Articles By Braden Gall
Four rookies went to the Pro Bowl in 2013. Three played on offense and they all were from the NFC North — the Packers' Eddie Lacy, the Bears’ Kyle Long and Vikings’ Cordarrelle Patterson. The lone defensive Pro Bowler was San Francisco thumper Eric Reid.
However, the NFL AP Defensive Rookie of the Year was Jets defensive lineman Sheldon Richardson. The former Mizzou star and first-round pick (13th overall) was just the second non-linebacker to win the DROY award since 2002 (Ndamukong Suh in 2010). A linebacker has taken home nine of the last 11 DROY honors and no defensive back has won the award since Charles Woodson in 1998.
Additionally, the last seven DROYs were not only first-round picks but were all top-15 selections. DeMeco Ryans in 2006 was the last NFL DROY taken outside of the first round (33rd overall). So the best bets for 2014 ROY on defense would have to be a linebacker or a defensive lineman taken in the first half of the first round.
With that in mind, here are our favorites for AP NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2014:
Note: Odds courtesy of Sportsbook.com
1. C.J. Mosley, LB, Baltimore (15/1)
He was taken with the 17th overall pick — basically, the halfway mark — and plays a pure linebacker position for a defense traditionally built around the position. Mosley is incredibly instinctual, will stuff the stat box, will play on a team pushing for a division title and/or playoff spot and should start from the first week of the season. Mosley is already a high-profile name after two national championships at Alabama, so he should be a household name quickly on the NFL level as well.
2. Jadeveon Clowney, DE, Houston (2/1)
Both literally and figuratively, the biggest name in the ’14 draft class is the star defensive end from South Carolina. The No. 1 overall pick could play a variety of spots for the Texans and is the odds-on favorite to win Rookie of the Year honors according to Vegas lines. Clowney is a physical specimen the draft hasn’t seen since Julius Peppers won ROY a decade ago. With J.J. Watt opposite of Clowney, the Texans' hybrid pass-rusher has a great chance to live up to the remarkable hype.
3. Ryan Shazier, LB, Pittsburgh (8/1)
From a playmaking standpoint, few players were as good in college as the former Ohio State Buckeye. Shazier posted 144 tackles, 23.5 for a loss, seven sacks and four forced fumbles last year. He was taken in the top 15 (15th) and lands on a team that is known for developing linebackers. Look for Shazier to play all over the defense, to stuff the stat sheet and find himself in the heart of the ROY race at year’s end.
4. Khalil Mack, LB, Oakland (4/1)
Mack is an explosive edge player that may get lost on a really bad team. The former Buffalo Bulls linebacker could finish with admirable stats — 50 tackles, 12.0 TFL and 8.0 sacks, for example — and still not find himself atop the ROY charts. Playing in the Bay Area on a bad team is a recipe for obscurity. Barring a monstrous first season, Mack won’t win Rookie of the Year honors despite what many believe is electric playmaking ability.
5. Aaron Donald, DT, St. Louis (8/1)
The former Pitt Panthers nose guard posted arguably the most productive and decorated single-season in NCAA history for a D-lineman. He won every award and posted 59 tackles, 28.5 for a loss, 11 sacks and four forced fumbles while stepping up in competition from the former Big East to the ACC. And with opposing offensive lines focused on Robert Quinn and Chris Long, Donald has a chance to have a Richardson-like season in St. Louis.
6. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, S, Green Bay (25/1)
Few safeties step into a better situation than Clinton-Dix in Green Bay. He will learn alongside a great player in Morgan Burnett and comes from a school known for producing elite defensive backs. Clinton-Dix will start from day one and has a long track record of elite talent (five-star recruit) and big-time success (two-time NCAA champion). It’s tough for a defensive back to win the award but a playmaking safety in Titletown might be the best bet.
7. Anthony Barr, LB, Minnesota (10/1)
Barr is a lengthy, prototypical hybrid edge rusher who was a terror getting after quarterbacks at UCLA. He posted 23 sacks over the last two seasons and has only been playing defense for a few seasons after entering college as an offensive player. Barr will have some development to get through but his size, athleticism and playmaking ability on a defense that is rebuilding quickly should make him a factor in the ROY race next year.
8. Deone Bucannon, S, Arizona (40/1)
On a team with an excellent front seven and plenty of other playmakers in the secondary, Bucannon has a chance to step right into a starting role and make a huge impact. What will make Bucannon a candidate for ROY, however, will be his highlight-reel hits. The former Washington State Cougars safety is arguably the hardest thumper in this class and his game film will stand out among most rookies.
9. Dee Ford, LB, Kansas City (15/1)
Normally, a first-round defensive lineman for the Chiefs would be a recipe for disaster but Ford should break that mold. First, he will play both end and linebacker but his bread and butter in college was rushing the passer. He will make plays off the edge for a team that is loaded with first-round picks all over the defense. He won’t be asked to be a star — which will help him develop into a better player but likely won’t get him into the ROY conversation.
10. Calvin Pryor, S, NY Jets (25/1)
As previously mentioned, defensive backs rarely win the ROY award but there is a trio of safeties in this class who are excellent players stepping into big roles on quality teams. Pryor is one of them as he should start right away for the defensive-minded Jets. He was a big-time winner and produced at an elite level for a Louisville team that won a lot of games during his career (try 23-3 in the last two seasons).
Other names to consider:
Kyle Fuller, CB, Chicago (15/1)
DeMarcus Lawrence, DE, Dallas (40/1)
Timmy Jernigan, DE, Baltimore (30/1)
Darqueze Dennard, CB, Cincinnati (20/1)
Bradley Roby, CB, Denver (25/1)
Four rookies went to the Pro Bowl in 2013. Three played on offense and they all were from the NFC North — the Packers' Eddie Lacy, the Bears’ Kyle Long and Vikings’ Cordarrelle Patterson. The lone defensive Pro Bowler was San Francisco thumper Eric Reid.
Lacy, the former Alabama running back, was the 61st overall pick in the NFL Draft and was the NFL AP Offensive Rookie of the Year. He was the first Offensive Rookie of the Year (OROY) not taken in the first round since Anquan Boldin won the award for the Cardinals in 2003 with 101 receptions, 1,377 yards and eight touchdowns. Boldin was the 54th pick in the second round of the ’03 draft.
Otherwise, the modern OROY comes from the first round and is most likely a quarterback. From 1971 to 2003, not one quarterback won Rookie of the Year honors but six of the last 10 winners were signal-callers. In fact, Lacy was the first non-QB to win the award since Percy Harvin in 2009. Additionally, Harvin and Boldin are two of the three wide receivers (Randy Moss) to win OROY honors since Carl Pickens in 1992.
With that in mind, here are our favorites for AP NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2014:
1. Johnny Manziel, QB, Cleveland (6/1)
Manziel is one of only three players who is both a first-round pick and a quarterback. He is also the biggest rock star of the ’14 draft class, which could both help or hurt his chances at ROY. He has the most big-play ability of anyone in this class at any position and he should earn his way into the starting lineup fairly quickly. He has a chance to perform very similarly to Robert Griffin III two years ago. Win some games, post huge numbers and get hurt at the end of the year.
2. Bishop Sankey, RB, Tennessee (12/1)
A running back has won 32 of 47 NFL OROY awards and Sankey is the best option in the ’14 draft class. He was a workhorse for Washington, carrying over 600 times in the last two seasons for over 3,300 yards and 36 touchdowns. Most importantly, he was a star against Stanford twice — the toughest defense he faced each year — with 265 yards and three scores on 47 carries (including one win in ‘12). Sankey has the clearest path to extended carries of any rookie back and the Titans are out to prove there was a reason they took him as the first RB off the board in this draft.
3. Brandin Cooks, WR, New Orleans (10/1)
Only two wideouts since 1999 have won OROY and only eight pass-catchers have ever won the award (since 1967). But if I had to bet on a rookie wide receiver in this class, it would be Cooks. There is a reason the Saints traded up to get the Biletnikoff winner. Cooks caught an absurd 128 passes for 1,730 yards and 16 touchdowns last year and is as hard a worker as this class has to offer. He also falls into a great system with a Hall of Fame quarterback under center. Look for big numbers from the rookie out of Oregon State.
4. Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Minnesota (12/1)
Bizarre Pro Day workout aside, there are many who believe that Bridgewater is the best quarterback in this class. With Matt Cassel the only obstacle standing in his way, the odds are Bridgewater is the starter in the Twin Cities very quickly. He has toughness, great leadership, a grasp of the pro offense and an excellent arm. With a superstar at tailback to take the pressure off, Bridgewater might be the best option for Rookie of the Year — if I was a betting man (which I’m not).
5. Sammy Watkins, WR, Buffalo (4/1)
Watkins is tied with Tampa Bay’s Mike Evans as the odds-on favorite to win Rookie of the Year in 2014. However, unlike Evans, Watkins has the ability to do everything for his offense, despite potential quarterback issues. The former Clemson star can be lined up in the slot, given the ball in the backfield and could be a star on special teams a la Patterson last year. Watkins has rare playmaking ability and he will be put to good use right away in Buffalo. He is a much better bet to succeed than Evans in Tampa (more on him later).
6. Jordan Matthews, WR, Philadelphia (18/1)
Chip Kelly may be many things but stupid isn’t one of them. Matthews was the most productive wideout in SEC history and now he is playing in an offense known for huge numbers, big plays and lots of scoring. The consummate professional, Matthews is as stable and consistent a draft pick as any in the entire ’14 class. Look for an excellent season, regardless of ROY consideration, for the pass-catcher known as J-Matt.
7. Eric Ebron, TE, Detroit (14/1)
The former Tar Heel standout was clearly the most gifted player at his position in this class. And Ebron couldn’t have asked for a better situation than having Matthew Stafford throwing him passes while defenses focus on Calvin Johnson on the outside. Ebron is an instant impact player at a position not known for instant offense. A tight end has never won Offensive Rookie of the Year honors and Ebron might be one of the best bets to snap that trend in quite some time.
8. Jeremy Hill, RB, Cincinnati (33/1)
Giovani Bernard is the starter and will likely command more than 200 touches but there is plenty to go around for Hill — a guy with a totally different skill set at 235 pounds. The former LSU workhorse ran for nearly seven yards per carry in the nation’s toughest league and he has plenty of tread left on the tires (just 345 carries in only two college seasons). Hill might be the best back in this class and he should get his fair share of carries this fall, especially around the goal line. The Bengals' bruiser is the best long-shot bet in this draft class.
9. Kelvin Benjamin, WR, Carolina (14/1)
Carolina was in desperate need of playmakers after releasing Steve Smith and it went and got one in Benjamin. He won’t flash Megatron-like speed or burst but he has a massive frame and came up big in big-time spots at Florida State. Benjamin should be the go-to target for Cam Newton right away and that alone should put him into the mix for OROY honors in 2014.
10. Mike Evans, WR, Tampa Bay (4/1)
Evans is a nice talent. He has a huge frame and posted big numbers for the Aggies. He also played in a pass-happy system, ran one of two routes, was completely shut down at times, has maturity issues and is playing for a team with a questionable quarterback situation. Again, Evans is a nice player but I wouldn’t bet a penny on him for Rookie of the Year and certainly won’t own him in any fantasy leagues.
Other names to consider:
Odell Beckham Jr., WR, New York Giants (16/1)
Blake Bortles, QB, Jacksonville (20/1)
Cody Latimer, WR, Denver (20/1)
Ka’Deem Carey, RB, Chicago (off)
Marqise Lee, WR, Jacksonville (14/1)
Davante Adams, WR, Green Bay (20/1)
theSeanGshow is already winning the internet this week.
It is the beginning of June and College Football is still more than 80 days away from getting started. But that hasn't stopped one guy from getting the entire country jacked up for the start of the season.
The compilation features the famous "Kick Six" and "Prayer at Jordan-Hare" but also remembers the greatest plays of the 2013 season. Johnny Manziel vs. Duke, Nebraska's Hail Mary, Carlos Hyde, Nick O'Leary, Jeremy Gallon, a host of one-handed catches, huge truck-stick hits, turnovers and critical performances make this one of the must-see summer internet videos.
For pure college football fans, this might be the greatest hype video ever produced. Trust us, kick back and enjoy:
The SEC Meetings in Destin, Fla., every year normally bring very little in the way of news.
But with the NCAA and the SEC on the verge of sweeping reform as well as a new era of postseason football, the 2014 version was anything but boring.
Every topic from autonomy to NFL agents to spread offenses to beer sales to recruiting calendars to basketball schedules to the new playoff system was addressed and discussed at length.
In attendance were College Football Playoff czar Bill Hancock, SEC commissioner Mike Slive, athletic directors and 14 head coaches from around the game’s most powerful conference. So there was no shortage of interesting topics to seep out of the panhandle this week.
Here is what you need to know about the SEC Spring Meetings in Destin:
Autonomy leads the way
This is easily the biggest issue for commissioner Slive. The SEC boss is always calculating in his speech and the resounding theme of his visit in Destin this week was autonomy. He danced around other issues like an early signing period and scheduling, but his thoughts on self-governance for the Big 5 and Notre Dame is pretty clear.
“Today, we began the conversation about NCAA governance and restructuring, which I’ve said before, is the primary issue.”
In fact, he called it the “cornerstone of their discussions” this week. When Slive normally speaks, he does so very directly and there is no doubting his stance on the issue.
“The NCAA committee put forth a model and we are in the comment period. We will respond to it sometime after this meeting in preparation of the NCAA Board of Directors voting on a revised governance process in August,” Slive told the media in Destin.
Let’s be clear. This is going to happen. And it will impact things like the size of the coaching staff — there was a push for a 10th member of the staff this week — cost of attendance stipends, academic policies and player health coverage. This will be a sweeping change in the college football landscape and it’s going to happen. Be prepared.
Let’s control the agents
One of the biggest and most unifying concepts in college football today is the reformation of NFL agent policies. Nearly everyone agrees that something needs to be changed. Prospective employees (aka, the athletes) have a right to seek advice, build relationships and, for lack of a better term, interview prospective employers (aka, the NFL).
Slive agrees, "The NCAA's current rules are really part of the problem, not part of the solution." The SEC commish wants to provide “quality and timely advice” to his student athletes in all sports.
And there is no reason why there cannot be dead periods, signing periods and interview periods for current athletes and professional agents just like on the recruiting calendar. Instead of trying to fight a part of the process that will never go away and only gets all three parties into NCAA trouble, why not embrace it, monitor it and legislate it. It helps the agent, the school and the athlete. What could possibly go wrong?
“Unanimous” support for an early signing period
Or so said LSU head coach Les Miles. The reports from individual coaches don’t seem to be as “unanimous” as Miles has reported, however, most coaches in the SEC (and around the nation) are in favor of some sort of early signing period. The proposal from the SEC involves the Monday following Thanksgiving and only if a recruit hasn’t taken an official visit in the fall. Otherwise, said recruit will have to wait to sign two months later on National Signing Day. Garnering support from athletic directors and presidents is a totally different issue all together.
"I think we need to vet that out and see if the conference wants to change its position,” commissioner Slive said to reporters, “but up until now the SEC has been opposed to it."
The only time an early signing period works is after the regular season sometime. Coaches change jobs and players develop during their senior year, so a summer signing date would be nearly impossible to implement effectively and intelligently. This is likely still a few years away but could be coming quickly once autonomy is established for the bigger programs.
Florida really, really hates Georgia Southern
“We’re probably going to move forward without playing FCS opponents,” Florida coach Will Muschamp told reporters. While his athletic director Jeremy Foley may not fully agree with him, many people believe this is the overall direction of scheduling. And, no, it actually has nothing to do with the Gators' loss to an FCS opponent in 2013. It has everything to do with delivering a better quality product to the fans in the stands as well as the TV partners who pay billions to broadcast the games and eventually gaining value among the College Football Playoff selection committee.
Strength of schedule is going to continue to gain more importance as the Playoff moves forward and beating significantly inferior teams by 60 points will no longer garner favor with the postseason decision-makers. By nearly all empirical measures — with the exception of coaches trying to keep their jobs — scheduling tougher, better games is good for the sport. It’s good for the fans, good for the local businesses and economies, better for TV negotiations and makes your favorite team’s case for a playoff berth more substantial.
“I’m in favor of our strength of schedule being as good as it can be," Slive said.
Alabama head coach Nick Saban agrees, “No, we do not want to play those types of teams.”
Getting rid of FCS opponents — particularly from November, when the SEC seems to backload its schedule with horrible games — is the first step towards extensive schedule modification. The next step will be to eliminate “low-major” games before adding a ninth conference game and scheduling only Big 5 opponents.
Who doesn’t want to see the best face the best every single week?
No playoff expansion looming
Bill Hancock is the Executive Director of the College Football Playoff and he was in Destin this week to speak with coaches and ADs about how the Playoff Selection Committee will work, what the parameters will be moving forward in deciding the newly minted four-team postseason tournament and the future growth of the postseason. It’s great that decision makers, both on the sidelines and in the “front offices,” get to hear firsthand from Hancock what exactly the committee will be looking for when it comes to deciding the four teams who will earn postseason berths.
While those meetings were behind closed doors, Hancock did address publicly the potential for expansion — or the lack thereof.
“It is going to be four [teams] for 12 years,” Hancock said, according to ESPN’s Brett McMurphy. “There is no talk in our group about [expanding the playoff].”
While Hancock has been very firm with his statements about playoff expansion during the current 12-year contract with ESPN, there are many — like Mountain West Commissioner Craig Thompson — who believe that expansion is eminent.
There are two overriding reasons to believe expansion will happen before 2026. (A) The money will be astronomical and too great to pass up with expansion and (B) Those who get left out, be it a blue blood snuff or small school playoff-buster, are going to fight tooth and nail for the playoff to include more teams.
I lean towards expansion taking place well before ’26 rolls around.
Listen to a complete Playoff breakdown on this week's Cover 2 podcast:
Tennessee head coach Butch Jones announced this week that redshirt freshman quarterback Riley Ferguson will not be back with his program in fall. Rumors have swirled about why Ferguson is back home in North Carolina this week and why he won’t be back. The timing is certainly interesting and something tells me there is more to this story coming soon.
Ferguson was considered by many to be the best pure passer on the Vols' roster and his departure has cleared things up a bit in the Tennessee backfield. Now, Justin Worley and Joshua Dobbs appear to be in a two-horse race for the reins of Mike Bajakian’s offense.
Alabama also lost a signal-caller this week as redshirt freshman Parker McLeod is set to transfer as well, according to Jeremy Fowler of CBSSports. This one is much less surprising as the Bama backfield is very crowded and someone had to decide to try their luck elsewhere. McLeod, who hails from Marietta, Ga., was a three-star recruit and the 37th-ranked pro-style quarterback prospect in the nation by 247Sports' composite rankings (2013).
ShowMe what you got
The SEC basketball tournament schedule has been set through 2025 and there was one interesting twist in the announcement this week. The state of Missouri will play host to the tourney in 2018 at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis. This is a prime basketball area of the country and getting his tournament in front of a new audience was key for Slive and company in the SEC offices.
Additionally, the 2022 tournament will be headed to the Tampa Bay Times Forum in Florida. It will be the second such event in Tampa as the 2009 championship was held there for the first time. Every other tournament between 2015 and 2025 will be held in Nashville.
Hoops scheduling gets a makeover
It’s not a huge change but fans should applaud the new basketball conference schedule that was announced this week. The SEC has done away with the 1-4-8 conference scheduling structure for a rivalry-supportive 3-2-8 format. So instead of one permanent home-and-home rivalry each year, schools will now get three such guaranteed home-and-homes. Instead of four rotating home-and-homes within the league, there will now be two. The eight home-OR-road games will still exist and will still rotate in the same manner as they have in the past. This is good news for programs that have more than one rival with in the league — say, like, Florida, Tennessee, Mississippi State, LSU, Alabama and Kentucky.
Or “playoff berth,” “playoff contention” or “postseason bid.”
No one really knows what to expect from the College Football Playoff or Playoff Selection Committee — not the fans, not the media and not the coaches. But we all can agree that it’s going to be exciting no matter how many teams are left unbeaten at season’s end.
The 2014 Athlon Sports Top 25 has been released and Florida State (1), Alabama (2), Ohio State (3) and Oklahoma (4) are our picks to make the inaugural CFP. But getting to those four teams, the editorial staff — much like the selection committee — had to sift through copious amounts of data on all 128 teams.
What we learned is that there seems to be a clear line of demarcation between the top 12 teams and the rest of the nation. The first dozen teams in the Top 25 appear to be true playoff contenders and the rest feel like they are operating on a lower tier of expectation. Could someone outside of the top 12 make a playoff run? Of course, but history shows us that champions rarely come from outside the top dozen or so teams.
During the 16-year BCS Era, only twice did the national champion begin the season ranked outside of the top 15 in the preseason and never lower than 22nd (Auburn, 2010, No. 22; Oklahoma, 2000, No. 19). Only four times did the champion come from outside of the top 11 and nine of the last 10 champs were ranked 11th or better in the preseason AP Poll. Even further, eight of the last 10 crystal football winners were ranked seventh or better in the first ranking of the season.
Here is a breakdown of the only 12 teams we deem to be playoff contenders, why we like them and what could be their potential downfall.
Florida State Seminoles
Returning Starters: 7 offense, 6 defense
Projected Record: 13-0, 8-0
Key Games: Clemson, Notre Dame, at Louisville, Florida
Why we like them: The list is long. This roster is one of the top two in the nation along with Alabama. The Seminoles boast the best player in the nation under center, six first-team All-American selections and 11 total All-Americans. One shouldn’t need to explain oneself when talking highly of the defending national champions.
Potential downfall: Complacency and all that comes along with it. That means lack of focus on and off the field. It can mean playing not to lose rather than playing to win. The Noles should be a solid favorite in every game they play so they need to be on guard against a possible letdown.
Alabama Crimson Tide
Returning Starters: 6 offense, 3 defense
Projected Record: 12-1, 7-1
Key Games: Florida, at Ole Miss, at LSU, Auburn
Why we like them: The Crimson Tide still have the best coach in the nation, arguably the best roster in the nation and will be playing a fairly manageable SEC schedule in 2014. Fans can bet Nick Saban will use the way his team ended last year (0-2) to motivate them this offseason. Anyone remember what happened the last time Alabama missed the national title game by losing the last two games of the year? Yup, it won the ’09 national title the following year — the only perfect record of Saban’s SEC tenure.
Potential downfall: Quarterback play and the secondary. Jacob Coker is largely an unknown but won’t be asked to do too much for Saban’s offense so if he can simply not turn the ball over, Bama should be fine under center. The cornerback position also was an issue last year and doesn’t appear to be back to 2009 or '11 strength. Covering big wideouts has been an issue for Bama the last two seasons.
Ohio State Buckeyes
Returning Starters: 5 offense, 6 defense
Projected Record: 12-1, 7-1
Key Games: at Penn State, at Michigan State, Michigan
Why we like them: Braxton Miller, Urban Meyer and the best defensive line in the nation. The schedule also sets up very nicely with two quality (but very beatable) non-conference games and only three tough conference games with a possible letdown alert coming at Minnesota after the rematch with the Spartans. Few teams in the nation boast a head coach-quarterback duo like the Buckeyes.
Potential downfall: The offensive line is returning just one starter and the secondary is replacing first-round talents at both linebacker (Ryan Shazier) and cornerback (Bradley Roby). And the schedule might actually hurt Ohio State should it slip up somewhere along the way. A one-loss OSU team would likely be left out for a one-loss SEC, Big 12 or Pac-12 team due to lack of schedule strength.
Returning Starters: 5 offense, 9 defense
Projected Record: 11-1, 8-1
Key Games: Texas, Kansas State, Baylor, Oklahoma State
Why we like them: The defensive front is as good as Bob Stoops has had in a decade and Trevor Knight flashed brilliance against Alabama to end the year. If Knight can stay healthy, the schedule sets up very well for Oklahoma to win the league. All of the key challengers in the league apart from Texas will come to Norman.
Potential downfall: The road schedule includes trips to distant Big 12 outposts in Morgantown, Lubbock, Ames and not-so-distant Fort Worth. Strange things happen to a lot of good teams in those towns. Additionally, many feel that this team could simply be overrated due to one great bowl performance against a less-than-motivated Alabama team.
Listen to a complete playoff breakdown on this week's Cover 2 Podcast:
Returning Starters: 8 offense, 5 defense
Projected Record: 11-2, 7-2
Key Games: Michigan State, at UCLA, Washington, Stanford
Why we like them: Marcus Mariota might be the best player in the nation and, if he stays healthy, could smash Oregon record books this fall. The Ducks also get three of their four biggest games at home, including critical Pac-12 North Division games against the Cardinal and Huskies. From a talent standpoint, there are few teams on offense that can match the Ducks' prowess, speed and athleticism.
Potential downfall: Leadership from the sidelines and a dependency on one player could prove to be just enough to keep Oregon from the postseason. Mark Helfrich is still very much an unknown and when Mariota wasn’t healthy last year, Oregon lost both games with the division crown hanging in the balance. Toss in a nasty overall schedule and the Ducks will need to play near perfect football to reach the playoff. Also, much like Oklahoma, Oregon faces trap games on the road in tough places likes Pullman, Salt Lake City and Corvallis this season.
Returning Starters: 7 offense, 7 defense
Projected Record: 10-3, 7-2
Key Games: at Arizona State, Oregon, at Washington, USC, Stanford
Why we like them: Getting critical swing games with Oregon, Stanford and USC at home is a huge positive for the Bruins, especially with the Trojans and Cardinal visiting in the last two weeks of the season. Brett Hundley is an elite player and the both lines of scrimmage appear to be developing around him.
Potential downfall: There is an overall lack of playmakers on offense and a lot of young faces dotting the starting lineup on defense. This is an extremely talented team but names in the secondary, along the defensive line and at wide receiver need to take big steps forward. Especially, against a schedule that features six games against preseason Top 25 teams.
Returning Starters: 7 offense, 6 defense
Projected Record: 10-2, 6-2
Key Games: Too many to list
Why we like them: Gus Malzahn is a genius and Nick Marshall runs his unstoppable option offense to perfection. In fact, this offense could be even better this year with a deeper receiving corps and four starters back along the offensive line. Marshall should only continue to add balance with his arm as well.
Potential downfall: The defense allowed 420 yards per game last year, gave up over 35 points per game in the final month and the schedule is as tough as any in the nation. Getting through road trips to Kansas State, Mississippi State, Ole Miss, Georgia and Alabama unscathed will be virtually impossible while LSU, South Carolina and Texas A&M all come to The Plains. Lastly, after one full year of game tape to study, Auburn won’t sneak up on anyone this year and won’t be nearly as fortunate as it was a year ago.
Michigan State Spartans
Returning Starters: 5 offense, 5 defense
Projected Record: 10-2, 7-1
Key Games: at Oregon, Nebraska, Michigan, Ohio State, at Penn State
Why we like them: Mark Dantonio has built a tradition of defensive prowess that should be able to withstand a lot of key departures. The offense is more stable than a year ago with star power returning in the backfield (Connor Cook, Jeremy Langford). And the schedule sets up nicely with critical conference home tests coming against Ohio State, Michigan and Nebraska.
Potential downfall: While the roster is in great shape, there are some heavy losses it must withstand on defense to be the nation’s best unit again in 2014. The offensive line also needs some work with just two returning starters. If nothing else, it will take some time for these units to return to form and an early road trip to nasty Autzen Stadium leaves Sparty’s margin for error razor thin within the Big Ten.
Returning Starters: 5 offense, 9 defense
Projected Record: 10-3, 6-2
Key Games: at South Carolina, at Missouri, Florida, Auburn
Why we like them: Jeremy Pruitt steps into run a defense with nine returning starters after having a hand in three of the last four national titles. The offense, although filled with plenty of unknowns, should also be much healthier with Todd Gurley, Keith Marshall and Malcolm Mitchell clicking on all cylinders this year.
Potential downfall: Georgia has to break in a new quarterback after four full seasons of Aaron Murray. Hutson Mason should have some nice talent to work with at the skill positions but three starters are gone from the O-line as is star tight end Arthur Lynch. The defense tends to underachieve and it’s unknown if Pruitt can simply flip the switch. Clemson and Georgia Tech are tough non-conference games and hosting Auburn in crossover is brutal. Throw in a normally difficult SEC East slate, including road trips to both Columbias, and UGA has one of the harder paths to a playoff berth.
South Carolina Gamecocks
Returning Starters: 7 offense, 6 defense
Projected Record: 10-2, 6-2
Key Games: Georgia, Missouri, at Auburn, at Florida
Why we like them: The offensive line returns entirely intact with Mike Davis fully healthy and ready to churn out yards. The linebackers are now a strength of the defense after being a liability last year. And the Ol’ Ball Coach is still running the show. On the whole, Steve Spurrier has built his program to a new level where it can finally withstand key departures at key positions. Important SEC East games against Tennessee, Georgia and Missouri all come at home as well.
Potential downfall: Key departures at key positions. Connor Shaw, Jadeveon Clowney, Bruce Ellington, Kelcy Quarles and both cornerbacks are all gone and filling those holes will be very difficult. Dylan Thompson has some experience at quarterback but took a small step back last year while the D-line is easily the biggest concern entering the summer against a nasty schedule that features half-a-dozen excellent running attacks.
Returning Starters: 4 offense, 4 defense
Projected Record: 10-2, 7-2
Key Games: at Texas, at Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Kansas State
Why we like them: Art Briles and Bryce Petty are as good a duo in the nation and the offense should once again be the Big 12’s best. The overall talent on the roster has been elevated to unprecedented levels and the new stadium will bring with it serious energy and expectations in Waco, including key swing home games against TCU, Kansas State and Oklahoma State. This team did pound Oklahoma 41-12 last year.
Potential downfall: Heart and soul leaders are gone from the first Big 12 title team in school history and they will be difficult to replace, especially on defense. The schedule is also much more difficult this year with five tricky Big 12 road trips, including to conference front-runner Oklahoma — a place Baylor has never won (0-11). Fans across the nation will learn about Baylor’s staying power this fall.
Returning Starters: 4 offense, 7 defense
Projected Record: 9-3, 7-2
Key Games: USC, everyone else on the road
Why we like them: The overall depth of this roster is excellent and the physical attitude of this program is unlike any other in the conference. Stanford is the two-time defending champ for a reason. Quarterback Kevin Hogan is back for what should be his best season and the skill players around him are better than they have been in years as the tight end might be back in the playbook this year.
Potential downfall: The Cardinal road schedule is probably the toughest in the nation. Key divisional games against Washington and Oregon as well as important crossovers with UCLA and Arizona State and a non-conference tilt with Notre Dame all take place on the road (read that again). The offensive line and front seven on defense have major holes to plug even if those gaps are being filled with very talented prospects. And defensive coordinator Lance Anderson has big shoes to fill now that Derek Mason is in Nashville.
Next best options: USC Trojans, Notre Dame Fighting Irish, Wisconsin Badgers, Ole Miss Rebels, LSU Tigers
Winning games in college football is about the players. If your favorite team has the best players, more times than not, your favorite team is going to win the game. And the most important player on any gridiron is the quarterback. This isn’t really up for debate.
That said, the head coach (obviously) is the most influential non-player piece to any college football program. So it stands to reason that, when combined, the team with the best quarterback-head coach combination has the best chance to win a division, league or national title.
Of course, predicting wins and losses in college football isn’t nearly this simple. The other 84 scholarship players do, in fact, count for something. As do the other eight members of the coaching staff. Scheduling, home-field advantage, off the field behavior and more can change the course of a season forever as well, and all play a huge role in Athlon Sports' preseason Top 25.
But possessing a great signal-caller mentored by a great head coach is the best way to start when building a championship foundation.
Which team will boast the best head coach-quarterback combination in college football in 2014?
1. Florida State: Jimbo Fisher-Jameis Winston
It’s hard to argue that the defending national champs don’t brag the best combination of quarterback and head coach in the nation. Winston proved a year ago that he is the best college football player in the country by winning the Heisman Trophy. Fisher, who ranks as the seventh-best coach in Athlon Sports ’14 preseason coaching ranks, has rebuilt a once-dormant powerhouse into a two-time ACC champ and will enter this season as the reigning champs. Fisher and Winston are 14-0 together on the field and, should the latter stay out of trouble off of the field, the duo could easily find themselves in a position to repeat.
2. Ohio State: Urban Meyer-Braxton Miller
Aside from Waco, Texas, there might not be a more perfect marriage of system and skill set than Meyer’s spread offense and Miller’s dual-threat talents. The duo has produced over 6,000 yards of total offense and a perfect 24-0 record in the regular season over the last two years since Meyer got to Columbus. Miller has improved his completion percentage (54.1 to 58.3 to 63.5) and passer rating (138.37 to 140.48 to 158.08) in each of his first three years and his career TD:INT ratio is a sterling 52:17. He’s also posted back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons and was one win away from playing for a national title a year ago. The second-best coach in the land could feature a Heisman Trophy candidate under center this year for a team eyeing a playoff berth.
3. Baylor: Art Briles-Bryce Petty
Few coaches and quarterbacks meshed on the field better last year than the Baylor tandem. Briles excelled with both Robert Griffin III and Nick Florence but Petty’s numbers were the best of the bunch in his first season under center. As in, 4,409 total yards of offense, 46 total touchdowns and just three (3!) interceptions for a team that won its first Big 12 championship ever. Briles has proven to be one of the best in the land (fifth in Athlon Sports’ rankings) and Petty has already accomplished things in Waco no quarterback has ever achieved. A repeat performance this year with less talent to work with and this duo could prove to be the best in the nation.
4. Penn State: James Franklin-Christian Hackenberg
Hackenberg set 11 school records as a true freshman passer a year ago as the all-world recruit clearly lived up to the hype by throwing for 2,955 yards and 20 TDs in his first season. He also led Penn State to a winning record despite heavy sanctions and capped the year with a remarkable road performance against Wisconsin (339 yards, 4 TD, 0 INT). Hack is a No. 1 overall type of talent and, now, he has cult-of-personality James Franklin running the show in Happy Valley. Franklin is unproven in the Big Ten but his SEC resume speaks for itself, as he led the Commodores to unprecedented heights in Nashville. Huge things are in store for this duo, especially considering the easy schedule and the potential removal of the bowl ban in ’14.
5. Auburn: Gus Malzahn-Nick Marshall
Malzahn is a top 10 coach nationally after leading Auburn from worst to first in his first season in charge. Much of that was on the legs and shoulder of another first-year Tiger in quarterback Nick Marshall. The dual-threat signal-caller mastered the Malzahn spread in short order and turned in 3,044 yards of total offense, 26 total touchdowns and one SEC championship. With an even better grasp of the playbook and some development as a passer, Marshall is poised for a first-team All-SEC season on The Plains. How many teams boast a top 10 coach and a top 10 Heisman candidate?
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6. Michigan State: Mark Dantonio-Connor Cook
It seems odd that a tandem that won 13 games, a Big Ten championship and Rose Bowl title would be underrated but that is how things go in East Lansing. Mark Dantonio is consistently overlooked when it comes to the nation’s best coaches and Cook wasn’t even the starter going into last season. Cook’s growth over the second half of the season was obvious as the Spartans' QB set career highs in passing yards in back-to-back wins over Ohio State (304 yds) in the B1G title game and Stanford (332 yds) in the Rose Bowl. Now, the 6-foot-4, 220-pounder enters 2014 with massive expectations.
7. UCLA: Jim Mora-Brett Hundley
Mora was ranked by Athlon Sports as the No. 31 head coach in the nation. There is no doubting he has gotten more out of this Bruins team than the previous regimes, however, he is still a bit of an unknown commodity on the coaching circuit. His quarterback is not an unknown at all, though. In fact, Hundley is one of the best players in the nation regardless of position. The UCLA head coach-quarterback combination has won 19 games over the last two seasons and a Pac-12 crown in 2014 would vault them into Fisher-Winston range nationally. Hundley has 7,914 yards of total offense and 73 total touchdowns in two seasons in Westwood.
8. Arizona State: Todd Graham-Taylor Kelly
All this duo did was post the best record in the Pac-12 (8-1) a year ago while winning the division and coming one game away from a Rose Bowl berth. Kelly has topped 3,000 yards passing in each of his two seasons as the starter and has carried the ball 306 times for over 1,100 yards on the ground as well. Graham, despite his strange resume, is a proven winner and turned ASU into a Pac-12 contender in just two seasons at the helm. Look for this established tandem to produce big offensive numbers once again in the desert this fall.
9. Oregon: Mark Helfrich-Marcus Mariota
Much like the tandem at UCLA, the Ducks boast one of the game’s greatest quarterbacks and one of the game’s most unproven head coaches. Mariota is brilliant in all facets of the game and could be the only player in the nation capable of competing with Winston for No. 1 overall honors in next year’s NFL Draft. Helfrich had two chances to lock up the Pac-12 title in his first season and couldn’t do it last year. He currently ranks 58th in Athlon Sports’ coaching rankings but could make a huge jump should Oregon win the conference title in ’14.
10. Oklahoma: Bob Stoops-Trevor Knight
Knight was magnificent against Alabama but needs to prove his talents over the course of a full season. Staying healthy is atop this list after throwing just five regular season touchdown passes a year ago. Stoops’ resume speaks for itself — eight Big 12 titles, nine BCS bowls and four trips to the national title game. If Knight develops the way many think he can, this duo could lead the Sooners to a playoff berth and could enter next season as the best QB-head coach combo in the nation.
11. Brian Kelly-Everett Golson, Notre Dame
Kelly is among the nation’s best minds and he will have his guy under center once again when he welcomes Golson back to South Bend. Golson developed into a playmaker during his first year. How many tandems in the nation have been to a national title game together?
12. Gary Pinkel-Maty Mauk, Missouri
Longevity counts for something and Pinkel has that in spades. Along with a great QB resume that includes Brad Smith, Chase Daniel, Blaine Gabbert and James Franklin. Mauk is the next great Mizzou passer.
13. Hugh Freeze-Bo Wallace, Ole Miss
Wallace isn’t an overly special player but he’s one of the SEC’s best passers. Freeze has proven in short order to be a winner. This tandem needs to take the next step in ’14.
14. Bronco Mendenhall-Taysom Hill, BYU
Hill has special dual-threat playmaking talents and could find himself in the Heisman mix should BYU win enough games. Mendenhall has five 10-win seasons at BYU and has never posted a losing record.
15. Mike Leach-Connor Halliday, Washington State
The Wazzu combo broke some NCAA records last year, and, with a large contingent of receivers returning, the Mad Scientist could have one of his best statistical seasons in years.
16. David Shaw-Kevin Hogan, Stanford
17. Steve Spurrier-Dylan Thompson, South Carolina
18. Bill Snyder-Jake Waters, Kansas State
19. Dan Mullen-Dak Prescott, Mississippi State
20. Mike Riley-Sean Mannion, Oregon State
5 we don’t know about yet:
Nick Saban-Jacob Coker, Alabama
Mark Richt-Hutson Mason, Georgia
Chris Petersen-Cyler Miles, Washington
Bobby Petrino-Will Gardner, Louisville
Kevin Sumlin-Kyle Allen, Texas A&M
The Indianapolis 500 is the Greatest Spectacle in Racing for a reason.
Nestled in the suburbs just west and north of downtown Indianapolis, the greatest racetrack and the biggest sporting venue in the world is host to the most prestigious event in motor sports every Memorial Day weekend.
The Indy 500, for those in the know. And, trust me, I know.
I’ve been to seven such events at Indianapolis Motor Speedway — and one Brickyard 400 — and there is no experience in sports like watching 33 open-wheel rocketships fly past your nose at over 220 miles per hour. And all seven, even the ones that ended early by rain (looking at you Ashley Judd), gifted me an unforgettable experience.
We celebrate those who have fought and died to protect this country on Memorial Day weekend, and for three decades, my family has done that by enjoying the most coveted championship in racing.
The 98th running of the esteemed 500-mile sprint won’t be any different. Here are my favorite stats you need to know before settling in for 200 laps around IMS on Sunday afternoon:
187.433: Record average speed for 2013 race
The fastest Indy 500 ever run took place just last year when fan favorite Tony Kanaan won the event with an average speed of 187.433 MPHs. It was only the second time in the history of the race in which the average speed was in excess of 180 MPH — Arie Luyendyk in 1990 at 185.981 MPH. The race took a record two hours, 40 minutes and three seconds to finish. The ’13 race also featured the most lead changes (68) and different leaders (14) in Indy 500 history. Never before had a race seen more than 35 lead changes until ’13.
236.986: Fastest qualifying lap in history
Speaking of Luyendyk, the French champion owns the fastest qualifying lap in race history when he won the pole in 1996 with an average speed over four laps of 236.986 miles per hour. Hometown hero Ed Carpenter won his second consecutive pole this year with an average four-lap speed of 230.661 MPH.
6: Former winners racing in this year’s event
Including the defending champion Kanaan, there are six former winners in the field in 2014. Helio Castroneves (2001-02, ‘09), Scott Dixon (2008), Juan Pablo Montoya (2000), Buddy Lazier (1996) and Jacques Villeneuve (1995) all have hoisted the Borg-Werner Trophy. The record for most race winners in one field is 10 back in 1992 and this year’s field also will include seven rookies. Castroneves is attempting to join elite company…
4: Most Indy 500 championships by a driver
Only three drivers in history have ever won the Indy 500 four times. A.J. Foyt (1961, ’64, ’67, ’77), Al Unser (1970, ’71, ’78, ’87) and Rick Mears (1979, ’84, ’88, ’91) are the three most successful names in IMS history and Castroneves could join them with a win this weekend. Foyt also owns the record for most consecutive starts in the race at 35 while Roger Penske’s 15 wins are a record for an owner.
257,325: Capacity of Indianapolis Motor Speedway
Affectionately known as IMS, the historic track is the largest sporting venue in the world. The official seating capacity is reported at 257,325 seats but the infield space and standing-room-only crowd push attendance over 300,000 annually. The Associated Press has reported in the past, at the height of its popularity, that the race drew roughly 400,000 spectators a year — making it the largest sporting event in the world every year.
0.043: Seconds of margin of victory in 1992
The closest finish in race history took place when Al Unser Jr. held off Scott Goodyear in 1992 by a fraction of a second. The duo battled for laps and were nose-to-tail coming off of turn four on lap No. 200. Goodyear peaked inside “Little Al” right at the finish line but was unable to complete the pass. The IMS Radio Network call still gives me chills and nearly brings me to tears to this day:
253: Acres within the track
The infield at IMS is a sight to behold. Four holes of The Brickyard Crossing golf course are located along the backstretch of the 253-acre infield. The remaining 14 holes run just outside of the backstretch. According to WalletHub.com, the infield could house Churchill Downs, Yankee Stadium, The Rose Bowl, The Roman Coliseum and The Vatican City combined.
1.9: Miles-to-the-gallon the current Indy car obtains
One lap around the famed Brickyard is 2.5 miles and it takes roughly 1.3 gallons of fuel to make it all the way around the perfect oval. So the current Indy car gets roughly 1.9 miles/gallon in fuel mileage. The fuel capacity of the current vehicle is 18.5 gallons (70 liters), meaning the fuel window for the machines is roughly 35 laps.
28: Worst starting spot for a race winner
The race has been run 97 times and only 10 times has a winner started 20th or worse. The lowest starting spot to crown a winner is 28th and it happened when Ray Harroun won the inaugural event in 1911 and then again in 1936 when Louis Meyer was a champion. Only twice since 1936 has a winner come from 20th or worst — Johnny Rutherford started 25th in 1974 and Al Unser began the race 20th in 1987. The best starting position to never win a race is 18th. Oriol Servia has the unlucky draw of beginning the race on the outside of Row 6 this weekend.
1: Fewest race laps led by a champion
The late Dan Wheldon won arguably the most painful finish of any of the 97 Indy 500s. Rookie J.R. Hildebrand held the lead by a wide margin entering the final turn of the 500-mile race when he slid into the outside wall while passing a much slower car. The wreck allowed Wheldon to make the final lap pass and clinch his second Indy 500 win. It was the only lap Wheldon led all race long, giving him the fewest laps led by any winner. Only one other time has a winner led fewer than 10 total laps and that was American Joe Dawson in 1912 when he led just two laps. The final lap pass by Wheldon was also only the second last lap lead change in race history. This historic final lap by Sam Hornish Jr. in 2006 might have been the most dramatic finish in race history (and I was lucky enough to see both) and is the only other final lap pass by a champion:
8,116 and 17,527: Oldest and youngest champions in race history (in days)
The youngest driver to win the Indy 500 was Troy Ruttman in 1952. He was 22 years, two months and 19 days old — or 8,116 days. The oldest driver to win the championship was Al Unser in 1987, who was 47 years, 11 months and 25 days old — or 17,527 days.
1,100: Miles Kurt Busch will attempt to race on Sunday
It’s been a decade since Robby Gordon attempted to run both the Indianapolis 500 and the Sprint Cup Coca-Cola 600 in the same day. Kurt Busch will attempt the double-dip this weekend. He will start on the outside of Row 4 at Indy and there is no possible way he won’t qualify for the 600. In all, should he finish both races, Busch will race 1,100 miles in one day on two tracks while also traversing the 500-mile distance between Indianapolis and Charlotte. The help of a Cessna Citation X 750 — which flies at 600 miles per hour — will allow Busch to run both races.
1: Pace car wrecks
In only once in Indy 500 history has the pace car wrecked. In 1971, Eldon Palmer, a local car dealer in Indiana, paced the start of the race in a gorgeous red Dodge Challenger. The only problem is he lost control of the car and crashed into an entire grandstand at the end of pit lane. Unbelievably and fortunately, no one died in the bizarre incident.
This is your daily link roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for May 22.
• 50 United States Senators have signed a letter to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell to change the name of the Washington Redskins.
• President Obama had a little fun with outspoken cornerback Richard Sherman when the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks visited The White House on Wednesday.
• Mexican national "soccer" team coach Miguel Herrera has banned all of his players from having sex during The World Cup. He does know it's being played in Brazil, right?
• Want a quick, by-the-numbers look at the Indy 500 this weekend? Here are 21 numbers you need to know about the Greatest Spectacle in Motorsports.
• The real star of the NBA Draft lottery was Milwaukee Bucks rep Mallory Edens. The daughter of team co-owner Wesley Edens went from 249 twitter followers to, at last count, over 43,000 followers in less than two days.
• Two things here: (1) Bill Goldberg played at Georgia because of a bottle of Wild Turkey and (2) Barry "Switzer would drink a 'Crown on the rocks within five minutes" of arriving on recruiting visits.
• Scout’s Jamie Newberg is producing a series of NFL Draft articles based on geography this week. It’s fascinating analysis of what cities, states and regions produce the most NFL talent. (Here's Part 1.)
• The Tampa Bay Rays threw a one-hitter against the Oakland A's on Wednesday. AND STILL LOST.
• The Cubs lack of support for Jeff Samardzija is growing comical. The Chicago pitcher tosses seven scoreless innings on Wednesday and lowering his league-leading ERA to 1.46. Yet, the Cubs managed to lose the game, pushing his winless streak to 16 consecutive starts. He has no wins in 2014.
• One of NASCAR’s long-time writers and aficionados has all of the fancy new Coca-Cola 600 paint schemes covered, including Dale Earnhardt’s new DC Comics Superman paint scheme.
I believe the great Dodgers announcer Charley Steiner says it perfectly, "I hate to break the news to Puig, but that's the third out."
The Athlon Sports 2014 Top 25 Countdown is underway and preseason football magazines are just weeks from arriving at a newsstand near you.
For many, including myself, this signifies the start of a new college football season.
It doesn’t mean, however, that there isn’t plenty of time to debate, discuss, argue and prognosticate about conference championships and playoff berths for the next few months before actual games start up on Aug. 28.
College football is king in my world. It’s my favorite sport and counting down the days until the kickoff of a new season is both exhilarating and excruciating all at the same time. But I am a fan of all great sporting events and there are plenty of things to keep us busy until LSU and Wisconsin meet in Houston or Texas A&M and South Carolina clash in Columbia or Boise State and Ole Miss hook up in Atlanta.
Aside from some vacation time, plenty of grilling and a few cold beverages, here is what my sports calendar will look like this summer:
May 24: UEFA Champions League Final
For the first time in series history, two teams from the same city will battle for Europe’s top soccer honor. After 124 matches over nearly a full calendar year of action, Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid will square off in Estadio da Luz in Lisbon, Portugal, for the right to be called the 59th Champions League winner.
May 25: Memorial Day Race Weekend
This one is near and dear to my heart as I have been to more than half-a-dozen Indianapolis 500s over the last decade. But the Greatest Spectacle in Racing is just the tip of the asphalt iceberg on Memorial Day Weekend. The day gets started with Formula 1’s Monaco Grand Prix at 7:30 a.m. ET before the Indy 500 starts at 12:15 p.m. ET. The day wraps up with the Coca-Cola 600 from Charlotte Motor Speedway at 6 p.m. ET. This year Kurt Busch will be the first driver in a decade to attempt the Indy-Charlotte Double.
June: Stanley Cup Final
The best postseason in major American professional sports ends up with two teams dueling in a best-of-seven series. Sudden death overtime in Game 7 of a Stanley Cup final might be the truest form of reality TV ever created by sports. Especially, if the Montreal Canadiens, who have won the most championships of any team in the league (24), can get past the New York Rangers in the Eastern Conference Finals to make their first cup appearance in over 20 years.
June: NBA Finals
For those who prefer the hard court to the ice, the NBA Finals heat up (pun intended) in June. The Spurs and Thunder will battle in the Western Conference Finals while the Heat and Pacers will duel in the Eastern Conference Finals. Will the NBA crown a new king in Kevin Durant? Will fans get a rematch of last year’s Spurs-Heat seven-game thriller? Can LeBron three-peat?
June 5-7: MLB Draft
The Pirates drafted UCLA stud right-handed pitcher Gerrit Cole No. 1 overall in 2011. Less than two years later, Cole helped Pittsburgh reach the postseason for the first time in two decades in just his first professional season. The gap between the traditional first-year player draft and debuting in the majors has shrunk every year and the MLB Draft is the first chance to glimpse the future of MLB.
June 7: The Belmont Stakes
Kentucky Derby favorite California Chrome won the first leg of the esteemed Triple Crown and then went on to claim the second leg of the Triple Crown at The Preakness. The third and final leg of the usually unobtainable Triple Crown will take place June 7 in Elmont, N.Y. The 146th running of The Belmont Stakes will reportedly carry a purse worth upwards of $1.5 million in prize money. Should California Chrome win the third race, it would become the first horse to win the trio of esteemed races since 1978 (Affirmed).
June 12-15: U.S. Open Championship
Long roughs, narrow fairways and beautiful rolling hills. That is the signature of the United State Open Championship and this year it will be played at famed Pinehurst No. 2 in Pinehurst, N.C. As an Open Championship, the tournament is technically open to any and all comers who qualify. It’s a true American sports tradition.
June 12-July 13: The World Cup
Every four years the world turns its attention in the same direction as 32 different nations vie for the most prestigious world championship in sports. Brazil will host the 64-match, 32-team, 8-group tournament this year for the first time in South America since 1978. The winner of the 20th World Cup will earn $35 million in prize money. The USA will play Ghana (Mon., June 16), Portugal (Sun., Jun 22) and Germany (Thurs., June 26) in group play before the elimination tournament begins Sat., June 28.
June 14-25: College World Series
One of the coolest national events in NCAA sports takes place over two weeks in Omaha, Neb., every year. TD Ameritrade Park will host eight teams from all over the country in a double-elimination round robin tournament in an effort to crown the best the nation has to offer. The city is great and welcoming and the event is as unique as any in American sports. UCLA topped Mississippi State a year ago to win the championship and both instant replay and lower seems (on the baseball) will be experimented with in 2014.
June 26: NBA Draft
The 2013 NBA Draft left much to be desired, both by NBA teams and fans. But the 2014 version of the NBA Draft will feature a boatload of future hoops stars. Duke’s Jabari Parker, Kentucky’s Julius Randle and dozens more will find out for the first time where they will be playing professional basketball. This year’s event will take place at 7 p.m. ET at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y.
July 4: Hot Dog Eating Contest
Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest is the world's most famous eating contest held every year on Coney Island. Joey Chestnut has won seven consecutive titles after eating a record 69 hot dogs and buns in 10 minutes last year. If you are into competitive eating, the Takeru Kobayashi-Chestnut rivalry is as delicious as it gets.
July 5: Daytona Night Race
Since 1988, the second race at Daytona each year — one held under the lights — has been held on the first Saturday in July. Packaged with Independence Day and originally titled the Firecracker 250 back when it debuted in 1959, the 400 miles around the 2.5-mile oval is one of most anticipated races of the season on the Sprint Cup circuit. Cars boasting 900 horsepower racing just inches from each other with the throttles stuck wide open sounds like fun to me.
July 6: Wimbledon Final
Whatever you want to call it, Wimbledon is the oldest tennis tournament in the world. Despite lagging popularity nationally, the fortnight of matches across the pond features the best the world has to offer. Hosted by the All England Club since 1877, The Championships are considered the the highest honor in men's, women's and double's tennis worldwide. In 2013, Andy Murray became the first British man to win the prestigious tournament since Fred Perry 77 years prior.
July 13: World Cup Final
The month-long futbol tournament in Brazil will culminate with a winner take all golden goal championship bout in Estadio do Maracana. The Rio de Janeiro stadium opened during the 1950 World Cup when Uruguay upset the host Brazilian squad 2-1 in the final match. Over 200 nations compete for four calendar years to get to one final decision on July 13, 2014.
July 15: MLB All-Star Game
I had my first opportunity to attend an All-Star game with a future ace on the mound at my favorite team's home stadium. Matt Harvey's rehab aside, the experience was unforgettable. The 83rd annual Midsummer Classic pits the best the National and American League have to offer in an exhibition game that will decide which league will host the World Series. The game is hosted by the Minnesota Twins at Target Field in 2014 and there is nothing like seeing 15 different uniforms on the same field at the same time. For what it's worth, the National League owns a 43-39-2 all-time mark against the American League.
July 17-20: The Open Championship
The most unique major golf championship and the only one played outside of the United States also is the oldest major tournament. The British Open, Open Championship or even just The Open is held on one of nine links courses throughout Scotland or England every third weekend in July. The first tournament was held in 1860 and first place wins about $1.4 million. Phil Mickelson won last year's event at Muirfield Golf Links in Scotland and the '14 edition will be played at Royal Liverpool Golf Club. It will be the 12th time the Merseyside course will host the The Open.
July 23: Mudsummer Classic
Eldora Speedway in Rossburg, Ohio, is home to the most unique events in major American motorsports. Last year, the NASCAR Truck Series began running one race per season on the half-mile dirt track owned by Tony Stewart. The race lasts 75 miles, 150 laps and takes place on Wednesday evening. Austin Dillon won the inaugural event in 2013 after a green-white-checker finish pushed the race to 153 laps.
July 5-27: Tour De France
If you are a fan of National Geographic, HD TV, colorful commentary and elite-level competition, then the world's most important bike race is for you. The French countryside is loaded with rich history and beautiful vistas all covered from road, boat and air in gorgeous high-definition. Toss in some of the most comical broadcasting lingo in major pro sports and the grueling ride through France becomes very interesting. International competition only adds to the pride attached the century-old, 23-day, 3,500-mile race.
July 27: The Brickyard
It will never be the Indianapolis 500 of the open-wheel variety, but NASCAR's edition of kissing the bricks is also must-see TV. The track has been designed to push motor vehicles to their pinnacle around the most prestigious oval in the world. The race has only taken place since 1994, but the Sprint Cup community — both the fans and drivers — understand the significance of winning anything at the most famous track in motor sports.
Aug. 7-10: PGA Championship
The fourth and final major golf championship of the season is the PGA Championship. And the 96th edition will be held at famed Valhalla Golf Club in Louisville, Ky. Despite being considered the least prestigious of the four majors, the PGA Championship is actually the most lucrative of the bunch with a purse of $10 million. The U.S.' Jason Dufner is the defending PGA champion.
Aug. 23: Bristol Night Race
Thunder Valley is an appropriate name for one of NASCAR's premiere events. The half-mile Bristol Motor Speedway offers 160,000 fans a bird's-eye view of 43 cars racing nose-to-tail for 500 laps (266.5 miles). The first race took place in 1961 and Matt Kenseth is the defending champion. Since 1978, the race has been held on the final Saturday evening in August and is one of the most difficult tickets to acquire in all of sports due in large part because there isn't a bad seat in the house.
The Bowl Championship Series claims 16 great years of college football.
Off the field, the last decade and a half saw college football transform, as media dollars, conference realignment and the facilities arms race dominated the headlines unlike ever before. On the field, the BCS saw the return of the Crimson Tide (and the SEC) to college football’s throne. It saw the advent of the zone-read option and spread offense. It saw arguably the greatest team ever assembled (Miami, 2001) and the greatest game ever played (Texas-USC).
While the BCS Era claims epic national championship showdowns, historic record-breaking coaches and beautiful new stadiums, it’s still the players who will be remembered as the true heroes.
So who were the top 50 players to have played at least one season of college football between 1998 and 2013 — also known as the BCS Era?
1. Vince Young, QB, Texas (2003-05)
Young earned Rose Bowl MVP honors following his ridiculous performance against Michigan to finish his sophomore season. It was a sign of things to come as he was named Big 12 Player of the Year, was a consensus All-American, led the Big 12 in passing efficiency, won the Davey O’Brien, Manning and Maxwell Awards while finishing second on the Heisman ballot in 2005. His smooth running skills led to an all-time Big 12 career record 6.8 yards per carry and no one will ever forget his second Rose Bowl MVP performance against USC in the greatest game of the BCS Era, returning the national championship to Austin.
2. Tim Tebow, QB, Florida (2006-09)
Four years of huge statistics makes him the all-time SEC leader in total yards, total touchdowns (145), rushing touchdowns and passing efficiency (170.8). He won the Heisman Trophy in 2007 as well as the Davey O’Brien and Maxwell Awards when he set NCAA records with 55 total touchdowns and 4,181 yards of total offense (since broken). He won SEC Player of the Year, Manning and Maxwell Awards the following year when he led Florida to its second national championship in three years. Tebow fell one game shy in 2009 of playing for — and likely winning — three national titles in four years.
3. Ndamukong Suh, DT, Nebraska (2005-09)
The star defensive tackle from Portland, Ore., won the 2009 Outland and Nagurski Trophies as well as the Lombardi, Bednarik and Willis Awards. He was the first defensive player to win AP Player of the Year honors since its inception in 1998 and finished fourth in the Heisman Trophy voting. That year Suh claimed the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year award and he came just seconds shy of leading the Huskers to their first conference championship since 1999. He finished his career with 215 tackles, 57.0 for a loss, 24.0 sacks and six blocked kicks.
4. Adrian Peterson, RB, Oklahoma (2004-06)
The BCS version of Herschel Walker or Bo Jackson was a three-time, first-team All-Big 12 runner. Peterson finished No. 2 in the Heisman Trophy voting as a true freshman in 2004 and his 1,925 yards were an NCAA record for a true freshman. Despite missing chunks of time with injuries in each of his next two seasons, “All-Day” Peterson still topped 1,000 yards and 12 touchdowns. His natural blend of power, speed, size and balance has never been duplicated during the BCS Era. He is the Sooners’ No. 3 all-time leading rusher.
5. Larry Fitzgerald, WR, Pitt (2002-03)
After redshirting, Fitz dominated college football for two full seasons. He became the first Pitt Panther to have back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons, owns the school record with 34 touchdowns (in just 26 games) as well as the NCAA record for consecutive games with a touchdown reception (18). As a sophomore in his final season at Pitt, he caught 92 passes for 1,672 yards and 22 touchdowns, winning Big East Player of the Year honors and the Walter Camp and Biletnikoff awards. His second-place finish in the Heisman Trophy voting is the highest by any wide receiver during the BCS Era and he is the only one in to finish in the top three.
6. Ed Reed, S, Miami (1998-01)
The star safety is one of the greatest to ever put on the pads. He led the team as a freshman in interceptions and forced fumbles en route to back-to-back All-American seasons in 2000 and '01. He led the nation as a senior with nine interceptions for 209 yards and three touchdowns. His leadership helped a stacked Miami team go unbeaten and claim the BCS National Championship in 2001. He was named Big East Defensive Player of the Year. Reed holds the school record for career interceptions (21), return yards (389) and defensive touchdowns (5).
7. Calvin Johnson, WR, Georgia Tech (2004-06)
Appropriately nicknamed Megatron, no player has demonstrated the combination of size and speed that Johnson brought to the Ramblin Wreck offense. The Tyrone (Ga.) Sandy Creek prospect was the ACC Rookie of the Year in 2004 before earning back-to-back All-American honors in 2005-06. He owns school records for receiving yards and touchdowns during his time at Tech and claimed the Biletnikoff Award as well as ACC Player of the Year honors in 2006.
8. Ricky Williams, RB, Texas (1995-98)
The power back from San Diego had a two-year run as an upperclassman that may never be matched, as he posted back-to-back seasons with at least 1,800 yards and 25 rushing touchdowns. Williams was a two-time consensus All-American, a two-time Doak Walker Award winner, a two-time Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year and claimed the Maxwell Award, Walter Camp Award and Heisman Trophy as a senior. He left school as the NCAA’s all-time leading rusher (since broken) and he is one of four players to ever score at least 70 rushing touchdowns.
9. LaVar Arrington, LB, Penn State (1997-99)
Arrington was an elite leader who helped Penn State to a 28-9 record during his three-year tenure in Happy Valley. He was the Butkus and Lambert Award winner as the nation’s top linebacker and was the recipient of the Chuck Bednarik Award as the nation’s top defensive player after 72 tackles, 20 tackles for a loss, nine sacks and two blocked kicks in 1999. He was a consensus All-American and his fourth down leap against Illinois has gone down in PSU history.
10. Bryant McKinnie, T, Miami (2000-01)
He only played two seasons for Miami after beginning at Lackawanna College (Pa.) but he was downright unstoppable during his time in a Hurricanes' uniform. He was an All-American in both seasons, won the Outland Trophy as the nation’s top lineman and led Miami to a 23-1 record and the 2001 BCS National Championship. He is the only offensive lineman during the BCS era to finish in the top 10 of Heisman Trophy balloting.
11. Patrick Willis, LB, Ole Miss (2003-06)
The unheralded Tennessee native was overlooked by most of the SEC big boys and he made them all pay by becoming the league’s best linebacker of the BCS Era. Willis claimed the Butkus and Lambert Awards in 2006 and posted 265 tackles and 21.0 stops for a loss over his final two seasons. Willis was SEC Defensive Player of the Year and an All-American as a senior.
12. David Pollack, DE, Georgia (2001-04)
The Bulldogs' defensive end is the most decorated defensive lineman of the BCS Era. Pollack is a three-time, first-team All-SEC and All-American, twice landing consensus All-American honors. He won the SEC Player of the Year award twice (2002, '04), as well as the Bednarik, Hendricks (twice), Lombardi and Lott Awards. He and roommate David Greene helped lead Georgia to its first SEC title (2002) in two decades.
13. Terrell Suggs, DE, Arizona State (2000-02)
The star pass-rusher is best known as the NCAA’s all-time single-season sack master when he totaled 24 QB takedowns in 2002. Suggs was the Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year and the inaugural Ted Hendricks Award winner that year as well. The accolades didn’t end there, however, as he also took home the Lombardi, Nagurski and Willis trophies. He led the NCAA with 31.5 tackles for a loss (still a Pac-12 record) and forced six fumbles that year. He finished his Sun Devils career with 163 tackles, a school-record 65.5 for a loss (second all-time in league history), 44 sacks (second all-time) and 14 forced fumbles.
14. Glenn Dorsey, DT, LSU (2004-07)
He helped lead LSU to an SEC and BCS National Championship in 2007 while earning SEC Defensive Player of the Year honors. He also claimed the Outland, Nagurski and Lott Trophies as well as the Lombardi Award — becoming the first LSU Tiger to win any of those prestigious awards. Dorsey also was ninth in the Heisman voting in his record-setting 2007 campaign. He was a two-time All-American and finished with 179 tackles, 27.0 for a loss and 13 sacks.
15. Matt Leinart, QB, USC (2003-05)
Leinart won two national titles and played for a third in three years as a starter. He finished in the top six of Heisman voting in all three seasons, winning the award in 2004. He also earned AP Player of the Year, Manning, Walter Camp, Unitas and consensus All-American honors during his remarkable Heisman campaign. Leinart set the career conference record with 36 consecutive games with a touchdown pass and his 99 career TD passes (since broken).
16. Roy Williams, S, Oklahoma (1999-01)
He helped lead the Sooners to an unbeaten BCS National Championship in 2000 while setting the school record for tackles for a loss by a defensive back (12.0). The following year, he claimed the Thorpe Award as the nation’s top defensive back as well as the Nagurski and Jack Tatum Trophies and Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year honors. He was a unanimous All-American, first-round pick of the Cowboys in 2002 and will go down in Red River Shootout lore for this spectacular play in the Cotton Bowl.
17. Julius Peppers, DE, North Carolina (1999-01)
As a two-sport star in Chapel Hill, Peppers was a freshman All-American in 1999 before leading the nation in sacks (15.0) as a sophomore. He capped his junior season as a consensus All-American and by winning Lombardi, Bednarik and Willis Trophy honors. Peppers finished 10th in the Heisman voting in 2001. He started 33 of 34 possible career games and finished with 167 tackles and 30.5 sacks, good for sixth all-time in ACC history and second during the BCS Era.
18. John Henderson, DT, Tennessee (1998-01)
As a freshman, Henderson helped the Vols capture the 1998 BCS National Championship. By the time he had reached the end of his senior season, Henderson had posted 165 tackles, 38.5 tackles for a loss and 20.5 sacks in two first-team All-American seasons. The monstrosity of a man is one of just five defensive players during the BCS Era to claim the historic Outland Trophy.
19. Andrew Luck, QB, Stanford (2009-11)
Few players have ever meant more to their school than Luck meant to Stanford. He led the Cardinal to their first BCS bowl win and set every school passing record en route. The two-time Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year finished second in the Heisman twice (2010-11) and won the Unitas, Walter Camp and Maxwell awards in 2011. He is the Pac-12’s all-time leader in completion percentage, yards per play (8.5) and passing efficiency (162.8). He was 27-4 in his last 31 starts.
20. Michael Vick, QB, Virginia Tech (1999-00)
The Hokies signal-caller revolutionized the quarterback position in one year as he led Virginia Tech to its only BCS title game appearance with unprecedented foot speed and arm strength. He dropped jaws and popped eyes every step of the way, including a furious second-half comeback in the Sugar Bowl against eventual champion Florida State. He finished third and sixth in the Heisman voting both years he played, and had he stayed three full seasons under center, he could have pushed for top billing on this list simply based on his never-before-seen athleticism.
21. Eric Berry, S, Tennessee (2007-09)
In 2007, he posted a school record with 222 INT return yards on five picks, led all SEC freshmen with 86 tackles and was named SEC Freshman of the Year. He then returned seven interceptions for 265 yards as a sophomore en route to his first of two unanimous All-American seasons. He also was named the SEC Defensive Player of the Year that year. As a junior, Berry returned to win the Thorpe and Jack Tatum Awards and ended his collegiate career with the the most interception return yards in SEC history. Berry finished with 245 tackles, 17.5 for loss and 14 interceptions.
22. James Laurinaitis, LB, Ohio State (2005-08)
Few players in the nation were as decorated, productive, talented and successful as the Minneapolis native. Laurinaitis won the Butkus, Nagurski, two Lambert Awards and two Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year awards while being a three-time All-American. He posted three straight seasons of at least 115 tackles and helped Ohio State win a share of four Big Ten titles, including two trips to the BCS National Championship Game.
23. Barrett Jones, OL, Alabama (2009-12)
No offensive lineman during the BCS Era was more decorated than the Memphis native. He started at right guard and earned freshman All-American honors for the 2009 BCS champs. He slid out to left tackle by 2011 and won the Outland Trophy as the nation’s top lineman for the 2011 BCS champs. Jones then manned the pivot and won the Rimington Trophy as the nation’s top center for the 2012 BCS champs. The two-time consensus All-American won three national titles at three different positions.
24. Paul Posluszny, LB, Penn State (2003-06)
As a junior, the Nittany Lions tackler was recognized as the nation’s top LB when he posted 116 tackles (11.0 TFL) en route to a Big Ten championship, consensus All-American honors and both the Butkus and Bednarik Awards. He followed that up as a senior with a second Bednarik Award and second consensus All-American nod. He left school as Penn State’s all-time leading tackler with 372 total stops.
25. Joe Thomas, T, Wisconsin (2004-06)
One of the few big-time recruits from the state of Wisconsin, Thomas was a two-time All-American and Outland Trophy winner for a team that went 31-7 during his three seasons as the starting left tackle. He has rare foot speed, agility and overall athletic ability — and it’s why he has been to the Pro Bowl in his first seven NFL seasons.
26. Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M (2012-13)
When it comes to setting SEC statistical benchmarks, few players can compare to Manziel. He owns the top two total offense seasons in SEC history with 5,116 yards in his Heisman-winning 2012 campaign and 4,873 yards in his second season. His career 68.9 percent completion rate is No. 1 all-time in SEC history and his 164.05 career QB rating is second only to Tebow. Texas A&M went 20-6 during his two seasons as the starter and had he played one more season in the SEC with similar numbers, he might have been considered the best to ever play the game.
27. Ron Dayne, RB, Wisconsin (1996-99)
Dayne is the only player in history with 7,000 yards rushing and is one of four players to score at least 70 rushing touchdowns. He carried the ball more than any player in NCAA history (1,220) and he owns multiple BCS bowl rushing records with two Rose Bowl MVP performances. He capped his illustrious career with a magical 2,000-yard Heisman Trophy and Big Ten championship season. The consensus All-American won Big Ten Player of the Year, Maxwell, Walter Camp and Doak Walker recognition in his final season in Madison. His 2,109 yards in 1996 are still a Big Ten single-season record and his career NCAA-record 7,429 yards from scrimmage may never be broken.
28. Sean Taylor, S, Miami (2001-03)
Taylor was one of just four true freshman to see playing time on the 2001 BCS national title squad. He earned All-Big East honors as a sophomore en route to another national title game in 2002. His 2003 campaign, however, is one of the best in school history. Taylor led the nation with 10 interceptions and his rare blend of size and speed made him Big East Defensive Player of the Year. Miami was 35-3 during Taylor’s time at The U.
29. Darren McFadden, RB, Arkansas (2005-07)
When it comes to pure breakaway speed and big play ability, few can match Run-DMC’s talent. The North Little Rock prospect finished second in Heisman balloting in back-to-back seasons, coming up just short to Troy Smith (2006) and Tim Tebow (2007). McFadden won the Doak Walker and SEC Offensive Player of the Year awards in both consensus All-American seasons. His 4,590 yards is No. 2 all-time in SEC history to only Herschel Walker.
30. LaDainian Tomlinson, RB, TCU (1997-00)
The mid-level recruit from Rosebud (Texas) Waco had one of the greatest careers in NCAA history. L.T. took over the national scene as a junior with 1,974 yards and 20 touchdowns, including the NCAA single-game rushing record of 406 yards against UTEP. He backed that up with another 2,158 yards and 22 scores, winning the Doak Walker, his second WAC Offensive Player of the Year award, consensus All-American honors and a fourth place finish in the Heisman voting. He scored 162 TDs in his NFL career.
31. Robert Griffin III, QB, Baylor (2008-11)
Griffin III beat out Luck to win the 2011 Heisman Trophy while leading Baylor to back-to-back bowl games. He led the NCAA in passing efficiency (189.5), was a consensus All-American and won the Davey O’Brien and Manning awards to go with his stiff-armed trophy. In fact, Griffin III is just one of the few players to have meant more to their school than Luck. Had he been healthy for his entire career — he missed nine games in 2009 — his numbers might have been the best the BCS Era has ever seen.
32. Reggie Bush, RB, USC (2003-05)
Sort of a first of his kind, the all-purpose talent was unstoppable with the ball in his hands. He played a prominent role on the 2003 National Championship team before providing 908 yards rushing, 509 yards receiving, nearly 1,000 return yards and 15 total touchdowns during USC’s 2004 romp to a second national title. As a junior, he rushed for 1,740 yards on a ridiculous 8.7 yards per carry and scored 19 total touchdowns, coming up just short of his third national title. He earned his second consecutive Pac-10 Offensive Player of the Year award as well as the Doak Walker, Walter Camp and Heisman Trophy.
33. Drew Brees, QB, Purdue (1997-00)
The two-time Big Ten Player of the Year led Purdue back to the Rose Bowl and finished among the top four in Heisman voting twice (1999, 2000). He is the Big Ten's all-time leader in completions, passing yards, touchdown passes, total offense (12,692) and total touchdowns (104).
34. Greg Eslinger, C, Minnesota (2002-05)
Not many centers have an Outland Trophy on their mantle at home but Eslinger does. He was a freshman All-American in 2002, a third-team All-American as a sophomore, a first-teamer in '04 and earned consensus All-American honors as a senior. He won the Rimington Trophy as the nation’s top center and earned Big Ten Lineman of the Year honors in ’05. Minnesota never had a losing record during his four-year career.
35. Corey Moore, DE, Virginia Tech (1997-99)
By his junior season, Moore earned Big East Defensive Player of the Year honors with 67 tackles, 18.5 for a loss and 13.5 sacks. A year later, Moore set the Big East single-season record with 17 sacks en route to the BCS National Championship game. He was a unanimous All-American, Nagurski Trophy and Lombardi Award winner and earned his second Big East Defensive Player of the Year award. He finished his collegiate career with 58.0 tackles for a loss and 35.0 sacks.
36. Chris Samuels, OT, Alabama (1996-99)
The massive 'Bama blocker earned every award possible for an offensive tackle. Samuels claimed the SEC’s Jacobs Blocking Trophy and earned the Outland Trophy as the nation’s top lineman in 1999. He helped Alabama to its first SEC championship since 1992 and was a consensus All-American.
37. Terence Newman, CB, Kansas State (1999-02)
Newman did a little bit of everything for Bill Snyder and Kansas State, returning kicks and punts and even playing some wide receiver. The lockdown cornerback was a two-time All-Big 12 pick, a unanimous All-American, the Jim Thorpe Award winner as the nation’s top DB and a first-round pick by the Cowboys in 2003. The 2002 Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year also was a two-time Big 12 outdoor track champion.
38. Dwight Freeney, DE, Syracuse (1998-01)
Starring during the glory years of Orange football, Freeney left school as a two-time, first-team All-Big East performer after setting the conference’s single-season sack record (17.5). He finished with a school-record 34 career sacks and, at one point, posted 17 consecutive games with at least one QB takedown. His record-setting 2001 campaign made him a unanimous All-American and he finished ninth in the Heisman voting.
39. Patrick Peterson, CB, LSU (2008-10)
One of the most versatile, impactful athletes in the nation, Peterson scored on both defense and special teams throughout his career. He was a dynamic return man who brought a rare explosiveness to the game and led the SEC with 418 punt return yards. As a junior, Peterson won the Thorpe and Bednarik Awards and was named SEC Defensive Player of the Year while being recognized as an All-American for a second time. He finished his career with 135 tackles, seven interceptions, four return touchdowns and 1,356 total return yards.
40. Michael Crabtree, WR, Texas Tech (2007-08)
No player has been as productive in just two seasons as the Dallas native. As a redshirt freshman, Crabtree set NCAA freshman records for receptions (134), yards (1,962) and touchdowns (22) and won the Biletnikoff Award. He also won Big 12 Newcomer and Offensive Player of the Year honors and still owns the single-season league record for receptions and yards. He became the first player in NCAA history to win a second Biletnikoff Award when he caught 97 passes for 1,165 yards and 19 touchdowns for the 11-2 Red Raiders the next year. He finished fifth in the Heisman balloting in ’08 — one of just four wide receivers to finish in the top five during the BCS Era.
41. Troy Polamalu, S, USC (1999-02)
The big-play machine was a three-year starter for the West Coast powerhouse. He was a two-time All-Pac-10 selection, a consensus All-American and stuffed the stat sheet his entire career. The big hitter finished with 278 tackles, 29.0 for loss, six interceptions and four blocked punts in 36 career starts for the Men of Troy. Polamalu led USC back to prominence with a league title and trip to the Orange Bowl before being taken in the first round of the 2003 NFL Draft.
42. Peter Warrick, WR, Florida State (1995-99)
The phrase all-purpose wasn’t en vogue when Warrick broke onto the scene so the FSU superstar might deserve credit for the invention. And if not for an incident at Dillard’s department store that resulted in a two-game suspension, Warrick might have won the Heisman Trophy. The two-time consensus All-American could do it all. His joystick, open-field moves made him dynamic in the passing game, on special teams and he was one of the first wideouts used in the running game. His Sugar Bowl MVP performance — and touchdown catch — in the 1999 national championship game (six rec., 163 yds, three total TDs) will go down as one of the greatest national title performances in NCAA history.
43. Manti Te'o, LB, Notre Dame (2009-12)
It’s possible that the Notre Dame linebacker is the most decorated college football player of all-time. As a senior, Te’o won the Butkus, Bednarik, Lambert, Lombardi, Nagurski and Lott awards while becoming the only defensive player of the BCS Era to win the Walter Camp Award and Maxwell Trophy. He posted 113 tackles and seven interceptions while leading Notre Dame to a perfect regular season and BCS title game berth.
44. Darren Sproles, RB, Kansas State (2001-04)
Few players have ever been as valuable to their school as the diminutive Sproles was to Kansas State. The all-purpose dynamo rushed for at least 1,300 yards in three straight seasons and he helped lead the Wildcats to an improbable Big 12 championship in 2003. His 323 yards from scrimmage and four total touchdowns against Oklahoma in the title game will go down in history as arguably the greatest single-game performance by any Wildcat in history. The Sunflower State native finished fifth in the Heisman voting that year as his 2,735 all-purpose yards is the best single-season performance by any Big 12 running back during the BCS Era (fourth all-time).
45. EJ Henderson, LB, Maryland (1999-02)
Henderson left Maryland with multiple NCAA records and numerous awards and honors. He owns the career tackles per game record (12.5), career solo tackles per game (8.8) and the single-season unassisted tackles record with 135 in 2002. That year, Henderson won his second ACC Defensive Player of the Year award as well as the Butkus, Lambert and Bednarik Awards nationally. He was a two-time All-American, Chick-fil-A Bowl MVP, is second all-time in ACC history with 62.5 career tackles for a loss and 11th all-time with 473 tackles.
46. Elvis Dumervil, DE, Louisville (2002-05)
After a slow first two seasons in Louisville, Dumervil burst onto the national scene with a 10-sack junior campaign. That was only a glimpse of things to come, however, as Dumervil posted one of the greatest single-seasons in NCAA history. As a senior, he set the NCAA record with six sacks against Kentucky and broke Dwight Freeney’s Big East single-season record with 20 sacks. He also set the NCAA record with 10 forced fumbles and claimed Big East Defensive Player of the Year, Nagurski, Hendricks and consensus All-American honors. He finished 10th in the Heisman voting.
47. Derrick Johnson, LB, Texas (2002-04)
The big-play machine from Waco, Texas, was one of the greatest linebackers in Longhorns program history. He finished his career with 458 tackles, 65.0 tackles for a loss, 10.5 sacks, nine interceptions and 11 forced fumbles. Johnson was a three-time All-Big 12 selection and a two-time All-American. He capped his career with the Butkus, Lambert and Nagurski national awards as well as Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year honors and was a part of a Cotton and Rose Bowl championship teams.
48. Rocky Calmus, LB, Oklahoma (1998-01)
A three-time, first-team All-Big 12 selection and a two-time All-American, Calmus is one of the most important Sooners of all-time. As a senior in 2001 he won the Butkus and Lambert Awards, but his play in ‘00 will go down in Oklahoma history. He led the vaunted Sooners defense to a perfect record and spearheaded arguably the greatest defensive performance of the BCS Era by holding Florida State to zero offensive points in the BCS National Championship Game.
49. Morris Claiborne, CB, LSU (2009-11)
One of the best pure covermen in the history of the SEC, Claiborne was a lock-down corner for LSU in his two full seasons as the starter. He developed a reputation as a sophomore with five picks and 37 tackles en route to All-SEC honors. After that, no one threw at him. Claiborne was named the nation’s top defensive back in 2011 as the recipient of the Thorpe Award and was a unanimous All-American. He helped LSU to a perfect 13-0 regular-season mark, an SEC title, was named SEC Defensive Player of the Year as his Tigers earned a berth in the BCS national title game.
50. Champ Bailey, CB, Georgia (1996-98)
From a versatility standpoint, few have ever been as explosive and dynamic as Champ Bailey. He was a lockdown cornerback, an elite return man and a dangerous wide receiver. His senior season — the only year he played during the BCS Era — Bailey posted 52 tackles and three interceptions on defense and caught 47 passes for 744 yards and five scores on offense. He was a two-time, first-team All-SEC pick and won the Nagurski Trophy in 1998 as the nation’s top defensive player. The consensus All-American finished seventh in the Heisman voting in '98.
The Next 50:
51. Luke Kuechly, LB, Boston College (2009-11)
52. Al Wilson, LB, Tennessee (1995-98)
53. AJ McCarron, QB, Alabama (2010-13)
54. Chris Weinke, QB, Florida State (1997-00)
55. Cam Newton, QB, Florida/Auburn (2008, 2010)
56. Jammal Brown, T, Oklahoma (2001-04)
57. Aaron Donald, DT, Pitt (2010-13)
58. Haloti Ngata, DT, Oregon (2003-05)
59. Jake Long, T, Michigan (2006-08)
60. Antoine Winfield, CB, Ohio State (1995-98)
61. Jonathan Vilma, LB, Miami (2000-03)
62. Dre Bly, CB, North Carolina (1996-98)
63. Chris Long, DE, Virginia (2004-07)
64. Sam Bradford, QB, Oklahoma (2007-09)
65. Andy Katzenmoyer, LB, Ohio State (1996-98)
66. Dat Nguyen, LB, Texas A&M (1995-98)
67. Percy Harvin, WR, Florida (2005-08)
68. Brian Orakpo, DE, Texas (2005-08)
69. Dominic Raiola, C, Nebraska (1998-00)
70. Shawn Andrews, T, Arkansas (2001-03)
71. Steve Hutchinson, G, Michigan (1997-00)
72. Tommie Harris, DT, Oklahoma (2001-03)
73. Russell Wilson, QB, NC State/Wisconsin (2008-11)
74. Luke Joeckel, T, Texas A&M (2011-12)
75. DeAngelo Williams, RB, Memphis (2002-05)
76. Jadeveon Clowney, DE, South Carolina (2011-13)
77. Justin Blackmon, WR, Oklahoma State (2009-11)
78. Braylon Edwards, WR, Michigan (2001-04)
79. Jamar Fletcher, CB, Wisconsin (1998-00)
80. Mark Barron, S, Alabama (2008-11)
81. Sammy Watkins, WR, Clemson (2011-13)
82. Andre Smith, T, Alabama (2006-08)
83. Chase Coffman, TE, Missouri (2005-08)
84. Dan Morgan, LB, Miami (1997-00)
85. Derrick Strait, CB, Oklahoma (2000-03)
86. Torry Holt, WR, NC State (1995-98)
87. Jermaine Gresham, TE, Oklahoma (2006-09)
88. Dallas Clark, TE, Iowa (2000-02)
89. Teddy Lehman, LB, Oklahoma (2000-03)
90. Cedric Benson, RB, Texas (2001-04)
91. D’Brickashaw Ferguson, T, Virginia (2002-05)
92. Jordan Matthews, WR, Vanderbilt (2010-13)
93. AJ Hawk, LB, Ohio State (2002-05)
94. Jameis Winston, QB, Florida State (2013-present)
95. Heath Miller, TE, Virginia (2002-04)
96. Colt McCoy, QB, Texas (2006-09
97. Jonathan Luigs, C, Arkansas (2005-08)
98. Alex Brown, DE, Florida (1998-01)
99. Mike Doss, S, Ohio State (1999-02)
100. Philip Rivers, QB, NC State (2000-03)
The ink literally isn’t dry on the 2014 NFL Draft since most of the newest members of the NFL haven’t even signed contracts yet.
So it’s a perfect time to start looking ahead to this fall and the subsequent 2015 NFL Draft.
Compared to the 2014 class, which appeared to be thin at outside linebackers and hybrid rush defensive ends, the ’15 group looks to be loaded at the position as you will find nine defensive ends in the top 50. The quarterback position also looks to be much better next fall than this year as three of the top five players in next year's draft could be signal-callers. However, the safety class in ’15 doesn’t look to be nearly as deep as the ’14 group that featured four taken in the first round.
The ranking below isn’t a true mock draft or predictions of which players will go to what team. This is specifically a projection of the who the best NFL prospects will be after the '14 season. For example, no one believes that any running backs will go in the first round, but Georgia’s Todd Gurley and Alabama's T.J. Yeldon are certainly two of the top 32 players in the nation.
That said, there are two high-profile names atop our 2015 "Mock Draft:"
1. Jameis Winston, QB, Florida State (6-4, 235)
The redshirt sophomore has maturity issues he is dealing with but can erase all (most) of those questions with another stellar season. He is the best player in the nation, led his team to a championship, has a perfect build and skill set for the NFL and has yet to lose a game. If he keeps his nose clean and wins another ACC title, he should be the top pick.
2. Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon (6-4, 215)
The smooth signal-caller from Oregon lost the Heisman Trophy and a chance at the national championship when a knee injury cost Oregon two games late in the year. His athletic ability is special but he is also an accurate and efficient passer while providing leadership in the huddle and off the field. These two will battle for No. 1 for the next 12 months.
3. Andrus Peat, T, Stanford (6-7, 312)
Other than QB, left tackle is the most sought-after position on the field and Peat is the best college football has to offer. The rising junior has elite size, athletic ability, toughness and pedigree (his father, Todd, played in the NFL for seven years). There is little doubt Peat won’t be a first-round selection next fall.
4. Shilique Calhoun, DE, Michigan State (6-4, 257)
After the signal-caller and his blind side protector, defensive end is the third-most important position. Calhoun is a playmaking machine with a huge frame and rangy athletic ability. He helped the Spartans lead the Big Ten in defense and won Defensive Lineman of the Year in the Big Ten.
5. Brett Hundley, QB, UCLA (6-2, 225)
Yet another third-year Pac-12 starting quarterback with elite upside and pro potential. Much like Mariota, Hundley has produced huge numbers in two seasons and has won a bunch of games (18 in two years). He can move the ball with his legs but is just as comfortable in the pocket. The winner of the likely meeting between Mariota and Hundley in the Pac-12 title game could find himself atop the draft rankings come next spring.
6. Leonard Williams, DL, USC (6-5, 290)
This monster dealt with a shoulder injury last season, making his numbers all the more impressive. He can play multiple positions up front in multiple schemes and brings a massive frame and excellent production to the defensive front. Offenses have to account for Williams at all times.
7. Landon Collins, S, Alabama (6-0, 215)
Mark Barron, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and now Collins. Alabama’s run of elite NFL safeties continues with this excellent and physical tackler. He flies all over the field, makes plays against the run and pass and rarely misses an open-field tackle. Collins will maintain Nick Saban’s dominance of first-round defensive backs.
8. Randy Gregory, DE, Nebraska (6-6, 245)
The Huskers' pass-rusher has a great frame and size for the pro game. He needs to bulk up in order to stuff the run better on the next level but there is no reason to think that won’t happen in 2014. Gregory has rare combination of size, athletic ability and toughness.
9. Vic Beasley, DE/OLB, Clemson (6-2, 235)
Cut from the Jarvis Jones cloth, Beasley is a bit undersized in the hybrid OLB/DE mold. That said, he is a fierce playmaker for a team that has won at an unprecedented level at Clemson. He can play with his hand in the dirt or standing up, making him an ideal outside backer in a 3-4 scheme.
10. Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, CB, Oregon (5-10, 195)
He’s a playmaker, has excellent size, has won boatloads of games and has matched up against the nation’s top wide receivers for three seasons. In a league that needs tough, physical corners to stop receivers that are getting bigger and bigger, Ekpre-Olomu is the best the ’15 class has to offer.
11. Mario Edwards Jr., DL, Florida State (6-3, 294)
A slightly smaller version of Williams, Edwards also can play multiple positions along the line. He has a big sturdy frame with top-level size, potential strength and overall athletic ability. Edwards really developed during his sophomore season en route to a BCS national title.
12. Dorial Green-Beckham, WR, Eastern Illinois (6-5, 220)
He screwed up his chances at Mizzou but has one calendar year to fix his reputation. Because if he can, there is no doubt he is the most gifted pass-catcher in next year’s class. He has special size, speed and upside — See the SEC Championship game a year ago. If he keeps his nose clean, DGB will be a first-rounder.
13. Cedric Ogbuehi, T, Texas A&M (6-5, 300)
The recent run of elite Texas A&M left tackles should continue in 2015 with Ogbuehi all but a lock to be one of the first O-lineman taken next year. He’s extremely versatile as he has excelled at both guard and right tackle before moving to left tackle in 2014.
14. Amari Cooper, WR, Alabama (6-0, 205)
There aren’t many who possess as explosive a first step as Cooper. He was an elite recruit coming out of high school and was a playmaker the second he stepped onto the field for Alabama two seasons ago. He is electric, explosive and a lock to make an NFL starting lineup — if he can stay healthy.
15. Todd Gurley, RB, Georgia (6-0, 235)
The best running back in the nation isn’t likely to be a first-round pick since the NFL currently despises early RB picks. But when it comes to overall talent, size, ability and production, no one in the country can match Gurley. He posted over 1,400 yards from scrimmage last season while missing three complete games and parts of others. He’s scored 34 times in 24 total games.
16. Shaq Thompson, OLB, Washington (6-2, 230)
The converted safety turned linebacker can fly around the field. He has a huge frame and unusual athletic ability. Thompson has a nose for the ball and has been a starter since the second he stepped onto campus in Seattle. What’s more? He could see time on offense in 2014 — which would only further boost his profile amongst scouts.
17. Michael Bennett, DT, Ohio State (6-2, 290)
He makes the move to nose guard this year but is still expected to be a nasty combination of run-stuffing power and pass-rushing explosiveness. Bennett is a quiet leader who posted seven sacks from the tackle position last year and has tremendous strength. He is extremely disruptive.
18. Dante Fowler, DE/OLB, Florida (6-3, 277)
He’s played in 25 games in his two-year career for one of the best defenses in the land. His rare size and athletic ability means he can play the hybrid outside backer/end position or more of a true end in a 4-3 scheme. Fowler is a big physical player who can take over a game when he’s playing at his best.
19. Brandon Scherff, T, Iowa (6-5, 310)
The Hawkeyes' left tackle was a big reason for a huge turnaround in the win-loss column a year ago. He has great size and plays at a program known for developing blockers. He may not have the elite upside of some other tackles in this class but there is no downside with Scherff next spring.
20. Cameron Erving, T, Florida State (6-6, 302)
The Erving-Scherff comparisons may continue all season long. Erving has a lot more talent around him making him look good, including another potential first-round draft pick along the OL. He has great size, footwork and should be a two-time All-American by the time he leaves Florida State.
21. Devonte Fields, DE/OLB, TCU (6-4, 240)
As a pure defensive end, he may be a bit small but as a hybrid player, Fields has elite skill. Fields has had some focus issues off the field and missed most of last year with an injury. That said, he flashed brilliance as just a freshman when he was named Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year in 2012.
22. P.J. Williams, CB, Florida State (6-0, 195)
Williams was named BCS title game MVP with seven tackles and an interception against Auburn last January. Like Ekpre-Olomu, Williams has the great size that NFL teams covet from the cover corner position. He has great hips and feet and should be a lock to make the first round a year from now.
23. Cedric Reed, DE, Texas (6-5, 258)
Similar to Gregory or Calhoun, Reed has a massive frame that makes NFL scouts drool. Reed, despite a lack of coaching, produced at an elite level a year ago, posting 77 tackles, 16.5 for a loss and 10 sacks opposite Jackson Jeffcoat. Now, with Charlie Strong running the ship, Reed should develop into one of the nation’s best.
24. Hroniss Grasu, C, Oregon (6-3, 297)
Rarely does more than one center go in the first round so for Grasu to grade out as a potential late first-rounder means he is special. He has excellent athletic ability and has been playing at an extremely fast pace for years at Oregon. He should be able to start right away on the NFL level.
25. T.J. Yeldon, RB, Alabama (6-2, 220)
No, it is unlikely a running back goes in the first round but Yeldon is easily one of the 32 best players in college football. He’s posted back-to-back 1,100-yard seasons for Alabama and should see yet another 200-plus carries in 2014. He has great toughness, burst and drive and, gasp, may remind people of that guy carrying the football for the Vikings.
26. Josh Shaw, CB, USC (6-1, 195)
Shaw has seen a lot of changes in his career. The former five-star recruit signed with Florida before transferring back home to California where he switched positions to safety. Cornerback is a more likely landing spot for him due to elite athletic ability, quickness and coverage intangibles.
27. Benardrick McKinney, MLB, Mississippi State (6-4, 235)
His size and frame stand out when watching this Bulldog on Saturdays. His team should be one of the best in the nation and he has produced at an elite level since entering the starting lineup as freshman two seasons ago. Try 172 tackles on two bowl teams as an underclassman.
28. Tre' Jackson, G, Florida State (6-4, 339)
Like Grasu at center, Jackson appears to be the lone first-round guard in the 2015 class. He is a likely two-time All-American and has a massive frame that lends itself to immediate success on the next level. He will maul his way through the ACC this fall.
29. Alex Carter, CB, Stanford (6-0, 200)
He isn’t a household name today but he will be by season’s end. He has great size and instincts on a defense known for producing great players. Carter was a big-time recruit and has proven himself worthy with over 100 tackles in two seasons from his cornerback position.
30. Jalen Mills, CB, LSU (6-1, 190)
The long, rangy playmaker is the next in a long line of elite LSU defensive backs. He has great size and has played a lot of big-time football in two full seasons as a starter. Mills enters his junior season with 124 tackles and five interceptions and he will add some snaps at safety this season to his resume as well.
31. Noah Spence, DE, Ohio State (6-3, 252)
He needs to stay out of trouble off the field (he’s been suspended briefly) but should he stay on the right path, Spence has all the tools to be an All-American player for Ohio State. He is explosive off the edge and can play a true end technique.
32. Stefon Diggs, WR, Maryland (6-0, 195)
Few players in this class can match the explosiveness that Diggs brings to the table. He was an All-ACC performer as just a freshman and was on pace for another great season a year ago before a broken leg slowed him down. Should he stay healthy, he could work his way into the top 15 of next year’s first round with ease.
33. A.J. Johnson, MLB, Tennessee (6-2, 242)
34. Melvin Gordon, RB, Wisconsin (6-1, 210)
35. La’El Collins, T, LSU (6-5, 315)
36. Eric Striker, OLB, Oklahoma (6-0, 220)
37. Nick O’Leary, TE, Florida State (6-3, 244)
38. Jaelen Strong, WR, Arizona State (6-3, 208)
39. Spencer Drango, T, Baylor (6-5, 315)
40. Trae Waynes, CB, Michigan State (6-1, 185)
41. Bryce Petty, QB, Baylor (6-2, 225)
42. Nelson Agholor, WR, USC (6-0, 185)
43. Ellis McCarthy, DT, UCLA
44. Denzel Perryman, MLB, Miami (6-0, 240)
45. Cody Prewitt, S, Ole Miss (6-2, 220)
46. Jordan Jenkins, OLB/DE, Georgia
47. Ray Drew, DE/OLB, Georgia
48. Danny Shelton, DT, Washington (6-1, 325)
49. Jordan Richards, SS, Stanford (5-11, 210)
50. Derron Smith, S, Fresno State (5-11, 200)
The first round of the 2014 NFL Draft is in the books. The action was furious and unpredictable and extremely entertaining for fans. Johnny Manziel is now a Brown after Cleveland finally took the Texas A&M quarterback with their third trade of the first round. Jadeveon Clowney will be playing in Houston as many expected. And the Rams landed two elite line of scrimmage prospects in Greg Robinson and Aaron Donald.
But while fans fawn over their favorite new player, NFL front offices are working feverishly to find the middle-round gems. In fact, this is where most NFL teams are built — with quality second- and third-round selections. Pro Bowlers and Super Bowl signal-callers can be found on Day Two of the NFL Draft and 2014 won't be any different — just ask the Lions how good Larry Warford was as a rookie.
Here are Athlon Sports best available players left on the board after the first round was finished on Thursday evening.
Jordan Matthews, WR, Vanderbilt (6-3, 214)
The most productive wideout in SEC history isn't the most explosive, but no other player at his position can match his intangibles. He has great size and every defense knew he was going to get the ball and still couldn't stop him. While he doesn't have burst and won't make people miss after the catch, he does have solid straight-line speed that builds as he goes. J-Matt is a great locker room guy who will help any team win games.
Ra'Shede Hageman, DT, Minnesota (6-6, 310)
There is some off-field focus issues to deal with but his blend of size and athleticism is extremely rare. He also helped the Gophers produce their best season in quite some time as he stuffed the middle against some of the best running games in the nation. There is no replacement for his size.
Allen Robinson, WR, Penn State (6-3, 220)
When Penn State needed a big play down the field, it turned to Robinson and he never let them down. He has a huge frame, excellent ball skills and produced huge numbers that no other Nittany Lion has ever matched. He is a game-ready prospect who shouldn't need too much development to see snaps.
Marqise Lee, WR, USC (6-0, 192)
Speed was a huge part of his game and it helped him set several school and Pac-12 records two seasons ago. He had to deal with some nagging injuries and a new quarterback — as well as three different head coaches — and that might have led to his numbers dropping in 2013. He has the talent to produce in a big way and should make a quick impact.
Gabe Jackson, G, Mississippi State (6-3, 336)
Like Kentucky’s Larry Warford before him, Jackson has consistently been recognized as one of the SEC’s best blockers for years. He was a three-time All-SEC selection in some shape or form and played on the only Mississippi State team that went to four straight bowl games. He isn’t tall but is plenty wide and will be a regular in the NFL for the next decade.
Xavier Su'a-Filo, G, UCLA (6-4, 307)
He took a two-year break for a Mormon mission but was an instant contributor for the Bruins both before and after his break. He isn't a massive prospect but he has great athletic ability and should be able to play multiple positions if needed.
Jeremy Hill, RB, LSU (6-0, 233)
I’ve already written about Hill plenty here and he may move too quickly up draft boards by the time the second round rolls around. But there is a chance he’s the best back in the class. He has workhorse size, power and toughness and only carried 345 times in two college seasons so there is plenty of tread left on the tires. Hill has a chance to be an extremely good player over the next 4-5 years.
Ka’Deem Carey, RB, Arizona (5-9, 207)
Carey touched the ball over 700 times in the last two seasons, racking up over 4,200 yards and scoring 44 times. That is production. He isn’t afraid of contact, will catch passes, picks up the blitz and is durable. Other than one small off-the-field distraction during his sophomore offseason, there is no downside to the Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year and consensus All-American.
Will Sutton, DT, Arizona State (6-1, 303)
Sutton is the first player in the Pac-12 to win back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year honors since Steve Emtman in 1990-91. He has played multiple positions at multiple weights and is a leader in the huddle and on the practice field for a team that has won 18 games over the last two seasons and posted the best record in the conference. Sutton is a bit undersized but he is extremely disruptive behind the line of scrimmage — so say his 45.5 tackles for a loss and 20.5 sacks.
Trent Murphy, DE, Stanford (6-5, 250)
Cut from the DeMarcus Ware cloth, Murphy is a perfect hybrid end/linebacker outside rusher. He posted 25.0 sacks and 41.5 tackles for a loss over the last two seasons for a defense that was among the best in the nation. He won two Pac-12 titles during those two years as well. He also showed his athletic ability by returning both career interceptions for touchdowns (40 and 30 yards).
Jeremiah Attaochu, OLB, Georgia Tech (6-3, 252)
This doesn’t appear to be a very deep class of outside linebackers — hybrids or true 4-3 players. Attaochu is a true pass-rusher from the OLB position and would fit into a 3-4 very well as a third-down specialist to begin his career. The Yellow Jacket prospect is long and rangy and can get to the quarterback as his 31.5 career sacks (22.5 in the last two years) and 43.5 tackles for a loss indicate.
Lamarcus Joyner, CB, Florida State (5-8, 185)
He is a veteran, a leader and a champion. Joyner is a bit undersized but he can play all over the defense and is a physical player despite his overall lack of bulk and power. He is quick, aggressive and simply makes plays — he posted 5.5 sacks as a senior from his defensive back position. Look for coordinators to use him all over the field on the next level.
Stanley Jean-Baptiste, DB, Nebraska (6-3, 218)
Size is the first thing that comes to mind with the Nebraska defensive back. He has a massive frame and could easily slide into a role at safety at the back end of an NFL defense. He led his team in interceptions as a senior and should continue to flourish on the next level with his rare blend of size, speed and athleticism.
Kony Ealy, DL, Missouri (6-4, 273)
The big defensive lineman has excellent up-the-field ability and can move around the line if needed. He took Mizzou to new levels as SEC East champs alongside Michael Sam and has the talent to produce on the next level. The only thing that kept him from a first-round grade is the tweener status that comes with a player who can play both end or tackle.
Athlon Sports continues its series looking back the best players of the BCS Era (1998-2013). Today, the staff ranks the 10 best tight ends to play at least one season during the BCS Era.
Note: Florida's Aaron Hernandez was No. 5 initially but has been removed from the rankings by choice.
1. Chase Coffman, Missouri (2005-08)
Stats: 247 rec., 2,659 yds, 30 TDs
It didn’t take long for Tigers fans to see what they had in Coffman as he earned first-team Freshman All-American honors in 2005. He then broke Mizzou tight end receiving records with 58 receptions, 638 yards and nine touchdowns as just a sophomore. After two straight All-Big 12 seasons, Coffman claimed the John Mackey Award as a senior as the nation’s top tight end after posting 90 receptions, 987 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2008. Missouri went 22-6 over his final two seasons in what many believe to be the best two-year run in program history. And the 6-foot-6, 250-pound Coffman was a huge part of that success.
2. Jermaine Gresham, Oklahoma (2006-09)
Stats: 111 rec., 1,629 yds, 26 TDs
Had the 6-foot-6, 260-pound star tight end stayed healthy and played his fourth season at Oklahoma, Gresham likely would have been the best player at his position during the BCS era. He scored 25 touchdowns in two seasons as the starter from 2007-08 — just eight shy of the NCAA tight end record (33). His All-American junior season features Sooners' tight end records for yards (950) and touchdowns (14) — one shy of Mark Clayton’s all-time single-season record regardless of position. He was arguably the top playmaker for a Big 12 champion and BCS National Championship runner-up that year as well. His season-ending knee injury prior to the start of his 2009 campaign left those in Norman wondering what could have been.
3. Dallas Clark, Iowa (2000-02)
Stats: 77 rec., 1,251 yds, 8 TDs
The walk-on began his career as a linebacker but quickly developed into a star at tight end. He earned All-Big Ten recognition as a sophomore and then became the nation’s top tight end as a junior in 2002. The John Mackey Award winner caught 43 passes for 742 yards and four touchdowns while helping Iowa (11-2) to a Big Ten co-championship and Orange Bowl berth. The dynamic in-state talent was a first-round pick and proved in the NFL that his college career was no fluke.
4. Heath Miller, Virginia (2002-04)
Stats: 144 rec., 1,703 yds, 20 TDs
Perhaps the greatest tight end in ACC history, Miller became the first player in league history to win the John Mackey Award in 2004. He wrote his name into the school and conference record books for receiving by a tight end, setting a new benchmark in all three major receiving categories despite only playing three seasons. However, it wasn’t just his elite receiving ability that made the 6-foot-5, 255-pounder one of the game’s best. Miller relished the blocking side of the game and his physicality and dependability is what has made the consensus All-American one of the NFL’s best tight ends for the last decade.
5. Marcedes Lewis, UCLA (2002-05)
Stats: 126 rec., 1,571 yds, 21 TDs
The red-zone touchdown machine improved his production each of his four seasons at UCLA, culminating with All-American and John Mackey honors as a senior in 2005. He set school records in all three major categories for a tight end that year and helped UCLA to its best record (10-2) since 1998. The 6-foot-6, 260-pound consensus All-American was a matchup nightmare for defenses and was the Pac-10’s best player at his position during the BCS era in a league known for its great tight ends.
6. Jeremy Shockey, Miami (2000-01)
Stats: 61 rec., 815 yds, 10 TDs
The 6-foot-5, 250-pounder was one of the most physically gifted players to ever play the position. He didn’t have the huge stats of other elite players but he was an All-American and helped Miami win the national title in 2001. He was one of three finalists for the Mackey Award before leaving school early to become a first-round NFL Draft pick.
7. Dennis Pitta, BYU (2004, '07-09)
Stats: 221 rec., 2,901 yds, 21 TDs
Few tight ends during the BCS era combine the statistical production, team success and overall NFL talent that Pitta did. He began his career as a freshman in 2004 before taking his Mormon mission and returning in 2007. His teams went 32-7 during his three-year starting career and few tight ends in the history of the sport have topped 200 catches, nearly 3,000 yards or 20 touchdowns — much less all three. He owns nearly every major receiving record at BYU for tight ends and is BYU’s all-time leading receiver with 221 receptions regardless of position. His 2,901 career receiving yards are an NCAA record for tight ends.
8. Travis Beckum, Wisconsin (2005-08)
Stats: 159 rec., 2,149 yds, 11 TDs
From a speed and agility standpoint, the 6-foot-3, 240-pound pass-catcher has few peers. One of the fastest and most dynamic tight ends in BCS history, Beckum switched to tight end as a sophomore and became a second-team All-American in just his first season playing the position. He posted back-to-back 900-yard seasons and saved his best games for the biggest competition (9 rec., 140 yds vs. Ohio State, 10 rec., 132 vs. Michigan State, for example). He was poised to set NCAA records for a tight end until a broken leg in Week 6 ended his college career. At a school known for elite All-American tight ends, Beckum was the most explosive, most talented and most productive.
9. D.J. Williams, Arkansas (2007-10)
Stats: 152 rec., 1,855 yds, 10 TDs
The star Razorback never had an 800-yard season, never caught more than 61 passes and never scored more than four times in a year, but Williams is one of the BCS’s best. His career numbers are excellent and he was extremely dependable for three full seasons for the Hogs. His career culminated in a John Mackey Award in 2010 and helped lead Arkansas to 10 wins and a Sugar Bowl berth.
10. James Casey, Rice (2007-08)
Stats: 157 rec., 1,914 yds, 17 TDs, 362 rush, 11 TDs, 2 TD passes
Affectionately known as “Thor,” no other tight end during the BCS era was as versatile and productive in two seasons as Casey. He didn’t face elite competition, obviously, but no tight end has ever put together a season like Thor did in 2008: 111 rec., 1,329 yards, 13 TDs, 241 yards rushing, 6 TDs, 14 punt returns for 112 yards and even two touchdown passes. He was the No. 1 overall college fantasy player in 2008 regardless of position (yes, that includes quarterbacks) and it has to be considered the best season for a tight end in NCAA history.
Just missed the cut:
11. Kellen Winslow, Miami (2001-03)
Stats: 119 rec., 1,365 yds, 9 TDs
Bizarre post-game interviews aside, Winslow was a monster on the field at Miami. He played a small role on the national championship team in 2001 and was a huge force — 57 rec., 726 yds, 8 TD — on the '02 team that was defeated by Ohio State in the title game. He was a consensus All-American and John Mackey Award winner despite just one touchdown catch in 2003.
12. Martin Rucker, Missouri (2004-07)
Stats: 203 rec., 2,175 yds, 18 TDs
The complementary piece to Coffman at Mizzou was Rucker, a star from St. Joseph’s (Mo.) Benton. Playing three years with Coffman, Rucker is one of the just five tight ends on this list who topped 200 receptions and one of just 10 names on this list with 2,000 yards. He was a consensus All-American and senior leader for a 12-2 Tigers team that finished fourth in the AP poll.
13. Jason Witten, Tennessee (2000-02)
Stats: 68 rec., 797 yds, 7 TDs
The numbers were never huge, but Witten is clearly one of the greatest tight ends to ever play the sport. He never missed a game during his three-year career at Tennessee and helped the Vols to a 27-11 record and an SEC East championship. From a dual-threat (blocking and receiving) perspective, Witten might be the best tight end to play the game during the BCS era.
14. Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Washington (2011-13)
Stats: 146 rec., 1,840 yds, 21 TDs
There is some projecting with ASJ, but he has already broken most school tight end records and will make a push this fall for the John Mackey Award. He was the No. 1 TE recruit in the nation two years ago and is poised for one of the greatest careers in Huskies history.
15. Ron Gronkowski, Arizona (2007-08)
Stats: 75 rec., 1,197 yds, 16 TDs
The Gronk played just 20 career college games but was a touchdown machine in college well before setting NFL tight end touchdown records. Unfortunately, the 'Zona tight end missed all of the 2009 season after preseason back surgery after being named a preseason first-team All-American and the Mackey Award frontrunner.
16. Fred Davis, USC (2004-07)
Stats: 117 rec., 1,408 yds, 13 TDs
It took some time for Davis to develop, especially considering the wide receiver talent asking for the football at USC during his career. But when he made his mark as a senior in 2007 it was as the best tight end in the nation. He won the John Mackey Award that year and was an All-American. He played in two national title games, winning one as a freshman in 2004.
17. Zach Miller, Arizona State (2004-06)
Stats: 144 rec., 1,512 yds, 14 TDs
Miller gets a slight nod over fellow Sun Devil Todd Heap due to slightly better production and All-American recognition. He is the school’s all-time leading receiver at the tight end position and consistently made big plays for his offense. He was one of three Mackey finalists in 2006.
18. Todd Heap, Arizona State (1998-2000)
Stats: 112 rec., 1,658 yds, 10 TDs
Arguing between Miller and Heap is futile. Both were great players and Heap’s NFL career proved his school records were legitimate. The “Golden Retriever” was a two-time All-Pac-10 performer who was as dependable as any player at his position.
19. Dwayne Allen, Clemson (2009-11)
Stats: 93 rec., 1,079 yds, 12 TDs
A consensus All-American, Allen was one of the most clutch performers in the game during his time at Clemson. When the Tigers needed a big play on third down or in the red zone, Allen was the go-to target. He claimed the Mackey Award as a junior, was an All-American and helped Clemson win its first ACC title in two decades in 2010.
20. Kyle Rudolph, Notre Dame (2008-10)
Stats: 90 rec., 1,032 yds, 8 TDs
He missed some time as a sophomore and junior but when he was on the field, he was virtually uncoverable. He was also the first true freshman tight end to start every game as a true freshman. Rudolph went on to be a second round NFL Draft pick in 2011.
21. Tyler Eifert, Notre Dame (2010-12)*
22. Daniel Graham, Colorado (1998-2001)
23. Matt Spaeth, Minnesota (2003-06)
24. Vernon Davis, Maryland (2003-05)
25. Tim Stratton, Purdue (1998-2001)
26. Brandon Pettigrew, Oklahoma State (2005-08)
27. Dustin Keller, Purdue (2004-07)
28. Lance Kendricks, Wisconsin (2008-10)
29. Garrett Graham, Wisconsin (2007-09)
30. Ladarius Green, UL-Lafayette (2008-11)
David Bakhtiari was the 109th overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft.
The left tackle out of Colorado was the ninth offensive tackle taken in the NFL Draft a year ago and all he did was start 16 games as a rookie protecting Aaron Rodgers' blind side (no, Rodgers got hurt when he rolled to his right).
The Packers also drafted Eddie Lacy with the 61st overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft and the former Alabama running back went on to become the only rookie Pro Bowler not selected in the first round.
What about Kiko Alonso? Kawann Short? Giovani Bernard, Johnathan Cyprien, Geno Smith or D.J. Swearinger? All second-round picks. How about Andre Ellington, Josh Evans, Chris Jones and Mychal Rivera? They were all third-round picks.
The point is that talent can be found in any round of the annual NFL selection process and 2014 won’t be any different. Green Bay general manager Ted Thompson has long been considered one of the best talent evaluators in the league and its one of the reasons why the Packers consistently make playoff appearances and win division titles.
How a team drafts in the middle rounds is just as important as how it performs in the first round. So who are the sleepers we like to make an impact in the ’14 NFL Draft?
Aaron Murray, QB, Georgia (6-1, 207)
Don’t worry about the knee injury that ended his career at Georgia a few games short. In fact, Murray broke his leg during his senior season at famed Tampa (Fla.) Plant High School only to return that same season to win his second state championship. Murray has long been compared to Drew Brees due to his playing style, stature and desire to win. He led his team on numerous comebacks despite numerous injuries as a senior, won two SEC East titles and is the most prolific passer in the history of the SEC. Look for Murray to be taken in the second or third round — just like Brees and Russell Wilson — and for him to eventually be a starting NFL QB. Projection: Round 4
Jeremy Hill, RB, LSU (6-0, 233)
I’ve already written about Hill plenty here and he may move too quickly up draft boards by the time the second round rolls around. But there is a chance he’s the best back in the class. He has workhorse size, power and toughness and only carried 345 times in two college seasons so there is plenty of tread left on the tires. As long as his off-the-field distractions are behind him, Hill has a chance to be an extremely good player over the next 4-5 years. Projection: Round 2-3
Ka’Deem Carey, RB, Arizona (5-9, 207)
Few players play bigger than the 5-foot-9 Carey from Arizona. He touched the ball over 700 times in the last two seasons, racking up over 4,200 yards and scoring 44 times. That is production. He isn’t afraid of contact, will catch passes, picks up the blitz and is durable. Other than one small off-the-field distraction during his sophomore offseason, there is no downside to the Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year and consensus All-American. Projection: Round 3-4
Jared Abbrederis, WR, Wisconsin (6-1, 195)
In one of the most talented and versatile wide receivers classes in recent memory, Abbrederis might be the most underrated. He’s got 4.5 speed, is an excellent return man, was incredibly productive across the board and torched potential first-round pick Bradley Roby in a head-to-head battle this year — try 10 receptions for 207 yards and a touchdown. He’s not a big, rangy wideout, but he has every tool and the discipline needed to be very successful in the NFL in the mold of an Eric Decker. Projection: Round 4
Kelvin Benjamin, WR, Florida State (6-5, 240)
This may not count as a sleeper, especially if he vaults into the first round, but there is no hiding Benjamin’s overall upside. He is a physical specimen who is virtually uncoverable due to his rare combination of size and speed. Someone is going to get a Megatron-esque player with Benjamin early in the second round. Jus ask Jameis Winston or Jimbo Fisher whose number they’d call with the national championship game on the line. Projection: Round 2
Arthur Lynch, TE, Georgia (6-5, 258)
Cut from the same mold as Zach Ertz or Coby Fleener, Lynch played at a school and for a coach who knows how to use big, athletic and versatile tight ends. Many opposing coaches called Lynch the best player on the Dawgs' roster after four productive seasons in Athens. He is a solid blocker and averaged more than 16 yards per catch in his two seasons as a starter. In a class with very little to like at the tight end positions, Lynch could be the steal of the draft. Projection: Round 4
Cyril Richardson, G, Baylor (6-5, 329)
A four-time All-Big 12 selection in one form or another, Richardson was arguably the most integral offensive part of the Bears' first-ever Big 12 title not named Bryce Petty. He is a two-time Big 12 Offensive Lineman of the Year and is as durable and dependable as anyone in the draft. Richardson missed one game during his four-year career (51 games) and started 38 games over the last three seasons. He has the size, the talent and the work ethic to be a long-time starter in the NFL. Projection: Round 3-4
Jack Mewhort, T, Ohio State (6-6, 309)
“He’s one of my all-time favorite players.” That is from Urban Meyer last November to the media when asked if Mewhort belonged in the Outland Trophy conversation. Mewhort has size, is a great leader, a hard worker, brings a great presence to the locker room and, oh by the way, can block with the best of them. He may not have Greg Robinson’s upside or raw talent but there are few things this Buckeye lineman can’t do on a football field. Projection: Round 2-3
Gabe Jackson, G, Mississippi State (6-3, 336)
Like Kentucky’s Larry Warford before him, Jackson has consistently been recognized as one of the SEC’s best blockers for years. He was a three-time All-SEC selection in some shape or form and played on the only Mississippi State team that went to four straight bowl games. He isn’t tall but is plenty wide and will be a regular in the NFL for the next decade. Projection: Round 2-3
Will Sutton, DT, Arizona State (6-1, 303)
Sutton is the first player in the Pac-12 to win back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year honors since Steve Emtman in 1990-91. This in the same league with Star Lotulelei. Sutton has played multiple positions at multiple weights and is a leader in the huddle and on the practice field for a team that has won 18 games over the last two seasons and posted the best record in the conference. Sutton is a bit undersized but he is extremely disruptive behind the line of scrimmage — so say his 45.5 tackles for a loss and 20.5 sacks. Projection: Round 3
Trent Murphy, DE, Stanford (6-5, 250)
Cut from the DeMarcus Ware cloth, Murphy is a perfect hybrid end/linebacker outside rusher. He posted 25.0 sacks and 41.5 tackles for a loss over the last two seasons for a defense that was among the best in the nation. He won two Pac-12 titles during those two years as well. He also showed his athletic ability by returning both career interceptions for touchdowns (40 yards and 30 yards). Murphy will exceed expectations. Projections: Round 2-3
Aaron Lynch, DE, USF (6-5, 249)
Looking for a deep sleeper with loads of upside? Look no further than the former Notre Dame transfer. Lynch is dripping with athletic ability and has a frame to grow into one of the most imposing defensive ends in the league. The key for Lynch will be his commitment and focus. Should the light bulb come on now that he’s playing for a paycheck — which tends to happen — then some team will get a Justin Houston-type edge player late in the draft. Projection: Round 4-5
Max Bullough, MLB, Michigan State (6-4, 249)
Bullough was suspended from the Rose Bowl but otherwise had the consummate career at Michigan State. He comes from a rich football family and he plays with a high level of awareness. He has elite size for the middle and has proven to be a leader on a very physical defensive unit. He was a three-year starter, two-time captain and led the Spartans to their first Big Ten title and Rose Bowl berth since 1987. Projection: Round 5
Shayne Skov, MLB, Stanford (6-2, 245)
The intangibles for Skov are off the charts. He was a three-time All-Pac-12 performer and a freshman All-American in his first year. He did miss most of the 2011 campaign with a season-ending knee injury early in the year but he bounced back with two huge upperclass seasons — both ending with a Pac-12 championship. He’s not the most overly explosive player but he is always in the right place at the right time. Skov posted 190 tackles, 21.0 for a loss, 8.0 sacks and three huge forced fumbles over his final two seasons. Projection: Round 3-4
Jeremiah Attaochu, OLB, Georgia Tech (6-3, 252)
This doesn’t appear to be a very deep class of outside linebackers — hybrids or true 4-3 players. Attaochu is a true pass-rusher from the OLB position and would fit into a 3-4 very well as a third-down specialist to begin his career. The Yellow Jacket prospect is long and rangy and can get to the quarterback as his 31.5 career sacks (22.5 in the last two years) and 43.5 tackles for a loss indicate. Draft him and plug him in on third downs. Projection: Round 2-3
Lamarcus Joyner, CB, Florida State (5-8, 185)
He is a veteran, a leader and a champion. Joyner is a bit undersized but he can play all over the defense and is a physical player despite his overall lack of bulk and power. He is quick, aggressive and simply makes plays — he posted 5.5 sacks as a senior from his defensive back position. Look for coordinators to use him all over the field on the next level. Projection: Round 2
Stanley Jean-Baptiste, DB, Nebraska (6-3, 218)
Size is the first thing that comes to mind with the Nebraska defensive back. He has a massive frame and could easily slide into a role at safety at the back end of an NFL defense. He led his team in interceptions as a senior and should continue to flourish on the next level with his rare blend of size, speed and athleticism. Projection: Round 2
Ed Reynolds, S, Stanford (6-1, 207)
The star safety is yet another under appreciated Cardinal defender that could be a steal on draft day. Reynolds has constantly made big plays on a defense that has won back-to-back championships. He posted 133 tackles and seven interceptions over the last two seasons in the starting lineup — leading the nation in return yards with 301 and three touchdowns as a sophomore. Projection: Round 4-5
Dion Bailey, FS, USC (6-0, 201)
At just 200 pounds, Bailey started for two seasons as a strong-side linebacker for USC, earning freshman All-American honors and All-Pac-12 honors in two seasons. He then transitioned perfectly to his more natural and future pro position of safety in 2013. Bailey is constantly around the ball as he posted 223 tackles, 16.5 for a loss, 3.5 sacks and 11 interceptions in three years. He will be a playmaker on the next level for years to come. Projection: Round 4
The State of Alabama is the epicenter of college football.
Alabama and Auburn have won either the SEC or BCS national championship in five consecutive seasons and have won the SEC West in five of the last six seasons. Needless to say, the Iron Bowl has become a marquee showdown of national importance with the 2013 regular-season finale going down in history as one of the most remarkable games in college football history.
Will the SEC West come down to the Tigers-Tide matchup in Tuscaloosa again in ’14? It’s certainly possible. However, Ole Miss and Mississippi State both enter the season surging with energy and expectations. LSU is loaded with talent once again and has won at least 10 games in four straight seasons. Arkansas has a coach who won three straight Big Ten titles and Kevin Sumlin has recruited at unprecedented levels in College Station.
When Athlon Sports' staff sat down to predict the SEC West, like every other division college football, we used rosters, coaching staffs, recruiting, historic trends and gut instincts to project the final standings.
But scheduling also plays a huge role. In the East Division, Tennessee has the toughest slate and Missouri got the easiest path and that impacted our decision. The same can be said about the West Division.
So who has the toughest schedule in the SEC West in 2014?
1. Arkansas Razorbacks
Crossover: Georgia (Little Rock), at Mizzou
Non-conference: Nicholls St, at Texas Tech, N. Illinois, UAB
Opponents ’13 Record: 103-54 (65.6%, 1st)
According to last year’s records, the Razorbacks will face the toughest schedule in the nation. While using last year’s win-loss totals to predict strength of schedule has numerous flaws, it does appear on paper that Arkansas will have the toughest road in the SEC West in 2014. To start, a road trip to defending SEC champ Auburn in Week 1 and a long, circuitous trip to Texas Tech in Week 3 both loom large. Once SEC plays begins, it’s hard to find any wins on the schedule. The Hogs will face Texas A&M, Alabama and Georgia in a four-week span before a break against UAB in Week 9. Then a murderous November arrives with little hope for an upset: at Mississippi State, LSU, Ole Miss and at Mizzou. Crossover play for Arkansas could feature the best two teams in the East as well. Lastly, Arkansas is the only team in the West that doesn’t get to play… Arkansas and it makes for the toughest schedule in the SEC West.
2. Auburn Tigers
Crossover: South Carolina, at Georgia
Non-conference: San Jose St, at Kansas St, La. Tech, Samford
Opponents ’13 Record: 93-60 (60.8%, 16th)
The Tigers should ease into the ’14 slate with two winnable games to start and an open date in Week 3. But after that, there are few breathers for the defending SEC champs. A road trip to Kansas State, a visit from LSU and a trip to Starkville makes the transition from September to October very difficult. Then, Auburn will likely have the toughest set of crossover opponents in the entire SEC this fall, as the Tigers will face South Carolina at home and go to Athens to take on Georgia — both in the second half of the season. Mixed in is a road trip to Ole Miss and a home date with Texas A&M. Lastly, the Tigers will have to defend their Iron Bowl win on the road against Alabama in the regular-season finale. The only break is a home layup against Samford the week before traveling to Tuscaloosa. With so many fluky wins a year ago and another daunting schedule, it’s hard to see a repeat for Auburn.
3. Texas A&M Aggies
Crossover: at South Carolina, Missouri
Non-conference: Lamar, Rice, at SMU, ULM
Opponents ’13 Record: 100-55 (64.2%, 5th)
The Aggies play nobody of note in the non-conference schedule with the possible exception of SMU in Dallas. And it’s a good thing Texas A&M scheduled those four wins because the league slate is absolutely nasty. The Aggies get Ole Miss, Mizzou and LSU at home and could pull an upset or two — especially because both Tigers will visit College Station late in the year (Week 12 and Week 14). But the toughest away slate in the SEC leaves little room for error with road trips to Alabama, Auburn, South Carolina and Mississippi State. Texas A&M should be 4-1 entering October but there are very few winnable games after that for Sumlin's depleted and inexperienced roster.
4. Ole Miss Rebels
Crossover: at Vanderbilt, Tennessee
Non-conference: Boise St, ULL, Memphis, Presbyterian
Opponents ’13 Record: 89-63 (58.6%, 26th)
Expectations are surging in Oxford and some of that energy, like their in-state brethren, comes from a manageable schedule. Boise State is a tough start to the season but Chris Petersen is in Seattle now and that makes that game dramatically less difficult. A matchup with Vanderbilt on the road and UL-Lafayette at home gives the Rebels little time to settle into the season. However, three tricky games to start means lots of breathers late in the year — i.e., Tennessee at home, Memphis, Presbyterian, at Arkansas and two bye weeks in the final 10 weeks. Mixed in will be showdowns of epic proportions as Alabama, Auburn and Mississippi State all come to Oxford during that span. Road trips to Kyle Field and Tiger Stadium fall in October as well. This is a tough schedule with key swing games at home, winnable but tricky non-conference and crossover games and one really brutal road trip to the Bayou. Ole Miss will need to upset a team or two to finish in the top three in the West.
5. LSU Tigers
Crossover: at Florida, Kentucky
Non-conference: Wisconsin, Sam Houston St, ULM, New Mexico St
Opponents ’13 Record: 82-71 (53.6%, 57th)
Playing Wisconsin and Florida would normally make for an extremely difficult schedule. However, the Badgers are coming all the way down to Houston and are rebuilding on defense while Florida posted the worst season in school history a year ago. And the rest of the non-conference and crossover schedule (Kentucky) is very easy. So how does the home-road SEC West slate shape up for the Tigers? Road trips to Arkansas and Texas A&M come late in the year but those should be the worst two teams in the division while back-to-back visits to Auburn and Florida to start October loom large. The good news is LSU gets Alabama, Ole Miss and Mississippi State at home and those three games could determine division pecking order more so than any other game minus Auburn. This schedule has some serious land mines but also sets up pretty well for Les Miles to reach 10 wins for the fifth straight time.
6. Mississippi State Bulldogs
Crossover: at Kentucky, Vanderbilt
Non-conference: Southern Miss, UAB, at S. Alabama, UT Martin
Opponents ’13 Record: 80-71 (52.9%, 62nd)
Like Texas A&M and Vanderbilt in the SEC, the Bulldogs won’t challenge themselves in non-conference play like some of the bigger programs. Which is good, considering the normally brutal SEC West round-robin Mississippi State faces each year. Home games with Texas A&M (Week 6), Auburn (Week 7), Arkansas (Week 10) and Vanderbilt (Week 13) are all winnable and could feature three, possibly four, league victories. Road tilts with LSU and Alabama will be difficult and a rivalry game in Oxford is always tough, but the saving grace for Dan Mullen (and what makes this schedule lighter than others in the league) is two very winnable crossover games and four likely wins in the non-conference. It’s not just the defensive depth chart and development of quarterback Dak Prescott that makes the Bulldogs an intriguing team to follow entering ’14, it’s also a relatively “lenient” schedule.
7. Alabama Crimson Tide
Crossover: Florida, at Tennessee
Non-conference: West Virginia, FAU, Southern Miss, W. Carolina
Opponents ’13 Record: 71-79 (47.3%, 95th)
Alabama should breeze into conference play with three very winnable non-conference games (and one more in November). Crossover play against two powerhouse programs that have fallen on hard times in the Gators (home, Week 4) and Vols (road, Week 9) also gives the Tide a fortunate break in 2014. Add in a home game in the Iron Bowl against Auburn and the Tide looks poised for a perfect record at home. A road trip to Baton Rouge — a rivalry where the road team has consistently played well — and Ole Miss are the only other tricky games on the schedule, but Alabama gets two weeks to prepare for both games. This 12-game slate has three (maybe four) marquee games on it and two of those four will come at home with the other two coming after the bye weeks. A 10-win season is almost a guarantee in Tuscaloosa once again.
Dynasty is a word that gets tossed around all too liberally by fans and media members alike. However, there are periods of time in sports where the term is not only applicable but completely accurate.
The NFL had the Packers of the 1960s, the Steelers of the '70s, the 49ers of the '80s, the Cowboys of the '90s and the Patriots of the '00s. The NBA has the Celtics, Lakers, Bulls and soon-to-be Heat dynasties. Baseball has the Yankees and… the Yankees.
And John Wooden and the UCLA Bruins basketball program might be the greatest sports dynasty of all-time.
On the gridiron, defining a "dynasty" can be done many different ways and, for the most part, lies in the eye of the beholder. Generally speaking, elite-level dominance over a period of time — ideally, the longer the better with championships to show for it — is how "dynasty" is defined. Awards, NFL talent, championships and statistical records are all considered as well.
So who boasts the greatest dynasty in college football since the first AP top 25 in 1934 and the first AP national champion in 1936?
1. Oklahoma Sooners (1948-58): 107-8
Legendary head coach Charles “Bud” Wilkinson began a miraculous run in his second season at Norman. Over this 11-year span, Oklahoma had four undefeated seasons, six with just one loss and only one year (1951, 8-2) in which it lost more than one game. The Sooners claimed three national championship (1950, '55, '56), all 11 conference championships and produced a Heisman Trophy winner (Billy Vessels, 1952). The most impressive aspect of this dynasty? Two of the 10 longest winning streaks in NCAA history, including the the all-time mark of 47 straight victories from 1953-57. Oklahoma also won 31 straight from 1948-50, which ranks 10th all-time in the record books. Oklahoma's historic run in the 1950s was the most dominant dynasty in college football history.
2. Nebraska Cornhuskers (1993-97): 60-3
Is winning more than 95 percent of your games a good thing? That is what Tom Osborne did at Nebraska over his final five seasons. Led by arguably the greatest college quarterback of all-time in Tommie Frazier, the Big Red posted four unbeaten regular seasons, all of which culminated in a trip to the national championship game. One loss to Florida State in the ’93 Orange Bowl is the only thing that kept the Huskers from four national championships in five seasons. A huge upset in the inaugural Big 12 title game to Texas was one of just three losses during this stretch. This Nebraska run produced the 19th-longest winning streak in NCAA history with 26 straight from 1994-96.
3. Miami Hurricanes (1986-92): 78-6
On the heels of Howard Schnellenberger’s 1983 championship, Miami returned to the promised land under Jimmy Johnson in '87 and Dennis Erickson in '89 and '91. Over this seven-year span, the Canes lost less than one game per season, moved into the Big East and claimed two Heisman Trophies with Vinny Testaverde (1986) and Gino Torretta ('92). The 29-game winning streak that was snapped by Alabama (in Miami’s fifth national title game appearance in seven years) is the 13th-longest streak in NCAA history. From 1983-92, Miami posted a record of 107-14.
4. Alabama Crimson Tide (2008-13): 72-9
There is more than one dynasty in Crimson Tide history, but it’s tough to argue that Saban’s run isn’t the most impressive. After nearly 20 years without a title and against the most ruthless conference ever built, Alabama claimed the national championship and the school’s first-ever Heisman Trophy in 2009. The undefeated ’09 team is arguably the most talented Alabama team ever constructed. Then, after a 10-3 year in 2010, the defense and quarterback AJ McCarron dominated college football’s biggest stage with a combined 63-14 drubbing of LSU and Notre Dame in back-to-back BCS National Championship Games to end the '11 and '12 campaigns. A narrow loss in the 2008 SEC title game to Tim Tebow and Florida after a 12-0 regular season and fluke loss to Auburn in the final game of the '13 regular season are the only two games that prevented Alabama from a shot at winning five national titles in six seasons. The most interesting tidbit about this six-year dynasty? Alabama has won more national championships (3) than SEC titles (2).
5. Notre Dame Fighting Irish (1941-49): 75-7-6
Led by the great Frank Leahy — who took a two-year leave to serve in the U.S. military — Notre Dame won four national championships (1943, '46, '47, '49) and posted five unbeaten seasons during this remarkable nine-year window. From 1946-49, Notre Dame didn’t lose a game and only tied twice — costing the Irish a fifth national title in 1948. Leahy coached three Heisman Trophy winners in Angelo Bertelli, Johnny Lujack and Leon Hart during this dynasty.
6. USC Trojans (2002-08): 82-9
Led by Pete Carroll, the USC Trojans won seven straight Pac-10 conference championships, won two national championships (2003, '04), produced three Heisman Trophy winners (Carson Palmer, Matt Leinart, Reggie Bush), put countless players into the NFL Draft and tied Miami for the longest modern winning streak. The 34-game run from 2003-05 is sixth all-time and ended when Vince Young scampered around the right end in the greatest game ever played. The Men of Troy never won fewer than 11 games for seven straight years. Was this team tainted by an NFL agent wannabe scandal well after the fact? To some degree, however, it wasn't a recruiting violation that impacted a competitive advantage. No matter how you view the Reggie Bush issues, this USC dynasty was one of the best in college football history.
7. Miami Hurricanes (2000-03): 46-4
Butch Davis built it and Larry Coker finished it off. On what many believe to be the best team ever assembled — as its 17 first-round picks indicate — Miami won four straight Big East championships and one unbeaten national title in 2000. This team came up one pass interference call against Ohio State from back-to-back national crowns, and, at one point, rattled off 34 straight wins. The winning streak was the longest since Wilkinson’s 47-gamer in the late 1950s and is still tied for the sixth-best in NCAA history.
8. Alabama Crimson Tide (1961-66): 60-5-1
In Bear Bryant’s fourth season (1961), the historic coach returned Alabama to the top of college football’s hierarchy with an 11-0 national title. He went on to lose just five games over the next five seasons, including two more national championships (1964, '65) and another unbeaten season (1966). Hall of Famer Joe Namath, the “greatest player [Bear Bryant] ever coached,” spearheaded this team for three years (1962-64) to a 29-4 record as a starter. This remarkable six-year run — with three national and four SEC crowns — built the foundation for the legend that is Bear Bryant.
9. Army Black Knights (1944-49): 49-2-4
Under historic head coach Earl “Red” Blaik, Army dominated college football for the better part of the 1940s. While the nation was captivated by the ongoing World War in Europe, the Knights steamrolled college football. This team won three consecutive national titles (1944-46) led by an All-Heisman backfield of Doc Blanchard and Glenn Davis. Blaik posted five unbeaten seasons in six years.
10. Florida State Seminoles (1992-2000): 99-11-1
Few teams have ever dominated a conference like the Seminoles did in the ACC during the 1990s. Bobby Bowden’s team never finished outside of the AP top four and won all nine ACC championships during this span. His team played in five national titles games, winning the whole thing in 1993 and '99 behind eventual Heisman winners Charlie Ward and Chris Weinke respectively.
11. Oklahoma Sooners (1973-80): 73-7
The Sooners' second dynasty took place just a decade after Wilkinson's legendary run when Barry Switzer took over in 1973 as head coach. Switzer began his tenure with eight consecutive conference titles, two national championships (1974, '75) and a Billy Sims Heisman Trophy (1978). During this span, OU never lost more than two games in a season and posted a 28-game winning streak, which ranks 15th all-time in NCAA history.
12. Alabama Crimson Tide (1971-79): 97-11
Bear Bryant’s second dynasty began seven years after his last one ended. Alabama won eight SEC titles in nine years and claimed the 1973, '78 and '79 national championships. Alabama’s school-record 28-game winning streak began in ’78 and ended three seasons later in 1980 — most of which took place during this dynasty. The 1979 championship featured the best record in school history (at that time) at 12-0 and gave Bryant his third and final unblemished campaign.
13. USC Trojans (1967-79): 122-23-7
One of the longer dynasties on this list, these Trojans were led first by John McKay (1967-75) and then John Robinson (1976-79). The tandem won four national championships (1967, '72, '74, '78), nine conference crowns and produced two Heisman Trophy winners (O.J. Simpson, Charles White) over a 13-year period.
14. Florida Gators (2006-09): 48-7
Urban Meyer posted three 13-1 records in a four-year span and the only time he didn’t win 13 games, Tim Tebow won the Heisman Trophy (2007). This dynasty featured two national titles in 2006 and '08 and came up one game shy in '09 of what would assuredly have been a third championship.
15. Notre Dame Fighting Irish (1964-73): 69-15-4
The Ara Parseghian era got started with a bang when the first-year coach won the 1964 national championship behind Heisman Trophy winner John Huarte. The Irish would go on to win two more titles (1966, '73) before the legendary coach would step down following the 1974 season.
16. Texas Longhorns (1961-70): 89-17-2
The Longhorns won three national championships and six conference titles under Darrell K. Royal during the '60s. This team also won 30 straight games, good for 12th all-time in NCAA history. Royal had seven seasons of one loss or less during this span.
17. Minnesota Golden Gophers (1934-41): 54-9-1
Starting two years before the AP Poll debuted, the Golden Gophers were one of the first true dynasties in college football. Hallowed coach Bernie Bierman won five national championships, two of which credited to services that pre-dated the AP poll, and lost just nine games during this eight-year span. Minnesota won all but one Big Ten crown from 1934-41. (Note: The AP began in 1934 with Minnesota named No. 1. In 1935, the AP named Minnesota the No. 1 team, but the top 25 was the work of a single AP sports editor. The formal AP poll era, consisting of ballots nationwide, began in 1936.)
18. Oklahoma Sooners (2000-08): 102-19
Head coach Bob Stoops led the Sooners back to the promised land in just his second season by claiming the 2000 BCS national title. During this nine-year run, Oklahoma played in four national title games, won five conference championships and claimed two Heisman Trophies.
19. Ohio State Buckeyes (2002-10): 99-17
Jim Tressell returned Ohio State to the pinnacle of college football with an unbeaten 2002 team. He then won six more Big Ten titles and produced a Heisman Trophy winner (Troy Smith) over the next seven years while playing in two more BCS title games.
20. Michigan Wolverines (1940-48): 68-13-2
Coached mostly by Herbert “Fritz” Crisler, Michigan won four Big Ten championships and two national titles during the 1940s. This team rattled off 25 straight wins from 1946-49 and posted two unbeaten seasons — coached by Crisler and Beenie Oosterbaan (1948).
21. Texas Longhorns (2004-09): 69-9
Over this six-year span, Texas averaged more than 11 wins per year and played in two national championship games — including winning the greatest game ever played in 2005. Mack Brown lost just one bowl game during this span.
22. Ohio State Buckeyes (1954-70): 118-34-5
Woody Hayes had two five-loss seasons during this span but few coaches can claim five national championships in any amount of time, much less 17 seasons.
23. Nebraska Cornhuskers (1969-72): 42-4-2
Head coach Bob Devaney won two national titles, posted a 23-game winning streak and lost just four games in his last four years in Lincoln.
24. Georgia Bulldogs (1980-83): 43-4-1
Vince Dooley had one of the best four-year runs in SEC history when he lost just four games, won three SEC championships and claimed the 1980 national title.
25. BYU Cougars (1979-85): 77-12
LaVell Edwards' high-flying, revolutionary offense rolled through opponents without much attention or acclaim, at least until the pollsters finally awarded BYU with the 1984 national championship.
The 78th annual NFL Draft opens Thursday night in Radio City Music in New York. The future of players and franchises will be decided over three intense days of phone calls, evaluations and, of course, plenty of booing.
To get fans ready, Athlon Sports is looking back at some of the most important, interesting and bizarre facts, tidbits and statistical trends in NFL Draft history.
2: Defensive players taken No. 1 overall since expansion
It’s been since 2006 since a defensive player was the first overall pick of an NFL Draft, when the Texans selected NC State defensive end Mario Williams. Cleveland took Penn State defensive end Courtney Brown to start the 2000 NFL Draft. Those are the only two defensive players to be taken No. 1 overall since expansion in 1995. There is plenty of symmetry with Houston again currently sitting on the clock with the first overall pick and likely to select a defensive end from the Carolinas in Jadeveon Clowney.
31: SEC players drafted in the first round since 2011
The SEC is college football’s best league in part because they have the best players. It’s a pretty simple equation — one that the NFL Draft supports. The first round of the 2013 NFL Draft featured 12 SEC players, including one each from newcomers Missouri (Sheldon Richardson) and Texas A&M (Luke Joeckel). The 2012 Draft featured nine SEC players taken in the first round and 10 were selected in the first round of the '11 draft. One out of every three players taken in the last three first rounds has been an SEC player. Don’t expect that trend to change either, considering as many as 10 SEC players have been projected to be first-round picks in 2014. As a side note, of those 31 SEC players drafted in the first round, 11 of them played for Alabama. The Crimson Tide is is tied with USC for the longest streak with at least one top-10 pick in draft history (5). Both Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and C.J. Mosley should extend that streak come Thursday night.
0: Running backs taken in the first round last year
Last year was a historic draft for running backs, but not necessarily in a good way. The 2013 NFL Draft was the first of the Super Bowl era in which no running back was taken in the first round. It was the first such first-round since the 1963 draft. North Carolina standout Giovani Bernard was the first ball-carrier selected when the Cincinnati Bengals picked him with the 37th overall pick. The position has been devalued over the last few seasons and it doesn’t appear to be changing anytime soon. Case in point, no running back is projected to be taken in the first round this year either. That said, Bernard, Eddie Lacy (2nd round), Zac Stacy (5th), Le’Veon Bell (2nd), Andre Ellington (6th) and Montee Ball (2nd) all carried more than 100 times as a rookie last fall.
2: Players to be selected No. 1 overall and not play in the NFL
University of Chicago’s Jay Berwanger won the Heisman Trophy and was the first-ever No. 1 overall pick when the NFL implemented the draft in 1936. The Eagles, who drafted him, couldn’t match his salary demands and traded him to the Chicago Bears. However, Berwanger wasn’t able to reach an agreement with the Bears and never played a down in the NFL. He instead worked for a Chicago rubber company and as a coach for his alma mater. Syracuse’s Ernie Davis, also a Heisman Trophy winner, was the first overall pick in the 1962 draft by the Redskins. The Redskins then traded his rights to Cleveland, however, Davis was diagnosed with leukemia the summer before his first season and passed away on May 18, 1963 without ever playing a down in the NFL. They are the only two No. 1 overall picks in NFL Draft history to not play a single game in the league.
1976: The first time the name “Mr. Irrelevant” was used
A common and infamous moniker, Mr. Irrelevant has been used to describe the last player selected in the NFL Draft for the better part of four decades. In 1976, the defending champion Steelers selected little known Dayton wide receiver Kelvin Kirk. Longtime USC and NFL veteran Paul Salata, who had bit parts in movies and was the consummate showman, devised a plan to celebrate the last pick in the draft and dubbed Kirk “Mr. Irrelevant.” He’s been flying the final pick of the NFL Draft to Southern California for “Irrelevant Week” ever since. After all, everyone loves an underdog story. Kirk never played in the NFL but had seven productive seasons in the CFL.
11: Consecutive drafts in which the Redskins didn’t have a first-round pick
From 1969 to 1979, the Washington Redskins didn’t make a single first-round pick. Head coach George Allen didn’t trust rookies and therefore didn’t need the picks. In fact, Washington didn’t have a pick in the first four rounds between 1972-76 and didn’t make their first selection in 1972 until Round 8. When the ‘Skins finally did use a first-round selection in 1980, they drafted one of the greatest players to ever play the game. James Arthur “Art” Monk was the 18th selection in the 1980 NFL Draft. All Monk did was win three Super Bowls and earn induction into both the NFL and NCAA Hall of Fame.
4: Number of teams that have never picked No. 1 overall
The Indianapolis Colts lead the entire NFL with seven No. 1 overall picks in the NFL Draft — five of which have been quarterbacks (Andrew Luck, Peyton Manning, Jeff George, John Elway, George Shaw). But four NFL teams have never made a No. 1 overall pick. Denver, Seattle, Baltimore and Jacksonville are the four NFL franchises that have never selected the first player in the draft. The Broncos were founded in 1960, the Seahawks entered the league in 1976 while the Ravens (1996) and Jags (1995) were created in the mid-90s.
8: Number of teams to make the playoffs after picking No. 1 overall
Eight times has a team had the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL Draft and gone on to make the playoffs. This includes the last two teams to have selected No. 1, as both the Chiefs in 2013 and the Colts in '12 made the playoffs. Additionally, Minnesota in 1968, Houston in '78, New England in '82, Dallas in '91, San Diego in 2004 and Miami in '08 all made the postseason after having the worst record in the league the year before. That said, no team has ever picked No. 1 and gone on to the Super Bowl.
104: Hall of Famers drafted in the first round*
As expected, the first round boasts the most NFL Hall of Famers with 102 current members of the HOF. The fifth round has just one (Jack Christiansen, 1951) — the lowest total of any of the first 10 rounds — while the Giants' Rosey Brown is the latest drafted Hall of Famer in draft history. Brown was the 321st overall pick in the 1953 NFL Draft in the 27th round. John Madden is the second-latest drafted HOFer when he was taken with the 244th overall pick in the 21st round of the 1958 draft. Twelve No. 1 overall picks went on to be Hall of Famers.
* - includes two “bonus” picks (Chuck Bednarik, Paul Hornung)
5: No. 1 picks who won NFL Rookie of the Year
There have been 78 No. 1 overall draft picks in the history of the NFL. Of those selections, 42 have gone to a Pro Bowl and 12 have landed in the Hall of Fame. But only five went on to win Rookie of the Year. Earl Campbell (1978), Billy Sims (’80), George Rogers (’81), Sam Bradford (2010) and Cam Newton (’11). And only the great Longhorns and Oilers workhorse running back won the Rookie of the Year as the opening statement to his eventual Hall of Fame career.
6:08: Time it took to complete the 2007 first round
The 2007 NFL Draft, which began with the Raiders' selection of JaMarcus Russell, was the longest first round in NFL history, lasting six hours and eight minutes. The absurdly long first round prompted the NFL to change the draft format, reducing the time each team was on the clock in the first round from 15 minutes to 10 minutes. Russell made 25 career starts, winning seven times and throwing for 4,083 yards, 18 touchdowns and 23 interceptions.
16: Quarterbacks taken No. 1 overall since 1987
Over the first 50 NFL Drafts, a quarterback was taken No. 1 overall just 15 times. In the next 28 drafts (1987-2013), a signal-caller was taken No. 1 overall 16 times. This includes 12 of the last 16 drafts. Notre Dame’s Angelo Bertelli was the first QB taken with the first pick in 1944 in the ninth NFL Draft. Overall, 31 quarterbacks have been taken with the first overall pick, leading all positions. Only three linebackers have gone first and only one defensive back has been taken No. 1. Colorado A&M (now Colorado State) safety Gary Glick was the No. 1 pick in the 1956 NFL Draft. Tight end is the only position on the field that has never been taken first overall in the draft.
Don’t believe anything you hear. Not at this time of the year. Not when it comes to the NFL Draft.
Well, except for one voice. Before the NFL Draft each season, 31 NFL front offices are posturing, smoke-screening and undermining their way into their War Rooms.
But not Jerry Jones.
The Dallas Cowboys owner might be the one NFL powerbroker who tells the truth when it comes to his draft intentions. ESPN’s Ed Werder, Bleacher Report’s Mike Freeman and other NFL scouts have reported that Jones is infatuated with the idea of drafting Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel. And most believe that if Manziel makes it to the Cowboys that Jones wouldn’t hesitate to pull the trigger on the in-state gunslinger with the 16th overall pick.
The question is how much is Jones willing to spend to get the Aggies coveted playmaker since most believe Manziel will long be off the board before the Cowboys are on the clock.
Jones and the ‘Boys have the equity to make a move up to acquire Manziel. The outrageous owner has a long track record of trading draft picks and falling in love with shiny new toys (See: Felix Jones). Manziel is simply the latest, and possibly the greatest, object of his affection.
Here is why Jones and the Dallas Cowboys should trade up to acquire Johnny Manziel at all costs.
Tony Romo is 34 years old
The embattled starting quarterback for the Cowboys will never fully be appreciated in Big D. Romo is the NFL’s fifth most efficient quarterback in history with a career passer rating of 95.8 — behind only Aaron Rodgers, Peyton Manning, Steve Young and Philip Rivers. Of course, QB rating isn’t the best measuring stick with which to evaluate quarterback play, but his numbers are way better than most Dallas fans will have you think. With a litany of injuries, Romo enters his 11th NFL season with a clock ticking loudly in his ears. Drafting Manziel would give Jones an heir apparent for Romo, would cover his bases should Romo get hurt and gives Manziel time to develop and learn from a true professional, especially in a division that appears to be passing Dallas by.
To make money
Johnny Manziel moves the needle. He moves it at the ticket window. He moves it at the merchandise counter. He moves it in the TV ratings. The bottom line, Manziel will make his franchise boatloads of cash even if he busts out after a few years or gets injured. The Cowboys are already America’s Team and adding Johnny Football to the roster just seems like the right fit. The NFL’s TV partners will flex the normally very average Cowboys into more primetime games in an effort to get more eyes on the dynamic quarterback. No, Jones and his Cowboys don’t need Manziel to be profitable but drafting the biggest star to come out of the state of Texas since Vince Young would essentially allow Jones to print money hand over fist. He will be well worth the investment.
Keep him from Houston
Obviously, it would require Jones to move up to No. 1 — or hope that the Texans pass — but keeping Manziel out of the hands of the Texans could be key. Houston won two division titles and two playoff games before tanking to 2-14 a year ago. For the record, that’s twice as many playoff wins as Dallas has had since 1996. With a flashy new QB guru coach in Bill O’Brien and a beloved local superstar under center, the Texans could make a play to become the biggest football fish in The Lone Star State pond. Keeping the talented playmaker out of the hands of the Texans would be icing on Jones’ Manziel cake.
It’s time to spend on a QB
For all of Jones shortcomings when it comes to making first round picks — and he has many — he hasn’t screwed up at the QB position. There is no long list of first round busts under center like in, say, Cleveland or Miami. In fact, he’s only taken one signal caller with a first round pick during his entire tenure as the owner in Dallas and that was Troy Aikman with the first overall pick in the 1989 draft. The only other time Dallas selected a quarterback with a first round pick was Craig Morton in 1965. After taking a wide receiver, two offensive lineman and a lockdown cover corner in the last four first rounds, it’s time for Jones to complete the puzzle and take the risk on the guy who fits his team, his personality and his pocketbook the best. And that’s Johnny Football.
Jones already maximizes the publicity and revenue generated from the very popular Dallas Cowboys cheerleading squad. He’s even sold tickets to the photo shoot before. Imagine the promotional possibilities of a Johnny Manziel beach football game with the Cowboys cheerleaders during their yearly onsite calendar shoot? How about a high-end night of dinner and dancing with cheerleaders and Johnny Football? The marketing opportunities are endless and Jones would be able to charge premium prices to grant access to both his cheerleaders and his prized star quarterback. Aikman has told numerous stories of women breaking into his house and waiting for him in his hot tub while he played for Dallas. Why not charge people to see it?
Over the past few seasons, when Athlon Sports sat down to predict our SEC East final standings there has been one factor that seems to have been the deciding factor.
We caught a lot heat in 2011 when we picked the Georgia Bulldogs to win the East over the South Carolina Gamecocks. Especially from those clad in Garnett and Black. The same could have been said about picking the Bulldogs in 2012.
The Dawgs had the easier path to the SEC East title those years and the ever-so-slight difference in scheduling played a huge role in earning Mark Richt and Georgia a trip to Atlanta in both 2011 and ’12.
In 2014, as the SEC enters the College Football Playoff Era, the schedules don’t seem nearly as imbalanced. And it makes projecting the SEC East virtually impossible. Of the four main contenders — Georgia, Missouri, South Carolina and Florida — Missouri has the easiest crossover slate, South Carolina gets the most critical home schedule but has the toughest road slate, Georgia gets only three home SEC games and Florida has by far the toughest crossover slate.
With football magazines set to hit newsstands in a matter of weeks, Athlon Sports has ranked the toughest schedules in the SEC East and how it impacted our potential 2014 predictions.
1. Tennessee Volunteers
Crossover: at Ole Miss, Alabama
Non-conference: Utah State, Arkansas State, at Oklahoma, Chattanooga
Opponents' '13 Record: 101-54 (65.2%, 3rd)
The Vols will have to battle one of the toughest slates in the nation this fall. They will play one of the Mountain West and Sun Belt frontrunners and the Big 12 frontrunner in non-conference action. Tennessee also will have to travel to Georgia, South Carolina, Ole Miss and Vanderbilt while hosting Alabama, Missouri and a Florida team it hasn’t beaten in Neyland Stadium in nearly a decade. This team could be dramatically improved overall in 2014 and could still easily lose seven games for a sixth time in seven years. The month of November is Butch Jones' only shot at a bowl berth with Kentucky, Missouri and Vanderbilt on tap in the final three weeks.
2. Kentucky Wildcats
Crossover: at LSU, Mississippi State
Non-conference: UT-Martin, Ohio, ULM, at Louisville
Opponents' '13 Record: 98-55 (6th)
Normally, if you are going to be a bottom feeder in the toughest league in the nation, non-conference slates and crossovers are supposed to help. And while UT-Martin is an easy win, none of Kentucky's other out-of-league opponents or crossovers are locks for victories. In fact, a 2-2 record out of SEC play would be a solid mark and one win against either LSU or Mississippi State from the West would be a huge victory. Toss in the usual laundry list of brutal SEC East games with all the SEC blue bloods and making a bowl seems virtually impossible. Since Kentucky doesn’t have to play itself, its schedule is one of the toughest in the nation.
3. Florida Gators
Crossover: at Alabama, LSU
Non-conference: Idaho, Eastern Michigan, Eastern Kentucky, at Florida State
Opponents' '13 Record: 91-62 (59.5%, 22nd)
The Gators do get three marquee SEC showdowns at home and three non-conference foes not named the Seminoles should result in be three lock wins. But overall, this is a nasty stretch with both Alabama and LSU in crossover play and a road trip to Florida State to cap the year. From Week 4 to 12, Florida will face Alabama, Tennessee and Vanderbilt on the road with LSU, Missouri and South Carolina at home as well as Georgia in Jacksonville. Luckily, both off weekends will fall within that seven-game stretch. A three-game improvement from a year ago (4-8) would be considered a huge success.
4. South Carolina Gamecocks
Crossover: Texas A&M, at Auburn
Non-conference: East Carolina, Furman, South Alabama, at Clemson
Opponents' '13 Record: 96-59 (61.9%, 13th)
South Carolina and Georgia have eerily similar schedules and both are equally difficult. Both play Clemson out of conference and both play defending SEC champ Auburn in crossover. Carolina, however, has to play both Tigers on the road whereas the Bulldogs get both of those striped opponents at home. That said, Carolina gets three critical home SEC East games with contenders Georgia and Missouri as well as Tennessee in addition to Texas A&M. Road trips to Vanderbilt and Kentucky are manageable but a trip to Gainesville — while UGA gets Florida on a neutral field — also makes South Carolina’s schedule slightly more daunting.
5. Georgia Bulldogs
Crossover: at Arkansas, Auburn
Non-conference: Clemson, Troy, Charleston Southern, Georgia Tech
Opponents' '13 Record: 92-61 (60.1%, 19th)
Only getting three home games in SEC play hurts but two road trips to Arkansas and Kentucky shouldn’t be too difficult. Non-conference games with Clemson and Georgia Tech will be battles but both come at home to bookend the season. Home games with Tennessee and Vanderbilt are very winnable and a rematch of the Prayer at Jordan-Hare will come Between the Hedges. Two road trips to South Carolina and Missouri could decide the East championship, however, as these three teams appear to be the top SEC East contenders. The good news is the Dawgs get a bye week to prepare for their trip to Columbia, S.C.
6. Vanderbilt Commodores
Crossover: Ole Miss, at Mississippi State
Non-conference: Temple, UMass, Charleston Southern, Old Dominion
Opponents' '13 Record: 78-73 (51.6%, 69th)
Getting both Mississippi schools in crossover play normally would be a blessing but not in 2014 as the two Magnolia programs are improved and confident. The non-conference schedule, however, might be the easiest of any team in the nation. Other winnable games like Tennessee at home and Kentucky on the road makes getting to a bowl game a likely possibility. But winning games against traditional powers Georgia and Florida like it did last year seem to be a much taller order this time around. And that doesn’t include a road trip to Missouri and a home game with South Carolina. There are plenty of upset chances but this schedule appears to have few swing games.
7. Missouri Tigers
Crossover: at Texas A&M, Arkansas
Non-conference: South Dakota State, at Toledo, UCF, Indiana
Opponents' '13 Record: 84-67 (55.6%, 43rd)
As far as crossover and non-conference scheduling among the SEC East contenders, Missouri might have the easiest slate. A visit to Texas A&M in November won’t be easy but the Aggies and Razorbacks could be the worst two teams in the West. The non-conference slate has some solid competition but nothing Mizzou shouldn’t be able to handle with relative ease. The key for the Tigers will be the nasty road slate against South Carolina, Florida, Tennessee and the Aggies — despite last year’s win-loss records. A huge potential division-deciding game against Georgia comes after a bye week and at home. The Tigers should be perfect at home and in the non-conference slate (8-0) so if they can knock off either South Carolina or Florida on the road, Mizzou could easily repeat as SEC East champs.
The Texans are in a great position.
Houston has a roster that won the division and went to the playoffs just two seasons ago. It has the hot new quarterback guru running the ship now with new head coach Bill O’Brien. And it owns the No. 1 overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft.
The options are plentiful for the new coaching regime in Houston.
O’Brien knows he needs to address the quarterback position and has three good options with the first pick should the Texans decide to take a QB. UCF’s Blake Bortles, Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater and Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel have plenty of upside and intrigue but also come with loads of risk.
Houston could pair all-everything end J.J. Watt with freak athlete Jadeveon Clowney, one of the greatest pure athletes to enter the draft in decades. Opposing quarterbacks beware when those two take the field together.
The Texans could also go a less risky route with names like Auburn’s Greg Robinson or Buffalo’s Khalil Mack. A trade could also be in the mix as teams begin to covet Clowney or one of the quarterbacks more as draft day gets closer.
Either way, the Texans have a lot of options at No. 1 and O’Brien should feel pretty good about his circumstances heading into his first pro draft.
Longtime Houston Chronicle writer John McClain joins up with the Athlon Sports staff to debate what we think the Texans should do with the No. 1 overall pick.
John McClain, Houston Chronicle (@McClain_On_NFL)
After watching their sack total plunge from 44 to 31 and their takeaways plummet from 29 to 11 last season, the Texans have to bolster their pass rush with the first overall pick in the draft. They must select South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, the Tyrannosaurus Rex of pass rushers. The Texans were 12-4 when they registered 44 sacks in 2012, but last season — when they were the worst team in the NFL — defensive end J.J. Watt (10.5 sacks) was their only dangerous pass-rusher. As desperately as they need a quarterback, they can’t afford to pass up Clowney unless they receive an overwhelming offer to trade. Offensive coordinators will spend a lot of sleepless nights night trying to game plan a pass rush that features Watt and Clowney.
Steven Lassan, Athlon Sports (@AthlonSteven):
I think this decision is pretty easy: The Texans should take Jadeveon Clowney at No. 1 overall. Houston has plenty of work to do on its roster, but let’s also not forget this team went 12-4 in 2012 and returns enough pieces to get back in the playoff picture this year. The AFC South isn’t that deep, so getting a sure thing at No. 1 overall has to be a priority. It’s always tough to judge defensive players strictly on statistics, as Clowney’s impact at South Carolina went beyond the box score. Pair Clowney with J.J. Watt and Houston already has one of the best defensive end combinations in the NFL, which will help cover for some of the team’s concerns in the secondary. Another reason to take Clowney is the depth at quarterback in this year’s draft class, as well as what’s coming in 2015 (Jameis Winston, Marcus Mariota and Brett Hundley). If you aren’t sure about a quarterback, take the position player that’s a 10-year starter in the league.
Braden Gall, Athlon Sports/SiriusXM (@BradenGall):
My first instinct would be to trade the pick. Clowney is clearly the best available player in the draft but does he really fill a pressing need? Maximizing the value of the pick would be to "sell" the rights to Clowney to the highest bidder. There could also be plenty of teams interested in trading up to draft a quarterback, like say, Jerry Jones? If the Texans can't get rid of the pick then the safest pick on the board would either Clowney or possibly Auburn left tackle Greg Robinson. The Joe Thomas-clone is an elite athlete with little to no downside whatsoever (he's better than both Eric Fisher and Luke Joeckel) and is really the only name close to Clowney in terms of upside. Robinson gives O'Brien a bookend left tackle to protect his quarterback for the next decade and the move would allow for the Texans to target one of the undervalued quarterbacks with the first pick of the second round. Aaron Murray, AJ McCarron and possibly even Teddy Bridgewater should be sitting there with the 33rd overall pick. Clowney is the best player and should probably go No. 1 overall but Robinson might be the safest pick on the board. A quarterback is the biggest risk and a trade might only happen in the perfect world. I would expect Houston to entertain offers for as long as it can before taking either Clowney or Robinson — the best two players in the draft.
Nathan Rush, Athlon Sports
The Houston Texans are a dynamic quarterback away from being a Super Bowl contender. And now they're sitting with the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL Draft debating what to do? Take a quarterback! The Texans shouldn't suffer from paralysis by analysis or thinking wrong by thinking long. It's simple. Since the NFL-AFL merger of 1970, quarterbacks taken No. 1 overall have combined to win 14 Super Bowls, while making a collective 20 starts on Super Sunday. Short of lucking into a Joe Montana (No. 82 overall pick) or Tom Brady (No. 199) — because, be honest, if Bills Walsh and Belichick had known just how good those two would be, they'd have drafted them earlier — a team's best bet to find a Super Bowl-caliber quarterback is at the top spot in the draft. And this year, the Texans have an opportunity to draft THE Texan, Johnny Football himself, Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel. The stars have aligned over the Lone Star State. But with a South Carolina alum owner in Bob McNair (whose love of Jadeveon Clowney is on record) and a first-time NFL head coach in Bill O'Brien (who lost two Super Bowls with Brady as an assistant in New England), Houston may have a problem making this decision.
Mark Ross, Athlon Sports
Houston's most glaring need is at quarterback, but none in this year's class are worthy of that distinction, let alone being taken in the first round period, but that's a separate discussion. In a perfect world, I would think the Texans would entertain thoughts of trading out of the No. 1 spot. However, in a draft like this, I just don't see the potential return justifying such a move. Not unless Jerry Jones or some other owner/GM wants to offer Houston something along the lines of the famous Herschel Walker haul. No, I am pretty sure the Texans will get the draft started with their pick, which should be Jadeveon Clowney. Do the Texans "need" Clowney? Not necessarily, not with 2012 NFL Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt already on the roster. But as the Seattle Seahawks showed in winning the Super Bowl this past season, you can never have enough disruptive pass-rushers, especially in the current, pass-happy NFL. Pairing Watt with Clowney would give the Texans a ridiculously athletic and potentially lethal combo off of the edges, one that should give opposing offenses headaches. After all, if you can't grab your franchise quarterback with the No. 1 pick in this year's draft, I can't think of a better Plan B than to make life miserable for the one on the other side of the line of scrimmage.
The running back is going the way of the dodo bird. The proliferation of the spread offense and pass-happy systems has all but eliminated the feature back from NFL game plans.
In 2003, 13 NFL players carried the ball more than 300 times and 18 rushed for more than 1,000 yards. Ten years later, only two — LeSean McCoy (314) and Marshawn Lynch (301) — carried the ball more than 300 times and just 13 players had at least 1,000 yards rushing.
This is why the 2013 NFL Draft was the first in history that didn’t feature a running back taken in the first round. And it’s why many are projecting a repeat performance from the 2014 NFL Draft.
Giovani Bernard was the first back taken a year ago. The North Carolina Tar Heel was the 37th overall pick by the Bengals. Bernard is extremely gifted and was hugely productive as just a rookie, but he is anything but a workhorse running back.
He rushed 170 times for 695 yards and caught 56 passes for 514 yards.
So who will be the top running back taken in the 2014 NFL Draft? Athlon Sports' staff made their pick of who they thought will be the best tailback in the ’14 running back class and where they expected them to be picked.
Nathan Rush: Carlos Hyde, Ohio State
Judging by the recent history of highly drafted "feature" backs — Trent Richardson (No. 3 overall pick in 2012), C.J. Spiller (No. 9, 2010), Ryan Mathews (No. 12, 2010), Knowshon Moreno (No. 12, 2009) — there may not be another running back drafted in the first-half of the first round until... next year, when Georgia's Todd Gurley and Alabama's T.J. Yeldon could steal the spotlight on Thursday night. This year, there is no complete runner, so the first back off the board will be a specialist — third-down scat-back, runner-returner or goal-line sledgehammer. Ohio State's 240-plus-pounder Carlos Hyde is a short-yardage beast with all-around upside. The Florida native found the end zone 18 times during a 1,500-yard senior season, becoming the first running back under Urban Meyer to top the 1,000-yards rushing plateau. Hyde won't be a first-rounder, but he will lower his head and bulldoze his way into the draft sometime between the mid-second and mid-third rounds.
Braden Gall (@BradenGall): Jeremy Hill, LSU
I am looking for the complete package at tailback. I am looking for someone like Eddie Lacy from Alabama. A burly, physical bruiser who is quick enough to catch passes and make people miss in the open field but strong and tough enough to pick up first downs and cross the goal line in short-yardage, between-the-tackles situations. Give me LSU’s Jeremy Hill. The 233-pounder rushed for 1,401 yards — second-best in school history — in the best league in the nation while averaging nearly 7.0 yards per carry (6.9). He scored 16 times and only played in 12 games. He is explosive, gets north and south quickly and isn’t scared of contact. Hill may not last very long in a league that chews up and spits out ball-carriers like sunflower seeds, but in the short term, there is no other back in this class with as little downside as the Bayou Bengal. His body should be fresher than the rest of this class as well since he only got 345 career carries in two seasons at LSU. Ka’Deem Carey, for example (who is excellent), carried 349 times in 2013 alone. Hill has a lot of tread left on the tires, has been facing NFL players for two seasons, played under a pro coordinator in Cam Cameron and is a Mack Truck with the ball in his hands. Not convinced? Just pop in the tape of the Outback Bowl a year ago.
Mark Ross: Tre Mason, Auburn
For whatever reason, running backs have quickly become somewhat devalued in the NFL, and the mindset has definitely been noticeable in the draft. For the second straight year, I anticipate no running backs will hear their name called in the first round and it wouldn’t surprise me if only a few end up being taken in the second round. That said, the first running back off of my board would be Auburn’s Tre Mason, the SEC Offensive Player of the Year who played a big role in the Tigers’ worst-to-first turnaround in the nation’s toughest conference.
Mason was Auburn’s workhorse (317 carries, 43 percent of the team’s total) last season and answered the bell to the tune of 1,816 yards (5.7 ypc) and 23 rushing touchdowns. He may not be the most polished pass-catcher out of the backfield, but he’s gifted with a nice package of strength, speed and athleticism that should translate well to the next level. Again, not a first-rounder, but I fully expect him to be taken somewhere between the middle of the second round and the early part of the third rounds.
Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven): Ka'Deem Carey, Arizona
After back-to-back seasons of 300 carries, it’s understandable some in the NFL would have concerns about Carey’s future at the next level. However, I’d argue he’s one of the top backs in the draft. Over the last two years at Arizona, Carey rushed for 3,814 yards and averaged nearly six yards per carry. He delivered in some of the Wildcats’ biggest games in 2013, gashing Oregon for 206 yards, 149 against UCLA and 157 against Arizona State. He also showcased his versatility by catching more than 20 passes in back-to-back seasons (2012-13). Sure, Carey doesn’t have elite speed, but he has enough to be a 1,000-yard rusher in the NFL. Also, as his workload and stats indicate at Arizona, Carey is a three-down back at the next level. It seems the NFL had a similar debate with Michigan State’s Le’Veon Bell last year. And didn’t that turn out alright for the Steelers? With his vision and cutback ability, combined with durability and a productive track record at Arizona, Carey should be the first running back off the board in the NFL Draft.
Bronco Mendenhall enters his 10th season as the BYU head coach and his fourth as the head coach of an independent program. Scheduling has been more difficult for the Cougars since leaving the Mountain West both in terms of ironing out opponents and the play on the field.
It has led to 10 losses in the last two seasons after five years with at least 10 wins between 2006-11. The 2014 slate isn’t nearly as daunting as the last few seasons for BYU and, with a star returning under center, there are lots of reasons for optimism in Provo.
This offense went from 60th nationally in 2012 to 14th a year ago with Taysom Hill running the show. He gradually improved his efficiency as a passer over the course of the season and enters his junior season with Heisman potential and a schedule that should allow for big numbers offensively.
A return to double-digit wins isn’t unreasonable should things fall right for Mendenhall, Hill and the Cougars.
|13.||Nov. 22||Savannah State|
2014 BYU Schedule Analysis
Revenge on the mind
Opening the season with UConn should be a celebration but the following two weeks could feature games rich with revenge. First, BYU heads down to Austin to battle new head coach Charlie Strong and the Longhorns. Mendenhall’s team can bet that the Horns remember the 550 yards rushing and 40 points it allowed in a loss in Provo a year ago. Two weeks later, BYU returns home to take on a scuffling Virginia team that somehow beat the Cougars a year ago in Charlottesville in the season-opener. A reverse of last year’s outcome might be the safest bet.
In the first nine weeks of the season, BYU will play just three games on Saturday. Games at UConn (Week 1), at home against Utah State (Week 6) and at Boise State (Week 9) will take place on Friday evening in primetime while games against Houston at home (Week 3) and at UCF (Week 7) are scheduled for Thursday evening. The schedule normalizes later in the year with four straight games on Saturday but the first two months of the season will be an unusual run of primetime, weeknight games for BYU.
The month of October
After playing two of the three “Big 5” teams on their schedule in the first month, BYU will spend most of October battling all of the best “mid-major” programs from West of the Mississippi. Boise State has long been a powerhouse out West and is breaking in a new coach. Nevada and Utah State have experienced excellent success over the last decade and, they too, are under relatively new leadership on the sidelines. Mix in a long trip to Orlando to face the defending Fiesta Bowl champions and the Cougars have a very testy month of action despite not facing any teams from power leagues.
The first bye falls in Week 4 and comes at a good time before the aforementioned long run of quality mid-major opponents. After facing UConn, Texas, Houston and Virginia, the rest should be a welcomed sight. The second off weekend (Week 11) also comes at an opportune time after the tough five-game stretch in the heart of October. It gives the Cougars plenty of time to prepare for the final leg of the season — one that shouldn’t be too daunting.
The Final Leg
Should BYU be (gasp) undefeated by its second off weekend, there is a good chance it will finish that way as the final month features three extremely winnable games to end the year. The final three weeks of the season are made up of home dates with UNLV and Savannah State as well as a trip to Berkeley to face Cal in the season finale. All three should feature large point spreads in favor of the Cougars, although, the Golden Bears should be vastly improved from a year ago when they went 1-11 overall and 0-9 in the Pac-12.
The schedule isn’t all that daunting for BYU. Will Texas be clicking on all cylinders with a chance at revenge at home? Likely. But other than the trip to Austin, every other game is extremely winnable. Should Hill continue to develop as a passer, his dual-threat ability could be virtually impossible to stop by most of the Cougars' opponents. Mendenhall’s squad should be in every game it plays this year and may have an outside shot at earning a College Football Playoff berth.
To win a Super Bowl, a team must play defense, must be able to run the ball in short yardage situations but, above all else, must have a good quarterback.
It’s why 13 of the last 16 NFL drafts have begun with a team selecting a signal-caller with the No. 1 overall pick. Some of those have been home runs (Peyton Manning, Andrew Luck, Eli Manning), some have been total busts (JaMarcus Russell, David Carr) and others have yet to determine their legacy (Cam Newton, Matthew Stafford). But it’s clear what position is the most important.
NFL general managers know that the game begins and ends with a great quarterback. If your favorite team has a solid signal-caller then it has a chance to win big. If it doesn’t have a capable leader under center, well, then, it will be a long winter.
Of the 12 teams in the NFL playoffs a year ago, seven were QB-ed by a first-round pick. However, of the final four quarterbacks left standing, only one (Peyton Manning) was a first-rounder. Colin Kaepernick was a second-round pick, Russell Wilson was a third-rounder and Tom Brady was a sixth-round selection. And it was a third-round pick who is currently the defending Super Bowl champion.
Many believed that the 2014 quarterback class was going to be one of the best collections of prospects to enter the NFL Draft since the 2004 group that included the younger Manning, Philip Rivers and Ben Roethlisberger (as well as J.P. Losman) all being selected in the first round. However, with more than a few big-time prospects — Brett Hundley, Braxton Miller, Marcus Mariota and Bryce Petty — all returning to college, the state of the 2014 QB draft class was thrown into chaos.
So when the 79th annual NFL Draft begins on May 8, there will be something for everyone when it comes to the quarterback position. There’s the short playmaker (Johnny Manziel, Aaron Murray), the massive jumbo passer (Blake Bortles, Tom Savage, Logan Thomas) and the consummate game-manager (Teddy Bridgewater, AJ McCarron, Tajh Boyd).
Opinions vary greatly on who is the best of this group and when they should be selected on draft weekend. So Athlon Sports has culled the world wide web for the best and most trusted NFL Draft opinions in an effort to sort out the 2014 quarterback class.
Here are the 12 rankings used to compile Athlon Sports' consensus QB rankings:
AS: Athlon Sports
CBS: CBS Sports
MK: Mel Kiper
TM: Todd McShay
BR: Bleacher Report
SN: Sporting News
PS: Phil Savage
Consensus 2014 NFL Draft QB rankings:
|3.||Johnny Manziel||Texas A&M||2||2||4||3||3||2||2||4||3||5||9||1|
|4.||Derek Carr||Fresno State||6||4||3||4||7||4||4||2||4||4||3||3|
|5.||Jimmy Garoppollo||E. Illinois||6||5||5||5||5||7||3||7||3||5||4|
|10.||Logan Thomas||Virginia Tech||7||8||8||8||9||10|
|11.||David Fales||San Jose State||10||10||10||9||6|
|14.||Connor Shaw||South Carolina||8|
|15.||Bryn Renner||North Carolina||10|
Inside Athlon’s Rankings
Collegiate success matters
The funny thing about great college players is that they are great players. There is a distinct trend with the AS rankings and that is college success. Names like Tajh Boyd, Aaron Murray and AJ McCarron are higher on our ranking than most because of success against the best competition this country has to offer. McCarron is arguably the most decorated and successful QB in SEC history while Murray is the most productive in SEC history. Both were elite recruits and played as such in the college ranks. Boyd falls into a similar category while competing against a slightly lower level of competition. That said, his height (6-1) and overall performance against Florida State and the SEC is why Murray and McCarron rank higher.
Leadership is "it"
Russell Wilson has it. Drew Brees has it. So, too, does Murray, McCarron, Boyd and South Carolina’s Connor Shaw. And none of those names were/will be first-round picks. Murray has been compared to Brees since leading his team to a state championship in Florida after breaking his leg in the same season. Shaw won’t ever be mistaken for a truly great NFL quarterback prospect due to his overall lack of size and arm polish, but most of the quarterbacks drafted this year will fizzle out of the league in short order. The key is to avoid taking one of the busts early. Shaw may not have much upside, but he has zero downside, is tough as nails and is a born leader. He is the winningest QB in the history of South Carolina football and he rarely turned the ball over. Those are two things coaches crave in a backup signal-caller.
Don’t fall for the measurables
The scouts who love Logan Thomas and Tom Savage clearly haven’t watched any college football. It’s not that these two prospects aren’t great athletes but they simply didn’t prove in college that they are pro passers. Thomas was a walking turnover and is responsible for the downturn of a program known for churning out 10 wins a season like clock work. Savage didn’t have much in the way of a supporting cast but he had plenty of chances at two schools to shine and never really developed. Don’t let their massive frames and huge arms hide the awful game tape both bring to the table. LSU’s Zach Mettenberger falls into this category somewhat as well.
The curious case of Zach Mettenberger
He’s huge, has a big arm, played against high-level competition, was an elite recruit and showed improvement in his final season. He also was consistently inaccurate, kicked out of school for multiple off-the-field incidents, never came close to winning a championship and had arguably the top WR tandem in the nation at his disposal in 2013. The risk doesn't match the reward.
Level of competition
David Fales, Derek Carr and Jimmy Garoppollo didn’t face anything resembling an NFL defense. These three QBs rarely faced quality defenses and when they did, it didn’t turn out well. Carr’s worst three games over the last two years came against USC, Boise State (2012) and Oregon — arguably the best three defenses he faced and Fresno went 0-3. Fales had a nice season under offensive whiz Mike MacIntyre in 2012 and then took significant steps back once his head coach moved to Colorado and San Jose State moved up in competition (WAC to MWC). Garoppollo posted huge numbers, but was in a pass-happy offense that most quarterbacks would excel within — especially, against that type of competition. Carr is easily the most talented of the lower-tiered trio but none appear worthy of a first-round grade.
The NFL has little control over the schedule.
The rotation of crossover divisional opponents is set in stone years in advance and the six divisional games won’t change unless the league expands. Really, the NFL can control two games per team in an effort to make the best team’s schedules more difficult and to give the perceived weaker teams an easier path.
The big news that comes from the annual schedule release is times, dates, locations, bye weekends and days of the week. The NFL can backload, shorten the work week, send a team to London or frontload a team’s schedule. The goal for the NFL is, with most things, to create balance among all 32 franchises.
But the fans know better and last year was a perfect example. I ranked San Diego, Indianapolis and Kansas City as the three easiest schedules in the NFL. And all three teams took major steps forward to earn a postseason berth.
The important thing to remember is ranking NFL schedules based on last year’s winning percentages is short-sighted and inaccurate. Oakland is ranked No. 1 because they played in a division with three playoff teams and there is no certainty that Kansas City or San Diego will repeat. Conversely, the AFC South appears to give the Colts and Titans the two easiest schedules in the league but no one believes the Texans will go 2-14 again (which counts as 4-28 for Indianapolis and Tennessee when it comes to opponents' record) — which obviously impacts their opponents' winning percentage from a year ago.
There will be teams that improve and teams that take steps back, so projecting the shifts in the landscape are much more important than last year’s winning percentage.
So who has the toughest NFL schedule heading into 2014?
1. St. Louis Rams
AFC/NFC Crossover: AFC West, NFC East
Swing Games: Minnesota, at Tampa Bay
Opponents ’13 Record: 56.4% (3rd)
Having to play Seattle and San Francisco four times as well as two dates with a Cardinals team that won 10 games a year ago gives St. Louis the toughest six-game divisional stretch in the NFL — by a wide margin. Having to face three playoff teams from the AFC West and a balanced NFC East makes rotational play difficult as well. Swing games against Minnesota and Tampa Bay are a welcome sight but those could be the two easiest NFC games the Rams play and they happen in the first two weeks of the season. Even the bye week is poorly positioned in Week 4 with an eight-week stretch where St. Louis may not win a game against seven playoff teams and the Cardinals.
2. Oakland Raiders
AFC/NFC Crossover: AFC East, NFC West
Swing Games: Houston, at Cleveland
Opponents ’13 Record: 57.8% (1st)
According to the records, Oakland has the toughest path in the NFL next year. While the slate is packed with elite teams — including six divisional games against playoff teams from last year — there are still chances for wins. Playing the AFC East gives the Raiders one nasty game (New England) and three against teams at .500 or below a year ago, while swing games with the Browns and Texans are “supposed” to be easier. That said, playing in the toughest division in its conference and having to face all four teams from the NFC West makes Oakland's slate one of the toughest in the AFC this fall.
3. Arizona Cardinals
AFC/NFC Crossover: AFC West, NFC East
Swing Games: Detroit, at Atlanta
Opponents ’13 Record: 54.7% (8th)
Oddly, the Cardinals will visit San Diego in the final preseason game before hosting San Diego in Week 1 in one of the more bizarre starts to a season in ’14. The bye week is extremely early (Week 4) but is positioned between games with the 49ers and Broncos. After Denver, the slate lightens up for Arizona with only one game against a playoff team between Week 6 and Week 11 and that is the Eagles at home. The Cards better get some work done early, however, as the final six weeks will be nasty with two games against Seattle as well as dates with Atlanta, Kansas City, at St. Louis and the season finale in San Francisco.
4. Seattle Seahawks
AFC/NFC Crossover: AFC West, NFC East
Swing Games: Green Bay, at Carolina
Opponents ’13 Record: 56.1% (6th)
First and foremost, playing the NFC West makes for the toughest divisional slate in the league, however, Seattle doesn’t have to play… Seattle twice either. The AFC West had three playoff teams last year and should once again be one of the toughest divisions in the AFC. And swing games with potential division champs Green Bay and Carolina makes for a nasty path to a repeat. Three road games from Week 13 to Week 16 — at San Francisco, Philadelphia and Arizona — with a home test against the 49ers might be the toughest stretch any team in the NFL will face all season. And the year begins with three playoff teams: Green Bay, at San Diego and a Super Bowl rematch at home against Denver.
5. Denver Broncos
AFC/NFC Crossover: AFC East, NFC West
Swing Games: Indianapolis, at Cincinnati
Opponents ’13 Record: 57.0% (2nd)
Not having to face themselves twice in divisional play gives the Broncos the easiest divisional schedule in the AFC West. And facing New England, Indianapolis and Cincinnati in AFC play means that Denver will play nine games against AFC playoff teams from a year ago as well as the two teams who met in the NFC Championship Game. Sure-fire wins over Oakland and the rest of the AFC East provide breathers in what should be one of the tougher AFC slates of ’14.
6. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
AFC/NFC Crossover: AFC North, NFC North,
Swing Games: St. Louis, at Washington
Opponents ’13 Record: 48.4% (19th)
It’s hard to see the Bucs, under a first-year head coach, getting a single win in the first six weeks of the season before mercifully getting a week off in Week 7. A home game against the Rams might be the only game Tampa could be competitive in early in the year. The good news is the slate lightens up significantly following the bye with games against the Vikings, Browns, Falcons, Redskins and Bears in order from Weeks 8-12. Finishing with games at Carolina, Green Bay and New Orleans at home is daunting as well. There are not too many guaranteed wins on this schedule for Lovie Smith.
7. Cincinnati Bengals
AFC/NFC Crossover: AFC South, NFC South
Swing Games: Denver, at New England
Opponents ’13 Record: 46.9% (23rd)
The Bengals' first seven games will be a challenge as Marvin Lewis’ squad gets road games with Baltimore, New England and Indianapolis to go with home tilts against Atlanta, Tennessee, Carolina and a rematch with the Ravens. The home games are winnable and an upset or two is needed if Cincinnati wants to take control of the AFC North early in the year. Otherwise, the pressure will be on Cincy to win key swings games late in the year (at New Orleans, at Houston, Denver and two with the Steelers). This is a nasty schedule that features the best two teams in the AFC as swing opponents and at least four very difficult divisional games. The only comfort is a bye week positioned in the middle of the early seven-game gauntlet and a soft(er) middle portion of the slate.
8. San Diego Chargers
AFC/NFC Crossover: AFC East, NFC West
Swing Games: Jacksonville, at Baltimore
Opponents ’13 Record: 56.3% (4th)
Four games with the Broncos and Chiefs will be brutal but two with the Raiders are equally as easy. Crossover play also features one extremely winnable game against the Jags and one very tough game at Baltimore. Package that with four against the NFC West and the Bolts can boast one of the AFC’s toughest slates. Few teams will finish with as difficult a stretch as San Diego will with that road trip to Baltimore leading into New England and Denver at home before road trips to San Francisco and Kansas City in the final five games. Getting work done early will be key for Philip Rivers and company out on the West Coast.
9. Kansas City Chiefs
AFC/NFC Crossover: AFC East, NFC West
Swing Games: Tennessee, at Pittsburgh
Opponents ’13 Record: 55.9% (7th)
The Chiefs showed marked improvement last year based on schedule and things should swing back to the norm this fall. Crossover play with the Titans and Steelers won’t be easy but neither team made the playoffs last year. Facing the Chargers and Broncos four combined times is balanced out by two with Oakland. And all four games against the NFC West will be battles. Following the bye in Week 6 and a nasty start to the year that features games at Denver, at San Francisco and New England at home, Kansas City’s slate will lighten up. Other than Seattle and Denver (Week 11 and 13), the Chiefs could be favored in every game. Key road trips to beatable but solid opponents San Diego and Arizona could decide the Chiefs' playoff fate.
10. Washington Redskins
AFC/NFC Crossover: AFC South, NFC West
Swing Games: Tampa Bay, at Minnesota
Opponents ’13 Record: 49.0% (17th)
Two swing games with Tampa Bay and Minnesota as well as four games with the AFC South should allow for the Skins to improve in ’14. Getting three of the last four games, including two with Philadelphia and Dallas, at home in the final four weeks should as well. That said, facing the NFC West will be nasty and a road trip to Indianapolis comes on the heels of visiting the 49ers (Week 12-13). There are plenty of chances for wins for Washington but this isn’t as easy a schedule as should be expected for a team that lost 13 games last season.
11. San Francisco 49ers
AFC/NFC Crossover: AFC West, NFC East
Swing Games: Chicago, at New Orleans
Opponents ’13 Record: 56.3% (4th)
The 49ers start with some tricky games but won’t face a playoff team from a year ago until Week 4. Getting the Super Bowl champs and archrival Seahawks twice in three weeks is brutal but it’s late in the year and is sandwiched around a “road game” against Oakland. The bye week is nicely situated midway through the season in Week 8 and should help ease the Niners into a manageable month of November (STL, at NO, at NYG, WAS). This schedule could have been much harder when compared to the other teams in the NFC West.
12. Carolina Panthers
AFC/NFC Crossover: AFC North, NFC North,
Swing Games: Seattle, at Philadelphia
Opponents ’13 Record: 47.3% (22nd)
Not having to face Carolina twice helps the divisional slate for the Panthers but getting Seattle and a road trip to Philadelphia in NFC swing contests will be difficult. The early part of the schedule is highlighted by a nasty three-game road swing in four weeks against the Ravens (Week 4), Bengals (Week 6) and Packers (Week 7) before welcoming the Super Bowl champs to town (Week 8). The bye week is extremely late in Week 12 but the final five games should be manageable. Road trips to division rivals New Orleans and Atlanta will be tough but the Vikings, Bucs and Browns provide some time to breathe late in the year for a team trying to repeat as division champs.
13. New Orleans Saints
AFC/NFC Crossover: AFC North, NFC North,
Swing Games: San Francisco, at Dallas
Opponents ’13 Record: 46.9% (23rd)
Three road trips in the first four weeks makes for an interesting start for New Orleans as the Saints, more than most teams, love playing at home. That said, the first five weeks of the year before the off weekend should provide plenty of wins against the likes of the Browns, Vikings and Buccaneers. It’s a good thing, because following a road game against Detroit in Week 7, the Saints will face a nasty stretch of likely playoff opponents for seven straight weeks. The only good news is a three-game homestand against the 49ers, Bengals and Ravens from Nov. 9-24. The final three weeks do offer some hope with three teams that all missed the playoffs a year ago (at Chicago, Atlanta, at Tampa Bay).
14. Chicago Bears
AFC/NFC Crossover: AFC East, NFC South
Swing Games: Dallas, at San Francisco
Opponents ’13 Record: 49.6% (15th)
There are a lot of winnable games on the Bears’ schedule before the Week 9 off weekend (Buffalo, at NY Jets, Miami). But there are a lot of games they may not be competitive in as well (at San Francisco, Green Bay, at Carolina, at New England). All four AFC East opponents will come before the break with five NFC North games, including all three divisional road trips, coming in the final eight weeks. This is a hit or miss schedule for the Bears with games that look like certain wins and certain losses and not too many swing games. Chicago might be “who we thought they were” — a middle-of-the-pack team who likely won’t make the playoffs.
15. New York Giants
AFC/NFC Crossover: AFC South, NFC West
Swing Games: Atlanta, at Detroit
Opponents ’13 Record: 46.5% (26th)
Getting Atlanta at home and Detroit on the road in crossover play isn’t terribly scary and visiting Tennessee and Jacksonville in crossover play isn’t either. And the divisional slate is relatively spaced out with back-to-back NFC East games only once (Weeks 6-7). The Giants will play one playoff team before the off weekend in Week 8 and will need the extra time to prepare for one of the nastiest four-week stretches in the NFL. New York will come off of the bye and play Indianapolis, at Seattle, San Francisco and Dallas in four straight. The great news is games with the Jaguars, Titans, Redskins and Rams leading into the season finale at home against the Eagles. The Giants should be able to match or improve on their seven wins.
16. Philadelphia Eagles
AFC/NFC Crossover: AFC South, NFC West
Swing Games: Carolina, at Green Bay
Opponents ’13 Record: 47.9% (20th)
Chip Kelly and the Eagles will face two playoff teams from a year ago in the first nine weeks of the season so winning games early is a must for Philadelphia. And getting road trips to Indianapolis and San Francisco out of the way in the first four weeks helps as well. A mid-season stretch against the Panthers (Week 10), Packers (Week 11), Cowboys (Week 13) and the defending champion Seahawks (Week 14) is a brutal five-week run as the calendar flips to December. NFC East games are always tough but the final three weeks of the season feature three straight divisional games against teams who were at .500 or below last year. This slate has some major speed bumps but plenty of winnable games as well.
17. New York Jets
AFC/NFC Crossover: AFC West, NFC North
Swing Games: Pittsburgh, at Tennessee
Opponents ’13 Record: 52.0% (9th)
In the first seven weeks, the Jets' defense will face Aaron Rodgers, Jay Cutler, Matthew Stafford, Philip Rivers, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady before the slate lightens up. The brutal beginning gives way to a much more manageable second half with four games with Buffalo and Miami along with games against Pittsburgh, Minnesota and Tennessee. Facing New England twice along with the AFC West won’t be easy and the Jets could be out of playoff contention early on. Wins over the Raiders, Lions and Bears at home in the first month of the season will be paramount for this team if it wants to contend for a playoff spot.
18. Cleveland Browns
AFC/NFC Crossover: AFC South, NFC South
Swing Games: Oakland, at Buffalo
Opponents ’13 Record: 46.5% (26th)
The Browns always have a tough draw in the AFC North as most teams would struggle with six games against Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and Baltimore. Swing games with Oakland and Buffalo are two excellent chances at wins and will be critical to evaluating the Browns' overall trajectory within the AFC. Road trips to Carolina and Atlanta as well as a home game with New Orleans — sandwiched between the Steelers and Ravens in Week 2 — doesn’t give the Browns a cold-weather advantage over the warm-weather Saints. The middle of the schedule does provide opportunity as the Browns will face the Titans, Jaguars, Raiders and Bucs over a five-week stretch entering November. After that, there is one game (at Buffalo) where Cleveland even has a chance to be favored.
19. Atlanta Falcons
AFC/NFC Crossover: AFC North, NFC North
Swing Games: Arizona, at NY Giants
Opponents ’13 Record: 51.2% (11th)
The year starts with two tough games against the Saints and Bengals but then lightens up until a road trip to Carolina in Week 10. The Falcons could win a bunch of games in the first half as only a road trip to Baltimore feels like a guaranteed loss between Week 2 and the Panthers. Two road trips to Green Bay and New Orleans as well as home games with Pittsburgh and Carolina make the final four weeks extremely difficult. However, the schedule as a whole sets up nicely for the Falcons to bounce back. The NFC North could be the worst division in the NFC and that should help all four teams from the NFC South.
20. Baltimore Ravens
AFC/NFC Crossover: AFC South, NFC South
Swing Games: San Diego, at Miami
Opponents ’13 Record: 46.1% (28th)
The Ravens will start with three straight AFC North games before hosting Carolina and visiting Indianapolis. If the Ravens can survive the first month of play and pick up a few wins in the middle portion — at Tampa Bay, Atlanta, at Cincinnati, at Pittsburgh, Tennessee — then they should finish strong over the final month. Baltimore will face the Dolphins, Jaguars, Texans and Browns in the final four weeks of the season. It means the Ravens will play five of their six divisional games by Week 9.
21. Buffalo Bills
AFC/NFC Crossover: AFC West, NFC North
Swing Games: Cleveland, at Houston
Opponents ’13 Record: 50.0% (14th)
Four games with the Jets and Dolphins offer plenty of chances for wins but two with New England balance that out in short order. Getting to face the NFC North is also a small blessing as only the Packers at home appear to be a certain loss. Crossover play with the AFC West will prove very difficult and swing games with Cleveland and Houston could be tricky. The first two months of the season aren’t all that daunting but the final four weeks will be nasty with road trips to Denver and New England sandwiched around a home game with Green Bay and a long journey to Oakland. If the Browns and Texans show improvement, this could be one of the more difficult AFC slates.
22. Miami Dolphins
AFC/NFC Crossover: AFC West, NFC North
Swing Games: Baltimore, at Jacksonville
Opponents ’13 Record: 50.8% (12th)
Balance is the first word that comes to mind when analyzing the Dolphins' schedule in ’14. The really tough games (New England twice, Denver, Green Bay, Kansas City, Baltimore, San Diego) are spaced out and packaged around easier games with teams like Buffalo (twice), the Jets (twice), Minnesota, Detroit and Jacksonville. In fact, playing in the AFC East and rotating against the NFC North should be very appealing for anyone in the NFL. The bye week is very early but there is no “brutal stretch” for the Fish to deal with in any month of the season.
23. Dallas Cowboys
AFC/NFC Crossover: AFC South, NFC West
Swing Games: New Orleans, at Chicago
Opponents ’13 Record: 48.8% (18th)
Getting the easiest division in football (AFC South) in crossover play is a big plus but having to face the toughest division (NFC West) is a huge concern. All four games against the West will take place in the first nine weeks of the year, meaning Dallas will have to make waves in the second half of the season. This includes two games with each archrival from within the division — including four of the last six games of the season. In fact, the final six weeks will be perilous for the Cowboys as a trip to Chicago and a home game with the Colts are mixed in with four divisional games following the Week 11 off week. There are a lot of chances for wins for the boys in Big D in ’14.
24. Pittsburgh Steelers
AFC/NFC Crossover: AFC South, NFC South
Swing Games: Kansas City, at NY Jets
Opponents ’13 Record: 46.9% (23rd)
The AFC North gets a nice draw with the AFC South as its crossover competition within the conference and both Houston and Indianapolis come to the Steel City. Games against Kansas City (home) and the Jets (road) are winnable swing games for a team expecting to be above .500 and in the playoff hunt as well. Having to battle Carolina and Atlanta on the road as well as New Orleans at home will prove difficult in NFC competition. And as is the case every year, games within the division against Cincinnati and Baltimore will decide the outcome of the North race. Pittsburgh will have played the Browns and Ravens twice each by Week 9 and have to play the Bengals twice in the final four weeks, including the season finale at home. In fact, the bye week falls perfectly in line with a nasty five-game stretch to end the season featuring the Saints, Bengals (twice), Falcons and Chiefs.
25. Minnesota Vikings
AFC/NFC Crossover: AFC East, NFC South
Swing Games: Washington, at St. Louis
Opponents ’13 Record: 47.7% (21st)
The good news is the Vikings play in the easiest division in the NFC, will play one of the two easiest divisions in the NFL (AFC East) and get two “winnable” swing games with the Redskins and Rams. That said, the Vikings have to play Green Bay twice and don’t get the added bonus of playing themselves twice like the other three teams in the NFC North. The first five weeks of the year are brutal and the Vikes could be winless heading into what should be a much easier last 10 weeks. The Vikings will play two teams in the final 11 games (Green Bay and Carolina at home) that made the playoffs a year ago. It’s a schedule befitting a team that could be the worst in the NFC in ’14.
26. Detroit Lions
AFC/NFC Crossover: AFC East, NFC South
Swing Games: NY Giants, Arizona
Opponents ’13 Record: 49.2% (16th)
Games at Carolina and with Green Bay at home in the first three weeks almost guarantee a slow start for the Lions. However, there are plenty of chances for wins against the Jets, Bills, Vikings, Falcons and Dolphins between Week 4 and Week 10 (as well as a bye week). Things pick up on the road following the off weekend as trips to Arizona, New England, Chicago and Green Bay dot the final seven weeks. There are some tough games but overall, this slate could allow for Detroit to challenge for a Wild Card position. The Lions will play four teams that made the playoffs a year ago all season long.
27. Green Bay Packers
AFC/NFC Crossover: AFC East, NFC South
Swing Games: Philadelphia, at Seattle
Opponents ’13 Record: 50.4% (13th)
Returning to the scene of the crime in Week 1 against the Super Bowl champs will be fascinating and difficult. However, after that, the Packers could be favored to win at least five straight games before Carolina comes to town in Week 7 and they visit the Superdome in Week 8. The second half of the schedule, following an off weekend in Week 9, appears tame at best with home games with New England and Philadelphia as the toughest tasks for the Pack in the final eight weeks. Getting six games with the Vikings, Bears and Lions makes this one of the easier NFC schedules.
28. Jacksonville Jaguars
AFC/NFC Crossover: AFC North, NFC East
Swing Games: Miami, at San Diego
Opponents ’13 Record: 45.3% (29th)
The Jags got no favors in crossover play as they will face a developing Miami team and San Diego on the road. Not to mention playing the toughest divisional slate in the AFC South (they don’t get two automatic wins over themselves). Mix in road trips to Baltimore, Cincinnati and Philadelphia in crossover play and it seems difficult to find much improvement from this team. There are plenty of winnable home games (Tennessee, Houston, Cleveland, Miami, Pittsburgh, NY Giants) but this team will most likely be an underdog in every game it plays this fall.
29. New England Patriots
AFC/NFC Crossover: AFC West, NFC North
Swing Games: Cincinnati, at Indianapolis
Opponents ’13 Record: 51.6% (10th)
As usual, not having to face New England twice makes this arguably the easiest divisional schedule of any team in the NFL. Six winnable games in the AFC East are matched by at least three games against the NFC North in which the Pats will be heavily favored. A trip to Green Bay late in the year before having to travel to San Diego could pose some problems. However, the Patriots end with three straight within the division — two of which are at home. Denver, Indianapolis and Cincinnati dot the schedule with some marquee showdowns but, overall, this isn’t an overly taxing slate for a team of New England’s caliber.
30. Tennessee Titans
AFC/NFC Crossover: AFC North, NFC East
Swing Games: NY Jets, at Kansas City
Opponents ’13 Record: 43.8% (31st)
There are four really tough road trips on the Titans' schedule as they break in a new coaching staff but otherwise, there is a lot to like about Tennessee’s 2014 draw. Early trips to Cincinnati and Indianapolis might be the two toughest games of the year while mid-to-late season trips to Baltimore and Philadelphia loom large as does the season-opener in Kansas City. However, every other game is winnable for the Titans. The home slate could feature plenty of wins as Dallas, Cleveland, Jacksonville, Houston, Pittsburgh and both New York teams will visit Nashville. Couple that with visits to Washington, Jacksonville and Houston and the Titans could be looking at a playoff berth.
31. Indianapolis Colts
AFC/NFC Crossover: AFC North, NFC East
Swing Games: New England, at Denver
Opponents ’13 Record: 43.0% (32nd)
Based on numbers, the Colts get the easiest schedule in 2014. Two swing games are as tough as any in the league as Indianapolis faces Peyton Manning on the road in Week 1 and Tom Brady at home in Week 11 following a bye week. A round-robin with the AFC North will be tough, as Indy faces Baltimore, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh in a four-week stretch early in the year. Getting six games against the Jags, Titans and Texans helps make this one of the easiest looking paths in the AFC. The key will be swing games against the NFC East. Wins over the Eagles and Redskins at home and road trips to the Giants and Cowboys could decide if this team gets a first-round bye or not.
32. Houston Texans
AFC/NFC Crossover: AFC North, NFC East
Swing Games: Buffalo, at Oakland
Opponents ’13 Record: 44.1% (30th)
The Texans will face three playoff teams (four games) all season long in 2014 and three of them will take place at home. Swing games with Buffalo and Oakland are early in the year and should be wins for Houston. Four games with Tennessee and Jacksonville offer opportunity as well. Package that with the AFC North and NFC East and Houston doesn’t have a guaranteed loss on the entire schedule. Is a road trip to Dallas the toughest game of the year? At Indianapolis? At Pittsburgh?
Scheduling in college football is all that matters. Sure, coaching, rosters and even a little bit of luck play bigger roles in determining championships in the NCAA ranks.
But scheduling in college football plays as big a role as any of those other factors. Non-conference play varies greatly from team to team. So, too, does crossover play within the divisions of any conference. Home and road slates are important — especially for the championship-deciding, rivalry-bragging, marquee showdowns. And the important bye weekends also play a large role in ironing out win-loss records in any given season.
So taking all of the above into account, which team has the toughest schedule in the Big Ten in 2014?
1. Rutgers Scarlet Knights
Crossover: at Nebraska, Wisconsin
Non-Conference: at Washington St, Howard, at Navy, Tulane
Opponents ’13 Record: 97-58 (62.6%, 9th)
In its first year in the Big Ten, Rutgers has been handed the toughest schedule of any team in the league based on how teams fared last year (9th nationally with 97-58 opponents record). Talk about your rude welcomes. Rutgers will play two of the best teams from the West and will likely be picked to finish last in the East. A long road trip to Washington State and the short trek to Annapolis, Md., to face Navy in non-conference action means a 2-2 record could be expected before facing a Big Ten slate that has one winnable game (Indiana at home, Nov. 15). The off weekend comes between facing Michigan and Ohio State but there isn’t a lot to like about what could be a horrible first season in a new league.
2. Maryland Terrapins
Crossover: Iowa, at Wisconsin
Non-Conference: James Madison, at USF, West Virginia, at Syracuse
Opponents ’13 Record: 86-67 (56.2%, 40th)
The non-conference schedule doesn’t have a marquee game but three tough bouts with regional rivals (Cuse, WVU) along with a long road trip to USF. But the conference slate is what makes this such a touch schedule. Maryland will likely play the best six teams in the league over a six-game stretch with Ohio State, Iowa and Michigan State at home coupled with road dates at Wisconsin, Penn State and Michigan. The only good news is that both bye weeks fall in the middle of that nasty six-game stretch. This doesn’t include a trek to Indiana and home game with Rutgers. And all of this while playing in the Big Ten for the first time.
3. Indiana Hoosiers
Crossover: at Iowa, Purdue
Non-Conference: Indiana St, at Bowling Green, at Missouri, N. Texas
Opponents ’13 Record: 93-64 (59.2%, 24th)
Last year’s schedule was one of the toughest (93-64) of any team in the Big Ten and, now in a tougher division, Indiana hasn’t gotten any favors for ’14 either. Road trips to Iowa, Ohio State, Michigan and Missouri are brutal and home tests with Penn State and Maryland make it very difficult to see Indiana getting to a bowl game. In particular, the non-conference slate could be one of the tougher in the league with trips to Bowling Green, Mizzou and hosting a developing North Texas squad.
4. Illinois Fighting Illini
Crossover: at Ohio State, Penn State
Non-Conference: Youngstown St, W. Kentucky, at Washington, Texas St
Opponents ’13 Record: 90-61 (59.6%, 21st)
The Illini have a nasty road trip to Seattle to face Washington and also will face two quality mid-major teams, so starting out 3-1 isn’t a lock. Then things get nasty for Illinois. Road trips to Nebraska, Wisconsin, Ohio State and Northwestern are all tough and the home slate includes Penn State, Minnesota and Iowa. There is one, maybe two, winnable Big Ten games this year for Illinois — even with an improved offense. Crossover play might be the worst of any team in the league. Lastly, Illinois doesn’t get to play… Illinois.
5. Purdue Boilermakers
Crossover: Michigan State, at Indiana
Non-Conference: W. Michigan, C. Michigan, at Notre Dame, S. Illinois
Opponents ’13 Record: 84-67 (55.6%, 43rd)
Simply because Purdue doesn’t get to play Purdue, it makes the Boilermakers' schedule the toughest within the division. And with Michigan State (home) and Indiana (road) in crossover play, Purdue has one of the tougher slates in the league. A four-game stretch in the middle of the year — Michigan State, at Minnesota, at Nebraska and Wisconsin —with a bye week in the middle is one of the toughest months any team has to deal with. Iowa and Notre Dame in the first month make this schedule tough from beginning to end.
6. Minnesota Golden Gophers
Crossover: at Michigan, Ohio State
Non-Conference: E. Illinois, Middle Tennessee, at TCU, San Jose St
Opponents ’13 Record: 85-68 (55.6%, 46th)
A visit to TCU is the toughest non-conference game on the slate and that will be a challenge but what makes the Gophers' schedule so tough is its Big Ten slate. Crossover is brutal with a trip to Michigan and home date with Ohio State. And the final month of the season is ridiculously hard with a four-game stretch that includes Iowa at home, Ohio State and back-to-back visits to Nebraska and Wisconsin on the road to end things. The only good news for Jerry Kill’s bunch is at least the team gets a bye week Nov. 1 before these final four games. A repeat of eight wins would be an excellent season for Minnesota.
7. Northwestern Wildcats
Crossover: at Penn State, Michigan
Non-Conference: Cal, No. Illinois, W. Illinois, at Notre Dame
Opponents ’13 Record: 76-76 (50%, 78th)
The non-conference schedule isn’t all that easy with a Pac-12 opponent, the best program in the MAC and a road trip to Notre Dame late in the year. Toss in a nasty crossover slate with Penn State (road) and Michigan (home) and Northwestern has one of the toughest schedules in the West Division. Both Wisconsin and Nebraska have to come to Evanston, but don't overlook road trips to Minnesota and Iowa either. For a team trying to bounce back from a disappointing season due in large part to a nasty schedule, this isn’t an easy slate for the Wildcats.
8. Michigan State Spartans
Crossover: Nebraska, at Purdue
Non-Conference: Jacksonville St, at Oregon, E. Michigan, Wyoming
Opponents ’13 Record: 83-71 (53.9%, 55th)
The highlight of the first month is easily the toughest non-conference game in the league when the Spartans visit Oregon in Week 2. Then Big Ten play starts in primetime against Nebraska followed up by a trip to Purdue. It means Sparty will play six straight straight division games to end the year. The best news about the tough final six weeks is an off weekend falls directly between a home game with rival Michigan (Oct. 25) and conference frontrunner Ohio State (Nov. 8). Road trips to Maryland and Penn State in the final three weeks could be very difficult as well.
9. Ohio State Buckeyes
Crossover: Illinois, at Minnesota
Non-Conference: at Navy, Virginia Tech, Kent St, Cincinnati
Opponents ’13 Record: 87-66 (56.9%, 35th)
The Buckeyes boast one of the league’s toughest non-conference slates but have one of the easier crossover slates with the Illini and Gophers on tap. Both bye weeks take place early in the year and won’t break up any of the tough division games that seem to be backloaded in Columbus. Over the final six weeks, Ohio State will visit Penn State, Michigan State and Minnesota while hosting Indiana and Michigan. This is a tougher slate than most league favorites can boast nationally.
10. Michigan Wolverines
Crossover: Minnesota, at Northwestern
Non-Conference: App. State, at Notre Dame, Miami (Ohio), Utah
Opponents ’13 Record: 81-71 (53.3%, 59th)
The Wolverines boast some intriguing non-conference tilts with Notre Dame, a rising FBS program in AP-State and Pac-12 foe Utah, so the start to the year could be very testy for the embattled Maize and Blue coaching staff. The good news for Michigan is the bye weekends set up nicely before and after critical games. The first of which will come between two huge games with Penn State at home (Oct. 11) and a trip to defending champs Michigan State (Oct. 25). Then the second off weekend comes before the final two games with Maryland (home) and archrival Ohio State (road). Like the Buckeyes, Michigan will miss Wisconsin, Nebraska and Iowa in crossover play.
11. Nebraska Cornhuskers
Crossover: at Michigan State, Rutgers
Non-Conference: FAU, McNeese St, at Fresno St, Miami
Opponents ’13 Record: 90-63 (58.8%, 25th)
A tricky non-conference slate is highlighted by a long trip to Fresno and a visit from Miami. All four could be wins but at least two will be tough games. Additionally, crossover play is more difficult for Nebraska than the other contenders in the West Division (Wisconsin, Iowa). The bye weeks come at perfect times after the first five games and just before the tough final three-game stretch.
12. Penn State Nittany Lions
Crossover: Northwestern, at Illinois
Non-Conference: UCF, Akron, UMass, Temple
Opponents ’13 Record: 79-73 (51.9%, 68th)
The non-conference slate is going to be very tame for Penn State now that Blake Bortles is gone from UCF, so a 4-0 start should be expected. Then the Lions get a bye week before two of their toughest three games of the year before visiting Michigan (Oct. 11) and hosting Ohio State (Oct. 25). Then Penn State gets a November loaded with gimmies, including a bizarre late-season semi-rivalry with Temple, before hosting Michigan State at home. A win over the Spartans not only could change the complexion of the division title but could give Penn State a double-digit win season.
13. Iowa Hawkeyes
Crossover: Indiana, at Maryland
Non-Conference: No. Iowa, Ball St, Iowa St, at Pitt
Opponents ’13 Record: 68-70 (49.3%, 85th)
Iowa has an interesting non-conference slate with two in-state rivals who have played the Hawkeyes tough (Northern Iowa, Iowa State) consistently and a road trip to Pitt isn’t an easy game either. Crossover play sets up well with Indiana and Maryland posing as two winnable but tricky games. The key is missing Penn State, Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State and getting both Wisconsin and Nebraska at home to end the season. A road trip to Minnesota might actually be the toughest situation the Hawkeyes face all season.
14. Wisconsin Badgers
Crossover: Maryland, at Rutgers
Non-Conference: LSU, W. Illinois, Bowling Green, USF
Opponents ’13 Record: 74-78 (48.7%, 87th)
LSU in Houston to start the year might be the toughest game Wisconsin plays all season long. Otherwise, the opening Big Ten slate is almost comically easy for the Badgers. At Northwestern, Illinois, bye week, Maryland, at Rutgers and at Purdue will all feature large point spreads in Wisconsin’s favor. Over the final three weeks, however, things get interesting with road trips to Nebraska, Iowa and a home tilt with rival Minnesota. There is no Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State or Penn State on the slate for UW. Double-digit wins doesn’t seem like an unreasonable expectation by any stretch of the imagination.