, the 11th overall pick in 2006, barely has a winning record in his nine-year career at 61–58. He has only one playoff appearance and only one postseason victory, and even that 2010 season ended in controversy.
That’s why Cutler’s seventh season in Chicago might well be his last.
5. Ring-bearer Brady
Tom Brady joined Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw as the only quarterbacks ever to win four Super Bowls. Only Hall of Fame defensive lineman Charles Haley has more, with five.
But Brady’s titles have not come without controversy. Haley stands among those to call out Brady after Deflategate, tabbing Brady’s championships as “tainted.” In the Spygate scandal, the NFL penalized coach Bill Belichick and the Patriots for video-taping the Jets’ sideline defensive signals. Brady was handed a four-game suspension to start the season, but how that holds up remains in question after a lengthy appeal hearing in June.
Brady, who turns 38 in August, has a record 21 playoff wins and plans to play into his 40s. No matter how many titles he wins or how many seasons he plays, Brady’s Hall of Fame career likely ends with debate about his legacy.
6. 49ers’ makeover
The signs of unrest were there last offseason. After a third consecutive trip to the NFC Championship Game, it became glaringly obvious that a split was coming between Jim Harbaugh and the 49ers after the 2014 season. But who could have predicted all the other changes that have occurred since Harbaugh left for the University of Michigan?
Their inside linebackers surprised everyone by retiring. Their starting cornerbacks left in free agency. Frank Gore and Michael Crabtree, key weapons in the offense, found new homes, too. The 49ers released Ray McDonald and Jonathan Martin.
Torrey Smith and Reggie Bush are among the players added in the team’s makeover as new offensive coordinator Geep Chryst tries to improve on a unit that ranked 30th in passing and 25th in scoring. Thus begins a new era of 49ers football.
7. Suh’s impact
The Dolphins made the biggest noise in free agency, nabbing Ndamukong Suh with a record-breaking deal. The Pro Bowl defensive tackle signed a six-year, $114 million contract that guarantees him $60 million in the first three years. He joins a defensive line that includes defensive ends Cameron Wake and Olivier Vernon, who have combined for 56.5 sacks the past three seasons.
Suh, 28, has 239 tackles and 36 sacks the past five seasons, leading all NFL defensive tackles. He also has 35 penalties in his career, including seven last season, which leads all defensive tackles.
He should have an instant impact on a defense that ranked 12th overall, including 24th against the run.
8. Bradford’s health
Sam Bradford considered retiring after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee for the second time in nine months. He has played only seven games the past two seasons, while making $23 million with the Rams.
But Bradford, the No. 1 overall pick in 2010, gets a fresh start in Philadelphia after the Eagles swapped Nick Foles and draft picks for Bradford. The Eagles are hoping Bradford stays healthy, though they have options behind him.
Bradford, 27, has an 18–30–1 record with a 58.6 completion percentage, 11,065 passing yards, 59 touchdowns and 38 interceptions. The move to Chip Kelly’s offense might be just what Bradford needs. If he can stay healthy...
Johnny Manziel has earned nicknames other than Johnny Football since arriving in the NFL. He slipped to No. 22 on draft day and failed to beat out Brian Hoyer until late in the year. Manziel then went 0–2, with a 51.4 completion percentage, 175 passing yards, no touchdowns, two interceptions and a 42.0 passer rating before injuring his hamstring.
He missed a rehab session on his hamstring the final week of the season, prompting questions about his work ethic and commitment to the game.
Manziel voluntarily entered substance-abuse rehab during the offseason, spending 10 weeks trying to get things right. Now the questions become: Can he repair the damage in the locker room, win the starting job and succeed as an NFL quarterback?
10. Rice’s second chance?
Greg Hardy signed with the Cowboys. Ray McDonald signed with the Bears (albeit temporarily). But Ray Rice can’t find work.
A judge convicted Hardy of domestic abuse, but he walked when charges were dropped because his accuser failed to appear in court for his appeal. McDonald was cleared of domestic violence accusations, but the 49ers released him in December after he was investigated for sexual assault. Rice missed last season after striking his then-fiancée unconscious in an elevator during the 2014 offseason. McDonald did sign with Chicago in late March, but the Bears released him two months later following another arrest.
The league reinstated Rice in December, but he has yet to convince anyone to take a chance on him. Rice, 28, has 6,180 rushing yards, a 4.3 yards per carry average and 37 total touchdowns in six seasons. But he had a career-low 3.1 yards per carry average in 2013, his last season, when he gained only 660 yards with four touchdowns on the ground.
11. Ryan’s upstate move
Rex Ryan’s first order of business after leaving the Jets and joining the Bills was changing the color of his tattoo from green to blue. Bills fans were rejuvenated by the hiring of Ryan and the team’s offseason moves, giving them thoughts of a playoff berth for the first time in 16 years.
The Bills look similar defensively after re-signing Jerry Hughes, returning the biggest names to a unit that finished fourth in yards allowed and led the league with 54 sacks. The offense, though, has a new look after trades for quarterback Matt Cassel and running back LeSean McCoy and the signings of tight end Charles Clay and wide receiver Percy Harvin.
All of it has turned the Bills into a popular playoff pick.
12. RG3’s future
The Redskins gave up a king’s ransom to get Robert Griffin III with the second overall pick in 2012. It took only two years for Griffin to lose his status as “franchise quarterback,” and he could end up elsewhere next season. The Redskins picked up Griffin’s option for 2016 at $16.2 million, but they still could rescind it if he stays healthy. Therein lies the problem…
Griffin never has played a full season injury-free, and twice, when healthy, he has been benched. He showed potential his rookie season, earning Offensive Rookie of the Year honors after completing 65.6 percent of his passes for 3,200 yards with 20 touchdowns, five interceptions and a 102.4 passer rating. His career, though, has gone downhill since, and he enters 2015 with a tenuous hold on the team’s starting quarterback job.
13. NFL’s Return to L.A.
The Rams, Chargers and Raiders all are prime candidates to move to Los Angeles next year. The nation’s second-largest city hasn’t had an NFL team to call its own since 1994 when the Rams relocated to St. Louis and the Raiders returned to Oakland. Now, the Rams and Raiders have an interest in returning to L.A.
The NFL owners annual spring meetings included L.A.-area stadium proposals, with league executives expressing confidence professional football is on the verge of returning to L.A. Rams owner Stan Kroenke owns 60 acres in Inglewood, Calif., and the Raiders and Chargers have a joint proposal for a privately financed $1.7 billion stadium they would share in Carson, Calif.
Los Angeles is the favorite to land the NFL Draft in 2016 and would be a future Super Bowl and possibly Pro Bowl host with a new billion-dollar stadium.
14. Peterson’s fresh start
Adrian Peterson played one game for Minnesota last season. Will it be his last time in a Vikings uniform? The running back requested a new start elsewhere after being reinstated to the NFL on April 16. But the Vikings all along insisted that Peterson would play for them in 2015, a mindset that was validated on Tuesday when Peterson and the team agreed to restructure the final three years of his deal, which runs through 2017.
He has six 1,000-yard rushing seasons since the Vikings made him a first-round pick in 2007, including his MVP season of 2012 in which he ran for 2,097 yards. Peterson turned 30 this spring and has 2,054 carries. But with fresh legs and much motivation, he could help Minnesota win its first playoff game since 2009 if he fully commits to the Vikings’ cause.
15. Bucs great hope
Bucs general manager Jason Licht became enamored with Jameis Winston during the Florida State quarterback’s Heisman season. He never dreamed, though, that his team would end up with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2015 draft. For the fifth time, the Bucs have used a first-round choice on a quarterback. The other four didn’t work out so well.
In their 39-year history, the Bucs have had 36 starting quarterbacks, including three the past two years. It’s why they have had only 10 postseason appearances in their history, and six postseason victories. Winston has given Bucs fans hope yet again that the future will be different.
-By Charean Williams, Fort Worth (Texas) Star-Telegram
It was picture day at ACC Media Days 2015 on Tuesday.
There is just something hilarious about this photo of 14 grown adult men in golf shirts posing together. Some look happy, some look angry, some look like they have no idea what they're doing posing for a class photo. So here are a few captions. (Feel free to send your ideas to @AthlonSports.)
First row (left to right):
David Cutcliffe, Duke: Inventor of the Man-Spread Offense
Paul Johnson, Georgia Tech: F@$& this $h!%
Al Golden, Miami: It's like, how much more black could this be? And the answer is none. None more black.
Larry Fedora, North Carolina: MUSCLE MILK! PROTEIN! POWERBARS!
Pat Narduzzi, Pitt: Does this shirt make me look Big Ten?
Mike London, Virginia: Who wins in a fight: Pythons or Hokie birds?
Frank Beamer, Virginia Tech: Hey, Cutt, let me ask you about this "offense" you speak of.
Second row (left to right):
Steve Addazio, Boston College: Nobody puts Dude in a corner.
Dabo Swinney, Clemson: Heidely-ho, neighbor!
Jimbo Fisher, Florida State: Why am I always standing next to an a$$hole?
Bobby Petrino, Louisville: Yo, Jimbo. Where’s the party at tonight?
Dave Doeren, NC State: I’ll terk all of yer jerbs.
Scott Shafer, Syracuse: I love lamp!
Dave Clawson, Wake Forest: There are literally zero reasons I should be this happy.
If college football ever needed validation that it’s really, really popular — and the game doesn’t need the ego boost, trust us — it was on display as Ohio State won the first College Football Playoff championship game.
Ohio State showed that almost anything is possible in the new playoff era. The Buckeyes snuck into the four-team field as the No. 4 seed, then beat Alabama to end the SEC’s eight-year streak of reaching the national title game. OSU then knocked off Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota and the Oregon Ducks for the national title — doing all this while using its third-string quarterback.
The Ohio State-Oregon championship game drew an audience of 33.4 million people to set a new cable television viewing record. How popular was college football’s mini-Super Bowl? The Academy Awards attracted only slightly more viewers at 36.6 million. LeBron James, America’s most well-known sports star, cheered on the Buckeyes from their sideline in the final minutes of the championship game inside Jerry’s World — the massive, billion-dollar Dallas Cowboys stadium that screams entertainment and excess.
College football is as popular as ever. That’s likely not changing anytime soon. But popularity doesn’t guarantee that bubbles will never burst. There are challenges facing the sport and, to varying degrees, they are very real:
• Declining attendance in the regular season and at some bowl games
• Increasing financial gap between the haves and have-nots as schools provide more benefits to players
• Growing health concerns about concussions that could limit football’s talent pool
• External threats to pay players and/or give them more legal rights
“College football is an extraordinary game,” Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby says. “I think the months of October and November are the best regular season in all of sports, and I think there’s a lot right with college football. But we ought to be thoughtful, or we’ll find ourselves in a much different place in the future.”
The bubble isn’t close to bursting in the eyes of Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott.
“I’m not worried about football,” Scott says. “I think the fundamentals are very strong and, in fact, getting stronger in terms of the popularity of college football and the passion and entertainment value around the game. It’s hard to predict anything too far into the future, but football continues to be the most popular sport in this country.”
Still, it’s worthwhile to take a look at the challenges that face the seemingly unstoppable juggernaut that is college football.
Smaller crowds were bound to happen given how the paradigm has shifted in college sports. Football television money drives the engine, and with nearly every game on TV or available via streaming, it’s so much easier and cheaper for fans to stay home and watch comfortably on their HDTV.
Football Bowl Subdivision crowds for home games averaged 43,483 fans in 2014, down four percent from 2013 and the lowest since 2000. Last year marked the sixth straight season that crowds averaged below 46,000 since they peaked at 46,456 in 2008.
“I have some questions about sustainability,” Bowlsby says. “We are seeing troubling trends in attendance, especially among young attendees. The product that’s on television is so good and you can fast forward or go to other games during the commercials or watch on mobile devices. The fact is we’re consuming our sports differently than we have in the past, and that’s going to continue to change.”
The good news: 72 percent of the top-25 attendance leaders experienced increases or remained the same (all of the top 25 were from Power 5 conferences or Notre Dame). The bad news: Only 48 percent of the remaining Power 5 schools maintained or increased their crowd average, and many schools in smaller conferences continued to decline.
“In some ways the sport is probably as popular as it’s ever been, and the TV ratings suggest that,” MAC commissioner Jon Steinbrecher says. “Yeah, we have instances of dips in attendance, which I think we can link in large part to how we’ve made it very easy to stay home and watch the game.”
Conferences and schools have understood this for years. Realignment didn’t help by taking away some attractive games. Some rivalry games have disappeared (goodbye, Texas-Texas A&M and Kansas-Missouri). Bigger conferences mean that some schools see certain attractive opponents on their campuses far less often.
Some schools are creating better in-game experiences through technology and the game-day environment. Some are downsizing their stadiums and building more club suites to generate revenue. There’s not a one-size-fits-all answer. Winning, of course, usually solves attendance problems.
Bowl games continue to be impacted by smaller crowds. Announced attendance at last season’s 35 returning postseason games declined four percent, and the average bowl crowd was down for the fifth straight year.
Television ratings for the regular-season remained strong. ESPN’s New Year’s Eve audience for bowl games averaged 7.1 million viewers, up from 4.6 million in 2013 when less-attractive games were played on that date.
A big question in the next two seasons: How will ratings look for the playoff’s semifinals on Dec. 31 instead of Jan. 1? In order to protect the Rose and Sugar bowls, the College Football Playoff is potentially hurting its New Year’s Day brand again with the semifinals on New Year’s Eve two out of every three years. Last season’s New Year’s Day was a hit with exciting Auburn-Wisconsin and Baylor-Michigan State games leading into semifinal matchups of Florida State-Oregon and Alabama-Ohio State. Meanwhile, the sport will reach 40 bowl games (counting the championship game) when Orlando adds another postseason game in 2015.
“Some of our bowl games exist purely for the experience, and I think that’s where we probably need to focus as much as anything,” Football Bowl Association executive director Wright Waters says. “I don’t think you can have a discussion about the health of bowls and limit it to attendance and payouts and ratings. If the attendance is down four percent and that’s the same as the regular season, I think it just speaks to the larger issue that we’ve got to get our arms around as an industry.”
For college football, the fight is on to keep its next generation of fans at stadiums.
In mid-November of last year, the College Football Playoff rankings looked as if “Moneyball” had come to the sport. Half of the top eight teams in the rankings (at that time) live in the middle class financially — Baylor (36th in national revenue by athletic department), TCU (43rd), Arizona State (51st) and Mississippi State (56th).
A month later, the playoff featured some bluebloods: Alabama, Florida State, Oregon and Ohio State. That doesn’t mean the so-called “Moneyball” schools can’t compete for the national title. Now more than ever, it may be easier for those schools to compete given that everyone has TV exposure these days.
Also, money doesn’t buy success. Go ask Texas, which led the country in athletic department revenue in 2012-13 ($165.7 million) and went 6–7 in football last year. Baylor ($86.9 million in ’13-14) and TCU ($77.1 million in ’13-14) shared the Big 12 title, and both flirted with making the playoff.
The reality is that the financial gaps will only increase. And although TV money continues to pour in for many major conferences, the gap will likely present a challenge for some football programs. The new NCAA governance structure gives the Power 5 conferences the autonomy to create legislation to provide more benefits to players. Those benefits come with costs that schools can elect to pay or not pay.
Cost of attendance is the first new benefit, and it’s an important one. If schools want to, they can now pay players an extra stipend of a couple thousand dollars to cover the actual cost of attending college beyond the NCAA’s previous limit on scholarships. The cost of attendance numbers will vary by school and are set by financial aid officers under federal guidelines.
“We’re all at the point where the intent is right, but there’s going to be some problems with managing it,” Steinbrecher says. “We’ve really got to have some faith that people are going to do the right things. The NCAA doesn’t have the staff to monitor this. The question that I have for our own folks is, do we need to develop a conference monitoring system for this? The numbers shouldn’t be dramatic each year.”
Schools can now provide unlimited meals and snacks to players in conjunction with their participation. There’s the possibility that more players could have their education paid for by returning to college at a later date. Covering medical costs for players after their careers is another discussion that’s going to come up.
American Athletic Conference commissioner Mike Aresco, who wants to position his league as the sixth “power conference,” understands what he calls “headwinds” in college sports facing his league.
“We hate that term ‘power conference,’” Aresco says. “We know it’s used a lot. It’s harder on us. We don’t have as much resources. But if you use money correctly and spend it wisely, you can compete. Our guys don’t have the margin for error that other guys clearly have. Also, we realize probably half of those schools (in the Power 5 conferences) are going to struggle with this. They’re not all Michigan and Alabama and Texas and Ohio State. This is a new world where we can compete because we do have scholarship limits and transfer rules, and we fought hard for those in the (NCAA) governance redesign. With those two things in place, you can compete.”
But the money gap also increases the difficulty for some schools to retain coaches — or even hire them in the first place. The SEC West will now have a last-place coach who makes at least $4 million annually. Back in 2007, Nick Saban was the only coach in the country who made $4 million.
Many coordinators at high-profile schools would have to take pay cuts to be a head coach at a smaller school.
“It used to be back in the day you’d be an assistant coach and you might be a head coach at Division II and migrate to a Division I program and migrate again,” Steinbrecher says. “Or in the case of the MAC, it wasn’t unusual to be picking up who was the hot coordinator at that time. But when you look at what’s going on with salaries at the very highest level, not only with head coaches but with assistants, it’s changing where I think all of us are starting to look when we replace a coach.”
Central Michigan lost head coach Dan Enos, who left to become Arkansas’ offensive coordinator, and replaced him with John Bonamego, a 16-year NFL assistant who was mostly a special teams coordinator. Buffalo hired Lance Leipold, who won six Division III national championships at Wisconsin-Whitewater with a 109–6 record in eight seasons. Steinbrecher compared the hiring of Leipold to Wisconsin’s basketball team many years ago picking Bo Ryan, who had won four Division III national titles.
“Look at people who were high school coaches six or seven years ago. They’re head coaches at the highest level,” Steinbrecher says. “That wouldn’t have occurred a decade ago. There are people at all levels who can flat-out coach. I think savvy administrators will have to work hard to figure that out.”
The image was frightening last season. Visibly woozy Michigan quarterback Shane Morris had just taken a hit to the head and wobbled around, staying on his feet only by leaning on a teammate. Morris stayed in the game for one play after the hit. As if that weren’t bad enough, he later returned for one more play.
How Michigan handled the aftermath was also troubling. After the game, then-Wolverines coach Brady Hoke said Morris “wanted to be the quarterback, and so, believe me, if he didn’t want to be he would’ve come to the sideline and stayed down.” That comment represents the old-school football culture that concussion experts are trying to change.
In the ensuing days, Hoke said he didn’t think Morris had been diagnosed with a concussion. Then his athletic director confirmed that a concussion had in fact occurred and apologized for how Michigan handled the injury.
The Michigan example is a long way of saying this: Concussions aren’t going away. They’re a serious health issue that’s heavily scrutinized now by the public. Football at all levels must continue to evolve or risk losing its current popularity.
“I’ve had very high-placed football coaches tell me that they even question the sustainability of football as a whole going forward,” Bowlsby says. “Youth participation is down in each of the past two or three years. You saw Mike Ditka’s interview where he said he wouldn’t want his kids or grandkids playing the game. I think football is under siege in a lot of ways.”
The NCAA has been mired in a lawsuit over concussions. The proposed settlement between the NCAA and the plaintiffs would provide money to former college athletes to be tested for long-term brain injuries if they meet certain criteria from a questionnaire. The $70 million medical monitoring fund would not pay for the actual treatment of the injuries — a criticism some have levied against the settlement.
“I think it’s very unfortunate,” says prominent concussion expert Dr. Robert Cantu, who was named to serve on the NCAA’s medical monitoring fund committee. “Unfortunately, where it’s left is these individuals are going to be able to be given the diagnosis and then they’ve got to sue either in a class or individually, and they either have to go after a given school, or if they want to include the NCAA they can. I think a lot of individual schools will get sued.”
Medical experts and economists who created the NCAA medical monitoring fund estimate that 50 to 300 former college athletes in all sports who played from 1956 to 2008 will be diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). CTE is a degenerative brain disease that has been found in 76 of the 79 brains of former NFL players examined after their deaths. Other factors such as genetics may contribute to CTE, but the disease has been repeatedly linked to head trauma.
In recent years, the NCAA has set new guidelines and spent money on research and education. Reluctant to accept liability, the NCAA, conferences and schools have passed the buck back and forth over who’s in charge of new concussion guidelines. There is not enough support yet for penalties to be attached to a new safety committee that will oversee concussion protocol for the Power 5 conferences, even though NCAA president Mark Emmert and NCAA chief medical officer Brian Hainline have publicly said that they want some type of enforcement mechanism.
Why is there not enough support to attach NCAA penalties to return-to-play concussion guidelines? “Because some people aren’t doing it correctly,” Bowlsby says. “They want to have local control, (but) their coaches (are) saying, ‘I don’t want to be told what to do on the sideline.’”
In 2013, the Chronicle of Higher Education found that nearly half of the trainers surveyed in major college football said they felt pressure from coaches to return concussed players to the field before they were medically ready. A 2010 NCAA survey revealed in the lawsuit showed that nearly half of responding universities said they returned athletes in the same game after a concussion diagnosis.
“What the NCAA has to do — and it’s easy for me to say and not easy to do — they have to police so the policies get done,” Cantu says. “They’re leaving it self-policed until there’s a whistle blown.”
College football has progressed from where it was a couple years ago with concussions. The sport’s head is no longer buried in the sand. Certainly, no one wants long-term health problems for players.
Still, there’s going to be constant tension in college football over this issue. There may be a day when rules changes more dramatic than the NCAA targeting penalty are needed. Educating players will be important, starting at younger ages (if youth football even continues to exist in the future). More players willing to speak up and sit down when they have symptoms of a concussion will help the sport, but that cuts against the grain of football’s mentality.
“You have to keep watching what we’re doing to make sure we’re doing everything possible to make a high-velocity impact sport as safe as possible,” Steinbrecher says. “I think technological advances could help, whether it’s sensors in the helmets or pads to trigger protocols that say if you have a collision measured at X, maybe that’s a player you need to look at immediately to monitor.
“There’s an awful lot we don’t know medically, but we’re learning more and more.”
Change is coming to the NCAA. What exactly that change will look like remains to be seen, but it’s becoming very likely that college athletes will be allowed to get paid in some form beyond their scholarship value.
Maybe there will be group licensing deals with schools and third parties allowing equal payments to every player on a team for the use of their name, image and likeness on television or products. Maybe players will be allowed to cut their own deals to receive outside endorsement money. Maybe — in what’s described by critics as the doomsday scenario — players will be allowed to shop their services to the highest-bidding school.
The Ed O’Bannon lawsuit opened legal doors and helped change the public dialogue. So did all of the money pouring into the college sports industry as schools chased new conference homes for money and created their own television networks. A federal judge ruled last August that the NCAA violated antitrust law and that schools are allowed (but not required) to provide deferred payments to football and men’s basketball players after their eligibility expires. The NCAA could cap the amount at no less than $5,000 per year.
The NCAA appealed the ruling. As of early May, the appellate court had not made a decision. The NCAA faces the prospect of having to create new rules for allowing these payments. Under the O’Bannon injunction, schools could begin offering the extra money to current players and recruits on Aug. 1 with payouts starting in 2016-17.
Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick says that college sports could manage a group-licensing concept for athletes to be paid immediately and not even wait for deferred payments. Swarbrick believes the industry brought this on itself with rules that differentiate athletes from the general student body, such as not allowing athletes to make money off their own names.
“From a risk perspective, O’Bannon was a very favorable ruling for everybody,” Swarbrick says. “The (Martin) Jenkins and (Shawne) Alston cases are much more troubling. You can find ways to manage a finite exposure, which is what O’Bannon gave us. Some people may cut sports, some people may increase revenue, some people may endow more, whatever. The open-ended case, that’s problematic.”
The Jenkins case — which for now is consolidated with the Alston cost-of-attendance lawsuit — is the big one everyone fears in college sports. The Jenkins case is led by high-profile sports labor attorney Jeffrey Kessler, who helped bring free agency to the NFL and wants an open market for college football and basketball players.
Meanwhile, the Northwestern unionization case before the National Labor Relations Board remained unresolved as of early May. An NLRB regional director ruled last year that Northwestern football players are employees who can attempt to form a union. Northwestern appealed the decision.
If Northwestern football players are deemed employees, the ballots they voted on will be counted to see if they want to unionize. Even if the players voted no, a precedent will have been set by the NLRB for private schools.
Any attempt to form player unions at public universities would depend on state labor laws. Michigan and Ohio have already put in place legal mechanisms to prevent college athletes at public universities from being declared employees.
“You just hope that fans generally don’t get fatigued with all of the legal issues and debates about whether players are employees, whether they should be paid,” ACC commissioner John Swofford says. “All of the fan feedback and surveys I’ve seen seem to indicate the American public and college sports fans want to see college players and by and large believe they are going to school and part of the collegiate experience. If that changes dramatically, I think that will negatively impact how people view college sports in the long run.”
The Pac-12’s Scott sounds a similar tune.
“The USFL and XFL weren’t very successful for a reason. The D-League isn’t very successful for a reason,” Scott says. “The public isn’t very interested in development or semi-pro sports. The plaintiffs would like to turn college sports into semi-pro sports. I think that would kill college football or college basketball.”
It’s worth noting that doom-and-gloom claims such as these have been heard before in various sports. The public was supposed to lose interest in Major League Baseball when free agency arrived and in the Olympics when professionals were allowed to participate. Needless to say, judging by their media rights deals, baseball and the Olympics are doing just fine.
Right now, nothing is killing college football. The first playoff proved that, after years of predictions that a playoff would hurt the sport.
“It’s a fun game,” the AAC’s Aresco says. “I’m a little concerned about the fact offenses are maybe getting a little ahead. I’m not used to football where scores are 61–58. But it’s an incredible game. I don’t think college football can become much more popular.”
College football’s bubble remains intact.
But bubbles can pop when you least expect them to. It’s up to smart and thoughtful decision-makers to maintain the game’s popularity.
-by Jon Solomon, CBSSports.com