Articles By Braden Gall

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It has certainly been a tumultuous offseason for the Big Ten. Jim Delany battled Mike Slive in playoff negotiations that completely restructed the way college football determines a national champion. Ohio State, now with Urban Meyer leading the way, and Michigan appear to be entering a golden age in the Buckeyes-Wolverines rivarly. Illinois has hired its own new head coach. And Penn State football will take the field for the first time since Joe Paterno's passing. Needless to say, the first weekend of Big Ten action will have no shortage of plotlines. 

Big Ten's Top 10 Storylines to Watch in Week 1:

1. Penn State football returns to the field
When Ohio and Penn State take the field on Saturday the entire college football world will be watching. It will be the first time PSU will play since the passing of Joe Paterno or the issuing of NCAA sanctions. It will be the first time Bill O'Brien coaches a game at any level. It will be the first time Nittany Lions everywhere will be unified behind its football team. And it might be the highest-rated first quarter of the entire 2012 season. The atmosphere will be surreal, the national anthem will be bizarre and the first time "We Are" echoes through Happy Valley, there won't be a dry eye in the house.  Most importantly, however, the game could be very competitive. Ohio is a preseason favorite in the MAC and Tyler Tettleton is a dynamic presence at quarterback. Penn State will counter with a stingy defense. Look for emotion to play the pivotal role for the Nittany Lions. 

2. Can Michigan carry the Big Ten torch against the defending champs?
The angst directed southward from the Midwest to the Sun Belt region is palpable. The SEC has won six straight titles, Jim Delany and Mike Slive battle regularly off the field for headlines and revenue and the SEC has crushed the Big Ten in recent title bouts. While the Big Ten plays the SEC fairly even in bowl games as a whole, the B1G hasn't broken through in a big game in quite some time. A win over Alabama would be a huge feather in the league's cap should Michigan pull off the monumental upset in Week 1. The Tide has a reworked defense, Michigan has an electric senior quarterback and the game is being played on a fast track in Jerry's Palace. If there ever was a time for a signature win for the conference and/or Michigan, this Saturday is the time. However, Barrett Jones and the monster Crimson Tide offensive line will likely keep the SEC's foot securely on the Big Ten's neck.

3. How good are Michigan State, Andrew Maxwell?
While Michigan and Alabama do battle Saturday night, the marquee national showdown Friday night between Boise State and the Spartans could be the best Big Ten game of Week 1. Both teams are built on physicality, both have elite leaders at head coach and both have to replace the top quarterback in program history. The Broncos have been stellar in season openers against BCS foes, but unlike wins over Oregon, Georgia or Virginia Tech, this game is a true road trip. And Michigan State's defense is no joke. Mark Dantonio will lean heavily on tailback Le'Veon Bell in an effort to ease Andrew Maxwell into the starting role. From all accounts, he is very similar to Kirk Cousins in style, skillset and demeanor. But until the bright lights of a national television broadcast against a top 25 opponent come on, he is still an unknown. A physical performance over Boise State confirms beliefs that this team is a Big Ten championship team. A loss might slide Sparty back into "rebuilding" mode.

4. Urban Meyer returns to the state of Ohio
Meyer was born in Toledo, Ohio, played defensive back at Cincinnati and got his start in coaching at St. Xavier High School in, you guessed it, the state of Ohio. His first college gig was at Ohio State. Now, he triumphantly returns to The Buckeye State with multiple national championships and expectations that border on absurd. Ohio State fans know Meyer is a proven winner and they know their roster is stacked with talent, so no bowl or Big Ten championship sanctions are going to temper the fervor building in Columbus. Sophomore star Braxton Miller fits the new scheme perfectly so 2012 could simply be a really great tailgate party for the 2013 expected romp through the Big Ten. But it all begins with Miami of Ohio this weekend. The first time the former SEC coach witnesses Script Ohio draped in the Scarlet and Gray will undoubtedly be an emotional moment.

5. Key season in Lincoln begins with C-USA Champs
Bo Pelini has won at least nine games in each of his four seasons as the Huskers head coach and was literally seconds from a Big 12 championship in 2009. But he also lost at least four games every year for a team that expects not just conference titles but national championships. His defense has lost its edge since 2009 and a change at the coordinator position to John Papuchis will hopefully reenergize the Black Shirts. And the first weekend will feature an intriguing test against the reigning C-USA champion Southern Miss Golden Eagles. Even without head coach Larry Fedora or star quarterback Austin Davis, the Eagles should be able to score points this fall. Having said that, this USM team should be outmatched by Taylor Martinez. Any sign of struggle could be a dangerous omen for Pelini.

6. Kain Colter era begins with tricky road test
For a program scrapping for its bowl life each season, non-conference games in which Northwestern is favored are huge games. Especially, against fellow BCS conference teams. Syracuse has a hard-nosed coach and veteran quarterback, so the trip to the Carrier Dome won't be easy. But new Wildcat signal caller Kain Colter could be the most talented, most electrifying player on the field. He can run, throw and catch and now has the starting job all to himself. He also has arguably the deepest and most gifted receiving corps in Northwestern history at his disposal. Pat Fitzgerald knows he has to win most "swing games" to make it to the postseason and this one defines the term.

7. Another ACC transfer starts under center for Wisconsin
Everyone knows the story by now. For the second straight season, the Badgers will hang their conference title hopes on a former ACC quarterback who is eligible to play immediately following a spring transfer. The only difference in the two tales is that Danny O'Brien is not Russell Wilson. Wilson has proven to be a special player already earning a starting spot for the Seattle Seahawks. He also set NCAA records, led the Badgers to a Big Ten title and might be the best player to ever play the position in Madison. While O'Brien is in easily the best offensive situation he has even experienced — great OL, elite RB, solid coaching staff — he has cast some doubt over his tenure by allowing Joel Stave to battle for the starting spot deep into camp. Badgers fans are hoping it was just Bret Bielema's way of pushing the former Maryland Terrapin, because the starting quarterback needs to be ready for the Big Ten opener at Nebraska in Week 5.

8. Upset Alert: Kirk Ferentz should be nervous about Week 1
Former Wisconsin assistant Dave Doeren has a quality program rolling at Northern Illinois and if the Iowa Hawkeyes aren't careful, they will leave Chicago with a loss. The Huskies won their final nine games last season, including the MAC championship and the GoDaddy.com Bowl. Losing star quarterback Chandler Harnish hurts the offense in a big way, but Jordan Lynch appears capable of leading NIU. This means Kirk Ferentz will have to find a running game to support his star quarterback James Vandenberg. This offensive line couldn't run the ball or protect the quarterback last fall and needs to improve if the Hawkeyes want to start the season with a win. Quickly developing and rebuilding the defensive front under new coordinator Phil Parker would help as well. This could be a make or break season in Iowa City for Ferentz and a season-opening loss to Northern Illinois would be devastating to Hawkeye faithful.

9. Tim Beckman era begins at Illinois
Many believe in Beckman the coach, despite his questionable recruiting tactics with current Penn State players. He did great things at Toledo, leading the Rockets to a 16-2 MAC record over the last two seasons. His teams posted big numbers on offense and contended for conference crowns. He now has a totally different level of athlete at Illinois after following a guy who was known for his ability to attract talent. This team is a large unknown in the Leaders Division and a big showing against a solid Western Michigan team could be a sign of positive things to come in Champaign.

10. Hoosier State battle a must-win for Kevin Wilson
Wilson's first year in Bloomington wasn't pretty. The Hoosiers won a single game over South Carolina State and posted losses to the Sun Belt (North Texas) and the MAC (Ball State). The offense did show signs of life in Big Ten play as Tre Roberson and Stephen Houston sparked the rushing attack. This meeting with FCS member Indiana State might be the best shot at a win all season for Indiana and it probably doesn't help the Hoosiers' conference that some are already calling for the upset. A loss could cripple the IU season before it even gets started.

Week 1 Big Ten Predictions:

Week 1 Games Braden Gall Mitch Light Steven Lassan David Fox
Minnesota (-8.5) at UNLV Minnesota, 24-10 Minnesota, 31-17 Minnesota, 31-10 Minnesota, 35-14
Boise St (+6) at Michigan St Michigan St, 27-17 Michigan St, 28-14 Michigan St, 27-17 Michigan St, 21-17
Northwestern (-1.5) at Syracuse N'Western, 31-24 N'Western, 28-24 N'Western, 31-27 N'Western, 28-21
Ohio (+6) at Penn State Penn St, 21-13 Penn St, 21-13 Ohio, 24-20 Ohio, 14-10
W. Michigan (+10) at Illinois Illinois, 31-14 W. Michigan, 30-27 Illinois, 27-24 Illinois, 28-17
Miami, OH (+23) at Ohio St Ohio St, 37-10 Ohio St, 41-14 Ohio St, 45-13 Ohio St, 38-10
Iowa (-10) at N. Illinois Iowa, 24-17 Iowa, 30-17 Iowa, 27-20 N. Illinois, 17-14
E. Kentucky (off) at Purdue Purdue, 38-10 Purdue, 41-14 Purdue, 41-10 Purdue, 28-7
S. Miss (+20) at Nebraska Nebraska, 34-14 Nebraska, 34-20 Nebraska, 38-13 Nebraska, 35-10
N. Iowa (off) at Wisconsin Wisconsin, 49-17 Wisconsin, 41-8 Wisconsin, 45-7 Wisconsin, 38-7
Indiana St (off) at Indiana Indiana, 24-20 Indiana, 21-17 Indiana, 34-20 Indiana St, 21-14
Michigan (+13) at Alabama Alabama, 31-17 Alabama, 27-13 Alabama, 31-13 Alabama, 28-24

by Braden Gall

@bradengall

Related College Football Content

ACC Week 1 Previews and Predictions
Big East Week 1 Previews and Predictions

Big 12 Week 1 Previews and Predictions

Pac-12 Week 1 Previews and Predictions

SEC Week 1 Previews and Predictions

College Football Week 1 Upset Picks

Athlon's 2012 Bowl Projections

Ranking All College Football Teams 1-124

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<p> Big Ten Week 1 Preview and Predictions</p>
Post date: Thursday, August 30, 2012 - 06:10
Path: /college-football/pac-12-week-1-preview-and-predictions
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The Pac-12 is in the best position to challenge the SEC's strangle-hold on college football. Both USC and Oregon are ranked in the top five and have eyes not only on the Pac-12 title, but also the BCS National Championship. The Trojans are the nation's No. 1 team but the Ducks are the three-time defending conference champs. Something has to give. Additionally, this league added four new head coaches that will bring electric new offenses to a conference that already gives defensive coordinators nightmares. While there isn't a marquee showdown in Week 1 like years past, there are still plenty of intriguing match-ups that could be closer than the experts think.

Pac-12's Top 10 Storylines to Watch in Week 1:

1. Lane Kiffin's Quest for a National Championship
The high profile coach has been dealing with maturity questions since leaving Tennessee in unorthodox fashion in 2010. After recruiting and coaching in the face of NCAA sanctions, his 2011 team showed marked improvement after the five-loss debut of two years ago. With Matt Barkley's return to Heritage Hall, Kiffin has all the pieces in place to challenge the SEC's run at national supremacy. A trip to the championship game would begin to validate his brash attitude and coaching style. The Hawaii Warriors and new head coach Norm Chow — who is a former Kiffin co-worker at USC — won't pose much of a threat this weekend, but Barkley's Heisman campaign and Kiffin's quest for a championship begins in primetime on FOX's first-ever network regular-season college football broadcast.

2. The West Coast gets more offensive
The Pac-12 has always been labeled as an offensive-minded conference that fails to play elite defense. While that argument may never have a definitive answer, one thing is certain: The league's four new head coaches will cause plenty of additional headaches for defensive coordinators. Mike Leach, Rich Rodriguez and Todd Graham are widely considered three of the top offensive minds in the game today and all three will begin their tenures this weekend. Leach's air raid, RichRod's zone read option and Graham's spread will do nothing to shift the national perspective that this is an offensive league only. While Jim Mora Jr., may not be thought of on the same level in terms of game-planning as his three new Pac-12 peers, his offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone should do plenty to ignite a recently dormant UCLA offense.

3. What will life be like without Andrew Luck?
The best pro prospect since John Elway has traded in his Cardinal red for Colts blue, leaving David Shaw and Stanford with arguably the biggest void in the nation. Junior Josh Nunes battled with sophomore Brett Nottingham all summer long for the right to fill those big shoes and Shaw named the 6-foot-4, 216-pound Nunes the starter. When he attempts his first throw Friday night against San Jose State it will be his first pass since November 20, 2010, and so some rust should be expected. The Spartans should rollover relatively easily, so it is a perfect chance for Nunes to ease his way into the starting line-up. However, on a team that has gone 23-3 over the last two seasons under Luck's leadership, the pressure to win on The Farm has reached unprecedented levels. Nunes needs to prove quickly that he will be ready for Pac-12 play. USC comes to town in Week 3.

4. Redshirt freshmen set to lead conference contenders
Okay, calling UCLA a conference contender might be a small reach in 2012. Yet, the two teams that met in the inaugural Pac-12 title game will turn their hopes for a return trip over to redshirt freshmen quarterbacks. The Bruins will start Brett Hundley, a 6-foot-4, 225-pound Chandler, Ariz., native, against Rice on the road to open the year. He is charged with stabilizing a position that has been a complete mess for the better part of a decade. Meanwhile, national title hopeful Oregon will unleash Marcus Mariota on the Arkansas State Red Wolves. Mariota is a dynamic 6-foot-4, 195-pound dual-threat who has drawn Dennis Dixon comparisons — and possibly forced Darron Thomas to declare early for the NFL. Both players are highly-touted, upside prospects who enter the starting line-up with loads of expectations. And pressure to win.

5. Fireworks-a-plenty in Provo
Mike Leach, a former BYU undergraduate who learned his craft from famous Cougars LaVell Edwards and Norm Chow, returns to Provo with an offense that could be one of the most dangerous in the nation. Jeff Tuel and a host of talented receivers will give Bronco Mendenhall, who is also the defensive coordinator at BYU, all he can handle. The blue and white Cougars won nine of their final 10 games last fall, but against the top two offenses it faced, Utah and TCU, Mendenhall's defense allowed 92 points in two losses. Washington State will also struggle to stop Riley Nelson and company, but Leach understands this game could decide bowl eligibility at the end of the yeart. Wazzu will keep this one much closer than the two-touchdown spread indicates and just might pull the upset outright.

6. Early barometer for reworked Husky defense
There are a lot of new faces playing for and coaching the Washington defense this fall. Justin Wilcox, Peter Simon and Tosh Lupoi were off-season hires that made national waves for Steve Sarkisian. After allowing 777 total yards of offense and 67 points in the bowl loss to Baylor, Coach Sark knew something had to be done. Six new starters, including uber-recruit Shaq Thompson, will be asked to execute the new staff's scheme in an effort to improve last season's 106th-rated defense. And while San Diego State won't come close to the upset, Wilcox should get a quality gauge of his unit's development against former Pac-12 passer Ryan Katz. The Aztecs are used to being a competitive team and have been strong on offense over the last few years, so Coach Sark should get a solid picture of his defense right out of the gate. A strong showing will lead to optimism heading into a Week 2 trip to LSU. A poor showing against the Oregon State transfer will have Les Miles licking his chops.

7. Is Jeff Tedford's job at stake in Week 1?
The last time Nevada and Cal got together, Colin Kaepernick and the Wolfpack rolled-up 316 yards rushing and 52 points in a home win over the Bears. Two seasons later, Jeff Tedford enters the season needing to win and show improvement to keep the temperature on his coaching seat to a minimum. While Kaepernick is now in the NFL, Chris Ault's pistol system has a new star in quarterback Cody Fajardo – who led the team in rushing and scored 11 touchdowns on the ground last fall as a freshman. Tedford also turned to the ground game down the stretch last fall and Isi Solfele led this team to a bowl after a 3-1 finish to the season. The Golden Bears will once again need the rushing game in order to take pressure off starting quarterback Zach Maynard and a rebuilt, Mychal Kendricks-less defense. 

8. Upset Alert: RichRod's offense better be ready
Rich Rodriguez begins his tenure as the Arizona Wildcats head coach on upset alert against the Toledo Rockets. His offense, led by a senior dual-threat quarterback, five returning starters along the offensive line and a future star in tailback Ka'Deem Carey, will need to be sharp right out of the gate to beat the MAC contender. Toledo averaged over 42 points per game last year on offense, and while wideout Eric Page and coach Tim Beckman are no longer present, the Rockets will still be able to score plenty under new coach Matt Campbell. This should be a high-scoring affair with plenty of big plays, so the Wildcats' Matt Scott will have to play well in the new zone read scheme.

9. Gus Malzahn vs. Chip Kelly, Part II
It wasn't that long ago that Guz Malzahn was standing on the sidelines of the national championship game watching Michael Dyer pirouette his way to a BCS Championship Game MVP award. Chip Kelly was there, too. And there is no chance Kelly has forgotten that night. The Red Wolves of Arkansas State could be in for a long night as Kelly, defensive coordinator Nick Allioti and Kenjon Barner exact their revenge on the former Auburn offensive coordinator. The first half should be entertaining as Mariota and Ryan Aplin go head-to-head, but the second half could be a bloody Red Wolf massacre.

10. Can Utah find a passing game?
The Utes are considered the top challenger to USC in the Pac-12 South this fall. They have one of the league's top defenses and a record-setting tailback in John White. Yet, this team was incredibly one-dimensional last fall once quarterback Jordan Wynn got injured. If Utah and Kyle Whittingham expect to compete with Barkley and Kiffin, a more balanced offense is a must. Wynn won't need to be great against Northern Colorado, but should he play poorly — or as soon as the game gets out of hand — fans should expect a long look at heralded freshman back-up Travis Wilson.

Week 1 Pac-12 Predictions:

Week 1 Pac-12 Games Braden Gall Mitch Light Steven Lassan David Fox
N. Colorado (off) at Utah Utah, 41-7 Utah, 34-10 Utah, 52-3 Utah, 35-10
UCLA (-16) at Rice UCLA, 31-14 UCLA, 37-14 UCLA, 42-17 UCLA, 31-14
Washintgon St (+13) at BYU Wash. St, 31-30 BYU, 31-30 BYU, 38-34 BYU, 24-17
N. Arizona (off) at Arizona St Arizona St, 31-14 Arizona St, 30-14 Arizona St, 45-10 Arizona St, 28-24
San Jose St (+25.5) at Stanford Stanford, 35-7 Stanford, 41-14 Stanford, 44-7 Stanford, 38-10
Nevada (+10.5) at Cal Cal, 30-20 Cal, 30-23 Cal, 31-27 Cal, 28-21
Nicholls St (off) at Oregon St Oregon St, 31-10 Oregon St, 41-14 Oregon St, 41-7 Oregon St, 35-10
Colorado St (+6.5) vs. Colorado* Colorado, 14-13 Colorado, 17-13 Colorado, 27-20 Colorado, 10-7
Hawaii (+38) at USC USC, 49-13 USC, 48-16 USC, 55-10 USC, 56-7
Toledo (+10) at Arizona Arizona, 31-24 Arizona, 37-24 Arizona, 37-30 Toledo, 38-35
San Diego St (+14.5) at Washington Wash., 38-24 Wash., 33-20 Wash., 40-17 Wash., 42-17
Arkansas St (+35.5) at Oregon Oregon, 45-17 Oregon, 54-28 Oregon, 51-20 Oregon, 56-28

* - game played in Denver.

by Braden Gall

@bradengall

Related College Football Content

ACC Week 1 Previews and Predictions
Big East Week 1 Previews and Predictions

Big Ten Week 1 Previews and Predictions

Big 12 Week 1 Previews and Predictions

SEC Week 1 Previews and Predictions

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Athlon's 2012 Bowl Projections

Ranking All College Football Teams 1-124

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<p> Pac-12 Week 1 Preview and Predictions</p>
Post date: Thursday, August 30, 2012 - 06:00
All taxonomy terms: NFC, NFC West, San Francisco 49ers, NFL, News
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Athlon Sports is counting down its 2012 NFL preseason Power Rankings with in-depth team previews, schedule analysis and more as the start of the NFL season draws near.

The San Francisco 49ers check in at No. 2.

The 49ers blew their cover last season. They’re not going sneak up on anyone this year after making a stunning run to the NFC title game during coach Jim Harbaugh’s rookie season. The 49ers went 13–3 during the regular season, running away with the NFC West crown and establishing themselves as a defensive powerhouse. They opened the playoffs with a 36–32 victory over the Saints, then pushed the Giants to overtime in the NFC title game before falling 20–17.

Not bad considering that Harbaugh took over a 6–10 team and, thanks to the lockout, didn’t get to coach the 49ers until training camp opened.

Harbaugh set the bar ridiculously high, but no one should be stunned if the 49ers make another run deep into the NFC playoffs in his second season. Almost every starter from last year’s team is back, and the 49ers added some offensive weapons. They signed a trio of free agents — wide receivers Randy Moss and Mario Manningham and running back Brandon Jacobs — then used their top two draft picks on speedy Illinois wideout A.J. Jenkins and explosive Oregon running back LaMichael James.

Offense

Quarterback Alex Smith is coming off a career year, but that didn’t stop the 49ers from making a run at Peyton Manning. Smith ultimately signed a new three-year deal with the 49ers, but their pursuit of Manning made it clear Smith has more to prove before he’s considered the long-term answer. The 49ers have options at the position. They traded up in the second round last year to take Colin Kaepernick. This offseason they signed free agent Josh Johnson, a former Buccaneer who played for Harbaugh at the University of San Diego.

Smith had a career-high passer rating of 90.7 with 17 TD passes and a league-low five interceptions last season. But he posted those numbers running an ultra-conservative, run-dominated offense that ranked 29th in passing and struggled in the red zone and on third down.

The 49ers addressed their lack of talent and depth at wide receiver during the offseason, adding Moss, Manningham and Jenkins, who caught 90 passes as a senior. Moss sat out last season and is 35, but he has 954 catches for 14,858 yards and 153 TDs in his career. If he’s even a shadow of his former self, Moss will give Smith a legitimate deep threat. Manningham, who earned a Super Bowl ring last season with the Giants, gives Smith another big, sure-handed target. The new additions should take attention away from Michael Crabtree (72 catches), who does most of his work on short and intermediate routes, and Vernon Davis (67), who has 35 career TD catches, a franchise record for a tight end.

Harbaugh will have more weapons at wide receiver, but his offense will still revolve around Frank Gore and a power running attack. Gore rushed for 1,211 yards last season, and the 49ers’ rushing attack ranked No. 8 in the league. Gore will run behind a powerful offensive line that returns four of five starters — Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Staley, left guard Mike Iupati, center Jonathan Goodwin and right tackle Anthony Davis. The 49ers lost starting right guard Adam Snyder to Arizona as a free agent. Alex Boone, a backup tackle last year, Daniel Kilgore and rookie Joe Looney will wage a training camp battle for the starting job. The slippery Kendall Hunter rushed for 473 yards as a rookie and will provide a change-of-pace off the bench behind Gore. James and Jacobs give Harbaugh two more options in the backfield.

Defense

The 49ers return almost everyone from a defense that ranked fourth in total yards allowed and first against the run. That group includes three All-Pro picks — defensive lineman Justin Smith and linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman — as well as free safety Dashon Goldson and cornerback Carlos Rogers, who were Pro Bowl picks. The only likely change in the starting lineup on defense is outside linebacker Aldon Smith, coming off a remarkable 14-sack rookie season, bumping Parys Haralson to a reserve role.

The 49ers’ 3-4 defense proved almost impossible to run against last season under first-year defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, allowing just 77.3 yards per game, and there’s no reason to believe that should change this year, not with Justin Smith, Willis and Bowman tackling everything that moves. Bowman, in just his second NFL season, led the 49ers with 143 tackles. Willis had 97, and the relentless Smith 58, along with 7.5 sacks.

As they did last season, the 49ers will try to stop the run, make opponents one-dimensional, then feast on interceptions and sacks. Last year they had 23 interceptions and 42 sacks. Rogers and Goldson had six interceptions apiece, while cornerback Tarell Brown had four. The 49ers ranked 16th against the pass, in part because opponents often abandoned the run, but also because the secondary was the weakest link on a shutdown defense. Rogers, Brown, Goldson and strong safety Donte Whitner can expect to be tested often.

Specialists

One of GM Trent Baalke’s best offseason decisions last year was the signing of free agent kicker David Akers. Akers and punter Andy Lee both set NFL records while earning All-Pro honors, and those two key weapons return for another season. Akers made an NFL single-season record 44 field goals. Lee averaged an NFL single-season record 44.0 net yards per punt. With the 49ers’ offense often struggling to get into the end zone, Akers was called on repeatedly to salvage three points. Lee, meanwhile, helped the 49ers consistently win the field possession battle.

The 49ers re-signed dangerous return man Ted Ginn Jr. Last year he became the first 49er and 12th player in NFL history to return both a kick and a punt for touchdowns in the same game. The 49ers place a huge emphasis on special teams, and the speedy Ginn gives special teams coordinator Brad Seely’s group a chance to score on every punt or kick.

Final Analysis: 1st in the NFC West

San Francisco, the only NFC West team to finish above .500 last year, is the clear favorite to win the division again, but matching or surpassing its 13–3 regular-season record isn’t likely. The 49ers have a brutal schedule that includes road games at New England, Green Bay, New Orleans and the New York Jets, as well as home games against the defending Super Bowl champion Giants and the up-and-coming Lions. The 49ers open the season against the Packers at Lambeau Field and play three of their first four games on the road.

The 49ers lived on the edge last year during their surprising run, coming from behind in the fourth quarter to win five times during the regular season, plus overcoming two fourth quarter deficits to beat the Saints in the playoffs. They also led the league with a remarkable plus-28 turnover margin. It’s unlikely the 49ers will match those numbers.

The defense is already built to win a Super Bowl. If the offense, with its new weapons, makes significant strides, then the 49ers will have a chance to take that final step.

Related: 2012 San Francisco 49ers Schedule Analysis

Outside The Huddle

Construction Zone
The 49ers under coach Jim Harbaugh consider themselves to be a blue-collar team, and they’ll be all but surrounded by blue-collar construction workers for the next few years. The 49ers broke ground in April on their new $1.2 billion stadium in Santa Clara, just across the street from team headquarters. “We’re a football oasis inside a construction zone,” Harbaugh says. “There are times when I can feel the jackhammer right underneath my desk. So I get to see it (being built) and feel it.” The new stadium is scheduled to open for the start of the 2014 season.

Catching On
Wide receiver A.J. Jenkins, a first-round pick from Illinois, caught 167 passes during his college career, putting his huge hands to good use. “In high school they called me E.T.,” Jenkins says. “Long hands, long fingers.” Jenkins says he could palm a basketball by the time he was 12 or 13 years old.

Football Reunion
Convincing free agent quarterback Josh Johnson to sign with the 49ers this year was hardly a tough sell for Harbaugh, who coached Johnson at the University of San Diego — where Johnson set career records for passing yards (9,699), touchdown passes (113), completions (724) and passing attempts (1,065). This is also a homecoming of sorts for Johnson, who went to high school across the bay from San Francisco at Oakland Tech.

Nowhere To Run
The 49ers went the first 14 games last season without allowing a rushing touchdown, the longest single-season streak to start a season in NFL history. They allowed just three rushing TDs all year, the fewest since the NFL went to a 16-game schedule in 1978.

An Award-winning Season
Defensive lineman Justin Smith earned All-Pro honors last season, but that tells only part of the story about the impact he made. Smith captured four of the 49ers’ most coveted team honors — the Len Eshmont Award (for “inspirational and courageous play”), the Hazeltine Iron Man Award (for “most courageous and inspirational defensive player”), the Bill Walsh Award (team MVP) and the Perry/Yonamine Unity Award (for “commitment to promoting unity and giving back to the community”).

Pro Bowl Steak
Linebacker Patrick Willis last season became the first player in 49ers history to make the Pro Bowl in each of his first five NFL seasons. He has had at least 128 tackles every season except 2011 when he missed three games with a hamstring injury.

Football Field Of Dreams
Considering his baseball genes, it’s surprising that third-year wide receiver Kyle Williams wound up in the NFL instead of professional baseball. His father, Kenny Williams, is the long-time general manager of the Chicago White Sox and a former Major League outfielder. His older brother, Kenny Jr., and younger brother, Tyler, are both playing minor league baseball. Kyle Williams was drafted by the White Sox out of high school in the 47th round, but he played football at Arizona State before being drafted by the 49ers in the sixth round in 2010. Kyle, though, did have a family connection to football, too. His father played football at Stanford.

2012 Athlon Sports NFL Power Rankings and Team Previews:

No. 32: Jacksonville Jaguars
No. 31: St. Louis Rams
No. 30: Minnesota Vikings
No. 29: Indianapolis Colts
No. 28: Cleveland Browns
No. 27: Miami Dolphins
No. 26: Arizona Cardinals
No. 25: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
No. 24: Kansas City Chiefs
No. 23: Oakland Raiders
No. 22: Washington Redskins
No. 21: Seattle Seahawks
No. 20: Carolina Panthers
No. 19: New York Jets
No. 18: Buffalo Bills
No. 17: Tennessee Titans
No. 16: San Diego Chargers
No. 15: Cincinnati Bengals
No. 14: Philadelphia Eagles
No. 13: New Orleans Saints
No. 12: Dallas Cowboys
No. 11: Denver Broncos
No. 10: Detroit Lions
No. 9: Chicago Bears
No. 8: Atlanta Falcons
No. 7: Baltimore Ravens
No. 6: Pittsburgh Steelers
No. 5: New York Giants
No. 4: New England Patriots
No. 3: Houston Texans
No. 2: San Francisco 49ers
No. 1: Fri., August 31

Order your 2012 San Francisco 49ers Athlon Sports NFL Preview magazine here

Related: 2012 San Francisco 49ers Schedule Analysis

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I do not condone, approve or encourage gambling on sports in any way. Playing a $50 cash game with your buddies every Wednesday's is more about the experience than the net revenue. At least, that is the case for me.

But if you are a fan of football — college or pro — and you don't think gambling has played a huge role in the growth and popularity of the sport, then you are simply being ignorant. It's the giant gorilla in the room that both the NCAA and NFL has wisely chosen to keep at arm's reach. But make no mistake, behind closed doors, the powers that be understand the impact betting has had on the game of football.

As a member of the sports media for nearly a decade, I have always felt it a conflict of interest to gamble on a sport I have to objectively analyize for a living. (Of course, not having any money to spare makes that decision easy.) However, point spreads are extremely interesting statistics. Tracking a line's movement or how experts in Vegas feel about a game can be a great mearsuring tool as to how the masses perceive any given team or match-up. It gives us a standard to compare all upsets and only adds fuel to great rivalries or marquee showdowns.

So for entertainment purposes, every Friday morning, I will bring you my top college football picks against the spread. And since Thursday night is a special college football extravaganza, I thought I would toss you a few early bones for the night. 

2012 Record Against The Spread: 0-0

Note: All lines are as of date of publication

South Carolina (-6.5) at Vanderbilt
The Commodores bring a lot of confidence into this season after a quality bowl year last fall. But they have major holes to plug on defense and will be facing what could be the nation's top running back in Marcus Lattimore. Carolina is 17-4 all-time against Vandy and has won the last three meetings. And much like those games, the Gamecocks defense could be the story this time around. The Dores have scored one offensive touchdown total in those three losses and has scored 10 total points in the last two meetings. Steve Spurrier's bunch has outscored Vanderbilt 42-10 in the last two meetings. Look for Carolina to take control of the line of scrimmage in the second half on both sides of the ball and spoil West End's party on Thursday night. The line has finally dropped below a touchdown and that is all I need to get on board. Prediction: South Carolina (-6.5)

Washington State (+13) at BYU
There are plenty of storylines in this one. Mike Leach is beginning his tenure in Pullman by playing against his former university where he learned most of his gameplan from LaVell Edwards and Norm Chow. The Cougars of Provo were solid on defense statistically, but played few quality offenses a year ago. TCU and Utah were the top two units they faced last fall and BYU allowed 92 points in the two losses. Leach brings an offense that ranked ninth nationally in passing last fall and returns largely intact before he added his mad scientist system to the party. With a veteran quarterback and deep receiving corps, Leach should have no problem scoring points on Thursday night. The Cougars of Washington State could easily win this game outright, so take the points. Even if the betting public has dropped the line a point. Additionally, take the over. Prediction: Washington State (+13)

Minnesota (-8.5) at UNLV
The Gophers showed marked improvement on the field last season as the year went along. In the final month, the Gophers toppled Iowa and Illinois behind the big-play ability of dual-threat quarterback MarQueis Gray. He rushed for 327 yards and three scores in the final two games of the season, giving fans in the Twin Cities some cautious opitmism about the 2012 season. The Rebels are 4-21 under head coach Bobby Hauck, finished 118th in the nation in scoring defense (40.2 ppg) and 113th in scoring offense (17.3 ppg), return only three starters on defense and are picked to finish ninth in the Mountain West. This line seems way out of whack for a Big Ten team that appears to be improving. Minnesota should win easily. Prediction: Minnesota (-8.5)

- by Braden Gall

@bradengall

College Football Week 1 Previews and Predictions:

Weekend on Tap: Picking the Top 10 Games of Week 1

ACC Week 1 Predictions and Preview
Big 12 Week 1 Predictions and Preview
Big East Week 1 Predictions and Preview
Big Ten Week 1 Predictions and Preview
Pac-12 Week 1 Predictions and Preview
SEC Week 1 Predictions and Preview

Teaser:
<p> College Football Betting Against the Spread: Thursday Night</p>
Post date: Thursday, August 30, 2012 - 05:30
All taxonomy terms: College Football
Path: /college-football/2012-bcs-national-championship-predictions
Body:

No. 1 USC Trojans vs. No. 2 LSU Tigers.

It's the official Athlon Sports magazine prediction for the 2012 BCS National Championship showdown. Nine college football junkies sat in a room at the end of April arguing, scrapping, clawing and sometimes throwing things at each other in an effort to finalize the 2012 championship game match-up. In the end, the USC Trojans emerged as the company's pick to hoist the famed crystal ball at season's end. 

For the record, Athlon has picked two of the last four national champs correctly. We went against the norm and tabbed Florida in 2008 while picking Alabama to be the 2011 national champions was far less risky. In 2009, Athlon went back to the Gator well and picked Tim Tebow's squad once again, yet came up one game short of the title game. In 2010, the magazine pegged Alabama as a repeat champ but clearly picked the wrong team from the Yellowhammer State. (If you can prove you picked Auburn in 2010 with hard evidence, we will give you all the credit you deserve.) The 2007 USC Trojans were the last non-SEC team projected to win the whole thing — and let's be honest, 2007 was the most bizarre and unpredictable season in the last 15 years of play. Ohio State and LSU were third and seventh in the standings respectively the week before the final BCS release. Missouri and West Virginia fans were left wondering "what if?" while a two-loss LSU team claimed the national title.

That is what makes college football the greatest sport on the planet. But Athlon is digging deeper as the season is set to begin Thursday night. There have been suspensions, dismissals, injuries, coaching moves and more since the magazine went to press, so we asked our editors to offer their individual predictions for the 2012 BCS National Championship Game:

Mitch Light (@AthlonMitch): LSU vs. USC
Our magazine picked USC and LSU as the top two teams back in the spring, and I see no reason to change my prediction now that the season is about to begin. Sure, LSU took a hit when Tyrann Mathieu was kicked off the team, but this is still an elite team that is ultra talented on both lines of scrimmage. USC’s already potent offense added a nice piece in the summer when former All-Big Ten running back Silas Redd left Penn State to play his final season in L.A. The Trojans’ defense isn’t quite as stout as some of the other national championship contenders, but it’s far from a weakness. As long as the D remains relatively healthy, USC should be able to outscore every team on its schedule. BCS Champion: USC 28, LSU 21

Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven): Alabama vs. USC
There’s not really one dominant team this season, so we could have a surprise team or two playing for the national championship. However, it’s hard to pick against a team from the SEC and USC. Alabama and LSU should be the top two teams from the SEC, and I like the Crimson Tide to edge the Tigers for the SEC West title. I like Georgia to win the East, but Alabama should win the matchup in Atlanta. USC’s depth is a major concern, but the offense is the best in college football, and the defense just needs to make timely stops. The Trojans may slip once during the regular season and beating Oregon (potentially) twice won’t be easy. However, USC is motivated after being on probation for the last two years, and a matchup between the Trojans and the SEC would be one of the most intriguing national championships in recent memory. Stopping Alabama’s rushing attack will be tough, but I think the Trojans find a way to edge the Crimson Tide for the national championship this season. BCS Champion: USC 27, Alabama 24

Braden Gall (@BradenGall): Oregon vs. Alabama
Here is how I see it playing out: USC and Bama enter Championship weekend unbeaten and poised to meet in the title game. Bama beats Georgia or South Carolina to finish 13-0 and clinch a trip to Miami Gardens. However, Oregon's defense and growth at quarterback will make their second trip south to Los Angeles more productive than their first. Not to mention with each passing week, the Men of Troy's depth issues are more and more likely to become a factor. With a 12-1 record and fourth-straight Pac-12 title, the pollsters will force the Ducks above an 11-1 LSU team — whose only loss will come at home at the hands of the Crimson Tide. There will be an overwhelming push from fans and national media against a second rematch with the exact same teams that will have met three times in 14 months. And this time, after knocking off the No. 1 team in the nation, I have no issue with the Ducks getting their crack at the SEC champions. Although, the outcome won't be much different. BCS Champion: Alabama 24, Oregon 20

Patrick Snow (@AthlonSnowman): LSU vs. USC
I had USC and LSU projected in the BCS Championship Game earlier this summer and still see those two powers as the best teams for the 2012 season. The Trojans possess college football’s top quarterback Matt Barkley, as well as the nation’s best pass catching unit with Robert Woods, Marqise Lee, George Farmer and tight ends Randall Telfer and Xavier Grimble. With the addition of Penn State transfer Silas Redd at running back, the USC offense should be lethal. The only question on defense is the line, but there is enough young talent there to complement a loaded back seven. Defending SEC champion LSU will be stacked once again, but the Tigers will have a tougher road in getting to the national title tilt. I definitely see an SEC vs. Pac-12 matchup in the big game, with Oregon and Alabama challenging the Trojans and Tigers. But in the end, I’ll take Matt Barkley and the USC offense break the SEC’s streak of six consecutive national crowns. BCS Champion: USC 27, LSU 23

Charlie Miller (@AthlonCharlie): Oklahoma vs. USC
The reign of SEC national championships will soon come to and end. Is the SEC no longer the premier conference? I didn't say that. The SEC is still dominant, but Alabama, LSU, Arkansas, South Carolina and Georgia will trip over each other just enough to leave the door open for one of the "minor" conferences to slip in. Oklahoma will be there lurking, as the Big 12 champion, to earn the right to play USC for the national championship. With Landry Jones returning, Oklahoma is the most skilled and toughest team in the Big 12. But the Sooners' fun will end there. Defensively, OU will not be able to keep up with the potent attack of the Trojans. Quarterback Matt Barkley has a corps of receivers that may rival some NFL teams. BCS Champion: USC 37, Oklahoma 27

David Fox (@DavidFox615): South Carolina vs. Oregon
I’m having trouble picking between Alabama and LSU in the SEC West. I love the defenses for both schools, but I could see the inexperience in Tuscaloosa and the big-play absence of Tyrann Mathieu catching up to the Tide and Tigers at some point this season. That’s why I’m going out on a limb and picking South Carolina in the SEC. This is a team that reached unprecedented heights the last two seasons despite the drama surrounding Stephen Garcia at quarterback. Now that situation is stabilized under Connor Shaw. In all the attention Alabama and LSU received for their D, South Carolina’s defense was overlooked. And in the Pac-12, I’m swayed back to picking Oregon. USC’s depth, especially on the defensive line, remains a liability -- and it plays right into Oregon’s hands. Sure, it’s a risk to pick a team with a redshirt freshman quarterback, but it sounds like Marcus Mariota isn’t just a place holder or an average rookie quarterback. He’s potentially the best run-pass threat Oregon has had since Dennis Dixon in 2007, and without a marquee non-conference game to start the season, he’ll have time to grow into his role. BCS Champion: Oregon 28, South Carolina 21

Rob Doster (@AthlonDoster): Virginia Tech vs. Oregon
It seems foolish to leave the SEC out the discussion after Alabama earned the league’s sixth straight BCS championship this past January. But all of the teams at the top of most rankings have significant questions — at least significant enough to open the door for a surprise or two. The Hokies make their living on defense, and this year’s unit might be the best in ace coordinator Bud Foster’s tenure. Frank Beamer will make the special teams a priority once again after a few uncharacteristic breakdowns recently, and the offense features a Heisman candidate at quarterback in Logan Thomas. Throw in a weak conference, and you have the ingredients for a championship run. In the title game, they’ll collide with an Oregon Ducks team that once again boasts breathtaking talent at the skill positions and will essentially be playing a one-game schedule (a Nov. 3 tilt with USC). Two years after letting Cam Newton and Auburn off the hook, Chip Kelly and company will close the deal this time. BCS Champion: Oregon 31, Virginia Tech 24

Mark Ross, Athlon Sports: LSU vs. USC
Matt Barkley and the rest of the Trojans were kept out of the BCS bowls last season because of NCAA penalties. There's nothing holding them back this season, including the high-powered Oregon Ducks, who the Men of Troy will defeat in a high-scoring Pac-12 title game to earn a spot in the national championship tilt. There they will meet fellow undefeated LSU, who like the Trojans is also seeking some redemption after a embarrassing no-show in last season's BCS Championship game against SEC West rival Alabama. This season, the Tigers will put an end to the Crimson Tide's repeat hopes by beating them in the regular season and go on to defeat Georgia in the SEC title game to get another shot at that crystal football. Unfortunately, for the second straight season a quarterback dashes Les Miles and company's title dreams as Barkley leads the Trojans to victory to cap off a storybook senior season. BCS Champion: USC 27, LSU 17

Nathan Rush, Athlon Sports: LSU vs. USC
There will be a Hollywood ending for senior quarterback Matt Barkley and the Trojans, who will emerge from the dark shadows of NCAA sanctions into the glimmering light of BCS national championship crystal. Coach Lane Kiffin's team has too much firepower — with Barkley throwing the ball to gamebreakers Robert Woods and Marqise Lee, and handing the rock off to Curtis McNeal and Penn State transfer Silas Redd. If Monte Kiffin's defense can hold strong against Oregon on Nov. 3, USC should be able to run the table. On the other side, LSU and Alabama will once again battle for SEC West supremacy. While the Tide attempt to find their sea legs with a new wave of talent, the Tigers return too many hungry veterans to be denied. Coach Les Miles' club will make a repeat trip to the BCS title game, where the Bayou Bengals will once again fall short. BCS Champion: USC 34, LSU 24

Interesting Factoids:

- A Pac-12 team was picked to play in the BCS title game by all nine editors.
- USC was picked by six editors to claim the BCS championship. The most of any team by far.
- Only one editor, Braden Gall, picked the SEC to win its seventh straight national title.
- Only two predictions didn't feature an SEC-Pac-12 match-up (Big 12 vs. Pac-12, ACC vs. Pac-12).
- LSU was picked to play in the title game by four editors. All four picked the Tigers to lose.
- Six editors picked the SEC to lose in the BCS title game. Something that has never happened in the BCS era.
- Eight of the nine editors picked the Pac-12 champion to win the national championship.

Teaser:
<p> 2012 BCS National Championship Predictions</p>
Post date: Wednesday, August 29, 2012 - 07:00
All taxonomy terms: AFC, AFC South, Houston Texans, NFL
Path: /nfl/houston-texans-2012-nfl-team-preview
Body:

Athlon Sports is counting down its 2012 NFL preseason Power Rankings with in-depth team previews, schedule analysis and more as the start of the NFL season draws near.

The Houston Texans check in at No. 3.

The Texans have finally grown up. In the years prior to 2011, the franchise made small, incremental improvements from season-to-season but never fully got away from the two-steps-forward, one-step-back (or vice versa) routine. There was talent. There was potential. But the results never quite followed.

Until last season.

In 2011, potential was finally realized. The Texans went from pretenders to contenders, even as they suffered injury to key player after key player — Matt Schaub, Andre Johnson and Mario Williams among them. They prided themselves on their “next man up” philosophy and it served them well, all the way to the AFC Divisional Playoffs, where they fought tooth-and-nail with a third-string quarterback (T.J. Yates) in tow. So in 2012, it will be about the Texans taking the next step — to become a Super Bowl contender for the first time in the franchise’s history. 

Offense

After missing the last six regular-season games and both playoff games after undergoing foot surgery, Schaub says he’ll be 100 percent by the start of training camp. Schaub threw for more than 9,000 yards and 53 touchdowns in 2009 and ’10, playing all 16 games in both seasons. If he can play all 16 this year, the Texans will be bona fide Super Bowl contenders.

Houston returns the NFL’s top rushing tandem, Arian Foster and Ben Tate. Foster is coming off of back-to-back seasons of 1,200-plus yards and 10-plus touchdowns, while Tate rushed for 942 yards last season.

At receiver, the question remains if Johnson can play a full season — something he has failed to do in the last two years and in three of the past five. Last season, he played just seven games while battling a hamstring injury. The Texans’ offense proved that it can be productive without him, but it is clearly more dangerous with the two-time All-Pro in the lineup. Johnson and No. 2 receiver Kevin Walter aren’t getting any younger — both will be 31 when the season starts. After the Texans released Jacoby Jones, the No. 3 receiver spot is now up for grabs; expect rookies DeVier Posey and Keshawn Martin as well as Lestar Jean to battle for that spot. Posey has plenty of ability and was able to post two 800-yards seasons despite playing mostly in a run-oriented offense at Ohio State. Martin has plenty of speed and might be the fastest receiver on the roster. Jean had an impressive training camp and preseason as a rookie last year before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury. His route-running ability and knack for making acrobatic catches will make him hard to beat.

Tight end Owen Daniels should continue to be a reliable threat in the middle of the field. He’ll be joined by Garrett Graham, who will step in the place of former No. 2 tight end Joel Dreessen, who left via free agency for Denver.

The offensive line requires some rebuilding on the right side as the Texans cut tackle Eric Winston and lost guard Mike Brisiel to free agency. The left side is intact with tackle Duane Brown, guard Wade Smith and center Chris Myers all returning. Dererk Newton has been tabbed as Winston's replacement at right tackle, while Antoine Caldwell is in line to take Brisiel’s spot. Neither is a proven commodity as a starter. Rashad Butler and third-round pick Brandon Brooks provide depth on the line.

Defense

What a difference a year — and a new coordinator — made for Houston in 2011. In the Texans’ first year under Wade Phillips, the defense improved from 30th in the NFL in 2010 to second last year. Against the pass, the Texans went from worst in the league to third.

So what’s in store for Year 2 under Phillips? Expect the hits to keep on coming.

While the Texans waved goodbye to Williams — the former No. 1 overall pick who signed with Buffalo as a free agent — the loss may not be as significant as one would imagine. Williams is a premier pass-rusher, but the Texans accomplished much of their defensive success in 2011 with him on the sideline. He played just five games because of a torn pectoral muscle. Rookie Brooks Reed filled in for Williams admirably, picking up six sacks.

The Texans return their top four pass-rushers from a year ago — outside linebackers Connor Barwin (11.5 sacks) and Reed as well as ends Antonio Smith (6.5) and J.J. Watt (5.5). And being added to the mix is first-round pick Whitney Mercilus, who led the nation with 16 sacks and nine forced fumbles for Illinois in 2011.

Inside linebacker Brian Cushing, who was the team’s MVP last year, remains a stalwart in the middle of the Texans’ D, a high-energy player who sets the tone for the rest of the unit. The Texans did lose a locker room leader in the form of inside linebacker DeMeco Ryans, who was traded to Philadelphia. Darryl Sharpton split time with Ryans and showed the ability to make plays, but he isn’t the same caliber of leader. The Texans signed Bradie James, who played for Phillips in Dallas and has extensive experience in his 3-4 defense, as a free agent.

With the exception of cornerback Jason Allen’s departure via free agency, the secondary returns virtually intact. Pro Bowler Johnathan Joseph leads the way after a terrific first season with Houston. Kareem Jackson showed improvement in 2011 after a nightmarish rookie season, but he has to show that he can defend deep passes against quality receivers if the Texans are going to limit big plays. Danieal Manning returns to quarterback the defense at free safety.

Specialists

The Texans spent a fifth-round draft pick on Texas A&M placekicker and Houston-area product Randy Bullock to replace Neil Rackers. Bullock won the 2011 Lou Groza Award as the nation’s top collegiate kicker. Unfortunately a groin injury suffefed during training camp put an end to Bullock's first NFL season before it even got started, leaving veteran Shayne Graham in the placekicking role, at least for now. Free agent signee Donnie Jones will start out the year as the team’s punter since incumbent Brett Hartmann violated the league’s substance abuse policy and will be suspended for the first three games. Manning will once again handle kick return duties, but the punt return job is wide open after the team cut Jones. 

Final Analysis: 1st in the AFC South

After years of unrealized potential, the Texans finally showed last year that they can be the bully and win big games, even in dire circumstances. There are question marks in key spots on offense, particularly on the offensive line, but chances are the Texans will still be explosive on that side of the ball as long as Schaub and Foster remain healthy.

Defensively, there’s no reason to believe the pass rush can’t be as good or better in Year 2 under Phillips. The front seven is full of young, energetic guys, but the loss of Ryans means a new leader will need to step up (off the field more than on).

Bottom line: This is still the best team in an underwhelming AFC South. The Texans should be looking at a second consecutive divisional title and perhaps a run to the AFC title game — or, if things break right, maybe even New Orleans.

Related: 2012 Houston Texans Schedule Analysis

Outside The Huddle

The Milkman
J.J. Watt’s productive rookie season not only won over a lot of Texans fans, but his teammates as well. Linebacker Connor Barwin took to his Twitter account in the days after the team’s wild card win over Cincinnati (in which Watt had an interception return for a touchdown) and gave Watt a new nickname: The Milkman. “JJ Watt’s new nickname is ‘The Milk Man’ ....because he always delivers! (and he’s white).” Barwin wasn’t done, following with the tweet: “He also really likes milk...he even orders it at restaurants.”

Pizza Boy
They may call Watt “The Milkman” now, but there was once a time where they called him “Pizza boy.” Watt was a tight end at Central Michigan before transferring to Wisconsin. He walked-on at UW and spent a summer as a Pizza Hut delivery man to offset the costs of losing his scholarship. He eventually earned a scholarship once he proved his worth to head coach Bret Bielema and became one of the top defensive linemen in the country before the Texans drafted him in 2011.

Relentless Rush
The Texans set a team record last year with 44 sacks, which ranked sixth-best in the league. The Texans should hover around that mark or even exceed it this year with most of their pass-rushers returning and the addition of rookie Whitney Mercilus.

No ‘Hard Knocks’
The team was offered a chance to appear on the HBO series “Hard Knocks” during its training camp but passed. Head coach Gary Kubiak is the private type when it comes to the team, thus there will be no cameras in the locker room or coaches’ offices at Reliant Stadium this fall.

On The Nose
Defensive tackle Shaun Cody became a hit with fans with his “On the Nose” show that appeared on the Texans’ web site last season. Cody, who is quick-witted and self-deprecating, filmed episodes that included a guest appearance from defensive end Antonio Smith dressed in full ninja attire (Smith’s sack dance is called the ‘Ninja Assassin’) and owner Bob McNair. Cody’s a comedian off the field but has been solid for the Texans on it as the nose tackle in their 3-4 alignment.

Beefing Up
Earl Mitchell, who split time with Shaun Cody at nose tackle last year, put on 21 pounds in the offseason to get up to 301 after playing at 287 in 2011. He has transformed his body quite a bit since being a 250-pound tight end in high school before switching to the defensive line at the University of Arizona.

Cushing’s Cuisine
Who has the strangest pregame ritual? According to defensive end Antonio Smith, it’s linebacker Brian Cushing. In a live chat with fans this offseason, Smith said Cushing eats grass before games. “When we’re on the field in warm-ups, he grabs a chunk of grass, chews it and spits it out.” 

2012 Athlon Sports NFL Power Rankings and Team Previews:

No. 32: Jacksonville Jaguars
No. 31: St. Louis Rams
No. 30: Minnesota Vikings
No. 29: Indianapolis Colts
No. 28: Cleveland Browns
No. 27: Miami Dolphins
No. 26: Arizona Cardinals
No. 25: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
No. 24: Kansas City Chiefs
No. 23: Oakland Raiders
No. 22: Washington Redskins
No. 21: Seattle Seahawks
No. 20: Carolina Panthers
No. 19: New York Jets
No. 18: Buffalo Bills
No. 17: Tennessee Titans
No. 16: San Diego Chargers
No. 15: Cincinnati Bengals
No. 14: Philadelphia Eagles
No. 13: New Orleans Saints
No. 12: Dallas Cowboys
No. 11: Denver Broncos
No. 10: Detroit Lions
No. 9: Chicago Bears
No. 8: Atlanta Falcons
No. 7: Baltimore Ravens
No. 6: Pittsburgh Steelers
No. 5: New York Giants
No. 4: New England Patriots
No. 3: Houston Texans
No. 2: Thur., August 30

Order your 2012 Houston Texans Athlon Sports NFL Preview magazine here

Related: 2012 Houston Texans Schedule Analysis

Teaser:
<p> Houston Texans 2012 NFL Team Preview</p>
Post date: Wednesday, August 29, 2012 - 07:00
Path: /nfl/which-rookie-nfl-qb-will-win-most-games-2012
Body:

Athlon Sports will preview the upcoming 2012 NFL season with in-depth roundtable debates with our editors and other experts from around the world of football.

Q: Which NFL rookie starting quarterback will win the most games in 2012?

Keith Myers, 12thManRising.com:
It may be a bit of a surprise, but I'd guess that Russell Wilson and the Seahawks end the season with the most wins of those teams with rookie QBs. The Seahawks are just built in a way that will allow them to win in spite of the rookie growing pains. That team is built around its defense and ability to run the football. It won’t need Wilson to put up huge numbers in order for it to win. I fully expect the Seahawks to push for a playoff spot, even with a rookie under center. 

Braden Gall (@BradenGall):
The smart money should be on Russell Wilson in Seattle or Robert Griffin III in Washington. Those are the best two teams surrounding any of the five rookie quarterbacks. However, ownership in D.C. makes me hesitant to pick the Redskins to accomplish anything and Wilson, for all of his amazing talents, is still a 5-foot-10 quarterback. Miami and Ryan Tannehill will easily be the worst of the bunch. But I am going to go out on a limb and say Andrew Luck and the Colts. He is a virtual carbon copy of Aaron Rodgers — in size, skillset, college town — and has a much better team around him than most are giving the Colts credit for. There are veterans in place and he plays in a division that is considered one of the weakest in the NFL. He is a once-in-a-lifetime prospect and was the No. 1 overall pick for a reason. If this team can somehow get to seven wins, Luck could have the best record of any starter.

Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven):
I think Indianapolis’ Andrew Luck will be the best rookie quarterback, but I think Seattle’s Russell Wilson will finish with the most victories. Yes, it’s the preseason, but it’s hard to ignore how Wilson has performed. In three games, the rookie has thrown for 464 yards and five touchdowns, while adding 150 yards and one score on the ground. With a solid defense and Marshawn Lynch leading the way on the ground, the Seahawks won’t have to ask Wilson to win games. Also, with a weak division (St. Louis and Arizona), Seattle has a chance to sneak into the postseason. The competition will get tougher in the regular season, but Wilson should have the Seahawks in contention for a wild card spot in the NFC this year.

Patrick Snow (@AthlonSnowman):
I think Andrew Luck will be the top performer in the rookie quarterback class, but Russell Wilson should end up with the most wins because of what is around him. The Seahawks have been a decent club over the last two years, unlike the other teams with rookie signal callers who all stunk last season. Seattle has a quality runner in Marshawn Lynch (seventh in the NFL with 1,204 yards in 2011), as well as a defense that finished in the top 10 in both yards and points per game last season. The Colts should be much better in 2012 with a coaching staff that will finally emphasize getting tougher in the run game and on defense. Indy and Seattle should finish in the six- to eight-win range, with a slight edge to the Seahawks and Wilson.

Rob Doster (@AthlonDoster):
My pick is the one guy on this list who doesn’t pass the “look test.” At 5-11, Russell Wilson is not anyone’s idea of an NFL prototype at the QB position, but he possesses some of the best intangibles (hunger, desire, leadership, moxie) in the game, and he’s inheriting the best situation of any rookie quarterback. The Seahawks won seven games last season and are only 19 months removed from a home playoff win. If his receivers play up to their potential — I’m looking at you, Golden Tate — Wilson can continue to defy critics and odds and win as many as eight games this season.

Mark Ross, Athlon Sports:
As of last week my answer would have been Robert Griffin III because of a stronger supporting cast, including defense, around him. However, that was until Seattle head coach Pete Carroll decided to shake things up and name Russell Wilson his starting quarterback. The Seahawks have a productive running game and a young and continually improving defense, but what will ultimately push Wilson ahead of RGIII in the win column this season is divisional play. The 'Hawks play in the NFC West, which is home to one legitimate Super Bowl contender, San Francisco, and two bonafide "pretenders" in Arizona and St. Louis. The 'Skins reside in the NFC East, home to the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants as well as Dallas and Philadelphia, two teams that could very well end up in the Super Bowl this season. Advantage Wilson and it's not even close. The difference in divisional competition alone is enough for me to project Wilson with more wins than RGIII or any other rookie starting quarterback this season.

Teaser:
<p> Which Rookie NFL QB Will Win the Most Games in 2012?</p>
Post date: Wednesday, August 29, 2012 - 06:30
Path: /college-football/2012-heisman-trophy-watchlist-week-1
Body:

Each week, the Athlon editors vote on the most prestigious award in all of college football. A nine-man conglomerate of college football gurus from Athlon Sports will vote for their top Heisman Trophy candidates. The votes will be tallied and the result will be posted as the Athlon Sports Heisman Watch List every Wednesday of the regular season.

Voting: Each first place vote gets five points. A second place vote gets four points. So on and so forth with a fifth place vote getting one point. The voting will expand to 10 after the first weekend of action.

USC's Matt Barkley will enter the regular season as the prohibitive favorite to win the coveted stiff-armed trophy. But when was the last time the overwhelming preseason favorite actually hoisted the trophy? Sure, Matt Leinart, Ricky Williams and Ron Dayne were high profile players with lofty preseason expectations. But were any the clearcut No. 1 choice like Andrew Luck? Or Barkley? 

Having said that, the Trojan's signal caller wasn't a unanimous choice heading into Week 1. Barkley got seven of the nine first place votes and is still clearly Athlon's top choice to win the trophy. But Geno Smith and Marcus Lattimore each got one first place vote, creating some dissention within the Athlon ranks.

My personal favorite vote of the preseason Watch List? Alabama offensive lineman Barrett Jones. The reigning Outland Trophy winner has played three positions for two national championship teams and is arguably the best player in the SEC. 

1. Matt Barkley, QB, USC (Sr., 7 first place votes)
There is no reason to think Barkley won't, at minimum, be in New York at season's end as a Heisman finalist. Much like Luck last fall, he is clearly the nation's top quarterback and plays for a team that will post huge offensive numbers. The stats, marquee primetime showdowns, national title aspirations and extraordinary off-the-field persona are all written in boldface in his current Heisman resume. Frankly, the only wart on The Golden Boy's preseason bio is that he is the definitive pick to win the award. While that may seem counter intuitive on the surface, the favorite is rarely victorious at season's end.

  Name Pos. Team Total Pts 1st 2nd 3rd 4th 5th
1. Matt Barkley QB USC 42 of 45 7 1 1 - -
2. Montee Ball RB Wisconsin 23 of 45 - 4 1 2 -
3. Denard Robinson QB Michigan 23 of 45 - 2 3 3 -
4. Marcus Lattimore RB South Carolina 21 of 45 1 - 3 3 1
5. Geno Smith QB West Virginia 11 of 45 1 - 1 - 3
6. Landry Jones QB Oklahoma 5 of 45 - 1 - - 1
7. Logan Thomas QB Virginia Tech 4 of 45 - 1 - - -
8. A.J. McCarron QB Alabama 2 of 45 - - - 1 -
9. Marquess Wilson WR Washington St 1 of 45 - - - - 1
10. De'Anthony Thomas AP Oregon 1 of 45 - - - - 1
11. Barrett Jones OL Alabama 1 of 45 - - - - 1
12. Aaron Murray QB Georgia 1 of 45 - - - - 1

2. Montee Ball, RB, Wisconsin (Sr.)
It sends a great message to the college football world that the top two names on this list put the NFL on hold to return to college. And Ball did so after a historic season in Madison that will be extremely difficult to replicate. Three first-team All-Big Ten blockers, offensive wizard Paul Chryst and team leader Russell Wilson have all moved on from the Wisconsin offense. Ball should easily top 1,400 yards and 15 scores — but that would be 24 fewer touchdowns than last season. He should post huge numbers once again, but a return trip to NYC seems unlikely on a team that may lose four games.

3. Denard Robinson, QB, Michigan (Sr.)
The most explosive athlete in the nation under center is the Wolverines signal caller. He will have plenty of marquee match-ups to prove his Heisman mettle as Michigan faces Alabama, Ohio State, Nebraska, Michigan State and Notre Dame this year. And staying healthy — and undefeated — against that schedule is a tall order. Shoelace is another 1,300-yards from becoming the NCAA's all-time leading rusher from the quarterback position and should be in New York at season's end. But to win the award, Michigan will likely need to win the Big Ten — and the Alabama game.

4. Marcus Lattimore, RB, South Carolina (Jr.)
The most talented running back in the nation will be on full display on national TV this week against SEC opponent Vanderbilt. He has not dealt with any contact this summer, but the Gamecocks workhorse should need little time to get reacclimated with big time football. Lattimore is a special player with special talents and could be the driving force of an SEC title run by Steve Spurrier's bunch. Should Carolina make it to Atlanta – or further — then it will be on the broad and powerful shoulders of Lattimore. 

5. Geno Smith, QB, West Virginia (Sr.)
My first place vote went to the rifleman from Morgantown, W.Va. He has a huge arm, a crazy-deep receiving corps, a mad genius drawing up plays and a chance at putting together some huge marquee performances. Smith could lead the nation in passing yards and touchdowns should things fall right and this would all but assure him a trip to The Big Apple come December. While a Big 12 title won't be mandatory for a Heisman run, an upset win over Oklahoma and/or Texas along the way wouldn't hurt. 

6. Logan Thomas, QB, Virginia Tech (Jr.)
A Cam Newton clone will have the stats and potential deep championship run to get him to NYC.

7. Landry Jones, QB, Oklahoma (Sr.)
The numbers should be huge if the receivers are more consistent and the running game stays healthy.

8. A.J. McCarron, QB, Alabama (Jr.)
The offense will limit his statistical production but he could be the most important player on one of the nation's best teams.

9. Marquess Wilson, WR, Washington State (Jr.)
Has posted 137 rec., 2,394 yds and 18 TDs in two seasons without Mike Leach. Can you say Michael Crabtree?

10. De'Anthony Thomas, AP, Oregon (So.)
The most explosive, dynamic player in the nation should have plenty of highlights on his reel.

- by Braden Gall

@bradengall

Teaser:
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Athlon Sports is counting down its 2012 NFL preseason Power Rankings with in-depth team previews, schedule analysis and more as the start of the NFL season draws near.

The New England Patriots check in at No. 4.

After a rocky midseason stretch, with a near-loss to the Cowboys followed by back-to-back losses to the Steelers and the Giants following a week off, it appeared that a deep postseason run wasn’t in the cards for the Patriots last season. But New England bounced back on its rival’s home turf, thumping the Jets in prime-time on Nov. 13, and didn’t lose again until the Super Bowl. Only one of the teams they faced over the final eight weeks of the regular season made the playoffs, but the soft schedule allowed coach Bill Belichick to tinker with his lineups, get inexperienced players needed snaps, and for the team to weather some injuries.

With time to step back, Belichick took a hard look at his squad and has brought in over a dozen free agents, reminiscent of his early days in New England when he gave older or oft-injured players “prove it” deals. After last season, when a flawed team came so close to winning it all, it’s hard to argue that the new guys won’t get that chance.

Offense

Tom Brady threw for over 5,000 yards. Rob Gronkowski set new standards for tight ends. And the Patriots averaged over 30 points per game. So keep things status quo? Hardly.

New England is stockpiling wide receivers. The Pats signed Brandon Lloyd, who knows the team’s system from his time with offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels in both Denver and St. Louis, and also brought back Brady favorite Jabar Gaffney and Donté Stallworth. Wes Welker and Deion Branch will continue to be a big part of the attack.

After relying too heavily on Welker and, when he was still with the Pats, Randy Moss, in recent years, it seems Brady will be getting back to the early days of his career, when he said that his favorite receiver was the open one.

Once overlooked, Welker is now the prototype slot receiver in the NFL and remains one of Brady’s favorites, on and off the field. He caught 122 passes last season and has averaged 111 catches over the past five years. If Lloyd can live with having big stats one week and a quiet game the next, he will thrive in New England. Brady will be by far the best quarterback he has played with in his career.

Gaffney, who played with the Patriots from 2006-08, had career highs in both receptions (68) and yards (947) last year in Washington. Branch started 15 games last season and caught 51 passes for 702 yards and five scores. Chad Ochocinco was a huge disappointment in 2011. He caught only 15 passes and scored one touchdown in 15 games — and still seemed unsure of where to line up during the Super Bowl.

There’s no telling how Gronkowski will be affected after losing a large chunk of the offseason to recovery from ankle surgery. But he didn’t have a true offseason last year — due to the lockout — and still managed to catch 90 passes for 1,327 yards and 17 touchdowns. Gronkowski already has some saying he could be the best ever at the tight end position. He is nearly impossible to cover down the field, and he is also an adept blocker.

In Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, a hybrid who has lined up everywhere for New England from out wide to in the slot to the backfield, the Pats feature the best tight end tandem in the league. Hernandez caught 79 passes for 910 yards in his second season in the league.

The running game will likely again be by committee, with Stevan Ridley the favorite to be the primary ball-carrier. Ridley finished his rookie season on a down note, with fumbles in back-to-back games, but he showed explosion when he got his chances. Fellow second-year back Shane Vereen will be looking to redeem himself after a rookie season lost to injury.

The offensive line will look different — for the first time in over a decade Matt Light won’t be manning left tackle. In his place will be second-year pro Nate Solder, who was drafted in 2011 to eventually succeed Light.  

Defense

The top priority in the offseason for Belichick was to address the team’s defense, a group that ranked 31st in the NFL last season. Specifically, he improved the pass rush at the end position — signing free agent Trevor Scott, and drafting Chandler Jones and Jake Bequette.

Fixing the front seven is what’s needed. The secondary drew much of the criticism, a given when a team allows over 4,700 passing yards as the Pats did in ’11. But an average-at-best group of corners and safeties are going to look bad when asked to cover too long because the pass rush can’t create pressure. It’s unavoidable.

The linebacking corps also got a boost with the addition of Dont’a Hightower in the first round. Hightower, who played for Nick Saban at Alabama, is a smart, versatile player whose presence may allow Jerod Mayo to use his athleticism more. Brandon Spikes, when he’s been on the field, has been a thumper in the run game, but his biggest problem has been staying on the field (suspension 2010, injury 2011).

That oft-maligned secondary will see some changes. Cornerback Ras-I Dowling, who started his first game as a rookie but missed the final 14 to injury, will be back and team with Kyle Arrington. Devin ­McCourty is likely looking at a permanent switch to safety. Sterling Moore, the hero of the AFC Championship Game, returns, though he’ll be pressed by rookie Alfonzo Dennard. New England also picked up savvy veteran slot corner Will Allen.

Specialists

Stephen Gostkowski remains reliable in the kicking game. The sixth-year pro converted 28-of-33 field goal attempts last and made 10-of-13 from beyond 40 yards. Punter Zoltan Mesko built on a solid rookie season last year, averaging 46.5 yards per kick. Julian Edelman is a consistently solid punt returner and might be a top candidate to fill the kickoff return job as well.

Final Analysis: 1st in the AFC East

With Belichick and Brady in control of the Patriots, the playoffs have become routine; they went 13–3 last year and nearly won the Super Bowl despite a defense that gave up 21.4 points per game. It was perhaps Belichick’s best coaching work to date.

In 2012, they have a schedule that on paper is the easiest in the NFL, a strong offense that has been bolstered in free agency, and a defense that has undergone an extreme makeover.

This year, the playoffs are almost a given. It’s what happens in January and February that will define this club. In 2007, Belichick signed and acquired big names, and the Patriots came within a few minutes of an undefeated season. This year, he’s signed big names and drafted potential stars. This team is the class of the AFC. Anything short of a trip to the Super Bowl will be a disappointment. 

Related: 2012 New England Patriots Schedule Analysis

Outside The Huddle

Super Stat
Tom Brady had 27 completions in the Super Bowl XLVI loss to the Giants to set the NFL record for most completions in postseason history with 499, moving past Brett Favre (481). Brady added 276 passing yards to push his postseason total to 5,285 yards, fourth best in NFL history.

Krafting A Winner
The Patriots’ 23–20 win over Baltimore in the AFC Championship Game was their 28th playoff game since Robert Kraft purchased the team in 1994. New England’s 19 playoff victories over that span are the most in the NFL (Pittsburgh has 17). The Pats also lead the league in total victories (212), Super Bowl titles (three), conference championships (six), and division championships (11) since Kraft purchased the team.

Keeping Up With The Joneses
To say that first-round draft pick Chandler Jones comes from an athletic family is an understatement. Oldest brother Arthur is a top defensive line reserve for the Ravens, and middle brother Jon “Bones” Jones is the UFC light middleweight champion.

Pass? Not this time
Head coach Bill Belichick has made trading down and collecting draft picks into a cottage industry. But not this year. New England had two first-round picks thanks to a trade with New Orleans during the 2011 draft, and Belichick moved up from both to snag Jones and Dont’a Hightower. The last time he traded up in the first round was in 2003, when the Pats moved up one spot to get Ty Warren.

Nate Who?
Defensive back Nate Ebner is a former national-level rugby standout who didn’t play a down of high school football, walked on at Ohio State and was a special teams demon. Still, Ebner had few designs on being drafted until opening eyes at OSU’s Pro Day. Now he’s a sixth-round NFL pick and heading to training camp with New England.

140 Characters or Fewer
Chad Ochocinco may not have given the Pats much on the field, but off it he convinced Wes Welker to join Twitter. Within days, Welker had racked up tens of thousands of followers, and among other things, the Pats’ franchise player has used the medium to wryly express his desire for a long-term contract. When the Patriots tweeted him happy birthday wishes in May, he responded, “Guess what would be the perfect Birthday gift? :)”

Service With A Smile
Despite wearing a gray hoodie and not the standard blue polo shirt, defensive back Sterling Moore was mistaken for a Best Buy employee twice in one visit to a Massachusetts store last year. The irony was that as a teenager in Pittsburg, Calif., Moore actually did work at Best Buy. 

2012 Athlon Sports NFL Power Rankings and Team Previews:

No. 32: Jacksonville Jaguars
No. 31: St. Louis Rams
No. 30: Minnesota Vikings
No. 29: Indianapolis Colts
No. 28: Cleveland Browns
No. 27: Miami Dolphins
No. 26: Arizona Cardinals
No. 25: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
No. 24: Kansas City Chiefs
No. 23: Oakland Raiders
No. 22: Washington Redskins
No. 21: Seattle Seahawks
No. 20: Carolina Panthers
No. 19: New York Jets
No. 18: Buffalo Bills
No. 17: Tennessee Titans
No. 16: San Diego Chargers
No. 15: Cincinnati Bengals
No. 14: Philadelphia Eagles
No. 13: New Orleans Saints
No. 12: Dallas Cowboys
No. 11: Denver Broncos
No. 10: Detroit Lions
No. 9: Chicago Bears
No. 8: Atlanta Falcons
No. 7: Baltimore Ravens
No. 6: Pittsburgh Steelers
No. 5: New York Giants
No. 4: New England Patriots
No. 3: Wed., August 29

Order your 2012 New England Patriots Athlon Sports NFL Preview magazine here

Related: 2012 New England Patriots Schedule Analysis

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Athlon Sports is counting down its 2012 NFL preseason Power Rankings with in-depth team previews, schedule analysis and more as the start of the NFL season draws near.

The New York Giants check in at No. 5.

It was as if lightning struck twice in the same spot on the same day four years apart. That’s how similar the Giants’ surprise 2011 championship season was to their incredible 2007 run.

And when it happened again, when they made it two Super Bowl championships in five seasons, the Giants should’ve been branded an NFL powerhouse and a franchise on the verge of becoming a dynasty. Instead, they have the same questions they left open the last time they were defending champions:

Are they on the verge of greatness? Or was the whole thing just a fluke?

That may be an insulting question to the defending champs, but it’s one they’re going to have to answer this season. Are they the team that was struggling at 7–7 just before Christmas, or the team that went on a 6–0 roll for the ages through Green Bay, San Francisco and then the Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI?

They return most of the starters from the team that won it all. They just need to prove that they were more than an average team that got hot at exactly the right time.

Offense

Eli Manning backed up his words and proved he is “elite” entering 2012, vaulting himself into the upper echelon of NFL quarterbacks. His 4,933 yards, 29 touchdowns and 61 percent completion rate were things the Giants had dreamed of since the blockbuster draft-day trade in 2004. The fact that he dropped his interception total from 25 to 16 was a welcomed change, too.

Of course, the doubters never cease, so the big question is: Can he do it again? Can he carry the Giants again? He helped an unknown, undrafted receiver in Victor Cruz (82 catches, 1,536 yards and nine touchdowns) become a star. He overcame a shaky, injury-riddled offensive line and the NFL’s worst rushing attack. He was the reason they survived early on and then thrived late in the season.

Can everyone else join him on the elite level? It won’t be easy, because there are some missing pieces. The most notable absence is receiver Mario Manningham, who left as a free agent and left a hole on the outside opposite Hakeem Nicks. Presumably that hole will be filled by Rueben Randle, a second-round pick out of LSU. His presence will allow Cruz to stay in the slot, where he’s as dangerous as they come.

The running game remains a big question, though. The loss of Brandon Jacobs (152 carries, 571 yards) to free agency isn’t a big one, especially since they replaced him with a first-round pick (David Wilson of Virginia Tech). But Ahmad Bradshaw has a history of foot and ankle injuries and is still recovering from yet another offseason “procedure” on his foot. Also, Bradshaw’s average of 3.9 yards per carry in 2011 was the lowest of his five-year career.

There’s no guarantee the rushing attack will be any better this season. That puts everything on “Elite” Eli’s shoulders again.

Defense

If there’s any area emblematic of how schizophrenic the Giants were last season, it’s the defense, which was beyond awful at times, and brilliant when it counted. They managed to shut down three pretty potent offenses in the playoffs — the Falcons, Packers and Patriots — and displayed a devastating pass rush throughout. Yet the defense ranked only 27th during the regular season and was a big reason why the team almost missed the playoffs.

One thing they clearly have, when healthy, is one of the best pass rushes in the league. Jason Pierre-Paul (16.5 sacks) and Osi Umenyiora (nine) were a devastating duo, and Justin Tuck is their most complete end. Chris Canty knows how to get pressure from the inside at tackle.

It’s the rest of the defense that could be an issue. The Giants have a linebacking corps with talent — Michael Boley, Mathias Kiwanuka, newly acquired Keith Rivers and speedy Jacquian Williams — but no true middle linebacker and no real impact player. In the secondary, they have cornerback Corey Webster and safety Antrel Rolle, but their hopes are pinned on Terrell Thomas’ attempt to return from a torn ACL, Prince Amukamara’s recovery from a foot injury, and safety Kenny Phillips’ attempt to rediscover his explosiveness in a contract year.

The secondary played very well during the playoff run, but Perry Fewell’s defense is only as good as its pass rush. If Tuck and Umenyiora can stay healthy, and Pierre-Paul can continue his march toward what seems to be an inevitable Defensive Player of the Year award, the defense will be as good as any in the league. If the pass rush falters, the Giants could be in a lot of high-scoring games.

Specialists

One year after they ­couldn’t survive the foibles of a shaky rookie punter, the Giants found one they want to keep in Steve Weatherford, who was a rock on special teams. He had a brilliant season, showing a stronger-than-expected leg and a Jeff Feagles-like knack for hitting the sidelines and the corners of the field. That had a remarkably settling effect on the Giants’ special teams, which had been one of their biggest problems in 2010. The coverage improved dramatically and opposing return men didn’t seem so dangerous anymore.

The Giants’ return men weren’t very dangerous either, though. They hope Domenik Hixon can make it back from a second ACL tear. More likely, however, the Giants will hand return duties to a couple of speedy second-year players in Jerrel Jernigan and Da’Rel Scott.
Lawrence Tynes has been both consistent and clutch in his years with the Giants. The team’s last two trips to the Super Bowl were clinched on his overtime kicks in the NFC Championship Game. 

Final Analysis: 1st in the NFC East

Here’s the lesson from last season: Count out the Giants at your own risk. They are talented. They are resilient. They are well-coached. And they have an internal clock that lets them know when it’s crunch time. They came back from a fourth quarter deficit to win seven times last season, including in Super Bowl XLVI. They came back from the brink of elimination with a run for the ages that began on Christmas Eve. And here’s something to note: Four years ago their remarkable run to the Super Bowl XLII championship didn’t end at their parade. They opened the following season on an 11–1 run and might’ve won it all had Plaxico Burress not infamously shot himself in the leg.

Assuming nothing like that happens again, the Giants should be considered the favorites in the NFC East and a true Super Bowl contender. Whether they win it all will depend on health and whether they can get hot again late in the season. But they’ll be in the hunt. There are no signs that this team is going away.

Related: 2012 New York Giants Schedule Analysis

Outside The Huddle

Live from New York … 
After winning his second Super Bowl (one more than his brother), Eli followed his brother Peyton into the spotlight at Studio 8H and became the 10th NFL personality (nine players and John Madden) and fifth quarterback to host “Saturday Night Live.” He had turned down the job in 2008, months after Peyton hosted, because, Eli said, “Peyton had done so well. I thought it might be a little fresh in everyone’s mind.”

No Pressure, Kid
When the Giants took tight end Adrien Robinson in the fourth round, Giants GM Jerry Reese called him “The JPP of tight ends.” That’s a tough moniker to live up to, considering “JPP” is Jason Pierre-Paul, a raw rookie in 2010 who is now one of the best defensive players in the NFL. In four years at Cincinnati, Robinson caught 29 passes.

Mission Accomplished 
Has anyone ever come from farther out of nowhere than Victor Cruz? The former undrafted free agent caught 82 passes for a franchise-record 1,536 yards last season. His goal before the year started? “To catch a pass in a game that mattered,” he said.

Still Waiting
The Giants traded for a former first-round linebacker, Keith Rivers, but they still didn’t draft one of their own. That makes 28 consecutive drafts for the Giants without taking a linebacker in Round 1. Their last one? Carl Banks in 1984.

From Butter To Glue
In 2010 the Giants’ season disintegrated in a mess of turnovers — 42 to be exact — which was very unusual for a Tom Coughlin team. In 2011 they nearly cut the number in half, dropping to 24 and having a plus-7 turnover ratio. In the postseason they were even better — one interception, no fumbles, plus-6 in four games.

Airing It Out
The Giants had the NFL’s worst rushing offense in 2011, and the big-play part of their game disappeared. One year earlier they were second in the NFL with 23 runs of 20 yards or more. Last year? An NFL-worst four. Of course, the Giants were fifth in the league with 67 pass plays of 20-plus yards.

Breaking Up The Band
From 2007-09, David Diehl, Rich Seubert, Shaun O’Hara, Chris Snee and Kareem McKenzie set a post-NFL merger record, starting 38 straight regular-season games together as an offensive line. Now only Diehl and Snee remain, and only Snee (right guard) will still be playing in the same position this season.

Bonus Picks
The Giants feel like they have two No. 1 and two No. 2 draft picks joining the team this year because their top two picks in 2011 had lost seasons. Cornerback Prince Amukamara, the first rounder, lost all of training camp and nine regular-season games with a broken foot. Defensive tackle Marvin Austin, the second-round pick, was sidelined for the entire season with a torn pectoral muscle. Austin also missed his senior season of college while serving a suspension, so he hasn’t played football since 2009. 

 

2012 Athlon Sports NFL Power Rankings and Team Previews:

No. 32: Jacksonville Jaguars
No. 31: St. Louis Rams
No. 30: Minnesota Vikings
No. 29: Indianapolis Colts
No. 28: Cleveland Browns
No. 27: Miami Dolphins
No. 26: Arizona Cardinals
No. 25: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
No. 24: Kansas City Chiefs
No. 23: Oakland Raiders
No. 22: Washington Redskins
No. 21: Seattle Seahawks
No. 20: Carolina Panthers
No. 19: New York Jets
No. 18: Buffalo Bills
No. 17: Tennessee Titans
No. 16: San Diego Chargers
No. 15: Cincinnati Bengals
No. 14: Philadelphia Eagles
No. 13: New Orleans Saints
No. 12: Dallas Cowboys
No. 11: Denver Broncos
No. 10: Detroit Lions
No. 9: Chicago Bears
No. 8: Atlanta Falcons
No. 7: Baltimore Ravens
No. 6: Pittsburgh Steelers
No. 5: New York Giants
No. 4: Tues., August 28

Order your 2012 New York Giants Athlon Sports NFL Preview magazine here

Related: 2012 New York Giants Schedule Analysis

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Stay tuned each week to Athlon Sports for a 2012 Fantasy Baseball Weekend Waiver Wire every Monday.

Top 25 fantasy baseball hitters of last week (8/20-8/26):

  Name Team Pos. R HR RBI SB BA OPS
1. Adrian Beltre TEX 3B 7 5 9 0 .433 1.533
2. Jason Heyward ATL OF 5 4 8 2 .393 1.254
3. Allen Craig STL 1/2/OF 8 2 9 0 .440 1.220
4. Giancarlo Stanton MIA OF 7 5 8 0 .286 1.167
5. Dustin Pedroia BOS 2B 6 2 6 3 .357 1.133
6. Ian Kinsler TEX 2B 7 2 9 0 .407 1.278
7. Aaron Hill ARI 2B 5 3 7 2 .308 1.049
8. Pedro Ciriaco* BOS 2/3/SS 8 1 4 1 .464 1.126
9. Jimmy Rollins PHI SS 5 1 7 3 .346 .956
10. Mitch Moreland* TEX 1B/OF 6 2 10 0 .360 .986
11. Andre Ethier LAD OF 7 2 6 0 .440 1.200
12. Angel Pagan* SF OF 10 0 2 2 .414 1.090
13. Michael Saunders* SEA OF 5 3 6 1 .333 1.345
14. Freddie Freeman ATL 1B 6 3 6 1 .296 1.116
15. Derek Jeter NYY SS 7 3 4 0 .357 1.129
16. Alex Rios CHW OF 6 1 3 3 .348 .984
17. Edwin Encarnacion TOR 1B/3B 5 3 6 0 .368 1.350
18. Matt Holliday STL OF 6 0 8 0 .444 1.111
19. Jacoby Ellsbury BOS OF 5 0 4 3 .379 .848
20. Josh Hamilton TEX OF 6 1 9 0 .333 .886
21. John Mayberry* PHI 1B/OF 5 2 7 0 .346 .910
22. Jonathan Lucroy* MIL C 3 2 7 0 .467 1.489
23. Will Venable* SD OF 7 0 3 1 .476 1.236
24. Jon Jay* STL OF 6 0 3 2 .407 .888
25. Jose Reyes MIA SS 4 2 6 1 .300 .964

* - less than 70% owned in Yahoo! leagues

Backstop Help

It is a shame that his wife dropped a suitcase on his hand, because Jonathan Lucroy was assured of his best season of his short three-year career. He is now up to .333 with a .937 OPS on the season with eight dingers in 207 at-bats. But if you need help at catcher for the final title push, the Brewers backstop is a great place to start.

Outfield Speed

If you need some outfield speed, it looks like there are plenty of options on the waiver wire. Will Venable (18 SB, 6% owned), Coco Crisp (28 SB, 43%), Ben Revere (30 SB, 38%), Cameron Maybin (24 SB, 39%) and even Juan Pierre (32 SB, 19%) should be available in most formats and all can provide a bump in one or two categories. Crisp offers the most complete line while Revere will help your team batting average as well.

First Baggers

Mitch Moreland (23% owned), Garrett Jones (56%) and John Mayberry (5%) could all be useful for teams with first base or corner infield concerns. Jones is the No. 5-rated 1B over the last month while Moreland and Mayberry have had great last weeks. All three can offer some pop while not hurting your team in any other way. They are low-risk, high-reward pick-ups.

Top 20 fantasy Starting Pitchers of last two weeks:

  Name Team IP W K ERA WHIP
1. Max Scherzer DET 21.0 3 27 0.86 0.90
2. Kyle Kendrick PHI 21.2 3 16 0.83 0.69
3. Felix Hernandez SEA 16.2 2 17 0.54 0.48
4. Hiroki Kuroda NYY 25.0 2 15 1.44 0.56
5. Clayton Kershaw LAD 24.0 2 26 2.63 0.71
6. Matt Harrison TEX 22.1 2 14 1.21 0.67
7. Adam Wainwright STL 20.2 3 19 1.74 0.87
8. David Price TB 15.0 1 16 0.00 0.53
9. Kris Medlen* ATL 16.0 2 13 0.00 0.81
10. Madison Bumgarner SF 23.1 2 21 1.93 0.90
11. Matt Cain SF 15.0 2 11 1.20 0.73
12. Yovani Gallardo MIL 14.0 2 18 1.93 0.86
13. Matt Harvey* NYM 13.2 1 17 1.32 0.73
14. Wade Miley ARI 14.0 2 10 0.64 0.93
15. J.A. Happ* TOR 13.1 1 15 1.35 0.75
16. Cliff Lee PHI 21.1 1 26 2.53 1.03
17. Stephen Strasburg WAS 12.0 2 17 2.25 1.08
18. Mark Buehrle* MIA 19.2 3 11 2.29 1.07
19. Chad Billingsley (DL)* LAD 18.1 2 10 1.47 1.04
20. Zach Britton* BAL 13.2 2 11 1.32 1.10

* - less than 70% owned in Yahoo! leagues

Top 5 Spot Starts for the Week (Mon. - Sun.):

1. Kris Medlen, ATL: at SD (Tues.) 65% owned
I told you to start him last week and he delivered 7.0 shutout innings with a 7:1 K:BB ratio and the win. Now, he gets San Diego. 

2. Jonathon Niese, NYM: @ PHI (Thur.) 61% owned
This kid has been lights-out for the Mets of late. The last time he didn't finish the sixth inning was May 28 and has 11 quality starts in his last 15 starts, including three straight. He has allowed three ER in three starts this year against the Phillies.

3. Derek Holland, TEX: at CLE (Sun.) 53% owned
The lefty from Ohio has been frustrating to owners all season with his up and down play. But he has been solid in his last three outings: 1-0, 20.1 IP, 17 K, 3 BB, 8 ER. He also gets the Rays on Monday.

4. Tommy Milone, OAK: at CLE (Tues.) 40% owned
On the year, Milone has useful 3.87 and 1.19 ERA and WHIP season-long ratios. He last time out, he pitched 8.0 innings with one earned run. He has 36 Ks and only 4 BBs in his last six starts. He gets Boston on Sunday.

5. Hisashi Iwakuma, SEA: at Min (Tues.) 21% owned
He hasn't allowed four earned runs in a start since July 15 and has allowed one earned run over his last two outings. He has won three of his last four decisions and gets the Twins offense. He gets the Angels on Sunday.

Top 20 fantasy Relief Pitchers of last month:

  Name Team IP W SV K HLD ERA WHIP
1. Aroldis Chapman CIN 13.1 1 11 19 0 0.68 0.75
2. JJ Putz ARI 11.2 0 8 16 0 0.00 0.51
3. Greg Holland KC 14.1 2 7 12 0 0.63 0.84
4. Fernando Rodney TB 14.0 0 11 12 0 0.64 0.86
5. Jim Johnson BAL 10.0 0 9 8 0 0.00 0.40
6. Jonathan Papelbon PHI 12.1 1 7 15 0 0.73 0.81
7. Grant Balfour OAK 12.2 0 7 13 2 1.42 0.39
8. Tyler Clippard WAS 13.0 0 10 13 0 2.08 1.08
9. Rafael Betancourt COL 11.1 0 9 6 0 0.79 0.88
10. Kenley Jansen LAD 8.1 1 5 13 0 2.16 0.48
11. Wilton Lopez HOU 12.2 2 2 12 0 1.42 0.71
12. Rafael Soriano NYY 11.2 0 7 9 0 1.54 0.86
13. Glen Perkins* MIN 11.2 1 3 11 0 1.54 0.60
14. Jose Valverde DET 12.0 0 7 10 0 2.25 0.83
15. Jason Motte STL 9.2 0 7 16 0 2.79 1.03
16. Craig Kimbrel ATL 8.0 0 2 18 0 0.00 0.50
17. Huston Street (DL) SD 6.1 0 4 6 0 0.00 0.00
18. Adam Occtavino* COL 23.1 3 0 18 1 2.70 1.03
19. Luke Gregerson* SD 14.0 0 1 14 9 0.00 0.71
20. Steve Cishek* MIA 11.0 0 8 11 0 2.45 1.18

* - less than 70% owned in Yahoo! leagues

Keep up to date all season long with Athlon Sports' Fantasy Baseball Closer Grid

- by Braden Gall

@bradengall

Teaser:
<p> Fantasy Baseball Bests, Busts and Waiver Wire: Aug 27</p>
Post date: Monday, August 27, 2012 - 09:57
All taxonomy terms: ACC, College Football, Big 12, Big Ten, SEC, Big East
Path: /college-football/college-footballs-top-25-impact-freshmen-2012
Body:

Actual college football games are taking place this week!

And while National Signing Day 2012 seems like ages ago, thousands of freshmen (and redshirt freshman) will take their first steps onto the hallowed grounds of stadiums all over the nation this weekend. Most won't even dress for the varsity squad this season and many won't ever play. But a select few uber-recruits will have the chance to make an immediate impact on the college football landscape. 

Last week, Athlon Sports highlighted the biggest name and biggest impact freshman in each BCS conference. If you want to dig deeper into the 'by-conference' rankings, they are linked below. And since hundreds of names will make big impacts across the nation, it is virtually impossible to rank the Top 25. Names like Landon Collins, Amari Cooper, Dan Voltz, DJ Foster, Carlos Watkins and Leonte Carrou just missed making this list, but are expected to make some impact in year one.

The Top 25 Impact Freshmen for 2012 (listed alpabetically):

* - indicates redshirt freshman

Arik Armstead, DL, Oregon
The 2011 cycle featured De'Anthony Thomas. This season it's the massive (6-7, 290) defensive end-offensive tackle two-sport star from Elk Grove, Calif. He will be a key reserve and pass-rush demon for Chip Kelly to begin. Don't be shocked if the nation's No. 3 prospect is a starter by year's end.

Kelvin Benjamin, WR, Florida State*
The massive redshirt freshman receiver could be a game-changer for EJ Manuel and the Florida State passing game. At 6-foot-5 and 240-pounds, Benjamin may be the most talented FSU pass-catcher since the deep collection of NFL talent of the late 90s and early 00s. 

Joe Bolden, LB, Michigan
Few players have entered college with greater expectations than the 6-foot-3, 230-pound Cincinnati prospect. The true freshman enrolled early and made a big name for himself in spring ball with incredible instincts, physicality and explosiveness. He could force Kenny Demens to outside linebacker at best and will be the top reserve at worst. Bolden will be an All-Big Ten player very soon.

Evan Boehm, OL, Missouri
The coaching staff in Columbia has been full of praise for their star prospect at guard. He has been battling for the starting spot and Gary Pinkel has stated the Lee’s Summit, Mo., native has the size and maturity to play right away. He would be the only the third true freshman offensive lineman to ever play under the Mizzou coach.

Sheldon Day, DL, Notre Dame
An early enrollee, the massive defensive lineman from Indianapolis (Ind.) Warren Central has already proven he belongs on the field. And in a defensive front that is stacked with young talent, it is even more impressive the impact the 6-foot-2, 290-pound freshman has had up front. He should be a household name in short order for Irish fans.

Stefon Diggs, WR/RS, Maryland
The in-state speedster was the No. 5 overall prospect in the nation last fall and was a recruiting coup for the embattled Randy Edsall. The 6-foot, 185-pound dynamo will touch the ball in the passing game, ground game and return game. He should start right away and should be a close friend of unexpected new starting quarterback and fellow freshman Perry Hills.

Ereck Flowers, OL, Miami
If the big local product from the city of Miami continues to play like he has in camp, he could very well be the starting right tackle at The U. His work ethic and size – at 6-foot-6 and 315 pounds — will provide much needed help along the offensive front for Al Golden.

Perry Hills, QB, Maryland
When C.J. Brown tore his ACL, one of two freshmen were going to get the call to start for new coordinator Mike Locksley. Caleb Rowe appears to have lost the job to the Hills, a 6-foot-3, 205-pound signal caller from Pittsburgh. On a team that won two games a year ago and features huge amounts of roster turnover, Hills has been thrust into the most important starting position on the field. Should he adapt quickly, he could easily be in contention for ACC Freshman of the Year. If he struggles, Randy Edsall could be looking for work.

Jonathan Gray, RB, Texas
No high school running back has ever been as productive as Gray was at Aledo High School. He sits behind two elite sophomores in Joe Bergeron and Malcolm Brown, but Gray could see upwards of 100 touches this fall. He has the power, the speed, the receiving skills, the upside, the toughness and the agility. There is nothing he cannot do on a football field and it should make him an All-American in short order.

Deontay Greenberry, WR, Houston
The star wide receiver from California was a top 100 recruit who was set to sign with Notre Dame. His 11th hour NSD switch to Houston was highly-publicized and has created added pressure to succeed. From all accounts, however, Greenberry is set to earn a starting spot for Houston as a true freshman. He is easily the highest-rated recruit in Cougars history and will fit perfectly in the pass-happy system Tony Levine wants to run.

Dorial Green-Beckam, WR, Missouri
The most prolific high school receiver in American prep history will suit up for Mizzou this fall. The nation’s No. 1 overall prospect can expect to see a lot of passes throw his way. His 6-foot-6, 220-pound frame creates match-up issues all over the field and will be impossible to cover, both vertically and in the slot. DGB will be a big star in the SEC.

Darius Hamilton, DL, Rutgers
The prized gem of the most heralded Knights class in school history was 6-foot-4, 260-pound defensive lineman from nearby Don Bosco Prep. He began camp as an end, but after excelling in camp already, he has been shifted down to tackle. He knows the 3-technique from his prep glory days and should be an instant impact player for what should once again be the league's top defense.

Brett Hundley, QB, UCLA*
This move had to be made. Hundley is the most talented and has the highest upside of any quarterback on the roster (he also has yet to miss a start due to injury). In all seriousness, though, the 6-foot-4, 225-pounder from Chandler, Ariz., gives new Bruins head coach Jim Mora Jr., offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone and the rest of the coaching staff a chance to succeed longterm in Westwood.

Jabari Hunt-Days, LB, Georgia Tech*
The younger brother of Tech quarterback, Snyjyn Days, could provide immediate help at inside backer. The 6-foot-3, 240-pound Marietta, Ga., prospect redshirted last fall and knows Al Groh's system well enough to make a big impact this fall. Tech fans are hoping for some reinforcement for a defense that allowed 274 and 268 yards rushing in losses to Virginia and Virginia Tech respectively last fall.

Linebackers, LSU
Kwon Alexander, Ronnie Feist, Deion Jones, Lamar Louis and Lorenzo Phillips could all see playing time this fall. It is anybody’s guess as to who will get the most playing time, but look for Alexander and the two spring enrollees, Louis and Feist, to get the first crack at contributing.

Wes Lunt, QB, Oklahoma State
There was a heated quarterback battle in Stillwater all spring and summer long. So it came as a bit of a surprise when the underdog from Rochester, Ill., was named the starter relatively early in the process by Mike Gundy. His 6-foot-4, 215-pound frame gives Gundy what he craves from a quarterback: a big, tall, accurate, pocket passer who makes quick decisions. There will be plenty of growing pains and learning experiences for Lunt, but this coaching staff clearly loves what they have in the true freshman.

Gabe Marks, WR, Washington State
Many around the Wazzu program are already claiming Freshman All-American status for the wideout from Los Angeles. He is a tiny slot sparkplug who is already wowing coaches in camp. In Mike Leach's high-flying offense, Marks can expect big numbers.

Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon*
He is still in a heated battle with Bryan Bennett that may last the entire season, but there is no doubt that the Dennis Dixon-clone will play a bunch in 2012. He has burst, explosiveness and speed like Dixon, but is also a much thicker athlete at nearly 200 pounds. He won the spring battle but is neck-and-neck with Bennett.

Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M*
Despite an immature physical dust-up that resulted in an arrest this summer, the talented dual-threat beat out Jameil Showers to earn the starting job for the Aggies. He posted huge numbers, both through the air and on the ground, as a high school senior two years ago, and in Kevin Sumlin’s system, fans can bet on big numbers from the redshirt freshman.

Trey Metoyer, WR, Oklahoma
This prep-schooler has fans in Norman boiling over with anticipation. He has drawn huge reviews in camp and could possibly overtake Kenny Stills as the No. 1 option. His all-around skillset fits better on the outside and, for a unit that played inconsistently in support of Ryan Broyles last fall, will be a welcome sight for Landry Jones. Freshman All-American status wouldn't be over-reaching.

Ondre Pipkins, DT, Michigan
The massive defensive tackle from Kansas City is expected to help plug the hole left by Mike Martin up the middle. A recent neck injury in practice put a scare into Maize and Blue nation and sent Pipkins to the hospital. All signs point to Pipkins being ready for the opener against Alabama, but how well an injured freshman's neck will be able to hold up against Barrett Jones, Chane Warmack and DJ Fluker remains to be seen.

Running Backs, Georgia
Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall have the chance to be a special freshman tandem this fall. These two are going to get tons of carries and Gurley has been the early star of camp for the Dawgs. Along with massive fullback Quayvon Hicks, Mark Richt has a more than enough talent to offset the loss of the aforementioned Crowell. Look for the burley Gurley and the speedy Marshall to compliment each other perfectly.

Isaac Seumalo, OL, Oregon State
It's all in the family for the locker prep blocker. His father, Joe, is the DL coach and his brother, Andrew, starts along the Beavers' offensive line. He was essentially pencilled into the starting line-up the second he committed to Oregon State, so don't expect to see him on the bench for a team that was pathetic in the running game a year ago.

John Theus, OL, Georgia
This big blocker from Jacksonville, Fla., could be the starter at left tackle from the second Georgia kicks off the 2012 season. He was the No. 2 offensive line prospect in the nation and the Dawgs are in big need of depth along the offensive front. Along with Zach DeBell, Theus will help stabilize the UGA front.

Shaq Thompson, S, Washington
This is a once in a lifetime type of player. And he will start from the first snap of the year — even if the new defensive coaching staff has to run five defensive backs out there. He can play in the box, can blitz off the edge, can play man-up in coverage and patrol the deep middle-third. Fans should be shocked if he isn't a Freshman All-American.

Other Names To Watch:

Ishmael Adams, CB, UCLA
The lockdown cover corner was arguably the top player at his position in the US Army All-American bowl and it hasn't taken long for him to fit in at UCLA. He is likely the most game-ready freshman in this class, so expect the Westlake Village, Calif., product to be in the line-up quickly.

Nelson Agholor, AP, USC
The speedster from across the country in Tampa, Fla., has big-play potential and a well-documented childhood. Expect the versatile back-receiver hybrid to be used all over the field, including special teams. He has proven to be a quick study this summer.

Travis Blanks, DB, Clemson
The Tigers' defensive woes are well documented. Prospects like Blanks should help new defensive coordinator Brent Venables attempt to improve a unit that was abused in the second half of the 2011 season. The hybrid talent, at 6-foot-1 and 195 pounds, should be used all over the field in various roles after enrolling early last January.

Austin Blythe, OL, Iowa
The Williamsburg, Iowa, product will be the baby of the All-Iowa starting offensive line in Iowa City. All five starters hail from the Hawkeye State and this redshirt freshman will lock down the right guard position. This is a unit under heavy scrutiny, however, as it finished last in the Big Ten in rushing last fall and 78th in the nation in sacks allowed.

Jaxon Hood, DL, Arizona State
The big fella from Chandler, Ariz., is currently atop the depth chart along the interior of the ASU defensive line. Hood checks in at 6-foot-1 and 290 pounds and has proven to the staff he is capable of playing at a high level right out of the gate.

Tracy Howard, CB, Miami
This talented defensive back might be the biggest impact freshman in the ACC this season. Miami fans can expect the speedy coverman from Miramar, Fla., to be on the field from the first snap of the ball. Miami will play a lot of young players, and the No. 2-rated defensive back prospect in the nation has already drawn excellent reviews in camp for his play and leadership. 

Duke Johnson, RB, Miami
The tiny tailback from Miami has speed to burn and will make some big plays this fall in a variety of ways. His 4.4 speed, to go along with the ability to catch the ball and make big plays on special teams will force Al Golden to get Johnson into his game plans. He may not have the size to unseat Mike James, or even be a 25-carry per game back, but Johnson will drop his fair share of jaws.

Mekale McKay, WR, Arkansas
The massive 6-foot-6 hoops star has made an immediate impact on the Hogs offense as he could very well start opposite Cobi Hamilton. With the very talented Tyler Wilson at quarterback, McKay has a chance to do his best DGB impersonation this fall. Few veteran cornerbacks will be able to match up with his raw leaping and overall athletic ability that earn him Mr. Basketball in the state of Kentucky last year.

Offensive Line, Kansas State
The right side of the Wildcats offensive front will feature a pair of freshman starters. Cody Whitehair is a 6-foot-5, 300-pounder from Abilene, Kan., and appears to be locked into the right tackle spot while the right guard spot will be manned by Andover, Kan., prospect Boston Stiverson, who checks in at 6-foot-4 and 306 pounds. Look for KSU's strength on offense to be the left side until these two can pick-up the speed of the game.

Jordan Rigsbee, OL, Cal
The redshirt freshman offensive lineman will have the chance to lean on his big brother and fellow starter along the offensive line, Tyler. The younger Rigsbee earned a starting spot out of spring and has kept that job through camp. He is bigger than his brother at 306 pounds (Tyler is only 290).

Shaq Roland, WR, South Carolina
Alshon Jeffery is gone and Steve Spurrier is hoping his new toy from Lexington, S.C., will help fill the void. The speedy pass-catcher was the No. 5 wideout prospect in the nation, the top prospect in the state, and has wowed the coaching staff since stepping on campus.

Rushel Shell, RB, Pitt
There is a very small chance Shell is redshirted, but his obvious talent and recruiting hype will make it hard for Chryst to keep the uber-prospect on the bench. He's the Keystone State's all-time leading rusher with 9,078 yards and scored a WPIAL record 110 career TDs. He also owns the national prep mark for consecutive 100-yard games with 39 — breaking the great Billy Sims' mark. Chryst will have fun using this dynamo.

Noah Spence, DL, Ohio State
Spence was the No. 1 defensive line prospect in the nation for a reason. He is an absolute monster. His size, strength, explosiveness and speed may force Urban Meyer to shoehorn him onto the field as a true freshman. This team is loaded with defensive line talent and there doesn't seem like a clear spot for Spence. But his raw physical skills might be too much for Meyer to ignore. Aldophus Washington might not be too far behind either.

Jordan Thompson, WR, West Virginia
This little guy has speed to burn and has proven he belongs on the field as a freshman. In a four-wide receiver set, Thompson has earned a starting spot on the inside. He is as small a football player as there is — he is listed at 5-foot-7 and 167 pounds — but is also as dynamic as any athlete in the league. The Katy, Texas, product could post big numbers as a freshman.

Nick VanHoose, CB, Northwestern
The scout team super star from last fall nearly got his redshirt pulled halfway through the season. Yet, Pat Fitzgerald resisted and the result will be a polished all-league-type of player stepping into a starting role in his first year on the field. He has speed and quickness to burn — as his role as Denard Robinson on the scout team will attest to — and should be able to lock down one half of the field.

TJ Yeldon, RB, Alabama
The twisting, turning, gyrating, impossible-to-tackle running back from Daphne, Ala., will have a shot to play early and often this fall. Eddie Lacy has a toe issue and Dee Hart is returning from a torn ACL, so the door is open for the big powerback.

- by Braden gall

@bradengall

Top Impact Freshman to Watch By Conference 2012:

ACC's Top Impact Freshmen to Watch in 2012
Big 12's Top Impact Freshmen to Watch in 2012

Big East's Top Impact Freshmen to Watch in 2012

Big Ten's Top Impact Freshmen to Watch in 2012

Pac-12's Top Impact Freshmen to Watch in 2012

SEC's Top Impact Freshmen to Watch in 2012

Teaser:
<p> College Football's Top 25 Impact Freshmen of 2012</p>
Post date: Monday, August 27, 2012 - 06:00
All taxonomy terms: NFL
Path: /nfl/tim-tebow-or-mark-sanchez-who-should-start-new-york-jets
Body:

Athlon Sports will preview the upcoming 2012 NFL season with in-depth roundtable debates with our editors and other experts from around the world of football.

Q: Who should be the starting quarterback of the New York Jets: Mark Sanchez or Tim Tebow?

Alan Schechter, TheJetPress.com
Mark Sanchez should be the starter for the New York Jets. He is the better quarterback, and it is not close. Watch each of them play and you will know why. For every long pass that Tim Tebow completes, there are 4-5 that are not even close. In the preseason game against the Giants, Tebow rolled to his right and had a wide open Stephen Hill in the endzone. However, there was nobody within 10 yards of him, and yet Tebow couldn’t make the connection. He airmailed a few others over guys heads, but the one to Hill was bad. And after the game, he made excuses for it instead of owning up to a bad throw. Mark Sanchez would make that throw each and every time. Tim Tebow is not a consistent quarterback. He is a gimmick.

As far as Sanchez goes, nobody gives him enough credit for the success that he has had. He's led the Jets to two AFC Championship games, and his numbers are actually slightly better than Eli Manning’s when you compare their first three seasons as starting quarterbacks. Mark Sanchez needs his offensive line to play well, so the ground and pound can get moving, and then he can work off of the play action. He needs his weapons to be out on the field, and he will be just fine. Going into the Panthers game in Week 3 of the preseason, Sanchez is completing 75 percent of his passes. Enough said.

Mark Sanchez is the only one to start at quarterback for this team. If Tim Tebow starts for any other reason than opening with a Wildcat play, or a Sanchez injury, the season will go very badly for the New York Jets.

Rob Doster (@AthlonDoster)
In one sense, the Jets have an enviable QB situation: Sanchez and Tebow have a combined playoff record of 5-3 as starting quarterbacks. Still, I can’t overlook the conventional wisdom that if you have two quarterbacks, you don’t have any, and the fact that we’re even having this debate tells me that the Jets are set to struggle. But since you asked, here goes: I’d stick with Sanchez and save Tebow for short-yardage, goal-line or change-of-pace situations. That’s the scenario that made sense when the move was made to acquire Tebow, and it still holds today.

Patrick Snow (@AthlonSnowman)
I believe Mark Sanchez should be the starter, even though his interception totals are alarming. The USC product has increased his touchdown and passing yard numbers each season, and the team has won around him when the running game and defense are solid. The obvious problem with Sanchez is his accuracy, but Tim Tebow was the only regular NFL quarterback with a completion percentage under 50 percent last year. Tebow’s strength is running the ball out of the “Wildcat”, and he should have success doing that with the Jets. I see Sanchez being the lead signal caller, with Tebow giving the Jets a quality power running option on short yardage and in the red zone.

Nathan Rush, Athlon Sports
Mark Sanchez has to be the starter for Week 1. But his leash won't be very long if the Jets sputter off the runway. Tim Tebow will be high-energy and even higher-profile — on the sidelines, at the goal line and in the Wildcat. The Sanchize better start Tebowing, because his job is in jeopardy. But he deserves to take the first snap from center at MetLife Stadium against the Bills.

Mark Ross, Athlon Sports
Despite an apparent lack of production, Sanchez is still the best option for the Jets at quarterback. He put up career numbers last season and has been accurate (completed nearly 70 percent of his passes) in the preseason as well. Even though he and Tebow have the same number of interceptions (two) and touchdown passes (zero), Tebow has completed less than 40 percent of his throws. Tebow’s great in the Wildcat and can definitely help this offense in the right role, but that’s not as starting quarterback. Sanchez has earned the right to be under center for the Jets in Week 1. Then again, if the offensive line doesn't do a better job in pass protection, then they may as well throw Tebow back there. His accuracy won't be an issue since he won't even have enough time to throw a pass.

Braden Gall (@BradenGall)
This is a comical discussion. Tim Tebow is a great leader, a positive member of any locker room, will bring attention to your brand and can't really complete NFL passes. Any other 25-year old starting quarterback with two AFC title game appearances, an increase of key statistics across the board and nary a losing record in three seasons would be viewed as the franchise. He is one of only three quarterbacks who have won a playoff game in at least two of the last three years. He has done something most can only imagine when he outplayed Tom Brady on the road in a playoff win over the Patriots. He finished second to only Cam Newton in rushing touchdowns by a quarterback last year. Sanchez has increased his yards, touchdowns, completion percentage and QB rating in each of this three seasons. Yet, he might be the most scrutinized signal caller in the league and takes entirely too much blame for a roster loaded with knuckleheads and egomaniacs. Tebow is a nice weapon, Sanchez is the only hope for a deep run in the playoffs.

@bradengall

Teaser:
<p> Tim Tebow or Mark Sanchez: Who Should Start for the New York Jets?</p>
Post date: Monday, August 27, 2012 - 06:00
Path: /college-football/notre-dame-football-top-impact-freshmen-2012
Body:

While National Signing Day 2012 seems like ages ago, thousands of freshmen (and redshirt freshmen) will take their first steps onto the hallowed grounds of stadiums all over the nation this weekend. Most won't even dress for the varsity squad this season and some may never play a snap at their current home. But a select few uber-recruits will have the chance to make an immediate impact on the college football landscape. And Notre Dame is bringing in a second consecutive class of elite prospects. 

Related: Top 25 Impact Freshmen To Watch In 2012

Who are the new names and faces to watch for Notre Dame?

Chris Brown, WR
Michael Floyd cannot be replaced by one player so the 6-foot-2, 175-pounder from South Carolina will join forces with a handful of other talented young pass-catchers in an effort to fill the void. Brown has speed to burn and will be given a chance to push the veterans for playing time. 

Sheldon Day, DL
An early enrollee, the massive defensive lineman from Indianapolis (Ind.) Warren Central has already proven he belongs on the field. And in a defensive front that is stacked with young talent, it's even more impressive the impact the 6-foot-2, 290-pound freshman has made up front. He should be a household name in short order for Irish fans.

Everett Golson, QB
The most important new face in the Irish starting lineup will be this heralded redshirt freshman. From Myrtle Beach, S.C., Golson will make his debut in an Irish uniform in the season opener against Navy. In Dublin, Ireland no less. Brian Kelly picked the 6-foot, 185-pounder for a reason: He has loads of upside, the ability to make plays with his legs, plenty of space for upward growth and the personality to lead by example. He will make his fair share of mistakes, but Golson is the future of Notre Dame football. Or, at least, until Gunner Kiel is ready.

Romeo Okwara, LB
Ben Councell is the starter at outside linebacker, but Okwara is listed as his backup heading into the Navy game. The 6-foot-4, 240-pounder from Charlotte, N.C., has turned heads in camp and looks like he will see plenty of time against a schedule loaded with solid offensive lines and talented quarterbacks.

Davonte Neal, AP
The tiny speedster from Arizona is already the starting punt returner for Kelly's bunch. He should also be able to contribute on offense in a variety of ways, be it in the slot, the backfield or in open space with the football in his hands. Look for Neal and Brown to get plenty of touches this fall. Neal checks in at 5-foot-10 and 175 pounds.

KeiVarae Russell, CB
Formerly a running back, Russell was shifted to the defensive backfield when Lo Woods ruptured his left Achilles tendon this fall. The 6-foot, 180-pound cornerback won't just contribute on defense, as he is currently the starting cornerback. He will have an interesting mix of offensive schemes to deal with in his first month of college: Navy, Purdue, Michigan State and Denard Robinson.

Ronnie Stanley, OL
As it stands today, the big blocker from Las Vegas is the primary backup to star left tackle Zack Martin. He is listed at 6-foot-6 and 285 pounds and is the only freshman listed in the top 11 offensive linemen. He couldn't be in a better position to learn the nuances of the left tackle spot and should deliver three years of production at the No. 2 most important position on the team.

- by Braden gall

@bradengall

Top Impact Freshman to Watch By Conference 2012:

Top 25 Impact Freshmen To Watch In 2012

ACC's Top Impact Freshmen to Watch in 2012
Big 12's Top Impact Freshmen to Watch in 2012

Big East's Top Impact Freshmen to Watch in 2012

Big Ten's Top Impact Freshmen to Watch in 2012

Pac-12's Top Impact Freshmen to Watch in 2012

SEC's Top Impact Freshmen to Watch in 2012

Teaser:
<p> Notre Dame Football: Top Impact Freshmen for 2012</p>
Post date: Monday, August 27, 2012 - 05:00
Path: /college-football/big-12s-top-impact-freshmen-2012
Body:

With college football's fall practice in full swing around the nation, it's really the first time names made famous on recruiting websites are showing up in actual practice reports. When it comes to picking which freshmen will make an impact in their first season on campus, it's really all about who can pick up the playbook the fastest and who fits a need. The Texas Longhorns know all about true freshman running backs as the No. 1 incoming freshman tailback in the nation, Malcolm Brown, finished with 742 yards and five scores last season despite missing three games. Mack Brown welcomes another No. 1 runner in Jonathan Gray to campus who should see plenty of playing time this time around too. This season will feature another class of stellar prospects who will mold the landscape in the Big 12 (listed alphabetically): 

The Big 12's Top Impact Freshmen for 2012

LaDarius Brown, WR, TCU
Casey Pachall has loads of talent to work with in the passing game. He has names like Boyce and Dawson. And he has plenty of smaller, slot guys who make big plays happen in open space near the line of scrimmage. What he would love is a 6-foot-4, 220-pound big body that can go down the field and deep over the middle. The big fella from Waxahachie, Texas, gives him a weapon like that.

Malcom Brown, DT, Texas
The No. 5-rated defensive tackle prospect in the entire nation will enter the 40 Acres for the first time with eyes on playing time. He will bolster a key area of concern for the Horns and could eventually work his way into the starting line-up. The Brenham, Texas, prospect checks in at 6-foot-4 and 285 pounds.

Quenton Bundrage, WR, Iowa State
The Cyclones offense is anything but situated and the receiving corps is a big part of that problem. The coaching staff is hoping the Sunshine State prospect is ready to produce in his first year on the field. He is a big target at 6-foot-2 and 190 pounds and could make a big difference for whichever quarterback wins the job in Ames.

La'Raven Clark, OL, Texas Tech
The biggest impact newcomer for Tech has to be this starting offensive lineman. The 6-foot-3, 310-pounder hails from Rockdale, Texas, and will be charged with protecting the team's two most valued weapons in quarterback Seth Doege and tailback Eric Stephens.

Spencer Drango, OL, Baylor
No pressure for Drango in 2012. Following the Year of the Bear, the youngster from Cedar Park, Texas, could be responsible for protecting new quarterback Nick Florence's blind side. He checks in at 6-foot-6 and 305 pounds and should benefit from playing alongside Cyril Richardson. These two give Baylor one of the biggest tackle tandems in the country.

Devonte Fields, DL, TCU
The Frogs have been dealing with injuries all over the depth chart and with the recent issues along the defensive line, Fields has had his chance to showcase his talents in camp. He has been impressive and it has earned him the chance to see the field as a key reserve (if not more). From Arlington, Texas, he is one of the highest-rated recruits in TCU history and Gary Patterson is hoping he can provide a spark in the pass rush.

Jonathan Gray, RB, Texas
No high school running back has ever been as productive as Gray was at Aledo High School. He sits behind two elite sophomores in Joe Bergeron and Malcolm Brown, but Gray could see upwards of 100 touches this fall. He has the power, the speed, the receiving skills, the upside, the toughness and the agility. There is nothing he cannot do on a football field and it should make him an All-American in short order.

Daje Johnson, AP, Texas
The Texas version of De'Anthony Thomas could be a big-time play-maker for Mack Brown this fall. Unfortunately, he is already starting to act big-time, getting suspended for the season opener for a violation of team rules. His all-purpose ability, however, won't be kept down long as he will catch passes, get carries and possibly get involved on special teams. He can score from anywhere on the field — once he is on the field, of course.

Wes Lunt, QB, Oklahoma State
There was a heated quarterback battle in Stillwater all spring and summer long. So it came as a bit of a surprise when the underdog from Rochester, Ill., was named the starter relatively early in the process by Mike Gundy. His 6-foot-4, 215-pound frame gives Gundy what he craves from a quarterback: a big, tall, accurate, pocket passer who makes quick decisions. There will be plenty of growing pains and learning experiences for Lunt, but this coaching staff clearly loves what they have in the true freshman.

Trey Metoyer, WR, Oklahoma
This prep-schooler has fans in Norman boiling over with anticipation. He has drawn huge reviews in camp and could possibly overtake Kenny Stills as the No. 1 option. His all-around skillset fits better on the outside and, for a unit that played inconsistently in support of Ryan Broyles last fall, will be a welcome sight for Landry Jones. Freshman All-American status wouldn't be over-reaching.

Offensive Line, Kansas State
The right side of the Wildcats offensive front will feature a pair of freshman starters. Cody Whitehair is a 6-foot-5, 300-pounder from Abilene, Kan., and appears to be locked into the right tackle spot while the right guard spot will be manned by Andover, Kan., prospect Boston Stiverson, who checks in at 6-foot-4 and 306 pounds. Look for KSU's strength on offense to be the left side until these two can pick-up the speed of the game.

Tre Parmalee, WR, Kansas
A local prep super star in Overland Park, Kan., Parmalee should be a factor for the Jayhawks much like Tyler Lockett was for Kansas State last year and Jordan Thompson (WVU) and Daje Johson (Texas) this fall. He isn't a big player at 5-foot-10 and 170 pounds, be he has plenty of quickness and agility. He could be used in the pass, run and return games.

Jordan Thompson, WR, West Virginia
This little guy has speed to burn and has proven he belongs on the field as a freshman. In a four-wide receiver set, Thompson has earned a starting spot on the inside. He is as small a football player as there is — he is listed at 5-foot-7 and 167 pounds — but is also as dynamic as any athlete in the league. The Katy, Texas, product could post big numbers as a freshman.

Freshman Position Battles To Watch:

Cayleb Jones, Kendall Sanders and Marcus Johnson, WR, Texas
All three have already cracked the two-deep, but significant playing time is a long shot. The future is bright with this group, however.

Halapoulivaati Vaitai and Aviante Collins, OL, TCU
Injuries have forced a lot of movement on the Frogs' OL depth chart and these two big freshmen have impressed thus far.

Durron Neal and Sterling Shepard, WR, Oklahoma
Metoyer will get the first crack and most of the headlines, but these two have loads of talent and big upside.

Tyler Pankey and Adam Orlosky, OL, West Virginia
Both come to Morgantown from Ohio and both have locked up spots on the two-deep as key reserves along the line.

Dalton Santos and Peter Jinkins, LB, Texas
A reworked position has allowed both players to see the field plenty in camp. Expect plenty of reps from these two.

Karl Joseph and K.J. Dillon, S, West Virginia
These two stellar safeties are listed as No. 2's but both will play a ton this fall according to the coaching staff.

Javares McCroy and Derek Edwards, WR, Texas Tech
Both have worked their way onto the field this summer — be it special teams or in the slot.

Deante Gray and Kolby Griffin, DB, TCU
These two youngsters will push the vets for playing time now that injuries have opened up opportunities. 

Connor Brewer and Jalen Overstreet, QB, Texas
Yes, David Ash is the starter, but both of these kids are talented enough to push for time should Ash and Case McCoy falter.

Other Names To Watch:

Christian Brown, DT, West Virginia
Isaiah Bruce, LB, West Virginia
Ty Darlington, C, Oklahoma
A.J. Hilliard, LB, TCU
Taylor McNamara, TE, Oklahoma
Jordan Phillips, DT, Oklahoma
Alex Ross, RB, Oklahoma
Frank Shannon, LB, Oklahoma
Brandon Shepard, WR, Oklahoma State
Gary Simon, CB, Oklahoma
Charles Tapper, DE, Oklahoma
Duke Thomas, CB, Texas

- by Braden Gall

@bradengall

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Teaser:
<p> The Big 12's Top Impact Freshmen of 2012</p>
Post date: Friday, August 24, 2012 - 06:00
Path: /college-football/pac-12s-top-impact-freshmen-2012
Body:

With college football's fall practice in full swing around the nation, it's really the first time names made famous on recruiting websites are showing up in actual practice reports. When it comes to picking which freshmen will make an impact in their first season on campus, it's really all about who can pick up the playbook the fastest and who fits a need. The Pac-12's three-time defending conference champion used a true freshman of their own last fall to earn the league crown. De'Anthony Thomas was stellar in all phases of the game and his big-play ability not only helped the Ducks to a championship, but a Rose Bowl win over Wisconsin. This season will feature another class of stellar prospects who will mold the landscape in the Pac-12 (listed alphabetically): 

The Pac-12's Top Impact Freshmen for 2012

Ishmael Adams, CB, UCLA
The lockdown cover corner was arguably the top player at his position in the US Army All-American bowl and it hasn't taken long for him to fit in at UCLA. He is likely the most game-ready freshman in this class, so expect the Westlake Village, Calif., product to be in the line-up quickly.

Nelson Agholor, AP, USC
The speedster from across the country in Tampa, Fla., has big-play potential and a well-documented childhood. Expect the versatile back-receiver hybrid to be used all over the field, including special teams. He has proven to be a quick study this summer.

Arik Armstead, DL, Oregon
The 2011 cycle featured De'Anthony Thomas. This season it's the massive (6-7, 290) defensive end-offensive tackle two-sport star from Elk Grove, Calif. He will be a key reserve and pass-rush demon for Chip Kelly to begin. Don't be shocked if the nation's No. 3 prospect is a starter by year's end.

Jake Brendel, OL, UCLA
The 6-foot-4, 290-pound pivot has a chance to start as a redshirt freshman this fall. He hails from Plano, Texas, and will look to stabilize a portion of the UCLA offense that has been lacking of late. 

DJ Foster, RB, Arizona State
This tiny speedster has a chance to make big plays this fall. Cameron Marshall is the starter, but has been out of practice, thus giving the uber-recruit from Scottsdale, Ariz., plenty of chances. He has been too dynamic in camp for Todd Graham to keep off the field.

Jaxon Hood, DL, Arizona State
The big fellas from Chandler, Ariz., is currently atop the depth chart along the interior of the ASU defensive line. Hood checks in at 6-foot-1 and 290 pounds and has proven to the staff he is capable of playing at a high level right out of the gate.

Brett Hundley, QB, UCLA
This move had to be made. Hundley is the most talented and has the highest upside of any quarterback on the roster (he also has yet to miss a start due to injury). In all seriousness, though, the 6-foot-4, 225-pounder from Chandler, Ariz., gives new Bruins head coach Jim Mora Jr., offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone and the rest of the coaching staff a chance to succeed longterm in Westwood.

Gabe Marks, WR, Washington State
Many around the Wazzu program are already claiming Freshman All-American status for the wideout from Los Angeles. He is a tiny slot sparkplug who is already wowing coaches in camp. In Mike Leach's high-flying offense, Marks can expect big numbers.

Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon
He is still in a heated battle with Bryan Bennett that may last the entire season, but there is no doubt that the Dennis Dixon-clone will play a bunch in 2012. He has burst, explosiveness and speed like Dixon, but is also a much thicker athlete at nearly 200 pounds. He won the spring battle but is neck-and-neck with Bennett.

Jordan Rigsbee, OL, Cal
The redshirt freshman offensive lineman will have the chance to lean on his big brother and fellow starter along the offensive line, Tyler. The younger Rigsbee earned a starting spot out of spring and has kept that job through camp. He is bigger than his brother at 306 pounds (Tyler is only 290).

Isaac Seumalo, OL, Oregon State
It's all in the family for the locker prep blocker. His father, Joe, is the DL coach and his brother, Andrew, starts along the Beavers' offensive line. He was essentially pencilled into the starting line-up the second he committed to Oregon State, so don't expect to see him on the bench for a team that was pathetic in the running game a year ago.

Nelson Spruce, WR, Colorado
The 6-foot-2, 195 pounder got his chance when Paul Richardson went down with a serious injury. From Westlake Village, Calif., Spruce has already earned a starting spot in the Buffs offense. If he can hold off a talented group nipping at his heels, he should have a great first season on the field.

Shaq Thompson, S, Washington
This is a once in a lifetime type of player. And he will start from the first snap of the year — even if the new defensive coaching staff has to run five defensive backs out there. He can play in the box, can blitz off the edge, can play man-up in coverage and patrol the deep middle-third. Fans should be shocked if he isn't a Freshman All-American.

Bryce Treggs, WR, Cal
Playing opposite of Keenan Allen should allow for the very talented Treggs to get plenty of looks in 2012. While Allen draws safety help and double-coverage, the Top-100 wide receiver from Bellflower, Calif., will be lined-up in isolation coverage schemes.

Storm Woods, RB, Oregon State
The Beavers running game was atrocious last fall and Mike Riley has no qualms about starting a true freshman in the backfield. Especially, if they are from Texas or Florida. Woods comes to Corvallis from Austin suburb Pflugerville, Texas. He is much bigger and more durable than Malcolm Agnew, who also figures heavily in the carries mix.

Yuri Wright, DB, Colorado
Immature tweeting aside, Wright has loads of upside and raw talent. Will he need to mature and develop off the field in order to become the great athlete scouts think he can become? Yes. But on a depth chart that has many voids, Wright figures to make an instant impact in Boulder.

Freshman Position Battles To Watch:

Andrus Peat and Kyle Murphy, OL, Stanford
Two huge recruits, literally and figuratively, will battle for starting tackle position all season.

Jaydon Mickens and Kendyl Taylor, WR, Washington
Both could start opposite of Kasen Williams as both are listed as starters in latest depth chart.

Kenny Walker, Javon Williams, Jordan Payton and Devin Lucien, WR, UCLA
Young quarterback has an elite collection of young pass catchers to choose from.

Maurice Harris, Darius Powe, Chris Harper, WR, Cal
Treggs is already a starter and these are the next three names listed on the depth chart.

Devon Blackmon and B.J. Kelley, WR, Oregon
With Tacoi Sumler leaving, there should be chances for these two to step up.

Daniel Nielson, Kala Freil and Siaosi Aiono, OL, Utah
Nielson is leading this pack as all three are vying for snaps with the No. 1 offense.

Travis Freeney and Evan Seger, LB, Washington
The latest depth chart projections have these two battling for the starting strongside backer.


Scott Starr and Anthony Sarao, LB, USC
Young LB corps has some solid depth with these two backing Dion Bailey and Hayes Pullard.

Lene Maiava and Jacob Arzouman, OL, Arizona
Veteran offensive line will be pushed by these two talented freshman. One might steal a starting spot.

Other Names To Watch:

Zach Banner, OL, USC
Todd Barr, DL, Cal
Ezekiel Bishop, S, Arizona State
Alex Carter, CB, Stanford
Tyson Coleman, LB, Oregon
Kenneth Crowley, CB, Colorado
Xavier Cooper, DL, Washington State
Noor Davis, LB, Stanford
CJ Dozier, LB, Arizona
Michael Eubanks, QB, Arizona State
Ka'imi Fairbairn, K, UCLA
Josh Garnett, OL, Stanford
Johnny Jackson, WR, Arizona
Ellis McCarthy, DL, UCLA
Carlos Mendoza, LB, Arizona State
Darryl Monroe, LB, Washington State
Cyler Miles, QB, Washington
Aaron Porter, LB, UCLA
Jarrell Oliver, RB, Utah
Gerald Thomas, WR, Colorado
Greg Townsend Jr., DE, USC
Max Tuerk, OL, USC
Josh Tupou, DT, Colorado
Soma Vainuku, FB, USC
J.T. Washington, RB, Arizona
Kodi Whitfield, WR, Stanford
Jason Whittingham, STUD, Utah
Leonard Williams, DE, USC
Shadow Williams, LB, Arizona
Travis Wilson, QB, Utah

- by Braden Gall

@bradengall

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Teaser:
<p> The Pac-12's Top Impact Freshmen of 2012</p>
Post date: Friday, August 24, 2012 - 06:00
All taxonomy terms: AFC, AFC North, Baltimore Ravens, NFL
Path: /nfl/baltimore-ravens-2012-nfl-team-preview
Body:

Athlon Sports is counting down its 2012 NFL preseason Power Rankings with in-depth team previews, schedule analysis and more as the start of the NFL season draws near.

The Baltimore Ravens check in at No. 7.

Convinced that the Ravens are on the verge of reaching the Super Bowl, owner Steve Bisciotti issued a quick reply when asked what the AFC North champions needed to do to make it to the big game: “Hold on to a ball.” Bisciotti was referring to Lee Evans dropping a potential game-winning touchdown in a bitter AFC title game loss also remembered for kicker Billy Cundiff misfiring on a short field goal.

Although middle linebacker Ray Lewis and free safety Ed Reed are a year older, the Ravens are still contenders on the heels of a 12–4 campaign in which they went undefeated at home and swept the division.

“Teams like the Patriots and Steelers are older than we are,” Bisciotti says. “I don’t see age being a window-closer.”

Getting back to within one game of the Super Bowl will be an arduous challenge. The Ravens face the fourth-most difficult schedule in the NFL. They face 11 quarterbacks who’ve been named to the Pro Bowl — including consecutive games against Peyton Manning and Eli Manning — and eight games against playoff teams from a year ago. “It’s a tough schedule, but it’s a schedule for the Baltimore Ravens,” cornerback Lardarius Webb says. “It makes us work a little harder.”

Offense

Pro Bowl running back Ray Rice remains the centerpiece of an offense built around a punishing running game. One of the most productive all-purpose threats in the game, Rice piled up a league-high 2,068 yards from scrimmage last season and scored a franchise-record 15 touchdowns. Rice’s trademark elusiveness and versatility spearhead the offense. And the franchise player has the advantage of bruising fullback Vonta Leach creating holes.

Rookie Bernard Pierce and Anthony Allen are vying to be the primary backup to Rice after Ricky Williams’ abrupt retirement. Pierce is regarded as the favorite to win the job.

Quarterback Joe Flacco is known for his stoic personality, his strong right arm, and his durability. The franchise’s all-time leading passer with 13,816 yards and 80 touchdowns has made it to four consecutive playoff appearances and two AFC title games, going 44–20 under center and never missing a start. The Ravens are interested in a long-term contract extension with Flacco, who’s entering the final year of his rookie deal.

Flacco’s top avenues downfield are veteran Anquan Boldin and speedster Torrey Smith. Boldin lacks deep speed but uses muscle, savvy and sure hands to get the job done. Smith overcame a rough start to set a franchise rookie record with eight receiving scores (including one in the AFC title game). With better consistency, he could emerge as a 1,000-yard receiver.

The Ravens signed former Texans receiver Jacoby Jones to a $7 million contract hoping that he’s the answer for a third wide receiver.

Their other candidates include Tandon Doss, David Reed, LaQuan Williams and rookie Tommy Streeter. At 6'5", 220 pounds, Streeter is adept at the fade route.

Tight end Todd Heap wasn’t missed — Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta combined for 94 catches, 933 yards and eight touchdowns.

The offensive line is in flux at left guard after the departure of Pro Bowl guard Ben Grubbs. Jah Reid and Kelechi Osemele are fighting to replace him in what shapes up as the key camp battle. Gritty Pro Bowl guard Marshal Yanda is one tough farm boy, utilizing leverage and strength to muscle defenders. Six-time Pro Bowl center Matt Birk is up in years but is still a viable blocker whose strong suits are intelligence and experience. The Ravens are banking on left tackle Bryant McKinnie following through on his promise to report in better shape. Michael Oher provides a solid blocking presence at right tackle.

Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron’s biggest challenges are getting better play from his tackles and improving in the red zone.

Defense

Promoted to defensive coordinator after Chuck Pagano went to the Colts, Dean Pees already faces a crisis. The third-ranked defense in the NFL suffered a damaging blow when NFL Defensive Player of the Year Terrell Suggs partially tore his Achilles tendon in April. Suggs (14 sacks, seven forced fumbles) could miss much of the season, if not all of it. Rookie Courtney Upshaw is the frontrunner to be plugged in at Suggs’ rush linebacker spot. Paul Kruger is slated to take over at strong-side outside linebacker with Jarret Johnson gone. Pernell McPhee, a fifth-round steal with six sacks as a rookie, and Sergio Kindle will need to contribute more as pass-rushers.

The Ravens will rely heavily upon Lewis, the emotional leader of a tradition-rich defense. His range and coverage skills have declined, but he’s still one of the best middle linebackers. Inside linebacker Jameel McClain is so highly regarded he was retained with a $10.5 million contract.

Webb has become a true shutdown corner and was rewarded with a $50 million contract. Cary Williams and Jimmy Smith make corner one of the top positions on the team. Reed is an instinctive, capable centerfielder but has durability and tackling issues caused by neck and shoulder injuries. Strong safety Bernard Pollard is an intimidating hitter.

The defensive line is anchored by disruptive tackle Haloti Ngata. Terrence Cody is a beefy nose guard who commands double-teams inside. McPhee and Arthur Jones are competing for Cory Redding’s vacated left end spot.

Specialists

Flubbing a rushed field goal try against the Patriots carries consequences for Cundiff, a 2010 Pro Bowl kicker. The Ravens are expected to acquire a veteran to challenge him in camp, and they’ve already signed undrafted former Texas kicker Justin Tucker.

While punter Sam Koch averaged a career-high 46.5 yards last season, kick coverage was shoddy. The Ravens surrendered a total of three touchdowns on returns, ranking 31st in kickoff return average and 24th in punt returns. To (hopefully) fix the problem, the Ravens signed Pro Bowl special teams ace Corey Graham and brought back Brendon Ayanbadejo.

By signing Jones, an accomplished punt returner, the Ravens are optimistic that they’ve upgraded their return game. Webb is indispensable on defense, so adding Jones was a necessity.

Final Analysis: 2nd in the AFC North

Super Bowl prospects dimmed a bit due to Suggs’ injury, but the Ravens are still capable of making a serious run. The offense will need another huge year from Rice and clutch performances from Flacco to generate more points. The defense might need to blitz more, and Lewis and Reed need to stay healthy. The special teams have nowhere to go but up.

At the worst, the Ravens have the talent, leadership and coaching to get back to the playoffs for the fifth consecutive year.

Related: 2012 Baltimore Ravens Schedule Analysis

Outside The Huddle

Sticking With It
Although cornerback Lardarius Webb is extremely valuable to the defense after signing a $50 million contract, he still wants to remain the big-play threat at punt returner. Last year, Webb returned one punt for a touchdown and averaged 10 yards per return. He wants to stay involved even if he’s not the primary punt returner since the Ravens signed Jacoby Jones. “Yes, I would love to be a returner,” Webb says. “That’s what made Deion Sanders so great, because he was returning kicks and returning punts and returning interceptions to the house. That’s what made him Deion Sanders. So, that might make me Lardarius Webb.”

Promoting From Within
Led by general manager Ozzie Newsome, director of player personnel Eric DeCosta, director of pro personnel Vince Newsome and director of college scouting Joe Hortiz, the Ravens’ scouting department is regarded as one of the best in the NFL. The Ravens groom personnel employees from a young age through a so-called 20-20 club, referring to hiring 20-year-olds for a $20,000 salary. Added Newsome: “The guys actually started when they were a little older than 20 and for more than $20,000, but that’s what we call them.”

Proving Himself
Jah Reid knows he’ll have to earn the left guard job vacated when Pro Bowl blocker Ben Grubbs signed a $36 million contract with the Saints. The 6'7", 335-pounder currently ranks first on the depth chart, but faces competition from rookie Kelechi Osemele. “I certainly have to go in and expect to play,” Reid says. “I want this position, and it’s mine to lose.”

Reunited
Curtis Painter had an edge of familiarity when he auditioned for the team this spring, beating out Kyle Boller and Dennis Dixon at a tryout. Painter played for Ravens quarterbacks coach Jim Caldwell with the Colts before Caldwell was fired last season. He’s expected to be the third quarterback.

Home-field Advantage
The Ravens went undefeated at home and were one of only three teams to accomplish that feat last season (along with the Packers and Saints). Under John Harbaugh, the Ravens have won 18 of their last 19 regular-season games at home and are 27–5 in Baltimore overall since he took over four years ago.

Hold That Line
The Ravens are stout on defense. They ranked first in red zone defense last season, allowing only 16 touchdowns for a 38.1 TD percentage.

2012 Athlon Sports NFL Power Rankings and Team Previews:

No. 32: Jacksonville Jaguars
No. 31: St. Louis Rams
No. 30: Minnesota Vikings
No. 29: Indianapolis Colts
No. 28: Cleveland Browns
No. 27: Miami Dolphins
No. 26: Arizona Cardinals
No. 25: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
No. 24: Kansas City Chiefs
No. 23: Oakland Raiders
No. 22: Washington Redskins
No. 21: Seattle Seahawks
No. 20: Carolina Panthers
No. 19: New York Jets
No. 18: Buffalo Bills
No. 17: Tennessee Titans
No. 16: San Diego Chargers
No. 15: Cincinnati Bengals
No. 14: Philadelphia Eagles
No. 13: New Orleans Saints
No. 12: Dallas Cowboys
No. 11: Denver Broncos
No. 10: Detroit Lions
No. 9: Chicago Bears
No. 8: Atlanta Falcons
No. 7: Baltimore Ravens
No. 6: Fri., August 24

Order your 2012 Baltimore Ravens Athlon Sports NFL Preview magazine here

Related: 2012 Baltimore Ravens Schedule Analysis

Teaser:
<p> Baltimore Ravens 2012 NFL Team Preview</p>
Post date: Thursday, August 23, 2012 - 12:45
Path: /college-football/secs-top-impact-freshmen-2012
Body:

With college football's fall practice in full swing around the nation, it's really the first time names made famous on recruiting websites are showing up in actual practice reports. When it comes to picking which freshmen will make an impact in their first season on campus, it's really all about who can pick up the playbook the fastest and who fits a need. The SEC featured two huge stars as freshman a year ago in South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney — who might already be the best DE in the nation — and Georgia tailback Isaiah Crowell. Of course, after Crowell was dismissed from the team, the Dawgs could have another true freshman runner push for SEC Offensive Freshman of the Year. This season will feature another class of stellar prospects who will mold the landscape in the SEC (listed alphabetically): 

The SEC's Top Impact Freshmen for 2012

Evan Boehm, OL, Missouri
The coaching staff in Columbia has been full of praise for their star prospect at guard. He has been battling for the starting spot and Gary Pinkel has stated the Lee’s Summit, Mo, native has the size and maturity to play right away. He would be the only the third true freshman offensive lineman to ever play under the Mizzou coach.

Landon Collins, S, Alabama
The secondary under Nick Saban will always be an area of strength and the nation’s No. 2 safety only makes it better. With Mark Barron and Dre Kirkpatrick leaving, there should be room for the massive Collins to get onto the field alongside Robert Lester. 

Amari Cooper, WR, Alabama
The 'Bama offense should be more explosive and more dynamic in 2012 and this is due in part to the boost in talent Nick Saban is getting at wide receiver. Cooper was a star in the Under Armour All-American event and has done nothing to disprove that in camp thus far. Look for Cooper to work his way into the starting line-up.

Quay Evans, DT, Mississippi State
Along with fellow tackle Nick James, Evans should expect to be one of a handful of Bulldog freshmen to see action early. The Morton, Miss., prospect was a Top 100 recruit and fills a need following the departure of NFL first-rounder Fletcher Cox.

Dorial Green-Beckam, WR, Missouri
The most prolific high school receiver in American prep history will suit up for Mizzou this fall. The nation’s No. 1 overall prospect can expect to see a lot of passes throw his way. His 6-foot-6, 220-pound frame creates match-up issues all over the field and will be impossible to cover, both vertically and in the slot. DGB will be a big star in the SEC.

Darreon Herring, LB, Vanderbilt
James Franklin announced last weekend that three true freshmen will be playing right away and Herring is one of them. The speedy tackler from Stone Mountain, Ga., is listed as the No. 2 outside backer but could very easily slide into the starting line-up once the season gets underway.

Linebackers, LSU
Kwon Alexander, Ronnie Feist, Deion Jones, Lamar Louis and Lorenzo Phillips could all see playing time this fall. It is anybody’s guess as to who will get the most playing time, but look for Alexander and the two spring enrollees, Louis and Feist, to get the first crack at contributing.

Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M
Despite an immature physical dust-up that resulted in an arrest this summer, the talented dual-threat beat out Jameil Showers to earn the starting job for the Aggies. He posted huge numbers, both through the air and on the ground, as a high school senior two years ago, and in Kevin Sumlin’s system, fans can bet on big numbers from the redshirt freshman.

Mekale McKay, WR, Arkansas
The massive 6-foot-6 hoops star has made an immediate impact on the Hogs offense as he could very well start opposite Cobi Hamilton. With the very talented Tyler Wilson at quarterback, McKay has a chance to do his best DGB impersonation this fall. Few veteran cornerbacks will be able to match up with his raw leaping and overall athletic ability that earn him Mr. Basketball in the state of Kentucky last year.

Benardrick McKinney, LB, Mississippi State
The massive (6-foot-5, 235 pounds) linebacker has been battling Ferlando Bohanna for the starting middle linebacker job that may not get decided until well into the fall. McKinney has proven to be a leader even as a freshman and could easily earn the starting spot at MLB for Dan Mullen.

Otha Peters, LB, Arkansas
The linebacking corps at Arkansas has dealt with some injuries this summer and that has opened the door for players like Peters to step in and contribute. The 6-foot-1, 230-pounder from Covington, La., is in a heated battle for a starting spot. Either way, expect the true frosh to play big minutes this fall.

Shaq Roland, WR, South Carolina
Alshon Jeffery is gone and Steve Spurrier is hoping his new toy from Lexington, S.C., will help fill the void. The speedy pass-catcher was the No. 5 wideout prospect in the nation, the top prospect in the state, and has wowed the coaching staff since stepping on campus.

Jay Rome, TE, Georgia
The only thing standing in the way of the 6-foot-6, 250-pound freak of nature and certain stardom is himself. Mark Richt loves the athleticism and raw play-making ability Rome brings to the table, especially with Orson Charles now in the NFL. But the head Dawg wants to see consistent effort and some added toughness.

Running Backs, Georgia
Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall have the chance to be a special freshman tandem this fall. These two are going to get tons of carries and Gurley has been the early star of camp for the Dawgs. Along with massive fullback Quayvon Hicks, Mark Richt has a more than enough talent to offset the loss of the aforementioned Crowell. Look for the burley Gurley and the speedy Marshall to compliment each other perfectly.

John Theus, OL, Georgia
This big blocker from Jacksonville, Fla., could be the starter at left tackle from the second Georgia kicks off the 2012 season. He was the No. 2 offensive line prospect in the nation and the Dawgs are in big need of depth along the offensive front. Along with Zach DeBell, Theus will help stabilize the UGA front.

Zach West, OL, Kentucky
The hometown kid from Lexington Christian Academy is locked into a starting guard spot opposite Larry Warford. The 6-foot-4, 312-pounder could have played a year ago but Joker Phillips allowed the big blocker to develop. Now, he has four years of eligibility and a starting spot along the line.

Trey Williams, RB, Texas A&M
Christine Michael and Ben Malena are perfectly capable SEC tailbacks. But Michael has been injury prone throughout his career and Malena isn’t a scat back. Williams, on the other hand, brings a dynamic, speedy skillset to the offense and will complement both of the bigger backs perfectly.

TJ Yeldon, RB, Alabama
The twisting, turning, gyrating, impossible-to-tackle running back from Daphne, Ala., will have a shot to play early and often this fall. Eddie Lacy has a toe issue and Dee Hart is returning from a torn ACL, so the door is open for the big powerback.

Freshman Position Battles To Watch:

Jalen Collins and Jalen Mills, CB, LSU
These two shold battle for the starting spot vacated by the Honey Badger. 

Kris Frost, Javier Mitchell and Cassanova McKinzy, LB, Auburn
There isn't a ton of depth for Auburn at LB, so fans should expect a lot of new faces making tackles this fall.

Beniquez Brown and Richie Brown, LB, Mississippi State
Expect to see plenty of youth in the defensive front seven for Dan Mullen this fall.

Jaylen Walton and I’Tavius Mathers, RB, Ole Miss
Jeff Scott has been banged-up and these two youngsters have been impressive in camp thus far.

Raphael Andrades and LaTroy Pittman, WR, Florida
The offense is in desperate need of play makers, so expect both to get a long look in camp.

Greg Robinson, Christian Westerman, Alex Kozan and Avery Young, OL, Auburn
The Tigers OL is stacked with young talent and these two could step in and play very quickly.

Other Names To Watch:

Caleb Azubike, DL, Vanderbilt
Jonathan Bullard, DL, Florida
James DeLoach, LB, Georgia
Travin Dural, WR, LSU
Dante Fowler Jr., DE/OLB, Florida
Reid Ferguson, LS, LSU
Kris Frost, LB, Auburn
De’Vante Harris, CB, Texas A&M
Dee Hart, RB, Alabama
Joshua Hosley, CB, Auburn
DJ Humphries, OL, Florida
Danielle Hunter, DE, LSU
Jordan Jenkins, DL, Georgia
Brian Kimbrow, RB, Vanderbilt
Justin King, AP, Tennessee
Dillon Lee, LB, Alabama
Ricardo Louis, WR, Auburn
LaDarrell McNeil, DB, Tennessee
Antonio Morrison, LB, Florida
Shane Ray, DE, Missouri
Sheldon Royster, S, South Carolina
Justin Scott-Wesley, WR, Georgia
Justin Taylor, RB, Kentucky
Dwayne Thomas, DB, LSU
Eddie Williams, DB/WR, Alabama

- by Braden Gall

@bradengall

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SEC's Top 25 Games for 2012

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Ranking College Football's Top 30 Running Backs for 2012

Ranking College Football's Top 30 Wide Receivers for 2012

Ranking the SEC's Top 75 Players for 2012

Teaser:
<p> The SEC's Top Impact Freshmen of 2012</p>
Post date: Thursday, August 23, 2012 - 05:17
All taxonomy terms: AFC, AFC East, Miami Dolphins, NFL
Path: /nfl/does-hbos-hard-knocks-help-hurt-miami-dolphins
Body:

Athlon Sports will preview the upcoming 2012 NFL season with in-depth roundtable debates with our editors and other experts from around the world of football.

Q: Does being on HBO's "Hard Knocks" help the Miami Dolphins in anyway this fall?

Brian Miller, PhinPhanatic.com (@Txmedic5)
HBO's "Hard Knocks" has not done Miami Dolphins' players any favors. From Chad Johnson being cut to showcasing the lack of production in Miami's wide receivers and tight ends, the HK episodes thus far have only further added tension to a team trying to rebuild its identity. On the outside, where the fans are the ones peering in, the decision to be on "Hard Knocks" has given Miami fans something to be excited about. 

The competition at quarterback alone has provided fans an opportunity to believe the future of the team is in good hands with Ryan Tannehill, while the exposure of new coach Joe Philbin is giving fans an opportunity to judge for themselves what normally is tasked by the opinion of a local media journalist. There is no right or wrong decision on joining "Hard Knocks," but it's clear that the show isn't giving anything away concretely to opposing teams. Aside from the embarrassing moments being played out for the players, I think the fans having something to hold onto may be the long term solution to turning around the image of the Miami Dolphins franchise. 

Patrick Snow (@AthlonSnowman)
I do not think it does. The Dolphins need a ton of work under rookie coach Joe Philbin as they try to avoid a sixth losing campaign out of their last seven. The HBO thing is cool, but it is also a distraction for a 6-10 club who traded its top receiver (by far), cut its top tackler (Yeremiah Bell) and will start a rookie quarterback in Ryan Tannehill. NFL teams barely need publicity; people have heard of you in this league. It’s pretty simple: if the Dolphins win, fans in South Florida will show up in droves. I see "Hard Knocks" hurting that process more than it will help.

Mark Ross, AthlonSports.com
Although I have never seen a single second of "Hard Knocks," I am not sure I see any way in which the Dolphins can benefit on the field from being featured on the series. If anything, I would think the team, with a new head coach, new coaching staff and a rookie quarterback running the offense, would not want to deal with the distractions and related issues that come with being on the series. It may be great television, help increase the Dolphins' PR exposure, give the team some extra attention and perhaps help sell some tickets and/or team merchandise, but come Week 1, no one's going to care about what they saw on HBO, only what they see the team do on the field. After all, isn't there a reason all 32 NFL teams passed on being featured on it last season?

Braden Gall (@BradenGall)
Certainly, the casual fan who doesn't follow every injury report or read coaching bios will benefit from the inside look at an NFL franchise. These fans may develop some sort of connection with interesting storylines (Joe Philbin's tragedy) and intriguing personalities (Lauren Tannehill). And the diehard NFL fan, like myself, loves the behind the curtain peek at how an NFL training camp is conducted. But there may not be such a thing as extra publicity for a league that already exists entirely in a fishbowl. Ticket sales only increase if you win games. The negatives of this type of exposure, like an assault and battery arrest or a first-year head coach adapting to the league, don't seem to outweigh the slight bump in interest fans may or may not develop with your roster. The Dolphins need a spark and so I understand why they said yes to HBO, but the headaches it appears to be creating won't be worth it. There is a reason most teams have turned down the opporunity.

Nathan Rush, AthlonSports.com
There is a reason nearly every team in the NFL turned down HBO's offer to be the featured team on "Hard Knocks" this season. As entertaining as the show is for fans, it's almost always a disaster for the team actually involved. With a rookie coach and rookie quarterback, Miami needed to avoid all distractions, not invite cameras into the facilities. The only member of the Dolphins who benefited was Ryan Tannehill, who earned instant respect thanks to his lovely wife Lauren — the real star of the show.

Rob Doster (@AthlonDoster)
Yes. The Dolphins lack buzz and identity, and their "Hard Knocks" experience is helping to provide both. The greater benefit may arrive later when high-profile free agents start considering their options and remember what they saw from Miami — specifically, Lauren Tannehill — but this is a more focused and together team than it’s been in the recent past. Will it translate into wins on the field? That is unlikely, but the Dolphins were in desperate need of attention and HBO has given them more than their fair share.

Teaser:
<p> Does Being on HBO's Hard Knocks Help the Miami Dolphins in 2012?</p>
Post date: Wednesday, August 22, 2012 - 07:00
Path: /college-football/big-tens-top-impact-freshmen-2012
Body:

With college football's fall practice in full swing around the nation, it's really the first time names made famous on recruiting websites are showing up in actual practice reports. When it comes to picking which freshmen will make an impact in their first season on campus, it's really all about who can pick up the playbook the fastest and who fits a need. The Big Ten's most powerful program may have lost seven games last year, but Ohio State fans know exactly what a uber-freshman can do for a program. Braxton Miller claimed Freshman of the Year honors and is poised to run Urban Meyer's system to perfection this time around. This season will feature another class of stellar prospects who will mold the landscape in the Big Ten (listed alphabetically): 

The Big Ten's Top Impact Freshmen for 2012

Austin Blythe, OL, Iowa
The Williamsburg, Iowa, product will be the baby of the All-Iowa starting offensive line in Iowa City. All five starters hail from the Hawkeye State and this redshirt freshman will lock down the right guard position. This is a unit under heavy scrutiny, however, as it finished last in the Big Ten in rushing last fall and 78th in the nation in sacks allowed.

Joe Bolden, LB, Michigan
Few players have entered college with greater expectations than the 6-foot-3, 230-pound Cincinnati prospect. The true freshman enrolled early and made a big name for himself in spring ball with incredible instincts, physicality and explosiveness. He could force Kenny Demens to outside linebacker at best and will be the top reserve at worst. Bolden will be an All-Big Ten player very soon.

Darian Cooper, DL, Iowa
The 6-foot-2, 280-pound redshirt from famed DeMatha High School in Maryland is expected to start at defensive tackle this fall. This unit has been a huge area of strength under long-time coordinator Norm Parker, but with new play-caller Phil Parker in control, Iowa must answer questions along the defensive front. Cooper's work ethic and toughness will be a welcome addition.

Amara Darboh, WR, Michigan
The big wide receiver from West Des Moines, Iowa, will have a chance to play his way into the No. 3 wide receiver slot. He has been turning heads and making key catches in practice thus far and has put himself in the running for playing time. Denard Robinson and Roy Roundtree have been very complimentary of the 6-foot-2, 210-pound target.

Taylor Decker, OL, Ohio State
The elite prospect from Vandalio, Ohio, is in a heated battle to start at right tackle for the Buckeyes. He enrolled early and excelled in spring, entering fall camp as the No. 3 offensive tackle. Should the 6-foot-7, 310-pound true freshman continue to develop quickly, he could easily find himself starting against Miami (Ohio) in Week 1.

Melvin Gordon, RB, Wisconsin
The Kenosha, Wisc., freshman showed early on last fall that he has plenty of potential. He carried 20 times for 98 yards and a score before injuring his groin early in the year. He redshirted as a result and will enter this season as the No. 3 back. In a Wisconsin offense that wears out its backs, Gordon could be a huge reserve this fall — and is likely the second-most talented No. 3 RB in the nation (how is LSU's Kenny Hilliard not No. 1?).

Eugene Lewis, WR, Penn State
The 6-foot-2, 190-pound Wilkes-Barre, Pa., native was going to fight for playing time even with Justin Brown on the roster. Now that Brown is in Norman, Lewis will be given plenty of chances to fill the void. His immediate impact should come on special teams, but reports from camp thus far indicate he may be further along than initially expected. And it couldn't come at a better time.

Akeel Lynch, RB, Penn State
Much like Lewis, Lynch may be thrust into the offensive huddle quicker than anticipated. Silas Redd bolted for USC, leaving Curtis Dukes and Bill Belton, both of whom lack elite-level upside, to vie for carries. Lynch might have more upside than either of the veterans, and if he can grasp the offense and pass protections quickly, could end up starting in Happy Valley.

Ifeadi Odenigbo, LB/DE, Northwestern
The 6-foot-3, 220-pound hybrid dynamo might be the most heralded prospect in the history of Northwestern football. He was a top-50 recruit nationally from Centreville, Ohio, and it shouldn't take long for him to bolster a weak Wildcat front seven. He will play some linebacker, but Pat Fitzgerald has stated that defensive end is his more natural position. Either way, his raw talent is a rarity in Evanston. 

Ondre Pipkins, DT, Michigan (pictured)
The massive defensive tackle from Kansas City is expected to help plug the hole left by Mike Martin up the middle. A recent neck injury in practice put a scare into Maize and Blue nation and sent Pipkins to the hospital. All signs point to Pipkins being ready for the opener against Alabama, but how well an injured freshman's neck will be able to hold up against Barrett Jones, Chane Warmack and DJ Fluker remains to be seen.

Donovan Smith, OL, Penn State
The big fella from Owings Mill, Md., got all kinds of praise as a redshirt last fall. Now, it is time for him to step into the spotlight on the real football field. His 6-foot-5, 310-pound frame could make him a starting tackle right out of the gate against Ohio. If he continues his solid play, he will be more than simply a contributor.

Noah Spence, DL, Ohio State
Spence was the No. 1 defensive line prospect in the nation for a reason. He is an absolute monster. His size, strength, explosiveness and speed may force Urban Meyer to shoehorn him onto the field as a true freshman. This team is loaded with defensive line talent and there doesn't seem like a clear spot for Spence. But his raw physical skills might be too much for Meyer to ignore. Aldophus Washington might not be too far behind either.

Michael Thomas, WR, Ohio State
The leading receiver for the Buckeyes last year caught only 14 passes. So the need for a play-maker at the position is painfully obvious. Enter Michael Thomas. He may not be the most talented wideout in OSU history but he might be the best option on the roster as only a redshirt freshman. He built a great rapport with Braxton Miller in the spring and will be asked to play a big role in 2012.

Nick VanHoose, CB, Northwestern
The scout team super star from last fall nearly got his redshirt pulled halfway through the season. Yet, Pat Fitzgerald resisted and the result will be a polished all-league-type of player stepping into a starting role in his first year on the field. He has speed and quickness to burn — as his role as Denard Robinson on the scout team will attest to — and should be able to lock down one half of the field.

Dan Voltz, OL, Wisconsin
Voltz was the highest-rated recruit in the class for UW and the coaching staff learned very quickly that his lofty status was justified. He is pushing for playing time already and could force Travis Frederick or Ryan Groy to a different position in order to get the best five blockers on the field. For a true freshman offensive lineman to be able to crack the starting line-up at Wisconsin is no small feat and would be one of the top storylines in the Big Ten heading into the season.

Freshman Position Battles To Watch:

Andre Sims Jr., Aaron Burbirdge and Juwan Caesar, WR, Michigan State
Not counting inexperience at QB, this is the biggest area of concern for stacked MSU roster. 

Lawrence Thomas, Joel Heath, Shilique Calhoun, DE, Michigan State
Spartan fans should be very excited about its future pass rush with these three dynamos.

AJ Jordan and Jordan Fredrick, WR, Wisconsin
No Nick Toon means there should be plenty of chances opposite Jared Abbrederis.

David Santos, Max Pirman, Michael Rose, LB, Nebraska
Might only be reserves in 2012, but these three are the future at the historically strong Cornhusker LB position.

Bri’Onte Dunn and Warren Ball, RB, Ohio State
Dunn has impressed in camp and appears to be clear of summer incident. Ball is fighting for time as well.

Jordan Lucas and Da’Quan Davis, DB, Penn State
Completely reworked secondary will open up chances for youngsters to contribute.

Other Names To Watch:

Deion Barnes, DL, Penn State
Adam Depietro, OL, Northwestern
Kyle Dodson, OL, Ohio State
Greg Garmon, RB, Iowa
Deonte Gibson, DE, Northwestern
Zeph Grimes, et al, LB, Illinois
Keith Heitzman, DL, Michigan
Darius Hillary, DB, Wisconsin
Jesse James, TE, Penn State
Kyle Kalis, OL, Michigan
Ted Karras, OL, Illinois
Dean Lowry, DL, Northwestern
KJ Maye, AP, Minnesota
Jephte Matilus, LB, Minnesota
Andre McDonald, WR, Minnesota
Drew Smith, LB, Northwestern
Ryan Watson, DE, Purdue
AJ Williams, TE, Michigan
Anthony Zettel, DL, Penn State

- by Braden Gall

@bradengall

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Ranking the Big Ten's Defensive Lines for 2012

Michigan State is an Emerging Big Ten Power

Ranking the Big Ten's Offensive Lines for 2012

Ranking the Big Ten's Wide Receiving Corps for 2012

College Football Bowl Projections for 2012

Big Ten's Top 25 Heisman Contenders

Athlon's 2012 All-Big Ten Team

Athlon's 2012 Big Ten Predictions

College Football's Top 10 Impact Transfers for 2012

Urban Meyer's Arrival Has Ohio State Back on Track

Teaser:
<p> The Big Ten's Top Impact Freshmen of 2012</p>
Post date: Wednesday, August 22, 2012 - 06:00
All taxonomy terms: Atlanta Falcons, NFC, NFC South, NFL
Path: /nfl/atlanta-falcons-2012-nfl-team-preview
Body:

Athlon Sports is counting down its 2012 NFL preseason Power Rankings with in-depth team previews, schedule analysis and more as the start of the NFL season draws near.

The Atlanta Falcons check in at No. 8.

For the third time in four seasons, the Atlanta Falcons’ season ended in the first round of the playoffs. The New York Giants banished Atlanta from the postseason, 24–2, and went on to win the Super Bowl. There shouldn’t be any solace taken in the fact that in each of the three one-and-done playoff appearances, Atlanta lost to the eventual NFC representative in the Super Bowl.

The Falcons are in win-now mode, and that’s not just a playoff win. Atlanta needs — and is talented enough — to make a Super Bowl run.
Gone are both the offensive and defensive coordinators from the three failed Falcons playoff runs. General manager Thomas Dimitroff and head coach Mike Smith brought in new coaching blood to spark a change. And team owner Arthur Blank is fully behind the change. Blank is tired of watching the late rounds of the playoffs from home. He’s calling for success, and he wants it immediately. 

Offense

The biggest addition to the Falcons’ offense will never step foot on the field of play. New offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter plans three things that could greatly enhance play when Atlanta has the ball: 1) create a better vertical attack; 2) use the screen pass more frequently; 3) reduce Michael Turner’s workload.

Even though quarterback Matt Ryan says the playbook has only changed about 15 to 20 percent, the newly added schemes could bolster Ryan’s numbers dramatically.

Koetter has always been a deep-threat mastermind, and Atlanta has the tools in Roddy White and especially Julio Jones to stretch the field. Ryan has been working on strengthening his passing arm, and the quarterback will have a complete offseason to work with his receiving corps to perfect these new deep routes.

The Falcons rarely threw screen passes under Mike Mularkey. Koetter plans to work with the running backs and the offensive line to incorporate the screen game into the offense. This will not only help keep opposing teams from retreating too quickly into the secondary, but it will also get players like running backs Jason Snelling and Jacquizz Rodgers more involved in the offense. Snelling is the best receiver in the Falcons’ backfield, and Rodgers is a quick, change-of-pace back who can give Atlanta multiple looks. He had 151 receptions in three seasons at Oregon State.

At 30 years old, Turner is on the back end of his playing days. He finished third in the NFL in rushing with 1,340 yards but was far more dangerous in the beginning of the season than at the end. Four of his six 100-yard games came in the first seven weeks of the season, though he did have a season-high 172 yards in a Week 17 win over Tampa Bay. The Falcons will reduce Turner’s workload in 2012 in an effort to keep him healthy and explosive. Gone are the days when Turner would accumulate 300 or more carries in a season.

Turner’s lightened workload will mean more opportunities for Rodgers, the team’s fifth-round pick in the 2011 draft. The Falcons coaching staff believes Rodgers can be an every-down back in the future. That future is not in 2012, but if Rodgers can double his workload from his rookie season — he had 57 carries in 16 games — it will take pressure off of Turner and keep the veteran fresh in the second half of the season.

Other than a few changes on the offensive line — Joe Hawley could beat out Todd ­McClure at center and there is an open competition at right guard — the Falcons will look very similar on offense from a personnel standpoint. The team expects Jones, the No. 6 overall pick in the 2011 draft, to shine in his second season. He missed three complete games and all but one series of another because of injury in his rookie campaign. If healthy for 16 games, Jones has the ability to lead the NFC in receiving. Veteran tight end Tony Gonzalez returns for his 16th and final season before heading off to his eventual destination, the Hall of Fame in Canton. 

Defense

As much of a game-changer as Koetter is expected to be on offense, new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan is supposed to be even more of a catalyst for the Falcons’ defense.

Nolan comes to Atlanta equally experienced with the 4-3 and 3-4 defensive schemes. The Falcons have been playing the 4-3, and Nolan says it isn’t wise to change schemes immediately, but expect him to plug in a good number of hybrid looks.

The biggest difference in the front seven will be the absence of linebacker Curtis Lofton, who led the team in tackles in each of the last three years. The former second-round pick signed a five-year deal with NFC South rival New Orleans. Nolan plans to play a lot of nickel packages, which would have turned Lofton, who is weak in pass coverage, into a two-down linebacker. The Falcons didn’t feel the need to pay Lofton’s salary demands for first- and second-down work.

Instead, Atlanta traded for veteran help in the secondary. The Falcons acquired former All-Pro Asante Samuel, who will team with Brent Grimes and Dunta Robinson to give the team three elite cornerbacks. Expect Samuel and Grimes to remain on the outside while Robinson moves inside to cover the slot receiver.

The NFL has turned into a pass-happy league, and the NFC South has four very talented quarterbacks. The Falcons will spend a lot of time in Nolan’s “Big Nickel” package, and the secondary — which has been an area of weakness in the past — could be a bright spot in 2012. 

Specialists

Atlanta returns kicker Matt Bryant and punter Matt Bosher. Bryant led the league in accuracy, hitting 93.1 percent of his field goal attempts. Bosher, the team’s sixth-round pick in 2011, got off to a rough start as a rookie but was punting the ball very well late in the season.

Return specialist Eric Weems left via free agency, so the Falcons will look at corner Dominique Franks along with rookies Cody Pearcy and James Rodgers (Jacquizz’s brother) to step up on special teams. 

Final Analysis: 1st in the NFC South

Getting over the playoff hump is of the utmost importance to the Falcons, but it’s only the first step. Atlanta cannot just settle for winning a playoff game. It’s “win now” time for this team, and if the Falcons don’t advance to the NFC Championship Game, the year will be a failure.

Much of the roster looks the same, with upgrades in the secondary and on the offensive line. The biggest area of change — and what could quite possibly be the factor that pushes the Falcons over the hump — is with both coordinators.

Koetter and Nolan will breathe new life into this Falcons team on both sides of the ball. It will be up to Smith, the head coach, and the players to do the rest.  

Related: 2012 Atlanta Falcons Schedule Analysis

Outside The Huddle

Just How Good?
If you just give wide receiver Julio Jones the four games he missed as a rookie, his numbers would project to this: 72 receptions, 1,279 yards and 11 touchdowns. He might actually do better in 2012 and move into the top five of the league in yardage and touchdown catches.
Dome sweet dome Only two teams in the NFL have better home records than the Falcons since 2008. Atlanta’s 26 wins at the Georgia Dome trail only Baltimore (27) and New England (28).

Smith’s A Winner
Mike Smith is Atlanta’s 14th head coach in franchise history. He’s the first head coach to lead the Falcons to four consecutive winning seasons, and his 43–21 regular-season record is the best four-year mark in franchise history. With 43 wins, Smith sits in third place on the all-time Falcons coaching list behind Leeman Bennett (46) and Dan Reeves (49). A seven-win season would propel Smith into first place on the list.

Quick Out of the Gate
No team in the NFL has scored more points than Atlanta on its first possession of the game over the past four seasons. The Falcons have accumulated 173 points on their first drives of games since 2008. New Orleans is second (171) with New England third (163).

Close Game, No Problem
Over the last four seasons, Atlanta leads the league in games decided by eight points or less, with a 22–10 record since 2008. In games decided by a field goal or less, the Falcons are 9–6.

Tough in the Red Zone
Atlanta was extremely tough on opponents when backed up into the red zone in 2011. The Falcons’ defense held opponents to a 78.7 scoring percentage when inside the 20-yard line, giving up 22 touchdowns and 15 field goals on 47 trips inside the red zone.

Moving the Ball
In 2011, the Falcons set a franchise record for most total net yards gained in a season with 6,026 yards. Atlanta broke the record that was set by the 2008 squad, which posted 5,779 total yards.

Streaking
Matt Bryant has been in the league 10 seasons and is showing no signs of slowing down. With three field goals in Week 7 last year, Bryant set a franchise record with 27 consecutive made field goals. His 27-for-29 performance in 2011 was good for third-best all time in the Falcons record books.
In good hands Tight end Tony Gonzalez moved into 11th place on the all-time list with his 875 receiving yards last year. Gonzalez now has 13,338 receiving yards in his career and needs 667 more to pass James Lofton and move into seventh place.

2012 Athlon Sports NFL Power Rankings and Team Previews:

No. 32: Jacksonville Jaguars
No. 31: St. Louis Rams
No. 30: Minnesota Vikings
No. 29: Indianapolis Colts
No. 28: Cleveland Browns
No. 27: Miami Dolphins
No. 26: Arizona Cardinals
No. 25: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
No. 24: Kansas City Chiefs
No. 23: Oakland Raiders
No. 22: Washington Redskins
No. 21: Seattle Seahawks
No. 20: Carolina Panthers
No. 19: New York Jets
No. 18: Buffalo Bills
No. 17: Tennessee Titans
No. 16: San Diego Chargers
No. 15: Cincinnati Bengals
No. 14: Philadelphia Eagles
No. 13: New Orleans Saints
No. 12: Dallas Cowboys
No. 11: Denver Broncos
No. 10: Detroit Lions
No. 9: Chicago Bears
No. 8: Atlanta Falcons
No. 7: Thur., August 23

Order your 2012 Atlanta Falcons Athlon Sports NFL Preview magazine here

Related: 2012 Atlanta Falcons Schedule Analysis

Teaser:
<p> Atlanta Falcons 2012 NFL Team Preview</p>
Post date: Wednesday, August 22, 2012 - 06:00
All taxonomy terms: Chicago Bears, NFC, NFC North, NFL
Path: /nfl/chicago-bears-2012-nfl-team-preview
Body:

Athlon Sports is counting down its 2012 NFL preseason Power Rankings with in-depth team previews, schedule analysis and more as the start of the NFL season draws near.

The Chicago Bears check in at No. 9.

Team president and CEO Ted Phillips fired general manager Jerry Angelo in the aftermath of last season’s team nose-dive from a 7–3 start to an 8–8 finish. The fatal fade was the direct result of quarterback Jay Cutler’s season-ending fractured thumb in the final minutes of the Week 11 victory over the Chargers. Backup quarterback Caleb Hanie was a disaster, and the loss of do-everything running back Matt Forté two weeks later didn’t help.

Phillips hired former Bears area scout Phil Emery to replace Angelo with one simple edict: Narrow the talent gap between the Bears and the NFC North rival Packers (15–1) and Lions (10–6) — and do it now.

Emery opened with a bang, trading for troubled three-time Pro Bowl wide receiver Brandon Marshall, who had worn out his welcome in Miami. Emery also added nine unrestricted free agents and re-signed five of his own. Two key newcomers, quarterback Jason Campbell and running back Michael Bush, give the Bears better depth at those positions than they’ve had since Lovie Smith became head coach in 2004. 

Offense

Cutler has never had a legitimate, No. 1 go-to receiver in Chicago. Johnny Knox has been the closest thing to it, but he will start this season on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list as he continues his recovery from offseason spinal fusion surgery.

The 6'4", 230-pound Marshall should more than make up the difference. Judging by the numbers Marshall has compiled, especially as a Bronco in 2007-08 when Cutler was his quarterback (206 catches, 2,590 yards), the excitement over his arrival is justified. Another complaint about the Bears’ mediocre receiving units of the past three seasons has been a lack of size. In the second round of the draft, they added 6'3", 216-pound rookie Alshon Jeffery. Part of their plan for Jeffery is pairing him with Marshall and creating a matchup nightmare for opponents in the red zone. if Knox is able to return healthy, he brings elite speed and a deep threat who averaged 19.6 yards per catch last season and 18.8 in 2010. Although Devin Hester’s production has diminished the past two seasons, he provides another dangerous big-time playmaker. Earl Bennett is Cutler’s most trusted receiver, because he’ll willingly cross the middle and work underneath, and he almost always catches everything he touches.

The offensive line has been an issue over the past two seasons, allowing 105 sacks and ranking near the bottom of the NFL when it comes to protecting the quarterback. The only addition has been former 49ers guard Chilo Rachal, but the O-line’s bigger problems have been at the tackles. Last year’s No. 1 pick, Gabe Carimi, will solidify the right side, assuming he’s fully recovered from the dislocated kneecap that sidelined him after just two games last season. But left tackle will remain a trouble spot unless J’Marcus Webb shows great improvement or someone emerges to unseat him. But who? Webb could be helped by the departure of offensive coordinator Mike Martz. New coordinator Mike Tice, promoted from O-line coach, will not leave his left tackle on an island to protect Cutler’s blind side during seven-step drops, as was the case in 2011.

With Forté finally inked to a new long-term contract, he and Bush should form one of the more productive backfield tandems in the league. Bush's presence also should help keep Forté fresh by reducing his workload and the punishment he will sustain through the course of this season.

Defense

Every standout player on an above-average defense is over 30. But worry may be premature. Four of those old-timers were voted to the Pro Bowl last season — Julius Peppers, Brian Urlacher, Lance Briggs and Charles Tillman. It may be asking too much for all four to continue playing at the same elite level they have over the past decade, but none of them showed signs of wear last season. All four played all 16 games. But what are the odds they’ll remain that durable for another season?

Clearly, the Bears need more help from supporting players and for younger players to step up and play a bigger role, especially in the pass-rush department. The Bears tied for 19th in the NFL in sacks last season, despite the presence of right end Peppers, who had 11 sacks and still commands double-team attention. Even with offenses focused on Peppers, left end Israel Idonije contributed only five sacks. Up-and-down tackle Henry Melton quietly had seven sacks. But no one else who’s back for 2012 had more than two.

The Bears’ defense depends on getting pass-rush pressure almost exclusively from the linemen with little blitz help from the back seven, who ideally can focus on coverage. When the front four doesn’t produce, an average-at-best secondary is more easily exposed. An upgrade is needed across from Tillman, and the safety position has been a revolving door in Smith’s eight years. The Bears have selected a safety in each of the last eight drafts, but they’re still looking for a winning combination.

First-round pick Shea McClellin is being counted on to goose the pass rush, but it’s tough to imagine where any additional pressure will come from. Without that constant pressure up front, the Bears struggle to create the turnovers that have been a huge part of every successful defense during Smith’s reign. Since 2004, the Bears have 265 takeaways, the most in the NFL and 24 more than the second-place Panthers.

Specialists

In their eight years under coordinator Dave Toub, the Bears have annually boasted some of the best special teams units in the NFL, and it’s more than Hester’s 17 return touchdowns. And there is much depth behind Hester, including Eric Weems, and Knox if he returns this season. Robbie Gould is the fifth-most accurate placekicker in NFL history, and his kickoffs have gotten longer over the years, while his range on field goals has increased. He was 6-of-6 from 50 yards or farther last season. Punter Adam Podlesh, in his first year with the team, had an impressive 40.4-yard net average.

Final Analysis: 2nd in the NFC North

By almost all accounts the Bears have upgraded the talent on their roster, especially among backups and role players. Their losses in free agency were minimal. But it remains to be seen if they’ve closed the gap with the Lions and, more important, the Packers. Critics could argue that the only elite player they’ve added is Marshall. But the Bears have high hopes for their top two draft picks, McClellin and Jeffery. And they believe that with the addition of Bush and Campbell they will not be susceptible to the type of free-fall they experienced last season when Cutler and Forté went out. They’re hoping to get at least one more Pro Bowl-type year from their four 30-something defensive stalwarts.

Related: 2012 Chicago Bears Schedule Analysis

Outside The Huddle

Getting The Band Back Together 
Jay Cutler has clamored for a big wide receiver, specifically Brandon Marshall, since he came to the Bears in 2009. But Cutler didn’t really think it would happen. “I’ve talked to anybody and everybody that would listen to me in this building about Brandon Marshall and trying to get him,” Cutler said shortly after the Bears acquired Marshall for two third-round draft picks. “He changes games. When I met with (GM) Phil (Emery), I told him I needed an X. We went and got one of the best in the game.” Marshall has had numerous alcohol-related legal run-ins and has a history of violence against women, but he says he’s getting better since being diagnosed with borderline personality disorder. Cutler spent three seasons with Marshall in Denver and will be there for his new teammate. “Me and Brandon have a relationship,” Cutler says. “There are times I am going to be tough on him. There are times I’m going to give him a hug. Whatever it calls for, that’s what I’m going to do.”

Mayberry, NFL
Coach Lovie Smith, a native of Big Sandy, Texas (population 1,288), can relate to the small-town background of first-round draft pick Shea McClellin, who was raised on a farm by his grandparents in a tiny Idaho town of 1,000. “I texted him and let him know that with 37 in his (high school) graduating class, and since there were 34 in mine, he’s a big-city boy to me,” Smith says. “But we have a spot for him and we’re excited for him to get here.”

Holding His Own
McClellin is considered somewhat of a tweener because he played defensive end and linebacker at Boise State and is “just” 6'3" and 260 pounds. The Bears will play McClellin at defensive end, and Smith has no concerns about his being an every-down player. “Weight is one of the most overrated things there is when you’re talking about a football player,” Smith says. “You’re talking about strength and athletic ability more than that. Shea, believe me, will be able to hold his own with the big boys.”

Going Long
In his first four NFL seasons, Robbie Gould attempted just two field goals of 50 yards or longer and missed both. In the past three seasons, he’s 11-of-13 from that distance, including 6-of-6 last year.

Sending A Message
Comic book aficionado Lance Briggs’ own creation “Pilot Season: Seraph” came out last year. Briggs teamed with writer Phil Hester and artist Jose Luis to tell the tale of Seraph, a man who, after trying to kill himself, instead becomes blessed with supernatural powers. Briggs says the theme of the comic book is faith and belief.

Instant Success
After being inactive for the first five games last season, second-round defensive tackle Stephen Paea sacked Vikings quarterback Donovan McNabb for a safety on the second snap of his NFL career. “I didn’t even know,” Paea says. “I stood up and they said it was a safety.”

Trivial Pursuit
The only sack of 2010 fourth-round pick Corey Wootton’s NFL career came against the Vikings on Dec. 20, 2010, and essentially ended the career of Brett Favre, who left with a concussion, never to return. Probably.

2012 Athlon Sports NFL Power Rankings and Team Previews:

No. 32: Jacksonville Jaguars
No. 31: St. Louis Rams
No. 30: Minnesota Vikings
No. 29: Indianapolis Colts
No. 28: Cleveland Browns
No. 27: Miami Dolphins
No. 26: Arizona Cardinals
No. 25: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
No. 24: Kansas City Chiefs
No. 23: Oakland Raiders
No. 22: Washington Redskins
No. 21: Seattle Seahawks
No. 20: Carolina Panthers
No. 19: New York Jets
No. 18: Buffalo Bills
No. 17: Tennessee Titans
No. 16: San Diego Chargers
No. 15: Cincinnati Bengals
No. 14: Philadelphia Eagles
No. 13: New Orleans Saints
No. 12: Dallas Cowboys
No. 11: Denver Broncos
No. 10: Detroit Lions
No. 9: Chicago Bears
No. 8: Wed., August 22

Order your 2012 Chicago Bears Athlon Sports NFL Preview magazine here

Related: 2012 Chicago Bears Schedule Analysis

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With 124 teams, ll conferences and Notre Dame, there are no shortage of great match-ups to fill the 14-week college football season. Rarely will a weekend go by without a top flight, marquee dual taking place somewhere in the country. And honestly, the weekends that always look bland and vanilla on the front end are generally the ones that end up providing huge upsets with national title implications hanging in the balance.

2012 won't be any different. There will be more than one Iowa State-Oklahoma State or Texas Tech-Oklahoma. There will be at least one more Michigan State-Wisconsin match-up. Maybe even two. And yes, there will be two more "Games of the Century" this season as well. Let's just hope that they don't take place at the exact same time — looking at you greedy TV executives. So with honey-do lists and in-laws to deal with, football fans can rest easy and budget their viewing needs according to Athlon Sports Top 25 Must-See college football match-ups. Because you don't want to miss any of these.

Criteria:

Importance: Does the game carry national, conference or divisional championship implication?
Level of Ability: Does the game involve the most elite players and coaches in the game today?
Storylines: What sort of rivarry, history, tradition and backstory exists?
Production Value: Does this game have high-flying, big-play, late-game heroics-type potential?

1a. Week 10 (Nov. 3) Alabama at LSU
The plotline for these two programs over the last 18 months or so has been well documented. Game of the Century Part 1 was an offensively challenged 9-6 road win for LSU on the legs of Brad Wing and Drew Alleman. While the Tigers deserved all the credit for the brutally contested clutch win, it still appeared to most who watched the game that Alabama was the superior team. As it turns out, it wasn’t really even close. LSU showed up for the BCS national championship game woefully under prepared and clearly lacking focus and motivation. The game now shifts to Baton Rouge, and the Death Valley faithful have had November 3 circled on the calendar ever since that fateful night in January when their team gained 92 total yards and five first downs.

1b. Week 10 (Nov. 3) Oregon at USC
The West Coast Game of the Century is easily the top football game west of the Mississippi this fall. In fact, when all the dust settles on the college football regular season, it could easily be the No. 1 football game played this fall. Two special offenses, a Heisman Trophy candidate, national title implications and the revenge factor from a terrific 38-35 showing last fall makes this must-see TV on Nov. 3. Fans better hope that the greedy television executives don't play the game at the exact same time as LSU-Alabama — which should decide the other half of the BCS national championship game on the exact same day. The Trojans are the pick since the game happens at home and they won last year, however, the Ducks' defense will be improved and good enough to win down in L.A. The scoreboard operator better do some stretching before the opening kick-off.

3. Week 7 (Oct. 13) Oklahoma vs Texas (Dallas, TX)
The Red River Shootout (no, I refuse to call it the rivalry based strictly on principle) is easily the most important football game played in the state of Texas every single season. The last 12 Big South champions were eitherTexas or Oklahoma, and other than Oklahoma State last fall, one of these two teams had claimed the Big 12 crown seven straight years. With Texas reestablishing itself last fall and Oklahoma getting Landry Jones back on offense, these two once again look like the top Big 12 champion picks in 2012. Therefore, the Texas State Fair once again will host the most important game played in the Big 12 this fall when the Cotton Bowl is cut right down the middle with Crimson and Cream on one side and Burnt Orange on the other.

4. Week 13 (Nov. 24) Michigan at Ohio State
Easily the biggest rivalry in the Midwest is, in most years, the biggest rivalry game in the nation. With the Urban renewal taking place in Columbus and Brady Hoke reenergizing the Michigan faithful in lightning rod fashion last fall, this game should return to the 10 Year War level of intensity. So can the Wolverines walk into the Horseshoe and beat the Buckeyes this fall? It will be tougher than most Maize and Blue fans want to admit. Ohio State has nothing else to play for but ruining its rival’s season. Ohio State has a better overall roster of talent. And Ohio State is at home. Remember, the worst Ohio State team in a decade nearly defeated the best Michigan team in half a decade last fall on the road in Ann Arbor. The smart money is on Ohio State.

5. Week 6 (Oct. 6) Georgia at South Carolina
If the SEC West semifinal is LSU-Bama, then the Eastern’s semi will take place in Columbia on the first Saturday in October. Normally one of the first two games of the year, the Bulldogs and Gamecocks have to wait until the second month to square off. The Cocks won last year in a shootout in Athens on the back of turnovers and special teams — they scored essentially four touchdowns on defense and a fake punt. But Marcus Lattimore’s fourth quarter performance was what sealed the win for Carolina, and No. 21 is back healthy this fall. Georgia already has a strong track record of success in Williams-Brice Stadium and should have its full compliment of defensive stars by the time these two meet as well. The Dawgs have won four of the last five in Columbia.

6. Week 4 (Sept. 22): Clemson at Florida State
There are two games inside of the ACC that truly stand above the rest this fall, and since Clemson-Florida State figures to have more fireworks, it gets the nod as the most anticipated game of the year. The Tigers rolled-up 443 yards of offense in the 35-30 win over the Noles in Death Valley last year. Jimbo Fisher and company don't plan on allowing that type of offensive production this time around. Considering the rebuilt Clemson offensive line — and getting the game in Doak Campbell Stadium — FSU should be able to control the line of scrimmage this year. It will fall to Tajh Boyd, who dropped 344 yards and three scoring strikes on FSU last year, to make the key plays if Clemson wants to win. Of course, getting EJ Manuel back under center, who missed last year's game with an injury, helps the Seminoles' chances as well.

7. Week 3 (Sept. 15) Alabama at Arkansas
Arkansas fans are optimistic that, even without Bobby Petrino, their Razorbacks can compete for an SEC title. Well, winning the West is the first step and Week 3 gives John L. Smith a chance to prove his worth against the defending national champions. That said, AJ McCarron outplayed Tyler Wilson, Nick Saban out-coached Petrnio and the Bama defense out-stifled the Hogs last time they met. Arkansas will have to reverse nearly all of the above to pull off the upset this season. Running the ball more effectively will narrow the gap, as Bama outgained the Hogs 197 to 17 on the ground in the 38-14 decision last fall. Can the return of Knile Davis, and getting the contest at home, tip the scales in favor of Coach Smith? Fans won’t have to wait long to find out.

8. Week 13 (Nov. 23) LSU at Arkansas
Arkansas has had some recent success in this series with three wins in the last five meetings. However, last fall’s 41-17 whitewashing of the Hogs pushed LSU into the SEC title game. Les Miles’ bunch rushed for 286 yards and three touchdowns at a per carry clip of 6.2 yards. Tyler Wilson and company mustered 248 total yards of offense. Shifting the series back home gives the Hogs a better shot at an upset this time around. So will having Knile Davis back fully healthy — a guy who rushed for 152 yards and a score on 30 carries in the 31-23 win over LSU two years ago.

9. Week 12 (Nov. 17) Oklahoma at West Virginia
While this match-up hasn’t happened much over the years — four times total and only once since 1982 — the most recent showdown in the Fiesta Bowl back in 2008 was one of the signature performances of recent BCS lore. The 48-28 win for West Virginia featured peak of the Pat White era and won the late Bill Stewart the head coaching job in Morgantown. Now, the Sooners will make their first-ever trip to Morgantown and more than just bowl bragging rights will be on the line. This is the top road test for Oklahoma this fall and a win over WVU on the road is a must if Bob Stoops wants to win yet another Big 12 championship.

10. Week 8 (Oct. 20) Michigan State at Michigan
This game has been one of streaks of late. Michigan won six straight from 2002 to 2007 before Michigan State took over the state in 2008. If the Spartans want to win a fifth straight in the series, quarterback play will have to stabilize for Michigan State over the first half of the season. This game could easily decide not only the Legends Division title but also the Big Ten championship and Rose Bowl participant. For a team like Michigan State, who hasn’t played in Pasadena since 1988, this game carries more than just in-state bragging rights. Shockingly, Michigan is searching for its first Big Ten title since 2004 and a win over Sparty likely gives it to them.

Related: September's Top 10 Non-Conference Games of 2012

11. Week 9 (Oct. 27) Michigan State at Wisconsin
This season could be an inverted version of last season for Michigan State and Wisconsin. It is hard to see State going into Madison and getting the win — a place Sparty hasn’t won in since 2001. Yet, these could very easily meet again in the second annual B1G championship game. These two played two of the most memorable Big Ten football games in the history of the league last year and this fall could feature two more heart-stopping editions of what is developing into an elite rivalry game.

12. Week 1 (Sept. 3): Georgia Tech at Virginia Tech
The best current ACC stat? The winner of this game has gone on to win the Coastal Division every year since the conference split into two divisions. So no pressure in Week 1 in primetime on Labor Day night, right? Logan Thomas did his best Cam Newton impersonation in last year's 37-26 Thursday night win in Atlanta, scoring five times in the victory. Bud Foster's defense did just enough to get the win and will have had all summer to prepare for the vaunted Paul Johnson triple option. This game will feature strength on strength as the Hokies should possess one of the nation's elite defenses while the Yellow Jackets return a deep and talented offensive line and backfield. The whole nation will be watching the game that should once again decide one half of the ACC championship equation.

13. Week 9 (Oct. 27) Florida vs. Georgia (Jacksonville, Fla.)
The Dawgs have won only four times in this series since 1989, but last year’s 24-20 win helped Georgia make it back to Atlanta and the SEC title game. On the arm of Aaron Murray and the river boat gambling of Mark Richt, Georgia won its first Outdoor Cocktail Party since 2007. If the Dawgs out-rush the Gators 185 to -19 again this year, fans can bank on another UGA victory.

14. Week 11 (Nov. 8): Florida State at Virginia Tech
Should the preseason predictions hold true, this will be a preview of this season's ACC championship game. Virginia Tech is the clear heavy favorite in the Coastal while Florida State gets its primary Atlantic Division test with Clemson at home. The last time these two met, the Hokies out-ran the Noles 44-33 in the 2010 ACC title game. In fact, after three decades of dominance from FSU in the series, Frank Beamer has won two of the last three meetings. These are easily the top two defenses in the league and points will be at a premium for a pair of mammoth quarterbacks — the 6-5, 240 pound Manuel and the 6-6, 260 pound Thomas. Expect heavy hitting and lots of ice packs.

15. Week 13 (Nov. 24) Auburn at Alabama
The Iron Bowl is filled with as much hatred as any other rivalry in the history of college football. And the stakes have never been as high as they have been over the past few seasons. The winner of this game has gone on to win the BCS National Championship in each of the last three seasons. The intensity and passion of an already rabid rivalry has reached an all-time high. With Bama acting as defending champs and Auburn enthused about new coordinators, War Eagle fans are expecting something much tighter than last season's 42-14 outcome.

16. Week 1 (Sept. 1) Alabama vs. Michigan (Arlington, Texas)
This might be the marquee non-conference match-up of the season. It is the first regular season match-up between the two historic programs and the Wolverines own a two (1988, 200) to one (1997) lead in the series. The thought that it may be one-sided, however, keeps it from sitting much higher on the list. The defending national champions have one of the deepest college teams ever assembled and Brady Hoke will be hard-pressed to stop the Bama rushing attack in the second half. Michigan can keep it close for three quarters, but in Jerry's Palace with that offensive line, Nick Saban should come away victorious. This game means more nationally to college football than it does within the Big Ten — and even less than that in the SEC.

17. Week 8 (Oct. 20) South Carolina at Florida
Both South Carolina and Georgia get plenty of key contests at home this fall, but Carolina’s trip down to The Swamp is the second biggest SEC East game of the year. From 1940 to 2004, the Gamecocks were winless against the Gators. Since then, Steve Spurrier has defeated his alma mater three out of seven times, including the last two. Having said that, last year’s meeting was a hotly contested, defensive struggle in which both quarterbacks struggled to complete passes. Expect the defenses and ground games to play huge roles. If South Carolina wants to take the next step in its search for its first SEC title, winning on the road within the division is a must.

18. Week 3 (Sept. 15) USC at Stanford
While the top game out West is easy to pinpoint, the rest of schedule is loaded with very similar contests. With USC and Oregon as the clearcut picks to win the league, the next biggest game would have to be the top opportunity for an upset. At this stage, the Trojans' trip to Stanford feels like the toughest test for either team. The Cardinal have played very well against the Trojans over the last half decade, they play a physical brand of football that matches up well with USC, the game is at home on The Farm and it comes in only Week 3 of the season. Obviously, Stanford's quarterback play will have to be solid to win, but the ball-control ground game will give them a chance at a huge upset.

19. Week 6 (Oct. 4) USC at Utah
Thursday night. Primetime TV. Sold out road game against a very well coached team. This also is a recipe for an upset for the Trojans who will face the best team in the South in Week 6. This was a tricky 23-14 win for the Trojans last year in Week 2 where Jordan Wynn actually went toe-to-toe with Matt Barkley and held his own. The John White-led ground game had yet to get rolling and should be good enough at home to keep Barkley and Company off the field. Within the division, this is easily the biggest game of the year. Should Utah pull off the upset, it could be the biggest game of the year nationally.

20. Week 6 (Oct. 6) LSU at Florida
The Tigers and Gators lay claim four of the last nine national championships and both claim two of the best SEC resumes in history. While Florida won’t feature a vintage Gators squad, particularly on offense, this game still has plenty of weight in 2012. Florida’s defense should be nasty, but will have to play better at the point of attack after allowing 238 yards rushing to LSU last fall. The Gators mustered only 213 total yards in their second straight loss in the long-time crossover series.

21. Week 5 (Sept. 29) Ohio State at Michigan State
The preseason buzz around C-Bus will either be proven wrong — or completely justified when both Michigan State and Ohio State open Big Ten play in Week 5. The Buckeyes don’t play a tough non-conference game, so fans will find out exactly how far Braxton Miller has developed and just how salty the OSU defense will be in this game. Should Ohio State win on the road against Sparty, an 11-1 type of season is extremely possible. Should Brutus return home with the loss, expectations for Ohio State will be tempered very quickly.

22. Week 12 (Nov. 17) Ohio State at Wisconsin
Bucky Badger was literally inches from being undefeated last fall. The MSU hail mary and Braxton Miller’s near-the-line-of-scrimmage touchdown heave were both inches from going Wisconsin’s way. The Big Red defeated OSU 31-18 with relative ease the last time Ohio State visited Camp Randall, but this game will be decidedly tougher. While Ohio State can’t technically play for the Big Ten title, winning this game and claiming the best record in the division still means a lot to Urban Meyer. Fans know who actually won the Pac-12 South last year.

23. Week 9 (Oct. 27) Michigan at Nebraska
The round robin in the Legends Division should be extremely entertaining this fall and Michigan has to face the Huskers on the road. However, if Nebraska wants to contend this fall, playing better defense against the Wolverines' rushing attack will be imperative. Denard Robinson and Fitzgerald Toussaint combined for 221 yards and four touchdowns in the 45-17 blowout last fall. This game could be the pivotal road trip for Michigan — at least, until November 24.

24. Week 4 (Sept. 22) Michigan at Notre Dame
Michigan has won three straight in this historic rivalry and none more painful than the most recent edition. Last year's final drive with under 30 seconds to play capped one of the largest fourth-quarter comebacks in the series history. Denard Robinson was brilliant, at times, but really the Notre Dame secondary played poorly. Brian Kelly is looking for his first win in the series and has a nasty defensive front seven to play with this time around. Robinson will need more than one ice bath when this one is over.

25. Week 13 (Nov. 24) Notre Dame at USC
These two historic rivals will do battle for the 83rd time when they meet on the final week of the regular season. While USC won last year and has claimed eight out of the past nine in the series, Notre Dame actually won the last the time they met in The Coliseum, 20-16 in 2010. Matt Barkley led a balanced offensive attack last fall to the 31-17 win in South Bend. USC rushed for 219 yards and posted 224 through the air. If the Irish expects to win out West again, it will have to muster more than 41 rushing yards.

Best of the Rest:

Week 3 (Sept. 15) Florida at Tennessee
Yes, the Florida-Tennessee rivalry has seen better days. No, neither is picked to win the East. But this game has no shortage of storylines — or future NFL talent. One team possesses an electric high-flying offense while the other boasts one of the most explosive defenses in the league. And both have a head coach feeling the pressure from alumni and fans to win now. Florida has won seven straight in the series, but will be coming to Knoxville following a brutal trip to Texas A&M in Week 2. Meanwhile, the Vols will face ACC sleeper NC State in Week 1, so if both teams struggle out of the gate, this game could decide more than just bowl eligibility. If both enter 2-0, one team will leave as the clear contender to Georgia and South Carolina for SEC East supremacy.

Week 13 (Nov. 24): South Carolina at Clemson
It may not be the most high-profile rivalry and it may not have national implications like many other rivalries, but it is hard to find a yearly battle that possesses as much vitriol as the Tigers-Gamecocks. From 1997 to 2008, Clemson owned the series, winning 10 of the 13 meetings. But the last three years have seen South Carolina stake a major claim to in-state supremacy. None of the games have been close as Carolina has outscored its rival 97-37. Both teams are focused on a conference title in their respective leagues, so the game means little to the actual standings, but don't tell that to the people in the Palmetto State. Or to two teams that could potentially be ranked in the Top 10 by the time they meet.

Week 6 (Oct. 6) West Virginia at Texas
The Mountaineers have played the Longhorns just once in the two programs' history and fans should certainly see more excitement than the 7-6 Texas victory featured back in 1956 down in Austin. These two teams appear to be the top challengers to Oklahoma in the Big 12 conference crown race and this contest will feature arguably the top offense in the league and the easily the top defense in the league. Geno Smith and his wide receivers will put loads of pressure on a unit with dynamic defensive ends and great cornerbacks. From an Xs and Os standpoint, there are few match-ups that will be more intriguing in any league across the nation.

Week 5 (Sept. 27) Stanford at Washington
Both programs have aspirations to challenge Oregon in the North this fall and both should creep up on 10 wins. Stanford has crushed the Huskies the last three meetings and has won six out of seven in the series. Without Andrew Luck, however, Washington and Keith Price have closed the gap significantly. The key will be the growth of the Husky defense after allowing 65 points last year and 105 total points in the last two meetings. Getting the game at home in Seattle may give the Dawgs the bump needed to end the Cardinal's winning streak.

Week 1 (Sept. 1): Clemson vs. Auburn (Atlanta, Ga.)
The first Saturday night of the season in the Georgia Dome has turned into a yearly must-watch contest and these two Tigers won't disappoint. Clemson won the meeting 38-24 last fall while Auburn won the 27-24 thriller en route to its National Championship in 2012. Brian VanGorder should have the Auburn defense much improved, but if Aubie expects to upset Clemson, it will have to get quality quarterback play on offense. This will be a great barometer game for both programs right out of the gate.

Week 6 (Oct. 6): Florida State at NC State
The top sleeper team in the ACC is Tom O'Brien's Wolfpack. They are strong at the point of attack on both offense and defense and have excellent leadership from quarterback Mike Glennon. These two teams match-up extremely well and getting the game at home for NC State could spell upset for Florida State. Manuel will be pressed by one of the nation's top secondaries while the strong Florida State defensive line will force Glennon to be successful down the field. This was no contest last fall in Tallahassee 34-0, but the last time Fisher took his team to Raleigh, the Pack got the best of FSU 28-24. 

Week 13 (Nov. 24) Oklahoma State at Oklahoma
The Bedlam Series is one of the great rivalries in all of the country, and while Oklahoma has dominated all-time (81-18-7) and of late (winners of eight of the last nine), the Cowboys claim the current bragging rights. The 44-10 destruction at home at the hands of Brandon Weeden and Mike Gundy was the first win for the Pokes in the series since 2002 and it clinched the program’s first Big 12 championship and a trip to the BCS. With a true freshman quarterback, walking into Norman and getting a win over the Sooners seems like a tall order. But fans can bet the atmosphere will be must-see.

Week 9 (Oct. 27) Notre Dame at Oklahoma
These are two of the most powerful, most prestigious, trophy-laden programs in the history of the sport. Notre Dame has dominated the all-time series 8-1, which includes an undefeated 4-0 record in Norman. The last time these two squared off was 1999 when Notre Dame outlasted the Sooners 34-30. The strength of this Irish team will be its defensive front and the strength of the OU team will be its offensive firepower, so the battle of wills in the trenches will determine if Notre Dame can maintain that unblemished road record against Oklahoma.

Week 11 (Nov. 10) West Virginia at Oklahoma State
These two have played one time since 1929 — and three times total — when Oklahoma State won 35-33 in the 1987 Sun Bowl in El Paso. Both teams have Big 12 title aspirations and both offenses ranked in the top 15 nationally in scoring and total offense last season. Add to it a Dana Holgorsen storyline that includes his former boss in Mike Gundy and fans should have plenty to watch on Nov. 10. The WVU headman spent 2010 as the offensive coordinator in Stillwater and now returns with a Big 12 rival stocked with offensive firepower.

Week 14 (Nov. 29): Louisville at Rutgers
The Cards are the prohibitive favorite and the 16-14 win over Rutgers last fall signaled a big turning point in Louisville's season. After a 2-4 start, the Cards out-lasted the top defense in the league before winning four of their next five games to end 2011. This year, on the final week of regular-season play, the Big East crown could be hanging in the balance. On paper, this road game should be the Cardinals' toughest league test and a third straight win over the Knights, a team that could be a top Big East contender, would likely produce Charlie Strong’s first trip to a BCS Bowl.

Week 12 (Nov. 17): NC State at Clemson
If the Pack is in fact the top sleeper team in this league, it will have to upset Clemson once again this season. After a 9-1 start, the No. 7-ranked Tigers went north to Raleigh and got embarrassed 37-13. Glennon was able to find success through the air throwing for 253 yards and three touchdowns in the win while the defense made Tajh Boyd look bad. He managed only 238 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions. However, expect Clemson OC Chad Morris to point to the lack of a rushing attack last fall — 28 carries for 34 yards —as one of the biggest concerns. Getting the game at home gives Clemson the edge but should NC State defeat FSU in Week 6, this game could become an division championship contest.

Week 8 (Oct. 20): Virginia Tech at Clemson
These two played twice last fall and Logan Thomas will readily admit that he didn't get the job done in the two losses. The Clemson defense struggled all season long but somehow managed to stop the burly passer and the explosive Hokie ground game. The 23-3 regular season win was merely a precursor to Clemson's 38-10 dominance in the ACC title game. Thomas and the Hokie defense should be much improved in 2012, so fans can bank on this one being much tighter this time around. This, too, could be a championship game preview.

Week 12 (Nov. 17) Stanford at Oregon
Stanford-Oregon has decided not only the "North," but also the Pac-12 championship for back-to-back seasons and it could be the case once again in 2012. The Ducks have won two straight and eight out of nine in the series and the game returns to Autzen Stadium this fall. If the Cardinal expect to challenge Oregon in the North, its stacked linebacking corps will have to play better against the high-powered Ducks — a team that has scored 105 points in the last two meetings.

-by Braden Gall

@bradengall

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With college football's fall practice in full swing around the nation, it's really the first time names made famous on recruiting websites are showing up in actual practice reports. When it comes to picking which freshmen will make an impact in their first season on campus, it's really all about who can pick up the playbook the fastest and who fits a need. The ACC saw names like Sammy Watkins and Giovani Bernard produce more than just All-ACC honors as freshmen last fall. Despite off-the-field issues facing both Watkins and North Carolina, both playmakers have a chance to lead their respective teams to the best record in the conference. This season will feature another class of stellar prospects who will mold the landscape in the ACC (listed alphabetically): 

The ACC's Top Impact Freshmen for 2012

Kelvin Benjamin, WR, Florida State
The massive redshirt freshman receiver could be a game-changer for EJ Manuel and the Florida State passing game. At 6-foot-5 and 240-pounds, Benjamin may be the most talented FSU pass-catcher since the deep collection of NFL talent of the late 90s and early 00s. 

Travis Blanks, DB, Clemson
The Tigers' defensive woes are well documented. Prospects like Blanks should help new defensive coordinator Brent Venables attempt to improve a unit that was abused in the second half of the 2011 season. The hybrid talent, at 6-foot-1 and 195 pounds, should be used all over the field in various roles after enrolling early last January.

Zac Brooks, RB, Clemson
Andre Ellington is a really good player but constantly misses time due to injury. There is no Mike Bellamy. And the rest of the depth chart lacks true upside. The coaching staff is counting on the Jonesboro, Ark., native to produce right away.

Kyler Brown, LB, Duke
From Matthews, N.C., Brown is expected to step in and help bolster the porous run defense that has all too often plagued the Duke defense. The redshirt freshman checks in at 6-foot-4 and 225 pounds and should rack-up the tackles this fall in Durham.

Deon Bush, S, Miami
The Miami area prospect just missed landing in the top 100 recruiting rankings, but Bush will be hard to keep on the bench this fall. He has all the tools to be successful right away and only minor injury issues will keep him from contributing immediately.

Joel Caleb, WR, Virginia Tech
The uber-talented wideout has already been singled-out in practice by Frank Beamer. He has big-play ability, and Logan Thomas will need some help making things happen on offense should the Hokies expect to compete in the ACC.

Ronald Darby, DB, Florida State
There is no reason to believe this special talent won't become a big star in Tallahassee. Considering the recent departure of Greg Reid, the buzz Darby has been receiving from coaches and teammates alike seems to be much more than simple lip-service. He could make fans forget about the troubled Reid very quickly.

Quinshad Davis, WR, North Carolina
It took him two weeks to get onto the practice field, but Davis finally has made his UNC debut. His long, rangy frame could be the missing piece for a North Carolina offense that has all the pieces needed to be one of the most balanced and explosive in the league. The offensive line, the running game and the quarterback are already in place. 

Stefon Diggs, WR/RS, Maryland
The in-state speedster was the No. 5 overall prospect in the nation last fall and was a recruiting coup for the embattled Randy Edsall. The 6-foot, 185-pound dynamo will touch the ball in the passing game, ground game and return game. He should start right away and should be a close friend of unexpected new starting quarterback and fellow freshman Perry Hills.

Mario Edwards, DL, Florida State
Edwards is to the ACC what Anthony Johnson was to the SEC last fall. If he can pick up the mental aspects of the game quick enough to stay on the field, his raw physical ability should make him one of the brightest future stars in the league. Look for the massive 6-foot-3, 300-pound monster to bolster an already loaded defensive line in search of a conference crown. 

Ereck Flowers, OL, Miami
If the big local product from the city of Miami continues to play like he has in camp, he could very well be the starting right tackle at The U. His work ethic and size – at 6-foot-6 and 315 pounds — will provide much needed help along the offensive front for Al Golden.

Perry Hills, QB, Maryland
When C.J. Brown tore his ACL, one of two freshmen were going to get the call to start for new coordinator Mike Locksley. Caleb Rowe appears to have lost the job to the Hills, a 6-foot-3, 205-pound signal caller from Pittsburgh. On a team that won two games a year ago and features huge amounts of roster turnover, Hills has been thrust into the most important starting position on the field. Should he adapt quickly, he could easily be in contention for ACC Freshman of the Year. If he struggles, Randy Edsall could be looking for work.

Tracy Howard, CB, Miami
This talented defensive back might be the biggest impact freshman in the ACC this season. Miami fans can expect the speedy coverman from Miramar, Fla., to be on the field from the first snap of the ball. Miami will play a lot of young players, and the No. 2-rated defensive back prospect in the nation has already drawn excellent reviews in camp for his play and leadership. 

Germone Hopper, WR, Clemson
With Watkins suspended for the first two games, the high-flying Clemson offense will provide plenty of opportunities for youngsters to make an impact. Hopper has gotten plenty of early looks in practice as one of the highest-rated prospects in the entire Clemson class. The 6-foot, 170-pound pass-catcher from Charlotte, N.C., was the No. 11-rated wide receiver prospect in the nation. Someone other than DeAndre Hopkins will catch passes in those first two games.

Jabari Hunt-Days, LB, Georgia Tech
The younger brother of Tech quarterback, Snyjyn Days, could provide immediate help at inside backer. The 6-foot-3, 240-pound Marietta, Ga., prospect redshirted last fall and knows Al Groh's system well enough to make a big impact this fall. Tech fans are hoping for some reinforcement for a defense that allowed 274 and 268 yards rushing in losses to Virginia and Virginia Tech respectively last fall.

Duke Johnson, RB, Miami
The tiny tailback from Miami has speed to burn and will make some big plays this fall in a variety of ways. His 4.4 speed, to go along with the ability to catch the ball and make big plays on special teams will force Al Golden to get Johnson into his game plans. He may not have the size to unseat Mike James, or even be a 25-carry per game back, but Johnson will drop his fair share of jaws.

Carlos Watkins, DT, Clemson
Defensive line coach Dan Brooks has been impressed with Watkins thus far and thinks he will compete for a starting spot right away. The 6-foot-4, 275-pound, top-100 recruit from Forest City, N.C., will team with D.J. Reader to bolster a defensive line that desperately needs a boost.

Three RB Tandems To Watch:

Brandon Ross and Wes Brown, RB, Maryland
The high school teammate of Diggs, Brown, is a burly runner who will team with Ross, the redshirt freshman from New Jersey, in an effort to replace Davin Meggett. The ground game has always been a huge part of Edsall's coaching MO, but these two youngsters will attempt to build on the lone bright spot on the Terrapins' resume from last year — the ACC's No. 3-rated rushing attack.

Michael Holmes and JC Coleman, RB, Virginia Tech
Holmes could be this year's Bernard as he steps in as the top back in the Hokies' offense. While Holmes may not be a spectacular talent like David Wilson or Ryan Williams, he makes few mistakes and is as consistent as they come as a freshman. Coleman, who is dealing with a fractured hand, showed in a recent scrimmage that it will be tough to keep his big-play ability off the field for too long. 

Jela Duncan and Shaquille Powell, RB, Duke
The pair of freshman tailbacks are already being counted on by David Cutcliffe to perform quickly in 2012. He believes in the two youngsters so much that former star running back prospect Desmond Scott has been moved to wide receiver. Look for both to get plenty of chances for an offense that ranked dead last in the ACC in rushing last fall. 

Other Names To Watch:

Marvin Bracy, WR/RS, Florida State
Eddie Goldman, DT, Florida State
Junior Gnockonde, LB/S, North Carolina
Eli Harold, LB, Virginia
Nick Hill, WR, Duke
Kiaro Holts, OL, North Carolina
Dylan Intemann, OL, Wake Forest
Raphael Kirby, LB, Miami
Alex Kinal, K, Wake Forest
Donaldven Manning, CB, Virginia Tech
Bradle Pinion, P, Clemson
Shakeel Rashad, LB, North Carolina
Jameis Winston, QB, Florida State

- by Braden Gall

@bradengall

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Teaser:
<p> The ACC's Top Impact Freshman of 2012</p>
Post date: Tuesday, August 21, 2012 - 05:10
Path: /college-football/big-easts-top-impact-freshman-2012
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With college football's fall practice in full swing around the nation, it's really the first time names made famous on recruiting websites are showing up in actual practice reports. When it comes to picking which freshmen will make an impact in their first season on campus, it's really all about who can pick up the playbook the fastest and who fits a need. The Big East saw names like Teddy Bridgewater and Lyle McCombs produce excellent rookie seasons last fall. Bridgewater, who claimed Big East Rookie of the Year honors in 2011, now enters his sophomore season with eyes on a BCS bowl. This season will feature another class of stellar prospects who will mold the landscape in the Big East (listed alphabetically): 

The Big East's Top Impact Freshmen for 2012

Keith Brown, LB, Louisville
Landing Brown was one of the many recruiting coups for Charlie Strong and his staff. His ties to South Florida helped sign the 6-foot-1, 230-pound tackler from Miami Norland. He has a chance to step in and bolster a young defense right from the onset. 

Leonte Carroo, WR, Rutgers
Growing up in the shadows of HighPoint Solutions Stadium at famed Don Bosco Prep, the 6-foot-1, 190-pounder has track speed to go with his physical frame and electric upside. There is no doubt he will be a big contributor on special teams, but his early camp reviews suggest a big role in the passing game as well.

Kristofer Curtis, OL, Syracuse
The big redshirt freshman from Fayetteville, Ga., is slotted into the starting line-up for the Cuse. He has been dealing with an injury issue that has slowed his development in camp, but should the 6-foot-3, 290-pound tackle return healthy, he should be a big part of the Orange's offensive attack.

Darius Hamilton, DL, Rutgers
The prized gem of the most heralded Knights class in school history was 6-foot-4, 260-pound defensive lineman from nearby Don Bosco Prep. He began camp as an end, but after excelling in camp already, he has been shifted down to tackle. He knows the 3-technique from his prep glory days and should be an instant impact player for what should once again be the league's top defense.

Zach Hooks, LT, Temple
The left tackle position is the second-most important on the field and Hooks is already slotted in as the starter in Philadelphia. The 6-foot-6 blocker from Aliquippa, Pa., is poised to pave the way for one of the most talented backfields in Owls history.

Quanzell Lambert, LB, Rutgers
The coaching staff has been praising the middle linebacker from Sicklerville, N.J., since the second he stepped onto the practice field. He will learn behind Butkus candidate Steve Beauharnais this fall, but the 6-foot-1, 230-pounder could be the top reserve linebacker on the league's top defense. Update: Unfortunately, Lambert tweaked his ankle this week in practice and will miss some time — which could obviously impact his ability to contribute right away.

Kyle Federico, K/P, Rutgers
The Knights have had two kickers in eight years and Federico could make it only three in 12 should the early returns be accurate. He has the kicking duties to himself this fall after Jeremy Ito and San San Te made the position one of solid production for nearly a decade.

Steve Longa, LB, Rutgers
The youngster won't turn 18 until the end of November, but in two short weeks of practice, Kyle Flood knows he can't redshirt Longa. The rising star, much like Lambert, will spend this fall learning from talented veterans. But, again, like Lambert, Longa should see plenty of snaps this fall. These two talented tacklers are the future of Rutgers football.

Lafayette Pitts, DB, Pitt
The redshirt fershman has been battling sophomore Ohio State transfer Cullen Christian for a starting spot in the Pitt secondary. Either way, win or lose, Pitts will be playing plenty of snaps for the Panthers this fall. New coach Paul Chryst stated last week that Pitts had the slight edge as the starter.

Rushel Shell, RB, Pitt
There is a very small chance Shell is redshirted, but his obvious talent and recruiting hype will make it hard for Chryst to keep the uber-prospect on the bench. He's the Keystone State's all-time leading rusher with 9,078 yards and scored a WPIAL record 110 career TDs. He also owns the national prep mark for consecutive 100-yard games with 39 — breaking the great Billy Sims' mark. Chryst will have fun using this dynamo.

Nate Smith, LB, Temple
The younger brother of former NFL tight end L.J., Smith is a bit undersized at 5-foot-10 and 220 pounds, but his tenacity, insticnts and work ethic have turned a lot of heads in Temple's camp. He is poised to be the Owls' starting middle linebacker in their return to the Big East in his first season on the field.

Chad Voytik, QB, Pitt
From Cleveland, Tenn., the talanted passer is a perfect fit for Chryst's high-powered offensive system. In fact, Voytik will draw some comparison's to former Chryst QB Russell Wilson. Above average mobility, a bit undersized, decent arm, quality poise and leadership skills. This is why starter Tino Sunseri  — who was inefficient and underwhelming last fall — needs to be looking over his shoulder .

Freshman Position Battles To Watch:

Ivan Foy and Rob Trudo, RG, Syracuse
These two youngsters will vie for the starting right guard spot this fall.

Braxton Lane/Nate Cole/Jeremy Graves, WR, Cincinnati
Butch Jones has mentioned all three as potential starters — or third options.

Oliver Vigille and James Washington, OLB, Syracuse
These two should be fighting for snaps on the outside. Both will provide talented depth.

Jefferson Ashiru and Marquise Vann, LB, UConn
Neither may start, but both will contribute to an excellent LB corps.

Other Names To Watch:

Chris Bivins, CB, USF
Ashton Broyld, WR, Syracuse
Dionte Buckley, RB, Cincinnati
Bennie Coney, QB, Cincinnati
Myles Davis, FB, Syracuse
Nick Dawson, LB, Louisville
Jaston George, CB, Syracuse
Eric Lee, DE, USF
D'Vario Montgomery, WR, USF
Devontre Parnell, DB, Louisville
Daniel Perry, DE, USF
Sean Price, TE, USF
Deaysean Rippy, DB, Pitt
Ron Thompson, TE, Syracuse
Tashon Whitehurst, LB, USF

- by Braden Gall

@bradengall

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Teaser:
<p> The Big East's Top Impact Freshman of 2012</p>
Post date: Tuesday, August 21, 2012 - 05:10

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