Articles By David Fox
The Athlon Sports team returns to action with a look at all the quarterbacks around college football.
Braden Gall, David Fox and Steven Lassan make their picks for the top quarterbacks for each league, the top battles and the sleepers for major conferences.
They also take a quick look at the non-major conferences, and soccer player/Athlon intern Andie grills one of our hosts about his true feelings on the World Cup.
You can reach the podcast team at email@example.com or on Twitter at @AthlonSports @BradenGall @DavidFox615 and @AthlonSteven.
San Diego Padres legend and Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn died after a battle with salivary gland cancer. The Padres announced his death Monday. He was 54.
Gwynn was one of the greatest hitters in the modern era and the last to seriously challenge a .400 batting average when he hit .394 in a strike-shortened season in 1994.
Known for his welcoming personality as much as his prowess at the plate, Gwynn accumulated 3,141 hits, won eight National League batting titles, earned 15 All-Star nods and won four Gold Gloves from 1982-2001.
He was arguably the best pure hitter since Ted Williams, the last batter to hit .400. Fans and sports reporters shared some of the more ridiculous and wild numbers to put Gwynn’s achievements in perspective.
Tony Gwynn dies at the age of 54. Gwynn only struck out 434 times in his career, 2nd-fewest of any member of the 3,000-hit club (Paul Waner)— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) June 16, 2014
Tony Gwynn hit .300 in 18 consecutive seasons from 1983 to 2000. Only Ty Cobb (23 straight) had a longer such streak.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) June 16, 2014
In Tony Gwynn's career, he had 1 3-strikeout game. There were 11 yesterday in the majors. 1 of those was a 4 K game, which Gwynn never did.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) June 16, 2014
Box score of only game (out of 2,440) where Tony Gwynn struck out 3x - the pitcher who did it? Bob Welch. http://t.co/DAico1vmrG— Josh Kelman (@JoshKelman) June 16, 2014
Tony Gwynn struck out 434 times over 9,288 career at-bats. That is not a misprint.— Jeff Passan (@JeffPassan) June 16, 2014
Tony Gwynn hit .338 for his career. Every other hitter who finished with a batting average that high started his career in 1939 or earlier.— Jeff Passan (@JeffPassan) June 16, 2014
Highest career BA for players active after WW2: 1) Ted Williams .344 2) #TonyGwynn .338 3) Musial .331 4) Boggs .328 5) Rod Carew .328— Eric Berman (@WIBC_EricBerman) June 16, 2014
Tony Gwynn career against Maddux, Glavine, Ryan, Smoltz, Eckersley, Pedro Martinez: 140 hits, 382 ABs, .36649 BA.— Paul Myerberg (@PaulMyerberg) June 16, 2014
Tony Gwynn (.302) is only player in our data to hit over .300 in 2-strike counts. Next best: .262 by Boggs: http://t.co/wIkfQ0tCmN— Baseball Reference (@baseball_ref) June 16, 2014
Since 1980, 26 players have had at least 10,000 plate appearances. Only four struck out <10% of their at-bats. Gwynn leads them all at 4.2%.— Jeff (BPredict) (@BPredict) June 16, 2014
Tony Gwynn’s season-high in home runs was 17. He hit .372 that particular year. He was 37.— Erik Malinowski (@erikmal) June 16, 2014
Tony Gwynn didn't play baseball as a freshman at SDSU. He wanted to focus on basketball: https://t.co/Cls84TLRly Still holds assists records— Rob Dauster (@RobDauster) June 16, 2014
By the time any college football game kicks off, one team has already executed a game plan. Behind every major college football team is another team of support staff making sure the players and coaches can focus solely on the game at hand. Athlon Sports followed Louisville’s equipment and training staff for the Dec. 5 game at Cincinnati for a behind-the-scenes look at the logistics of moving a football team from Point A to Point B.
Slideshow: Behind-the-scenes images as Louisville prepares to face Cincinnati
If Mike Kurowski hasn’t received the call yet, he knows to expect it soon. The call will come from his counterpart in equipment operations at Texas, where Charlie Strong became the head coach after the 2013 season.
Kurowski knows to expect that call, because that’s what Kurowski did when Louisville hired Strong. Kurowski, who has worked at Louisville since 2009, called the equipment manager at Florida for insight on how Strong, the former Gators defensive coordinator, would want to run his program, down to gameday wardrobe and snacks.
The job of the director of athletic equipment operations in its simplest terms is to make sure that each player has his helmet, pads and uniform for practice and gameday and that each coach has a working headset and the proper sideline attire.
This feature and more can be found in every regional edition of the 2014 Athlon Sports College Football Preview.
Kurowski and his staff — along with the trainers and director of football operations — are charged with the task of making sure a traveling football team and its coaching staff arrive at the stadium without any concerns aside from winning a football game.
Through repetition and game-planning, the travel process is down to a science, but Kurowski knows enough to plan for surprises.
When Texas calls Kurowski for what to expect from Strong, Kurowski will tell the Longhorns what Florida told him: Make sure to have plenty of Atomic Fireballs. Even then, after Kurowski did his homework on his new boss and his affinity for cinnamon candy, Strong threw a curve.
“The very first time we were out at practice, I said ‘What are all these little white pellets?’ and I finally saw him do it,” Kurowski says. “He sucks the fire out of it and throws them down. He doesn’t chew or anything.”
The responsibility of Kurowski’s staff and every member of Louisville’s support staff is to remember that no detail is too small, from the sideline candy to the uniforms to the pregame meal.
One floor up from Kurowski’s equipment office in the Schnellenberger Football Complex, Clifford Snow, the director of football operations, works through his meticulous checklist.
The team needs Kurowski and the equipment staff to set up the locker rooms. It also needs Snow to make sure the players have a place to sleep, food to eat, a space for the pregame walk-through and a room large enough to accommodate team meetings.
Snow’s preparation for the Cincinnati trip and nearly all of Louisville’s road trips for the season started in the spring when the American Athletic Conference announced its schedule. A road game to Cincinnati is easy, comparatively speaking. It’s one Snow has organized before, and the best part for him is that the team will travel by bus.
If Charlie Strong seems like the most particular or detail-oriented person in this chain, he’s not. It’s Snow.
Snow is the one with a six-page checklist for a 100-mile bus trip to face an opponent Louisville has visited every other year for nearly 50 seasons. The checklist accounts for every phone call, e-mail and fax Snow will send during the two weeks leading up to the game to confirm hotel and meal arrangements, bus reservations and a police escort for a travel party of nearly 200 people.
“Winning the game is the object. My object is to make it so nothing is going to distract from the purpose of winning the game,” says Snow, who joined Strong in the same role at Texas. “Everything is supposed to be seamless.”
The process of moving Louisville to Cincinnati for a Thursday night game begins immediately after practice Tuesday.
The equipment staff, consisting of two full-timers and seven student managers, has cleaned and sorted jerseys and placed them in trunks with cubbies for each player. Anything outside of the standard items — uniforms, helmets and pads — is the responsibility of the player to pack in a duffle bag. This includes extra contact lenses, mouthpieces, Breathe Right strips and knee braces.
When one defensive back arrives in Cincinnati, he’ll find out he won’t have a hand warmer waiting for him in the equipment truck. He didn’t return his after the previous game.
“When he asks for it, we’ll remind him he has to bring one back,” Kurowski tells his staff.
The next gear to pack is the sideline attire for the coaching staff — T-shirts, polos, hoodies and, most important, Strong’s mock turtlenecks. Again, the coach’s wardrobe habits are one of Kurowski’s primary concerns. Strong started on polos in his first season and moved to the cotton mock turtleneck in the second. That stuck, so when Kurowski needed a Dri-FIT mock turtleneck, he custom-ordered one.
"If everything goes smoothly, nobody notices anything."
And then comes the sweatshirt, and it’s always one from Strong’s first season at the school. The lettering is outdated from the standard issue sweatshirts the rest of the coaching staff receives, but the head coach is the one who wears exactly what he wants.
“Coaches can be just as superstitious as the players,” Kurowski says.
That said, the players don’t have much room to be superstitious under Strong’s watch. Every week, one team or another in college football wears a specialty uniform, a throwback or some new combination of jerseys and pants.
In this regard, the traditional look of Texas is perfect for Strong. At Louisville, the Cardinals wore all red at home and all white on the road.
“Any time I have an idea, (Strong) says, ‘Alabama doesn’t change, Penn State doesn’t change,’” Kurowski says.
Elsewhere, the staff prepares trunks filled with 55 cases of Gatorade, gum, towels, wristbands, extra pants and facemasks and, certainly not to be forgotten, the locker-room stereo. The training staff has its duties, too, packing trunks full of athletic tape, splints, IV materials, a defibrillator and exercise bikes. All of which is packed snugly into the Louisville team trailer before the equipment staff leaves at 10:30 a.m. sharp on Wednesday for the Thursday night kickoff.
“It’s real-life Tetris,” freshman student manager Drew Miniard says.
By the time the busload of equipment managers arrives at Cincinnati’s Nippert Stadium, it’s time to wait. The truck with the equipment is running an hour behind the bus.
When the visitors’ locker room opens, assistant equipment manager Ed Connell and student manager David Moser diagram who will sit where. Connell puts the 31 defensive players to the right, the 24 offensive players on the left and the five special teamers in the back. Star quarterback Teddy Bridgewater gets the prime real estate in a corner locker.
Connell sets up a makeshift equipment area in the corner of the locker room where players can grab towels, wristbands and hand warmers.
It’s the last game of the year and a short road trip, so Strong has brought everyone on the roster, including walk-ons and freshmen who are redshirting.
The Nippert locker room, as a result, is too small for Louisville this week. Connell had sized up the situation and texted Snow to remind the players who aren’t dressing for the game that they’ll need warm clothes and rain gear — they’ll be outside of the locker room all night.
By 1:30 p.m. Wednesday, the trailer has arrived from Louisville, and the managers and trainers begin setup. Moser begins sorting through the magnetic nameplates for each player, matching them with jerseys. Senior manager Creighton Harley takes the audio equipment up to the coaches booth to set up the headsets. The underclassman student managers get the grunt work of buffing helmets, fresh with new decals for the Cincinnati game, and touching up scuffs with Wite-Out.
Meanwhile, the training staff is setting up the training room at the front of the locker room. Most important is the sign-in area for pre-game taping, where six rows of masking tape will show the waiting list for six trainers.
“They’re creatures of habit,” assistant athletic trainer Sam Zuege says. “Some of them have to get taped by the same trainer every day.”
By 3 p.m., everything that can be offloaded and set up the day before the game is done, and the equipment staff heads back to the team hotel for the walk-through.
At the hotel, Snow is working through his checklist: Two banquet rooms for team meetings (one for the full team and a second when they split into offense and defense), a banquet room for trainers, 125 guest rooms for the Wednesday night before the Thursday game and two buffet lines for players ready to feed the equivalent of 160 people.
“I tell my hotels, they’re going to eat two-and-a-half or three times the amount of a normal person,” Snow says. “Don’t quote me on what you think I’m going to eat. They’re going to eat three plates.”
If the team will be waiting around for a night game, Snow is also charged with making the movie arrangements, which must fit into time parameters (roughly two hours) and genre constraints (action, not sci-fi).
“If everything goes smoothly, nobody notices anything,” he says. “That’s a win for me.”
The weather on this Thursday in December is dreary. Temperature at kickoff Thursday night will be 39 degrees.
In the afternoon, as the equipment managers are setting up, the temperatures are dropping into the mid-40s. It’s cloudy and windy, but dry.
“I hope it stays just like this,” student manager Jake Turner says. It won’t.
The rain will be on its way by the afternoon with the potential to wreak havoc on the pieces of equipment Kurowski and his staff spend the most time checking, re-checking and checking again: the headsets from the coaching booth to the sideline.
“Once ESPN comes on and the game starts, you just cross your fingers and hope everything is ready,” Connell says. “You hope no one trips a fuse or crosses a frequency.”
The problem right now, though, is the rain. Kurowski would prefer snow, but it won’t be cold enough before kickoff.
“You try to be a step ahead all the time. But they’re right behind you on your heels.”
At Cincinnati, Kurowski is checking the weather report on his iPad: Rain it is. The primary concern is the headsets, covered only with towels. Without tarps readily available, Kurowski cuts open two equipment bags to drape over the headsets. Crisis averted.
Beyond the rain, the cold will be an issue, especially for a team with its share of Floridians.
Strong’s strict dress code includes an edict forbidding tights, even for cold night games. When a player attempted to take the field wearing tights during a game against Rutgers in 2010, Strong turned the player around to change. The ‘no tights’ rule is similar to other facets of Strong’s dress code: No helmet visors without a prescription and no sleeves on a single arm.
As for keeping warm, the trainers have brought a tub of Vaseline for players to put on their legs. When asked if that actually helps, Zuege shrugs.
“They think it keeps them warm,” he says. “I’m sure it insulates a little bit.”
They didn’t even have to find out for certain. Six hours before kickoff, Kurowski receives a text message from the big boss: Did he bring the forbidden tights? Strong had changed his mind on one of his uniform rules. Lucky for Kurowski, he brought a full complement of leg tights just in case.
“You try to be a step ahead all the time,” Kurowski says. “But they’re right behind you on your heels.”
The team is scheduled to arrive at 5:30 p.m. By 3 p.m., nearly every preparation for the Cardinals’ arrival is made.
With two-and-a-half hours to kill, the student trainers and managers sit in front of lockers on the training tables, lined up in a row with their laptops flipped open. The country music that filled the locker room during setup has been turned off, and the trainers are working on papers and PowerPoint presentations and studying for finals. Or trying to grab a quick nap, outstretched across folding chairs. This is the down time, before the kickoff brings new responsibilities.
Turner, the senior equipment manager, holds the poster board to send in plays from the sideline. Other managers warm up the quarterbacks and dry the footballs. The student trainers who aren’t on the field are in the locker room starting to tear down the training room they set up only 12 hours earlier.
Other than the in-game essentials, they’ll be packed up for the trip back to Louisville 45 minutes after kickoff.
Amy Riordan, a video assistant, will be busy changing memory cards in the six cameras set up around the field so coaches can review the game on the ride back.
Snow, with no more pregame meals to schedule or hotel reservations to double-check, has his own duties on the sideline. When Louisville scores the first touchdown less than three minutes into the game, Snow is reminding players on the bench to celebrate on the sideline and not on the field; he’s the “get-back” coach.
“In my position,” Snow says. “I worry about everything.”
Mainly, so his coaches and players don’t have to.
Georgia Tech’s record for the biggest rout in college football history — 222-0 over Cumberland College in 1916 — may be one of sports’ unbreakable records. Parity and sportsmanship dictate that teams will let up before hitting the century mark.
That's not for lack of trying. Seventy-point routs weren't uncommon in 2013. With a backup quarterback, Ohio State defeated Florida A&M 76-0. Georgia Tech did beat Elon by 70. Miami did the same to Savannah State, a team that lost by 84 to Oklahoma State a year earlier.
Even as the College Football Playoff has brought about practices to strengthen schedules — whether it’s the SEC’s requirement for teams to play at least one power conference team or nine-game conference schedules in the Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-12 — a few patsies have found their way onto 2014 schedules.
Schools are opening up wallets to schedule these guarantee games, but schools perhaps should consider a cash reward for fans who sit through all 60 minutes.
Let’s keep a few things in mind as we run down the most shameful games of 2014:
1. We don’t care how or why the game was scheduled, even if the power team in question is in a bind because a better team backed out of a game.
2. These games aren’t shameful simply because the opponent is bad or from the lower division. Georgia State opens with Abilene Christian, a team that was in Division II just two seasons ago. We’ll let that one pass as the Panthers, winless as an FBS member, needs all the help it can get.
3. We’ll give a little bit of credit to a major team scheduling a in-state foe. Reaching across state lines, though, for an easy win is an easy way to end up on this list.
There are games that will be so obviously lopsided that they shouldn’t be on the schedule.
1. Western Carolina at Alabama (Nov. 22)
Nick Saban’s breaking of ranks with the SEC to push the league to a nine-game season may be commendable. But it’s unclear if that conference game would replace the annual warm up for Auburn. The Crimson Tide continue a tradition since 2009 of making sure it has an exhibition before the Iron Bowl by inviting Western Carolina to be walloped this season. Alabama knows exactly what it’s getting from the Catamounts, an opponent that is 14-76 since 2006. Of Western Carolina’s last four wins — spanning three seasons — three are over Division II Mars Hill. Moreover, Alabama has played Western Carolina twice under Saban, defeating the school from Cullowhee, N.C., by a combined score of 101-6.
2. Savannah State at BYU (Nov. 22)
Scheduling as an independent can be tough for BYU, especially late in the season. And Savannah State has established itself as will to take a beating to keep funds coming into the athletic program. In the last two seasons, Savannah State has lost to Troy (66-3), Miami (77-7), Oklahoma State (84-0) and Florida State (55-0 in a game with a running clock). The Tigers, 4-41 the last four seasons, found another willing partner in BYU.
3. Western Illinois at Wisconsin (Sept. 6)
Wisconsin lands on the list by scheduling the least of the directional Illinois schools. First, there’s MAC power Northern Illinois. Even Eastern Illinois has been the home of quarterbacks Tony Romo and new England Patriots draft pick Jimmy Garoppolo. Western Illinois, on the other hand, has been mediocre in the Missouri Valley for a decade. The Leathernecks are 9-25 in the last three years.
4. Nicholls State at Arkansas (Sept. 6)
Bret Bielema needs all the help he can get, especially if Auburn’s up-tempo offense in the first game of the season extends Bielema’s winless start in the SEC. Still, we can’t excuse an SEC team for scheduling Nicholls State, a team that is 6-28 in the last three years and has endured six consecutive losing seasons. Only Miami’s game against Savannah State saved Oregon’s hosting of Nicholls State last season from being the most shameful game of 2013.
5. Presbyterian at NC State (Sept. 20)
At No. 231 in the 2013 Sagarin Ratings, Presbyterian is the lowest-rated team a major conference program will face in 2014. NC State was winless in the ACC last season, but the Wolfpack already loaded up on two teams new to the FBS level in Georgia Southern and Old Dominion. In other words, if this game took place a year ago, NC State would be facing three FCS teams.
6. Presbyterian at Ole Miss (Sept. 20)
Again, Presbyterian is a 3-8 team in only its fourth season removed from Division II. Ole Miss shouldn’t be playing this game, but the Rebels have a non-conference schedule that includes league title contenders from the Mountain West (Boise State in Atlanta) and Sun Belt (Louisiana-Lafayette). That’s why NC State should be more embarrassed by scheduling the same opponent.
7. Eastern Kentucky at Florida (Sept. 22)
Will Muschamp said he doesn’t want his team playing FCS opponents. That's fine, even if it is amusing since his team lost to an FCS opponent (Georgia Southern) last season. That doesn’t change he has Eastern Kentucky on the schedule in 2014. The Colonels are better than most of the FCS teams on this list, but Florida gets docked for having two of the worst FBS programs already on the 2014 slate in Idaho and Eastern Michigan.
8. South Dakota at Oregon (Aug. 30)
At least Oregon found an FCS opponent from within a 2,000-mile radius to clobber this time around. Since facing Portland State in 2010, the Ducks have faced Nicholls State, Tennessee Tech and Missouri State in its annual September exhibition. Still, Oregon scheduled the lesser of two schools in South Dakota. The Coyotes are 4-18 under former Wyoming coach Joe Glenn.
9. Idaho State at Utah (Aug. 28)
If this game were against Boise State, we’d look forward to it. If it were against Idaho, it would an almost-excusable game against an FBS team. Instead, Utah draws Idaho State, a team that is 9-59 in the last six seasons. Idaho State allowed at least 40 points in every game last season with the exception of a 38-5 win over Division II Black Hills State.
10. Weber State at Arizona State (Aug. 28)
Weber State was an unlikely victim of the Bobby Petrino fallout at Arkansas when John L. Smith left his post in Ogden, Utah, for Fayetteville before coaching a game. The Wildcats have gone 4-18 since, including a 222-36 margin against four FBS opponents (Fresno State, BYU, Utah and Utah State).
11. VMI at Bowling Green (Sept. 6)
Bowling Green is a bowl regular and the favorite in the MAC in 2014. The Falcons can do better than scheduling a team that hasn’t had a winning season since 1981.
12. Florida A&M at Miami (Sept. 6)
Miami will play two teams from Tallahassee. One team was the FBS champion. The other was ranked No. 227 in Sagarin.
13. Grambling State at Houston (Sept. 6)
The once-proud Grambling problem is dealing with a host of issues, culminating with a player walk-out in October. Only five teams were ranked lower in Sagarin last season.
14. Western Carolina at USF (Aug. 30)
This is the same lackluster FBS team Alabama faces in 2014. The difference between USF and Alabama is worth at least 13 spots in our shame rankings.
15. Elon at Duke (Aug. 30)
As long as David Cutcliffe puts competitive teams on the field at Duke, the less we’ll be able to look away from against against Elon, 5-18 the last two seasons.
The days and weeks following the end of college basketball season can be an unfriendly time for coaches.
There are draft early entries, regular transfers, graduate transfers, and, of course, the possibility that some coaches will be asked to look for employment elsewhere.
Turnover can happen at a rapid pace, leaving rosters — and benches — full of fresh faces. Those are usually the teams with the most to lose from year to year, and next season will be no exception. Earlier this week, we brought you a dozen teams that could be on the rise in 2014-15. This is the other side of that list.
College Basketball Teams in Decline in 2014-15
The Sun Devils got to the NCAA Tournament, likely saving Herb Sendek’s job, but the final weeks of the season were forgettable. Arizona State lost its last four games and six of its final eight. With Jahii Carson going to the draft after his sophomore season and three seniors gone, Arizona State returns only one player who averaged more than five points per game. The Sendek hot seat watch begins anew.
Give Baylor credit for regrouping after a 2-8 start in Big 12 play. The Bears won 12 of their final 15 before losing to Wisconsin in the Sweet 16. A few key cogs — big man Isaiah Austin and veterans Cory Jefferson and Brady Heslip — are gone. Baylor still has a point guard, Kenny Chery, to run the show. The rest of Chery’s signing class, sophomores Allerik Freeman, Johnathan Motley and Ish Wainwright, will be under pressure to perform.
No more Sean Kilpatrick is bad enough, but Mick Cronin is starting over without his top three scorers — Kilpatrick, Justin Jackson and Titus Rubles. Cincinnati’s top returning scorer, forward Shaquille Thomas, averaged 6.8 points last season.
The Bluejays are down to one McDermott for the first time in four seasons. Consensus national player of the year Doug McDermott isn’t the only loss, though. The departures of Ethan Wragge, Grant Gibbs and Jahenns Manigat means Creighton won’t come close to last season’s offensive numbers, even with a senior-laden team.
A guard-oriented team loses four guards, Joe Jackson, Geron Johnson, Michael Dixon Jr. and Chris Crawford. There’s still talent here. Now it’s in the frontcourt, though, with Shaq Goodwin and Austin Nichols. Memphis will be a top team in the American Athletic Conference, but the Tigers need to find a point guard to contend for bigger prizes.
John Beilein will piece something together — he always does. Still, the Wolverines lose Nik Stauskas, Glenn Robinson III and Mitch McGary to the draft and Jon Horford as a transfer to Florida. Michigan still has a point guard in Derrick Walton and a budding star in Caris LeVert, not to mention the possibility of adding West Virginia transfer Eron Harris. After reaching the title game and the Elite Eight in the last two seasons, Michigan may be due for a down year.
Frank Haith picked a good year to get out of Columbia. This year’s team is going to struggle, no matter the coach. Jordan Clarkson and Jabari Brown left early for the NBA Draft, leaving new coach Kim Anderson with a young roster.
The Lobos have won the Mountain West tournament in each of the last three seasons and at least a share of two of the last three regular season titles. Second-year coach Craig Neal will be starting over after seniors Cameron Bairstow and Kendall Williams have departed and junior Alex Kirk went to the NBA Draft. The Lobos may have trouble reaching the Tournament unless one or two underclassmen can take the leap Bairstow did a year ago.
Maybe Oklahoma State needs a fresh start after all the dramatics of last season. Still, any team without Marcus Smart and Markel Brown will have to rebuild. Le’Bryan Nash is the member of the Cowboys’ big three remaining for 2014-15. It’s tough to see Oklahoma State improving from last season in the short term, and meanwhile, Travis Ford’s contract, could be a hinderance in the long term.
The departures are one thing with Mike Moser and Jason Calliste gone, but they’re of secondary concern in Eugene. Dana Altman is embroiled in a scandal related to a sexual assault investigation involving three of his players. All three, Damyean Dotson, Dominic Artis and Brandon Austin, were dismissed in early May. Leading scorer James Young will be surrounded by newcomers.
The 25-0 start to 2013-14 is a distant memory as the Orange finished 3-6, including a round of 32 exit in the NCAA Tournament, a one-and-done in the ACC tournament and home losses to Boston College and Georgia Tech. Syracuse won’t be as good as it was at the start of last season and may not be as bad as it was late. Still, the middle ground between the two would qualify as a down year for the Orange. Tyler Ennis, C.J. Fair, Jerami Grant and Baye Moussa-Keita are gone, and Jim Boeheim will open his third consecutive season with a freshman point guard.
The Volunteers probably won’t be a Sweet 16 team or a top-10 KenPom.com team again. Tennessee may have trouble getting to the NCAA Tournament or NIT in Donnie Tyndall’s first season. While the former Southern Miss coach is a solid hire, he’ll be starting essentially from scratch. He lost all but one starter and all of Cuonzo Martin’s signees. Tyndall filled the gaps with eight newcomers, a haul that includes graduate transfers from Florida Gulf Coast and IUPUI, two junior college transfers and two prep school recruits.
The final four teams in the Athlon Sports top 25 countdown were released this week, meaning we've seeded our projections for the first College Football playoff: No. 1 Florida State vs. No. 4 Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl and No. 2 Alabama vs. No. 3 Ohio State in the Rose Bowl.
This week, Braden Gall, David Fox and Steven Lassan talk about how we arrived at those matchups, how those games might be settled and other contenders for the the first Playoff.
Our hosts also discuss what changes they'd like to see before the Playoff has even begun and some predictions of what we'll see next.
As always, you can reach us on Twitter at @AthlonSports or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Somewhere in Iowa, a few ex-high school athletes have stories to share.
One tale might be about a 250-pound sophomore quarterback running over linebackers on a second-and-5 sneak.
Another might be about the time a 230-pound high school freshman returned volleys effortlessly for the varsity tennis team.
“It was a sight,” Denison (Iowa) athletic director Dave Wiebers said. “You see a kid that big and you think he’ll never get to anything. But they’ll lob it over the top and he’ll be there in one or two steps.”
Both stories are about the same high school athlete from Denison, and there are probably more about the same 250-pounder all-state pitcher, a center flashing post moves or a state title-winner in the shot put.
“I’ve read somewhere where he was claiming 1,400-1,600 (passing) yards,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “I don’t doubt that it happened, but I want to see the video.”
“You could put a football player in a test tube, you’d want them to look like him.”
-Iowa offensive line coach Brian Ferentz.
Five years later, Scherff is one of the top offensive tackles in the country as an Athlon Sports preseason second-team All-American and likely a first round NFL draft pick.
It’s no fluke that Iowa would find its latest great lineman — a tradition that includes Robert Gallery, Bryan Bulaga and Riley Reiff — first in the form of a high school quarterback/pitcher/center/tennis player. Molding Scherff into a star offensive tackle was on the radar from day one, even before Scherff moved to the line.
“Not many have the athletic ability that he has,” Iowa offensive line coach Brian Ferentz said. “He moves very well. You want to see guys who play with their feet. You want guys who play with their eyes. You can’t do anything if you don’t have good eyes.”
Wiebers, who coached Denison football and track, didn’t play Scherff at quarterback on a lark, though. He simply didn’t have anyone but the 250-pound sophomore to play the position at the time.
Scherff had a strong arm, but his real asset was picking up momentum in the run game in Denison’s veer offense.
“I threw the ball every once in a while,” Scherff said. “I tried to run quarterback sneaks on second and 5. Those were always nice.”
Still, Iowa essentially recruited Scherff as a lineman sight unseen.
Midway through Scherff’s junior year, Wiebers had a more traditional quarterback in Ricky Torres, who would go on to play basketball at the NAIA level. Scherff, who was on his way to becoming a 6-5, 295-pound high school senior, would move to tight end.
“You probably got to see more of his athletic ability from his tight end position,” Wiebers said. “In that transition, you could see what a good athlete he is in the trenches and catching the ball.”
For Scherff, the move from tight end to offensive tackle as a senior was more practical. He also gave up summer baseball to prepare for his new role in college.
“I didn’t want to come here not knowing what to do,” Scherff said.
He was still raw when he arrived at Iowa, but going up against All-America defensive end and eventual first-round draft pick Adrian Clayborn on the scout team as a freshman forced him to catch up in a hurry.
Scherff started at left guard as a redshirt freshman in 2011 and moved to left tackle for each of the last two seasons.
He improved to a point where he had a legitimate dilemma on whether to go to the NFL Draft after his junior season. He elected to stay in school to improve fundamentals and technique.
For now, he’s “pure power,” Brian Ferentz said. Scherff is also only a year-and-a-half removed from a broken leg and dislocated ankle that cost him half of the 2012 season.
The return, though, gives Iowa a chance to win the Big Ten West division with Schreff blocking for returning starting quarterback Jake Rudock and grinding running back Mark Weisman.
“The biggest thing is, all those measurables, all those things where you’re testing, every one of those shows up when he plays,” Brian Ferentz said. “A lot of times there are guys have weight room strength, or guys who have football strength. He has everything. He’s an extremely functional football player.
“You could put a football player in a test tube, you’d want them to look like him.”
And now Schreff is a football player only. He’ll still play basketball with friends, and he’s taken up golf. But he’s not going to show up in a quarterback meeting anytime soon.
“I absolutely don’t miss quarterback,” Scherff said. “It’s kind of fun throwing the ball around, but I love hitting people and being physical.”
Images courtesy of Iowa Athletic Communications.
No program last season was more ascendant than UConn, even if the Huskies didn’t look the part until the final six games of the season.
The Huskies were banned from the NCAA Tournament in 2013 due to low APR scores. They came back to go 12-6 in the American, a solid if unspectacular performance by UConn standards.
Then came the Shabazz Show as Napier led UConn to one of the most unlikely national championships since the Tournament field expanded.
Following up that kind of rise will be tough, but there are a handful of candidates of teams that could turn a disappointing 2013-14 into a surprising 2014-15.
Here are our top 12 contenders for programs on the rise for the upcoming season.
College Basketball Teams on the Rise in 2014-15
Talent hasn’t been the issue for Mike Anderson’s teams at Arkansas. For whatever reason, the Razorbacks haven’t been able to put together an NCAA-worthy season. That may change this season as the Hogs return six of their top seven scorers including the inside-out duo of forward Bobby Portis and guard Michael Qualls. After struggling on the road in Anderson’s first two seasons, the Hogs started to prove they could win away from Fayetteville last season.
For the second consecutive season, Georgia was the team no bubble team in the SEC wanted to play. The Bulldogs went 12-7 in the league, but they lacked the non-conference resume to be a legitimate NCAA contender. Maybe that changes this season. After getting hit with untimely early entries to the NBA Draft, Mark Fox has his top five scorers returning.
Gonzaga had a typical Gonzaga season in 2013-14, 29 wins, a West Coast Conference title and an early exit from the NCAA Tournament. The record, though, was somewhat hollow. Gonzaga defeated one top-50 team all year (BYU, twice). With a solid backcourt of Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr. plus the arrival of Kentucky transfer Kyle Wiltjer, Gonzaga will have top-10 potential.
The Illini won six of its last nine Big Ten games including the league tournament. Not a bad turnaround for a team that reeled off eight consecutive Big Ten losses at one point. After a lost year, John Groce has rebuilt his roster around returners Rayvonte Rice, Tracy Abrams and Nnanna Egwu. He’ll add another round of transfers and a top-50 freshman forward, Leron Black, to the mix this season.
How could Kentucky be a team on the rise after reaching the national title game? Well, with nine McDonald’s All-Americans on the roster and now experience, Kentucky should have a more consistent season from beginning to end after last year’s freshman-laden team lost 11 games last season.
The Hurricanes lost nearly every key player from the team that won the 2012 ACC title. Help was on the way, even if it was delayed a year. Transfers Angel Rodriguez (Kansas State) and Sheldon McClendon (Texas) will be eligible. Don’t count out coach Jim Larranaga, who coaxed an 8-12 ACC season out of last season’s short-handed team.
One starter, Austin Hollins, is gone from the NIT champions. The Gophers still have Andre Hollins and Dre Mathieu, a duo who helped Minnesota defeat Wisconsin, Ohio State and Iowa to get onto the NCAA Tournament bubble in the first place. The Big Ten doesn’t figure to be the gauntlet it has been in the last two seasons, so Richard Pitino’s team could take a significant step forward after going 9-11 in the league in his first season.
How can the Cornhuskers’ top last last season when Nebraska reached its first NCAA Tournament since 1998? With the way Nebraska finished, it’s easy to forget the Huskers were 9-9 overall and 1-5 in the Big Ten on Jan. 23. With Terran Petteway returning and only one significant departure (guard Ray Gallegos), Tim Miles’ team is set to carry the momentum from last season into 2014-15.
Not much went right in Notre Dame’s first season in the ACC. The Irish played the entire conference schedule without Jerian Grant, who was averaging 19 points per game before he was an academic casualty. The normally stable Irish went 15-17 overall and 6-12 in the ACC, missing the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2009. With Grant returning alongside senior Pat Connaughton, Notre Dame should top 20 wins in 2014-15.
The NCAA selection committee snubbed the Mustangs, but Larry Brown’s team figures to make the in-or-out decision easier this time around. SMU reached the NIT final last season with just two seniors on the roster. The returning cast alone would make SMU worth watching, but the Mustangs add freshman point guard Emmanuel Mudiay. The 6-5 point guard from Arlington could be an All-American and one of the top prospects in the 2015 NBA Draft.
After two subpar seasons, including an early loss to Houston in the 2013 CBI, Texas is in the midst of a resurgence under Rick Barnes that once seemed unlikely. The Longhorns return every key contributor from a team that went 24-11 and finished third in the Big 12. More important for Barnes’ long-term hopes, the Longhorns are pulling major in-state recruits again with the arrival of freshman center Myles Turner.
Larry Krystkowiak has led one of the most impressive turnarounds in the the country in the last three seasons. When he started at Utah in 2011-12, Krystkowiak took over a roster with only four returning players for the program’s first season in the Pac-12. After going 6-25 in his first season, Utah has improved to 21-12 in his third. With Delon Wright and Jordan Loveridge leading a now-veteran team, Utah will push for a winning record in the Pac-12 and its first NCAA Tournament bid since 2009.
The coaching carousel is funny sometimes. Last season brought a few major job openings — chief among them, UCLA — but few big names moving to new jobs.
This season seems to be the opposite. The names involved in the coaching carousel arguably are bigger than the jobs they filled.
Buzz Williams’ name had surfaced in coaching searches before, but Virginia Tech, a program that has made the NCAA Tournament once since 1996, ended up being his landing place. Bruce Pearl, once one of the top coaches in the SEC before his NCAA-hastened departure, starts over at one of the toughest jobs in the league. And Kelvin Sampson, who led Oklahoma to the Final Four, landed at Houston.
Another big name could have been in the carousel as three-time Final Four coach Ben Howland was on the job hunt, but he’ll likely have to wait for next season after pulling out of the Oregon State search.
Since the coaching carousel has essentially ended, now is a good time to review the new coaches for 2014-15.
The Elite Eight Hires for 2014-15
1. Buzz Williams, Virginia Tech
Williams was so desperate to get away from Marquette, a school without a president and an athletic director, that he grabbed the first halfway decent major conference job. That job turned out to be Virginia Tech. Positions at Tennessee and Missouri would open after Williams landed in Blacksburg, so the hire has to be seen as a coup for the Hokies. What Virginia Tech gets is a coach who reached the NCAA Tournament in five of six seasons at Marquette and reached the Sweet 16 or better three times. He’ll be unconventional, something Virginia Tech will need to be competitive in the ACC. At Marquette, Williams built a program that could go toe-to-toe with Syracuse, Louisville and Pittsburgh — all teams he’ll face in the ACC.
2. Bruce Pearl, Auburn
If Pearl can’t revive Auburn basketball, or at least interest in Auburn basketball, it’s worth asking if anyone can. Auburn is taking a bit of a risk in hiring Pearl, who was fired at Tennessee after he lied to NCAA investigators about hosting then-high school junior Aaron Craft at the coach’s home during an unofficial visit. Pearl is still under a show-cause penalty that prohibits him from any contact with recruits until August. The potential payoff is worth it, though. Pearl went to the NCAA Tournament every season at Tennessee, including a 31-5 season in 2007-08. His biggest task will be to fill seats in Auburn’s new basketball arena.
3. Donnie Tyndall, Tennessee
Tyndall arrives at Tennessee with arguably a better track record than Cuonzo Martin did three years ago. Tyndall led Morehead State two a pair of NCAA Tournaments, including a 2011 upset of Louisville behind the play of Kenneth Faried. He picked up where Larry Eustachy left off at Southern Miss, taking the Eagles to a pair of NIT appearances. Tyndall is a former LSU and Middle Tennessee assistant, so he’s familiar with some of the terrain in Knoxville.
4. Kelvin Sampson, Houston
Auburn wasn’t the only school to hire a coach with a checkered NCAA past to revive the program. Sampson’s five-year show cause stemming from impermissible calls to recruits while the coach at Oklahoma and Indiana expired just in time for Houston to make this move. The Cougars are getting a coach who took OU to the Final Four in 2002 and spent his exile from college basketball as an NBA assistant. Even better, the calls that cost him his job at Indiana are now OK by NCAA rules. Houston desperately needs any kind of credibility it can get. The Cougars are 0-4 in the NCAA Tournament since the Phi Slama Jama days.
5. Danny Manning, Wake Forest
Manning, the 1988 National Player of the Year and No. 1 overall NBA Draft pick, has two seasons of head coaching experience, but his second season at Tulsa yielded Conference USA regular season and tournament titles. It’s going to be tough for Wake Forest to be one of the top programs in the ACC, but hiring Manning, a 47-year-old with plenty of name recognition, is the kind of risk the Demon Deacons need to take.
6. Cuonzo Martin, Cal
Even after a Sweet 16 appearance and Tennessee’s first NCAA bid in three years, Martin knew his days were numbered in Knoxville. Martin tried for Marquette before ending up at Cal, replacing the retired Mike Montgomery. This may be a risky hire for the Bears as Martin hasn’t coached anywhere west of Missouri State. Martin’s teams, though, have improved progressively each season at both Missouri State and Tennessee.
7. Saul Phillips, Ohio
Phillips, a former Tim Miles assistant at North Dakota State, led the Bison to their first NCAA Tournament appearance in 2009 and first NCAA win in 2014. Far from a one-year NCAA Tournament wonder, North Dakota State twice won Summit League regular-season titles and went 24-10 two years ago.
8. Wayne Tinkle, Oregon State
Reached the NCAA Tournament in three of the last five seasons at Montana, including a pair of Big Sky regular season titles. Oregon State is one of the toughest jobs in a major conference with only two winning teams in the last 25 years. Montana, though, has a knack for turning out successful coaches, including Larry Krystkowiak (now at Utah), Blaine Taylor, Stew Morrill, Mike Montgomery and Jud Heathcote.
5 Notable First-Time Coaches
Orlando Antigua, USF
Manhattan’s Steve Masiello would have been a fine hire, but Plan B could be just as interesting. USF is the latest program to roll the dice with a John Calipari assistant, all of which have been lauded as great recruiters.
Jason Gardner, IUPUI
The former Arizona star and Indiana Mr. Basketball will be 34 when the season starts. A former assistant at Loyola-Chicago and Memphis, Gardner replaces Todd Howard struggled to fill the shoes left by Ron Hunter, who left for Georgia State.
Kevin Keatts, UNC Wilmington
UNC Wilmington has struggled to find its way since Brad Brownell left in 2006, but this could be a big-time hire. The Seahawks mined the Rick Pitino coaching tree for Louisville’s top recruiter.
Chris Jans, Bowling Green
Bowling Green hasn’t been to the NCAA Tournament since 1968. Unlike his predecessors, Jans, a former Wichita State assistant, has the benefit of more resources thanks to a $20 million donation from Bill Frack.
Steve Wojciehowski, Marquette
Marquette is a big job for a first-time head coach, even though the last two coaches (Buzz Williams and Tom Crean) had a grand total of one year as a head coach before taking over. Wojo is as experienced as any assistant, serving under Mike Krzyzewski since 1999-2000.
4 Most Questionable Hires
Jim Christian, Boston College
Christian is a good MAC coach. Boston College is not in the MAC. His last job at a tough spot in a major conference was an 18-44 stint in the Mountain West at TCU.
Kim Anderson, Missouri
He won a national title last season — in Division II. Not many coaches make the leap from Division II to a major Division I program at age 59, but he is a former Missouri assistant.
Dan D’Antoni, Marshall
Mike D’Antoni’s brother hasn’t coached in college since 1971 at Marshall and hasn’t been a head coach other than in high school. Dan D’Antoni been in the NBA for nearly a decade, albeit on his brother’s staff.
Michael Curry, FAU
FAU loves coaches who have had bigger jobs (Mike Jarvis, Matt Doherty), so at least Curry fits a profile. He spent one season as the head coach of the Detroit Pistons, but this is his first college gig as an assistant or otherwise.
3 “Boomerangs” (i.e. coaches who returned to a level lower than their last job)
Frank Haith, Tulsa
Given heavy personnel losses at Missouri, Haith probably made a wise move to get out before the Tigers could fire him. Haith lands in the American Athletic Conference at Tulsa, a program that made the NCAA Tournament eight times from 1994-2003.
Ernie Kent, Washington State
Kent’s Oregon teams were streaky in his 13 seasons, going both 29-8 and 8-23 in his final four year in Eugene. Wazzu, one of the toughest places to win in the Pac-12, will gladly take the happy medium.
Doc Sadler, Southern Miss
Sadler sat out a year before returning to the Conference USA level. Sadler was 48-18 as the coach at UTEP from 2004-06, and now he takes over a Southern Miss program that is one of the better jobs in C-USA thanks to the last two coaches.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Maybe the best situation for Lane Kiffin is for his players to talk for him.
First off, Alabama’s players are saying nice things about the new Crimson Tide offensive coordinator. That’s a good place to start. Center Ryan Kelly said the reputation that preceded the former USC and Tennessee head coach to Tuscaloosa was one of an “offensive mastermind.”
Secondly, Kiffin didn't have anything to say during the spring, which isn't bad for a man with his track record. Kiffin was quiet by rule by Nick Saban’s longstanding edict that his assistants will not meet with the media. In theory, the off-field foibles that clouded Kiffin’s time as a head coach will be kept to a minimum in the controlled atmosphere of Saban’s program.
Granted, Kelly, a junior and a returning starter, probably knows better than to admit that he knows anything else of Kiffin’s background — that Kiffin needled Urban Meyer while the coach at Tennessee or a stepped into a series of mini-controversies at USC.
"It’s going to be different. ... It’s going to be a lot more flexible with the passing game and getting the running backs involved."
-Alabama wide receiver Christion Jones
Nope, Kelly only speaks to optimism for what Kiffin can do on the field.
“Now that he’s been here for one spring, I’m looking forward to the fall with him,” Kelly said.
So there’s excitement at Alabama for Kiffin, who was one of the more compelling hires of the offseason. The move pairs Saban, who has a firm grip over the program, with an offensive coordinator with a rebellious streak that couldn't be fully contained by the Oakland Raiders, Tennessee or USC.
Those traits were enough to raise the eyebrows of Alabama athletic director Bill Battle, who told the Anniston (Ala.) Star his initial reaction to Saban seeking out Kiffin “wasn’t very positive.” Battle eventually warmed to the idea after speaking to USC athletic director Pat Haden and former Tennessee senior associate AD David Blackburn, who is now the AD at UT Chattanooga.
Besides, Saban needed an offensive coordinator with experience calling plays in a pro-style offense. Those coaches at the college level aren’t as plentiful as they once were.
“We tried to keep some of the things we’re doing and allow Lane to do the things he wants to do,” Saban said. “We’ve bought into that and he’s doing really, really well. I think he’s a great asset to our staff in terms of knowledge and experience.”
Saban and players said some of the changes have been subtle, but the receivers, at least, seemed to embrace the new approach as much as anyone.
That's with good reason.
Under Kiffin in 2011, USC receivers Robert Woods and Marqise Lee both had 1,000 yards and at least 10 touchdowns. In 2012, Lee caught 118 passes for 1,721 yards and 14 touchdowns en route to the Biletnikoff.
Even though, Alabama’s projected starting quarterback, Jacob Coker, isn’t yet on campus, receivers are expecting a more dynamic passing game under Kiffin.
“It’s going to be different,” wide receiver Christion Jones said. “It’s usually Alabama, run game, run game, run game, pass here or there. It’s going to be a lot more flexible with the passing game and getting the running backs involved. It’s flexible enough where everyone can get a touch.”
That won’t be all that’s tweaked. Even though Kiffin brings the pro-style background Saban likes, he also brings hurry-up elements to the table.
“Coach Kiffin likes a lot motion and wants us to get up to the ball, not an Oregon-type offense,” Kelly said. “Late last year we were snapping the ball with six, five, four seconds left on the play clock. (Now it’s) Not so much of the no-huddle, but something to get our procedures up running ... to make the offense more effective.”
More than that, Saban said Kiffin can be a sounding board.
The Alabama coach has never been wary of hiring former head coaches to his staff. Bobby Williams (Michigan State), Kevin Steele (Baylor) and Mario Cristobal (FIU) all ran their own programs before arriving at Alabama.
None, though, was at a powerhouse program like Alabama. Between his time as an assistant and head coach Kiffin spent 10 seasons at USC, six years of which when the Trojans were the dominant program of the early part of the decade.
“It’s been great for me too to have a guy who’s had some of the issues and problems we have,” Saban said. “I really feel good about his addition to our staff.”
The SEC-Big 12 Challenge doesn’t have the long-standing status of the ACC-Big Ten Challenge, but at least in 2014, the event could match in marquee games.
We had a hard time picking between Texas-Kentucky and Florida-Kansas as the top game in the event. In the end, it doesn’t really matter. This will be an excellent double header featuring potentially four top-10 teams early in the season. Both are can’t-miss games.
Those are the key matchups, but the some of the others offer compelling reasons to watch in December. Here are all of them, ranked.
1. Texas at Kentucky (Dec. 5)
Expect a battle of big men with freshman Myles Turner joining Cameron Ridley at Texas to face Kentucky’s massive front line that includes Willie Cauley-Stein, Dakari Johnson, Marcus Lee, Trey Lyles and Karl Towns. The Longhorns can make an early statement as a top 10 team that returns everyone from last year’s squad.
2. Florida at Kansas (Dec. 5)
Both teams have heavy personnel losses but plenty of reasons to believe they can contend in 2014-15. Florida had two McDonald’s All-Americans waiting their turn in Kasey Hill and Chris Walker plus a handful of transfers. Kansas expects Perry Ellis and Wayne Selden to take over while adding elite freshman forward Cliff Alexander.
3. Arkansas at Iowa State (Dec. 4)
Is Arkansas ready to turn the corner to become an NCAA Tournament team? Mike Anderson has his top three scorers back from a team that finally learned how to win on the road. This will be a tough one against a preseason top 25 team.
4. LSU at West Virginia (Dec. 4)
Shouldn’t we expect more out of both programs? LSU lost Johnny O’Bryant to the draft but has highly touted recruits Jordan Mickey and Jarell Martin who are now veterans. West Virginia will return high-scoring point guard Juwan Staten, but fellow guard Eron Harris left via transfer.
5. Kansas State at Tennessee (Dec. 6)
New Volunteers coach Donnie Tyndall has to figure out how to fill his roster before worrying about Kansas State, which will be led by the sophomore backcourt of Marcus Foster and Jevon Thomas.
6. Baylor at Vanderbilt (Dec. 4)
Expectations won’t be high for Baylor next season as the Bears lose Cory Jefferson, Brady Heslip and Isaiah Austin. Vanderbilt is just treading water in the middle of the SEC.
7. Missouri at Oklahoma (Dec. 5)
Missouri is starting from scratch with a coach new to Division I (Kim Anderson) and a a roster without its top three scorers. Oklahoma will be as solid as you’d come to expect from a Lon Kruger team.
8. Oklahoma State at South Carolina (Dec. 6)
The big three for Oklahoma State is down to Le’Bryan Nash. This could be a chance for an early season statement for a Gamecocks team led by exciting sophomore guard Sindarius Thornwell.
9. Auburn at Texas Tech (Dec. 3)
If anything, this will be an interesting coaching matchup between Bruce Pearl and Tubby Smith.
10. TCU at Ole Miss (Dec. 4)
Marshall Henderson and Jarvis Summers were Ole Miss’ only double-figure scorers last season. Only Summers returns.
Never mind that the games won’t occur for another seven months. Three of the teams involved in the ACC-Big Ten challenge aren’t even officially in their new leagues.
If, in some way, Virginia and Maryland played a basketball game today, they would meet in an ACC league game. By December, it’s a non-conference showcase. Louisville officially joins the ACC on July 1. Same for Rutgers and Maryland in the Big Ten.
Either way, we can start looking forward to the key games, particularly the marquee game in the 2014 edition of the challenge between Duke and Wisconsin. The Blue Devils take their star-studded freshman class into Madison to face a team that returns all but one key player from a Final Four team.
That won’t be the only key matchup. Here are all of them ranked.
1. Duke at Wisconsin (Dec. 3)
This may be the top non-conference game of the year as both will be in the preseason top five. All eyes will be on potential All-America freshman Jahlil Okafor, a superstar prospect and a traditional center for Duke, and NCAA Tournament standout Frank Kaminsky, who is not a a traditional center for the Badgers.
2. Ohio State at Louisville (Dec. 2)
Two traditional powers must replace invaluable seniors — Aaron Craft for Ohio State and Russ Smith for Louisville. The Buckeyes’ Shannon Scott and the Cardinals’ Chris Jones step into the spotlight, but at least Jones can feed the ball to center Montrezl Harrell.
3. Syracuse at Michigan (Dec. 2)
These won’t be the teams you saw for most of last season. Syracuse and Michigan were decimated by NBA Draft early entries, perhaps more than Jim Boeheim and John Beilein expected.
4. Michigan State at Notre Dame (Dec. 3)
The Spartans are rebuilding around Branden Dawson while Notre Dame looks to put a losing season in the rearview mirror. The Irish get Jerian Grant back after he missed most of last season to an academic issue.
5. Iowa at North Carolina (Dec. 2)
The Tar Heels will be one of the top teams in the ACC in the preseason while the Hawkeyes may take a step back without Roy Devyn Marble. This could be a mismatch at this stage of the season.
6. Pittsburgh at Indiana (Dec. 2)
Neither team will show up in many preseason top 25 countdowns after Pitt enters 2014-15 without Lamar Patterson and Talib Zanna and Indiana heads into the year without Noah Vonleh and Will Sheehey. Both teams are relying on veteran point guards (Cameron Wright and Yogi Ferrell) to shepherd these squads early in the year.
7. Nebraska at Florida State (Dec. 1)
Perhaps Nebraska deserved a better matchup than Florida State after reaching the rare NCAA Tournament last season. The Seminoles, though, could be a tough out in Tallahassee even without Ian Miller and Okaro White.
8. Minnesota at Wake Forest (Dec. 2)
Richard Pitino takes the NIT champions on an interesting road trip against a junior-laden Wake Forest team under first-year coach Danny Manning.
9. Virginia at Maryland (Dec. 2)
Yes, that’s a meeting between two charter ACC members in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge. Virginia will be on the fringe of the top 10 after winning the league while Maryland is facing questions with four recent transfers, including point guard Seth Allen.
10. Illinois at Miami (Dec. 2)
Thanks to a handful of newcomers, Illinois and Miami are both looking to rebound after they missed the NCAA Tournament last season. The Illini add two transfers (Ahmad Starks from Oregon State and Aaron Cosby from Seton Hall) while the Hurricanes get Angel Rodriguez eligible from Kansas State.
11. NC State at Purdue (Dec. 2)
The Wolfpack faces an early road trip, adding Alabama transfer Trevor Lacey stepping into the shoes of T.J. Warren in a backcourt with Anthony Barber. Purdue is still in rebuilding mode after going 5-13 in the Big Ten last season.
12. Georgia Tech at Northwestern (Dec. 3)
A former ACC assistant is coaching the Big Ten team (Chris Collins), and a former Big Ten assistant (Brian Gregory) is coaching the ACC team. It will be a long time before either takes on their former employers (Michigan State and Duke) in the conference challenge.
13. Virginia Tech at Penn State (Dec. 3)
Virginia Tech has Buzz Williams. Penn State has D.J. Newbill. That’s a little interesting.
14. Rutgers at Clemson (Dec. 1)
Maryland draws Virginia while fellow newcomer draws a Clemson team without K.J. McDaniels.
Larry Johnson says he hasn’t inadvertently introduced himself as “Larry Johnson from Penn State” since he landed at Ohio State on Jan. 14. That said, he’s still adjusting to referring to Michigan as the pejorative “team up north.”
But if Johnson caught himself, in passing, uttering Penn State as part of his title, could anyone blame him?
Before January, Penn State had been the only collegiate employer Johnson had known. For nearly 20 years, Johnson introduced himself as a Penn State assistant to recruits and high school coaches up and down the mid-Atlantic and through Pennsylvania.
“I try hard not to do that,” Johnson said while on the road recruiting for Ohio State in Connecticut in recent weeks. “It’s easy to do, but I’ve been pretty good.”
In the last month, Johnson has patrolled the same recruiting area he ruled at Penn State, now in scarlet and gray. His departure from Penn State to Ohio State in January could emerge as one of the most important assistant coach moves through the entire college football calendar.
"If you know about the East you know about Larry Johnson."
-Ohio State coach Urban Meyer
“If you know about the East you know about Larry Johnson,” Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said.
Johnson won’t be alone in aggressively recruiting Maryland, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, the Northeast and Washington, D.C., for Big Ten territories.
New Penn State coach James Franklin, who offered Johnson spot on his first staff, has vowed to own not just Pennsylvania in recruiting, but Maryland and New Jersey as well. His staff has already picked up four top-100 commitments from the region for 2015.
Meanwhile, new Big Ten member Maryland has been able to protect its home turf since 2012 with the return of Mike Locksley, now offensive coordinator. After landing the top two prospects in the state of Maryland, Locksley was 247Sports’ top recruiter in the Big Ten in 2014, followed by four Ohio State assistants.
And in 2012, 247Sports named Johnson and Locksley two of the top 10 recruiters in the Big Ten for that year’s recruiting cycle, quite the feat considering Penn State at that time had just begun its NCAA sanctions stemming from the Jerry Sandusky scandal and Maryland was coming off a 2-10 season.
Despite all the accolades and expectations for Locksley and the new Penn State staff, few have been more effective recruiting this region of the country than Johnson was at Penn State.
He was Rivals.com’s national recruiter of the year for the 2005-06 cycle. His haul that year included NaVorro Bowman from Suitland, Md., Aaron Maybin from Ellicot City, Md., and Jared Odrick from Lebanon, Pa. All three were first-round picks. A year earlier, Johnson helped Penn State land national No. 1 recruit Derrick Williams from Greenbelt, Md.
In a 2011 ranking, Rivals named Johnson the No. 5 recruiter of the previous decade.
He was the only coach in the top five never to land a head coaching gig, which leads us to why he’s at Ohio State rather than Penn State. (In the end, the track record of elite recruiters-turned-head coaches is checkered. Three of the four recruiters listed ahead of him were fired from their head coaching jobs in less than five years — Larry Porter at Memphis, Ed Orgeron at Ole Miss and Tim Brewster at Minnesota. The fourth, Jimbo Fisher, just won the national title.)
Johnson twice interviewed for the head coaching position at Penn State, once to replace Joe Paterno and again to replace Bill O’Brien. Ironically, O’Brien opened the door for Johnson to defect to the border rival. O’Brien hired Ohio State defensive line coach Mike Vrabel to coach linebackers with the Texans, opening a spot on the Meyer’s staff for a line coach and ace recruiter.
Johnson checked both boxes.
“Larry just fits right in where everyone on the staff is hard-working recruiter,” 247Sports Director of Recruiting Steve Wiltfong said. “Where he was at, there were times where he was on a coaching staff where not everyone was excited about recruiting as he was.”
That sets up two traditional Big Ten powers (Ohio State and Penn State) and one star recruiter (Locksley) competing for prospects in the talent-rich area of Maryland, D.C., North Carolina, Pennsylvania and the Northeast. And two of these coaches have good reason to recruit with an edge — Johnson was twice passed up for the Penn State job, Franklin was once Maryland’s coach-in-waiting before a new athletic director reversed course.
Ohio State rarely dipped into these areas in recent years, but Johnson gives Meyer instant credibility to cast his recruiting net East.
“Everyone is recruiting those states,” Johnson said. “There are outstanding players here. The area is saturated with good coaches. The ACC is there, the Big Ten is there. That’s a good sign because it means you’re on the right guy.”
Near the end of his Penn State tenure, Johnson was on the right recruits, but the instability in Happy Valley meant he had trouble landing all of them. Now, he’ll have a chance to coach them at Ohio State.
For the Nittany Lions, he recruited linemen Noah Spence, Joey Bosa and Tommy Schutt. All picked Ohio State. Schutt had been a Penn State commitment before switching to Ohio State. Spence was a five-star prospect from Harrisburg (Pa.) Bishop McDevitt who opted for the Buckeyes.
Even though he’s on the same field with players who spurned Penn State years ago, Johnson said there’s no hard feelings.
“I never really get upset at things like that,” Johnson said. “They have a right to change their minds. It’s got to be a fit for them. Your chance to be successful is where you’re a good fit.”
Besides, Johnson’s job — other than reeling in top recruits — is to prepare a line that will be the anchor of the defense. Spence and Bosa at end and Michael Bennett at tackle combined for 39 tackles for a loss last season.
With a secondary that struggled last season and a linebacker group that will miss Ryan Shazier, the line has to set the tone, and Johnson intends to do that with an active eight-man rotation.
To do that, Johnson kept his players in constant movement in spring practice. Meyer said his linemen were as active as any group he’s had.
“The way he runs his drills, non-stop movement, some drills are long, some drills are short,” Bennett said. “It gets you ready for hurry up, going back and forth from sidelines. You’ve done it again, again and again. Your body is ready for it.”
The movement may be normal for Johnson, but it was a change of pace at Ohio State during the spring.
In other words, what was old hat for Johnson is new again.
“At the end of the day, sometimes you have to move forward,” Johnson said. “I will never forget where I started. I will never do that.”
His present, though, may be far more interesting.
The 2014 NFL Draft first round took a few twists and turns but ended up where many projected it to be (with Johnny Manziel and Teddy Bridgewater in the first round) and with the same big winner from a college perspective (the SEC).
Jadeveon Clowney, subject of the dissection that comes with any high draft pick, was the No. 1 overall pick, the same spot he seemed destined for after his sophomore season.
Clowney was the SEC’s fourth No. 1 overall pick since 2007, and the first non-quarterback during that run (Cam Newton, Matthew Stafford and JaMarcus Russell were the others).
As usual, he was just the start for the league, as the SEC had double-digit first-round picks again. The final pick of the first round, however, signaled one of the major winners with Teddy Bridgewater representing the third first-round pick from the newest team in the ACC.
11. First-round picks from the SEC
Stop us if you’ve heard this before: Draft Day is the SEC’s day. The league produced 11 first-round picks. That’s three more than any other league, and that’s counting Louisville in the ACC’s tally. If Louisville’s first-round delegation is counted for the American, it’s a different story:
SEC West by itself produced more first-round picks (8) than any other conference.— Bruce Feldman (@BruceFeldmanCFB) May 9, 2014
64. First-round picks from SEC schools since 2009
The SEC has more than double the first-round picks of any conference in the last five drafts, using the 2014 alignments. That’s more than the next two leagues, the ACC and Big Ten, combined. The major conferences shake out like this since 2009:
26 Big Ten
25 Big 12
0. Top 10 picks from Alabama
Alabama had to wait until C.J. Mosley went to the Ravens at No. 17 to celebrate, the longest wait for Nick Saban since 2008. Without a top 10 pick in 2014, Alabama from 2009-13 merely tied USC from 1993-97 for five consecutive years with a top 10 pick.
1. No. 1 overall pick for Steve Spurrier
Spurrier has won a Heisman Trophy, coached a Heisman winner, won a national championships and revived three college football programs. One thing he never did until Thursday was coach a No. 1 overall draft pick. Perhaps unexpectedly, Spurrier’s top three draft picks are all defensive linemen: Clowney, Florida’s Gerard Warren (No. 3 in 2001) and Florida’s Kevin Carter (No. 6 in 1995)
3. First-round picks from Louisville
Two notes from Louisville: First, the Cardinals had no draft picks a year ago. Second, two players were selected before quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, and the Minnesota Vikings had to trade back into the first round to get him. The former wasn’t too much of a surprise since few Cardinals were draft eligible after 2012. The latter, though, was a little more of a shocker for anyone who watched the season. Still, three first-round picks tied Texas A&M for most first-round draft picks. Maybe Louisville will find a way to thrive in the ACC.
3. First-round picks from Texas A&M
At one point, Texas A&M realistically could have had three consecutive picks in the top 10 when offensive tackle Jake Matthews went sixth to the Falcons and wide receiver Mike Evans went seventh to the Buccaneers. Quarterback Johnny Manziel didn’t go to Cleveland with the eighth pick, but he ended up there anyway at No. 22. That gave the Aggies’ offense three first-round picks, the most of any team in the SEC.
4. Players who tied or became their school’s highest draft pick in the first five selections
South Carolina’s Jadeveon Clowney matched 1980 Heisman winner George Rogers as a No. 1 overall pick. Jacksonville made No. 3 pick Blake Bortles UCF’s second first-round pick after fellow quarterback Daunte Culpepper went 11th overall in 1999. Clemson wide receiver Sammy Watkins went third overall to Buffalo, one spot higher than defensive end Gaines Adams in 2007 and running back Banks McFadden in 1940. Khalil Mack, the fifth overall pick, wasn’t just Buffalo’s highest pick in school history. He was the Bulls’ first pick in the first or second rounds.
2. Top-five picks from the MAC
MACtion, indeed. Mack joined Central Michigan offensive tackle, the No. 1 overall pick last year, as top-five picks from the MAC in the last two drafts. Quite impressive, especially since Central Michigan and Buffalo aren’t flagship programs for the league.
8. First-round picks from Florida high schools, most from any state
And the most surprising part is that only two of them played in state. Oviedo quarterback Blake Bortles stayed local with UCF, and Glades Central wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin went to Florida State. The others went to college out of state: Clemson wide receiver Sammy Watkins (South Fort Myers), Buffalo linebacker Khalil Mack (Fort Pierce Westwood), Louisville safety Calvin Pryor (Port St. Joe), Ohio State linebacker Ryan Shazier (Plantation), Alabama safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix (Orlando Dr. Phillips) and Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater (Miami Northwestern).
6. Consecutive years without a top 10 pick for the Big Ten
The last top 10 pick to play in the Big Ten was No. 1 overall pick Jake Long from Michigan in 2008. The forthcoming Big Ten alignment has produced two top 10 picks since then — Nebraska’s Ndamukong Suh in 2010 and Maryland’s Darrius Heyward-Bey — but that’s still a troubling number from a maligned major conference.
We’ve reached the end of our preseason rankings debate with the Pac-12. Oregon and Stanford have ruled this league for four years, but we have a handful of reasons to wonder if that reign can continue.
Washington has a new coach and a new quarterback and may be poised to continue the progress made under Steve Sarkisian. Sark may have a contender of his own at USC, but we discuss how depth — or UCLA — may hinder the Trojans’ Pac-12 title hopes.
But Oregon and Stanford continues to be the favorites as the Athlon staff again debated between the Ducks and Cardinal to win the North and perhaps the Pac-12. We discuss where we leaning on today’s Cover 2.
We also continued a new, not-so-subtle pitch for you to get involved at email@example.com. As always, you can reach our hosts at @BradenGall, @DavidFox615 and @AthlonSteven on Twitter or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The second part of our SEC rankings and preseason preview continues with the West Division, home of four of the last five national champions. The SEC West was the toughest division for Athlon Sports to pick this season, especially in the middle.
The power resides in the state of Alabama, but the team with more reason for optimism may be under debate. Ole Miss and Mississippi State are both in good position, one of the rare times both Egg Bowl rivals go into a season with high hopes.
The X-factor may be LSU, a team that has been a lock for 10 wins in recent years. The Tigers are replacing some key cogs on defense and will be young at skill positions on offense.
We also introduced a new, not-so-subtle pitch for you to get involved at email@example.com. As always, you can reach our hosts at @BradenGall, @DavidFox615 and @AthlonSteven on Twitter or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The NBA draft early entry deadline has come and gone for college players. The last major recruit has picked his school. Transfers are starting to settle.
In other words, teams are starting to have a better idea of their rosters for 2014-15.
We last posted a top 25 after the national championship game, a top 25 that operated under a few assumptions regarding the draft. Not least of which, we assumed Kentucky would lose far more to the draft than the Wildcats did. The Harrison twins, Willie Cauley-Stein and others said they’d return to Lexington to compete for a national title.
That vaulted Kentucky to the No. 1 spot in our early rankings. We made a few other adjustments, including a boost to a Texas team that landed five-star prospect Myles Turner on Wednesday. Certainly, we’ll make a few more before we arrive at our final conclusion in the Athlon Sports preseason annual in the fall.
For now, here’s how teams stack up at the start of May.
1. Kentucky (29-11, 12-6 SEC, national runner up)
Gone: F Julius Randle, G James Young
Top returning players: C Willie Cauley-Stein, G Aaron Harrison, G Andrew Harrison, F Dakari Johnson, F Marcus Lee, F Alex Poythress
New arrivals: G Devin Booker, F Trey Lyles, C Karl Towns, G Tyler Ulis (freshmen)
The Harrison twins announced last week they will return to school, giving Kentucky nine total McDonald’s All-Americans and a veteran core (by Kentucky’s standards) that reached the national title game.
2. Arizona (33-5, 15-3 Pac-12, Elite Eight)
Gone: F Aaron Gordon, G Nick Johnson
Top players returning: F Brandon Ashley, F Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, G T.J. McConnell, C Kaleb Tarczewski, G Gabe York
New arrivals: G Kadeem Allen (junior college transfer), G Parker Jackson-Cartwright, F Stanley Johnson, F Craig Victor (freshmen)
Returning Rondae Hollis-Jefferson is huge as is a full healthy season from Brandon Ashley. Nick Johnson leaves a major backcourt void that won’t be filled easily.
3. Duke (26-9, 13-5 ACC, Round of 64)
Gone: G Andre Dawkins, F Rodney Hood, F Jabari Parker, G Tyler Thornton
Top players returning: G Quinn Cook, F Amile Jefferson, G Matt Jones, F Semi Ojeleye, C Marshall Plumlee, G Rasheed Sulaimon
New arrivals: G Grayson Allen, G Tyus Jones, C Jahil Okafor, F Justise Winslow (freshmen)
Duke matches Kentucky with nine McDonald’s All-Americans on the roster, including four in the nation’s No. 1 signing class.
4. Wisconsin (30-8, 12-6 Big Ten, Final Four)
Gone: G Ben Brust
Top players returning: F Sam Dekker, G Josh Gasser, F Nigel Hayes, G Traevon Jackson, F Frank Kaminsky, G Bronson Koenig
As we saw in the Final Four, Bronson Koenig could slip right into the role vacated by Ben Brust, the only major departure.
5. Kansas (25-10, 14-4 Big 12, Round of 32)
Gone: F Tarik Black, C Joel Embiid, G Naadir Tharpe, F Andrew Wiggins
Top players returning: F Perry Ellis, G Conner Frankamp, G Brannen Greene, G Frank Mason, G Wayne Selden
New arrivals: F Cliff Alexander, G Deveonte Graham, G Kelly Oubre (freshmen), F Hunter Mickelson (Arkansas transfer)
Kansas missed out on Myles Turner, but the Jayhawks still have two 247Sports Composite top-five players arriving on campus. Kansas announced Thursday Naadir Tharpe would transfer, leaving the point guard job to Frank Mason or Devonte Graham, who committed to KU on May 2
6. Louisville (31-6, 15-3 American, Sweet 16)
Gone: F Luke Hancock, G Russ Smith, F Kevin Ware
Top players returning: G Wayne Blackshear, F Montrezl Harrell, G Chris Jones, G Terry Rozier
New arrivals: F Shaqquan Aaron, G Quentin Snider (freshmen)
Montrezl Harrell’s return was one of the most significant decisions leading up to the draft deadline. With Chris Jones and Terry Rozier at guard, Louisville will have a standout inside-out game.
7. Wichita State (35-1, 18-0 Missouri Valley, Round of 32)
Gone: C Kadeem Coleby, F Cleanthony Early, G Nick Wiggins
Top players returning: G Ron Baker, F Darius Carter, G Tekele Cotton, F Tevin Glass G Fred VanVleet
Leading scorer Cleanthony Early is a big loss, but the Shockers return one of the top backcourts in the country in Fred VanVleet, Ron Baker and Tekele Cotton.
8. Florida (36-3, 18-0 SEC, Final Four)
Gone: F Casey Prather, G Scottie Wilbekin, F Will Yeguete, C Patric Young
Top players returning: G Eli Carter, G Michael Frazier II, G Kasey Hill, F Dorian Finney-Smith, F Chris Walker
New arrivals: G Chris Chiozza (freshman), G Brandon Francis (freshman), F Jon Horford (Michigan transfer) Alex Murphy (Duke transfer), F Devin Robinson (freshman)
The core of seniors is gone, but the Gators have two of the top 2013 prospects (Kasey Hill and Chris Walker) ready for full-time roles along with a slew of transfers from the last two seasons.
9. North Carolina (24-10, 13-5 ACC, Round of 32)
Gone: F James Michael McAdoo, G Leslie McDonald
Top players returning: G Isaiah Hicks, G Brice Johnson, F Kennedy Meeks, G Marcus Paige, F J.P. Tokoto
New arrivals: G Joel Berry, F Justin Jackson, G Theo Pinson (freshmen)
The return of guard Marcus Paige and forward Brice Johnson give North Carolina a veteran core heading into 2014-15.
10. Texas (24-11, 11-7 Big 12, Round of 32)
Top players returning: G Javan Felix, G Demarcus Holland, F Jonathan Holmes, F Connor Lammert, C Cameron Ridley, G Isaiah Taylor
New arrivals: C Myles Turner (freshman)
Myles Turner was the last major recruit to pick a school, picking Texas over Kansas and SMU. He’ll be an immediate help in the defensive end as the Longhorns return to form in the Big 12.
11. Virginia (30-7, 16-2 ACC, Sweet 16)
Gone: G Joe Harris, F Akil Mitchell
Top players returning: G Justin Anderson, G Malcolm Brogdon, F Anthony Gill, G London Perrantes, F Mike Tobey
New arrivals: G Devon Hall (redshirt), G B.J. Stith (freshman)
Top scorer Malcolm Brogdon and point guard London Perrantes are back for the ACC regular season and tournament champions.
12. Villanova (29-5, 16-2 Big East, Round of 32)
Gone: G James Bell
Top players returning: G Ryan Arcidiacono, G Dylan Ennis, G Josh Hart, G Darrun Hilliard, F Daniel Ochefu, F JayVaughn Pinkston
Big East champion Villanova loses its leading scorer, albeit from a balanced group.
13. SMU (27-10, 12-6 American, NIT runner up)
Gone: G Nick Russell
Top players returning: G Keith Frazier, F Markus Kennedy, G Ben Moore, G Nic Moore, C Yanick Moreira
New arrivals: G Emmanuel Mudiay
Emmanuel Mudiay is the No. 1 prospect in the 247Sports Composite, making Larry Brown’s team one of the most interesting upstarts in college basketball next season.
14. Iowa State (28-8, 11-7 Big 12, Sweet 16)
Gone: F Melvin Ejim, G DeAndre Kane
Top players returning: F Dustin Hogue, G Naz Long, G Monte Morris, F Georges Niang, G Matt Thomas
New arrivals: G Bryce Dejean-Jones (UNLV transfer), F Jameel McKay (Marquette transfer), F Abdell Nader (Northern Illinois)
Another season and more impact transfers in Ames. UNLV graduate transfer Bryce Dejean-Jones will join point guard Monte Morris in the backcourt.
15. Michigan (28-9, 15-3 Big Ten, Elite Eight)
Gone: F Jon Horford, F Mitch McGary, F Jordan Morgan, F Glenn Robinson III, G Nik Stauskas
Top players returning: G Spike Albrecht, G Zak Irvin, G Caris LeVert, G Derrick Walton
New arrivals: F Kameron Chatman (freshman)
John Beilein will figure out something, but the positive drug test that forced Mitch McGary’s hand into the NBA draft leaves Michigan thin in the frontcourt.
16. UConn (32-8, 12-6 American, national champion)
Gone: F DeAndre Daniels , G Niels Giffey, G Lasan Kromah, G Shabazz Napier, F Tyler Olander
Top players returning: G Ryan Boatright, C Amida Brimah, G Omar Calhoun, F Phillip Nolan, G Terrence Samuel
New arrivals: G Daniel Hamilton (freshman), G Rodney Purvis (NC State transfer)
DeAndre Daniels capitalized on his NCAA run to go to the draft. UConn will have a solid backcourt with Ryan Boatright and Rodney Purvis, but repeating will be tough.
17. San Diego State (31-5, 16-2 Mountain West, Sweet 16)
Gone: F Josh Davis, G Xavier Thames
Top players returning: F J.J. O’Brien, F Dwayne Polee, G Aqeel Quinn, F Winston Shepard, F Matt Shrigley, F Skyler Spencer
Xavier Thames and Josh Davis are major losses, but the Aztecs return plenty of seniors plus rising star junior Winston Shepard.
18. Michigan State (29-9, 12-6 Big Ten, Elite Eight)
Gone: G Keith Appling, G Gary Harris, C Adreian Payne
Top players returning: F Matt Costello, F Branden Dawson, F Kenny Kaminski, G Travis Trice, G Denzel Valentine
Branden Dawson’s return was key. He’ll be the star player on a team looking to turn role players into starters.
19. Oklahoma (23-10, 12-6 Big 12, Round of 64)
Gone: G Cameron Clark
Top players returning: G Isaiah Cousins, G Buddy Hield, F Ryan Spangler, G Jordan Woodard
New arrivals: F Khadeem Lattin (freshman)
Even without Cameron Clark, this will be a veteran team with rising juniors Buddy Hield, Isaiah Cousins and Ryan Spangler leading the way. OU went 12-6 in the rugged Big 12 behind a freshman point guard, Jordan Woodard, who will have a year of experience.
20. VCU (26-9, 12-4 Atlantic 10, Round of 64)
Gone: G Rob Brandenburg, F Juvonte Reddic
Top players returning: G Jordan Burgess, G Treveon Graham, G Melvin Johnson, G JeQuan Lewis, G Briante Weber
New arrivals: F Michael Gilmore, F Terry Larrier, F Justin Tillman, G Jonathan Williams (freshmen)
What little bulk VCU had is gone with the departure of 6-9 forward Juvonte Reddic. The Rams will try to make up for it with three freshman 6-7 or taller, all ranked in the top 100.
21. Kansas State (20-13, 10-8 Big 12, Round of 64)
Gone: G/F Shane Southwell, G Will Spradling
Top players returning: G Marcus Foster, F Thomas Gipson, F Wesley Iwundu, F D.J. Johnson, F Nino Williams
New arrivals: G Justin Edwards (Maine transfer), C Stephen Hurt (junior college transfer)
Losing those two seniors will hurt. Kansas State, though, will have one of the top point guards in the Big 12 in sophomore Marcus Foster. The Wildcats will need to prove something in a hurry. K-State lost its last four and six of its last nine.
22. Ohio State (25-10, 10-8 Big Ten, Round of 64)
Gone: G Aaron Craft, G LaQuinton Ross, G Lenzelle Smith
Top returning players: G Shannon Scott, F Sam Thompson, C Amir Williams
New arrivals: G Keita Bates-Diop (freshman), F Anthony Lee (Temple transfer), G D’Angelo Russell (freshman), G Kam Williams (redshirt)
Shannon Scott takes over at point guard, but double-double threat Anthony Lee was a major addition from Temple.
23. Nebraska (19-13, 11-7 Big Ten, Round of 32)
Gone: G Ray Gallegos
Top players returning: G Terran Petteway, F Walter Pitchford, G Shavon Shields
Nebraska returns almost anyone from a fringe NCAA Tournament team. Did the Cornhuskers’ late-season wins over Michigan State and Wisconsin signal a team ready for more?
24. UCLA (28-9, 12-6 Pac-12, Sweet 16)
Gone: G Kyle Anderson, G Jordan Adams, G Zach LaVine, F David Wear, F Travis Wear
Top players returning: G Bryce Alford, F Wanaah Bail, F Tony Parker, G Norman Powell
New arrivals: G Isaac Hamilton (ineligible last season), F Kevon Looney (freshman)
The Bruins were hit hard an unexpectedly by the NBA Draft, but they will add a McDonald’s All-American in Isaac Hamilton, who was ineligible last season after backing out of his letter of intent to UTEP. Norman Powell and Tony Parker will need to take lead roles.
25. Syracuse (28-6, 14-4 ACC, Round of 32)
Gone: G Tyler Ennis, F C.J. Fair, F Jerami Grant
Top players returning: F Rakeem Christmas, F DaJuan Coleman, G Trevor Cooney, F Tyler Roberson
New arrivals: F Chris McCullough (freshman)
Point guard will be an issue for Syracuse as Jim Boeheim’s last two floor generals, Tyler Ennis and Michael Carter-Williams, left earlier than anticipated.
Others of Note
Gonzaga (29-7, 16-3 West Coast, Round of 32)
Gone: G Drew Barham, C Sam Dower, G David Stockton
Top returning players: G Gary Bell Jr., G Gerard Coleman, G Kyle Dranginis, C Przemek Karnowski, G Kevin Pangos
Newcomers: F Kyle Wiltjer (Kentucky transfer)
Harvard (27-5, 13-1 Ivy, Round of 32)
Gone: F Kyle Casey, G Brandyn Curry, G Laurent Rivard
Top returning players: G Siyani Chambers, F Steve Moundou-Miss, G Wesley Saunders
Colorado (23-12, 10-8 Pac-12, Round of 64)
Gone: G Spencer Dinwiddie
Top players returning: G Askia Booker, F Wesley Gordon, F Xavier Johnson, F Josh Scott, G Xavier Talton
Dayton (26-11, 10-6 Atlantic 10, Elite Eight)
Gone: F Matt Kavanaugh, F Devin Oliver, G Vee Sanford
Top returning players: F Dyshawn Pierre, G Khari Price, F Jalen Robinson, G Jordan Sibert, G Scoochie Smith
Memphis (24-10, 12-6 American, Round of 32)
Gone: G Chris Crawford, G Michael Dixon, G Joe Jackson, G Geron Johnson, F David Pellom
Top returning players: F Shaq Goodwin, F Kuran Iverson, F Austin Nichols, G Nick King
Minnesota (24-13, 8-10 Big Ten, NIT champion)
Gone: G Austin Hollins, G Malik Smith
Top returning players: G Andre Hollins, F Joey King G Deandre Mathieu, F Maurice Walker
Utah (21-12, 9-9 Pac-12, NIT first round)
Gone: G Ahmad Fields, F Renan Lenz, G Princeton Onwas
Top returning players: C Dallin Bachynski, F Jordan Loveridge, C Jeremy Olsen, G Brandon Taylor, G Dakarai Tucker, G Delon Wright
The SEC is too big for one podcast, so our preseason rankings and debate series continues with the SEC East.
As we start to break down the preseason rankings, we look at the trends that will shape the East. Missouri won the division a year ago and has the consensus top quarterback in the East, but can the Tigers repeat? We’re not sold.
Florida may be an X-factor with a healthy Jeff Driskel, but Georgia and South Carolina have the most complete teams aside from quarterback questions.
We also took reader questions this week from Twitter and Facebook. Have a question you’d like to have answered on the podcast? Tweet us at @AthlonSports or email email@example.com.
John Calipari likes to make a big deal of NBA Draft day. That’s with good reason. No current coach has quite the track record he does of ushering players from college to the draft.
This year, the early entry deadline was reason for celebration for Calipari.
When Kentucky reeled in the most highly touted recruiting class of all time, did anyone expect Julius Randle and James Young to be the only two to leap to the draft? Thanks to the return of the Harrison twins, Kentucky emerged from the draft deadline as the biggest winner of the last month or so of players deciding to stay in school or go pro.
Kentucky made the biggest news surrounding the draft deadline, but dozens other teams saw key developments that will shape their 2014-15 seasons, whether it’s players leaving, players staying or players transferring.
Here’s a roundup of the news you need to know from the early entry deadline:
1. Kentucky stocks up for another NCAA run
For the first time during the John Calipari era, Kentucky will not have a mass exodus of freshmen to the NBA Draft. The decisions were made over the course of a few weeks since Kentucky’s run to the title game, culminating with the Harrison twins’ announcement Friday that they would return to school. Their return — plus that of Willie Cauley-Stein, Alex Poythress, Dakari Johnson and Marcus Lee — will give Kentucky a roster that includes nine McDonald’s All-Americans and NCAA Tournament experience. Another preseason No. 1 ranking awaits, and this one may stick a little longer.
2. Louisville is not far behind its rival
The Cardinals were going to lose seniors Russ Smith and Luke Hancock no matter what, so the return of Montrezl Harrell is key for the Cardinals’ prospects for 2014-15. Chris Jones and Terry Rozier will form a solid backcourt, but Harrell, who was unstoppable at the end of last season, gives Louisville a key big man.
3. Mitch McGary has a decision made for him
Michigan lost Nik Stauskas and Glenn Robinson III to the draft, but the Wolverines were optimistic that McGary would get a full season under his belt before moving onto the pros. That changed when McGary learned he would be suspended for the 2014-15 season for failing an NCAA-mandated drug test at the Tournament. Guards Caris LeVert, Derrick Walton and Zak Irvin all will be back for Michigan, but the departures of McGary and Jon Horford, who transferred to Florida, will leave a gap in the frontcourt.
4. North Carolina returns two big names
James Michael McAdoo went to the draft after his breakout junior season. Guard Marcus Paige and forward Brice Johnson could have taken the leap, but they will return to school for a team that should contend for an ACC title. Johnson could be one of the nation’s breakout players after averaging 10.3 points and 6.1 rebounds in less than 20 minutes per game.
5. Good news, bad news at UConn
The senior Shabazz Napier played his final game in the national championship, and DeAndre Daniels seized upon his NCAA Tournament performance to to go to the draft. Ryan Boatright, though, elected to stay at UConn, forming a solid backcourt with NC State transfer Rodney Purvis.
6. Florida's frontcourt will have Chris Walker and Jon Horford
Walker arrived at Florida as one of the top recruits in the class, but he didn’t become eligible until late January. By that point, he was not in position to become a major contributor for the Gators, not that Florida needed him with the veteran roster. Next season, the forward Walker will have an opportunity to go through the entire offseason program before playing major minutes. Florida also added Horford, who will be eligible immediately after his transfer from Michigan. Duke transfer Alex Murphy also will be eligible.
7. Ohio State fills its gaps with transfers
Aaron Craft and Lenzelle Smith were seniors last season, and LaQuinton Ross left after his junior season. The Buckeyes hope to fill some of those spots with transfers. Anthony Lee averaged 13.6 points and 8.6 rebounds at Temple last season. Seven-footer Trevor Thompson transferred from Virginia Tech and is hoping for a wavier to play immediately. Shannon Scott takes over Craft’s spot at point guard.
8. UCLA is hit hard
Losing Kyle Anderson wasn’t a shock. The 6-9 guard is a rare talent. Jordan Adams thought about returning to school before changing his mind to enter the draft. The most surprising departure from UCLA was that of Zach LaVine, who averaged 9.4 points per game. The Bruins will be without three of their top four scorers in 2014-15.
9. Syracuse loses big
Jim Boeheim has lost his point guard two years in a row in Michael Carter-Williams and Tyler Ennis. Both were gone earlier than Boeheim probably expected, leaving Syracuse with only one point guard on the roster. Jerami Grant will join Ennis off last year’s squad in the draft. Grant averaged only 12.1 points and 6.8 rebounds, but he may be a first-round pick on his athleticism. That leaves Syracuse without its top three of its top four scorers off a team that couldn’t score late in the season.
10. Arizona stands pat
Aaron Gordon’s departure after one season wasn’t much of a surprise. Neither was Nick Johnson’s after earning second-team All-America honors as a junior. After that, Sean Miller won’t have to scramble to replace anyone unexpected. Kaleb Tarczewski, Brandon Ashley and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson all elected to return to a likely top-five team in 2014-15.
11. Branden Dawson returns to Michigan State
The Spartans are rebuilding with seniors Adreian Payne and Keith Appling and junior Gary Harris all departing. Michigan State, as usual, will have veterans to carry the team as Branden Dawson elected to return. Michigan State won’t be the Big Ten favorite, but Dawson’s return means the Spartans likely will be a top-25 squad to start the season.
12. Colorado’s Spencer Dinwiddie plays it safe
The Buffaloes were a potential Pac-12 contender had the Dinwiddie returned. Instead, the point guard declared for the draft. It’s tough to blame him after he lost most of his junior season to a torn ACL.
13. Two puzzling exits and one transfer from UNLV
UNLV might not have lost a first-round pick, but the Runnin’ Rebels lost three major pieces. Khem Birch, UNLV’s best big man and interior defender, entered his name in the draft, where he’s a likely second-round pick. Roscoe Smith, who averaged a double-double, also declared, though his prospects are probably overseas. Guard Bryce Dejean-Jones also left UNLV, transferring to Iowa State. The Rebels have a highly ranked signing class coming in, but those are the top three scorers and three would-be seniors at that.
14. There’s not much left at Missouri
Guards Jabari Brown and Jordan Clarkson both declared for the draft, and coach Frank Haith got out ahead of the hot seat talk when he took the Tulsa job. Missouri will rebuild with Kim Anderson, an alum and former assistant who comes from the Division II ranks.
15. Utah has a chance to compete in the Pac-12
Larry Krystkowiak has quietly put together one of the country’s best rebuilding jobs as Utah won 21 games last season and broke even in the Pac-12. Statsheet-stuffing guard Delon Wright elected to return to Utah on a team that returns its top eight scorers.
As usual, Kentucky will have talent, and Kentucky will have guards.
Now, Kentucky will have experience.
On Friday, Andrew and Aaron Harrison announced they would return to Kentucky for their sophomore seasons, meaning only Julius Randle and James Young will head to the NBA Draft from a team that reached the national title game.
The return of the Harrisons to a roster that also returns Willie Cauley-Stein, Alex Poythress, Dakari Johnson and Marcus Lee and adds another highly regarded signing class means Kentucky again will be a national title contender, and probably a preseason No. 1.
Before Friday, Kentucky already knew it would have one of the most imposing frontcourts in college basketball, and now it has guards to match. That won’t make this a unique team for Calipari in Lexington. Instead, the experience will.
Calipari will have four players who started at least 18 games, five sophomores and two juniors to go with three freshmen who were McDonald’s All-Americans.
Expectations at Kentucky will be sky-high again. Here’s why Kentucky will be a preseason No. 1 and why the Wildcats might not live up to that ranking.
|2014-15 Kentucky Roster|
|PG Andrew Harrison (6-6/215, So.)*|
PG Tyler Ulis (5-8/150, Fr.)*
SG Aaron Harrison (6-6/218, So.)*
SG Devin Booker (6-5/180, Fr.)*
SG Dominique Hawkins (6-0/193, So.)
|F Alex Poythress (6-8/239, Jr.)*|
F Marcus Lee (6-9/215, So.)*
F Trey Lyles (6-10/245, Fr.)*
F Derek Willis (6-9/209, So.)
C Willie Cauley-Stein (7-0/244, Jr.)
C Dakari Johnson (7-0/265, So.)*
C Karl Towns (6-11/240, Fr.)*
Three things that will scare opponents
• Talent. Count them: Nine McDonald’s All-Americans on Kentucky’s roster. One more and Kentucky could host its own intrasquad McDonald’s All-American game. Kentucky had six McDonald’s All-Americans last season, and one of them, Marcus Lee, didn’t see much playing time until he was an X-factor in the Elite Eight against Michigan.
• Size. Kentucky likely will have the biggest frontcourt in the country with two seven-footers (Willie Cauley-Stein and Dakari Johnson) and two freshmen 6-10 or taller. When Kentucky “goes small,” the 6-8 Alex Poythress and 6-9 Marcus Lee may be in the lineup. The Wildcats were second in the country in offensive rebound rate last season, largely thanks to Cauley-Stein.
• Experience. Kentucky needed the entire regular season to round into form in part because of the freshman-laden lineup. The Wildcats in 2014-15 will have plenty of experience to go with all that talent. The Harrisons, Johnson and Lee are sophomores, and Cauley-Stein and Poythress will be juniors. This will be John Calipari’s most experienced team in Lexington since 2011.
Three things to scare Kentucky
• Point guard. It always starts with the point guard for Calipari, and for him, he’ll have rarity in a point guard with experience in the system. Andrew Harrison, though, struggled until the NCAA Tournament. Will he continue that level of play though the course of the season? Calipari will have a McDonald’s All-American as a backup point guard (Tyler Ulis), but he probably entertained the idea of starting until Friday.
• Playing time. Calipari often talked of the issue of his team coming together through the course of the 2013-14 season. Now, he’ll have an even deeper roster of players who could start — and star — for any team in the country. Calipari will have to find a way to keep everyone satisfied, especially his all-star frontcourt.
• Expectations. Kentucky’s dream of 40-0 didn’t last out of November, and the Wildcats couldn’t even make easy work of the SEC. This group would probably have high expectations even if Kentucky returned from a round-of-64 loss in the NCAA Tournament. Making the title game, largely on the improved play of the Harrisons, only raises the bar. This team may be a preseason No. 1 again. How will Kentucky handle potentially unreasonable expectations for the second consecutive year?
Athlon’s Braden Gall and David Fox split up A-Day duties, spending time at Auburn and Alabama through each school’s spring game.
At Auburn, the fan base (and athletic director) is enjoying the rebound, but Gus Malzahn is busy at work trying to ramp up the tempo of the offense while plugging holes on defense.
At Alabama, the fans have moved on from the 0-2 finish to last season, but the losing streak exposed some cracks in leadership and culture in the Alabama locker room. Nick Saban spent the spring trying to reinforce those things.
In the spring games, both teams learned a bit about their quarterbacks. Nick Marshall may be on his way to being a standout passer while Blake Sims might not be the top guy for much longer.
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — For a fan base not always known for its sense of perspective, the Alabama faithful seem to be taking the events of the last four months well.
A-Day at Tuscaloosa was 140 days since Auburn ended Alabama’s bid to win four national titles in five years and 108 days since Oklahoma stunned the Crimson Tide for a 45-31 loss in the Sugar Bowl. For two losses that put a halt to national championship ambitions and temporarily derailed a dynasty, the topic isn't a total conversation-killer in the quad outside Bryant-Denny Stadium.
“We don’t think too much about it,” said Luke Kiszla, an Alabama junior from Mobile.
Kiszla’s friend at his tailgate, Jordan Yue, completed the thought.
“Not as much as we used to,” Yue said.
Inside the program, though, the 0-2 finish is inescapable. At the start of spring, Alabama coaches placed motivational posters throughout the locker room indicating the losses to Auburn and Oklahoma.
At the end of January, quarterback AJ McCarron pinpointed the problems that contributed to losses that ended the 2013 season. Complacency, McCarron said, was Alabama’s undoing long before the Auburn game, too many players who didn’t fully appreciate all it took to get to three national championships from 2009-12. No one rushed to dispute the assessment of Alabama's championship quarterback.
For most programs, spending every week of the season until December at No. 1 would be a major success. At Alabama, that wasn’t enough, especially given the stakes.
“From the Alabama fan perspective, they can’t wait until next season," said former Alabama quarterback Jay Barker, who led Tide to the 1994 championship and co-hosts the morning show on WJOX in Birmingham. “Everything that built to the three-peat boiled down to that Auburn game. Then you get to Oklahoma. You’ve got to finish stronger than last year. This is a team that had a chance to create history.”
For the optimist, even a disappointing finish in 2013 isn’t a bad development in the long run. The 2008 Alabama team had the national championship in its sights before a loss to Florida in the SEC title game and a flop in the bowl game.
“What the players need to understand is that it’s never-ending. The process is never-ending."
-Alabama coach Nick Saban
The Crimson Tide went 14-0 the next season and won the first national championship of the Saban era.
The veterans from that team, though, remembered going 7-6 in Saban’s first season, including a home loss to Louisiana-Monroe.
If Alabama is going to maintain its dynasty — rather than ending it — the issue won’t be talent as much as culture.
Alabama has finished first in the 247Sports Composite team rankings every signing day from 2009-14 and have the current No. 1 class for 2015. That figure does not include potential 2014 starting quarterback Jacob Coker, who will arrive in fall after a transfer from Florida State. But all that talent can't guarantee another championship.
“I think they got by on talent last season,” Barker said. “When it came to the Auburn game, it all caught up to them. All the things they didn’t do in the summer caught up to them.”
Now is the chance to atone for it. Saban said he’s been encouraged by the change in attitude during the spring, but responding when the coach is on the same practice field is one thing. Doing the same during summer conditioning or passing drills is another.
“What the players need to understand is that it’s never-ending,” Saban said. “The process is never-ending.
“One thing I like about this group, when you talk about it, they respond well. Last year, I felt we talked about some of the issues we had and we acknowledged them, but we didn’t really respond like you’d like.”
Alabama’s focus is two-fold. On the one hand, Saban needs his team to adopt the process-oriented culture. On the other, Saban needs credible leaders to replace McCarron and his counterpart on the other side of the ball, former linebacker C.J. Mosley.
On the defensive side, that may fall on senior linebacker Trey DePriest. The answers on the opposite side of the ball might not be clear until a quarterback is determined. Still, Alabama may have some of the best skill position talent in the country in running backs T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry and wide receiver Amari Cooper.
“We’re getting back to the basics, and when coach says something, we’ve got to be there to back him up,” DePriest said. “We’re there to tell (a young player) that he’s not hollering at you and trying to put you down. He’s trying to make you better.”
In many ways, this is a 11-2 top-10 team that’s in the process of starting over, including the eye-opening hire of controversial former Tennessee and USC coach Lane Kiffin as offensive coordinator.
At least for some fans, they’ve responded. A hire that first garnered skepticism is now greeted with cautious optimism.
Alabama, after all, has made it this far with on the coaching approach by Saban.
“I don’t make $7 million a year to make those decisions,” Lolley said. “In Saban we trust.”
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — The last two Alabama quarterbacks couldn’t be missed in Tuscaloosa for the spring game. Greg McElroy spent time with the ESPNU broadcast crew, and AJ McCarron marked his spot in the Walk of Fame in a pregame ceremony.
The next Alabama quarterback, though, could soon be back in Tallahassee, Fla.
The Crimson Tide finished spring practice with an offensively challenged scrimmage that ended in a 17-13 win for the White team, which comprised the first-string players on defense.
While Alabama coach Nick Saban noted the limitations now-first-string quarterback Blake Sims faced in a spring game situation, a 6-5, 235-pound shadow in the form of Jacob Coker will loom over the offense until the fall.
Sims, a 6-foot senior who backed up McCarron the last two seasons, distanced himself in the quarterback race in the spring. In a spring game with a limited offensive playbook, Sims was 13-of-30 for 178 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions.
The performance of the offense, which included 15 punts and six turnovers, wasn’t enough to stop anyone from wondering what Coker could bring to the table.
Coker lost a competition with eventual Heisman winner Jameis Winston before last season and will finish his undergraduate degree at Florida State to become eligible immediately at Alabama. During his spring break, the Mobile, Ala., native working out and studying in Tuscaloosa. He returned Saturday to observe the spring game.
The scrimmage shouldn’t be an indictment on Sims, even if he did struggle with the two turnovers and passes bounced off his receivers. On the pick six, Saban said freshman Cam Robinson, running with the first team offense, contributed to the pick by blocking the wrong player on a screen.
“The game (sped) up today, and (Sims) tried to speed up with it rather than stay in his rhythm,” Saban said. “There are a lot of things Blake can do as a quarterback that we didn’t do today.”
Through the spring, Saban praised Sims’ command of the offense, and Sims eventually secured himself as the best quarterback in camp, beating out Cooper Bateman and Alec Morris.
Saturday appeared to be an aberration.
Neither Alabama squad scored an offensive touchdown for the first 38:27 when T.J. Yeldon rushed for a one-yard score. And even that came with a caveat — backup tailback Kenyan Drake, on the opposing White team, fumbled to set up a seven-yard scoring drive for the Crimson.
Until then, Alabama’s offense had been operating in the red. Sims threw an interception returned for a touchdown earlier in the third quarter.
Not since 2011 has Alabama had a quarterback competition. That's when when McCarron beat out Phillip Sims by the second game of the season. Now, Alabama coaches will have to wait until fall to get a complete picture for 2014.
That Sims and Coker are competing for the same job is not lost on the quarterback who was able to play during the spring.
“Blake knows this and Blake embraced (Coker) before the game,” Saban said. “They’re going to compete through the summer and fall camp.”
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — For a day or so, two of the most beloved Tennessee sports figures were in the state of Alabama.
Bruce Pearl, of course, is the new coach at Auburn. And now Peyton Manning and Nick Saban are trading football tips.
Follow @DavidFox615 for updates from Alabama and @BradenGall for updates from Auburn and stay tuned for game coverage Saturday and through the week.
Also follow Athlon on Instagram for images from the Iron Bowl rivals.
Both Saban and Manning are coming off shocking postseason losses ‚ Alabama losing 45-31 to Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl and the Broncos losing 43-8 to the Seahawks in the Super Bowl.
“To be honest with you, he was just trying to learn so he could be a better player,” Saban said at his post-practice press conference. "I think a lot of people would say, 'Wow, the guy is one of the best, if not the best, and certainly from a career standpoint probably about as good as anybody's been in the history of the league.’ After all the experience and knowledge that he has, he's going out and trying to seek more knowledge and understanding of the game of football so he can play better.”
Saban said he talked to Manning about the no-huddle offense and what gives him trouble from a defensive standpoint. Alabama, of course, faces its share of up-tempo teams in the SEC West. Not to mention the team in Knoxville.
Tennessee fans seem to be taking it well:
SERIOUSLY PEYTON MANNING! ! BAMA AND SABAN.... WHY PEYTON WHY?!?!— shane (@bigshane8329) April 18, 2014
The real party to be a little upset, though, might be the NFLPA. By meeting with Gase, Manning may have committed a violation of the CBA, according to Pro Football Talk. The Collective Bargaining Agreement forbids players from meeting with their NFL coaches before the official start of the offseason program.
Manning isn’t the only figure to visit. Former Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Rutgers coach Greg Schiano also visited Saban and his staff during the spring.
“I guess the best way to answer the question is who's doing who a favor?” Saban said “Sometimes we have people that we ask to come in because we want to learn from them. The goals that you have for next year are basically the things that you struggled with last year. You make a list of those things through your quality control, and then you go out and look for people who might be able to help you develop a little more expertise, a better way to teach, a better way to coach some situation.”
Alabama is coming off the kind of disappointing season most teams would envy.
The Crimson Tide were No. 1 and undefeated until Nov. 30 and reached the Sugar Bowl. But the glaring number here is 0-2, as in losses to Auburn and Oklahoma to finish the season.
The theme of spring practice in Tuscaloosa has been to rediscover the magic that started to fade, players say, well before the heartbreaking loss to Auburn. The two-touchdown loss to Oklahoma was the culmination of the complacency that Alabama feared going back to spring 2013.
As spring 2014 comes to a close, Alabama coach Nick Saban is not only looking for a change of attitude in his team, but also some key personnel moves, starting with the replacement of quarterback AJ McCarron.
Follow @DavidFox615 for updates from Alabama and @BradenGall for updates from Auburn and stay tuned for game coverage Saturday and through the week.
Also follow Athlon on Instagram for images from the Iron Bowl rivals.
Alabama won’t have a true picture of who will replace career-leading passer and two-time national championship quarterback AJ McCarron until the fall when Florida State transfer Jacob Coker arrives. Credit senior quarterback Blake Sims, though, for making the most his spring in the spotlight. Alabama coach Nick Saban has praised Sims’ “command” of the offense. This will be Sims’ final audition before competing for the job yet again when Coker arrives. Coker, a Mobile, Ala., native, competed with Heisman winner Jameis Winston before last season at Florida State. Coker is still finishing his final semester in Tallahassee before he’ll be eligible immediately at Alabama.
T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry on the same team
Saban has been generous in his praise of Henry, who was one of the breakout players of bowl season with 100 yards and a touchdown on eight carries against Oklahoma. He and incumbent T.J. Yeldon are both on the Crimson team for first-stringers on offense. That means Yeldon and Henry will both run into the No. 1 defense. Both are capable of being a feature back — and a star feature back, at that — so the rotation and 1-2 punch will be worth watching.
The unveiling of Lane Kiffin, offensive coordinator
One of the more intriguing coaching moves of the offseason was the addition of Kiffin to the Alabama staff as offensive coordinator. By Alabama policy, Kiffin shouldn’t be as much as a lightning rod as an assistant in Tuscaloosa. Alabama assistants do not conduct media interviews. That means the Alabama offense will have to speak for the former Tennessee and USC coach. Receivers, including Amari Cooper, have said Kiffin has a knack for getting the ball into the hands of his playmakers. But Kiffin is also one of a dwindling group of college coordinators who embrace the kind of pro-style offense Saban wants to run. How will that manifest itself on A-Day?
The attendance battle with Auburn
Everything is a competition with the Iron Bowl, so why not put the spring game attendance figures head to head. During the Saban era, Alabama has demolished Auburn in spring game attendance, at least until last season when the Tigers set a school record with 83,401 at their spring game. Alabama’s spring game attendance has leveled off to sub-80,000 (by the way, how many coaches are wishing they had a 78,000 at their spring games?). Maybe the added mystery — a new quarterback, a new offensive coordinator — and good weather will draw more Alabama fans for the scrimmage. Remember, Alabama set a record in the 2011 spring game, another game after a non-championship year.
|Spring Game Attendance|
The fan reaction
Perhaps no fan base in the SEC has had quite the swing in emotions. Alabama went into the Iron Bowl undefeated with hopes of a fourth national championship in five seasons. Then came the Kick Six. Then came the flop against Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl. Hiring Lane Kiffin was puzzling. Is this a fragile fan base? With Auburn on top as well, no state will have a more interesting offseason than Alabama.
The state of the secondary
The secondary is the biggest question on the defense with positions open at spots not manned by safety Landon Collins. This brings up the classic question for spring games — if Sims has a good day passing is that good for him or bad for the defense and vice versa.
Trey DePriest steps up
The defense also needs its quarterback with C.J. Mosley gone. Middle linebacker and multi-year starter Trey DePriest takes over at signal-caller on the defense. He’ll also need to shepherd a young linebacker corps.
Nick Saban, having fun?
The tradition at Alabama, as it is for a handful of schools, is to treat the winning team in the spring game to a lavish dinner while the losing team receives, let’s say, more standard fare. In the case of Alabama, it’s steak with wait service for the winning players and coaches and buffet-style franks and beans for losing team. Saban, the “commissioner” of A-Day, always gets steak. “The players say I have to choose a team because they get tired of me being over there eating steak and not being on team,” Saban said. “But it’s not just the steak. It’s the tablecloth, the roses on every table, waitresses waiting on you. The other side of it is paper plates, one pot, beans, paper towels, plastic silverware.”
Related: What might get under Saban’s skin?
Saban’s not above sending a message through the media, particularly when he’s unhappy. When asked why running backs Kenyan Drake and Altee Tenpenny, two of the tree running backs on the White team, were absent from the open portion of practice, Saban tone ticked up for a bit: “They didn’t do what they were supposed to do in school this week, so I sent them to study table for four hours and they didn’t come to practice,” Saban said. “If they don’t stay over the for four hours, the probably won’t play in the spring game. There’s no update, just a fact. ...
“I’d rather do it now than during the season. You know, all these players need to learn that they have a responsibility and obligation to do the right thing for themselves.”
Freshman offensive lineman Cam Robinson
In a mild surprise, freshman Cam Robinson will play left tackle with the first-team offense on Saturday while Brandon Greene, his competition, will be with the second unit.
See the sights
Colleague Braden Gall ran down a few of the sights he’s looking to take in at A-Day over at Auburn including Toomer’s Corner and tailgates. I’ve covered games at most SEC programs, but Bryant-Denny is a glaring blind spot on my stadium resume. I’m looking forward to taking a stroll around the stadium to check out the national champion coach statues. There has to be a line for taking photos with the Bear and Saban, right?
From the beat:
AL.com reporter Andrew Gribble joined us to talk about what he’s seen around Alabama spring football.
Athlon Sports: A major point at spring practice this season has been rediscovering the edge and attention to detail that derailed last year’s national championship hopes. How much as that been an issue this spring?
Andrew Gribble: I think they realized they lost their identity at some point last season. Many of the players said that happened before the Auburn loss. That’s been the key talking point from Saban and the players. I think he’s been pleased with what they’ve been able to do. The attitude has been better this year. I think they’re still looking for leaders because they lost a few big ones. The vibe has been back on the right path. That’s been the key theme. Last year, they talked about avoiding complacency. That never really happened this year.
Athlon: How has the messaging been different from Saban compared to years past?
Gribble: He entered this year saying they were going to start over. That’s been the theme, and he’s been pretty positive with many of the players. He’s been more open with the quarterback competition than he was with the McCarron and (Phillip) Sims one. He’s been pretty transparent on that. He’s been very high on praise for Amari Cooper and Derrick Henry and guys like that. There’s been moments when he’s been more positive than in past years.
Athlon: What has been the reaction to Lane Kiffin’s hire, both from the team and the fan base?
Gribble: The fan base has bought into it. I think they were skeptical initially. But I think they kind of trust that Saban knows what he’s doing. The players have really responded well to him. Amari Cooper especially has talked about how the offense is simpler and playmaker-friendly. That’s good news for all the running backs and Cooper and O.J. Howard. Kiffin has a good track record with quarterbacks and they recognize that. It’s been overwhelmingly positive. We’ve heard a lot about tempo. They’re not going to look like Oregon anytime soon, but there are going to be situations where they pick up the pace a little bit.
Athlon: How much will the quarterback situation change when Jacob Coker gets here?
Gribble: They’re not going to have an answer by the end of spring, and Coker is the main reason for that. It’s kind of clear that Blake Sims has emerged as the top guy for this current group. He’s had a good spring. The players really like him. He worked with a quarterback coach over spring break, so he’s gotten a lot better. But Jacob Coker wouldn’t have signed with Alabama if he wasn’t going to compete. I think he’s still the frontrunner because he has the skills that Alabama likes in its quarterbacks, and he’s mobile, too. It’s really going to get started once fall camp starts. Saban’s said it could go into the season. I don’t know if it’s going to last that long, but he said the same thing with McCarron even though it was pretty clear McCarron was the guy.
Athlon: What are you looking for in the spring game, especially since most of practice has been closed?
Gribble: Quarterbacks obviously is the big one. The quarterback who has been No. 2 to Sims, Cooper Bateman, is going to be on the other side. He’s going to be able to throw a lot. The offensive line, it looks like a true freshman, Cameron Robinson, is going to be with the first team at left tackle. That’s following in the footsteps of Andre Smith in 2006. Secondary is a big issue. The loss of (cornerback) Eddie Jackson was really significant. He was emerging as one of the top corners. I don’t know how much they’re going to do with special teams. Alabama has one kicker now (Adam Griffith), and he’s been inconsistent. He didn’t have many opportunities last year, but he’s going to have to be the guy this year. Outside of what happened in the Iron Bowl, Alabama has been very good on field goals since 2011.
Athlon: How might the Yeldon/Henry tandem play out?
Gribble: I think Henry is going to be very involved in the offense, but Yeldon is very good. I think the ideal situation for Alabama is going to be to replicate what they had in 2012 with Yeldon and (Eddie) Lacy. They both split carries through the season, and when they got to Georgia and Notre Dame, they were fresh and had huge games. Maybe last year, Yeldon carried the ball a lot and he may have run out of gas. Having those two is a good option for them. It’s a good problem to have. I think (Kenyan) Drake is involved as well because he brings a different element with his speed. But Henry has received the most praise of anyone from Saban. He’s had a great spring, and he knows how to play running back now. Last year, he just knew how to run the ball.