Articles By Braden Gall

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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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<p> College Football's Top 25 Games of 2012</p>
Post date: Tuesday, August 21, 2012 - 05:30
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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

Related ACC Content

ACC Coaches Anonymously Scout Conference Foes
Ranking the ACC's Top 50 Players for 2012

Projecting College Football's Win Totals for 2012

Ranking the ACC's Must-See Games for 2012

The ACC's Top 10 Storylines to Watch in Fall Practice

College Football's National Title Darkhorses for 2012

Ranking the ACC's Defensive Lines for 2012

Ranking the ACC Offensive Lines for 2012

Ranking the ACC Wide Receiving Corps for 2012

College Football's 2012 Bowl Projections

Will Randy Edsall Turn Around Maryland?

College Football's Top 10 Impact Transfers for 2012

ACC's Top 25 Heisman Contenders for 2012

Athlon's 2012 ACC Predictions

Athlon's 2012 All-ACC Team

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
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 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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Big East Coaches Anonymously Scout the Big East
Ranking the Big East's Must-See Games for 2012

Big East Breakout Players for 2012

The Big East's Top 10 Storylines to Watch in Fall Practice

Ranking the Big East's Top 50 Players for 2012

Ranking the Big East Linebacking Corps for 2012

Ranking the Big East Defensive Lines for 2012

College Football 2012 Bowl Projections

College Football's Top 10 Impact Transfers

Ranking the Big East's Offensive Lines for 2012

Ranking the Big East's Wide Receiving Corps for 2012

Top 25 Big East Heisman Contenders for 2012

Athlon's 2012 Big East Predictions

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Which Big East Teams Are on the Rise Heading into 2012?

Teaser:
<p> The Big East's Top Impact Freshman of 2012</p>
Post date: Tuesday, August 21, 2012 - 05:10
All taxonomy terms: MLB, Fantasy
Path: /mlb/fantasy-baseball-bests-busts-and-waiver-wire-aug-20
Body:

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 (8/13-8/19):

  Name Team Pos. R HR RBI SB BA OPS
1. Nick Swisher NYY OF 6 4 11 1 .370 1.285
2. Mike Trout LAA OF 8 3 5 3 .370 1.267
3. Jay Bruce CIN OF 9 3 7 0 .429 1.377
4. Todd Frazier* CIN 1/3/OF 8 3 6 2 .370 1.120
5. Albert Pujols LAA 1B 6 4 9 0 .320 1.186
6. Hanley Ramirez LAD 3B/SS 6 3 9 0 .367 1.173
7. Danny Espinosa* WAS 2B/SS 5 3 7 0 .458 1.375
8. Garrett Jones* PIT 1B/OF 3 2 12 0 .423 1.222
9. Aaron Hill ARI 2B 7 3 5 1 .364 1.326
10. Miguel Cabrera DET 1B/3B 7 2 6 0 .476 1.387
11. Ryan Braun MIL OF 5 4 6 1 .320 1.210
12. Eric Young* COL 2B/OF 6 2 5 2 .370 1.081
13. Ryan Ludwick* CIN OF 6 4 6 0 .348 1.357
14. Alcides Escobar* KC SS 6 0 1 4 .480 1.060
15. Starlin Castro CHC SS 6 1 5 2 .407 1.115
16. David DeJesus* CHC OF 6 3 5 0 .409 1.428
17. Adam Dunn CHW 1B/OF 6 4 7 0 .269 1.136
18. B.J. Upton TB OF 5 3 8 0 .333 1.122
19. Luis Cruz* LAD 3B/SS 5 2 6 0 .458 1.333
20. Chris Young* ARI OF 4 2 6 1 .400 1.229
21. Mark Reynolds* BAL 1B/3B 3 3 7 0 .400 1.355
22. Derek Jeter NYY SS 8 1 3 1 .370 1.026
23. Willin Rosario* COL C 7 1 5 0 .444 1.222
24. Ben Zobrist TB 2B/SS/OF 6 2 6 0 .348 1.114
25. Erick Aybar* LAA SS 4 2 4 2 .346 1.024

* - less than 70% owned in Yahoo! leagues

Trade Dealine Has Passed

Most trade deadlines were this Sunday, which means that the only way you can improve your roster is by hovoring around the waiver wire. While call-ups like Jean Segura in Milwaukee or Manny Machado in Baltimore are high-profile, there are plenty of other sneaky additions to be found. Todd Frazier is a must-add with his position eligibility and pure pop in the bat. In 309 at-bats, he has an .889 OPS and 17 big flies. Joey Votto's absence has given Frazier a chance to prove his worth. He will be in the line-up from here on out. Danny Espinosa is a counting stat machine who will sap your batting average. As long as you understand this, and he can still help, do not hesistate to add the talented MI from Washington. Colorado's Eric Young has some nice value as well is you need speed and scoring.

Who am I not buying? Garrett Jones, Ryan Ludwick, Erick Aybar and Mark Reynolds. They might add some pop (or speed in Aybar's case) to your fantasy batting order, but history keeps me from adding any of the foursome. Chris Young almost falls into this group as well, but I am more comfortable adding the D-Backs outfielder than the rest.

Top 20 fantasy Starting Pitchers of last two weeks:

  Name Team IP W K ERA WHIP
1. Jeremy Guthrie* KC 22.2 2 19 0.00 0.62
2. Cole Hamels PHI 25.2 3 21 1.05 0.86
3. Johnny Cueto CIN 23.0 2 20 1.96 0.61
4. Paul Maholm* ATL 16.0 2 12 0.56 0.69
5. Kris Medlen* ATL 15.1 2 13 0.59 0.72
6. Hiroki Kuroda NYY 23.1 2 14 1.54 0.77
7. Chad Billingsley LAD 21.1 3 14 1.69 0.94
8. Matt Moore TB 19.1 2 20 1.86 0.93
9. Felix Hernandez SEA 16.0 1 15 2.25 0.38
10. James Shields TB 21.0 2 16 2.57 0.76
11. Yovani Gallardo MIL 21.2 3 21 2.08 1.20
12. Chris Capuano LAD 22.1 1 24 2.01 0.94
13. David Price TB 14.0 2 13 1.29 0.86
14. Clay Buchholz* BOS 17.0 2 13 2.12 0.76
15. Clayton Kershaw LAD 14.1 2 15 3.14 0.70
16. Roy Halladay PHI 15.0 1 15 2.40 0.60
17. Jonathon Niese* NYM 21.1 2 1 2.11 1.03
18. Max Scherzer DET 13.0 2 18 1.38 1.23
19. Mat Latos CIN 22.0 0 18 1.23 0.91
20. Jon Lester BOS 19.2 2 20 2.75 1.02

* - less than 70% owned in Yahoo! leagues

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

1. Chad Billingsley, LAD: MIA (Sat.) 71% owned
Bills might not be on your waiver wire, but if he is, now is the time to jump. He is very streaky and has allowed five earned runs in his last five starts. His last two starts: 15.0 IP, 0 ER, 8 H, 9 K, 3 BB.

2. Jonathon Niese, NYM: HOU (Fri.) 56% owned
The rising star of Queens has been a pleasant surprise for Mets fans. His 3.49/1.15 season ratios play in any league. He has allowed six earnies in his last four starts (3-1) with 22 Ks and five BBs.

3. Patrick Corbin, ARI: SD (Fri.) 14% owned
Since being moved into the rotation, the youngster has allowed eight earned runs and only 19 hits over his last 26.0 innings with 24 strikeouts and a 3-0 record. The lefty gets to face the Padres on Friday.

4. Kris Medlen, ATL: at WAS (Wed.) 44% owned
This guy has always had nasty stuff and loads of upside. He got moved into the rotation four starts ago and has been excellent. He has allowed three total ER, with 22 Ks and 4 BBs with a 3-0 mark in those starts.

5. Trevor Cahill, ARI: MIA (Tues.) 55% owned
While the D-Back righty may never be a fantasy star, he has had plenty of servicable moments. He has allowed three or fewer earned runs in seven of his last nine starts, including two one-run efforts in his last four.

Top 20 fantasy Relief Pitchers of last month:

  Name Team IP W SV K HLD ERA WHIP
1. Aroldis Chapman CIN 15.1 1 13 26 0 0.59 0.78
2. Tyler Clippard WAS 14.0 0 12 16 0 1.93 1.00
3. Fernando Rodney TB 13.0 0 11 12 0 0.69 1.00
4. Kenley Jansen LAD 10.1 1 8 17 0 1.74 0.77
5. J.J. Putz ARI 9.2 0 7 15 0 0.00 0.41
6. Tom Wilhelmsen* SEA 11.0 1 9 13 0 2.45 0.73
7. Huston Street (DL) SD 9.2 0 6 9 0 0.00 0.10
8. Jonathan Papelbon PHI 12.1 1 6 14 0 0.73 0.97
9. Adam Ottavino* COL 24.1 3 0 19 3 2.59 0.86
10. Jason Motte STL 11.2 0 7 19 0 2.31 0.86
11. Rafael Betancourt COL 10.1 0 8 6 0 0.87 0.68
12. Rafael Soriano NYY 12.1 0 7 12 0 2.19 0.73
13. Joel Peralta* TB 14.2 0 0 22 10 0.61 0.55
14. Darren O'Day* BAL 13.2 1 0 15 4 0.66 0.59
15. Jordan Norberto* OAK 17.0 2 0 20 1 1.59 1.00
16. Brandon Lyon* TOR 12.0 1 0 22 4 1.50 0.67
17. Grant Balfour* OAK 11.1 0 4 13 3 0.79 0.71
18. Sean Marshall* CIN 11.2 2 0 13 3 2.31 0.51
19. Greg Holland* KC 14.0 2 5 13 1 2.57 1.29
20. Craig Kimbrel ATL 7.0 0 3 15 0 0.00 0.57

* - 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 20</p>
Post date: Monday, August 20, 2012 - 10:29
All taxonomy terms: Detroit Lions, NFC, NFC North, NFL
Path: /nfl/detroit-lions-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 Detroit Lions check in at No. 10.

The Lions went from 0–16 to the playoffs in three seasons under a new regime. And the pieces are in place for Jim Schwartz’s team to take another step this season. Detroit returns 21 of 22 starters from a team that went 10–6 and looks like a dark horse Super Bowl contender in the NFC.

With a dynamic offense led by budding star quarterback Matthew Stafford and a defensive line built to create havoc around controversial star Ndamukong Suh, the Lions are thinking big again. But the big question is whether they can handle success after making the playoffs for the first time in a dozen years. And what once seemed like a laughable notion in Detroit — fighting complacency — is now one of the big challenges for Schwartz and his staff. Because for once the immediate help isn’t coming via the draft or free agency; it has to come from within. 

Offense

Stafford, the 2009 No. 1 overall pick, answered some genuine concerns about his durability by playing all 16 games last year after two injury-plagued seasons to start his NFL career. And other than some erratic throws while playing with a splint on a broken right index finger in November, he passed the test with flying colors. In fact, at age 23, he became only the fourth quarterback in NFL history to pass for 5,000 yards in a season — joining Dan Marino, Drew Brees and Tom Brady — while also throwing 41 touchdown passes.

Receiver Calvin Johnson’s All-Pro season led to a monster contract extension — with $60 million guaranteed in the deal, he’s the highest-paid non-quarterback in the league — and huge expectations for what could be the NFL’s best passing offense. The emergence of second-year wideout Titus Young alongside Nate Burleson, coupled with big, athletic tight ends Brandon Pettigrew and Tony Scheffler, gives Stafford and offensive coordinator Scott Linehan, a creative play-caller, plenty of options.

But better balance is the goal now. Stafford led the league in pass attempts last season, in part because the Lions were 29th in rushing yards with the second-fewest attempts in the NFL. “Last year, the easiest way to win with all of our injuries was to throw the football a lot,” Stafford says. A torn Achilles in training camp sidelined rookie Mikel Leshoure for the entire season, and all-purpose burner Jahvid Best’s season was over in mid-October after a second concussion in three months.

Unfortunately, both backs remain hampered by injuries. Best has yet to be cleared for practice and will more than likely start the season on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list, which means he would miss the first six games of the season at minimum. Leshoure missed the first part of training camp with a hamstring issue and there's no timetable for when he will be able to fully practice.

On top of his injury issues, Leshoure is suspended the first two games of the season for violating the league's substance-abuse policy. That’s why the Lions re-signed Kevin Smith, a former starter in Detroit who jumped off the couch and gave the team a lift in midseason before getting injured again himself. Smith and Keiland Williams will more than likely share the bulk of the carries at least to start the season.

The offensive line returns intact for a third consecutive year, but it’ll be tough to repeat last year’s biggest feat — none of the five starters missed a game due to injury. Jeff Backus has started 176 consecutive games at left tackle, but he’s coming off surgery to repair a torn pectoral, and he’ll be pushed by rookie first-round pick Riley Reiff, as will inconsistent right tackle Gosder Cherilus

Defense

Ask Schwartz or general manager Martin Mayhew about the team’s weak link and they start to get a little defensive. That’s because the defense that allowed 90 points and more than 900 yards in a pair of critical January losses — one to a Green Bay team resting for the postseason, the other in a wild card playoff loss to New Orleans — wasn’t the one they saw for much of 2011. And with 10 starters back — cornerback Eric Wright was the lone offseason departure — it’s not the one they expect to see this fall.

The Lions are built to pressure opposing quarterbacks, and despite recording 41 sacks last season there’s a feeling that the front four underachieved. With a healthy Nick Fairley, hobbled by a broken foot much of his rookie season, and more controlled aggression from Suh on the interior, the potential for more is still there. The team slapped defensive end Cliff Avril with a franchise tag, so he’ll still have something to prove after last year’s double-digit sack total. And a mix of veteran Kyle Vanden Bosch and productive reserves Lawrence Jackson and Willie Young also will bring the heat.

An upgraded linebacking corps made more plays last season, but the run defense must get better if the Lions, who aren’t about to ditch their wide-9 defensive scheme up front, are going to beat some of the better teams on their schedule. Re-signing the man in the middle, Stephen Tulloch, was arguably Mayhew’s most important offseason move. Justin Durant and DeAndre Levy are the other starters, but the Lions expect backup Doug Hogue to take a big step in his second season.

The secondary is either incomplete, or a concern — or both. If the Lions don’t add a veteran starter at cornerback this summer, Aaron Berry and Jacob Lacey will vie for the job opposite Chris Houston, who started last season playing like a Pro Bowler. Meanwhile, the jury is still out on Amari Spievey as a starting safety next to Louis Delmas, whose late-season injury absence played a critical role in the team’s defensive collapse. Delmas also underwent knee surgery at the start of training camp, which could impact his availability for the start of the season.

The cap-strapped Lions didn’t add a premium free agent defensive back this winter, and they balked at the price to trade up in the first round of the draft to acquire one. They did, however, use their last six picks in the draft on defensive players, including a pair of small-school cornerbacks, Dwight Bentley and Chris Greenwood, who could see playing time as rookies.  

Specialists

At age 42, Jason Hanson is still kicking — and kicking well — entering his 21st season. The Lions will have open competition this fall at punter, though. Ryan Donahue won the job over incumbent Nick Harris in camp last year, but Aussie veteran Ben Graham took over at midseason when Donahue was injured. Long-snapper Don Muhlbach, re-signed this winter, also is back, along with return specialist Stefan Logan. A Pro Bowl alternate in 2010, Logan saw his role diminished last season by the new kickoff rules. The likely threat to his job on the roster, rookie wide receiver Ryan Broyles, will be brought along slowly; he’s coming off ACL surgery last November.

Final Analysis: 3rd in the NFC North

It’s a balancing act now. If the Lions can find some punch in the running game — and a lot may depend on whether Best can take the hits — the offense should be hard to stop. Depending on what happens in the secondary, though, it might need to be again this fall. Still, after last year’s major step forward, it’s time for the Lions to seriously contend for a division title and a home playoff date.

Related: 2012 Detroit Lions Schedule Analysis

Outside The Huddle

What Jinx? 
Calvin Johnson doesn’t believe in curses, which is saying something for a player who endured the Matt Millen era in Detroit and a winless season in 2008. And that’s why he was openly lobbying for a spot on the cover of EA Sports’ new “Madden 13” video game, despite the fact that so many previous selections suffered serious injuries or career setbacks. “I’m not a big guy for curses, and I don’t even think about it,” says Johnson, who beat out Aaron Rodgers and Cam Newton, among others, in fan voting. Newton, the other finalist, even created a YouTube video in which he challenged Johnson to a game of Madden. But Johnson admits he’s better at the real thing than he is the video game. “I’m not the best; I play rarely,” Johnson says. “I’m more of a FIFA guy, more of a soccer guy.”

Prime-time Lions 
For the first time since Barry Sanders retired, the Lions are a genuine draw on national television. They’re scheduled for five national TV games this season, including four in prime time, for the first time since 1998. Last year marked the Lions’ first Monday Night Football appearance in 10 years (a home date with Chicago in Week 5) and their first Sunday night broadcast (at New Orleans in Week 13) since 2005.

Center Stage
Dominic Raiola knows it’ll end one of these years. But now in his second decade as the Lions’ starting center, he insists his time’s not up. “I got this little pill. You ever see that movie ‘Limitless’?” jokes Raiola, drafted in 2001 along with starting left tackle Jeff Backus. “No, you know what? We are getting old. Me and Jeff — Jeff’s 34, I’m 33. We are getting old, but I’m going to keep plugging away until this engine dies.”

Reunion Tour
You’ll excuse the Lions’ Jim Schwartz if he started having flashbacks when the NFL schedule was released in April. His team opens at home against the St. Louis Rams, now led by one of his coaching mentors, Jeff Fisher. Next comes a prime-time road game at San Francisco that’ll inevitably be dubbed the “Handshake Bowl” after last year’s postgame dust-up involving Schwartz and 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh. And in Week 3, Schwartz takes the Lions to Tennessee, where he was an assistant coach from 2000-08 under Fisher.

Sooner Boon
The Lions hadn’t drafted three players from the same school in one year since 1958, the year after their last NFL championship. But this year they added a trio of Oklahoma Sooners in wide receiver Ryan Broyles, defensive end Ronnell Lewis and linebacker Travis Lewis. “We don’t rate them higher because they’re from Oklahoma, but it just worked out that way,” Schwartz says. “They’ve had a good program, and those guys have been very productive over the years.”

Let It Snow?
There are plenty of reasons why the Lions haven’t won a game in Green Bay since 1991, and most of them have to do with the many awful teams they’ve fielded over the years. But the schedule-makers aren’t helping. This season, they’ll travel to face the Packers at Lambeau Field after Dec. 1 for the seventh time in nine years.

Special Delivery
First-round pick Riley Reiff grew up without a local NFL team to cheer for in Parkston, S.D., (pop. 1,508), but he says he cheered for the Oakland Raiders. “Our mailman was a Raiders fan and he liked to talk,” Reiff explains, “and he talked me into being a Raiders fan, too.”
Hammer time Ronnell Lewis, nicknamed “The Hammer” by Sooners coach Bob Stoops, grew up in tiny Dewar, Okla., and says he used to ride bulls in the rodeo. “It’s an adrenaline rush, like taking a skydive or swimming with sharks,” he says. “It’s pretty intense.” But it’s also in his past, he says. Why? “It hurts,” he says. 

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: Tues., August 21

Order your 2012 Deroit Lions Athlon Sports NFL Preview magazine here

Related: 2012 Detroit Lions Schedule Analysis

Teaser:
<p> Detroit Lions 2012 NFL Team Preview</p>
Post date: Monday, August 20, 2012 - 08:00
Path: /nfl/detroit-lions-or-chicago-bears-who-can-beat-packers
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 is more likely to knock off the Green Bay Packers in the NFC North this fall, the Detroit Lions or the Chicago Bears? 

Mark Burzawa, BearGoggleson.com
The NFC North looks to be one of the toughest divisions in the NFL with the Packers expected to be at the top of the heap. Not so fast, Green Bay. Just like the message on your rear view mirror say, "Images closer than they appear." That's the case with the next two teams in the division, the Chicago Bears and the Detroit Lions.

While the Lions finally appeared to turn the corner in 2011 and actually made a playoff appearance, they're not ready to overtake the Packers just yet. Big questions in their secondary and the maturity of the team will keep them from rising to an elite level. In fact, if anyone is going to pass the Pack in 2012, it's going to be the Bears.

The Bears were 7-3 last season and appeared poised to make another deep playoff run when tragedy struck. Jay Cutler broke his thumb while chasing down an interception return and the season went down with him. In large part, the season went down the tubes because the Bears didn't have a capable backup. They addressed that by picking up a starter-caliber backup in Jason Campbell. They also bolstered their rushing attack by adding Michael Bush to be the thunder to Matt Forte's lightening. But the biggest offseason coupe was landing a legitimate #1 wide receiver in Brandon Marshall, who changes the entire complexion of the Bears offense.

With an up-and-coming offense built to score points, a veteran defense with Pro Bowl performers throughout and added depth at key positions, the Bears are set to knock off the Packers in 2012.

Nathan Rush, AthlonSports.com
The Lions are a team on the rise, thanks to a foundation comprised of several of the league's most talented young players -- namely Megatron, Matt Stafford and Ndamukong Suh. Meanwhile, the Bears hope they've got one last gasp of relevance left before Brian Urlacher rides off into retirement. Take the hot hand. Detroit is a team no one wants to face; it boasts an explosive offense and a physical defense that is not afraid to play dirty. The Lions are not only more likely than the Bears to supplant the Packers as NFC North champs, coach Jim Schwartz's club is a dark horse Super Bowl contender this season.

Patrick Snow (@AthlonSnowman)
The Packers are still the class of the NFC North, but the Bears would be my candidate to win the division if Green Bay was to slip. Chicago was 7-3 last year before falling apart to end the season and finishing 8-8. Two main factors for the Bears late failure were injuries to quarterback Jay Cutler and running back Matt Forte, and that dynamic duo will be back healthy in 2012. The acquisition of wide receiver Brandon Marshall gives Chicago a true No. 1 option on the outside, and the defense will be solid once again. Detroit’s offense is formidable with Calvin Johnson and Matt Stafford, but it’s difficult to see the Lions improving on last year’s ascension to 10 wins from six in 2010. Both Chicago and Detroit could make the postseason, but I see the Bears as the bigger threat to the Pack.

Zac Snyder, SideLionReport.com
I feel like I need to preface what I'm about to write by stating that I firmly believe the Packers will win the NFC North. That being said, if the Packers stumble and get surprised by a division rival, it will be the Lions. I expect the Lions and Bears to run neck and neck for most of the season but I see two teams on very different trajectories. The Lions are the up and comers with the type of team that most resembles the blueprint for success in today's NFL. The Bears are closer to the end of their competitive window than the beginning with their aging defense. Anyone that is looking for a team to surprise the Packers has to pick the team on the up swing and that is the Lions.

Mark Ross, Athlon Sports.com
Detroit has an offense on par with Green Bay’s, but Chicago has the defense and I’m a firm believer that a great defense can beat a great offense more times than not. Now whether this season’s Bears D will be “great” remains to be seen, but I like the Monsters of the Midway’s chances of at least slowing down the Pack attack better than the Lions. The offense also should be more productive this season, thanks to the addition of Brandon Marshall and a few others. If the Bears can put it together on both sides of the ball, I think they are a real threat to dethrone the Packers.

Braden Gall (@BradenGall)
Certainly, the Packers are the team to beat in the NFC North. But the defense had its struggles and the team withered at home in the playoffs against the Giants. So the question in the North becomes which unit has improved the most, the Lions defense or the Bears offense? With the addition of Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery (as long as they stay focused) packaged with a healthy backfield that also added Michael Bush, the Bears offense might actually match the production of the defense. As long as Brian Urlacher doesn't miss much time with his knee issue, this Chicago defense could be one of the best in the NFC. Detroit will score plenty of points and will still be in the hunt for a Wildcard, but it's deficiencies at stopping the opposing offense will keep it from winning the division. If a team is going to knock off the Pack, Jay Cutler and company could close the gap on the North Division defending champions.

-by Braden Gall

@bradengall

Teaser:
<p> Detroit Lions or Chicago Bears: Who can beat the Packers?</p>
Post date: Monday, August 20, 2012 - 08:00
All taxonomy terms: AFC, AFC West, Denver Broncos, NFL
Path: /nfl/denver-broncos-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 Denver Broncos check in at No. 11.

Now what? Sure, the Broncos will be the NFL’s most intriguing team in 2012, but will they be among the league’s best teams? For all his parallel-universe talents, Peyton Manning is 36 years old, coming off four surgical procedures on his neck, and hasn’t played in a game in more than a year-and-a-half. Not only that, but he’ll also have to adjust to a new city, a new coaching staff and new teammates. And you thought his successor in Indy, Andrew Luck, was in for a challenge.

Know this before the answers start arriving: The Broncos with Manning under center won’t simply be trying to win the AFC West again. And they’re not just trying to make a deep postseason run. Their goal is simple: Win a Super Bowl.

But before entertaining any such notions, there’s the little matter of re-inventing themselves. The Broncos of Tim Tebow ran an offense more suited for Saturday afternoons, not Sundays.
So what will happen? If Manning, as advertised, makes his teammates better, and if the Denver defense stays healthy and takes another step forward, the Broncos may not merely create a buzz. They may just live up to the hype. 

Offense

Before ever stepping on the field, Manning provided some critical intangibles for his teammates. The team’s receiving corps had grown discouraged by the end of last season, with Tebow making no progress with his accuracy. Manning’s presence has created a new energy, a new confidence among the receivers, none of whom has more than 124 career catches — a good season for Marvin Harrison back in the day. If Demaryius Thomas ever is going to be the player his physical stature suggests, Manning will get it out of him.

Another major change in the Broncos’ M.O.: Manning, unlike Tebow, will attack the entire field. Slot receiver Eric Decker did a virtual disappearing act as 2011 wore on, what with Tebow refusing to risk an interception by throwing the ball over the middle. The Broncos signed tight ends Joel Dreessen and Jacob Tamme to remedy that issue. Yes, the same Jacob Tamme who caught 67 balls from Manning in 2010 in the absence of Dallas Clark. The Broncos also reunited with Manning with another former Colts' teammate of his, Brandon Stokely. The veteran had his best season in 2004, when he caught 68 passes from Manning for 1,077 yards and 10 touchdowns.

Broncos running backs were no factor in the passing game last season, but that, too, figures to change with Manning around. Willis McGahee had a Pro Bowl season, but he’ll be pushed by third-rounder Ronnie Hillman, who could be a force catching the ball in open space. And who knows? With Manning changing the dynamic of the offense, maybe there’s hope yet for 2009 first-round pick Knowshon Moreno.

The offensive line will benefit from Manning’s savvy presence in the pocket, but the coaching staff obviously wants a higher level of performance from that group. To wit: The Broncos were on the verge of drafting Stanford guard David DeCastro with the 25th pick, only to have the Steelers grab him one pick earlier. Incumbent left guard Zane Beadles will be pushed, as will center J.D. Walton. On the right side, guard Chris Kuper is looking to rebound from a horrific ankle injury, and second-year tackle Orlando Franklin will have to make great strides in his pass-blocking. Some of Franklin’s shortcomings were disguised by Tebow’s ability to escape the pocket. Manning, meanwhile, has made a career out of staying there. 

Defense

Manning isn’t the only big-name player who sat out last season but looms large in the Broncos’ plans. Ty Warren, a free agent signee who was injured in training camp last August, could make a major impact at tackle. If Warren, at 31, can team with second-rounder Derek Wolfe to create a formidable inside tandem, it would open up pass-rushing opportunities from the corner, where Elvis Dumervil and 2011 Defensive Rookie of the Year Von Miller could combine for 25-plus sacks.

The Broncos played from behind much of last season, with Tebow pulling a handful of games out of the fire in the waning moments. Things figure to be different this season, just as they were during the Manning era in Indy, when the Colts usually jumped to big leads, then watched as Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis attacked the quarterback. The front office’s decision to use a second-rounder on a quarterback project (Brock Osweiler) cost the defense some badly needed speed, what with Nebraska linebacker Lavonte David, among others, still on the board when Osweiler was selected.

The coaches had hoped to upgrade at middle linebacker, only to re-sign free agent Joe Mays when a better alternative wasn’t available. Another reason for concern at linebacker: D.J. Williams, who’s had a solid if not brilliant career since being selected in the first round in 2004, is facing a six-game suspension for allegedly using performance-enhancing drugs. The team also added veteran Keith Brooking after training camp started.

The Broncos’ secondary will be in for a major reshaping, with future Hall of Famer Brian Dawkins having retired and the coaches having grown weary of right corner Andre Goodman getting burned as quarterbacks avoided Champ Bailey. Goodman was cut, leaving free agent signee Tracy Porter, he of the pick-six vs. Manning in Super Bowl XLIV, to face that pressure. The safeties loom as major question marks. Mike Adams was signed away from the Browns to be a stopgap, but he may have to be the answer at free safety given 2011 second-rounder Rahim Moore’s struggles. Former Jet Jim Leonhard, who has ended each of the last two seasons on injured reserve, was signed after Quinton Carter went down with a knee injury early in training camp.

Head coach John Fox was able to hire Jack Del Rio as his defensive coordinator after Dennis Allen left to join the Raiders. Del Rio had his pick of jobs but chose the Broncos because of his longstanding relationship with Fox. Del Rio was Fox’s first coordinator with the Panthers in 2002 before becoming head coach of the Jaguars. 

Specialists

The altitude provides extra opportunities for long-range bombing, and kicker Matt Prater knows the drill. He has hit 12-of-16 field goals of 50-plus yards, including a 59-yarder with three seconds left that sent last year’s Chicago game into overtime, whereupon he won it with a 51-yarder. Punter Britton Colquitt’s numbers speak for themselves: 47.4 yards per kick, with one-third landing inside the 20. Decker, the primary punt returner, struggled with injuries in college and early in his NFL career, but he appears to be good to go in 2012. He had a 90-yard return for a touchdown against the Raiders in 2011. Former practice squader Matt Willis has the requisite burst to make the kickoff return team dangerous.

Final Analysis: 1st in the AFC West

While all eyes will be on Manning, the Broncos are quietly excited about the prospect of Dumervil and Miller being in attack mode off the corner. Both battled through injuries in 2011 but were still productive. If they stay healthy, the Broncos could recreate the formula that made the Colts so successful during the Manning era. It’s all on Manning to turn the Broncos’ no-name receivers into stars.

Related: 2012 Denver Broncos Schedule Analysis

Outside The Huddle

Home, Sweet Home
Peyton Manning knew the question was coming: Where are you living now that you’ve packed up your bags, your legacy and your four MVP trophies and relocated to Colorado? Said Manning in the weeks following his signing with the Broncos: “I live here.” As in the Broncos’ suburban Denver headquarters. Manning spent roughly 12 hours a day at the facility for weeks on end working out, reviewing tape and consulting with coaches.

Thanks, Shanny
Mike Shanahan is long gone from the Broncos, but he still has a soft spot in his heart for his old team. To wit: Manning, before he found a home, spent a considerable amount of time living in Shanahan’s 38,000 square-foot mansion in Cherry Hills, where John Elway has lived for more than 20 years. Shanahan entertained Manning at his home during Manning’s recruiting trip to Denver. As the two talked about Manning possibly becoming a Redskin, Shanahan received a text from Elway asking him to put in a good word for the Broncos.

Third Is The Word
Elway, back in the day: “This league is all about third down.” The Broncos’ inability to make plays in the passing game on third down may have been the biggest factor of all in Elway’s decision to jettison Tim Tebow. Denver in 2011 ranked 30th in the league, converting only 30.8 percent. Manning, meanwhile, may be the greatest third down passer ever. The Colts with him under center led the league in third down conversions every year from 2005-09.

Prime-time, Here They Come
The first thing Champ Bailey noticed after glancing at the Broncos’ schedule? The night games. The Men of Manning have five prime-time games on their schedule. The Broncos open at home with a Sunday nighter vs. Pittsburgh followed by a Monday night roadie against the Falcons. Add the Texans to the mix in Week 3, and Manning and his new teammates will be challenged from the season’s earliest moments.

Manning Crush
Yep, that was Manning spotted in the stands at Coors Field last spring. Manning is a huge Rockies fan and has spent countless nights at Todd Helton’s ranch on the outskirts of metro Denver. Helton preceded Manning at quarterback at the University of Tennessee. Manning has taken batting practice with the Rox and spent time rehabbing his neck at Coors Field during the NFL lockout of 2011.

Dogg Days
Rookie running back Ronnie Hillman played youth football in Long Beach, Calif. His coach during those days? Rapper Snoop Dogg.

Hold Off On Those Parade Plans
Not to, you know, rain on the Broncos’ parade, but this notion that they’re the stuff of a Super Bowl contender now that Peyton Manning is among them? Manning, for all his greatness, is 9–10 in the playoffs.

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. 11: Mon., August 19, 2012

Order your 2012 Denver Broncos Athlon Sports NFL Preview magazine here

Related: 2012 Denver Broncos Schedule Analysis

Teaser:
<p> Denver Broncos 2012 NFL Team Preview</p>
Post date: Friday, August 17, 2012 - 11:00
Path: /college-football/college-football-pac-12s-must-see-games-2012
Body:

As the college football season draws near, Athlon Sports is making sure fans know exactly when and where to tune in this fall. Here are the Pac-12's top 30 must-see football games for the 2012 season:

1. 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.

2. 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.

3. 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.

4. 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.

5. 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.

6. 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.

7. Week 7 (Oct. 13) USC at Washington
The Huskies feel like a team that will spoil at least one season. While Washington may not be ready to enter the championship fray, Steve Sarkisian has them poised to take the next step. A home win over USC would be the marquee win on his resume to date. It will be a tall task, however, as the Dawgs have to face Stanford, Oregon and then USC on consecutive weeks. This was a 40-17 romp by the Trojans last fall in Los Angeles.

8. Week 6 (Oct. 6) Washington at Oregon
The Huskies own the all-time series lead pretty handily, but Oregon has dominated the last decade by winning eight straight in the rivarly. The top two Northwest programs could be the best two teams in the division and a trip to L.A. for a Pac-12 title could be hanging in the balance. That said, the game hasn't been competitive since Washington won back in 2003, so if Coach Sark's bunch wants to continue its rise up the league's hierarchy, it must play better defense against the Ducks.

9. Week 7 (Oct. 13) Stanford at Notre Dame
Notre Dame is an honorary member of the Pac-12 when it comes to scheduling as it faces Stanford and USC each year. The Cardinal won 28-14 last year and will face a much tougher test on the road this fall. The team doctors better get the ice baths ready, however, as the Irish front seven and the Stanford offensive line are set to smash heads for 60 minutes. Moved up six weeks on the schedule from last year, this mid-season test will be a huge game for both teams trying to prove themselves this fall.

10. Week 5 (Sept. 29) Oregon at Washington State (Seattle, Wash.)
The Ducks have won five straight and seven out of eight in the lop-sided North Division battle. The Cougars have shown signs of life of late, however, by scoring 51 points in the last two contests. With Mike Leach stepping into a relatively veteran and stable offense with pieces in place to implement his passing attack, the Cougars' upset chance might come against Oregon. The over/under on total offensive snaps between Chip Kelly and Leach is 180.5.

11. Week 3 (Sept. 15) BYU at Utah
Arguably the best-named rivarly game in all of the nation, fans of the Holy War will need to embrace 2012 because after this meeting, the series will be put on hold for a few years. The Cougars should be solid on offense but will have to play more physical football to defeat the arch-rival Utes.

12. Week 8 (Oct. 20) Stanford at Cal
The Big Game could have some added value this fall as Jeff Tedford needs a big season to stabilize his employment and Stanford tries to replace the next John Elway. The Bears played very well on the road last fall, losing 31-28 in Palo Alto. The Big Game shift across the bay this year.

13. Week 13 (Nov. 23) Washington at Washington State
The Apple Cup is back! Keith Price vs. Jeff Tuel. Steve Sarkisian vs. Mike Leach. Marquess Wilson vs. Kasen Williams and Austin Sefarian-Jenkins. There will be no shortage of big plays, big points and, ideally, rich dramatics. The Huskies have won three straight Evergreen Showdowns.

14. Week 7 (Oct. 13) Utah at UCLA
If either the Utes or Bruins want to (somehow) topple USC off the top slot in the South, winning this game will be imperative. The Utes dominated this game last fall 31-6, but as the game shifts back to Westwood, new coach Jim Mora Jr.'s instilled toughness into his Bruins should make this a tighter affair. Especially, considering the stakes.

15. Week 11 (Nov. 10) Utah at Washington
This game could feature the top two challengers to USC and Oregon in their respective divisions. The Xs and Os battle between Kyle Whittingham and Steve Sarkisian should be fun to watch. The Huskies won 31-14 last fall.

16. Week 10 (Nov. 3) Arizona at UCLA
South Division pecking order game featuring new faces on the sidelines for the Wildcats and Bruins.

17. Week 11 (Nov. 10) Oregon at Cal
Ducks faced toughest test of 2010 regular season when they visited Cal two years ago.

18. Week 9 (Oct. 27) Washington State at Stanford
One of the league's top defenses against what should be one of league's top offenses.

19. Week 7 (Oct. 13) Cal at Washington State
Marquess Wilson vs. Keenan Allen? Yes, please.

20. Week 13 (Nov. 24) Stanford at UCLA
Battle could feature No. 2 in both divisions as well two tough-minded coaches.

21. Week 13 (Nov. 24) Oregon at Oregon State
The Civil War is a wildly underrated rivarly that has been one-sided of late.

22. Week 10 (Nov. 3) Washington State at Utah
Ground and pound with Star defense against high-flying Cougars passing game.

23. Week 10 (Nov. 2) Washington at Cal
Intriguing pecking order game in the North features two excellent passing attacks.

24. Week 2 (Sept. 8) Nebraska at UCLA
Tough, physical test for Bruins at home. A true barometer for both teams.

25. Week 1 (Aug. 30) Washington State at BYU
Big points in Mike Leach debut on Thursday night in primetime.

26. Week 12 (Nov. 17) USC at UCLA
Major SoCal rivarly should be much closer than the 50-0 blowout of last fall.

27. Week 2 (Sept. 8) Washington at LSU
Keith Price will test Honey-less Tigers secondary early in the year. Husky defense isn't ready, however.

28. Week 13 (Nov. 24) Arizona State at Arizona
Nasty in-state rivarly should be competitive after 31-27 affair last year.

29. Week 9 (Oct. 27) Arizona at Utah
The winner could be the top challenger to USC. Utes won 34-21 last fall.

30. Week 8 (Oct. 20) Washington at Arizona
Two fast-tempo offenses in a game with bowl implications should be fun for fans.

Athlon Sports Must-See TV for 2012:

Big 12's Must-See Games of 2012
Big Ten's Must-See Games of 2012
SEC's Must-See Games of 2012

-by Braden Gall

@bradengall

Athlon Sports Pac-12 Predictions and Team Previews:

North:

1. Oregon Ducks: No. 4
2. Stanford Cardinal: No. 21
3. Washington Huskies: No. 25
4. Cal Golden Bears: No. 38
5. Washington State Cougars: No. 51
6. Oregon State Beavers: No. 61

South:

1. USC Trojans: No. 1
2. Utah Utes: No. 33
3. UCLA Bruins: No. 42
4. Arizona Wildcats: No. 43
5. Arizona State Sun Devils: No. 55
6. Colorado Buffaloes: No. 84

Teaser:
<p> College Football: Pac-12's Must-See Games of 2012</p>
Post date: Friday, August 17, 2012 - 09:00
All taxonomy terms: AFC, AFC West, Denver Broncos, NFL
Path: /nfl/denver-broncos-can-peyton-manning-win-afc-west
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: Should Peyton Manning play all 16 games in 2012, will the Denver Broncos win the AFC West?

Jim Armstrong (ESPN Radio-Denver):
Yes, with an asterisk. As in, if they survive the early stages of their schedule. The league wants Manning on the national stage against prime-time opponents, and the Broncos' first two games will be Sunday night vs. Pittsburgh, followed by a Monday nighter at Atlanta. They then return to Denver on a short week to play the Texans. Add in roadies vs. New England and San Diego in Weeks 5 and 6, and a .500 record going into their Week 7 bye wouldn't be the worst thing in the world. That said, there's no reason -- none -- to think that Manning won't be a reasonable facsimile of his old self. The coaches, however, are adamant about not putting him under the kind of pressure he felt in 2010 with a Colts team whose core talent had started to slip. He led the league with 450 completions and 679 attempts that season. Given his physical history in the past year, having him stand in the pocket that often isn't good business. Finally, there's the issue of the AFC West. If the Broncos are indeed .500 going into their bye week, they ought to be in good shape in arguably the league's worst division.

Rob Doster (Athlon Sports):
One man stands between Peyton Manning and an AFC West title in his maiden voyage in orange and blue: Philip Rivers. A bounce-back season from Rivers in the form of even slightly better ball security should give the Chargers the crown in a weak division. Manning simply doesn’t have the weapons around him that Rivers does. In particular, I’m reluctant to put much faith in an aging Willis McGahee as a featured back. Remember — Denver’s top-ranked running game of a year ago was built around a guy who’s wearing green this year. I prefer my featured backs to be of a younger vintage, and if Ryan Mathews delivers like I think he will, the San Diego offense will be unstoppable. Manning’s return is a great story, but the payoff won’t match the hype, even if he plays all 16 games.

Kim Constantinesco (PredominantlyOrange.com and @PredomOrange):
Without a doubt, the Broncos will win the AFC West if Peyton Manning starts all 16 games. Many people question his arm strength after sitting out an entire year and enduring more neck surgeries. The funny thing is in '09-'10 when Manning attempted to throw from beyond 21 yards, he had just a 30.5% completion percentage. That was the same year that he had 4,500 passing yards. What that means is if Manning never regains his arm strength, he can still be effective. Manning is not only the best quarterback in the division, but he's the player that has the most control. Rather than playing from behind, the Broncos will most likely be playing from ahead which enables them to use a more aggressive defense. Manning's presence changes all aspects of the team game. That's why he will make such a dramatic impact on the division.

Nathan Rush (Athlon Sports):
Peyton Manning is 36 years old, recovering from (at least) four neck surgeries and hasn't played a game since Jan. 8, 2011. Still, everyone is treating him as if he's some sort of quarterbacking robot; tighten a few screws, wind him up and watch him play 16 games in his first season with the Denver Broncos. I hope so, but it's not a realistic expectation and I'm not banking on it. Even if he does stay healthy, he has to work his way back into top form while adjusting to a new supporting cast. Give me the San Diego Chargers, a squad that has clinched four of the last six AFC West titles. The Bolts are led by a 30-year-old Philip Rivers — who hasn't missed a game since taking over for Drew Brees in 2006 — and a coach, in Norv Turner, who is in do-or-die mode. 

Mark Ross (Athlon Sports):
If Peyton can prove he's healthy then I think Denver is the team to beat in the AFC West. However, that's a rather large IF. And the reality is we won't really know until we see No. 18 back under center. This is pretty much the same Broncos' team that won the division last year, with one key exception. Tim Tebow is now with the Jets and Manning is with the Broncos. No one can argue that Manning is a significant upgrade over Tebow when it comes to the quarterback position, but there's still the matter of Manning making the transition to his new team and vice versa. Denver's young defense should continue to get better, but in the end it's all going to come down to Manning. After all, the Broncos' backup quarterbacks are Caleb Hanie and rookie Brock Osweiler, meaning there is no Plan B. 

Braden Gall (@BradenGall):
This division feels, much like last year, wide open in 2012. The Raiders should be improved but are breaking in a new coaching staff. The Chiefs can only be better — and healthier this time around. And the Chargers are still loaded with talent after another solid draft class. But Denver swapped Tim Tebow for arguably the top quarterback of this generation. John Fox has always been a run-first coach and one of the league's top offensive lines will help ease the now-brittle Peyton Manning back into action. The first half of the schedule is brutal but the power running game and developing defense should keep the Broncos in the AFC West race. So I will say yes, if Manning plays the entire year, Denver will win the West. That, and I have no faith in Norv Turner and A.J. Smith winning any sort of championship.

Patrick Snow (@AthlonSnowman):
I think the answer is yes, but barely. Peyton Manning, rusty or not, will be an effective quarterback if he plays the entire season. Improving a run defense that ranked 22nd in the NFL last year, an aging Willis McGahee and a brutal first half of the schedule are much bigger concerns for the Broncos' success in 2012. There is a good chance that Manning and the offense get off to a slow start, and the defense must adjust to new coordinator Jack Del Rio. But if the Broncos can survive (4-4, 3-5?) their first eight games in which there are six playoff teams from last year, then Denver should be the favorite in a division that can be had with eight or nine wins. San Diego has a solid roster and Kansas City gets some stars back from injury, but the Broncos should take the AFC West with a healthy No. 18.

Teaser:
<p> Denver Broncos: Can Peyton Manning Win the AFC West?</p>
Post date: Friday, August 17, 2012 - 07:00
Path: /college-football/college-football-secs-must-see-games-2012
Body:

As the college football season draws near, Athlon Sports is making sure fans know exactly when and where to tune in this fall. Here are the SEC's top 40 must-see football games for the 2012 season:

1. 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.

2. 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.

3. 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.

4. 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.

5. 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.

6. 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.

7. 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.

8. 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.

9. 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.

10. 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.

11. Week 11 (Nov. 10) Arkansas at South Carolina
This series has been heavily one-sided over the last few years. Arkansas has won three straight in a big way (118-64) and has won five of the last six overall. This is Carolina's best chance to end the current streak as it welcomes the Hogs to Columbia. The Gamecocks' pass rush and front seven is going to pressure Tyler Wilson and Knile Davis and gives Steve Spurrier his best chance at a win over Arkansas since 2008.  

12. Week 1 (Sept. 1) Auburn vs. Clemson (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.

13. Week 2 (Sept. 8) Georgia at Missouri
Columbia won’t be the same as College Station, but fans have to expect a raucous atmosphere in the newly touched-up Faurot Field. That said, Mizzou has a more explosive offense than Texas A&M and will be facing the East favorites, who will be short-handed due to suspensions. Georgia needs to be on upset alert in Week 2.

14. Week 5 (Sept. 29) Arkansas at Texas A&M
This game should need no introduction. The second-half collapse last fall by the Aggies was one in a season filled with late-game gagging. Tyler Wilson threw for 510 yards and scored 25 points in the second half after trailing 35-17 at halftime in Cowboys Stadium. There will be no neutral field, however, this year as the game goes home-and-home for the next two years.

15. 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. The last three years have seen South Carolina stake a major claim to in-state supremacy and none 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.

16. Week 1 (Aug. 31) Tennessee vs. NC State (Atlanta, Ga.)
This will be an excellent barometer game for both programs. If NC State wants to compete in the ACC, a win over Tennessee will send a shot across the bow of Florida State and Clemson. The Vols, and more specifically Derek Dooley, need to get 2012 started well, possibly more than any other SEC team. Two great QBs, Amerson vs. Hunter and the Georgia Dome? What more can you ask for?

17. Week 7 (Oct. 13) South Carolina at LSU
LSU has a commanding 16-2-1 series lead and 1994 was the last time the Gamecocks defeated the Tigers. While Carolina has a shot at the SEC title game — and a potential rematch with the Bayou Bengals — a win over LSU on the road in October feels like a stretch.

18. Week 8 (Oct. 20) Alabama at Tennessee
The Third Saturday in October hasn’t had the same luster as it had in days of yore, but if the Vols are improved like many believe, the drama of the 2009 meeting could easily be recreated in Knoxville this fall.

19. Week 2 (Sept. 8) Florida at Texas A&M
The first SEC home game for the Aggies and the 12th Man is going to be downright nuts. The gameday atmosphere in College Station needs no help, but adding SEC implications and the Florida Gators makes Kyle Field on Sept. 8 must-see TV.

20. Week 1 (Aug. 30) South Carolina at Vanderbilt
The season opener for both — not just for the SEC, but for the college football world — will feature Marcus Lattimore, Steve Spurrier and James Franklin (as well as what is easily the best SEC city). One of these two will be 1-0 in conference before every other SEC team even plays its first game of the year. The other will have a conference loss before the first Saturday of the year. No pressure, Commodores!

21. Week 6 (Oct. 6) Arkansas at Auburn
The Hogs dominated their home games a year ago and Auburn was one of the many victims. Tyler Wilson threw for 262 yards while the ground game rolled-up 176 yards and three scores in the 38-14 win. That said, Auburn posted 292 yards on the ground, further highlighting the Razorbacks' defensive issues.

22. Week 13 (Nov. 24) Florida at Florida State
This rivalry certainly hasn't had the luster it once did back in the late '90s, but there is still plenty on the line when these two powerhouses get together in the regular-season finale. After the Gators won six straight in the series, the Noles have reclaimed Sunshine State supremacy in a big way the last two seasons with two dominating performances. The Gators have scored 14 total points in the last two games and scoring will once again be difficult.

23. Week 5 (Sept. 29) Tennessee at Georgia
These historic SEC programs haven’t seen too many close finishes of late with six of the last seven featuring double-digit point differentials. Georgia has won three out of four in the series, but the Vols are 2-2 in their last four trips to Athens. This is a game the Dawgs have to win.

24. Week 4 (Sept. 22) LSU at Auburn
The Bayou Bengals have won four of the last five meetings, including the memorable 24-17 battle on the Plains two years ago. It was the last time LSU visited Auburn and this time a national title could be on the line for the other Tigers.

25. Week 8 (Oct. 20) LSU at Texas A&M
These two old rivals used to play all the time until the series ended in the mid-90s. It was renewed in 2010 when they met in a 41-24 Cotton Bowl win for LSU. Now, the rivalry is back on track in a very different way — with SEC conference standings on the line. 

26. Week 9 (Oct. 27) Tennessee at South Carolina
Always fun when Big Orange nation battles with Steve Spurrier. Brutal road test for UT.

27. Week 13 (Nov. 24) Georgia Tech at Georgia
Easily the best named rivarly in college football: Clean, Old-Fashioned Hate.

28. Week 12 (Nov. 17) Tennessee at Vanderbilt
In-state rivarly is heating up to a rolling boil where bowl rights and recruiting trail storylines abound.

29. Week 11 (Nov. 10) Missouri at Tennessee
Few stadiums Mizzou has ever played in will match the experience of Neyland, and that's before you consider the potential bowl implications. 

30. Week 11 (Nov. 10) Georgia at Auburn
The oldest running rivalry in the South produced a lopsided 45-7 UGA destruction of the Tigers last season.

31. Week 7 (Oct. 13) Alabama at Missouri
The entire city of Columbia will understand what being in the SEC means when the Crimson Tide visits town.

32. Week 4 (Sept. 22) Missouri at South Carolina
Second SEC game, the first on the road, for Mizzou will be even tougher than the debut.

33. Week 10 (Nov. 3) Missouri at Florida
Road trip to brutal SEC venue begins nasty final month for the Tigers.

34. Week 8 (Oct. 20) Auburn at Vanderbilt
Major opporutnity for the Dores to get a signature home win over perennial SEC power.

35. Week 13 (Nov. 24) Missouri at Texas A&M
First ever SEC meeting between two teams that have battled for years in the Big 12.

36. Week 13 (Nov. 24) Mississippi State at Ole Miss
Egg Bowl means very little nationally — but has huge import for Magnolia Staters.

37. Week 7 (Oct. 13) Tennessee at Mississippi State
Key swing game for both teams could mean trip to the postseason for Bulldogs, Vols.

38. Week 9 (Oct. 27) Texas A&M at Auburn
Third meeting all time (1911, 1986) between two teams battling for bowl privileges.

39. Week 6 (Oct. 6) Vanderbilt at Missouri
The Battle for James Franklin bragging rights between head coach and quarterback.

40. Week 4 (Sept. 22) Vanderbilt at Georgia
UGA was lucky to escape West End last fall with a 33-28 win, now gets Dores at home.

Best of the Rest:

41. Week 7 (Oct. 13) Vanderbilt at Florida
42. Week 11 (Nov. 10) Texas A&M at Alabama
43. Week 2 (Sept. 8) Washington at LSU
44. Week 12 (Nov. 17) Arkansas at Mississippi State
45. Week 2 (Sept. 8) Auburn at Mississippi State
46. Week 4 (Sept. 22) Rutgers at Arkansas
47. Week 1 (Sept. 2) Kentucky at Louisville
48. Week 11 (Nov. 10) Mississippi State at LSU
49. Week 13 (Nov. 24) Kentucky at Tennessee
50. Week 9 (Oct. 27) Mississippi State at Alabama

Athlon Sports Must-See TV for 2012:

Big 12's Must-See Games of 2012
Big Ten's Must-See Games of 2012
SEC's Must-See Games of 2012
Pac-12 Must-See Games of 2012 (Fri.)

-by Braden Gall

@bradengall

Athlon Sports SEC Predictions and Team Previews:

West:

1. LSU Tigers: No. 2
2. Alabama Crimson Tide: No. 3
3. Arkansas Razorbacks: No. 13
4. Auburn Tigers: No. 30
5. Texas A&M Aggies: No. 32
6. Mississippi State Bulldogs: No. 47
7. Ole Miss Rebels: No. 71

East:

1. Georgia Bulldogs: No. 8
2. South Carolina Gamecocks: No. 10
3. Florida Gators: No. 26
4. Missouri Tigers: No. 31
5. Tennessee Vols: No. 37
6. Vanderbilt Commodores: No. 41
7. Kentucky Wildcats: No. 75

Teaser:
<p> College Football: SEC's Must-See Games of 2012</p>
Post date: Thursday, August 16, 2012 - 05:20
All taxonomy terms: Big Board, Fantasy, NFL, Fantasy
Path: /nfl/2012-nfl-fantasy-football-rankings-quarterbacks
Body:

The 2012 NFL Fantasy Season is officially here. Mock drafts abound. Rookie round-ups are complete. Bye week cheat sheets are everywhere. The creative juices are flowing with hysterical team names. Positional rankings are popping up everywhere. And the ever-important Athlon Sports 2012 Big Board, the most accurate consensus top 150 list of fantasy footballers on the web, continues to take shape.

New to our Big Board is NFL.com's initial NFL fantasy rankings as we have expanded from seven lists to eight. We also added a "Previous" column to indicate the previous ranking. Athlon, with special help from FantasyRundown.com, will continue to broaden and deepen its trademark consensus Big Board and positional rankings all summer long.

CBS: CBSSports.com (Updated: 7/13/12)
PFF: ProFootballFocus.com (Updated: 6/26/12)
ESPN: ESPN (Updated 6/20/12)
FFT: FFToolbox.com (Updated 7/15/12)
Y!: Yahoo! Sports (Updated 6/23/12)
NFL: NFL.com (2012 Debut)
FOX: FoxSports.com (Updated 5/31/12)
AS: Athlon Sports (Updated 7/1/12)

Updated: 10:00 a.m. CT, July 17, 2012

Athlon Sports Fantasy Football Positional Rankings: Quarterbacks

Rank Previous Top 150 Player: Team CBS PFF ESPN FFT Y! NFL FOX AS
1. 1 4 Aaron Rodgers GB 4 5 4 7 6 2 1 4
2. 2 8 Drew Brees NO 5 17 8 8 11 6 9 8
3. 3 10 Tom Brady NE 10 25 6 9 12 5 5 7
4. 4 12 Cam Newton CAR 14 10 23 11 13 13 8 19
5. 5 15 Matthew Stafford DET 15 42 13 24 19 10 13 11
6. 6 33 Michael Vick PHI 29 13 32 53 43 41 26 47
7. 7 42 Tony Romo DAL 40 35 45 58 53 40 32 41
8. 8 45 Eli Manning NYG 36 53 27 54 50 63 35 42
9. 9 52 Philip Rivers SD 44 61 64 75 59 50 37 43
10. 10 54 Peyton Manning DEN 47 48 49 78 58 59 34 73
11. 11 67 Matt Ryan ATL 52 64 73 66 76 65 60 81
12. 12 73 Ben Roethlisberger PIT 58 86 79 80 62 71 64 71
13. 13 86 Robert Griffin III WAS 82 30 101 - 75 82 79 110
14. 14 91 Matt Schaub HOU 69 - 86 85 111 89 67 94
15. 15 93 Jay Cutler CHI 99 127 99 95 72 97 73 101
16. 16 101 Josh Freeman TB 128 70 104 116 116 101 97 102
17. 17 117 Andy Dalton CIN 116 126 110 110 129 113 109 128
18. 19 119 Carson Palmer OAK 108 110 126 - 122 111 126 104
19. 18 122 Joe Flacco BAL 130 101 122 - 130 133 90 127
20. 21 123 Ryan Fitzpatrick BUF 143 77 137 - 135 122 103 -
21. 20 128 Andrew Luck IND - 92 138 - 136 105 112 -
22. 23 138 Alex Smith SF - 120 107 - - 138 124 -
23. 22 142 Sam Bradford STL 146 - 130 - - 124 104 -
24. 27 Matt Flynn SEA - 128 136 - - 141 149 -
25. 26 Mark Sanchez NYJ - - - - - 129 146 -
26. UR Matt Cassel KC - 129 - - - 149 - -
27. UR Christian Ponder MIN - 130 - - - - - -
28. UR Matt Hasselbeck TEN - - - - - 135 - -
29. 25 Kevin Kolb ARI - - - - - - 142 -

-by Braden Gall

@bradengall

Athlon Sports 2012 NFL Fantasy Content:

Athlon Sports Big Board: Top 150
2012 NFL Fantasy Football Athlon's Top 250
2012 Fantasy Football Mock Draft I
2012 Bye Week Cheat Sheet
Athlon Sports Fantasy Positional Rankings: QBs
Athlon Sports Fantasy Positional Rankings: RBs
Athlon Sports Fantasy Positional Rankings: WRs
Athlon Sports Fantasy Positional Rankings: TEs
Athlon Sports Fantasy Positional Rankings: DLs
Athlon Sports Fantasy Positional Rankings: LBs
Athlon Sports Fantasy Positional Rankings: DBs
Athlon Sports Fantasy Positional Rankings: IDP Top 75

Related: Order your Athlon Sports 2012 NFL Preview Magazine Here

You can preorder your award-winning Athlon Sports NFL Fantasy Football preview magazine here.
Teaser:
<p> 2012 NFL Fantasy Football Rankings: Quarterbacks</p>
Post date: Wednesday, August 15, 2012 - 09:00
All taxonomy terms: Big Board, Fantasy, NFL, Fantasy
Path: /nfl/2012-nfl-fantasy-football-rankings-running-backs
Body:

The 2012 NFL Fantasy Season is officially here. Mock drafts abound. Rookie round-ups are complete. Bye week cheat sheets are everywhere. The creative juices are flowing with hysterical team names. Positional rankings are popping up everywhere. And the ever-important Athlon Sports 2012 Big Board, the most accurate consensus top 150 list of fantasy footballers on the web, continues to take shape.

New to our Big Board is NFL.com's initial NFL fantasy rankings as we have expanded from seven lists to eight. We also added a "Previous" column to indicate the previous ranking. Athlon, with special help from FantasyRundown.com, will continue to broaden and deepen its trademark consensus Big Board and positional rankings all summer long.

CBS: CBSSports.com (Updated: 7/13/12)
PFF: ProFootballFocus.com (Updated: 6/26/12)
ESPN: ESPN (Updated 6/20/12)
FFT: FFToolbox.com (Updated 7/15/12)
Y!: Yahoo! Sports (Updated 6/23/12)
NFL: NFL.com (2012 Debut)
FOX: FoxSports.com (Updated 5/31/12)
AS: Athlon Sports (Updated 7/1/12)

Updated: 9:00 a.m. CT, July 18, 2012

Athlon Sports Fantasy Football Positional Rankings: Running Backs

Rank Previous Top 150 Player: Team CBS PFF ESPN FFT Y! NFL FOX AS
1. 1 1 Arian Foster HOU 1 1 1 1 1 1 2 1
2. 2 2 Ray Rice BAL 2 2 2 2 2 3 3 2
3. 3 3 LeSean McCoy PHI 3 4 3 3 3 4 4 3
4. 4 6 Maurice Jones-Drew JAC 6 11 5 6 7 7 7 6
5. 6 7 Ryan Mathews SD 8 3 12 5 5 9 11 13
6. 5 9 Chris Johnson TEN 9 7 9 10 8 11 10 9
7. 7 14 Darren McFadden OAK 12 27 30 12 16 19 15 14
8. 9 17 Matt Forte CHI 22 33 18 15 15 16 19 12
9. 8 18 Marshawn Lynch SEA 11 37 17 17 18 27 14 15
10. 10 20 DeMarco Murray DAL 18 16 21 18 22 25 18 34
11. 11 24 Trent Richardson CLE 17 29 36 14 9 22 41 33
12. 14 25 Adrian Peterson MIN 27 19 28 21 21 30 36 22
13. 13 26 Jamaal Charles KC 49 23 24 16 25 29 28 17
14. 12 27 Steven Jackson STL 20 21 31 23 37 31 25 36
15. 15 34 Fred Jackson BUF 33 52 34 34 32 44 21 38
16. 16 37 Michael Turner ATL 21 96 37 33 35 43 27 21
17. 17 39 Ahmad Bradshaw NYG 25 41 44 31 45 45 40 46
18. 20 43 Darren Sproles NO 41 56 43 35 40 47 47 44
19. 18 46 Frank Gore SF 62 79 38 44 52 42 31 20
20. 19 47 Reggie Bush MIA 57 47 51 38 42 56 43 45
21. 21 57 Roy Helu WAS 67 87 42 39 61 61 57 48
22. 24 59 Shonn Greene NYJ 66 68 58 50 70 58 63 55
23. 26 60 Doug Martin TB 54 60 83 43 38 54 88 68
24. 23 61 Beanie Wells ARI 43 94 62 46 77 55 61 58
25. 22 63 BenJarvus Green-Ellis CIN 45 115 52 47 65 60 70 54
26. 25 64 Willis McGahee DEN 70 73 50 73 79 62 54 49
27. 27 72 Jonathan Stewart CAR 88 89 54 56 69 68 82 65
28. 28 75 Isaac Redman PIT 77 117 72 67 73 81 75 64
29. 33 78 Jahvid Best DET 101 75 70 91 85 64 77 69
30. 30 79 Donald Brown IND 97 63 95 96 82 92 80 75
31. 31 81 Mark Ingram NO 113 102 78 90 92 69 87 51
32. 29 82 DeAngelo Williams CAR 100 - 67 74 78 80 72 66
33. 32 83 James Starks GB 96 81 92 60 90 85 99 88
34. 34 85 C.J. Spiller BUF 89 83 81 79 89 88 115 78
35. 36 90 Peyton Hillis KC 86 99 88 98 88 94 107 90
36. 35 95 Michael Bush CHI 95 - 76 84 97 87 86 93
37. 37 99 Stevan Ridley NE 84 123 75 - 101 75 100 76
38. 39 100 Ben Tate HOU 107 - 65 119 94 95 102 77
39. 40 104 Toby Gerhart MIN 94 - 90 105 117 93 117 89
40. 38 105 LeGarrette Blount TB 103 109 121 117 119 120 76 100
41. 42 111 Pierre Thomas NO 105 107 119 132 107 108 105 130
42. 43 112 David Wilson NYG 127 125 97 134 105 98 139 91
43. 41 113 Mikel Leshoure DET 79 - - 115 96 106 110 116
44. 45 118 Felix Jones DAL 110 112 102 - 127 121 113 114
45. 44 131 Daniel Thomas MIA 131 - 111 - 133 143 101 129
46. 46 133 Ryan Williams ARI 115 - - 136 112 147 128 117
47. 47 134 Shane Vereen NE 125 - - 114 123 131 138 133
48. 49 136 Ronnie Hillman DEN 122 104 - 131 113 - - -
49. 51 137 Bernard Scott CIN 140 121 116 - - 137 - 115
50. 48 143 Mike Tolbert CAR 129 - 127 - 142 - 132 131
51. 53 Rashard Mendenhall PIT 132 - - - 148 127 147 135
52. 50 Tim Hightower WAS - - - - 125 128 - 136
53. 55 Mike Goodson OAK 120 - 143 - 141 - - 143
54. 54 Joseph Addai NE - - 100 - - - - -
55. 56 Jacquizz Rodgers ATL - - - - 106 - - 149
56. 62 Joe McKnight NYJ - 118 - - - - - -
57. 60 Cedric Benson FA - - - - - - 133 139
58. 58 Evan Royster WAS 138 - - - - - 143 -
59. 52 Brandon Jacobs SF - - - - - - 135 -
60. 57 Rashad Jennings JAC - - - - - - - 137
61. 61 Isaiah Pead STL - - - - 150 - - 140
62. 63 Kevin Smith DET - - 141 - 149 - - -
63. 67 Javon Ringer TEN - - - - - - - 144
64. UR Jonathan Dwyer PIT - - 145 - - - - -
65. 68 Kendall Hunter SF - - - - - - 148 -

-by Braden Gall

@bradengall

Athlon Sports 2012 NFL Fantasy Content:

Athlon Sports Big Board: Top 150
2012 NFL Fantasy Football Athlon's Top 250
2012 Fantasy Football Mock Draft I
2012 Bye Week Cheat Sheet
Athlon Sports Fantasy Positional Rankings: QBs
Athlon Sports Fantasy Positional Rankings: RBs
Athlon Sports Fantasy Positional Rankings: WRs
Athlon Sports Fantasy Positional Rankings: TEs
Athlon Sports Fantasy Positional Rankings: DLs
Athlon Sports Fantasy Positional Rankings: LBs
Athlon Sports Fantasy Positional Rankings: DBs
Athlon Sports Fantasy Positional Rankings: IDP Top 75

Related: Order your Athlon Sports 2012 NFL Preview Magazine Here

You can preorder your award-winning Athlon Sports NFL Fantasy Football preview magazine here.
Teaser:
<p> 2012 NFL Fantasy Football Rankings: Running Backs</p>
Post date: Wednesday, August 15, 2012 - 09:00
All taxonomy terms: New Orleans Saints, NFC, NFC South, NFL
Path: /nfl/new-orleans-saints-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 New Orleans Saints check in at No. 13.

Don’t count out the Saints. They might be down after the NFL bounty scandal, but they’re far from out of the race to the NFC championship. Over the years, the Saints have shown a remarkable resiliency under head coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees. Whether it is a hurricane relocation or freak midseason injury to Payton, they have thrived in adverse situations.

The Saints will play the entire 2012 season without Payton and linebacker Jonathan Vilma, and GM Mickey Loomis, assistant head coach/linebackers coach Joe Vitt and defensive end Will Smith are each facing multi-game suspensions for their involvement in the bounty probe. What effect their losses have on Sundays remains to be seen. But it seems certain the Saints will have to rely on Brees and the league’s most prolific offense more than ever this season.

Offense

The league’s No. 1 offense was unfazed by the bounty sanctions, which is bad news for NFL defenses. The Saints attack opponents at all levels of their defense and are adept at exploiting weaknesses with an aggressive multi-faceted system that relies heavily on Brees’ superior decision-making and uncanny accuracy. His pocket awareness, anticipation and mobility make him one of the most difficult sacks in the league. At 33, he’s in his prime, has few weaknesses and has shown no signs of slowing down.

The addition of running back Darren Sproles and the emergence of tight end Jimmy Graham took the passing attack to another level last season. Graham follows in the footsteps of Tony Gonzalez and Antonio Gates as former college basketball power forwards turned star NFL tight ends. Graham creates mismatches with his 6'7" frame and 37-inch vertical leap.

The Saints’ receiving corps has a little bit of everything. Marques Colston is the go-to guy on third down and in the red zone. He has excellent size, hands and body control. Lance Moore uses savvy and superior quickness to beat defenders and find seams in zones on underneath and intermediate routes. Devery Henderson’s deep threat role has diminished in recent years, but he can still deliver a big performance if defenses ignore him. The primary candidates to replace Robert Meachem are Adrian Arrington, Joseph Morgan and Nick Toon.

The Saints’ stable of running backs is deep and talented even though they rarely get to showcase their skills in the pass-happy system. Sproles fit seamlessly into Reggie Bush’s satellite back role and made fans quickly forget about the one-time franchise savior. Injuries derailed Mark Ingram’s rookie season. When he played, he showed flashes of his Heisman Trophy skills. His rare blend of agility, power and balance make him a yards-after-contact machine. He appears primed for a breakout season. Hulking Chris Ivory provides the power between the tackles and will continue to play the closer role in the fourth quarter. Pierre Thomas is the jack-of-all-trades back. He’s one of the best screen receiver/runners in the business and another Brees favorite.

The offensive line continues to be a strength, led by powerful All-Pro guard Jahri Evans. Ben Grubbs replaces Carl Nicks at left guard. Former journeyman Brian de la Puente outplayed veteran Olin Kreutz and Matt Tennant to win the starting center job last season. Left tackle Jermon Bushrod and right tackle Zach Strief ably man the flanks. 

Defense

The 2009 season, in which the Saints ranked among the league leaders in takeaways, is starting to look like an outlier. Before and after, the Saints have ranked among the league’s worst in total yards allowed (24th) and takeaways (31st). The lack of production is puzzling considering the talent on hand.

Consequently, Steve Spagnuolo became the third defensive coordinator in Payton’s six-year tenure. Spagnuolo is expected to continue the high-pressure system predecessor Gregg Williams ran for the previous three seasons, albeit out of more conventional sets and alignments.

His first order of business will be to improve the club’s perennially tepid pass rush, and he’ll have to do it without his best pass-rusher, Smith, for the first four games. Smith remains a solid player and sound against the run, but he has lost his burst off the edge. At right end, the staff hopes Cameron Jordan can take a step forward after a solid-but-unspectacular rookie year. He lacks the explosiveness to be an elite pass-rusher. Junior Galette has the speed and burst Jordan lacks but must develop other skills and techniques to be an effective rusher at this level.

The linebacker corps was overhauled in the offseason. Three veterans with starting experience — Curtis Lofton, David Hawthorne and Chris Chamberlain — were signed in free agency to bolster a unit that has struggled to make many sacks, interceptions or fumble recoveries in recent years. Lofton will replace Vilma in the middle. He’s bigger, younger and healthier than Vilma but isn’t as instinctive or as adept in coverage. Hawthorne, a big hitter who can play all three linebacker spots, will compete with Jon Casillas and Chamberlain on the weak side. Veteran Scott Shanle and Martez Wilson will compete on the strong side. Wilson has the size and athleticism the unit has lacked in recent years.

The secondary is talented and experienced but lacks quality depth. Cornerbacks Jabari Greer and Patrick Robinson should excel in Spagnuolo’s press coverage. Robinson should be an upgrade over Tracy Porter, whose performance tailed off because of injuries the past two seasons. Former third-round pick Johnny Patrick, a tough, physical player the coaches like, has the inside track at the nickel spot. Roman Harper is a classic in-the-box strong safety. He’s one of the instinctive playmakers on the unit but can be exploited when opponents catch him in man-to-man coverage. Malcolm Jenkins has not met high expectations since converting to free safety from cornerback. 

Specialists

Once a weakness, the Saints’ special teams made significant improvements in several areas last season. Punter/kickoff specialist Thomas Morstead owns one of biggest legs in the game. The elusive Sproles handles punt and kickoff return duties with equal effectiveness. In addition to his game-breaking running skills, he’s a sound ball-handler and decision-maker. Coverage units were improved thanks to an influx of young defensive talent. The lone question mark is placekicker Garrett Hartley, who is coming off a season-ending hip injury.

Final Analysis: 2nd in the NFC South

Brees and the high-flying offense are good enough to carry the club to another division title. But the Saints need the defense to play more consistently and produce more big plays if the club hopes to become the first team to play in the Super Bowl on its home field. The Saints have a veteran team and are built to win now, but their leadership will be challenged early. The losses of Payton, Vitt, Vilma and Smith will be tough to overcome, but they are manageable for a team as talented and experienced as the Saints. Their status as playoff contenders remains unchanged. A fourth consecutive double-digit win season is achievable.

Related: 2012 New Orleans Saints Schedule Analysis

Outside The Huddle

Suspensions
The impact of the bounty scandal on the Saints’ personnel might be tough to sort through. Here’s a rundown of who was punished by the NFL: Head coach Sean Payton and linebacker Jonathan Vilma are suspended for the season. General Manager Mickey Loomis is suspended for the first eight games. Assistant head coach/linebacker coach Joe Vitt will be suspended for the first six games of the season and will be the interim head coach upon his return on Oct. 28 at Denver. Offensive line coach Aaron Kromer will be the head coach in place of Vitt through the first six games. Payton’s suspension began before the NFL Draft in April, while the suspensions for Loomis and Vitt will begin following the preseason. Vilma was not the only player suspended, but he faces the harshest punishment. Current Saints defensive end Will Smith (four games) and former Saints defensive end Anthony Hargrove (eight games, now with Green Bay) and linebacker Scott Fujita (three games, now with Cleveland) also face suspension to start the season. Former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, who was hired by St. Louis before the bounty system was revealed, is suspended indefinitely.

Famous Friend
Payton has cultivated a number of celebrity friends during his tenure as Saints coach. Among them: Jimmy Buffett, who showed his support for the embattled head coach during the offseason, appearing at a Final Four concert in a “Free Sean Payton” T-shirt. At his Jazz Festival show in May, he tweaked the lyrics to his hit “Margaritaville”: “Some people say that Sean Payton’s to blame, but I know, it’s all Roger Goodell’s fault.”

Double Dip
It was a busy offseason for 85-year-old owner Tom Benson, who shocked everyone by purchasing the NBA’s New Orleans Hornets in April. Benson is the only person to own an NBA and NFL team in the same market. His first order of business is to re-brand the team. Among other things, Benson wants a more colloquial nickname.

Pastor Jed
Center Brian de la Puente and fullback Jed Collins are tight friends. How tight? Collins became a licensed minister and officiated the wedding ceremony for de la Puente and his wife Makenzie in 2011.

Off The Clock
The Saints didn’t have a first- or second-round draft choice for the first time in history. They traded their first-round pick in the 2011 draft to New England in a deal to acquire Mark Ingram. This year’s second-round pick was stripped by commissioner Roger Goodell in the bounty scandal.

Offensive Explosion
The Saints set 10 NFL records during their 2011 season, all on offense. Among them: Most yards (7,474), net passing yards (5,347), highest passing percentage (71.3), pass completions (472), first downs (416), passing first downs (280), fewest fumbles (six) and third down conversion rate (56.7 percent).

Good Fit
Guard Ben Grubbs was acquired to replace Carl Nicks as the starter at left guard. Grubbs has the bulk and lower-body strength to anchor the interior wall in pass protection yet is athletic enough to pull on traps and screens, two staples of Sean Payton’s offense.

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: Thur., August 15, 2012

Order your 2012 New Orleans Saints Athlon Sports NFL Preview magazine here

Related: 2012 New Orleans Saints Schedule Analysis

Teaser:
<p> New Orleans Saints 2012 NFL Team Preview</p>
Post date: Wednesday, August 15, 2012 - 08:00
Path: /college-football/college-football-top-25-heisman-contenders-2012
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The Heisman Trophy may be the most coveted trophy in all of sports.

Ten of the last 11 winners of this priceless award have been quarterbacks. And since 1950, only one time has a non-offensive skill player — e.g., quarterback, running back or wide receiver — claimed the historic award (Charles Woodson, 1997). Yes, the quarterback is the most important position on the field. Yes, few players touch the ball more than a workhorse running back. But just because big uglies, heavy-hitters and pass rushers don't often get the famed trip to Radio City Music Hall in New York City, it doesn't mean they don't deserve it.

So expect to see more than just signal callers, pass-catchers and tailbacks on Athlon Sports' conference-by-conference Heisman Contenders.

2012's Top 25 Heisman Trophy Contenders:

1. Matt Barkley, QB, USC (SR)
2011 Stats: 3,528 yds, 39 TD, 7 INT, 14 rush yds, 2 TD
No one in their right mind can make the case that Matt Barkley isn’t the First-Team All-American quarterback and top Heisman contender nationally. If someone else has someone else atop their Heisman ballot, they are simply being cute. He has the records, the stats, the Golden Boy image, the preseason No. 1 team in the nation and a plethora of talented skill players to work with. In fact, the only negative Heisman pundits can lob at Barkley is, in fact, that he is the clearcut Heisman favorite. When was the last time the obvious preseason stiff-armed favorite actually won the award? Bueller?

2. Denard Robinson, QB, Michigan (SR)
2011 Stats: 2,173 yds, 20 TD, 15 INT, 1,176 rush yds, 16 TD
There is no player in a better Heisman situation in the Big Ten than Robinson, but because Montee Ball was so unstoppable a year ago, they are essentially 1a and 1b in the Big Ten. Shoelace has the NCAA records, the electric, big-play, highlight-reel skills needed to enthrall voters, a better chance at a Big Ten title, has multiple national showcase games in and out of conference and plays the all-important quarterback position (11 of last 12 winners). If he can stay healthy, he has an excellent chance to be sitting next to Barkley in New York come December. Some improved efficiency and a win over Alabama, of course, wouldn't hurt.

3. Marcus Lattimore, RB, South Carolina (JR)
2011 Stats: 818 yds, 10 TD, 19 rec., 182 yds, TD (7 games)
If healthy, there is no running back in the nation with more physical talent than the Gamecock junior. The per-game averages are astounding for No. 21 and there is no reason to think he won’t maintain his elite level of production behind one of the better O-Lines in the SEC. He has averaged over 100 yards rushing and has scored 30 total touchdowns in 20 career games. Lattimore can move the pile with power, can get to the edge with speed and will make defenders look silly trying to cover him in the passing game. He has averaged an absurd 130.5 yards from scrimmage for his career and has topped 170 yards rushing five times in 20 games. He has missed time in both seasons because of injury, mostly due to his incredibly physical running style, and he was held back in spring ball this year. However, Lattimore appears ready to lead the Gamecocks in 2012 and, needless to say, he is the complete package in the backfield.

4. Montee Ball, RB, Wisconsin (SR)
2011 Stats: 1,923 yds, 33 TD, 24 rec., 306 yds, 6 TD
It is nearly impossible to argue with Ball’s production, but the 2012 Badgers are not going to be the same team that set school records for scoring two years in a row. Gone is uber-leader Russell Wilson, offensive genius Paul Chryst and three first-team All-Big Ten blockers. Ball will still post big numbers this fall, but a 1,600-yard, 16-TD season will pale in comparison to his 2011 output — and might not get him back to New York. At least, not without another Big Ten title ring on his finger.

5. Geno Smith, QB, West Virginia (SR)
2011 Stats: 4,385 yds, 31 TD, 7 INT, 2 rush TD
The list of accolades for the Mountaineers' starting quarterback is already long and distinguished, yet he might be ready to add the most important award in college sports. He led the Big East in passer efficiency and total offense a year ago — finishing eighth nationally at 334.8 yards per game. His 4,385 passing yards were a school record and he might possess the strongest throwing arm in the nation. With a deep and talented skill corps and play calling from offensive wizard Dana Holgorsen, Smith has a great shot at landing in Manhattan come December.

6. Marquess Wilson, WR, Washington State (JR)
2011 Stats: 82 rec., 1,388 yards, 12 TD
Who is the leading returning receiver in the Pac-12? No, it’s not a guy named Woods, Allen or Lee. It’s Wilson with his 1,388 yards. In fact, the 6-foot-4, 190-pounder has had one of the quietest two-year starts to any career in the nation (party due to his current zip code) as he has 137 catches, 2,394 yards and 18 scores in two years. He has had back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons with a revolving door at quarterback and Paul Wulff running the ship. Now, he has Mike Leach calling plays for him — a coach who has never had a quarterback pass for less than 3,400 yards. I got two words for you: Michael Crabtree.

7. De’Anthony Thomas, AP, Oregon (SO)
2011 Stats: 595 yds, 7 TD, 46 rec., 605 yds, 9 TD, 2 ret. TD
Few players can rip off huge chunks of yards like The Black Mamba, who averaged nearly 12 yards per offensive touch as a freshman. His highlight-reel explosiveness is exactly what Heisman pundits everywhere crave. He contributes to the offense in every imaginable way — 2,235 all-purpose yards, 18 total TDs — and can be completely unstoppable in the open field (see Rose Bowl footage). Thomas averaged 10.0 touches per game last year, and with LaMichael James no longer on the roster, fans can expect lethal doses from the most poisonous running back in the nation.

8. Rex Burkhead, RB, Nebraska (SR)
2011 Stats: 1,357 yds, 15 TD, 21 rec., 177 yds, 2 TD
Sexy Rexy Superman Burkhead is arguably the most complete football player in the nation. He has every skillset a coach can ask for in a workhorse feature back: Strength, size, toughness, durability, vision, instincts, quickness, hands and leadership. He may be the most underrated player in the country at any position. For Burkhead to make it to NYC in December, however, he will likely have to lead his team past Michigan and into the Big Ten title game. A tall order until the defense improves its overall play.

9. Logan Thomas, QB, Virginia Tech (JR)
In only his first full season as the starter, Thomas showed why he has such a high ceiling. He threw for over 3,000 yards with 19 touchdowns while rushing for 469 yards and 11 more touchdowns on the ground – which tied a school record for rushing TDs by a quarterback at a school with a long history of scamblers. His 6-foot-6, 262-pound frame has drawn Cam Newton comparisons, and while he isn’t nearly as explosive, Thomas has the capability of posting huge numbers and winning an ACC title this fall. He just needs to play better against Clemson.

10. Tajh Boyd, QB, Clemson (JR)
Last fall the Tigers quarterback led the ACC in total offense at 289.0 yards per game. His 3,828 ranked first in the league as did his 33 touchdown passes. He added 218 yards rushing and five more scores on the ground. With a loaded collection of receivers and running backs returning this fall, Boyd should be able to post another huge year under the tutelage of Chad Morris. A big performance on the road against Florida State would go a long way to getting Boyd to New York.

11. Aaron Murray, QB, Georgia (JR)
2011 Stats: 3,149 yds, 35 TD, 14 INT, 103 rush yds, 2 TD
Only USC quarterback Matt Barkley returns to college football with more touchdown passes than Murray’s 35. He has posted back-to-back 3,000-yard seasons as an underclassman and has accounted for 65 total touchdowns over the last two years. He also led his team to its first SEC Championship game since 2005. The junior quarterback from Tampa, Fla., is a gamey, tough, poised leader who has competed for championships at every level of play. He will only get better in 2012. That said, a win on the road at South Carolina and possible SEC title would go a long way in getting Murray to The 646.

12. Tyler Wilson, QB, Arkansas (SR)
2011 Stats: 3,638 yds, 24 TD, 6 INT, 4 rush TD
The Hogs quarterback was slightly more efficient (63.2% to 59.1%) than Murray, had a better TD:INT ratio (24:6 to 35:14) and topped the Bulldog in passing yards (3,638 to 3,149). Wilson has all the tools to continue to grow into an NFL quarterback but will likely struggle to improve on his ’11 numbers. There is plenty of talent around him, but replacing Joe Adams, Jarius Wright and Greg Childs won’t be easy. Most importantly, the top offensive mind in football, Bobby Petrino, is no longer calling plays and making in-game adjustments. Wilson should have another great year in Fayetteville, but significant improvement from last year’s already very solid numbers seems far fetched. For Wilson to get an invite to Radio City Music Hall would most assuredly require a win, or wins, over Alabama and LSU, which seems unlikely.

13. Sammy Watkins, WR, Clemson (SO)
Few players have ever been ready to compete at a Heisman level right out of high school like Watkins. As a true freshman, Watkins led the ACC in all-purpose yards: 1,219 receiving, 231 rushing, 826 kick return and 12 punt return yards. He scored a total 13 touchdowns and would likely be in the top 10 if he wasn't suspended for two games — including a key non-conference test against Auburn in Week 1.

14. Landry Jones, QB, Oklahoma (SR)
2011 Stats: 4,463 yds, 29 TD, 15 INT, 2 rush TD
There are plenty of question marks surrounding Jones the quarterback — like major statistical regression and a horrible road record. But the Sooner quarterback has as good a shot as any in the Big 12 to be Big Apple bound at year’s end. He is surrounded by the most talent of any team in the league and should be the leader of the Big 12 champions. Should Jones correct his road woes and produce another big statistical year, he very easily could land on Heisman ballots, and perhaps, in the national title game.

15. Keith Price, QB, Washington (JR)
2011 Stats: 3,063 yds, 33 TD, 11 INT, 10 rush yds, 3 TD
Steve Sarkisian has a great one in Price. In the first six games of Price’s first season as the starter, all he did was lead the nation in touchdown passes with 21 scoring strikes. He set single-season Washington passing records and should only improve in his third year in Coach Sark's system. He has plenty of talent around him and multiple marquee showdowns on the schedule (at LSU?). If he can stay healthy — and gets some improved offensive line play — he could easily find himself in New York come December.

16. Braxton Miller, QB, Ohio State (SO)
2011 Stats: 1,159 yds, 13 TD, 4 INT, 715 rush yds, 7 TD
If Heisman voters are trying to find a darkhorse from the Big Ten, they need to look no further than Ohio State’s quarterback. Miller showed flashes of brilliance as only a true freshman on one of the worst Buckeye teams in two decades. And now he has spread guru Urban Meyer tailoring his high-powered attack to Miller’s perfectly suited dual-threat skillset. This team could have the best record in the league, but Ohio State’s offensive leader will have to overcome the program’s current sanctions on his way to the Big Apple.

17. Collin Klein, QB, Kansas State (SR)
2011 Stats: 1,918 yds, 13 TD, 6 INT, 1,141 rush yds, 27 TD
Klein won’t be able to sneak up on any defenses this time around after rolling up a sick 1,141 yards rushing and an NCAA-record 27 rushing touchdowns (by a QB). He added big plays in key situations while leading the Wildcats to the Cotton Bowl. What he lacks in pure passing ability he makes up for with grit and toughness. However, he may need to use his arm more in 2012 as coordinators are now prepared for his talented dual-threat skills. It will be tough for CK-7 to replicate both the statistics and win total in 2012.

18. Joseph Randle, RB, Oklahoma State (JR)
2011 Stats: 1,216 yds, 24 TD, 43 rec., 266 yds, 2 TD
He may not be built like a true three-down workhorse, but he certainly plays like it. Randle brings speed, power and pass-catching skills to one of the most explosive attacks in the country. With a new (true freshman) quarterback and rebuilt offensive line, it will difficult to top his 1,482 total yards, 26 touchdowns or 43 receptions from last year. But if he can come close, Randle will find himself mentioned with the best backs in the country.

19. Tavon Austin, WR, West Virginia (SR)
2011 Stats: 101 rec., 1,186 yds, 8 TD, 182 rush yds, TD, 2 ret. TD
Austin is one of the most dynamic and explosive play-makers in all of the nation. He set a school record with 101 receptions last year and led the nation in all-purpose yards (198.0 per game). In addition to his receiving skills, the inside slot man rushed for 182 yards to go with 938 kick return yards and 268 punt return yards. He finished with 11 total touchdowns and could be poised for a C.J. Spiller-type of season in Morgantown.

20. Robert Woods, WR, USC (JR)
2011 Stats: 111 rec., 1,292 yds, 15 TD
The uber-talent from SoCal exploded into living rooms as a sophomore in 2011. He not only broke USC receiving records, but set a Pac-12 record with 111 receptions in only 12 games. He caught at least two scores in four straight games at one point and has clearly built a rapport with No. 1 on this list. The only thing keeping this dynamic play-maker from being higher is lingering bone inflammation in his ankle. Following arthroscopic surgery in December, Woods still has yet to begin summer workouts. Fans have to be concerned about Woods' upside this fall.

21. Giovani Bernard, RB, North Carolina (SO)
Another freshman in the ACC, Bernard burst onto the scene with four touchdowns in his frist two career games. He then rattled off five straight 100-yard efforts, to finish with 1,253 yards and 13 scores in his first year on a collegiate gridiron. With arguably the top offensive line returning in front of him and a stellar quarterback we’ll address in just a moment, the South Florida product is poised for a huge second year in Chapel Hill.

21. Tyler Bray, QB, Tennessee (JR)
2011 Stats: 1,913 yds, 17 TD, 6 INT, Rush TD (7 games)
The lanky junior has plenty of growing up to do — both mentally and physically — but all signs point to the 6-foot-6 gunslinger having his best season in 2012. He has one of the nastiest wide receiver duos in the nation at his disposal and a developing offensive line blocking for him. He was on pace for video game numbers after throwing for 332 yards per game and 14 touchdowns in the first four games of last year. A broken thumb forced him to miss five games and all but ended his breakout sophomore campaign. He has the best frame in the SEC at quarterback and possibly the best throwing arm in the league, so if he can stay healthy, he will post big numbers. If Tennessee wins enough, he could be in New York at season’s end.

23. Keenan Allen, WR, Cal (JR)
2011 Stats: 98 rec., 1,343 yds, 6 TD, 55 rush yds
This east coast product (Greenboro, N.C.) has already placed himself securely in the Cal record books in only two seasons on campuster after a massive sophomore campaign. Wilson will have the best stats and Woods, when healthy, might be the most explosive, but there may not be a more physically gifted athlete in the Pac-12 than Allen. If he can reach paydirt a few more times in 2012, which is possible with improved quarterback play, this graceful gazelle might need to book a flight back East later this year.

24. Kenjon Barner, RB, Oregon (SR)
2011 Stats: 939 yds, 11 TD, 17 rec., 184 yds, 3 TD
Barner has dealt with injury issues throughout his career in Eugene, but should he stay healthy, this senior to be has proven to be plenty capable of carrying the Ducks’ running back torch. In three career starts, Barner posted 433 yards rushing on 58 attempts and 102 yards receiving on three catches to go with eight total touchdowns. Ironically, the only thing keeping him from a potential Heisman trip to the Big Apple could be his backfield mate De’Anthony Thomas.
 
25. Ryan Aplin, QB, Arkansas State (SR)
2011 Stats: 3,588 yds, 19 TD, 16 INT, 588 rush yards, 10 TD
The dual-threat Red Wolves signal caller posted huge numbers as a junior and could be poised for a massive statistical campaign in 2012. He now has spread guru Gus Malzahn — who will design a system that will fit his skillset perfectly — calling plays for him on the defending Sun Belt championship squad. With talented wide receivers around him, Aplin has a great chance to be this year's Mid-Major darling.
 
The Best of the Rest:

Knile Davis, RB, Arkansas (JR)
2011 Stats: None, 2010 Stats: 1,322 yds, 13 TD, 19 rec., 136 yds, TD
As a sophomore in 2010, Davis rolled-up 1,322 yards and 13 touchdowns in basically seven games. He averaged 146.8 yards per game and scored 12 touchdowns once given the starting reins in Week 7. A season-ending ankle injury cost him the entirety of 2011 but should allowed Davis to be rested heading into his junior season. He is expected to be at full strength to start 2012 behind what should be an excellent QB-OL combination. Yet, he too will miss superstar offensive guru Bobby Petrino on the sidelines — whose high-flying passing attack was predicated first on the power running game.

Ray Graham, RB, Pitt (SR)
This talented tailback was on a tear when four plays into the primetime showdown with UConn, his season ended with a torn ACL. He had posted 939 yards rushing and nine scores in the first seven games of the year prior to the injury. If fully healthy, Graham could easily be the Big East’s top Heisman candidate now that offensive genius Paul Chryst is calling plays in the ‘Burgh.

Le’Veon Bell, RB, Michigan State (JR)
There are some focus and consistency concerns with Bell, but should things fall into place for the tailback, the junior could be in for a massive year in East Lansing. The Spartans will boast a potent offensive line and will have to turn to the running game in order to break in a new quarterback and receiving corps. Which is exactly how Mark Dantonio wants to win games anyway. There are few running backs with as much upside as Bell in this league.

Star Lotulelei, DT, Utah (SR)
The Morris Trophy winner from a year ago as the Pac-12’s top defensive lineman, Lotelelei should be in Heisman conversations across the country. Nebraska sent a defensive tackle to New York in 2009, so why can’t the Utes do the same? Utah’s Star up front could be the top DT taken in the 2013 NFL Draft as this defense ranked No. 1 in the league in scoring defense, No. 1 in turnover margin and No. 3 in rushing defense. Using him in some gimmick plays — e.g., along the offensive line or in goalline packages — would go a long way towards boosting his national profile.

Jadeveon Clowney, DE, South Carolina (SO)
2011 Stats: 36 tackles, 12.0 TFL, 8.0 sacks, 5 FF
The preseason first-team All-American was named SEC Freshman of the Year in 2011 after completely justifying his lofty recruiting status as the nation’s top prospect. He posted 36 total tackles, 8.0 sacks and 12.0 tackles . He made big plays as his five forced fumbles indicate. There may not be a bigger impact player on defense in the entire nation as the freakish pass rusher must be accounted for on every play — whether he is lined-up at end or tackle.

Barrett Jones, OL, Alabama (SR)
The senior from Germantown, Tenn., is the most versatile, experienced and dynamic offensive blocker in the nation. He has been an all-league performer at all three offensive line positions and claimed the Outland Trophy as the nation’s top lineman a year ago. He has two national championship rings and will pave the way for a third Heisman contender in as many seasons. There is little left for Jones to prove.

Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Louisville (SO)
The true freshman built his confidence week upon week and now enters his second year as the top Heisman contender in the league. He trailed only Geno Smith in completion percentage last year (64.5%) and posted the Big East’s No. 2 passer efficiency (132.44) mark. Most importantly, he has added bulk and strength to his frame after playing his best ball down the stretch. He posted a career high 274 yards in the bowl loss and chucked five touchdowns in the final two games.

John White, RB, Utah (SR)
In only his first season on campus, White broke the single-season Utah rushing record with 1,519 yards. What is more impressive is how he did it. The Utes had little-to-no quality quarterback play last year due to injuries and it allowed defenses to stack the box against White. All he did was carry the ball 316 times and score 15 touchdowns in the face of eight- and nine-man fronts. With just a little support from the passing game in 2012, White could post Radio City Music Hall-type numbers.

Justin Hunter, WR, Tennessee (JR)
The only thing that was going to stop Hunter from dominating SEC opponents last year was a season-ending torn ACL in his left knee. He had posted 16 catches for 302 yards and two scores in only two games before his year was ended on his first catch in The Swamp in Week 3. All signs are pointing to his knee being fully healthy for the start of the season, but rebuilding strength and explosiveness is much easier said than done. If healthy, J-Hunt has a chance to be an All-American who will be drafted in the first round next April.

-by Braden Gall

@bradengall

Teaser:
<p> College Football: Top 25 Heisman Contenders for 2012</p>
Post date: Wednesday, August 15, 2012 - 06:35
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As the college football season draws near, Athlon Sports is making sure fans know exactly when and where to tune in this fall. Here are the Big 12's top 30 must-see football games for the 2012 season:

1. 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.

2. 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.

3. 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.

4. 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.

5. 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.

6. 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.

7. 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.

8. 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. 

9. Week 10 (Nov. 3) Nebraska at Michigan State
If Michigan is the preseason favorite to win the Legend's Division, then these two are the chief contenders. The Cornhuskers controlled the ball and dominated the 24-3 contest in Lincoln, Neb. Kirk Cousins had arguably his worst game as a senior as the Spartans allowed four sacks. At home, Sparty will be looking for revenge — and a possible return trip to Indianapolis for the Big Ten title showdown. However, if the Big Red defense can repeat last's year performance on a much less experienced quarterback, the upset is certainly possible. 

10. Week 5 (Sept. 29) Wisconsin at Nebraska
The 48-17 destruction of Nebraska marked the first time the corn-fed Big Red and dairy-fed Big Red did battle since 1974. This year Russell Wilson is gone and this game shifts to Lincoln for the Big Ten opener. Nebraska gets the revenge factor, the home-field advantage and will have played a couple of challenging non-conference tests. The only edge Wisconsin gets is that of style as their new Adidas uniform look only slight better than the "N" threads.

11. Week 3 (Sept. 15) Notre Dame at Michigan State
Mark Dantonio teams rarely get pushed around at the point of attack. They rarely play fundamentally ineffective football. And they rarely get beat 31-13. But that is what an 0-2 Notre Dame team did to the eventual division champs. Michigan State rushed for a season-low 29 yards in the defeat and the Irish defensive line has only gotten better. Winning on the road won't be as easy for Brian Kelly and there is no way Dantonio has let his team forget about the embarrassment of last fall.

12. Week 1 (Aug. 31) Boise State at Michigan State
These two programs have won a lot of football games over the last few years. And while this isn't a vintage Broncos squad, Boise State is much closer to reload status than it is rebuild. That said, the physicality of the Spartans in the trenches will be a huge hurdle to overcome for the less-talented, smaller program from Idaho. Should the BSU front lines hold up against MSU, the national opinion from BCS conference snobs that Chris Peterson's teams are consistently overrated will be silenced. 

13. Week 1 (Sept. 1) Ohio at Penn State
This might be the most watched football game of the year this fall. And it has nothing to do with MAC front-runner Ohio and its dynamic big-play quarterback Tyler Tettleton. Joe Paterno won't on the sidelines. Beaver Stadium will be 108,000 deep with We Are pride. Bill O'Brien leads a Penn State team that feels like a complete unknown. It will be an extremely surreal experience and most of the nation will be tuned in.

14. Week 6 (Oct. 6) Nebraska at Ohio State
Ohio State was playing well against Nebraska deep into the second half last fall when Braxton Miller was injured and lost for the afternoon. The Cornhuskers took advantage and pulled-off the 34-27 win. The ground game was excellent against the stingy OSU front, rushing for 232 yards and 51 carries. Against what should be the best defense in the league in the Horseshoe, Rex Burkhead will find much less open space this time around.

15. Week 13 (Nov. 24) Wisconsin at Penn State
The season finale will be an emotional experience for Penn State fans. And a win over Penn State would likely clinch a trip to the Big Ten title game for Wisconsin, much like last fall. The Badgers have not won in Happy Valley since 2003.

16. Week 8 (Oct. 20) Nebraska at Northwestern
The Huskers had beaten Ohio State and thumped Michigan State and had eyes on a Big Ten title when thes Wildcats walked in Lincoln and pulled-off one of the biggest — and most entertaining — upsets of the year. Nebraska couldn’t stop Kain Colter — who will be starting this fall under center for Northwestern.

17. Week 13 (Nov. 23) Nebraska at Iowa
The whole ear of corn is on the line in this season-ending developing rivalry. The Huskers rolled-up 222 yards rushing in the win over Iowa while James Vandenberg’s had one of his toughest game of the year (182-0-1). Bowl eligibility and future employment could be on the line at season’s end for Kirk Ferentz.

18. Week 12 (Nov. 17) Iowa at Michigan
Brady Hoke’s bunch won’t take this one lightly as the Hawkeyes pulled the upset 24-16 in Kinnick Stadium last year. It was one of two losses for Michigan and revenge will be on the mind of Denard Robinson.

19. Week 9 (Oct. 27) Ohio State at Penn State
Going on the road into Beaver Stadium is never easy, even with the heavy-handed NCAA penalties floating over PSU. A match-up between these two powers is normally a top ten B1G match-up. The OSU revenge tour continues with this one.

20. Week 11 (Nov. 10) Penn State at Nebraska
The yearly cross-over rivalry game will certainly take a hit due to sanctions, but there is something really special about the Big Red Husker uniforms knocking heads with the classic Nittany Blue. It was a tightly played affair last fall (17-14, Neb.).

21. Week 7 (Oct. 13) Iowa at Michigan State
The Spartans pushed the Hawkeyes around last fall to the tune of 288 yards passing and 155 yards rushing. Iowa mustered 87 yards on the ground. Expect tough sledding once again for Iowa, this time, on the road.

22. Week 7 (Oct. 13) Wisconsin at Purdue
If you are looking for an upset alert in the bizarre Leaders Division this fall, it could easily be Purdue over Wisconsin. The Boilers have a solid defensive line and weird things happen in West Lafayette this time of the year.

23. Week 8 (Oct. 20) Minnesota at Wisconsin
The NCAA’s oldest rivalry has been played more times than any other game in history. This game has taken place since 1890 and Minnesota owns the all-time series 59-54-8. Yet, the Badgers have won eight straight.

24. Week 5 (Sept. 29) Penn State at Illinois
The storylines between the two new head coaches in the Big Ten may fade away eventually, but right now, fans can bet Bill O’Brien has lost no love for poacher Tim Beckman and Illinois.

25. Week 9 (Oct. 27) Iowa at Northwestern
These two were hotly debated in our meetings this season and both should be eyeing bowl eligibility this fall. Iowa has won only two of the last seven meetings and a win could be a postseason trip for both teams. 

Best of the Rest:

26. Week 6 (Oct. 6) Illinois at Wisconsin
27. Week 2 (Sept. 8) Iowa State at Iowa
28.Week 2 (Sept. 8) Nebraska at UCLA
29. Week 2 (Sept. 8) Purdue at Notre Dame
30. Week 7 (Oct. 13) Illinois at Michigan
31. Week 8 (Oct. 20) Penn State at Iowa
32. Week 3 (Sept. 15) Cal at Ohio State
33. Week 10 (Nov. 3) Penn State at Purdue
34. Week 8 (Oct. 20) Purdue at Ohio State
35. Week 12 (Nov. 17) Purdue at Illinois

Athlon Sports Must-See TV for 2012:

Big 12's Must-See Games of 2012


Big Ten's Must-See Games of 2012


SEC's Must-See Games of 2012

-by Braden Gall

@bradengall

Athlon Sports Big Ten Predictions and Team Previews:

Legends:

1. Michigan Wolverines: No. 7
2. Nebraska Cornhuskers: No. 14
3. Michigan State Spartans: No. 18
4. Northwestern Wildcats: No. 49
5. Iowa Hawkeyes: No. 50
6. Minnesota Golden Gophers: No. 62

Leaders:

1. Ohio State Buckeyes: No. 6
2. Wisconsin Badgers: No. 17
3. Penn State Nittany Lions: No. 44
4. Illinios Fighting Illini: No. 52
5. Purdue Boilermakers: No. 53
6. Indiana Hoosiers: No. 89

Teaser:
<p> College Football: Big Ten's Must-See Games of 2012</p>
Post date: Wednesday, August 15, 2012 - 06:00
Path: /college-football/college-football-big-12s-must-see-games-2012
Body:

As the college football season draws near, Athlon Sports is making sure fans know exactly when and where to tune in this fall. Here are the Big 12's top 30 must-see football games for the 2012 season:

1. 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 either Texas 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.

2. 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 the 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.

3. 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.

4. 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.

5. 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.

6. 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. Texas. 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.

7. Week 5 (Sept. 29) Oklahoma State at Texas
The Horns won 22 of the first 24 meetings between these two longtime conference rivals. Yet, as Mike Gundy’s program has blossomed into a national power, Oklahoma State overcame the stigma of defeating the Longhorns with two straight wins — and both took place on the 40 Acres. And neither — 33-16 in 2010 and 38-26 in 2011 — was really that close as Texas’ salty defense wasn’t able to slow Brandon Weeden and company. The game shifts back to Stillwater this fall as the Big 12 season gets kicked off in style for both teams. Wes Lunt has never seen a defense like he will see in Week 5 this fall.

8. Week 10 (Nov. 3) Oklahoma State at Kansas State
Brandon Weeden threw for 502 yards and 4 TDs. Collin Klein rushed for 144 yards and 3 TDs. Oklahoma State outlasted Kansas State 52-45 in a thrilling game that featured 32 fourth-quarter points. While Weeden isn’t back, the stakes should still be high when these two conference contenders do battle. More than just bowl pecking order could be on the line.

9. Week 14 (Dec. 1) Oklahoma at TCU
TCU and Oklahoma haven’t recruited many of the same players over the years but certainly recruit the same high schools. With the growth of TCU’s brand in the north Texas and Dallas-Ft. Worth areas, the Horned Frogs have began to eat into the Sooners' hold on DFW. A win at home over the heavy league favorite would do wonders for TCU’s recruiting. It would also place the Frogs directly into the Big 12 title mix in year No. 1. They have only faced each other twice since 1998 and have alternated wins and losses for five straight meetings. 

10. Week 8 (Oct. 20) Kansas State at West Virginia
Yes, these two teams have played before. No, not since World War II. These two split a two-year series back in 1930 and 1931, strangely enough, both coming in Morgantown. The difference in style on offense and under center will be an intriguing story line to watch as Geno Smith could throw it 60 times while Collin Klein might not reach 15 pass attempts.

11. Week 10 (Nov. 3) TCU at West Virginia
These two Big 12 newbies will battle for the first time since 1984 when West Virginia won the Bluebonnet Bowl 31-14 in Houston. Both teams boast excellent quarterbacks and both teams would like to make a big statement in their first trip through the league. It makes this head-to-head test all the more important. 

12. Week 14 (Dec. 1) Kansas State at Texas 
One of the stranger series anomalies in all of the nation has been KSU’s success over Texas in recent years. The Wildcats have won four straight over Texas and six of the last eight. Last year was the first defensive battle since 2003 between the two and 2012 should feature much of the same. If the Horns want to compete for the league crown, a win over KSU at home is a must.

13. Week 9 (Oct. 27) TCU at Oklahoma State
The Horned Frogs will get to renew a regional rivalry that hasn’t been played since 1993. These two compete directly on the recruiting trail all over the north Texas area as well as the Dallas-Ft. Worth metroplex. Now, they compete in the conference standings and this game should feature heavy bowl pecking order implications. Both have eyes on challenging the OU-Texas rivalry for Big 12 supremacy, but winning on Oct. 27 will be key to each's 2012 season. 

14. Week 13 (Nov. 24) TCU at Texas
These in-state rivals have only played one time since 1995 (2007) and TCU has only defeated the Horns one time since 1967 (1992). Many of the Horned Frogs players likely grew up in Texas dreaming of getting a scholarship from the Burnt Orange and this will be a chance at payback. This one will be a match-ups of strengths between the Frogs offense and the Texas defense.

15. Week 4 (Sept. 22) Kansas State at Oklahoma
Even a 10-win team couldn’t make this one-sided rivalry closer as the Sooners hammered the Wildcats 58-17 last fall. In fact, the only win KSU has over Oklahoma since 1997 was the memorable ’03 Big 12 title game victory. To go on the road and close the 41-point gap will be a tall order for Collin Klein and Company.

16. Week 11 (Nov. 10) Kansas State at TCU
These two shades of purple will be on the same field for the first time since 1986. And they will do it as conference foes now. Bowl pecking order will be on the line.

17. Week 8 (Oct. 20) Baylor at Texas
After a decade-long losing streak against the Horns, Baylor has won two straight against the vaunted Big Brother from down I-35. A third straight upset might be a tall order this fall.

18. Week 14 (Dec. 1) Oklahoma State at Baylor 
The Cowboys put RG3 in his place last fall 59-24 and has owned the all-time series by winning 15 of the last 16 meetings.

19. Week 7 (Oct. 13) TCU at Baylor
The 50-48 shootout was not only one of the great games of 2011, but now it’s a conference game and the all-time series hangs in the balance: 50-50-7

20. Week 2 (Sept. 8) Iowa State at Iowa
One of the Midwest’s better rivalries was a 44-41 overtime thriller that saw the Cyclones take home the Cy-Hawk Trophy. Iowa had won three straight prior to last year.

21. Week 12 (Nov. 17) Kansas State at Baylor
One of the few blemishes on the Bears’ 2011 resume was the 36-35 loss last fall when KSU scored 10 fourth-quarter points to come from behind and win. 

22. Week 2 (Sept. 8) Miami at Kansas State
Last season was the first-ever meeting between the two programs and Bill Snyder’s bunch was victorious 28-24. Now, The U comes to the Little Apple as a big underdog.

23. Week 11 (Nov. 10) Baylor at Oklahoma
The 2011 heart-stopping win over the Sooners was the first ever by Baylor over Oklahoma in 21 tries. Revenge will be on the mind of Bob Stoops.

24. Week 5 (Sept. 29) Baylor at West Virginia
New faces for Baylor meet the new kid on the block in WVU. This will mark the Mountaineers' debut in Big 12 play and the first-ever meeting of the two schools.

25. Week 6 Oklahoma at Texas Tech / Week 8 Iowa State at Oklahoma State
Revenge could be a dish best served cold and both Oklahoma State and Oklahoma have major debts to repay with Iowa State and Texas Tech respectively. To get their payback, the Sooners will have to defeat Tech on its home turf.

Best of the Rest:

26. Week 2 (Sept. 8) Oklahoma State at Arizona
27. Week 4 (Sept. 22) Virginia at TCU
28. Week 5 (Sept. 29) TCU at SMU
29. Week 3 (Sept. 15) Texas at Ole Miss
30. Wee 10 (Nov. 3) Texas at Texas Tech

Athlon Sports Must-See TV for 2012:

ACC's Must-See Games of 2012

Big East's Must-See Games of 2012

Big 12's Must-See Games of 2012
Big Ten's Must-See Games of 2012 (coming Wed.)

-by Braden Gall

@bradengall

Athlon Sports Big 12 Predictions and Team Previews:

1. Oklahoma Sooners: No. 5
2. Texas Longhorns: No. 11
3. West Virginia Mountaineers: No. 12
4. Oklahoma State Cowboys: No. 19
5. TCU Horned Frogs: No. 22
6. Kansas State Wildcats: No. 27
7. Baylor Bears: No. 40
8. Texas Tech Red Raiders: No. 58
9. Iowa State Cyclones: No. 60
10. Kansas Jayhawks: No. 81

Teaser:
<p> College Football: Big 12's Must-See Games of 2012</p>
Post date: Tuesday, August 14, 2012 - 05:00
All taxonomy terms: Green Bay Packers, NFC, NFC North, NFL
Path: /nfl/green-bay-packers-desmond-bishop-out-year
Body:

The Green Bay Packers experienced the one thing NFL fans fear the most once preseason football gets started. 

Season-ending injuries to key starters. 

In this case, veteran linebacker Desmond Bishop isn't just a key starter, but possibly the best defensive player on the entire team. In the first preseason game of the year, Bishop tackled San Diego's Ronnie Brown and had his right leg bent unnatrually underneath him. The right knee was sprained but team doctor Pat McKenzie feared something much worse — a serious hamstring tear. A pull or a sprain can be fixed with ice, strecthing and 4-6 weeks of rehab. McKenzie discovered, after examining Bishop back at the team's facilities, that it was in fact a hamstring tear. The knee is hurting as well, but the hamstring is what will keep Bishop from returning to the field this year.

"Unfortunately, the hamsting injury was what we feared," said head coach Mike McCarthy after practice Saturday. "Surgery is imminent, and Desmond's season is in jeopardy. Once we have he surgery, we'll have a better idea on his status for this season."

The former 6th round selection is entering his sixth season out of Cal and has developed into the leader of the Packers defense from his inside linebacking position. He has 218 tackles — 115 last season even with missing three games — and 8.0 sacks over the last two seasons for the Packers. It also made him one of the top fantasy options at linebacker. He was ranked as the No. 6 overall IDP — individual defensive player — regardless of the position and the No. 2 overall linebacker in the entire league.

So Packers fans, McCarthy and fantasy owners alike are trying to find a replacement in short order. The official back-up at the "Mack" backer position is D.J. Smith. The second-year pro from Appalachian State got three starts in place of Bishop last fall and played well, posting 37 total tackles and one interception. With AJ Hawk and Clay Matthews still on board, the Packers linebacking corps has plenty of depth. But on a team that could be the best in the NFL and is eyeing a Super Bowl run, losing arguably the top defensive play-maker will cost the Packers somewhere along the line. That is the one thing fans can bet on.

-by Braden Gall

@bradengall

Teaser:
<p> Green Bay Packers' Desmond Bishop Out for the Year?</p>
Post date: Monday, August 13, 2012 - 13:24
All taxonomy terms: MLB, Fantasy
Path: /mlb/fantasy-baseball-bests-busts-and-waiver-wire-aug-13
Body:

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 (8/6-8/13):

  Name Team Pos. R HR RBI SB BA OPS
1. Josh Hamilton TEX OF 7 3 9 1 .455 1.493
2. Adrian Gonzalez BOS 1B/OF 6 2 14 0 .393 1.290
3. Chase Headley SD 3B 6 3 11 0 .333 1.110
4. Billy Butler KC 1B 7 4 7 0 .333 1.305
5. Dustin Pedroia BOS 2B 8 0 4 2 .500 1.221
6. Desmond Jennings OF TB 9 1 2 2 .474 1.366
7. Alex Gordon KC OF 6 3 4 2 .333 1.022
8. Jon Jay* STL OF 6 0 4 2 .536 1.188
9. Erick Aybar* LAA SS 7 1 3 2 .458 1.105
10. Justin Morneau* MIN 1B 6 3 7 0 .375 1.194
11. B.J. Upton TB OF 6 2 7 2 .250 .933
12. Matt Kemp LAD OF 4 1 5 3 .400 1.044
13. Eric Chavez* NYY 3B 6 2 5 0 .536 1.651
14. Freddie Freeman ATL 1B 7 2 9 0 .273 1.021
15. Manny Machado* BAL SS 5 3 7 0 .375 1.500
16. Buster Posey SF C/1B 4 3 7 0 .421 1.466
17. Nick Markakis BAL OF 5 3 7 0 .323 1.063
18. Michael Bourn ATL OF 6 1 6 1 .375 1.083
19. Neil Walker PIT 2B 5 2 9 0 .321 .940
20. Mike Trout LAA OF 2 2 7 3 .261 .855
21. Ryan Howard PHI 1B 4 3 8 0 .304 1.072
22. Michael Morse WAS 1B/OF 5 3 6 0 .323 1.023
23. Matt Wieters BAL C 4 3 8 0 .292 1.162
24. Justin Ruggiano* MIA OF 4 2 4 2 .333 .985
25. A.J. Pierzynski CWS C 4 2 6 0 .435 1.197

* - less than 70% owned in Yahoo! leagues

Manny Being Manny

The Orioles are going to be really good next season. The latest in a long line of very talented draft picks to make the big league roster, shortstop/third baseman Manny Machado made quite the debut this weekend. The third overall pick in the 2010 draft flew through the minors and made his debut last Thursday with a 2-4, 3B, R line to start. He then hit two bombs in his second game and then another on Sunday. He has six hits in 16 at-bats with 7 RBI and 5 runs. Just as important, he struck out only twice. Manny has huge upside and could easily be the next big star in the game. At a premium position, he is worth adding — especially, in keeper leagues.

Coors Field Delight

Look to add Marlins and Brewers this week as both will visit Coors Field in Colorado. With Giancarlo Stanton back in the line-up and Jose Reyes setting the table, names like Carlos Lee and Justin Ruggiano are worth a look this week. It also could be good news for the surging Rickie Weeks and always underrated Jonathan Lucroy. Get the rest of your Fish and Brewcrew into the line-up.

Aging First Basemen

Justin Morneau and Ryan Howard have seen former first-round fantasy value plummet to the waiver wire. Yet, both had solid weeks last week and both could provide plenty of pop down the stretch. Certainly, both could find the DL as well, but both seem to be showing signs of life, and while healthy, will provide HR, RBI and OPS help to most rosters.

Top 20 fantasy Starting Pitchers of last two weeks:

  Name Team IP W K ERA WHIP
1. James Shields TB 24.0 2 19 1.13 0.50
2. Roy Halladay PHI 15.0 2 13 0.60 0.40
3. Clay Buchholz* BOS 24.0 2 13 1.13 0.71
4. A.J. Burnett PIT 23.1 2 25 2.31 0.86
5. Jered Weaver LAA 22.1 2 17 2.01 0.76
6. Patrick Corbin* ARI 19.0 2 19 1.89 0.89
7. Adam Wainwright STL 16.0 2 14 1.13 0.81
8. Alex Cobb* TB 14.0 2 13 1.29 0.71
9. Miguel Gonzalez* BAL 21.2 2 17 2.08 0.88
10. Yovani Gallardo MIL 21.2 3 17 2.08 1.11
11. Clayton Kershaw LAD 13.1 2 14 2.03 0.68
12. R.A. Dickey NYM 16.0 1 19 1.69 0.75
13. Johnny Cueto CIN 22.1 2 21 2.82 0.90
14. David Price TB 22.0 1 21 2.05 0.86
15. Mike Fiers MIL 14.0 2 13 1.93 0.79
16. Cole Hamels PHI 16.0 1 15 1.13 0.81
17. Mat Latos CIN 14.1 1 13 0.63 0.77
18. Chris Sale CWS 14.2 2 18 2.45 0.95
19. Kris Medlen* ATL 16.2 2 16 1.62 1.08
20. Paul Maholm* ATL 16.0 1 13 1.69 0.69

* - less than 70% owned in Yahoo! leagues

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

1. Doug Fister, DET: at MIN (Tues.) 74% owned
Has posted six straight quality starts with 41 strikeouts and only six walks over that span to go with four wins. The Twins won't get to him this time around.

2. Scott Diamond, MIN: at SEA (Sat.) 50% owned
It is absurd that Diamond is owned in only half of the leagues out there. Do people not know he has 10 wins, a 2.97 ERA and 1.19 WHIP — for the TWINS!?!

3. Jarrod Parker, OAK: at KC (Tues.) 44% owned
Parker has loads of upside and has shown flashes of brilliance, but needs to be more consistent. He has ironed out the free-pass issues of late (25K: 6BB last 5 starts). Gets second start against Cleveland.

4. Chad Billingsly, LAD: at PIT (Tues.) 64% owned
Has had a great last month with four straight wins in four straight starts. He has cut down on the baserunners and the Ks will always be there. Gives you a second start at Atlanta this week too.

5. Clayton Richard, SD: SF (Sun.) 19% owned
Gets two starts this week (at ATL, Tues.) and is coming off a complete game shutout of the Cubs. Won't pile up Ks but should help ratios against these two offenses this week.

Top 20 fantasy Relief Pitchers of last month:

  Name Team IP W SV K HLD ERA WHIP
1. Aroldis Chapman CIN 16.2 0 16 32 0 0.00 0.54
2. Huston Street (DL) SD 12.0 0 8 13 0 0.00 0.08
3. Fernando Rodney TB 15.1 0 11 13 0 0.59 0.78
4. Jason Motte STL 10.2 1 6 17 0 0.84 0.66
5. J.J. Putz ARI 9.2 0 6 14 0 0.00 0.41
6. Tom Wilhelmsen* SEA 13.0 0 9 15 0 2.77 0.77
7. Kenley Jansen LAD 12.1 1 7 17 0 1.46 1.14
8. Jonathan Papelbon PHI 14.2 1 7 16 0 1.84 1.09
9. Joel Hanrahan PIT 10.2 0 10 19 0 3.38 1.22
10. Craig Kimbrel ATL 9.0 0 5 16 0 1.00 0.44
11. Greg Holland* KC 15.0 3 3 16 1 2.40 1.13
12. Rafael Soriano NYY 11.2 0 7 12 0 2.31 0.77
13. Joel Peralta* TB 14.1 0 0 22 9 0.63 0.56
14. Kevin Jepsen* LAA 11.2 2 1 11 4 0.77 0.69
15. Steve Cishek* MIA 10.1 0 6 11 0 0.87 0.87
16. Jeremy Affeldt* SF 14.2 1 2 14 1 1.84 0.68
17. Glen Perkins* MIN 12.2 1 3 13 1 2.84 0.71
18. Octavio Dotel* DET 11.1 1 0 10 4 0.79 0.44
19. Vinnie Pestano* CLE 14.0 0 0 13 7 0.00 0.71
20. Jose Valverde DET 12.0 0 6 10 0 3.00 0.92

* - 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 13</p>
Post date: Monday, August 13, 2012 - 10:35
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As the college football season draws near, Athlon Sports is making sure fans know exactly when and where to tune in this fall. Here are the Big East's Top 20 must-see football games for the 2012 season:

1. 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.

2. Week 3 (Sept. 15): Rutgers at USF
The Scarlet Knights and the Bulls are both looking up at Louisville in the preseason standings. Rutgers’ first nine games will feature only two tough tests — road trips to Arkansas and South Florida. And after what happened in last year’s meeting, fans can bet on this one being another thriller. The Knights scored two touchdowns in the final eight minutes to send the game into overtime where a San San Te field-goal won the game for Rutgers. South Florida feels it can push the Cards for conference supremacy as well with B.J. Daniels returning for his fourth-year under center. The winner of this early game will likely become the top contender to Louisville’s league crown.

3. Week 8 (Oct. 20): USF at Louisville
The 34-24 road win over USF last fall clinched a share of the Big East title for Strong’s bunch in 2011 and a home win over the Bulls in late October should all but do the same in '12. Daniels did not play in that game last year due to a shoulder injury and will be champing at the bit to get a crack at counterpart Teddy Bridgewater — who he had to watch produce arguably his best game as a freshman from the sidelines. The Cards QB threw three touchdowns, no interceptions and amassed 241 yards through the air in the clutch road win over USF last fall. A healthy Daniels makes this game more interesting, but this game being played in the "502" makes an upset more unlikely.

4. Week 7 (Oct. 13): Louisville at Pitt
The Cardinals' second toughest road test of the Big East year will be a trip up to The Steel City. The depleted Panthers won this game last fall 21-14 in Papa John’s Stadium, so revenge will certainly be on the minds of Cards players. Bridgewater had his best game running the football (54 yards) but the rest of the team managed only 61 yards rushing while the Panthers rolled up 200 yards on the ground — without Ray Graham. New Panther coach Paul Chryst brings an exciting and innovative offensive game plan to the table, so the X’s and O’s chess match between him and Strong should be entertaining to watch.

5. Week 14 (Dec. 1): Pitt at USF
Two teams with Big East title aspirations will meet on the final day of the regular season. The Bulls got hammered by Pitt and Ray Graham last year 44-17 in primetime on a Thursday night. The star tailback rushed for 226 yards and two scores in the beat down that signaled the unraveling of the Bulls season. The Bulls finished with just one win in its final seven games following the humiliating loss. Skip Holtz and the USF faithful will be fired up to welcome the chance at retaliation. And since the world will know what has happened in the Louisville-Rutgers game two nights earlier, there could be serious BCS implications involved in this season finale.

6. Week 3 (Set. 15): North Carolina at Louisville
The Big East rarely has opportunities to prove itself as a league against top-level competition, but this is its best chance at a signature non-conference win in 2012. The league’s projected top team will play host to a very sound UNC team that could easily win eight or nine games. This was a 14-7 home win for the Tar Heels last fall but it was only Big East Freshman of the Year Teddy Bridgewater’s second career start. 

7. Week 5 (Sept. 29): Florida State at USF
The last time these two met was back in September of 2009 — and South Florida won 17-7 in Tallahassee. Now, things are slightly different. Florida State has rebuilt its roster and the game will be played in Tampa. This is a huge in-state test for USF to not only prove its mettle on the field, but on the recruiting trail. Another win over the Noles would be easily the best win of the year by any Big East team.

8. Week 13 (Nov. 24): Rutgers at Pitt
The four-team round robin atop the Big East is complete with this Knights’ road trip across The Keystone State. The final three games of the year will be huge for Rutgers and fans can bet that Pitt hasn’t forgotten the 34-10 thumping Greg Schiano’s boys put on the Panthers last fall. Rutgers must finish the season strong as this tough road test is sandwiched around a trip to Cincinnati and a visit from Louisville to wrap-up the regular season.

9. Week 12 (Nov. 17): USF at Miami
Much like the FSU game, the Bulls can boost their in-state recruiting stock with a win over a traditional Sunshine State power. Not to mention add a huge feather in the non-conference Big East win cap. These two have split the last two seasons with the road team winning both. It could be a positive omen for an improved Bulls team facing the downtrodden Canes.

10. Week 12 (Nov. 17): Rutgers at Cincinnati
The Bearcats might be the Big East’s wild card this fall. They appear to be floating between the have’s and have not’s of the league — at least, in the preseason. They won 10 games in 2011, but got handled with ease by Rutgers last fall on the road. This year’s test could be a total crapshoot. Certainly, it will be one to watch.

11. Week 2 (Sept. 6): Pitt at Cincinnati
The season opener (yes, in Week 2) will be a huge conference test for Cincy right out of the gate. The Bearcats won 26-23 on the road in Pittsburgh last fall.

12. Week 13 (Nov. 23): USF at Cincinnati
Shootout in the New Sombrero ended in Bearcats favor last fall 37-34. Butch Jones has quite the home schedule, leaving the state only three times in the first 11 games.

13. Week 4 (Sept. 22): Rutgers at Arkansas
Not many people will give the Knights a chance at winning in Fayetteville, but a great defense is what you need to compete with Tyler Wilson. Crazier things have happened.

14. Week 10 (Nov. 3): Pitt at Notre Dame
A late-season road trip to South Bend will give Pitt a national TV chance at a signature non-conference win over a Top 25 team. This was a 15-12 ND win last fall.

15. Week 9 (Oct. 26): Cincinnati at Louisville
This will be only the second time all year that the Bearcats will leave the state of Ohio. Last year, Cincy won 25-16 in Nippert Stadium. 

The Best of the Rest:

16. Week 1 (Sept. 2): Kentucky at Louisville
17. Week 5 (Sept. 29): Louisville at Southern Miss
18. Week 3 (Sept. 15): Virginia Tech at Pitt
19. Week 4 (Sept. 22): Louisville at FIU
20. Week 5 (Sept. 29): Cincinnati vs Virginia Tech (Landover, Md.)

Athlon Sports Must-See TV for 2012:

ACC's Must-See Games of 2012

Big East's Must-See Games of 2012

Big 12's Must-See Games of 2012 (Coming Tues.)

-by Braden Gall

@bradengall

2012 Athlon Sports Big East Predictions and Previews:

1. Louisville Cardinals: No. 23
2. South Florida Bulls: No. 34 
3. Pitt Panthers: No. 45
4. Rutgers Scarlet Knights: No. 46
5. Cincinnati Bearcats: No. 56
6. Syracue Orange: No. 67
7. UConn Huskies: No. 69
8. Temple Owls: No. 73

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As the college football season draws near, Athlon Sports is making sure fans know exactly when and where to tune in this fall. Here are the ACC's top 40 must-see football games for the 2012 season:

1. 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.

2. 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.

3. 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.

4. 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. 

5. 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.

6. 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.

7. 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.

8. Week 13 (Nov. 24): Florida at Florida State
This rivalry certainly hasn't had the luster it once did back in the late '90s, but there is still plenty on the line when these two powerhouses get together in the regular-season finale. After the Gators won six straight in the series, the Noles have reclaimed Sunshine State supremacy in a big way the last two seasons with two dominating performances. The Gators have scored 14 total points in the last two games and scoring will once again be difficult. Both teams will win with defense this year and this game could feature upwards of half-a-dozen potential first-round NFL defenders. This will be a physical contest — one that Will Muschamp needs to be more competitive.

9. 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.

10. Week 11 (Nov. 10): Georgia Tech at North Carolina
The Tar Heels cannot win the conference title or play in a bowl game, but Larry Fedora's first team in Chapel Hill should be very good. The offenses will be featured in this contest as both lines will pave the way for powerful rushing attacks. Tevin Washington and Bryn Renner, however, will likely control the outcome as whoever can complete key third-down passes should claim victory. A long Washington scoring strike late in the game last fall gave Tech the 35-28 win. This game will likely determine the top challenger to Virginia Tech in the Coastal — even if the Heels can't play in the title game.

11. Week 9 (Oct. 27): NC State at North Carolina
This in-state battle has been owned by the Wolfpack of late. They have won five straight in the contest and these two should both be excellent teams again in 2012. For NC State, who has eyes on the ACC title game, there could be more than Tar Heel State bragging rights on the line.

12. Week 6 (Oct. 6): Virginia Tech at North Carolina
The Tar Heels could be the top contender to the Hokies this fall and will have a great chance to pull the upset at home in the first week in October, but obviously won't be able to win the league. A very talented UNC rushing attack will go head-to-head with one of the best defenses in the nation.

13. Week 6 (Oct. 6): Georgia Tech at Clemson
The Jackets rushed for 383 yards in the 31-17 home win over the Tigers, giving Clemson their first loss of the year in extremely disappointing fashion. It gave Tech the fifth win in six years over Clemson. New defensive coordinator Brent Venables will have his hands full with the loaded Georgia Tech rushing attack.

14. Week 13 (Nov. 24): Georgia Tech at Georgia
Few games have a better name than the Peach State rivalry. And that both teams are rarely this evenly matched only adds to the game simply known as Clean, Old-Fashioned Hate. These two have split the last four meetings and both could be playing for a 10th win by the time they meet in late November.

15. Week 1 (Aug. 31): NC State vs. Tennessee (Atlanta, Ga.)
This will be an excellent barometer game for both programs. If NC State wants to compete in the ACC, a win over Tennessee will send a shot across the bow of Florida State and Clemson. The Vols, and more specifically Derek Dooley, need to get 2012 started well, possibly more than any other SEC team. Two great QBs, Amerson vs. Hunter and the Georgia Dome? What more can you ask for?

16. Week 7 (Oct. 13): Florida State at Miami
It's been a long time since this game means as little as it will in 2012. Obviously, FSU has to win games like this if it expects to win the ACC and stay in the national title hunt. But there is still something exiting about the Tomahawk and "The U" getting together.

17. Week 13 (Nov. 24): Virginia at Virginia Tech
The Commonwealth battle was a dismantling last year when Tech rolled-up a 38-0 win over its in-state rival. Mike London has clearly reestablished the Cavaliers brand within Virginia's borders, much to Beamer's chagrin, but needs to take the next step on the field.

18. Week 3 (Sept. 15): Virginia at Georgia Tech
If London and the Cavs want to see their name mentioned alongside the Hokies for conference honors, it needs to continue winning this particular game — like it did last fall. The 24-21 win was one of the primary indicators that the new coaching staff is getting the job done in Charlottesville.

19. Week 10 (Nov. 1): Virginia Tech at Miami
Key road tests against well-coached teams always poses problems for conference title contenders. This game was much too close for Virginia Tech's liking last fall (38-35) and the Hokies will need to stay focused against the upstart youth of the Hurricanes.

20. Week 12 (Nov. 15): North Carolina at Virginia
The two Techs in the Coastal have won the division every year since the ACC split, so it falls to one of these two to knock them off. No, the Heels can't play for the ACC title but claiming the top record is the next best thing. Everyone knows who won the Pac-12 South last year.

21. Week 5 (Sept. 29): NC State at Miami
See Virginia Tech at Miami game above. Miami will spoil at least one season in 2012 due to Al Golden's coaching.

22. Week 10 (Nov. 3): Virginia at NC State
Two well-coached teams will battle in Raleigh in Week 10. This would be a signature win for the Cavs.

23. Week 7 (Oct. 13): North Carolina at Miami
See Virginia Tech-Miami and NC State-Miami road trips above.

24. Week 6 (Oct. 6): Miami vs. Notre Dame (Chicago, Ill.)
Two huge name brands playing in the nation's second city warrants a mention.

25. Week 5 (Sept. 29): Florida State at USF
The last time these in-staters faced each other, the Bulls claimed a huge moral, recruiting and actual victory over Big Brother.

The Best of the Rest:

26. Week 3 (Sept. 15): North Carolina at Louisville
27. Week 9 (Oct. 25): Clemson at Wake Forest
28. Week 4 (Sept. 22): Miami at Georgia Tech
29. Week 3 (Sept. 15): Wake Forest at Florida State
30. Week 4 (Sept. 22): Virginia at TCU
31. Week 11 (Nov. 10): Miami at Virginia
32. Week 9 (Oct. 27): BYU at Georgia Tech
33. Week 12 (Nov. 17): USF at Miami
34. Week 2 (Sept. 8): Miami at Kansas State
35. Week 12 (Nov. 17): Wake Forest at Notre Dame
36. Week 2 (Sept. 8): Penn State at Virginia
37. Week 11 (Nov. 10): Wake Forest at NC State
38. Week 8 (Oct. 20): Wake Forest at Virginia
39. Week 3 (Sept. 15): Virginia Tech at Pitt
40. Week 3 (Sept. 15): UConn at Maryland

Athlon Sports Must-See TV for 2012:

ACC's Must-See Games of 2012

Big East's Must-See Games of 2012

Big 12's Must-See Games of 2012 (Coming Tues.)

-by Braden Gall

@bradengall

Athlon Sports ACC Predictions and Team Previews:

Atlantic:

1. Virginia Tech Hokies: No. 16
2. North Carolina Tar Heels: No. 29
3. Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets: No. 35
4. Virginia Cavaliers: No. 36
5. Miami Hurricanes: No. 48
6. Duke Blue Devils: No. 80

Coastal:

1. Florida State Seminoles: No. 9
2. Clemson Tigers: No. 15
3. NC State Wolfpack: No. 28
4. Wake Forest Wake Forest: No. 57
5. Maryland Terrapins: No. 72
6. Boston College Eagles: No. 86

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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 Diego Chargers check in at No. 16.

In a move unpopular with many fans, team president Dean Spanos decided to keep coach Norv Turner and general manager A.J. Smith after the Chargers finished 8–8 and out of the playoffs for the second straight year. Now it’s time for Turner and Smith to fire up the Chargers — or get fired.

Smith was more active than usual in free agency. Forced to replace star wide receiver Vincent Jackson, he signed Robert Meachem and Eddie Royal in a flurry of deals that should bolster the offense. Smith then used the draft to improve a defense that was the worst in the NFL on third down. With the first three picks, he took outside linebacker Melvin Ingram of South Carolina, defensive end Kendall Reyes of Connecticut and safety Brandon Taylor of LSU. 

The Chargers no longer have the luxury of playing in one of the weakest divisions in football. Oakland continues to improve. The Chiefs regain the services of standout tailback Jamaal Charles. And the Broncos, the defending division champs, now have Peyton Manning running the show.

Offense

No one will be as eager to bounce back as Pro Bowl quarterback Philip Rivers, who has to hope that his mysterious struggles are behind him. Rivers committed a stunning number of turnovers, including the memorable fumbled snap at Kansas City. Rivers finished with 20 interceptions and five lost fumbles. Many fans wondered if he was hurt after taking a few hard shots to the chest early in the season. But his name never appeared on the injury report, and he insisted he was healthy.

The offensive line took a hit when four-time Pro Bowler Kris Dielman, a fixture at left guard, was forced to retire after a concussion. Dielman was as tough and nasty as they come, leaving the Chargers to replace an attitude as well as a player. Tyronne Green will give it a shot. The Chargers re-signed center Nick Hardwick and left tackle Jared Gaither. Gaither helped stabilize the left side of the line during the final five games of the 2011 season after being signed off waivers following a neck injury to Marcus McNeill, a 2006 second-round pick who was released in the offseason. Hardwick has been a starter since his rookie season of 2004. He made it known that he wanted to remain in San Diego and did not test the free agency market.

The team allowed Jackson to leave for Tampa Bay even though he caught 60 passes for a team-high 1,106 yards and nine touchdowns. San Diego felt it would be unable to address other needs if it they gave Jackson a deal in the range of the $55 million he signed with the Bucs. Meachem will start opposite injury-prone Malcom Floyd, while Royal — who often burned the Chargers during his time with Denver — will battle exciting second-year pro Vincent Brown for the No. 3 receiving spot.

Running back Ryan Mathews had a solid second NFL season, showing a nice burst en route to 1,091 yards and a spot in the Pro Bowl. Mathews will have a new escort this season, as Le’Ron McClain has replaced Mike Tolbert at fullback.

Tight end Antonio Gates returned to health after missing time early in the season with painful plantar fasciitis. He continues to draw double-teams and led the Chargers with 64 catches for 778 yards and seven scores.
If the Chargers can stay relatively healthy and avoid the turnover issues that plagued them last season, the offense has the ability to be among the best in the league. 

Related: Top San Diego Chargers Twitter Accounts to Follow

Defense

A glaring lack of impact players on defense hurt the Chargers to the point that they led the NFL by allowing opponents to convert 49.2 percent on third downs. The scapegoat was defensive coordinator Greg Manusky, who was fired shortly after the 2011 season. He was replaced by linebackers coach John Pagano, brother of new Indianapolis Colts coach Chuck Pagano. John Pagano was beaming during the draft as the front office selected Ingram, Reyes and Taylor with the first three picks, giving him a player on each level of the defense. All three rookies are expected to provide an immediate impact, particularly in third down packages.

Reyes will be an upgrade in the defensive line rotation. Ingram will be inserted into the rotation at outside linebacker, joining Shaun Phillips, Antwan Barnes, and the newly acquired Jarret Johnson. A starter for the Ravens for the past five years, Johnson is strong against the run. Barnes had 11 sacks last season, while Phillips, who missed four games at midseason, had only 3.5. Larry English hasn’t lived up to his billing as a first-round pick out of Northern Illinois in 2009, largely because of foot injuries. He has only seven sacks in three NFL seasons.

Taylor will compete with Atari Bigby for the starting job at strong safety. The Chargers hope Taylor can give them the kind of hard-hitting play they haven’t had at strong safety since Rodney Harrison left for New England 10 years ago.

Free safety Eric Weddle was one of the bright spots on a disappointing defense. The veteran from Utah was named first-team All-Pro after recording 66 tackles and tying for the NFL lead with seven interceptions. He’s also developed into a leader in the locker room.  

Specialists

Nate Kaeding, the most accurate kicker in NFL history coming into the 2011 season, broke his leg on the season’s opening kickoff — which was returned for a touchdown by Minnesota’s Percy Harvin — and missed the rest of the year. Nick Novak stepped in and converted 27-of-34 attempts, but Kaeding is expected to get his job back. Mike Scifres continues to boom punts; he ranked sixth in the NFL with a 47.5-yard average. Royal will step in and take over punt returning duties. Richard Goodman, a reserve wide receiver, is in the mix to be the primary kickoff return specialist. 

Final Analysis: 2nd in the AFC West

Interestingly enough, the Chargers had their best start under Turner last season — they were 4–1 after five games — yet still missed the playoffs for the second straight year. They were undone by a six-game losing streak in the middle of the season. They did, however, close with a 4–1 run, which gives them some confidence heading into 2012.

Spanos has made it clear that Turner and Smith have to win in order to save their jobs. He didn’t specifically mention a deep playoff run, but it was implied.

The offense, a team strength for so many years, must become more efficient after a down year. That starts with Rivers at quarterback, but the new additions to the receiving corps will be under the microscope as well. The team addressed some glaring needs on defense in the draft. If the rookies make an immediate impact and Pagano, the new defensive coordinator, can solve the third down woes, the Chargers should be in the hunt for the AFC West title. 

Related: 2012 San Diego Chargers Schedule Analysis

Outside The Huddle

Remembering Junior
The Chargers were among the hardest hit emotionally when former linebacker Junior Seau died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in May. “We all lost a friend today,” team president Dean Spanos said. “This is just such a tragic loss. One of the worst things I could ever imagine.” The Chargers held a celebration of life service on May 11 at Qualcomm Stadium, where Seau starred for his first 13 NFL seasons.

Look Who’s Coming to Town
The Chargers will see several high-profile former teammates and coaches thanks to their matchup with the NFC South this season. In home games, they’ll face running back Michael Turner of the Falcons, and running back Mike Tolbert and former defensive coordinator Ron Rivera of the Panthers. In road games, they’ll face quarterback Drew Brees of the Saints and Vincent Jackson of the Buccaneers.

Royal Addition
Eddie Royal has a chance to make highlights with the Chargers rather than against them. While with Denver in 2009, Royal returned a kickoff and a punt for touchdowns in a 34–23 Monday night victory at San Diego. In September 2008, after referee Ed Hochuli’s infamous blown call in Denver, Royal caught a fourth down touchdown pass from Jay Cutler and then ran the same route to catch the winning two-point conversion.

Party In The Parking Lot
There were plenty of emotional moments when left guard Kris Dielman announced his retirement in the offseason due to a concussion. The mood lightened somewhat when Dielman was asked if he’s going to still be around. “I’m excited to tailgate,” he said.
Whitehurst is back Charlie Whitehurst is back as Philip Rivers’ backup after a two-year sojourn to Seattle in which he threw his first NFL pass. Whitehurst was San Diego’s third-string quarterback behind Rivers and Billy Volek from 2006-09 and never attempted a pass in the regular season. After being traded to Seattle, he played in nine games in two seasons, throwing for 805 yards and three touchdowns, with four interceptions. He helped get the Seahawks into the playoffs in 2010. Hours after signing Whitehurst, the Chargers released Volek.

Turning Green
It might take San Diego State fans a while to warm up to rookie tight end Ladarius Green. In his final game at Louisiana-Lafayette, he caught five passes for 121 yards and a touchdown in a 32–30 victory over the Aztecs in the New Orleans Bowl. 

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: Mon., Aug. 13

Order your 2012 San Diego Chargers Athlon Sports NFL Preview magazine here

Related: Top San Deigo Chargers Top Twitter Accounts To Follow 
Related: 2012 San Diego Chargrs Schedule Analysis

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Few teams inspire equal parts repulsion and adoration like the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. Yet, one thing any fan of any team must admit is that Notre Dame plays arguably the toughest schedule each and every season. This fall won’t be any different as the Irish will face 10 teams that got to bowl eligibility in 2011. Boston College and Navy are the only two teams on this schedule that were not bowl eligible last season. Additionally, Brian Kelly’s bunch will face six teams that won at least 10 games last year.

Week 1 (Sept. 1): Navy (9:00 AM ET, CBS) Dublin, Ire.
Overall Record: 72-12-1, Last Meeting: W, 56-14 (2011)

Week 2 (Sept. 8): Purdue (3:30 PM ET, NBC)
Overall Record: 55-26-2, Last Meeting: W, 38-10 (2011)

Week 3 (Sept. 15): At Michigan State (8:00 PM ET, ABC)
Overall Record: 46-28-1, Last Meeting: W, 31-13 (2011)

Week 4 (Sept. 22): Michigan (7:30 PM ET, NBC)
Overall Record: 15-23-1, Last Meeting: L, 35-31 (2011)

Week 5 (Sept. 29): Bye Week

Week 6 (Oct. 6): Miami, Fla. (7:30 PM ET, NBC) Chicago, Ill.
Overall Record: 16-7-1, Last Meeting: W, 33-17 (2010, Sun Bowl)

Week 7 (Oct. 13): Stanford (3:30 PM ET, NBC)
Overall Record: 17-9, Last Meeting: L, 28-14 (2011)

Week 8 (Oct. 20): BYU (3:30 PM ET, NBC)
Overall Record: 4-2, Last Meeting: W, 49-23 (2005)

Week 9 (Oct. 27): At Oklahoma (TBA)
Overall Record: 8-1, Last Meeting: W, 34-30 (1999)

Week 10 (Nov. 3): Pitt (3:30 PM ET, NBC)
Overall Record: 46-20-1, Last Meeting: W, 15-12 (2011)

Week 11 (Nov. 10): At Boston College (TBA)
Overall Record: 12-9, Last Meeting: W, 16-14 (2011)

Week 12 (Nov. 17): Wake Forest (3:30 PM ET, NBC)
Overall Record: 1-0, Last Meeting: W, 24-17 (2011)

Week 13 (Nov. 24): At USC (TBA, ABC/ESPN)
Overall Record: 43-35-5, Last Meeting: W, 31-17 (2011)

Week 14 (Nov. 31): Bye Week

Related: 2012 Notre Dame Team Preview

— After a four-decade win streak over the fine Naval Academy, the Middies claimed three of four from the Irish from 2007 to 2010. Kelly’s bunch got back on the winning side last fall in a one-sided 56-14 domination. This game has a decidedly different feel to it as it will take place across the pond in Dublin. While the fans love the 10 AM ET kickoff, the coaches will have to get their teams adjusted during a strange week of travel. Especially, considering that the Irish do not have a bye week following a long trip back to the States.

— From Week 2 to Week 4, the Irish will face three straight regional rivals from the Big Ten. These games will not only feature two 10-win teams from Michigan with BCS bowl aspirations, but recruiting battles hang in the balance as well. All four schools compete directly for recruits in the Midwest and winning on the field means more than just a single W or L in the standings. And, of course, revenge will be heavy on Irish minds after last year’s soul-crushing fourth quarter collapse against the biggest rival of the group Michigan. The first month will indicate what Notre Dame will be in 2012 and will likely feature the toughest two-week stretch of the year. Kelly is 0-2 against Michigan at Notre Dame.

Related: ND Predictions: Most Important Game, Key Position Battles and Top Newcomers

— After facing four straight bowl teams, the bye week will come at a welcome time for Kelly’s bunch. Ideally, the quarterback situation will have been sorted out long before Week 5 (I have been calling for Everett Golson to be the starter all summer), but this layoff should give the Irish offensive staff time to regroup and reevaluate its quarterback play — should something still be left to be determined.

— A trip around Lake Michigan to Soldier Field should be fun for the Windy City faithful. It just doesn’t appear to be promising for the Miami fans. Should the Irish be 4-0, they will have a chance to make a big statement in Chicago against a former national power.

— Week’s 7-9 should be the toughest stretch of games for the Irish in 2012. Stanford appears to be a carbon copy of Notre Dame this fall — questions at quarterback but a talented running game to go with a nasty front seven on defense — and matches-up very well with the Irish. The Cardinal have won three straight in the series. BYU has a big offense that will test the ND secondary. Luckily, both games will come in South Bend, but they lead up to a trip to Norman to battle the Sooners. Landry Jones and Co. will be able to handle the Irish defense, so it will fall to the Irish offense to produce if Kelly expects to compete with Oklahoma. These two historic powers haven’t played since 1999.

— The good news for Irish fans is that the easiest section of the schedule will come directly after the trip to Oklahoma. Pitt, Boston College and Wake Forest might be the three easiest opponents on the ’12 slate and all three will be played consecutively. The bad news? The Irish beat these three by a total of 12 points last year. Again, this stretch being defined as the “easiest” three games is another indicator of just how tough the Irish slate is every year.

— The season finale will be the team’s toughest single test of the year. Notre Dame has beaten USC once time since 2001 and could be facing an undefeated 11-0 Heisman Trophy-led offensive juggernaut on the road in Los Angeles. Yes, the last time Kelly took a team to The Coliseum, the Irish came away victorious, but that was the worst Trojan team since Peter Carroll’s first year — also, in 2001.

Official Season Prediction: 8-4, Pinstripe Bowl

Related: Athlon Sports 2012 Bowl Projections

- by Braden Gall

@bradengall

Athlon Sports 2012 Notre Dame Content:

2012 Notre Dame Team Preview
Debate: Can Brian Kelly Lead the Irish to a BCS Bowl?

Who are the Top 10 Notre Dame Players in 2012?

Team Predictions: Who Starts at QB, What is the Most Important Game and More

The 10 Greatest Fighting Irish Player of All-Time

Notre Dame Cheerleader Gallery

Teaser:
<p> Notre Dame Football: 2012 Schedule Analysis</p>
Post date: Friday, August 10, 2012 - 06:00
All taxonomy terms: AFC, AFC South, Tennessee Titans, NFL
Path: /nfl/tennessee-titans-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 Tennessee Titans check in at No. 17.

Peyton Manning’s Tennessee homecoming parade has been cancelled, and Vince Young is on his second team since being booed off the stage in Music City following the 2010 season. It is up to either Matt Hasselbeck or Jake Locker to win the Super Bowl that has eluded 89-year-old owner Bud Adams, who founded the Houston Oilers (and co-founded the AFL) in 1960.

Second-year coach Mike Munchak will have an open competition to determine the Titans’ starting quarterback. Entering his 14th season, the 36-year-old Hasselbeck is an above-average passer who can beat bad teams and keep it close against superior competition — which, in a mediocre AFC South, may be all Tennessee needs to do to sneak into the playoffs with a wild card berth. Meanwhile, the 24-year-old Locker heads into his second season with the type of big league arm (MLB’s Angels own his rights until 2015), mobility and moxie not seen in Nashville since Steve ­McNair’s co-MVP, Super Bowl runner-up heyday.

With the Colts starting No. 1 overall pick Andrew Luck (a Pac-10 rival of Locker) and the Jaguars turning their team over to Blaine Gabbert (a 2011 draft classmate of Locker), now is a perfect time to go with the young gun — who threw for 542 yards, four touchdowns and zero interceptions for a 99.4 rating, along with a highlight-reel diving score on the ground, in limited action (66 pass attempts) as a rookie. The loser of the Locker-Hasselbeck showdown will be arguably the best backup in the league.

Offense

Whoever plays quarterback will have the luxury of a loaded arsenal of weapons at his disposal. Chris Johnson follows in the footsteps of former franchise workhorse runners Eddie George and Earl Campbell. But not since the days of Haywood Jeffires, Ernest Givins and Drew Hill have the Oilers-Titans had a fleet of receivers like 6'3", 215-pound athletic freak Kenny Britt, 1,000-yard wideout Nate Washington, first-round pick Kendall Wright and 6'5" rising star tight end Jared Cook. That doesn’t mean Warren Moon’s Run ‘n’ Shoot offense is making a comeback, but second-year coordinator Chris Palmer will have options.

Still, the Titans are coached by a Hall of Fame O-lineman in Munchak — whose right-hand man, O-line coach Bruce Matthews, is a fellow Hall of Famer and former Oiler-Titan — and will remain a ball-control offense. Johnson is the straw that stirs the drink. The Tennessee faithful are eager to see the track star formerly known as CJ2K return to his All-Pro form and earn the $53 million deal he signed last offseason. The perfect storm of NFL lockout, contract holdout and new coach-coordinator-QB slowed Johnson out of the gate. But the interior of the offensive line was arguably the biggest problem with the running game last season. The signing of 11-year veteran guard Steve Hutchinson will help solidify the line — which boasts strong bookend tackles Michael Roos, a dancing bear on the blindside, and David Stewart, a nasty mauler on the right side as well as the team’s resident enforcer. The line did suffer a significant loss at the start of training camp, however, when center Eugene Amano suffered a season-ending triceps injury. Right guard Fernando Velasco has slid over and it appears the job is his to lose.

The return of a reliable ground game will open up the play-action passing attack, which could be especially dangerous depending on the health and behavior of Britt, who tore his ACL and MCL in Week 3 last season after posting 14 catches for 271 yards and three TDs the first two weeks. Although Britt required multiple surgeries this offseason, including two different procedures since May alone, his continued off-the-field trangressions may end up being the biggest hurdle to overcome. After being arrested and charged with another DUI in July, Britt could be subject to punishment from NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, which could delay his return to the lineup further. Between questions about his health and his behavior, it's becoming clearer why the Titans drafted Wright in the first round.

Related: Top Tennessee Titans Twitter Accounts to Follow

Defense

The losses of scrappy corner Cortland Finnegan and versatile lineman Jason Jones will hurt, but maybe not as much as many believe. The secondary is led by safety Michael Griffin — who signed a new five-year contract in June after getting the franchise tag — and talented young corners Alterraun Verner and Jason McCourty (twin brother of the Patriots’ Devin McCourty). Second-year coordinator Jerry Gray mixed and matched his base 4-3 with a slew of nickel packages last year, which will mean plenty of playing time for veteran safety Jordan Babineaux as well as rookies Coty Sensabaugh and Markelle Martin.

Up front, tackle Jurrell Casey enters his second season riding a wave of positive momentum. The 22-year-old 300-pounder flashed signs of stardom as a rookie and is being counted on to anchor the D-line, a unit that lacks the luxuries of proven depth or a dominant Albert Haynesworth or Jevon Kearse-caliber playmaker. Free agent Kamerion Wimbley and high-intensity hustler Dave Ball are both predictably solid pros at end. The spotlight is on 2010 first-round pick Derrick Morgan, a high-profile underachiever who has compiled nearly as many injuries as sacks (four) over his first two years. Karl Klug, Sen’Derrick Marks and rookie Mike Martin headline the rotation of big bodies set to line up next to Casey inside.

Middle linebacker Colin McCarthy wears No. 52 and thinks he’s Ray Lewis. As long as no one tells him otherwise, expect the young tackling machine out of Miami to continue to run through brick walls in search of the football. McCarthy’s toughness is contagious, but his wrecking ball style of play may impact his long-term durability. On the outside, Akeem Ayers looks the part and runs well but had a knack for missed tackles and poorly timed mental mistakes as a rookie. Fans are concerned that second-round pick Zach Brown may be a less physical version of Ayers. The fastest linebacker in the draft (4.50 in the 40-yard dash at the Combine), Brown was accused of being “allergic to contact” by NFL Network’s Mike Mayock.

The creative Gray may also implement a few 3-4 hybrid looks with Wimbley — who was an outside backer in Oakland — standing up to rush the passer. 

Specialists

A fan favorite, kicker Rob Bironas is one of the best in the business, hitting 29-of-32 field goals, including 6-of-7 from over 50 yards out. Punter Brett Kern had a career year in 2011, with a 43.6-yard average and 31 kicks downed inside the 20. Return specialist Marc Mariani was hurt by kickoff rule changes but had a 79-yard punt return to the house.

Final Analysis: 2nd in the AFC South

The Titans were the only team with a winning record (9–7) to miss the postseason in 2011. A Week 15 loss at Indy — which was the Colts’ first win of the season — was essentially a playoff-elimination game. Munchak’s second campaign should run much more smoothly, at least after the dust has settled on the quarterback competition in camp.

Houston is the overwhelming favorite in the AFC South, while Indianapolis and Jacksonville appear to be two of the least talented teams in the league. Tennessee is flying under the radar but has a chance to win its way into the playoffs. A front-loaded schedule includes four 2011 playoff teams in the first six weeks. If the Titans can survive early on, they could thrive once the season heats up — especially if CJ-barely-1K plays closer to the CJ2K level he’s proven capable of.

Related: 2012 Tennessee Titans Schedule Analysis

Outside The Huddle

Big Orange vs. Orange Crush
The Titans came painfully close to signing Peyton Manning, a former All-American at the University of Tennessee and Titans owner Bud Adams’ top offseason priority. “He is the man I want. Period,” said Adams. “I will be disappointed if it doesn’t happen.” It ­didn’t happen, but the state’s hopes were high after Manning was seen wearing a UT-orange shirt on his visit to Nashville. But Manning picked the Rocky Mountains over Rocky Top.

Emerald City South
New GM Ruston Webster is the latest in a growing line of key Titans who have roots in the Seahawks’ organization. The list includes Webster’s predecessor, new senior executive VP and COO Mike Reinfeldt; quarterback Matt Hasselbeck; guard Steve Hutchinson; and safety Jordan Babineaux. Even quarterback Jake Locker hails from Ferndale, Wash., which is about 100 miles north of Seattle.

Gotta Be the Shoes
@ChrisJohnson28 teased his Twitter followers in late May, tweeting: “I wish I can post these new CJ2K cleats for this year but I can’t yet y’all gonna see the fye.” Along with building suspense for the unveiling of his new shoes, Johnson also let his Tweeps know he bowled a 177, made a YouTube video stir-frying Ramen noodles with Orlando rapper Pressure Dommer and told USA track star Tyson Gay that he wanted to be on the 4x100 relay team at the London Olympics. Who knows? Maybe the gold-grilled runner would have worn Michael Johnson-style gold cleats?

Comeback Kid
Jake Locker nearly pulled off a pair of come-from-behind wins after coming off the bench to replace an injured Matt Hasselbeck at Atlanta and against New Orleans. The Locker-led Titans scored 14 unanswered points in the Georgia Dome and were a late-fourth quarter third down stop away from getting the ball back with a chance to win before ultimately losing 23–17. Locker was one play away from upsetting the Saints but failed to pull the trigger on 3rd-and-goal as time expired on a 22–17 defeat. Overall, the Titans were plus-12 on the scoreboard with Locker in the game in 2011.

Locker vs. Luck
Jake Locker and Andrew Luck played against each other twice in college, with Luck’s Stanford Cardinal owning a 2–0 edge — winning 41–0 in 2010 and 34–14 in 2009 — over Locker’s Washington Huskies. Locker and Luck have yet to make their first NFL starts, but the duo already has a history in what could be a long AFC South rivalry.

Doctor Bud
Owner Bud Adams received an Honorary Doctorate of Business from his alma mater Menlo College on May 5. Adams graduated from the small Atherton, Calif., private school in 1942 and established the K.S. Bud Adams Jr. Endowed Scholarship, which “provides assistance for nearly 20 Menlo students each year.”

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: Fri., Aug. 10

Order your 2012 Tennessee Titans Athlon Sports NFL Preview magazine here

Related: Top Tennessee Titans Top Twitter Accounts To Follow 
Related: 2012 Tennessee Titans Schedule Analysis

Teaser:
<p> Tennessee Titans 2012 NFL Team Preview</p>
Post date: Thursday, August 9, 2012 - 05:39
All taxonomy terms: AFC, AFC South, Tennessee Titans, NFL
Path: /nfl/tennessee-titans-top-twitter-accounts-follow
Body:

Keeping up with your favorite team can be an all-consuming task. We’re here to help indulge that need to follow all aspects of the NFL on Twitter.

For all 32 teams, we’re picking the best Twitter accounts for each franchise. They run the gamut from players, coaches, executives, traditional media, bloggers or simply accounts that keep us informed and entertained.

Whether you’re a Twitter neophyte or simply trying to spice up your feed for football season, we’re here to help. And it all starts with the Tennessee Titans official Twitter account:

@TennesseeTitans (Followers: 88,662)

Top Titans To Follow:

Note: Followers as of date of publication, August 9, 2012

  Name Pos. Twitter Followers
1. Chris Johnson RB @ChrisJohnson28 711,470
2. Will Witherspoon LB @willwitherspoon 134,788
3. Matt Hasselbeck QB @Hasselbeck 128,400
4. Jason McCourty* CB @McCourtyTwins 38,450
5. Michael Griffin S @MikeGriff33 24,458
6. Rob Bironas K @RobBironas 18,342
7. Shaun Smith DT @autumnsjs90 15,407
8. Mike Martin DT @GoMikeMartin 14,811
9. Marc Mariani WR @MarcMariani83 12,498
10. Kenny Britt WR @KennyBritt_18 12,205
11. Damian Williams WR @DwillOne7 11,474
12. Jared Cook TE @JaredCook89 11,152
13. Akeem Ayers LB @Akeem_Ayers 10,523
14. Kameiron Wimbley DE @Mr_Wimbley96 10,477
15. Alterraun Verner CB @Alvern_1 10,360
16. Colin McCarthy LB @COLINMcCARTHY52 9,714
17. Derrick Morgan DE @dmorg91 7,500
18. Jordan Babineaux DB @jordanbabineaux 7,271
19. Robert Johnson S @Robertjohnson32 6,595
20. Brett Kern P @brettkern6 5,668
21. Gerald McRath LB @4everUSM24 5,523
22. Javon Ringer RB @JavonRinger23 5,230
23. Tim Shaw LB @TShawsTruth 4,538
24. Jamie Harper RB @Newbreed23 4,228
25. Michael Roos OT @MichaelRoos 3,693

*Jason McCourty shares a Twitter account with his twin brother, Devin, who plays strong safety for New England.

Eddie George (@EddieGeorge27), the franchise's all-time leading rusher, and recently retired Titan, Keith Bulluck (@kbull53) are two franchise greats that Titans fans can follow if they wish to.

The Titans Beat:

Jim Wyatt, Titans beat writer for The Tennessean: @jwyattsports (16,158)

John Glennon, Titans beat writer for The Tennessean: @glennonsports (4,917)

Terry McCormick, co-owner of TitanInsider.com/AFC blogger for the National Football Post: @terrymc13 (3,131)

Teresa Walker, covers Titans for the Associated Press: @TeresaMWalker (2,241)

Titans Blog Roll:

Titans Insider is The Tennessean's blog for Music City's home team.

Music City Miracles is SB Nation's Titans blog.

TitanInsider.com is part of 247Sports' network of sites.

Titan Sized, Total Titans and Titans Gab are some others out there.

The ESPN AFC South blog is run by Paul Kuharsky and you can follow him @espn_afcsouth.

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: Fri., Aug. 10

Order your 2012 Tennessee Titans Athlon Sports NFL Preview magazine here

Related: 2012 Tennessee Titans Season Preview
Related: 2012 Tennessee Titans Schedule Analysis

- By Braden Gall and Mark Ross, published on August 9, 2012

@bradengall

Teaser:
<p> Tennessee Titans Top Twitter Accounts To Follow</p>
Post date: Thursday, August 9, 2012 - 05:29
All taxonomy terms: AFC, AFC East, Buffalo Bills, NFL
Path: /nfl/buffalo-bills-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 Buffalo Bills check in at No. 18.

The Buffalo Bills enter the 2012 season with the dubious distinction of having missed the playoffs 12 consecutive seasons. In the era of unrestricted free agency and advancements in scouting college players, NFL teams almost have to try to miss the postseason for that many years. But Buffalo has had only one winning season since 1999. Is this the year the drought finally ends?

While last season’s second-half swoon — a 1–8 finish after starting 5–2 — was painful, it did reveal areas the Bills needed to improve most, starting with a pass rush. The Bills addressed that aggressively, making headlines with the signings of defensive ends Mario Williams and Mark Anderson. With a better defense helping out a vastly improved offense under quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, Buffalo may be able to re-ignite some of that magic it had early in 2011. But if you’re a Bills fan, you’ve learned not to get your hopes up.

Offense

Even with their struggles in the second half of last season, the Bills made noticeable strides in operating coach Chan Gailey’s creative offensive schemes. Gailey favors spreading out defenses and running the ball, keeping opponents guessing with non-traditional sets.

The key to making it work, of course, is a smart, savvy quarterback. The Bills have that in Fitzpatrick, who came to Buffalo as a backup to the long-forgotten Trent Edwards in 2009 and found a permanent, well-paying home. Fitzpatrick, who operates like a faucet — hot and cold — still has a lot to live up to in justifying the six-year, $59 million contract he received during last season’s hot start, particularly after throwing 16 of his league-leading 23 interceptions during the club’s 1–8 skid.

Working in his favor was the club’s decision to retain two of his favorite targets, free agent wide receiver Stevie Johnson and tight end Scott Chandler. Johnson, who was given a $36.25-million deal, is the only Buffalo receiver ever to notch consecutive 1,000-yard seasons, but the team is still without an undisputed No. 2 wideout, and deep speed is a concern. There is no shortage of candidates who will try to complement Johnson in some form. Those to watch include David Nelson, Donald Jones, Derek Hagan, Marcus Easley, Brad Smith, third-round pick T.J. Graham and speedy free agent David Clowney.

The team’s most consistent strength, though, is the run game. Veteran Fred Jackson and emerging C.J. Spiller form a strong tandem. Spiller averaged more than 5.0 yards per carry after Jackson missed the final six games with a fractured fibula. Buffalo led the league in yards-per-rush on first down at 5.46, setting up advantageous second and third down situations.

It’s up to the pass-happy Gailey to commit to Jackson and Spiller even more behind a developing line that needs to replace left tackle Demetress Bell, who signed with the Eagles. Chris Hairston or second-round pick Cordy Glenn are the likely candidates.

Related: Top Buffalo Bills Twitter Accounts to Follow

Defense

The Bills allowed a club-record 5,938 yards last season along with 434 points, the second-most ever. Needless to say, Gailey was left with little choice but to fire defensive coordinator George Edwards and hand the reins to assistant head coach Dave Wannstedt, the well-respected and well-traveled former boss of the Bears and Dolphins. But even a coach as good as Wannstedt needs players, and he was given two early Christmas presents in the form of Williams and Anderson, who bring 88.5 career sacks to the shores of Lake Erie.

Williams, the first overall pick in the 2006 draft, was the most prized free agent pass-rusher on the market, and Buffalo scored a coup by selling him on the joys of a small city and an end-friendly 4-3 scheme. Anderson, who had 10 sacks for rival New England, arrived a week later. Considering the Bills had a paltry 29 sacks last year — with 10 coming in one game — this was their biggest area of need, and they filled it with gusto.

With Williams and Anderson on the outside and stalwart defensive tackles Kyle Williams, a 2010 Pro Bowler, and Marcell Dareus, last year’s first-round pick, in the middle, Buffalo will field one of the NFL’s best defensive fronts without question (provided Williams recovers fully from foot surgery). The hope is that those four players make a decent linebacker and secondary corps better; last season opposing quarterbacks completed a shocking 63.3 percent of their throws and threw 30 touchdown passes.

The three starting linebackers are expected to be Kelvin Sheppard in the middle flanked by Nick Barnett and Kirk Morrison, with rookie Nigel Bradham in the mix. Shawne Merriman, a former All-Pro with San Diego, will make yet another attempt to shake years of injury problems in a hybrid end-linebacker pass-rushing role.

Top draft pick Stephon Gilmore, meanwhile, has a shot at earning a starting cornerback job along with veteran Terrence McGee, though former first-round pick Leodis McKelvin and second-year man Aaron Williams will have a say in the matter. Safety is well staffed with Pro Bowler Jairus Byrd, George Wilson, Da’Norris Searcy and the re-signed Bryan Scott.

Specialists

With free agent kicker Rian Lindell back in the fold and recovered from a broken shoulder, the Bills’ special teams will be formidable again. Lindell and punter Brian Moorman are battle-tested in the challenging weather conditions of Western New York. As for their return game, the Bills overflow with options. Spiller and McKelvin will handle punts and ease the loss of team record-holder Roscoe Parrish to the Chargers. Justin Rogers, meanwhile, emerged as the club’s top kickoff return specialist as a rookie, averaging 28.7 yards.

Final Analysis: 2nd in the AFC East

After three offseasons of work, GM Buddy Nix says it’s time for the Bills to become “relevant" again. And he means for an entire season, not two months.

Buffalo deserves kudos for addressing their defensive shortcomings. Landing Williams with a $100 million contract re-energized the fan base, and taking a cornerback No. 1 in the draft was widely applauded as a sound move. Offensively, money was spent freely to retain the services of core players Johnson, Chandler, Kraig Urbik and Chad Rinehart. But wide receiver depth and left tackle remain areas of concern, unless rookie picks Graham and Glenn make instant impacts.

Buffalo wasn’t that far from being a .500 team a year ago, and if it can avoid the injury bug that took down 17 players, including seven starters, and if Fitzpatrick can justify his contract and stay in one piece, the Bills might flirt with a wild card spot into December.

The Bills haven’t made that leap from “hoping” to win to “expecting” to win under Gailey. There can be no overtaking Tom Brady and Bill Belichick in the AFC East until that happens.

Related: 2012 Buffalo Bills Schedule Analysis

Outside The Huddle

Ralph’s Cheap?
Ralph Wilson often gets criticized for being frugal, but at various times in his 50-plus years as owner he has spent big. He made O.J. Simpson the game’s highest-paid running back, Jim Kelly its highest-paid quarterback, and now Mario Williams its highest-paid defensive player. Williams’ six-year, $100 million deal eclipses the six-year, $91.5 million deal Julius Peppers inked in Chicago.

Kelly On Target
Pro Football Hall of Famer Kelly played a major role in recruiting Williams to Buffalo, hosting the Houston free agent with small-town roots at his house and eagerly pointing out the deer in his backyard. Williams is a big hunter. “He did some heavy recruiting. He showed me some of his hunting pictures,’’ Williams says.

Target Brady
Patriots owner Robert Kraft was stating the obvious when analyzing Buffalo’s signing of Williams and Mark Anderson, who had 10 sacks for his team last season. He said the Bills made those moves to “come after our boy, No. 12.” That would be three-time Super Bowl MVP Tom Brady, who has lost to the Bills only twice in his career. “Well, he’s right. He’s exactly right,” coach Chan Gailey says.

Run it, Guys
It’s no secret Gailey and Ryan Fitzpatrick like to live by the pass, but too often in 2011 they died by it. Over the final nine games (1–8), Fitzpatrick threw 24 times on 3rd-and-short (four yards or less) and completed only five of those passes.

Nice Catch
Pete Metzelaars, the greatest tight end in club history, has returned to coach that position on Gailey’s staff. Metzelaars, 51, played on all four Super Bowl teams in Buffalo, catching 302 passes good for 2,921 yards and 25 touchdowns. “It’s a little bizarre,” says Metzelaars, a Colts assistant for eight seasons. “It’s been 18 years or so since I’ve really been back here so to come back it’s neat. It’s neat connecting with good friends.”

QB Parade
Buffalo will face all four quarterbacks selected in the first round of the NFL Draft — Robert Griffin III (No. 2 overall to Washington) in the preseason and Andrew Luck (No. 1 to Indianapolis), Ryan Tannehill (No. 8 to Miami) and Brandon Weeden (No. 22 to Cleveland) in the regular season.

Appreciative Star
Fun-loving Stevie Johnson has drawn penalties and critics for his end zone celebrating, but nobody can say the guy doesn’t appreciate being a well-paid NFL player. During a news conference to announce his five-year, $36.25 million contract, Johnson thanked no fewer than 30 people and saved his mom for last: “I want to say ‘Mom, look at your son now, look at your son.’ I can take care of you guys now. Thank you. Once again to all my fans who showed support throughout my career, thank you.’’

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: Thur., Aug. 9

Order your 2012 Buffalo Bills Athlon Sports NFL Preview magazine here

Related: Top Buffalo Bills Top Twitter Accounts To Follow 
Related: 2012 Buffalo Bills Schedule Analysis

Teaser:
<p> Buffalo Bills 2012 NFL Team Preview</p>
Post date: Wednesday, August 8, 2012 - 06:00

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