Articles By Braden Gall
We brought our own guts for this week's podcast, and we'll need guts to break down another wild week in which few favorites were left unscathed.
Co-hosts Braden Gall and David Fox assess the panic levels for Ohio State after a scare with Indiana and Michigan State after another injury-riddled close call.
Then, we look at the Big 12 and the landscape at the top and the age-old playoff argument of "best team" (Baylor), "most deserving" (Oklahoma) and a little of both (TCU), plus the rising panic level at Texas.
Meanwhile, the ACC is as messy as Saturday's weather in Clemson. Are the Tigers starting to look like the team to beat? (Hint: It's not Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech.)
Finally, we talk about the recalibration in the SEC. Is Florida the new favorite in the East and is Alabama back to being the best team in the conference again?
I probably won't bet on Auburn the rest of the season. Or Tennessee or TCU or Oregon. Every year in college football there are just teams that are more schizophrenic than others.
Those are the teams to avoid and it appears we've got a lot of them in college football this season. Particularly, with all of the injuries mounting for Top 25 teams.
Last Week: 4-3
Notre Dame (+1.5) at Clemson
The Irish are a solid team with a big-time O-line and great weapons. But they have a QB making his second career start on the road against a rested Tigers team. Deshaun Watson makes a big play against a banged-up ND defense. Prediction: Clemson -1.5
College Football Podcast: Week 5 Preview with Andy Staples
Ohio State (-22) at Indiana
This game has been bizarrely close lately in two of the last three meetings and Indiana is operating at full capacity on offense right now. Ohio State wins easily, but this is way too many points for a very good Indiana offense. Prediction: Indiana +22
Western Kentucky (-7.5) at Rice
The Hilltoppers are excellent on offense and Rice has been scorched on defense this year, giving up 7.7 yards per play this season. Texas, North Texas and Baylor all averaged more than 7.0 yards per play against the Owls. Take WKU. Prediction: Western Kentucky -7.5
Vanderbilt (+1.5) at Middle Tennessee
The Blue Raiders are a solid team and have never lost to Vanderbilt as an FBS team. The Dores know this and have a defense that is playing at a very high level. Vandy has held Ole Miss, Georgia and WKU well below their season averages this year already. Take the points. Prediction: Vanderbilt +1.5
West Virginia (+6.5) at Oklahoma
Call it a hunch, but I like the Sooners here. West Virginia is solid on defense and has looked really good all season and that may have skewed this line as the betting public is all over the Mountaineers. Baker Mayfield and company are rested and playing at an elite level on offense. This will be an entertaining game. Prediction: Oklahoma -6.5
Against the herd: Bet opposite of the public!
Texas Tech (+17) vs. Baylor
This was close last season and Tech is improved this fall. There will be points. This opened at Baylor -15.
Texas (+15) at TCU
This opened at 18.5 and has dropped big time because the public is doubting TCU’s defense. Take the Frogs.
Oregon (-7.5) at Colorado
The Buffs opened at +12 and the public has dropped it all the way to a touchdown. Go Ducks.
|4-0||Air Force, Central Michigan*, MTSU, Navy**, NC State, Ohio, Southern Miss, Texas Tech*|
|0-4||Arizona St, UCF, Fresno St^, Michigan St, Missouri, North Texas^^, Old Dominion, San Diego St, UTEP^,|
* — 3-0-1
** — 3-0
^ — 0-3-1
^^ - 0-3
Hosts Mitch Light and Braden Gall are joined by Sports Illustrated's Andy Staples to break down a huge weekend of college football.
The SEC and ACC have marquee showdowns topping the charts with great undercards as well. The Big 12's best teams will try avoid upsets while pecking order games in the Pac-12 South and Big Ten West highlight the rest of Week 5.
The guys pick every Top 25 game, offer locks of the week against the spread and cover THE LEAST IMPORTANT GAME OF THE WEEK!
Hosts Braden Gall and David Fox break down the three biggest games and storylines of Week 4.
The Pac-12 dominated the headlines in Week 4 with the State of Arizona and Oregon suffering crushing losses while Stanford, Utah and the City of Los Angeles won big. The Big 12 dealt with serious heartbreak while the SEC's pecking order is disarray. Who is to be blamed for the Vols loss in The Swamp? All of that and so much more on this edition of the Cover 2 Podcast.
Things got ugly last weekend. But so did most of college football and that is what makes the sport so great.
The SEC West and Pac-12 South both got flipped on their heads, Ohio State and the ACC struggled and the state of Texas was a spectacle.
After going 2-3, I am in big need a bounce back this weekend so I've included some stats below to help you all with your... entertainment this weekend. I'm going hard into the Big 12.
Last Week: 8-8
Maryland (+16.5) at West Virginia
This game has been really close the last two seasons and appears like a decent matchup at first glance. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Terps gave up 692 yards and 48 points to Bowling Green’s spread offense in a 21-point loss at home. West Virginia is better on offense and really good on D and is at home. Prediction: West Virginia -17
College Football Podcast: Week 4 Preview with Jill Savage
TCU (-6.5) at Texas Tech
I really wanted to pick the upset after Texas Tech rolled over Arkansas last week and TCU is down to one leg and two arms on defense. But this line opened at 9.5 and has plummeted. Now that it’s under a touchdown, I’m all over Trevone Boykin and company. Tech still doesn’t play defense. Prediction: TCU -6.5
Oklahoma State (-3.5) at Texas
The Longhorns are rejuvenated with the emergence of Jerrod Heard at quarterback. They also smoked the Pokes last fall 28-7 in Stillwater. Oklahoma State is much better now than they were then but Texas will play them hard. And the hook helps too. Prediction: Texas +3.5
BYU (+4.5) at Michigan
Big Blue has some serious defense this year and BYU is coming off three brutally tough games — win or lose. Michigan is at home and has allowed 138 yards (Oregon State) and 235 yards (UNLV) in consecutive home drubbings. The Cougars are the ranked team but the Wolverines have Jim Harbaugh. Prediction: Michigan -4.5
Mississippi State (+2) at Auburn
Auburn is switching quarterbacks (to a snowboarder) but has to have some pride on the line this weekend at home. Gus Malzahn and Will Muschamp are too good not to be competitive and LSU is THAT much better than Mississippi State (despite the score two weeks ago). Prediction: Auburn -2
Northern Illinois (+4.5) at Boston College
The Huskies played Ohio State really well and Boston College was shutout last weekend so this line feels skewed. The Eagles play great defense and the Huskies probably took a lot of body blows last weekend. Prediction: Boston College -4.5
Georgia Southern (-16) at Idaho
The Vandals are 121st in total defense at 541.3 yards allowed per game in three contests, including a massive 8.68 yards per play allowed. The Eagles got star quarterback Kevin Ellison back from suspension and last week and posted 484 yards and 7.1 per play on offense in a win over The Citadel. The Kibbie Dome isn’t ready. Prediction: Georgia Southern -16
|3-0||Air Force, BYU, Buffalo, MTSU, Ole Miss, NC State, Northwestern, Ohio, Rice, SMU, Southern Miss, Washington|
|2-0||UL Lafayette, Navy, Colorado St*, Texas Tech*|
|0-2||Baylor, Boise St, Fresno St**, Kansas, New Mexico St** North Texas, UTEP**|
|0-3||Akron, Arizona St, Auburn, UCF, Cincinnati, Michigan St, Mizzou, Old Dominion, San Diego St,|
* — 2-0-1
** — 0-2-1
Hosts Mitch Light and Braden Gall are joined by Pac-12 Network analyst Jill Savage to break down the big weekend of action out West.
What exactly do the the ACC and Big Ten have to offer the fans this weekend? The Big 12 has two contenders on upset alert. And the SEC has four important pecking order games, including one of the 90s best rivalries.
The guys also pick every Top 25 game, offer locks of the week against the spread and cover THE LEAST IMPORTANT GAME OF THE WEEK!
Hosts Braden Gall and David Fox break down the three biggest games of Week 3 - where we were wrong about pretty much everything.
How do the guys handicap the SEC West moving forward? Is there a national title team in the Pac-12? Who is the team to beat in the Big 12? What the hell is going on with Ohio State? All of that and so much more on this edition of the Cover 2 Podcast.
College football goes to another level in Week 3 as conference play begins to open up across the nation. Things start to get real this weekend and I’m going right along with it.
There are some “circle the wagons” games this weekend and I tend to like the underdog in those matchups. Otherwise, I’m turning to the favorites in the ACC and the biggest game out West.
Last Week: 6-5
Georgia Tech (-2) at Notre Dame
The only thing that concerns me here with Tech is that everyone is taking the Jackets to win in South Bend. But the Irish defense has been gashed by the option lately and this might be Paul Johnson’s best offense... ever. With a backup quarterback, the Irish may struggle to keep up. Prediction: Georgia Tech -2
College Football Podcast: Week 3 Preview with Dari Nowkhah
Central Michigan (+7) at Syracuse
Cuse got a nice (and surprisingly easy) win over Wake Forest last weekend. Eric Dungey has stepped into the starting role nicely and Central Michigan isn’t setting the world on fire on offense (5.3 yards per play, 372.5 ypg). Take Cuse to go 3-0 easily. Prediction: Syracuse -7
NC State (-18) at Old Dominion
Jacoby Brissett will be able to score in bunches for NC State. He’s completed 84.4 percent of his passes through two games and will put up a big number against Old Dominion. Can the defense slow down the nation’s leading rusher Ray Lawry enough to cover? I say yes. Prediction: NC State -18
BYU (+16) at UCLA
The Cougars are riding some serious magic after two wins on Hail Mary’s against Nebraska and Boise State. UCLA is cruising along with an elite offense led by true freshman phenom Josh Rosen. The number is big but there is something Vegas knows here for the Cougars to be this big of an underdog. Prediction: UCLA -16
East Carolina (+4) at Navy
If you subscribe to the body blow theory, then playing Navy the week after playing in The Swamp against Florida should be extremely difficult. The Gators softened up the Pirates for a Navy team that is coming off a bye weekend. Prediction: Navy -4
"Circle the Wagon" Picks
South Carolina (+16.5) at Georgia
This game’s differential has been more than 16 points once in eight years and is consistently in single digits.
Cal (-7) at Texas
Cal might still win but Texas has had an emotional week and there is some serious pride on the line.
Stanford (+10.5) at USC
Stanford’s defense is really good and Kevin Hogan got on track last weekend. This game is also always close as well.
Auburn (+7) at LSU
The Auburn Tigers have been hearing how bad they are all week. Call this one a gut pick.
Texas Tech (+11) at Arkansas
The Hogs outgained Toledo by roughly 200 yards last weekend and crushed Tech last fall. Circle the wagons.
Hosts Mitch Light and Braden Gall are joined by ESPN's Dari Nowkhah to break down a huge weekend of action in Week 3.
The ACC's big three go on the road while the rest of the league battles with the Big Ten. The SEC West has two massive showdowns while the East has some sneaky good action as well. What will happen with Texas hosting Cal after firing the A.D? Can USC and UCLA hold serve at home against Stanford and BYU respectively?
The guys also pick every Top 25 game, offer locks of the week against the spread and cover THE LEAST IMPORTANT GAME OF THE WEEK!
If not for a 100-yard kickoff return from Western Michigan and two garbage time touchdowns from Louisville, I would have gone a nice 4-0 last week. But almost doesn't count with your bookie.
This week, the advice is to stay away from the big games. Oklahoma-Tennessee could go over, under, blowout or overtime. Michigan State is the slight favorite and the pick against Oregon, but nothing would surprise in East Lansing. And LSU is capable of doing pretty much anything in Starkville.
Stay away and dig deeper this weekend. I'm taking some road dogs, some big home favorites and an interesting coaching matchup.
Last Week: 2-2
Tulane (+27.5) at Georgia Tech
The Yellow Jackets are really, really good and run an offense that rarely takes a game off. The defense is improved and Tulane was awful last week at home against Duke — who covered the 7.5-point spread by more than three touchdowns (37-7). Take the Jackets to roll big. Prediction: Georgia Tech -27.5
College Football Podcast: Week 2 Preview
Bowling Green (+8) at Maryland
The Falcons are loaded with veteran players and are coming off a 557-yard, 6.6-yards per play performance against Tennessee. They can score with anyone and should be able to move the ball with the Terps. Many are calling for the outright upset, so eight points seems generous. Prediction: Bowling Green +8
Minnesota (-5) at Colorado State
Mike Bobo's debut at CSU was impressive as the Rams posted 8.7 yards per play and 598 yards in an easy win against lowly Savannah State. This is a totally different defense that the Gophers bring to town. This group is extremely talented on the back end and extremely well coached as it held TCU to just 5.2 yards per play and 23 points in the season opener. Prediction: Minnesota -5
Washington State (-3) at Rutgers
The Knights are dealing with issues off the field but that didn't effect them in the season opener. Washington State already lost to Portland State as a 31-point underdog. Rutgers went out to Seattle and beat a better Wazzu team last year on the road, a win at home could be easy. Prediction: Rutgers -3
East Carolina (-20) at Florida
The Gators topped 60 points and 600 yards in Jim McElwain's debut last weekend. Even if it was against New Mexico State, it was a great sign. This isn't a vintage Pirates team as East Carolina is replacing a ton and struggled to beat Towson 28-20 last weekend. Prediction: Florida -20
North Texas (+5) at SMU
Matt Davis and the Mustangs gave the Baylor Bears a scare in the first half last weekend. Chad Morris will turn the SMU ship around. The native Texan knows how much meetings with in-state foes matter in recruiting. This offense will be clicking against a team that has yet to play a game. Prediction: SMU -5
Kentucky (+8.5) at South Carolina
This is a critical game for Mark Stoops and Kentucky's bowl hopes this fall. The Cats beat the Gamecocks in Lexington last year and, like Bowling Green, many are calling for the upset outright. The South Carolina defense is improved enough to win but the Wildcats should be extremely motivated and capable in this SEC East bout. Prediction: Kentucky +8.5
Week 2 isn't a heavy week of action for College Football but the big games that dot the schedule are... HUGE!
Hosts Mitch Light and Braden Gall go in-depth, breaking down and predicting the Oregon-Michigan State, Oklahoma-Tennessee and LSU-Mississippi State matchups.
The guys also pick every Top 25 game, offer locks of the week against the spread and cover THE LEAST IMPORTANT GAME OF THE WEEK!
What did we learn in Week 1?
Braden Gall and David Fox recap all of the action from Week 1 and try to tell us what it all means? Should fans in the Big Ten or Pac-12 react to mediocre first weekends? How about Texas?
Which of the big injuries will hurt the most? How awesome really is Ohio State? What did we get dead wrong in Week 1 and who is in our very early Playoff Top 4.
College Football is back and so are my weekly picks against the spread. I will do my best to give sage and timely advice every Friday morning… for entertainment purposes only, of course.
Week 1 is the best week of the year as so much is unknown about most teams and spreads are generally off kilter.
Look for programs you think are underrated in the preseason and are facing young teams with lots of new starters. Public perception is further askew this week than any other week of the year.
You’ll notice — like every year — I like the favorites in the opening week.
Last Week: N/A
Kent State (+14.5) at Illinois (Fri.)
Most will be automatically down on the Illini because, well, they’ve already fired their head coach. However, Bill Cubit takes over with lots of head coaching experience and they return a quarterback in Wes Lunt who may be the Big Ten West’s best signal caller. This offense can score and this team could reach a bowl. Prediction: Illinois -14.5
Podcast: Week 1 Preview w/ Rece Davis
Michigan State (-17.5) at Western Michigan (Fri.)
I love rowing my boat and the job P.J. Fleck has done at WMU, both on the field and recruiting. But this Spartans team is another beast and the crowd will be mostly green and white despite the locale. Take Sparty to make a statement in a warm-up for Oregon. Prediction: Michigan State -17.5
Louisville (+10.5) vs. Auburn
The Cardinals have some nice pieces on defense and Bobby Petrino on offense. But this team is replacing a ton from last year and is trying to mesh a lot of new faces into key roles. Doing that against the SEC front-runner and elite Playoff contender is extremely dangerous. Jeremy Johnson, Will Muschamp and Carl Lawson will debut in style. Louisville can’t score with War Eagle. Prediction: Auburn -10.5
Wisconsin (+12) at Alabama
The Badgers defense is legit behind coordinator Dave Aranda, but the UW offense will have to find balance if it wants to move the ball on arguably the best defensive front in the nation (which it won’t be able to do). The talent, experience and coaching differential is vast despite the national stature of Wisconsin. Prediction: Alabama -12
College Football is finally here!
So Athlon Sports Cover 2 Podcast is kicking off the season in style. Hosts Braden Gall and Mitch Light preview the entire first weekend of action and visit with new ESPN College Gameday host Rece Davis.
The guys pick every Top 25 game, offer locks of the week against the spread and cover THE LEAST IMPORTANT GAME OF THE WEEK! before visiting with Davis about his new roll at ESPN and getting his official College Football Playoff picks for the upcoming season.
Everyone doesn’t deserve a trophy.
College football isn’t little league baseball and not everyone should be invited to the College Football Playoff party. The Big 12 found out the hard way last year what that feels like and has been crowing about it and attempting to fix it all offseason.
With all due respect to former colleague Mike Leach, exclusivity is a good thing. It makes for a far more entertaining regular season when it’s incredibly difficult to make it into the Playoff.
The ACC looks like the league with the toughest path to the postseason tournament in 2015.
Florida State and Clemson are the class of this conference (again). Georgia Tech, Louisville and Virginia Tech make up the next tier, however, none of those three appear suited for a national championship run. Sure, they could win the ACC title but the national title?
No, if the ACC is going to make a run at the Playoff it will come from Tallahassee or Death Valley.
The media spoke very clearly in Pinehurst, N.C., at ACC Media Days: Clemson is the team to beat in the ACC. The contingent here at Athlon Sports disagrees, picking Florida State in our preseason magazine and recent official ACC Podcast.
Either way, those are the two best picks in the ACC. But to win a national title, a team has to be perfect (or near-perfect) and the difference between being ranked in the top four and getting left out may be half-a-dozen plays.
Clemson is a really good team. They are extremely talented, have the best player in the conference in quarterback Deshaun Watson and get a lot of big games at home.
Podcast: Complete 2015 ACC Preview and Predictions
But for Dabo Swinney’s team to be playing in the College Football Playoff, four huge questions marks have to all be answered for Clemson.
First, Watson must stay healthy. He’s an incredible athlete and may be a Heisman Trophy winner before his time in college is finished. But he’s also been hurt before, during and after his first season at Clemson. It’s certainly possibly he remains healthy, but there’s a good chance he will miss a game or two — which could end any hope of a national title.
Second, Swinney must fill the Shaq-sized shoes of one of the top offensive minds in college football. Chad Morris left campus for SMU and Swinney promoted Tony Elliott and Jeff Scott. The system is in place and should be productive, but the odds of those two being capable of the same things as Morris is downright impossible.
Third, Clemson must prove it can reload rapidly because the Tigers return fewer starters (5) than any other Power 5 team in the nation. There are massive holes to be filled, and, while there is loads of talent, the odds of Clemson boasting the No. 1 defense in the nation a second year in a row also is extremely doubtful.
Lastly, the Tigers have to win nearly every game against a schedule that is one of the ACC’s toughest in recent memory. Notre Dame, Florida State and Georgia Tech all come to Death Valley and trips to Louisville, Miami, NC State and South Carolina will be very tricky. When’s the last time Clemson rolled through a slate like that without a slip-up?
It’s called “Clemson-ing” for a reason.
Could all of these things fall the Tigers’ way? Maybe. Would you bet on all of those things taking place? Not a chance.
So what about a Florida State team that has proven it’s the best program in the ACC and capable of winning virtually every game it plays?
This team has arguably the second-most talented roster in the nation behind only Alabama, so the players are there. But gone is Jameis Winston, all five offensive linemen, the most productive wide receiver in school history, possibly Dalvin Cook and the Mackey Award winner in Nick O’Leary.
The defense does return seven starters and the schedule is easier than what Clemson will face. However, critical games against Clemson, Georgia Tech, Florida and Boston College come on the road. There are other interesting tests with Louisville, NC State and Miami at home.
But does this roster have the experienced pieces in the right places to win every game? The Noles needed the No. 1 overall pick and 10 other NFL Draft picks to barely get that job done last year and still got smoked in the Rose Bowl.
Clemson and Florida State are the class of the ACC and picking either to win the league title is a sound decision.
But it doesn’t look like this league has a team capable of going unbeaten — or finishing with one loss — and that is what it takes to reach the College Football Playoff.
Then it will be commissioner John Swofford’s turn to complain all offseason.
Athlon Sports is going division by division, asking and (trying to) answering the biggest question for every team in the league entering the 2015 season.
Arizona: Can Carson Palmer stay healthy?
This team has won 21 games the last two seasons but was bounced early in the this year's playoffs because its quarterback was missing due to another significant knee injury. This team is talented enough at almost every position to win a Super Bowl and has a rising star of a head coach leading the way. But it plays in a nasty division and has a 35-year-old signal-caller that has missed at least six games in three of the last seven years. Palmer has to stay healthy for Arizona to win big this year.
St. Louis: Is the offensive overhaul going to work?
The defense is salty in St. Louis and is loaded with quality young talent. But this offense will look completely different in 2015. New coordinator Frank Cignetti has a new quarterback (Nick Foles), new running back (Todd Gurley), a reworked offensive line and even a new quarterbacks coach (Chris Weinke). Yet this unit still lacks in proven playmakers despite using numerous recent draft picks on skill position players. Should the offense come together quickly, this team will once again be one of the more underrated in the NFL. If not, Jeff Fisher is staring at a fourth straight losing season.
San Francisco: What is the personality of this team without Jim Harbaugh?
Say what you want about his quirky and bizarre personality, Jim Harbaugh is a winner. He won at the University of San Diego, he won at Stanford and he won big at San Francisco (and will win big at Michigan). Questions are swirling through the Bay Area after a mass exodus of coaches and players. Is Jim Tomsula equipped to be an NFL head coach? Can Colin Kaepernick develop into a leader and not an off-the-field headline maker? Can an aging collection of veterans and unproven youngsters maintain the level of success that the 49ers' brass seemed to under appreciate? Say what you want about Harbaugh, but his teams have always had an identity. What is the new identity going to look like in the Bay Area?
Seattle: How will the offensive line look?
Let’s be honest, there aren’t really any questions about this team. The defense is still nasty, Marshawn Lynch is happy, Russell Wilson is signed and has a new toy in Jimmy Graham. Pete Carroll and the 12th Man are still ready to rock. The offensive line may be the only area of concern in fall camp after Max Unger and James Carpenter departed this offseason. Look for Patrick Lewis and Alvin Bailey to step in and try to maintain stability up front. Otherwise, if this team can shake off the bad taste from the Super Bowl’s final possession, it will once again be one of the best teams in the NFL.
Athlon Sports is going division by division, asking and (trying to) answering the biggest question for every team in the league entering the 2015 season.
Denver: How do Gary Kubiak and Peyton Manning mesh?
The former Houston Texans head coach brings a run-first offense to Denver after John Elway fired John Fox and many wonder how his system meshes with the 39-year-old future Hall of Famer. Two things that will help, Manning will be significantly healthier than last year and the offensive line should be better than it finished. Manning will be much stronger, more durable and ready for one last run. Losing Ryan Clady in the summer hurts the O-line but this team addressed the issues by using two of their first four picks in the draft and signing two interior blockers in free agency. If the line is better and Manning is healthy, he will work just fine in the system and Denver should be celebrating its fifth straight AFC West title.
Kansas City: How healthy is the star power on defense?
Alex Smith and the passing game needs to improve but Jeremy Maclin and an improved O-line figure to help that. Justin Houston posted the quietest 22-sack season in history but there remain question marks on what could be a good defensive unit. Up-the-middle stalwart Dontari Poe recently had back surgery, Pro Bowl linebacker Derrick Johnson and steady defensive end Mike DeVito both suffered torn Achilles last year in Week 1, superstar safety Eric Berry is battling back from lymphoma and rising corner Sean Smith will miss three games with a DUI-related suspension. Even first-round pick Marcus Peters was kicked off his team during his final season at Washington. Should all these pieces return to full health and stay focused; the defense could be one of the NFL’s best.
Oakland: How fast can this young team grow up?
Last year, the Raiders lacked any running game and were very old on defense. But in just two quick years, this team has added a lot of intriguing young talent. Derek Carr, Khalil Mack and Gabe Jackson were all rookie standouts last year so general manager Reggie McKenzie and new head coach Jack Del Rio are hoping that trend continues with more rookies — Amari Cooper, Mario Edwards, Clive Walford — and some young free agents. This team appears to be at least a year away from competing in the AFC West but the front office has done a remarkable job stockpiling quality young players. How quickly they grow up will be key for the Bay Area in 2015.
San Diego: Where is Philip Rivers head?
The fiery and emotional San Diego quarterback is entering the final year of his contract and was at the center of two major offseason stories for the Chargers — a potential trade for Marcus Mariota and his desire NOT to play in Los Angeles. The 10-year vet is coming off two big seasons under coach Mike McCoy and both the O-line and running game have been upgraded. How balky is Rivers' back? Do the relocation rumors hurt the Bolts' contract negotiations? Does the longtime franchise quarterback want a change? This team has been on the verge for years, winning either eight or nine games in four of the last five years, so one has to wonder if this is the Chargers' last shot with their star quarterback.
Athlon Sports is going division by division, asking and (trying to) answering the biggest question for every team in the league entering the 2015 season.
Atlanta: Can Dan Quinn build Seattle East?
The window for the Falcons is closing rapidly after 10 wins in two years led to a regime change from Mike Smith to Dan Quinn. The new staff used its first two picks and four of the seven total in the draft on the defensive line and in the secondary. Quinn has immediately tried to recreate in Atlanta what he had in Seattle with Vic Beasley playing the critical LEO position and Jalen Collins bringing size and strength to the cornerback position. Additionally, he brought in two defensive ends, two linebackers and a corner (actually from Seattle) in free agency. With a star quarterback in place, Atlanta can still win but Quinn’s defensive blueprint has to take hold quickly. There’s nowhere to go but up.
Carolina: Have the Panthers fixed their aerial issues?
The defensive front seven is nearly perfect and the offense’s ground game was among the NFL’s best last year. But the secondary and the passing game are issues. Cam Newton has some new weaponry to work with in the form of Jarrett Boykin, Ted Ginn Jr., and rookie Devin Funchess. The offense has some serious trees catching passes outside but needs to find someone who can stretch the defense. On defense, there is no star power and lots of aging legs on the back end. Someone needs to step up besides cornerback Josh Norman. Should both areas improve, a third straight division title is well within reach.
New Orleans: Can Rob Ryan fix the front seven?
Much like Atlanta, there are lots of question marks on the defensive side of the ball for New Orleans. The best pass rusher, Junior Galette, was released just a week before camp opened after multiple off-the-field issues. Cameron Jordan and Akiem Hicks both need to rebound in a big way. At linebacker, the Saints drafted three rookies and signed two free agents in an effort to retool the unit. Look for second-rounder Stephone Anthony to step inside and play right away while veteran Anthony Spencer and fellow rookie Hau’oli Kikaha will be asked to pressure the quarterback off the edge. This unit ranked 31st last year in total defense after ranking fourth in 2013, so the only hope NOLA has of reaching the playoffs this fall is a rebound year from Rob Ryan’s group.
Tampa Bay: Is Jameis Winston a star?
The Bucs' roster has lots of high-level young talent all over its roster but the main linchpin is the No. 1 overall pick of the 2015 NFL Draft. The biggest difference between teams that have won in the NFC South and Tampa Bay is a franchise quarterback. For Tampa Bay to compete, Jameis Winston must be capable of going toe-to-toe with Matt Ryan, Drew Brees and Cam Newton. Winston has maturity issues but is extraordinarily talented and basically won every college start he made (26-1). Look for the Buccaneers to immediately compete in a division with defensive question marks with Winston now under center.
Houston: Can Bill O’Brien find stability under center?
This team jumped from two wins in 2013 to nine a year ago with three different players taking snaps under center. Imagine how good the Texans could be with some stability under center? Ryan Mallet was one of those starters and appears to have the perfect skill set for what O’Brien wants from his quarterback. But, he is recovering from a torn pectoral muscle. Brian Hoyer is more mobile, has more experience and is more familiar with O'Brien since both were in New England together. This team is built to succeed quickly on defense and has plenty of talent around the signal-caller but to reach the postseason, O’Brien must get consistent play from his quarterback. Look for a healthy Mallett to win the job because of his big arm and down-the-field ability.
Indianapolis: Can the Colts stop the run in January?
The Colts have dominated their division and are loaded on offense for a Super Bowl run. But that run likely goes through New England, a team that has scored 47.3 points per game in the last four meetings against the Colts. Enter Trent Cole, Nate Irving, Kendall Langford and three rookie front seven prospects to help the Colts stop the run. The Patriots rushed for 177 yards and 234 yards in two playoff wins over Indy and improving this part of the team is imperative if the Colts want to go further than the AFC title game. Look for the new 3-4 scheme to show improvement and help this team go further in the postseason.
Jacksonville: Are the issues along the line fixed?
Both the offensive and defensive lines in Jacksonville have undergone complete overhauls in the last two seasons. The offense allowed a league-worst 71 sacks, scored a league-low 15.6 points per game and couldn’t run the ball whatsoever. The Jags also finished 27th in the NFL in rushing defense and allowed the fourth-worst QB rating (99.1) to opposing signal-callers. This unit did create pressure but needs to show marked improvement across the board. New offensive line coach Doug Marrone should fix a young but very talented unit, while losing first-round pick Dante Fowler (torn ACL) was a crushing blow to the reworked D-line. Either way, both units should be better in 2015 and that could be the first sign of growth under Gus Bradley.
Tennessee: Will the Titans' O-line play up to potential?
There are simply too many questions with this team to answer them all in one paragraph. But the crux of the offensive issues start up front. This team must protect first-round investment Marcus Mariota and must run the football better. This group has two first-round picks in Taylor Lewan and Chance Warmack and another in Andy Levitre, who is paid like a top draft pick. Who plays center and right tackle is still up in the air and should this group play up to its potential, Tennessee should be dramatically more entertaining and competitive right away. If not, Mariota could be flat on his back most of ’15.
Chicago: Is Jay Cutler your starting quarterback?
There are a lot of unknowns about the Bears with John Fox now running things in the Windy City. But it's hard to address any of the other issues while ignoring the flashing neon sign under center. Chicago can't rid itself of Jay Cutler (not for lack of trying), and, despite his much-deserved criticisms, the veteran is still a better option than a dozen other NFL starters. Fox and offensive coordinator Adam Gase certainly won't be married to the incumbent so the leash will be short. How a run-first, disciplinarian head coach meshes with a lackadaisical and frustrating quarterback will be fascinating. If Cutler and Gase can get on the same page, the Bears have a lot of weaponry to utilize.
Detroit: Can the defensive line be rebuilt?
The Lions' offense underachieved last fall but is loaded for bear in 2015. It's the NFL's No. 2-ranked defense that has major holes to fill. Ndamukong Suh, Nick Fairley and C.J. Mosley are gone off the defensive line. Haloti Ngata fills one role immediately but is turning 31 and posted the second fewest tackles in his career last season. Ziggy Ansah is a special talent but is still very young while free agents and rookies will be asked to step in and fill other voids. The linebackers are among the NFL's best and the secondary is finally rounding into form. But to stay elite, the Lions' defensive line has to prove it can reload after some major departures.
Green Bay: Organize the new faces on defense?
The Packers are loaded and picked by many to win the division, but there are holes on the defense. Longtime veteran starters A.J. Hawk and Tramon Williams are gone along with role players Davon House and Jamari Lattimore. B.J. Raji returns but the Packers need strides from first-round picks Datone Jones, Nick Perry, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Damarious Randall. The Packers used their first two picks this year on corners and selected Jake Ryan in the fourth round. Clay Matthews has excelled inside and out but his supporting cast — which is loaded with early draft picks — needs to step into more prominent roles.
Minnesota: Can the young talent develop quickly?
There is a lot of young talent on this team. In fact, the Vikings have made eight first=round picks in the last four drafts and all eight have Pro Bowl potential. This group doesn't include rookie starting middle linebacker Eric Kendricks or other young starters like Everson Griffen, Kyle Rudolph or Antone Exum. This team is poised for big things in the near future, but the question is can the future be 2015? Despite the new contract, Adrian Peterson may not be long for the Twin Cities but he has an extremely experienced offensive line and fresh legs. If Teddy Bridgewater and the other young talent develops quickly, this is a sneaky good playoff team. If not, All-Day could be in Dallas this time next year.
Baltimore: Who makes plays on offense?
Baltimore’s offensive line is one of the best in the NFL and Joe Flacco is a Super Bowl champion. But what will his supporting cast look like in 2015? Justin Forsett broke out last fall but is still undersized and one year removed from journeyman status while Lorenzo Taliaferro acts as the primary backup with just 68 career NFL carries. The receiver corps is led by a 36-year-old Steve Smith and two rookies in first-rounder Breshad Perriman and second-round tight end Maxx Williams. There are major questions about Perriman’s ability to play right away but both have loads of upside. It will be interesting to see who steps up into a primary playmaker role around Flacco.
Cincinnati: Can Andy Dalton take the next step?
This Bengals team has all of the pieces to win a Super Bowl. The offensive line, skill players, defensive line and secondary are among the best in the NFL. But Andy Dalton, despite four playoff appearances in four years, is under the microscope. He’s 0-4 in the postseason and posted career lows in yards (3,398) and touchdowns (19) last year. If A.J. Green is fully healthy, those numbers should be better but Dalton needs to prove he’s a championship-caliber quarterback sooner rather than later before the Bengals' title window begins to close.
Cleveland: What role does Johnny Manziel play?
The Browns began the year 7-4 last year behind the play of Brian Hoyer before the offense fell flat on its face and lost five straight to end the year. Johnny Manziel entered the NFL with huge fanfare and bright spotlights and it eventually landed him in rehab. Cleaned up and focused, Manziel is set to push free-agent signee Josh McCown for the starting job in Cleveland. Manziel, when good, is a sight to behold, making plays all over the field and he could resurrect the Browns offense. But with so many ifs surrounding his second season, fans are left wondering what role Manziel will play in 2015.
Pittsburgh: What will life after Dick LeBeau be like?
The Steelers were aging quickly on defense but will enter 2015 with lots of new faces and young blood. Dick LeBeau is now coaching the Titans defense, Troy Polamalu has retired and the average age of the Steelers' starting 11 on defense is just 26.5 years old. The core 3-4 philosophy won’t change much under new coordinator Keith Butler and the starting linebacker corps could feature four first-round picks. The Steelers' defense has tons of talent but this group is young and inexperienced. If this unit gels quickly and plays up to the same level as the Pittsburgh offense, the Steel City could easily win the division and push for a deep playoff run. Otherwise, this could be a one-sided franchise once again.
Dallas: Can the misfit toys come together on defense?
The only questions on offense are Tony Romo’s back and can the stable of backs collectively replace DeMarco Murray. Basically, there shouldn’t really be any concerns about this high-octane offense. But the defense is stacked with talented, but enigmatic players. Sean Lee is a rock in the middle but is recovering from ACL surgery (and moving to the weak side) while Rolando McClain has had his fair share of off-field issues and is suspended for the first four games. Morris Claiborne missed 12 games with an injury and rookie first-rounder Byron Jones is expected to play right away in the secondary. And the defensive line is a total unknown. Free-agent acquisition Greg Hardy also will sit for the first four games, second-year end Demarcus Lawrence played just seven games last year and rookie Randy Gregory dropped to the second round because of dedication issues. If all of these pieces fit well, it’s a Super Bowl team. If not, it might not even win the division.
NY Giants: Can Steve Spagnuolo be the savior?
With one of the best offenses in the league, New York’s biggest questions loom on defense. Tom Coughlin tabbed former partner in crime Steve Spagnuolo to run his defense in 2015 — the same guy who led the 2007 Giants past the undefeated Patriots in the Super Bowl. The schemes will be different (look for defensive backs to be blitzing), the players will be different and hopefully the results will be as well. This team ranked 30th in the NFL in rushing defense, 29th in total defense and gave up 25.0 points per game in 2014. With Jason Pierre-Paul’s future an unknown at this point and an influx of free agent additions and draft picks (Landon Collins, Owamagbe Odighizuwa), this unit should look (and play) totally differently this time around.
Philadelphia: Will Sam Bradford stay healthy?
Okay, Tim Tebow moves the headline needle and Chip Kelly is a rock star but the real reason the Eagles will win (or lose) an NFC East title is Sam Bradford. If he stays healthy, he’s got more than enough ability to lead this elite-level offense to a deep playoff run. Kelly’s system is all about getting the football out of the quarterback’s hands quickly and with the right read into space so playmakers can make things happen. This is stuff Bradford has excelled at when healthy. The running game and defense will be improved as well so as long as Bradford can stay healthy, these Eagles might be the team to beat in the division.
Washington: Is this Robert Griffin III’s last stand?
Jay Gruden was supposed to be an offensive wizard and his first year in Washington was marred by having to start three different quarterbacks and total dysfunction on that side of the ball. Certainly, a team that won four games has loads of questions but Gruden needs to find out if Robert Griffin III is the long-term answer at quarterback. He’s already been named the starter (which is good) but has yet to prove he can adjust and adapt his playing style for consistent success in the NFL. If he does not show improvement and stay healthy, this will be his last chance at being the Redskins' starting quarterback. Signs of growth and improvement would be a huge step in the right direction for a franchise embroiled in bizarre headlines.
Buffalo: Can the QB distribute the ball effectively?
The Bills' coaching staff has been stabilized with the hiring of Rex Ryan. The defense should continue to be one of the league’s best. And with playmaking additions to the offense (LeSean McCoy, Percy Harvin, Charles Clay and Pro Bowl fullback Jerome Felton), the lone remaining question about a Buffalo playoff run is who plays quarterback? Matt Cassell was brought in to compete with EJ Manuel and Tyrod Taylor for the starting job. Cassell fits the system the best and clearly has the most experience, however, Manuel still has the most upside. If the signal-caller in Buffalo can simply distribute the football quickly, decisively and without turnovers, the Bills could easily end the NFL’s longest playoff drought.
Miami: Are the right leaders in place?
Last year, the defense featured players questioning coordinator Kevin Coyle. The offense never reached the tempo and efficiency talked about by coordinator Bill Lazor. Calls for Joe Philbin’s scalp were ignored by a totally new front office structure. All three were kept, free agent Ndamukong Suh was added to lead the defense and Ryan Tannehill was inked to a monstrous new long-term contract. The time is now for a team that has been middling for years and key leadership positions are filled by coaches and players with major question marks. If Miami isn’t careful, the Dolphins could fall to the bottom of the AFC East.
New England: What does the secondary look like?
Tom Brady’s suspension has dominated headlines but the Patriots' offense will be just fine the second he steps back into the lineup (if he leaves it at all). The real question about a Super Bowl repeat is holes left on the defense. Losing veteran Vince Wilfork from the line hurts but replacing both Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner at cornerback could completely change the way this defense plays. The Pats invested heavily in safeties Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung, which helps, but look for a heavy dose of zone defense to make up for the lack of star power at cornerback.
New York Jets: Can the passing game create balance?
Much like Buffalo, the Jets feel more stable under a new head coach in Todd Bowles. The already salty defense should be downright nasty after a very active offseason. But can all that defensive firepower mask the one glaring question about the Jets: Can they produce offense through the air? New York has ranked 32nd, 31st and 30th in passing offense the last three years and the quarterback battle will feature Geno Smith, Ryan Fitzpatrick and fourth-round pick Bryce Petty. There is a lot to like about this team on defense and on the ground, but it won’t make a playoff run without some support from a highly questionable aerial attack.
You probably hate Roger Goodell.
He botched BountyGate. He bungled the Ray Rice scandal. His handling of Adrian Peterson was anything but perfect. Who knows what really happened in the Greg Hardy situation?
And it’s taking longer to sort out over-inflated footballs than it took to work out an Iranian nuclear deal.
But you know who loves the NFL’s commissioner?
The owners. Or, as they are more affectionately known, “The 32.”
The NFL handed out $187.7 million per team in 2013 in league-wide national revenue sharing — which equates to about $6 billion in revenue.
That number jumped 21 percent to $7.3 billion in 2014. That’s $226.4 million per team doled out by the NFL to its 32 franchises.
However, the overall power and strength of the NFL brand is also a huge part of that revenue spike.
Exponentially increasing television revenue, national sponsorships, licensing agreements, merchandise sales and an expanding international brand campaign have been wildly successful under Goodell’s watch. This is a business and the Commish has made The 32 incredibly happy by filling their pockets with gold.
Goodell has taken slings and arrows for handling the league’s disciplinary issues. Rightly so, he’s been inconsistent at best and negligent at worst. All the while, making over $40 million per year in salary.
But he’s paid that money to take the PR punches from social media and the court of public opinion so that The 32 are protected.
Much like the NCAA, where the individual schools hold all of the power while the NCAA takes all of the heat, the NFL allows its figurehead to take all of the flack while the real power brokers sit back and count stacks of cash.
Fans pay exorbitant amounts of time and money to support their favorite players and teams. We love the NFL and we love to hate Roger Goodell.
But that’s exactly what the owners want. As long as the commissioner continues to increase revenue, his job isn’t in any danger. And the only way revenue stops increasing is if we collectively stop watching.
And who wants to do that?
There is a lot that is still unknown about the College Football Playoff Committee.
One thing that was learned about the new postseason format in year number one is that the voters value strength of schedule. Teams have ramped-up non-conference scheduling almost instantly (See: No. 4 below) and the results are a healthy list of top-level games.
It may take a few full seasons for the new trends to take hold across the nation (like, say, in the Big 12) but that doesn't mean 2015 isn't loaded with great non-conference matchups.
Two national title contenders finishing the back half of a home-and-home? Yes, please. The Spartans will be fired up at home and have revenge on their minds after the 46-27 loss in Eugene last fall. The winner will get a huge Playoff notch in its belt in what should be one of the best games of the year regardless of conference.
The 87th meeting between USC and ND could carry a lot of Playoff weight if all goes according to plan for both. USC smoked the Irish in L.A. last season and is 5-1 in its last six trips to South Bend. However, that lone loss came in the Trojans' last visit two seasons ago.
|These two historic programs have only met twice. Clemson won the last meeting 16-10 in 1979 in South Bend. Two years earlier, Joe Montana led the Irish to a 21-17 victory in Death Valley in the battle of two top-15 teams. Both teams could be ranked in the top 10 when they meet Oct. 3 for the rubber match.|
|The modern Big Ten power and traditional SEC power have only met once in history, a 15-0 Badgers win at home in 1928. The fast track in Arlington, Texas, should help an already superior Alabama team. The Crimson Tide is a 10-point favorite over the Big Red. A win by Wisconsin would rock the college football world right out of the gate.|
|Tennessee and Oklahoma have played three times. The Vols won in 1939 while OU took a 1968 meeting and a 34-10 outcome last season. The game last fall was closer than the 24-point margin and this year’s battle means a lot for both teams. Both have conference title aspirations and an early win over a ranked foe could catapult one into national conversations.|
|Related: SEC Football Teams as Rock and Roll|
The Aggies and Sun Devils have never met before and fans on both sides should be thoroughly entertained throughout the pseudo-neutral site season opener. Two great offenses should light up the Houston skyline en route to a feather-in-the-cap non-con win.
This should be a physical, hard-hitting affair once again. And both are Playoff sleeper teams. Stanford has won three straight in the series at home and four of the last six overall. Notre Dame needed an epic fourth quarter to beat the Cardinal 14-10 last fall in South Bend.
Two of the top three winningest programs in college football history will do battle in the best true home game of Week 1. Notre Dame has won four straight and eight of the 10 total meetings all-time and is a touchdown favorite for the season opener. Both quarterback situations should be interesting to track.
The Gators lead the Sunshine State rivalry 34-23-2 all-time, but the Noles have been the better team since Jimbo Fisher arrived. Florida State has won four of the last five, including his last two trips inside The Swamp.
|Paul Johnson's squad broke through with a huge 30-24 win over the Dawgs in Athens last season. It was just Johnson's second win in seven tries against the Dawgs and his first since beating Mark Richt in his first year in Atlanta in 2008. There is an outside chance both teams are poised to play in a championship game a week after the meeting.|
|Related: ACC Football Teams as Rock and Roll|
|The Jackets and Irish will be playing for the 35th time — 27 of which have resulted in Notre Dame wins. The last time these two met, however, Georgia Tech crushed the Golden Domers 33-3 in South Bend. There is a good chance both of these teams could reach 10 wins in 2015.|
|National television on Labor Day Night to begin a national title defense sounds like fun to me. Bud Foster and one of the nastiest defenses in the nation will test whichever Buckeyes quarterback Urban Meyer decides to run out there. One coach desperately needs a national statement win and the other coach has major revenge on the mind after the Hokies' upset win last fall.|
|Bobby Petrino has won all 10 season openers but will have a tough time against the heavily favored Tigers. Louisville won the only previous meeting between the two programs, a 16-3 decision over Auburn in Birmingham back in 1974.|
|The Tigers own a 66-42-4 all-time series lead but are coming off their first win in the rivalry since 2008. Clemson could be eyeing a Playoff bid in the season finale and will be looking for its first win in Williams-Brice Stadium since 2007. Dabo Swinney is 2-5 against Steve Spurrier's Gamecocks.|
|There are few chances in the non-con this fall for the Big Ten to make a statement than on Thursday night to open the season in the Twin Cities. TCU will be a top-ranked team and is an 18-point favorite heading to TCF Bank Stadium. The Frogs stomped the Gophers 30-7 in Fort Worth last fall but Minnesota has won the only other meeting between the two — a 1974 victory in Minneapolis.|
|Related: Big 12 Football Teams as Rock and Roll Bands|
|A bizarre but interesting matchup of underrated coaches takes place at an odd time, halfway through November. The Tigers and Cougars have only played once before, a 21-17 BYU win in the 1983 Holiday Bowl. Taysom Hill vs. Maty Mauk late in the year sounds fun to me (if both can stay healthy).|
|Chris Petersen returns to Boise in charge of a Pac-12 name brand that is in clear rebuilding mode. The blue turf won't be nearly as welcoming as the Broncos have eyes on another Mountain West title and New Year's Day bowl berth. The Huskies' major questions under center and on the D-line will have to be answered to leave Idaho with a win.|
|Nebraska's 41-31 win in Lincoln last year broke the all-time series tie (6-5). Both teams should be good enough to make a run in their respective leagues but both head coaches need a marquee win (for different reasons). However, there is no national title on the line like in many previous Miami-Nebraska bouts.|
|These two have only met three times with all three games taking place in Ann Arbor. Utah has won two of those meetings, including a 26-10 thumping of the Wolverines last season. On a Thursday night with Jim Harbaugh leading the way, this game should be much more intriguing.|
|Older fans of both sides will likely remember the first and only meeting between BYU and Michigan. The Cougars won the 1984 Holiday Bowl 24-17 en route to a national championship. The Maize and Blue will be finishing a brutal first month of the Jim Harbaugh era that features two Pac-12 foes and the Taysom Hill-led Cougars.|
|Related: Big Ten Football Teams as Rock and Roll Bands|
|The Cougars and Bruins have played 10 times with UCLA claiming seven wins. However, BYU has won the last two meetings, including a 58-0 embarrassment in 2008. Jim Mora's defense will need to be on its toes early against an athlete like Taysom Hill.|
|This could be a program-defining win for Sonny Dykes and Cal in Austin in Week 3. The Horns are at home and more talented (and can actually play defense) but quarterback Jared Goff is a superstar in the making and could set himself up for a nationally acclaimed season with a win in Texas. The Bears are 0-5 all-time against the Longhorns.|
|The Carolina Bowl has only taken place twice since 1991 with the South side winning both times (2007, 2013). The season opener features two defenses that are in desperate need of improvement if either team has any prayer of competing in their respective divisions.|
|The color schemes alone will look amazing on the floor of towering Memorial Stadium in Lincoln. BYU and Nebraska get their seasons started in style in the first-ever meeting of the two national brands. Fans who are unfamiliar with Cougars dual-threat quarterback Taysom Hill will learn all about him (if healthy) and Big Red Nation will get their first look at the Mike Riley-led Huskers.|
The Panthers and Irish have played each other pretty even, with Notre Dame winning seven of the 12 meetings dating back to 1999. The last six played in Pittsburgh have been split, including a memorable 28-21 Panthers upset win in the last tangle.
|Related: Pac-12 Football Teams as Rock and Roll Bands|
* - neutral field
Best of the Rest:
Maryland at West Virginia, Sept. 26
Louisville at Kentucky, Nov. 28
Ole Miss at Memphis, Oct. 17
Texas Tech at Arkansas, Sept. 19
Miami at Cincinnati, Oct. 1
Iowa at Iowa State, Sept. 12
Boston College vs. Notre Dame, Nov. 21*
Pitt at Iowa, Sept. 19
Stanford at Northwestern, Sept. 5
LSU at Syracuse, Sept. 26