Articles By Patrick Snow

Path: /nfl/green-bay-packers-robbed-replacement-referees
Body:

It finally happened. Much of the early-season NFL conversation has centered around the lacking performance of its replacement officials, and they finally cost a team a victory. Most NFL observers and pundits believe that the end of the Seattle Seahawks-Green Bay Packers clash on Monday Night Football set a new low for the league and commissioner Roger Goodell in 2012. The Seahawks ended the night with a 14-12 victory after the refs botched the call on a ‘Hail Mary’ pass from Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson to Golden Tate on the final play. Packers defensive back M.D. Jennings intercepted the ball, but then two different officials had conflicting calls on who had possession. After a botched review, Tate and the Seahawks were awarded a controversial touchdown.

The critical mistake was the latest and most egregious of many blown calls by the replacement referees this season, and the Packers-Seahawks controversy set off a massive reaction on Twitter and other social platforms centered on the desire from fans and players to see the NFL end the labor dispute immediately with the regular league officials. Everyone from Packers players to celebrities to media and fans were incensed at the incompetence of the replacement crew, and the league’s credibility is definitely being ruined by missed calls like the one on Monday night.

The Seahawks fortunate victory sends them to 2-1 on the season, and Seattle heads to St. Louis next Sunday. The Packers were dropped to an alarming 1-2 on the year, making their upcoming battle with the 0-3 Saints a must-win for both teams. Unfortunately for NFL fans, the talk around the league after the Monday night debacle is not about the football on the field. Instead, most of the current NFL dialogue is focused on the league’s stubbornness and its damaged product as a result of more mistakes by replacement officials.

 

--By Patrick Snow (@AthlonSnowman)

Teaser:
<p> Green Bay Packers Robbed by Replacement Referees</p>
Post date: Tuesday, September 25, 2012 - 06:00
Path: /nfl/green-bay-packers-vs-seattle-seahawks-preview-and-prediction
Body:

Two teams looking to build on big Week 2 wins will clash tonight when the Seattle Seahawks host the Green Bay Packers at 8:30 pm EST on ESPN. After losing the season-opener at home to the 49ers, the Packers rebounded last week with a resounding defensive effort in a 23-10 victory over the division-rival Bears. Seattle also lost its opener to the surprising Arizona Cardinals, but Pete Carroll’s bunch spanked the Dallas Cowboys at CenturyLink Field last Sunday by a 27-7 mark.

When the Green Bay Packers have the ball:
Quarterback Aaron Rodgers had an amazing MVP campaign last year, but he has not been able to establish quite the same passing rhythm this season. Green Bay has faced two top defenses so far, and a tough Seahawks unit will present a challenge as well. The Packers offensive line will need to do a better job of protecting Rodgers, who has been sacked eight times in two games. The good news for Green Bay is that star receiver Greg Jennings should be play after missing last week’s game against the Bears with an injured groin.

The Seahawks defense has been very solid this season, especially against the run. Seattle has only given up a total of 92 rushing yards on 36 carries, for a stingy average on 2.6 yards per run. Cedric Benson and the Packers run game has not been much of a threat in two games, so the Seahawks will look to put Rodgers in difficult down-and-distance situations. Seattle only has two sacks in two games, and that will need to improve against the Green Bay passing attack.

When the Seattle Seahawks have the ball:
The Seahawks have been fairly conservative on offense with rookie quarterback Russell Wilson getting acclimated to the NFL game. Seattle will continue to use the power running game with Marshawn Lynch, who has totaled 207 yards and two touchdowns this season. He battled back issues this week, but the sixth-year runner practiced Saturday and should be a go tonight. Wilson will need to avoid turnovers against a gambling Packers defense and play well on third down.

The Packers defense has given up an alarming 280 rushing yards this year, and improvement in that area will be a critical factor against Lynch and the Seahawks. If Green Bay can control the Seattle run game, there will be ample opportunities to force the youthful Wilson into challenging predicaments. The Packers already have 11 sacks this year, and generating that type of pressure on a rookie quarterback could lead to turnovers and big plays.

Key Factor:
This contest should come down to the play of Rodgers and the Packers passing game. If Green Bay is effective throwing the ball on first down, Rodgers can create a successful offensive balance that will keep the raucous Seattle crowd out of the game. With Jennings back, look for the Packers to rediscover their lethal air attack.

Prediction:
Packers 27 Seahawks 23


---By Patrick Snow (@AthlonSnowman)

Teaser:
<p> Green Bay Packers vs. Seattle Seahawks Preview and Prediction</p>
Post date: Monday, September 24, 2012 - 06:35
Path: /nfl/new-england-patriots-vs-baltimore-ravens-preview-and-prediction
Body:

Two elite teams will be looking to avoid a 1-2 start when the Baltimore Ravens host the New England Patriots tonight at 8:20 p.m. EST on NBC. Much will be made about the heartbreaking nature of Baltimore’s AFC Championship Game loss in New England last season, but the reality is that both of these squads with Super Bowl aspirations need to rebound from excruciating losses last week. The Ravens blew a 10-pont halftime lead in Philadelphia and lost 24-23 to the Eagles, while Patriots suffered a rare 20-18 home defeat to the Arizona Cardinals.

When the Baltimore Ravens have the ball:
It all starts with tailback Ray Rice, who has gone over 2,000 total yards in two of the last three seasons. The diminutive but powerful runner is off to another good start, totaling 167 yards on the ground and ranking second on the team with nine receptions. Quarterback Joe Flacco has found a new favorite target in tight end Dennis Pitta, who leads Baltimore with 13 catches. To beat New England, however, Flacco will need to involve receivers Torrey Smith and Anquan Boldin more in the offense.

The Patriots defense struggled for much of last season, but rookies Chandler Jones and Dont’a Hightower have already paid dividends this year. New England was able to contain Rice (67 rush yards and just one catch) in last season’s 23-20 AFC title tilt victory, and that will be a key again tonight. Boldin and Smith can be effective if Flacco has time to throw, so the Patriots will look for another three-sack performance like they had last January.

When the New England Patriots have the ball:
Quarterback Tom Brady was rattled in week’s loss to the Cardinals, who had four sacks and an interception. One factor that will help protect Brady is a strong running game, and second-year back Stevan Ridley has 196 yards and a score in two games this season. Receiver Wes Welker only has eight catches (low by his standards) this year, and it will be interesting to see if he is a bigger focus for the offense against Baltimore. With tight end Aaron Hernandez out, the Patriots signed former first-round pick Kellen Winslow Jr. this week.

After a solid Week 1 performance against the Bengals, the Ravens defense allowed 17 second-half points in the Eagles loss. Ray Lewis and company will need to pressure Brady, and Baltimore has compiled six sacks this season. While it’s easy to concentrate on all of New England’s pass catchers, the Ravens must also contain Ridley. Baltimore has allowed 258 rushing in two games, and that must improve versus the Patriots.

Key Factor:
The Ravens allowed an alarming 486 total yards in Philadelphia, the highest total their defense had given up since 1998. They simply must be better against New England’s usually prolific offense. Baltimore’s ability to make Brady uncomfortable in the pocket should decide this game. The Patriots almost never lose twice in row under coach Bill Belichick, so we’ll take New England in a tight thriller.

Prediction:
Patriots 27 Ravens 23


---By Patrick Snow (@AthlonSnowman)
 

Teaser:
<p> New England Patriots vs. Baltimore Ravens Preview and Prediction</p>
Post date: Sunday, September 23, 2012 - 06:14
All taxonomy terms: College Football, Links, College Basketball, NFL, NBA, MLB
Path: /college-football/athlon%E2%80%99s-essential-eleven-links-day-17
Body:

This is your daily link roundup of our favorite sports posts on the web for September 21.

• College football fans were bewildered last night by BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall’s decision to go for two, while down by one point to Boise State with 3:37 left to go in the game. The Cougars failed on the conversion and lost 7-6 to the Broncos.

• The New York Giants pummeled the Panthers last night, 36-7, with backups Andre Brown and Ramses Barden leading the way.

• Alan Grant of the National Football Post has a wonderful piece on the work of Steve Sabol and NFL Films.

• Bernie Miklasz of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch looks at the return of Chris Carpenter to the Cardinals rotation.

• Mandatory.com asks the question: is the iPhone 5 worth the upgrade?

• After 49ers quarterback Alex Smith was threatened with a fine by the NFL for wearing a San Francisco Giants baseball cap to his postgame presser, SF manager Bruce Bochy showed his support by wearing a 49ers lid yesterday.

• The Florida State-Clemson matchup is huge for the image of ACC football, which is consistently overshadowed by the powerful SEC.

• The Ravens will be seeking revenge against the Patriots on Sunday night.

USA Today’s Bob Nightengale looks at the futures of some big time MLB managers.

• Have a great weekend and be careful out there. Not everyone is as nice as these guys.

• It’s time for a little silliness as we head into the weekend. Louisiana Tech is 2-0 and headed to Illinois for an interesting contest on Saturday night. We have some entertaining scary footage of the Bulldogs offensive line preparing for the big game.

--- Email us with any compelling sports-related links at links@athlonsports.com

---By Patrick Snow (@AthlonSnowman)
 


September 20

• Ralph Vacchiano of the New York Daily News has the latest on the ailing Giants, who will be without Hakeem Nicks and other starters on offense tonight in Carolina.

• Bleacher Report’s Adam Jacobi looks at the struggles of Big Ten football this season.

• USC coach Lane Kiffin continues to be awkward personified. Apparently a question about an injured player was just too much to handle.

• Check out rapper DMX learning how to Google.

• Michigan and Notre Dame will battle Saturday night, so a good ole college prank was in order.

• MRSEC.com looks at the possible falling draft stocks of quarterbacks Tyler Wilson and Tyler Bray.

• Jay Cutler’s play against Green Bay probably drove many Bears fans to smoking, and one has created a site dedicated to “the most apathetic looking athlete in the history of sports.”

• Could San Francisco Giants outfielder Melky Cabrera still win the National League batting crown despite his 50-game suspension?

• The financial saga Arkansas coach John L. Smith has to be a distraction for the Razorbacks.

• The reduced role of Wes Welker in the Patriots offense has caused a ton of debate in New England.

• We have seen a lot of mascots do pushups after their team scores, but this one turned out a little differently than normal. The Clemson Tiger knocks out 27 pushups in last week’s win over Furman, and then reveals himself as school president James Barker.

--- Email us with any compelling sports-related links at links@athlonsports.com

---By Patrick Snow (@AthlonSnowman)
 


September 19

• North Carolina basketball coach Roy Williams is having surgery today to remove a tumor from his kidney.

• CBS’ Mike Freeman looks at Wes Welker’s reduced role and other NFL issues.

• ESPN’s Brett McMurphy reports that the Big East is currently in a debate over its future 14th football member, and that a 16-team football league is also a possibility.

• Shooter McGavin on the subway?

• The surprising Orioles continued their magic last night with an 18-inning win over the Mariners. Baltimore stayed tied with the Yankees for first place in the AL East.

• A few years after bring drafted third overall by the Titans, free agent Vince Young appears to be in bad financial shape.

• If you’re in the Big Apple, watch out for Lindsay Lohan.

• The NFL conversation is being dominated by referee bashing.

• Did Jalen Rose try to injure Kobe Bryant in the 2000 NBA Finals? Yes he did.

• Michigan may struggle to move the ball against Notre Dame’s defense.

• The pro football and media world lost one of its most influential figures with the passing of NFL Films president Steve Sabol. He and his father Ed were amazing artists in presenting the NFL and its players for decades.

--- Email us with any compelling sports-related links at links@athlonsports.com

---By Patrick Snow (@AthlonSnowman)
 


September 18

• Did an NFL replacement referee really tell Eagles running back LeSean McCoy that he needed the runner to play well for his fantasy team?! Unreal.

• How does Falcons running back Michael Turner celebrate a MNF win and a 2-0 start? By throwing back some drinks and driving 97 MPH at 4 a.m.

• I might forgo this cup of coffee at Starbucks.

• FOX golf columnist Robert Lusetich interviews Greg Norman, who believes that Rory McIlroy is intimidating Tiger Woods.

• CBS’ Gary Parrish has the latest on the NCAA investigation into former Duke basketball player Lance Thomas, who has settled the lawsuit involving a jeweler and nearly $100,000 of merchandise acquired during his time with the Blue Devils.

• With Aaron Hernandez injured, the New England Patriots have signed polarizing tight end Kellen Winslow Jr.

• The Florida Gators second-half success has led to an encouraging 3-0 start.

• Blue Jays shortstop Yunel Escobar is in hot water with MLB after putting a controversial message on his eye black.

• Check out this Tim Lincecum GIF.

• How close is an SEC Network?

• The talk around the NFL after two weeks is being dominated by the bad calls of replacement referees. Many in the media will gripe about anything that is an easy target, but the new refs are definitely in over their heads. ESPN’s Steve Young has some of the best commentary on the subject.

--- Email us with any compelling sports-related links at links@athlonsports.com

---By Patrick Snow (@AthlonSnowman)
 


September 17

• ESPN Pac-12 blogger Kevin Gemmell looks at Stanford’s huge win over USC, including the excellent performance of running back Stepfan Taylor.

• The Arizona Cardinals went into New England and beat the Patriots 20-18, just like we ALL predicted.

• Veteran Giants boss Tom Coughlin was furious with new Buccaneers coach Greg Schiano after Tampa Bay rushed hard into New York’s victory formation.

• Just not sure about this dining establishment.

• Arkansas lost 52-0 at home to Alabama on Saturday, and the “Fire John L. Smith” Facebook page is getting a ton of likes from Razorback fans.

• The Dodgers are concerned that Clayton Kershaw’s absence could last into the beginning of next season.

• Redskins fans are livid with wideout Josh Morgan and his incredibly stupid penalty at the end of the loss to the Rams.

• Notre Dame had a huge win at Michigan State, but the Irish lost starting safety Jamoris Slaughter to a season-ending Achilles tendon injury.

• After an offseason filled with controversy, the 0-2 New Orleans Saints are struggling mightily on the field.

• The St. Louis Cardinals are fighting for the last NL wild card spot, and 2011 postseason hero Chris Carpenter is scheduled to return on Friday.

• There were several great moments during a wild football weekend, but the winning double pass in Western Kentucky’s victory over Kentucky was outstanding. The Hilltoppers made the risky call of going for two in overtime, and here’s what happened…



--- Email us with any compelling sports-related links at links@athlonsports.com

---By Patrick Snow (@AthlonSnowman)

Teaser:
<p> The best sports links from the NFL, college football and basketball, MLB, the NBA, NASCAR and the world of entertainment.</p>
Post date: Friday, September 21, 2012 - 12:01
Path: /nfl/giants-pummel-panthers-charlotte
Body:

The defending Super Bowl champions took the ‘next man up’ concept to another level on Thursday night. Despite missing three key offensive starters, the New York Giants throttled the Carolina Panthers, 36-7, in a game that was never close. The G-men jumped out to a 20-0 halftime lead and never looked back. New York tailback Andre Brown, filling in for the injured Ahmad Bradshaw, had a stellar performance with 113 rushing yards and two touchdowns. Additionally, backup receiver Ramses Barden got the start in place of ailing wideout Hakeem Nicks and produced nine catches for 138 yards. Eli Manning had a very efficient night in completing 27-of-35 passes for 288 yards and a score to tight end Martellus Bennett.

Cam Newton and the Panthers were coming off an excellent offensive game in their win over the Saints last Sunday, but the star Carolina quarterback struggled all night against the New York defense. Newton was held to 242 passing yards and just six yards on the ground while being intercepted three times. Giants linebacker Michael Boley had one of those pilfers, making it his third straight game with an interception. The New York defenders showed great resolve in bouncing back from subpar performances against the Cowboys and Buccaneers to dominate Carolina.

The Giants will now have some time to heal before traveling to Philadelphia on September 30 to battle the Eagles on Sunday Night Football. The Panthers will try to regroup as they prepare for a tough road trip to Atlanta in 10 days.

Teaser:
<p> Giants Pummel the Panthers in Charlotte</p>
Post date: Friday, September 21, 2012 - 06:45
Path: /nfl/new-york-giants-vs-carolina-panthers-preview-and-prediction
Body:

Two NFC teams will be looking to sustain their Week 2 momentum when the Carolina Panthers host the New York Giants tonight at 8:20pm EST on the NFL Network. The defending champions lost to the Cowboys in the season-opener and were down two touchdowns against the Buccaneers, but then Eli Manning rallied the G-men for 25 fourth-quarter points and a victory. The Panthers had a rough showing at Tampa Bay in Week 1, but then bounced back at home with a 35-27 victory over the Saints last Sunday. This quarterback matchup is a special one, with former top picks Manning and Cam Newton trying to lead their respective squads to a 2-1 start.

When the New York Giants have the ball:
Who is going to play? The quick turnaround this week is not doing the Giants any favors, as star wideout Hakeem Nicks, running back Ahmad Bradshaw, right tackle David Diehl and backup receiver Domenik Hixon are out for this game. Manning will still have Victor Cruz and tight end Martellus Bennett as top targets, but New York’s depth will be tested. Many football pundits believed first-round pick David Wilson would back up Bradshaw this season, but fourth-year journeyman Andre Brown got the call against the Bucs and gained 71 yards on 13 carries.

The Panthers defense gave up 325 passing yards to Drew Brees last week, but also intercepted him twice. That will be the goal against Manning, who threw three picks last week before rallying his team with 295 second-half passing yards. The Panthers gave up 163 yards on the ground last week, and that number must decrease tonight with both Bradshaw and Diehl out. Expect Cruz to get the most attention from the Carolina defenders.

When the Carolina Panthers have the ball:
We know it all starts with Newton, who has thrown for 556 yards in two games and leads the club in rushing. He should find success tonight attacking the Giants secondary. Top receiver Steve Smith has two 100-yard efforts on the year, and Carolina fans have to be excited by the continued production of Brandon LaFell (155 yards and a score in 2012). If the Panthers can mix in some production from runners DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, they should score plenty of points against New York.

The Giants defense has been fairly pedestrian so far, giving up a ton of yards in the Cowboys loss and several big pass plays versus Tampa Bay. Newton definitely presents a challenge with his run threat, as well as a big arm. New York could load the box to try and stop the Carolina run game (219 yards in last week’s win over the Saints), but the banged-up Giants secondary could struggle without support. The Panthers receiving tandem of Smith and LaFell consistently puts up solid numbers, so New York will need improved play on the back end.

Key Factor:
This primetime contest should come down to turnovers and the run game. Manning and Newton have thrown some early picks this season, but both quarterbacks should have big nights through the air. The team that protects the ball and gets a little help from the ground game should prevail. In a Thursday night thriller, I’ll take Carolina at home over an ailing New York team.

Prediction:
Panthers 27 Giants 24


---By Patrick Snow (@AthlonSnowman)
 

Teaser:
<p> New York Giants vs. Carolina Panthers Preview and Prediction</p>
Post date: Thursday, September 20, 2012 - 06:25
Path: /college-football/lsu-auburn-five-things-watch
Body:

Auburn is looking for anything positive on the gridiron after a 1-2 start, while undefeated LSU will look to continue dominating opponents when it travels to the Plains for a 7 p.m. ET kickoff Saturday night on ESPN. In this tale of two Tigers going in different directions, Les Miles’ crew will enter SEC play as an almost three-touchdown favorite over Auburn. However Gene Chizik’s bunch has a ton of talent and pride, and the Jordan-Hare crowd can be a difference maker.

1. Wild things happen in SEC night games.
LSU easily handled Auburn, 45-10, in Baton Rouge last season, but this one is on the road. While the Bengal Tigers have won 24 consecutive September games, the visitor in the LSU-Auburn series is 1-11 in the last 12 matchups. In fact, the last time Les Miles lost in the month of September was a 7-3 defeat at Auburn in 2006.

2. Zach Mettenberger makes his first SEC road start.
The new LSU starter has performed well this season, throwing for 609 yards and four touchdowns while completing 72.7 percent of his passes. Even though Auburn has struggled on defense, the Tigers talent should present more of a challenge for Mettenberger than North Texas, Washington and Idaho. A solid run game should help the junior quarterback, but the atmosphere at Jordan-Hare could be intimidating if Auburn can gain momentum early.

3. Auburn must tackle better to have a chance on defense.
New coordinator Brian VanGorder arrived on the Plains with much acclaim, but the results through three games have been ugly. The Auburn defense has allowed an alarming 651 rushing yards this season, and LSU’s power running attack is one of the best in the nation. AU has talented defenders, but VanGorder must find a way to make them work better as a unit. If Auburn can make open-field tackles and not break in the red zone, the home Tigers can keep it close and use the raucous crowd to their advantage.

4. LSU has had a rash of key injuries to its running backs and offensive line.
Tailback Alfred Blue (270 yards and two touchdowns in 2012) suffered a knee injury against Idaho and is out indefinitely, while Spencer Ware has already missed two games. Offensive linemen P.J. Lonergan and Josh Dworaczyk have missed time as well, although both should play at Auburn. Perhaps no team in the nation has as much depth as LSU, but the Tigers current attrition is a concern.

5. Quarterback Kiehl Frazier must be able to make a few plays on third down.
The young signal caller has struggled to adjust to new coordinator Scot Loeffler’s offense, and he has only two touchdown passes versus five interceptions in three games. The focus of the Auburn attack will be on runners Tre Mason and Onterio McCalebb, who have totaled 435 yards on just 75 carries, but LSU tends to allow next to nothing on the ground. Frazier will need to use his athleticism to avoid a solid LSU pass rush and move the chains enough to give the AU offense some balance.  

---By Patrick Snow (@AthlonSnowman)

Teaser:
<p> LSU at Auburn: Five Things to Watch</p>
Post date: Wednesday, September 19, 2012 - 12:05
All taxonomy terms: NHL, News
Path: /news/ask-athlon-nhl
Body:

Q: What is the intent of the trapezoid area behind the goal of an NHL hockey rink? If I am interpreting the rules of hockey correctly, this is the only area that the goalie is allowed to play the puck outside of his goal crease without drawing a delay of game penalty.

— Ted Bauer, North Canton, Ohio

A: Ted, you’re close, but with one important clarification: It’s the only place behind the goal line that the goaltender can handle the puck. The trapezoid — or, more precisely, the goaltender trap zone — dates back to the 2004-05 American Hockey League season, when it was tested with the intent of improving the flow of the game by making it more difficult for the goaltender to control and clear the puck. The development worked so well that the NHL adopted it the following season. Nevertheless, there has been sentiment since the rule was implemented to do away with the trapezoid, since it leads to more hits on defensemen, who can’t rely on goaltender help behind the goal.

Rob Doster, Senior Editor

Have a question? Email us with any sports-related questions at editor@athlonsports.com
Please include first and last name, plus hometown.

Teaser:
<p> NHL rink</p>
Post date: Tuesday, September 18, 2012 - 19:16
Path: /nba/ask-athlon-los-angeles-lakers
Body:

Q: I’d like to see some perspective on the first great L.A. Laker, Elgin Baylor.  Jerry West, his great teammate, suggested that a statue of Elgin should be in prominence there at Staples Center.  I agree.  What do you think?

— William H. Johnson, Los Angeles, Calif.

A: I agree — Baylor is probably underappreciated for his greatness. He predated Michael Jordan and Dr. J but was very nearly their equal in high-flying, attack-the-rim basketball. Baylor helped his team into the finals eight times, and he was first-team All-NBA 10 times. In 1961-62 he averaged 38.3 points a game. In the 1962 NBA Finals against the Celtics, Baylor dominated Game 5 with 61 points. The next year he finished second in scoring (34.0), fifth in rebounding (14.3), sixth in assists (4.8) and third in free throw percentage (.837). No championship, though (he retired a few games into the Lakers’ championship 1971-72 season), and that’s the only deficiency that harms his legacy and has probably prevented a statue in his honor in title-mad Los Angeles. (His weak performance as General Manager of the sad-sack Clippers didn’t exactly enhance his legacy either.)

Charlie Miller, Editorial Director

Have a question? Email us with any sports-related questions at editor@athlonsports.com
Please include first and last name, plus hometown.

Teaser:
<p> Los Angeles Lakers</p>
Post date: Tuesday, September 18, 2012 - 19:13
All taxonomy terms: NHL, Monthly
Path: /monthly/nhl-questions-2012-season
Body:

While the NHL and the NHLPA battle to create a new collective bargaining agreement (and they will get it done without having to sacrifice another season), the 2012 Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings are primed to be the league’s first back-to-back title-winners since the Detroit Red Wings turned the trick in 1997 and ’98. We say they beat Sidney Crosby’s Pittsburgh Penguins in a fun final. For now, here are three key questions we’re pondering as we wait for the puck to drop.

CAN SID THE KID REGAIN HIS PLACE AS THE GAME’S BEST PLAYER?
If you have any doubt about Crosby’s ability to move right back to the head of his class, consider this number: 1.403. That’s Crosby’s career points per game average (609 points in 434 regular-season games). He ranks fourth on the all-time list behind legends Wayne Gretzky (1.921), Mario Lemieux (1.883) and Mike Bossy (1.497) and just ahead of Bruins icon Bobby Orr (1.393).

Despite being sidelined for long stretches during each of the past two seasons due to concussion problems, Crosby still managed to put up 40 goals and 103 points in his last 63 games. If he can stay healthy, there’s little doubt he’ll reclaim super-elite status. If he’s pushed by anyone, it’ll likely be by teammate Evgeni Malkin, the reigning MVP and scoring champ.

Crosby won’t be the only high-end star under the microscope. After signing matching 13-year, $98M free agent contracts in Minnesota, Zach Parise and Ryan Suter will be expected to lift the woeful Wild into the playoff race. In New York, Rangers fans are banking that newly acquired Rick Nash is the missing piece to a Cup puzzle. That’s a lot to ask of a guy who’s never won a Stanley Cup playoff game.
 
CAN THE NHL FIND THE BALANCE BETWEEN SPEED AND SAFETY?
In 2005, the NHL cracked down on obstruction and interference in an effort to speed up the game. Mission accomplished. The game is faster (and more exciting) than ever. There has been, however, an unintended consequence: concussions.

During the 2011-12 regular season, according to a report from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, more than 80 players missed playing time due to head injuries or concussion-related symptoms. Among those on that star-studded injury list were league icon Sidney Crosby, 2011 Rookie of the Year Jeff Skinner and 2010 U.S. Olympic goaltending hero Ryan Miller.
While concussions are nothing new in hockey (the NHL has been proactive on the issue going back to 1997, and it was the first league to introduce baseline testing and return-to-play protocol), the increased speed results in more violent collisions and less time to react to an errant stick or puck. Late last season, players and coaches grumbled that more hooking and holding were creeping back into the game, perhaps in an effort to slow things down. One top exec admitted, “We’re always looking at that; when is it too fast?” The league will continue to be challenged by that question.
 
ARE THE KINGS THE REAL DEAL?
The short answer: absolutely! GM Dean Lombardi has constructed a young team that’s strong in all the right areas.

Up the middle, LA’s trio of top center Anze Kopitar (just 25), No. 2 man Mike Richards (27) and checking specialist Jarret Stoll (30) are perfectly slotted and difficult to match up against. The defense is led by mega-talented 22-year-old Drew Doughty, who already has a Cup and an Olympic gold medal on his résumé. In goal, they have 26-year-old Jonathan Quick. The athletic stopper earned playoff MVP honors with a silly-good .946 save percentage.

Conversely, the Red Wings’ run of dominance might be winding down. Defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom, the one on-ice constant in that time, hung up the skates, and the club couldn’t attract any elite free agents to replace him in Hockeytown.

If you’re looking for a long shot, keep an eye on Minnesota and Montreal. The Wild figure to be better with free agents Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, while the Habs will rebound from a last-place finish under new coach Michel Therrien.
 

Teaser:
<p> NHL questions for the 2012 season</p>
Post date: Tuesday, September 18, 2012 - 19:06
Path: /nfl/denver-broncos-vs-atlanta-falcons-preview-and-prediction
Body:

An excellent quarterback battle will be the focus on Monday Night Football, when the Atlanta Falcons host the Denver Broncos at 8:30 p.m. EST on ESPN. Matt Ryan and Peyton Manning led their respective clubs to double-digit victories in Week 1, with the Falcons beating the Chiefs on the road and the Broncos topping the Steelers at home. Both teams have legitimate Super Bowl aspirations this season, and a 2-0 start would go a long way towards having a successful year.

When the Atlanta Falcons have the ball:
Ryan had a stellar opener in Kansas City, going 23-for-31 passing for 299 yards and three touchdowns. He also added a score on the ground. Roddy White and tight end Tony Gonzalez have been favorite targets during Ryan’s career, but second-year receiver Julio Jones led the way versus the Chiefs with six catches for 108 yards and two touchdowns. The Falcons passing game looks to be electric, but they will also need to get Michael Turner (32 yards at K.C.) and the running game going against Denver.

The Broncos defense had trouble getting off the field against Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers, but holding Pittsburgh to 19 points and a late interception return touchdown made for a solid performance. Denver will need pass rushers Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil to pressure Ryan in this one, as covering all of Atlanta’s weapons can be quite the task. The Broncos limited big plays against the Steelers, and doing so once again will be critical against a fast-paced Falcons offense.

When the Denver Broncos have the ball:
Everyone around the NFL was anxious to see how Manning would look in his return from multiple neck surgeries, and the four-time MVP responded with 253 passing yards and two touchdowns. In fact, he became the third quarterback in league history to reach the 400-touchdown mark. The Broncos were especially effective when Manning went to the no-huddle attack, so look for more of the same in Atlanta.

The Falcons gave up 17 points to the Chiefs in the first half but were able to shut down Kansas City in the second stanza, with the lone score coming with five seconds to go. Atlanta will face a tougher challenge this week with Manning and company, and the Falcons offense can help the defense greatly by winning the time of possession battle and keeping No. 18 off the field. Atlanta had three takeaways and three sacks versus the Chiefs, but the defense will have to absorb a major loss with Pro Bowl cornerback Brent Grimes suffering a season-ending Achilles tendon injury.

Key Factor:
Both defenses allowed well over 50-percent on third down conversions last week, and the unit that improves the most in that department will hold a huge advantage tonight. The Atlanta and Denver offenses will both earn plenty of yards, but the defense that can score or hold the opponent to field goals instead of touchdowns will prevail in this exciting matchup. The Falcons are 26-4 in the Georgia Dome with Matt Ryan at quarterback, so we’ll take Atlanta to win at home in a close one.

Prediction:
Falcons 27 Broncos 24


---By Patrick Snow (@AthlonSnowman)
 

Teaser:
<p> Denver Broncos vs. Atlanta Falcons Preview and Prediction</p>
Post date: Monday, September 17, 2012 - 10:00
Path: /nfl/49ers-defeat-lions-27-19-sunday-night-football
Body:

The San Francisco 49ers dominating defense and methodical offense won for the second straight week, beating the Detroit Lions by the score of 27-19 in Candlestick Park. Jim Harbaugh’s club is looking like the early NFC favorite after defeating fellow NFC playoff clubs, the Packers and Lions, in their two victories. Patrick Willis and San Francisco defense held the high-octane Detroit attack to under 300 total yards and just 15 first downs, with much of those totals coming in the fourth quarter. When the Lions did move the ball, the Niners were able to keep them out of the end zone and force four Jason Hanson field goals.

The 49ers are not just about defense, however, with quarterback Alex Smith racking up another efficient performance in passing for 226 yards and two touchdowns. Both scoring passes went to tight end Vernon Davis, while receiver Michael Crabtree (six catches for 67 yards) was a valuable target on third down. Veteran tailback Frank Gore added 17 carries for 89 yards and a touchdown

Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford had thrown for over 350 yards in four straight games dating back to last season, but he was held to 230 yards and one late touchdown by the stifling Niners defense. Additionally, All-Pro receiver Calvin Johnson was held under 100 yards and did not score.

San Francisco will try to go 3-0 in Minnesota next Sunday afternoon, while Detroit will travel to Tennessee.

Teaser:
<p> The 49ers defeat the Lions 27-19 on Sunday Night Football</p>
Post date: Monday, September 17, 2012 - 06:00
Path: /nfl/detroit-lions-vs-san-francisco-49ers-preview-and-prediction
Body:

Some of the national attention will be on the two coaches when the San Francisco 49ers host the Detroit Lions Sunday night at 8:20pm EST on NBC, but the real story is a solid NFC matchup between two postseason teams with high goals for this season. After San Francisco’s 25-19 win last October, Lions coach Jim Schwartz and 49ers boss Jim Harbaugh had a rather contentious postgame handshake that was played over and over again on the highlight shows. However both coaches say it was overblown, and that the focus belongs on two 1-0 squads with Super Bowl aspirations.

When the San Francisco 49ers have the ball:
The Niners are known for a conservative offensive attack featuring physical tailback Frank Gore, but they did finish 11th in the league in scoring last season. Gore was excellent (16 carries for 112 yards and TD) in Week 1, but quarterback Alex Smith was also huge with an efficient 20-for-26 performance that included two touchdowns. With Randy Moss and Mario Manningham joining Michael Crabtree and tight end Vernon Davis on the receiving unit, the San Francisco offense has a very dangerous balance for its opponents.

The Lions defense had a quality outing against St. Louis, holding the Rams to just 250 total yards. It will be a more difficult challenge this week with 49ers power running game, which is led by an excellent offensive line. Detroit must limit Gore’s production, while also hoping that a banged up secondary does not get beat for big plays on the outside. Smith does not turn the ball over, so the Lions must tackle well to get off the field.

When the Detroit Lions have the ball:
After a slow start that included three first-half interceptions, Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford finished with 355 passing yards against the Rams in a 27-23 victory. Receiver Calvin Johnson had a routine six catches for 111 yards, while an important contribution was made by oft-injured running back Kevin Smith (62 rush yards and a score plus a touchdown catch). Detroit should look to work underneath routes in order to combat the ferocious Niners pass rush, so Smith, wideout Nate Burleson and tight ends Brandon Pettigrew and Tony Scheffler will be valuable targets in this game.

The 49ers defense is their catalyst, and their performance in a 30-22 win at Green Bay last week was stellar. The high-octane Packers only managed seven points in the first three quarters and totaled just 45 rushing yards (with 27 by quarterback Aaron Rodgers) for the game. San Francisco’s linebackers group — NaVorro Bowman, Patrick Willis, Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks — can handle the run game and blitzing Stafford, so the secondary’s top priority will be doing whatever it takes to slow down Johnson.

Key Factor:
The 49ers have historically dominated the Lions, and this contest will come down to the Lions ability to stop Gore and force Smith to beat them through the air. Detroit could be depleted with injuries on the back end, but giving up clock-eating rushing yards to San Francisco would be a losing formula. Schwartz will have his team motivated, but Harbaugh’s crew will win at home in the end.

Prediction:
49ers 24 Lions 17


---By Patrick Snow (@AthlonSnowman)
 

Teaser:
<p> Detroit Lions vs. San Francisco 49ers Preview and Prediction</p>
Post date: Sunday, September 16, 2012 - 07:00
All taxonomy terms: College Football, Links, College Basketball, NFL, NBA, MLB
Path: /college-football/athlon%E2%80%99s-essential-eleven-links-day-16
Body:

This is your daily link roundup of our favorite sports posts on the web for September 14.

• Arkansas quarterback Tyler Wilson will not play Saturday versus No. 1 Alabama.

• Jay Cutler and the Bears offensive line failed miserably in last night’s 23-10 loss to the Packers.

• Bleacher Report’s Barrett Sallee looks at what a victory in the Florida-Tennessee game would mean for coaches Will Muschamp and Derek Dooley.

• Check out this gallery of mascots behaving badly.

• The UConn basketball program is in shambles as Jim Calhoun retires.

• Mark Ennis of Big East Coast Bias details at the struggles of USF and quarterback B.J. Daniels in league play.

• Will the Eagles have any healthy wide receivers against the Ravens?

• The red-hot Orioles have won their last 13 extra-inning games, and Baltimore is ready for postseason baseball.

• Oh those Apple hipsters.

• Can a “no-Luck” Stanford team surprise USC on Saturday?

• You gotta love Dad going Happy Gilmore off the tee.

--- Email us with any compelling sports-related links at links@athlonsports.com

---By Patrick Snow (@AthlonSnowman)
 


September 13

• The Bears and Packers play tonight at Lambeau Field, and this year's Chicago offense has massive potential.

• Yahoo’s Les Carpenter believes that retiring UConn coach Jim Calhoun changed for the worst in order to win big.

• MrSEC.com looks into the recruiting rumors around Mississippi State caused by controversial “7-on-7 coach” Byron De’Vinner.

• LostLetterman.com ranks college football’s best end zone designs.

• Remember that band guy in high school with the funny name?

• The Oakland A’s and their small-budget payroll have won 12 consecutive road games and lead the American League wild card standings.

• Miami Heat star LeBron James has decided to change agents.

• One Texas football star doesn’t believe the Longhorns’ crowd is very loud.

• The Arizona Cardinals will start Kevin Kolb against the Patriots on Sunday. Adjust your wagers accordingly.

• The Penn State football program has had another player defection.

• Check out the awesome fake on this defensive play by Orioles rookie third baseman Manny Machado. Baltimore is tied with the Yankees atop the AL East and is battling to make the postseason for the first time since 1997.

--- Email us with any compelling sports-related links at links@athlonsports.com

---By Patrick Snow (@AthlonSnowman)
 


September 12

• The news broke this morning that Notre Dame will join the ACC in all sports but football and hockey. The agreement is expected to begin whenever ND can exit the Big East, and the Irish will play five football games per year against ACC opponents.

• Texans defensive end J.J. Watt says he learned the Dolphins snap count from watching Hard Knocks on HBO. Good luck to the network trying to find a team to do the show next preseason.

• The Packers host the Bears on Thursday night in a huge NFC North matchup. How will Green Bay running back Cedric Benson fare against his former team?

• This seems pretty prophetic with blush wine.

• USC football has banned Scott Wolf of the Los Angeles Daily News for two weeks for…reporting the news.

• The Orioles and A’s keep winning as the American League playoff race continues to be a wild one.

• Easy on those touchdown celebrations, kids.

• This two-minute video pretty much sums up the pending NHL lockout.

• It seemed like a great story when Harvard basketball made last season’s NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1946, but now comes the news that co-captains Kyle Casey and Brandyn Curry have been accused of being part of a large academic cheating scandal at the school.

• If you’ve got some extra time on your hands, get up to Maine and help solve this canoe mystery. A gallon of gin could be yours!

• Check out the reaction of Slayer guitarist Kerry King and other musicians to the popular new ESPN commercial that has NFL insider John Clayton wearing the metal band’s t-shirt.

--- Email us with any compelling sports-related links at links@athlonsports.com

---By Patrick Snow (@AthlonSnowman)
 


September 11

• Ravens safety Ed Reed set a new all-time NFL record for interception return yards in Baltimore’s 44-13 victory over the Bengals.

• Is Angels rookie Mike Trout still the favorite for the American League MVP?

• Check out what happens to Browns’ receiver Mohamed Massaquoi on the new Madden13. That’s gotta hurt.

• ESPN Big Ten blogger Brian Bennett looks at the recent struggles of the Nebraska defense.

• Apparently the nation’s top football recruit, defensive end Robert Nkemdiche of Grayson H.S. in Georgia, is not a fan of the AJC’s Michael Carvell.

• The SEC has unfortunately made a Goodell-like decision in suspending Ole Miss defensive back Trae Elston for a hit that was deemed “a flagrant and dangerous act.” The play did not draw a flag in the Rebels win over UTEP, but Elston will sit against Texas this week.

• The Raiders special teams gaffes were paramount in last night’s 22-14 home loss to the Chargers.

• Is UCLA running back Johnathan Franklin a dark-horse Heisman candidate?

• Ken Pomeroy takes an in-depth look at the infamous USA-USSR Olympic basketball final from 1972 on its 40th anniversary.

• Kudos to Andy Murray for winning an elusive Grand Slam title. He beat Novak Djokovic in the U.S. Open final to become the first British man to win a singles Grand Slam championship since 1936.

• Does the AMC hit show Breaking Bad need a new open? Here is a worthy candidate for Walter White and the boys.

--- Email us with any compelling sports-related links at links@athlonsports.com

---By Patrick Snow (@AthlonSnowman)
 


September 10

• There is a new excitement around the Redskins with Robert Griffin III at quarterback. The rookie threw for 320 yards and two touchdowns in a win over the Saints in his NFL debut.

• Mike Klis of the Denver Post looks at the “superb quarterbacking” in the Broncos 31-19 win over the Steelers. New Denver signal caller Peyton Manning became the third QB in NFL history to throw for 400 career touchdowns.

• LSU is kicking butt on the field, and so is their fan base with this R2D2 keg.

• Dave Miller of the National Football Post recaps a wild Week 2 of college football.

• FOX’s Jon Paul Morosi calls out the Nationals management for their mishandling of ace Stephen Strasburg.

• The 49ers made a big statement at Lambeau Field yesterday, beating the Packers 30-22.

• Check out this beer koozie.

• Four-time champion Jeff Gordon slipped into the last spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.

• Twitter was abuzz on Saturday night as Louisiana-Monroe upset Arkansas in overtime.

• Props to Brent Sutton of the Tampa/St. Petersburg area. He found the lost wallet of Rays' speedster B.J. Upton and then tweeted the outfielder to set up a return.

• We're not sure which is worse: Arkansas losing to Louisiana-Monroe or this video made by a very unique Hogs fan.

--- Email us with any compelling sports-related links at links@athlonsports.com

---By Patrick Snow (@AthlonSnowman)
 

Teaser:
<p> The best sports links from the NFL, college football and basketball, MLB, the NBA, NASCAR and the world of entertainment.</p>
Post date: Friday, September 14, 2012 - 12:34
Path: /nfl/green-bay-packers-vs-chicago-bears-preview-and-prediction
Body:

The Thursday night game will feature the NFL’s oldest rivalry, with the Green Bay Packers hosting the Chicago Bears at 8:20 p.m. EST on the NFL Network. These two NFC North foes had very different experiences in their openers, as the Bears easily handled the Colts while the Packers ran into the juggernaut defense of the 49ers — losing 30-22 at home. After going 15-1 last season, it would be almost unfathomable for Green Bay to start the 2012 campaign with two Lambeau Field losses. Chicago will bring an improved offense to Wisconsin, and Lovie Smith’s club will be looking for revenge after losing to the Packers twice last season

When the Green Bay Packers have the ball:
Quarterback Aaron Rodgers still ended up with 303 passing yards and two touchdowns against the tough 49ers defense, but he was sacked three times and threw a costly interception. To get back to last year’s incredible offensive rhythm, the Packers must protect Rodgers and improve greatly in the run game. Green Bay managed only 45 yards rushing against the Niners, with Rodgers accounting for 27 of that meager total. Another concern is the health of top receiver Greg Jennings, who is battling a groin injury. Green Bay should still be explosive, however, with weapons like Jordy Nelson, James Jones, Jermichael Finley and Randall Cobb.

The Bears intercepted rookie quarterback Andrew Luck three times in the opener, but they will obviously face a much greater challenge against the NFL’s reigning MVP. Rodgers lit up the Chicago defense for five touchdown passes last December, so the Bears must find a way to get into the Green Bay backfield. Linebacker Brian Urlacher was able to start against Indianapolis after offseason knee surgery, and he will need a big game in Lambeau. Cornerback Charles Tillman is listed as questionable for this contest after suffering a leg injury in the first quarter of the Colts victory.

When the Chicago Bears have the ball:
After a slow start last week, quarterback Jay Cutler finished with 333 passing yards and two touchdowns. Receiver Brandon Marshall thrived in his first game back with his former signal caller, catching nine balls for 119 yards and a score. Additionally, the Bears got 122 yards and three touchdowns from the rushing tandem of Matt Forte and Michael Bush. Chicago has to be fired up about its offensive potential this season, and protecting Cutler plus avoiding turnovers will be the key on Thursday night.

The Packers were gashed for 186 rushing yards last week by San Francisco, and they caused zero turnovers after tying for the league lead in takeaways last season. The Green Bay defense has been able to force Cutler into throwing interceptions in the recent past, and that trend will need to continue for the Packers to get back on track. In addition to stopping the Chicago run game, Green Bay will face a tough new challenge in having to cover the physical Marshall.

Key Factor:
I think this game will be decided on how well the Packers offensive line plays. The Green Bay running game does not have to be a catalyst, but it needs to be effective enough to back off Julius Peppers and the Bears pass rush. If Rodgers is protected, he can carry the team and mask over some defensive deficiencies. While the Bears looked strong in Week 1, I’ll take the Packers to rebound at home and avoid an 0-2 start to the season.

Prediction:
Green Bay 30 Chicago 24
 
---By Patrick Snow (@AthlonSnowman)
 

Teaser:
<p> Green Bay Packers vs. Chicago Bears Preview and Prediction</p>
Post date: Thursday, September 13, 2012 - 06:30
All taxonomy terms: College Football, News
Path: /college-football/arkansas-razorbacks-fan-makes-worst-video-ever
Body:

We're not sure which is worse: the Arkansas Razorbacks losing to Louisiana-Monroe on Saturday night or this video made by a very unique Hogs fan. Enjoy.

Teaser:
<p> Arkansas Razorbacks Fan Makes Worst Video Ever</p>
Post date: Monday, September 10, 2012 - 13:03
Path: /nfl/pittsburgh-steelers-and-denver-broncos-preview
Body:

He’s back. Peyton Manning will return to the NFL gridiron Sunday night at 8:20 p.m. EST on NBC, as the Denver Broncos host the Pittsburgh Steelers in a much-anticipated matchup that could set a regular-season ratings record. The four-time MVP quarterback has recovered from multiple neck surgeries and will try to lead Broncos back to the playoffs, where they ended the Steelers season a year ago. Pittsburgh will be extremely motivated to revenge that painful 29-23 overtime loss, while Denver will have to adjust to Manning on offense and new coordinator Jack Del Rio on defense.

When the Denver Broncos have the ball:
We all know what Manning can do when healthy, but it will be interesting to see how long it takes him to develop chemistry with receivers Eric Decker and Demaryius Thomas. The good news for No. 18 is that he will have quality offensive line and running game for the first time in almost a decade. Veteran runner Willis McGahee should take some pressure off Manning while the passing game develops.

The Steelers defense ranked No. 1 in the NFL last season, giving up the fewest yards (271.8 per game) and points (14.2 per game) in the league. However the heralded Pittsburgh unit played its worst game of the season in the playoff loss to Denver, as intrepid coordinator Dick LeBeau faced rare criticism for his scheme in that game. It will be a different challenge against Manning, and the Steelers will be without the services of safety Ryan Clark (his sickle cell trait is a higher risk in Denver’s elevation) and linebacker James Harrison.

When the Pittsburgh Steelers have the ball:
Ben Roethlisberger will be the focal point of the Pittsburgh attack once again, and he has two 1,100-yard receivers in Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown. Big Ben will need better offensive line play after being sacked 40 times last year, but he also needs to get rid of the ball quicker. The Steelers run game is a question mark with top back Rashard Mendenhall still recovering from a knee injury, so expect to see both Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer tote the rock.

The Broncos defense will look for more consistency this season, and that will start by trying to force more turnovers. Denver only had 18 takeaways last year, compared to 28 for Del Rio’s old club in Jacksonville. The good news is that the Broncos can get to opposing quarterbacks, with pass rushers Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil combining for 21 of Denver’s 42 sacks in 2011.

Key Factor:
The adjustment to new players and coordinators will be critical on Sunday night. Manning’s rhythm passing usually takes a couple of games to get going, and Del Rio brings a new voice to the Denver defense. The Steelers have a new offensive coordinator in Todd Haley, and the defense will miss Clark and Harrison. But in a low-scoring affair, we’ll take the Pittsburgh defense to rebound in Denver and lead the way to an emotional win.

Prediction:
Steelers 20 Broncos 17


---By Patrick Snow (@AthlonSnowman)
 

Teaser:
<p> Pittsburgh Steelers and Denver Broncos Preview</p>
Post date: Saturday, September 8, 2012 - 08:00
All taxonomy terms: College Football, Links, College Basketball, NFL, NBA, MLB
Path: /college-football/athlon%E2%80%99s-essential-eleven-links-day-15
Body:

This is your daily link roundup of our favorite sports posts on the web for September 7.

• Texas A&M is hyped for its first SEC contest against the Florida Gators.

• Bleacher Report’s Michael Felder looks at the SEC East ramifications if Missouri can beat Georgia in its SEC debut.

• Check out these “Hilariously Ironic Photos” from Mandatory.com.

• The Orioles have caught the Yankees and look ready to battle New York for the AL East crown.

• Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel believes MVP quarterback Aaron Rodgers should curb his running against the 49ers defense.

• How will the five rookie starting quarterbacks fare in their first NFL games?

• The NCAA is considering moving the Final Four out of domes and back into actual basketball arenas. Probably makes too much sense to happen.

• The Big 12 has inked new deals with ESPN/ABC and FOX that will cover the next 13 years.

• The LSU Tigers suffered a huge loss this week with left tackle Chris Faulk’s season-ending injury.

• Unfortunately, some DeMatha High football players went all “Lawrence Taylor” after their season-opening win in North Carolina.

• Check out these classic answers from Family Feud, with a cameo by former NBA baller Brian Shaw.



--- Email us with any compelling sports-related links at links@athlonsports.com

---By Patrick Snow (@AthlonSnowman)
 


September 6

• ESPN NFC East blogger Dan Graziano looks at the huge statement the Cowboys made in winning the season-opener on the road against the Giants.

• Former Ravens and Browns owner Art Modell, one of the most influential figures in the growth of the NFL, has passed away at age 87.

• This Boston Red Sox season with polarizing manager Bobby Valentine has become a circus.

• There are going to be some kids riding around Dallas that aren’t feeling that trip to the zoo.

• Who wouldn’t want to see Shaq playing in the Mexican Basketball League this winter? The nickname possibilities are endless, and he already has a pool area called Shaq-Apulco.

• Taylor King of ChuckOliver.net compares the career path of Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson to that of former UGA coach Jim Donnan.

• Boxer Floyd Mayweather made headlines for his losing Michigan bet over the weekend, but he apparently won some back on the Cowboys last night.

• Texas A&M expects the Florida offense to be more creative this week than it was in the Gators’ opener.

• Connecticut fans are eagerly waiting to see what Jim Calhoun decides on his future.

• The U.S. Open crowd and tennis fans were shocked by Roger Federer’s ouster last night.

• Isla Fisher (the crazy redhead character in Wedding Crashers, “Good, ‘cause I’d find you”) confuses the Good Morning America crew with her ‘teabagging’ reference.

--- Email us with any compelling sports-related links at links@athlonsports.com

---By Patrick Snow (@AthlonSnowman)
 


September 5

• Ralph Vacchiano of the New York Daily News previews tonight’s NFL season-opener between the Giants and Cowboys.

• It’s probably not a big surprise to many around college football to learn that USC head coach Lane Kiffin has pulled a scholarship away from a walk-on and given it to a linebacker who was just released from jail.

• Baseball fights are always a little weird, but what the heck are these guys doing?

• While a ton of attention is going to the SEC debuts of Texas A&M and Missouri, Bleacher Report’s Barrett Sallee breaks down a very important Auburn-Mississippi State battle.

• The Baltimore Orioles are looking to make the postseason for the first time since 1997, and they caught the Yankees in the AL East last night.

• Forbes has released its new list of most valuable sports franchises, with the Dallas Cowboys topping the NFL.

• Ravens safety Bernard Pollard warns Bengals receiver A.J. Green not to come across the middle in this Sunday’s game.

• Will MLB cut down on September rosters in the future?

• What is it with Texas teams and their scoreboards? Looks like the Houston Rockets are going Jerry Jones: a massive screen and no playoff team.

• The Texas Tech basketball turmoil continues to fester.

LSU’s Les Miles has to be one of the most entertaining coaches in college football history. Asked about his running back tandem after the North Texas win, the Mad Hatter goes 'Ricky Bobby and Cal Naughton Jr.' on us.

--- Email us with any compelling sports-related links at links@athlonsports.com

---By Patrick Snow (@AthlonSnowman)
 


September 4

• Alabama has taken over the top spot in the AP Top 25 after its 41-14 drubbing of Michigan.

• Some Michigan State players took to Twitter to pile on the Wolverines getting blown out versus Alabama. We’ll see these tweets again before the instate rivals go at it.

OUCH! If this isn’t a red card…

• ESPN’s Ivan Maisel takes a detailed look at Penn State’s week, before the Nittany Lions dropped a 24-14 decision to Ohio.

• Nationals manager Davey Johnson seems to be conflicted on the club’s decision to shut down ace Stephen Strasburg.

• Florida State received brutal news after beating Murray State. All-America defensive end Brandon Jenkins is out for the year with a foot injury.

• Bears’ middle linebacker Brian Urlacher, who has missed all of the preseason action with a knee injury, vows he will play in the opener against the Colts on Sunday.

• Will Vikings running back Adrian Peterson play in the season-opener?

• The NCAA continues to investigate the UCLA's incoming basketball signees.

• The United State Ryder Cup team is now complete with Davis Love III making his captain’s picks this morning.

• Nothing says college football season is back like an Iowa grandma hitting a beer bong while still in the passenger seat of a minivan. Hooray beer.

--- Email us with any compelling sports-related links at links@athlonsports.com

---By Patrick Snow (@AthlonSnowman)
 

Teaser:
<p> The best sports links from the NFL, college football and basketball, MLB, the NBA, NASCAR and the world of entertainment.</p>
Post date: Friday, September 7, 2012 - 11:39
Path: /nfl/green-bay-packers-and-san-francisco-49ers-top-nfl-weekend
Body:

The marquee matchup of the NFL’s opening weekend will take place at historic Lambeau Field, with the Green Bay Packers hosting the San Francisco 49ers at 4:25pm EST on Fox. These two NFC stalwarts combined for 28 regular-season wins in 2011, and both clubs have Super Bowl expectations in 2012. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers led the Packers to a 15-1 mark a year ago before a 37-20 loss to the Giants ended their season in stunning fashion. The 49ers ascent under coach Jim Harbaugh was a top story around the league last year, and a stingy San Francisco defense was the catalyst. While these teams seem like opposites in personnel, a common bond is turnover margin. The Packers and Niners tied for the NFL lead in takeaways (38) last year and barely gave the rock away.

When the Green Bay Packers have the ball:
It all starts with Rodgers, who claimed the league’s MVP last year on the strength of 4,643 passing yards and 45 touchdown passes against only six interceptions. He probably has the best group of pass-catchers — Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson, Donald Driver, James Jones, Randall Cobb and Jermichael Finley — in the league, and they should lead the Packers offense to another stellar year. Any help in the running game would be welcome, and veteran tailback Cedric Benson could be a valuable addition.

The 49ers ranked second in scoring defense last season, and their play led the way to a 13-3 record and the NFC West crown. Inside linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman are as good as it gets in the NFL, and outside rushers Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks complete an amazing quartet. Their ability to rush past a reworked Green Bay offensive line and get to Rodgers will be a major factor on Sunday.

When the San Francisco 49ers have the ball:
Frank Gore and a powerful O-line led the Niners to a ranking of 11th in scoring last season at 23.8 points per game. Much of the offseason attention went to finding more weapons for quarterback Alex Smith, who is mainly known as a game manager. Randy Moss and Mario Manningham will join top targets Vernon Davis and Michael Crabtree as San Francisco looks for more plays in the passing game in 2012.

The Green Bay defense is a high-risk/high-reward unit that prides itself on causing turnovers. The Packers were average against the run last season but terrible in coverage — allowing 4,924 pass yards, the most in NFL history. Obviously that number must improve this year, and their ability to take the ball away will be paramount once again.

Key Factor:
The 49ers offense must win the time of possession game to beat the Packers in Lambeau. Smith must find his spots to convert third downs and not be baited into turnovers. He was excellent at protecting the ball last season, but Green Bay led the league in interceptions (31) by a wide margin. If San Francisco can keep Smith in good down-and-distance situations and control the clock, a close victory can be had. But if the Packers can cause any turnovers or get an early lead, it will be a long day for the 49ers.

Prediction:
Green Bay 23 San Francisco 17

 

---By Patrick Snow (@AthlonSnowman)

Teaser:
<p> Green Bay Packers and San Francisco 49ers Top NFL Weekend</p>
Post date: Friday, September 7, 2012 - 08:53
Path: /nfl/new-orleans-saints-and-washington-redskins-preview
Body:

The storylines are plentiful in this much-anticipated NFC matchup, as Robert Griffin III debuts for the Washington Redskins against Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints at 1pm EST on Fox. Heisman Trophy winners have often struggled in the NFL, but Griffin can look to Cam Newton’s stellar 2011 rookie campaign as a blue print for this year. Washington will face a New Orleans club in transition, coming off a bounty scandal that saw the NFL levee various suspensions on head coach Sean Payton, assistant head coach Joe Vitt, linebacker Jonathan Vilma and defensive end Will Smith (although the player suspensions have since been halted). However, the Saints still have Drew Brees directing an excellent offense and a raucous home crowd that could intimidate Griffin.

When the New Orleans Saints have the ball:
Brees has become one of the best quarterbacks in recent NFL memory, and he set a new league all-time record for passing yards last season with 5,476. Brees also tossed 46 touchdown passes and had a stellar completion percentage of 71.2%. Marques Colston and Lance Moore are back on the outside, while Jimmy Graham has emerged as a star at the tight end position.

The Redskins defense was decent in the yardage department last season but did not generate enough turnovers. Linebackers Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan led Washington to a solid total of 41 sacks in 2011, but they must get more help from the secondary. Obviously getting pressure on Brees and not letting him settle into a rhythm will be a major factor for the Redskins on Sunday.

When the Washington Redskins have the ball:
The heralded Griffin has a ton of expectations to deal with as he plays his first NFL game. The Redskins running game could be his best friend, as tailbacks Evan Royster and Roy Helu look to become the lead ball carrier in Kyle Shanahan’s offense. Washington brought in receivers Pierre Garcon and Josh Morgan to help Griffin, and tight end Fred Davis should be a favorite target for the new signal caller.

The Saints defense was preparing for life without Vilma and Smith until their suspensions were overturned, but an improvement from last season’s 24th ranking may be difficult. New Orleans was fairly solid against the run a year ago but finished last in the NFC with only 16 takeaways. Stopping the Redskins running attack will be the top priority in this game.

Key Factor:
The Redskins will need to cause some turnovers in order to slow down the Brees-led passing game and to put Griffin in some advantageous positions. It’s difficult to see the rookie quarterback consistently leading the Washington offense on long drives, and Griffin must protect the ball. If the Redskins can establish the run and keep the ball away from Brees, they can keep it close and try to pull off an upset in the fourth quarter.

Prediction:
Saints 30 Redskins 17

 

---By Patrick Snow (@AthlonSnowman)
 

Teaser:
<p> New Orleans Saints and Washington Redskins Preview</p>
Post date: Friday, September 7, 2012 - 06:50
Path: /nfl/new-york-giants-and-dallas-cowboys-kick-nfl-season
Body:

The NFL season is finally here, and the 2012 campaign will begin in grand fashion tonight (8:30 p.m. ET) with the Super Bowl champion New York Giants hosting the Dallas Cowboys. The G-men have won five out of the last six meetings over their NFC East rivals, and last year’s December win against Dallas launched a 6-6 team toward the postseason that magically ended with the Lombardi Trophy. The Cowboys have missed the playoffs the last two seasons, and they have only won one postseason game over the last 15 years. Owner Jerry Jones feels the pressure to win now in Big D, and his team will face a New York bunch that has claimed two of the last five Super Bowl titles.

When New York has the ball:
The Giants were all about the passing game last year, with Eli Manning throwing for over 4,900 yards and 29 touchdowns. Receiver Victor Cruz was a breakout sensation in 2011, and Hakeem Nicks is also a force on the outside. New York’s running game ranked last in the NFL a year ago, which led to the first-round selection of tailback David Wilson in the draft. If he and Ahmad Bradshaw can generate a solid rushing attack, the Giants offense will be scary.

The Cowboys were decent on defense last season, but Manning torched them through the air in two losses. Dallas has the ability to get to opposing quarterbacks (42 sacks in 2011), but the play in the secondary must improve. Jones signed free agent cornerback Brandon Carr this offseason and also traded up to draft top college corner Morris Claiborne of LSU. The two new defensive backs will have their work cut out trying to match up with the elusive Cruz and Nicks.

When Dallas has the ball:
Quarterback Tony Romo has the playmaking ability to lead Dallas to the postseason, but the players around him must stay healthy. Running back DeMarco Murray showed flashes of stardom in his rookie season, totaling 135 rushing yards or more in three games. If he can play 16 games this year, the Cowboys should have a formidable attack. Receiver Miles Austin and tight end Jason Witten provide solid pass-catching options but are currently battling injuries, while Dallas hopes this is the season that talented but inconsistent wideout Dez Bryant fulfills his potential.

The Giants struggled on defense for much of the 2011 season but were able to put it together late on their way to a championship. New York is known for its ferocious pass rush, and defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul (16.5 sacks last year) has become a star. He will team with Justin Tuck, Osi Umenyiora and Mathias Kiwanuka to try and wreak havoc on the Cowboys passing game. If the reworked Dallas offense line can contain the NYG pass rush, Romo should have success down the field against a depleted Giants secondary.

Key Factor:
There are plenty of top players on the injury report for the opener, and each team’s depth will be critical in this game. Dallas will be without key defensive tackle Jay Ratliff, and Witten is doubtful. New York’s defense will miss corner Prince Amukamara, while offensive tackle Will Beatty and Nicks are listed as questionable. The team that can handle its personnel attrition and get contributions from its new players will have a major advantage in this heated NFC East battle.

Prediction:
Giants 27 Cowboys 20
 

by Patrick Snow (@AthlonSnowman)
 

Related NFL Content

NFL Preseason Power Rankings
5 Reasons Why the Giants Will Repeat as Super Bowl Champions

Which rookie quarterback will win the most games in 2012?

Teaser:
<p> New York Giants and Dallas Cowboys Kick Off the NFL Season</p>
Post date: Wednesday, September 5, 2012 - 08:47
All taxonomy terms: College Football, Links, College Basketball, NFL, NBA, MLB
Path: /college-football/athlon%E2%80%99s-essential-eleven-links-day-14
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This is your daily link roundup of our favorite sports posts on the web for August 31.

• ESPN Big Ten blogger Brian Bennett believes Michigan has almost nothing to lose in the season opener against defending champion Alabama.

• SI’s Andy Staples looks at South Carolina’s close call on the road at Vanderbilt. The Gamecocks pulled out a 17-13 victory.

• The San Francisco Giants have an awesome promotion on Tuesday: it’s Bruce Lee Bobblehead Night.

• The NFL and its locked-out referees will meet today to try and solve their labor issues.

• It’s a huge weekend for ACC football, with Clemson taking on Auburn and NC State battling Tennessee.

• Gotta love this beer commercial from the Chive.

• UCLA beat Rice in Jim Mora’s debut despite having three extra points blocked.

• The NCAA has surprisingly exonerated North Carolina in its academic violations case.

• The Lakers will retire Shaquille O’Neal’s No. 34, as well as Jamaal Wilkes’ No. 52.

• It sounds like Texas Tech basketball players are rebelling against coach Billy Gillispie.

• It was great to finally see some college football last night, and Kent State’s Andre Parker gave us a classic highlight on opening night. He runs the wrong way after picking up a punt, but then for some reason the Towson players tackle him. Holy Moly!

--- Email us with any compelling sports-related links at links@athlonsports.com

---By Patrick Snow (@AthlonSnowman)
 


August 30

• The college football season is here! Russ Mitchell of CFN believes that Vanderbilt can upset Marcus Lattimore and South Carolina in tonight’s opening contest.

• ESPN Pac-12 blogger Ted Miller has the latest on DirecTV’s rejection of the league’s new network.

• A potential Apple lawsuit?

• Giants defender Mathias Kiwanuka calls out Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, saying the G-men have been “whupping his ass for a long time.”

• Former Notre Dame running back and current Irish radio broadcaster Allen Pinkett apologized today for his controversial comments that “to have a successful team you've got to have a few bad citizens.”

• Former Red Sox pitcher Josh Beckett rips the Boston sports culture.

• It’s been an interesting year for NBA big man Kris Humphries. There was his well-publicized marriage and quick divorce from Kim Kardashian, and now he’s being sued by a Los Angeles woman for giving her herpes. Lovely.

• It was quite a night for Nationals rookie Bryce Harper, who hit two home runs and was ejected in Washington’s 8-4 win over the Marlins.

• When will star running back Maurice Jones-Drew end his holdout and report to the Jaguars?

• The Dodgers may have lost starting pitcher Chad Billingsley for the rest of the season due to elbow issues.

• My thoughts during the NFL preseason have been that the replacement refs (after they get acclimated to the pro game) would not be that much worse than the regulars, but calls like this one in the Patriots-Giants game last night do not help.

--- Email us with any compelling sports-related links at links@athlonsports.com

---By Patrick Snow (@AthlonSnowman)
 


August 29

• Brent Zwerneman has the latest on a ton of Texas A&M news. Saturday’s game against Louisiana Tech has been postponed due to Hurricane Isaac, and the Aggies will play Arkansas at Cowboys Stadium each season from 2014-2024.

• Twins All-Star catcher and hometown hero Joe Mauer has been put on waivers by the club.

• We hope Hurricane Isaac does not affect the Kool-Aid crop this year.

• Bleacher Report’s Barrett Sallee looks at Nick Saban’s comparison between Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson and former Auburn star Cam Newton.

• Michael Vick won’t be the first guy to wear Kevlar in Philly, but the Eagles are hoping a new flak jacket will protect the oft-injured quarterback.

• Mandatory.com has compiled its “sexiest movie posters ever.”

• Even with their new acquisitions, the Dodgers cannot afford to lose Matt Kemp to another injury.

• Three suspects in the assault of Wisconsin star running back Montee Ball have been arrested.

• Loyola (Md.) will leave the MAAC after this season to join the Patriot League.

• Florida coach Will Muschamp still has not named a starting quarterback for Saturday’s game against Bowling Green, although both Jeff Driskel and Jacoby Brissett will play in the first half.

• Check out Masters champ Bubba Watson pulling a prank on Alex Miceli of the Golf Channel.

--- Email us with any compelling sports-related links at links@athlonsports.com

---By Patrick Snow (@AthlonSnowman)
 


August 28

• Former Oregon quarterback Nate Costa believes the Ducks cheerleaders' physical appearance is in decline. We do not agree.

• Penn State has chosen not to play “Sweet Caroline” at its games this year for obvious reasons. Hopefully other sports entities will ban the song as well, simply for the reason that it’s cheesy and insufferable.

• This was not your average ride on the Gravitron.

• Mark Ennis of Big East Coast Bias looks at ESPN’s picks for the league winner and wonders what Joey Galloway is thinking. We concur.

• Saturday Down South’s Kevin Duffey calls out Rick Neuheisel’s fan-like quip that the SEC is powerful because of ESPN.

• CBS’ Jeff Borzello looks at the slower pace of college basketball’s verbal commitments.

• ESPN stirs up an Adrian Beltre-Hall of Fame debate.

• Sometimes you choose the game; sometimes it chooses you.

• Check out what Baltimore Orioles reliever Luis Ayala is doing with his bullpen time.

• Mike Wallace has finally reported to Steelers camp.

• Yes, the rumors are true. Cowboys owner Jerry Jones does “rap” in this new Papa John’s commercial.

--- Email us with any compelling sports-related links at links@athlonsports.com

---By Patrick Snow (@AthlonSnowman)
 


August 27

• It’s a pretty sad commentary that Dez Bryant of the Cowboys needs a club-mandated set of guidelines for basic behavior, but that is the case in Dallas.

• Bleacher Report’s Ian Casselberry calls the Dodgers-Red Sox blockbuster the biggest trade in MLB history.

• This Fox News anchor really needed the graphics department to spell out "Maine" on President Obama's visit there.

• LostLettermen.com has an extensive slideshow and grades of college football’s new 2012 uniforms.

• Tropical Storm Isaac has affected the Saints’ week in a big way.

• The downward spiral of Vince Young continues with his release from the Buffalo Bills.

• Carolina Mudcats utility man Justin Toole played all nine positions in a 4-2 win over Salem on Saturday.

• Former NBA tough guy Charles Oakley rips the Orlando Magic and Dwight Howard.

• Jason Sobel of the Golf Channel provides insight into the personality of Nick Watney, who won at The Barclays over the weekend.

• Are the Angels baseball’s most disappointing team?

• Check out this bare-handed grab by Nationals outfielder Jayson Werth. Use two hands, kids.

--- Email us with any compelling sports-related links at links@athlonsports.com

---By Patrick Snow (@AthlonSnowman)
 

Teaser:
<p> The best sports links from the NFL, college football and basketball, MLB, the NBA, NASCAR and the world of entertainment.</p>
Post date: Friday, August 31, 2012 - 12:29
Path: /college-football/michigan-over-alabama-would-be-big-ten%E2%80%99s-best-win-decade
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The Big Ten needs some good news. On the field, Ohio State won the national championship in 2002 and was beaten handily in 2006 and 2007 by SEC teams in the big game. Other than that, the league has not really challenged on college football’s highest level in some time. The B1G has also lost eight of the last nine Rose Bowls in which it played. Meanwhile, the conference that many Big Ten fans loathe — the SEC — has piled up six consecutive national championships by four different schools. Off the field, the recent league landscape has been filled with scandals and coaching changes.

The Michigan Wolverines have a huge opportunity on Saturday night to make a statement that their program and their league are headed back to an elite level. Brady Hoke’s bunch gets a chance to knock off Alabama, an SEC power that has won two of the last three national championships. The Crimson Tide are ranked in the preseason top five despite losing five of the top 35 overall picks in the NFL Draft — Trent Richardson, Mark Barron, Dre Kirkpatrick, Dont’a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw. Nick Saban’s crew also lost nose tackle Josh Chapman and defensive back DeQuan Menzie to the NFL, so electric Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson should be able to make plays against an inexperienced Bama group. Mr. Shoelace has accounted for 68 Wolverines touchdowns over the last two years, and he could be a nightmare matchup for the rebuilt Tide defense.

The Michigan defense will face a fairly predictable Alabama offense, although the Tide may have the best O-line in the country. The Wolverines have a solid back seven, including an excellent secondary, but the key to beating the defending champs will be the play of the defensive front. If they can keep the Tide running game in check, Michigan should be able to keep the game close and look to win it late.

The stakes could not be higher with two top 10 traditional powers meeting at Cowboys Stadium with the entire college football nation watching. This is not just another January bowl game, but instead a chance for a B1G team to take down the cream of the crop in the SEC. Michigan’s task of beating the juggernaut Alabama program will be difficult, as Nick Saban and his staff always have the elite talent on their roster ready to play. The Wolverines will not only be playing for themselves, but also for the pride of a conference looking for positives. A UM victory would be a catalyst for the Big Ten on the field, and it would be the league’s top win since the rival Buckeyes won it all in 2002.

--By Patrick Snow (@AthlonSnowman)
 

Teaser:
<p> Michigan Over Alabama Would Be Big Ten’s Best Win in a Decade</p>
Post date: Friday, August 31, 2012 - 07:00
Path: /college-football/countdown-college-football
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Are you as ready for college football to start as we are at Athlon? Our daily countdown will take us right up to kickoff on August 30. Some days our number might represent an All-America player, a great stat or just something fun about the game we all love.

Days Until College Football: 1

We have finally hit No. 1 on our countdown, and our top wish for all of the fans out there is just to enjoy the college football that starts tomorrow. The offseason has been filled with scandal, playoff plans, realignment and player attrition, but now is the time to change the conversation to the actual gridiron. Will USC or Oregon wear the Pac-12 crown? Is LSU or Alabama the top dog in the brutal SEC? Will Michigan ascend back to the top of the Big Ten, or will Nebraska win its first league title since 1999? Can Texas or West Virginia challenge Oklahoma for Big 12 supremacy? How will Texas A&M, Missouri, West Virginia and TCU fare in new conferences?

The answers to all of these compelling questions will play out over the next four months, and we cannot wait for the season to begin. The Heisman race should be very interesting, with USC’s Matt Barkley, Wisconsin’s Montee Ball, South Carolina’s Marcus Lattimore, Michigan’s Denard Robinson and West Virginia’s Geno Smith among the top candidates. And the nation is eager to see if a team outside of the SEC can break the stranglehold of six consecutive national championships by America’s toughest conference. Make sure to get out and enjoy the pageantry and fan experience that the college game has to offer.

Football is here!
 


2: There were several elite candidates — USC’s Robert Woods and Marqise Lee, Clemson’s Sammy Watkins, Washington State’s Marquess Wilson, West Virginia’s Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey, Cal’s Keenan Allen and Oklahoma’s Kenny Stills — for All-America honors at wide receiver during our preseason vote, and the two top selections share the No. 2. Woods and Watkins are two of the most electric playmakers that the college game has seen in a few years, and football fans should make it a point to see both of them play this season.

Woods had an amazing sophomore campaign for the Trojans in 2011, catching 111 passes for 1,292 yards and 15 touchdowns in just 12 games. He and Lee should form the top pass-catching duo in the nation this year, and that combo along with senior quarterback Matt Barkley are a major factor in USC being projected to win the Pac-12 and national title.

Watkins was an instant hit at Clemson, compiling 82 catches for 1,219 yards and 12 touchdowns during a stellar freshman season. He also averaged 25.0 yards on 33 kick returns with an additional score. Watkins will have to serve a two-game suspension to start the season, but he and quarterback Tajh Boyd will give the Tigers a solid chance at repeating as ACC champions.
 


3: Nebraska has won at least nine games in each of Bo Pelini’s four seasons in Lincoln, but the Cornhuskers have not claimed a conference championship since 1999. That fact could change this season, as the Huskers have the roster to compete for a Big Ten crown in their second year in the league. The defense must improve greatly from its 2011 performance, and the other key to NU’s success will be the development of No. 3, Taylor Martinez. The athletic quarterback has amassed over 1,800 yards and 21 touchdowns on the ground during the last two seasons, but the Nebraska passing game ranked 104th nationally last year. Martinez has worked extensively on his throwing mechanics this offseason, and he should be more comfortable in the second year of coordinator Tim Beck’s system.

The good news for the Huskers offense is that Martinez and All-Big Ten running back Rex Burkhead (1,357 yards and 15 touchdowns in 2011) form one of the more dynamic rushing duos in the country. If pass catchers Kenny Bell, Quincy Enunwa and Kyler Reed are more utilized by Martinez, the NU attack can put some serious points on the board this season. On defense, the Huskers must simply be better against the run in 2012 after finishing eighth in the Big Ten last year. New defensive coordinator John Papuchis will look for playmaking up front from tackle Baker Steinkuhler and end Cameron Meredith, while linebacker Will Compton and safety Daimion Stafford will provide senior leadership for the back seven.

The non-conference slate will give Nebraska time to develop its passing game and run defense,
but the next five games — Wisconsin, at Ohio State, at Northwestern, Michigan and at Michigan — will decide the season. The Legends Division competition against the Wolverines and Spartans should be one of the more compelling races in the nation, and the Huskers will look for Martinez to lead them to Indianapolis in December.
 


4: The Big East needs a catalyst on the field to change the league’s national conversation from expansion and departures to football, and Louisville is the top candidate in 2012. The Cardinals have a rising star in coach Charlie Strong, a potential big-time quarterback in Teddy Bridgewater and a defense that is excellent against the run. Louisville is the prohibitive conference favorite, and a 10-win season is not out of the question. But to accomplish that feat, the Cardinals will need to revenge 2011 losses to North Carolina, FIU and Cincinnati. There is also a 4-game losing streak to Pittsburgh that Louisville would love to end this season.

USF has a talented enough roster to win the league, but the Bulls have not had a winning conference record since 2007. Pitt and Rutgers should also have quality teams in 2012, but both programs are adjusting to new coaching staffs. Louisville’s offense should be much improved, with Bridgewater throwing the ball to fellow sophomores Eli Rogers and DeVante Parker. The Cardinals have a solid trio of running backs in Dominique Brown, Jeremy Wright and Senorise Perry, and they will run behind an offensive line with four returning starters.

The defensive front should be a strength for the Cardinals as they look to repeat last season’s No. 10 ranking nationally against the run. The pass defense must get better, and all-league secondary candidates Hakeem Smith and Adrian Bushell will lead the way. Charlie Strong has upped the talent level greatly in his short tenure at Louisville, and he has the Cardinals primed to win the Big East and play in the BCS.
 


5: The Texas Tech Red Raiders missed the postseason last year, the first time that had happened since the 1999 campaign. Tommy Tuberville and staff are felling the pressure to make a bowl game this season, and they must start by improving on defense. New coordinator Art Kaufman is a coaching veteran, but he takes over a defense that ranked dead last in the country against the run and had only 5 interceptions a year ago in the pass-happy Big 12. The defensive line needs to show massive improvement, and the hope is that the tackle rotation of Delvon Simmons, Kerry Hyder, Leon Mackey and Dennell Wesley will give the Raiders a much better push up front. The linebackers were an issue in 2011, but starters Terrance Bullitt, Will Smith, and Sam Eguavoen should be more comfortable in Kaufman’s system.

The strength of the defense is the safety position, where D.J. Johnson and Cody Davis return. If the cornerbacks can develop early, the secondary should improve on last season’s low interception total. On offense, senior quarterback Seth Doege (4,004 yards and 28 touchdowns in 2011) will lead another vaunted Tech passing attack. Eric Ward, Alex Torres and Darrin Moore are back as the top targets, and the Red Raiders have solid running backs as well in Eric Stephens and Kenny Williams. They will run behind an offensive line that returns three starters.

A very manageable September schedule will give the Red Raiders time to develop, but the next five games — Oklahoma, West Virginia, at TCU, at Kansas State and Texas — are as brutal a stretch as you will see in college football. The Texas Tech fan base is very eager to see the team get back to the postseason, and the defense must help lead the way towards that goal.
 


6: Florida—LSU—Florida—Alabama—Auburn—Alabama. You may have noticed that the last 6 national champions have come from the SEC. Since the BCS started in 1998, eight of the 14 national champions are members of America’s toughest conference. And the strength of the league is not just in the fact that the amazing title streak is now at six, it’s that five different schools have won the aforementioned eight championships. So is 2012 the season where the streak ends? Athlon’s prediction is yes, with the USC Trojans projected as the top team in the nation. However LSU and Alabama stand at Nos. 2 and 3 in our poll, with Georgia, South Carolina and Arkansas also rated in the top 13.

This may be a season where each SEC squad has a loss, but it would likely take two major powers going undefeated to prevent the juggernaut league from having a shot at No. 7. Along with USC, the Pac-12 has another title contender in Oregon. Both west coast teams have electric offense and should also be improved enough on defense to compete with the SEC’s best. Oklahoma looks like the class of the Big 12, but both Sooners’ lines will need to develop quickly to run the table. Florida State has the defense to go undefeated in the ACC, but the offense may not have enough firepower. Michigan and Nebraska project as the Big Ten’s best, but both teams will need more consistency to play for it all.

Many gridiron fans around the nation are very eager for the streak to end, while those in SEC country believe No. 7 is inevitable. USC or Oregon may break through and win it all, but it would hardly be a surprise to hear the chants of “SEC, SEC” in January for a seventh consecutive college football campaign.
 


7: The LSU Tigers will look to repeat as SEC Champions and get back to the BCS title game this season. While Les Miles’ team is loaded with talent and depth, it did lose an electric playmaker with the dismissal of No. 7, Tyrann Mathieu. So how will the Tigers fare without the Honey Badger? The LSU defense should still be stout, but Mathieu’s amazing ability to generate game-changing plays will be heavily missed. His 133 tackles (16 for loss) and four interceptions in two seasons were impressive, but it’s the 11 forced fumbles, eight fumble recoveries and four total touchdowns that show his true value on the field. Those turnovers and scores were a huge reason that the Tigers were able to blow out the Pac-12 and Big East champions, as well as 10-win squads in Arkansas and Georgia, in 2011.

John Chavis’ defense should be excellent up front, led by All-America candidates at end in Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo plus Bennie Logan at tackle. Kevin Minter heads up a fast but inexperienced linebackers group, and there are now questions at corner as true freshman Jalen Mills and redshirt freshman Jalen Collins battle for the spot opposite of rising star Tharold Simon. However, Eric Reid is another All-America-level player at safety. On offense, LSU will rely on a stellar line and loaded running backs unit to play its usual brand of smash-mouth football. If new quarterback Zach Mettenberger develops quickly, the Tigers will light up scoreboards.

There’s a good chance that LSU will be favored in every game this season, and the November 3 matchup with Alabama in Death Valley could be one for the ages. If Mettenberger and the back seven play to their potential, the Tigers will be right back in the hunt for a national title.
 


8: It was an offseason of major change for the Rutgers Scarlet Knights, with head coach Greg Schiano departing for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers after 11 seasons in Piscataway. Longtime assistant Kyle Flood will now head the program, and he and the new staff have a solid roster to compete for a Big East crown. The majority of the defense returns from a unit that finished 8th nationally in scoring a year ago. The strength of the defense is its back seven, led by a stellar group of linebackers. Khaseem Greene is an All-America candidate on the outside, and middle backer Steve Beauharnais is an experienced starter. The secondary features veteran corners in Logan Ryan and Brandon Jones, and safety Duron Harmon should compete for all-conference honors.

The defensive front will need to improve against the run while also generating a pass rush, and tackle Scott Vallone is a rock in the middle. If answers can be found at end from the group of Michael Larrow, Ka’Lial Glaud and Jamil Merrell, the defense should be the best in the Big East. On offense, Flood and new coordinator Dave Brock have decided to go with Gary Nova at quarterback. The sophomore signal caller will benefit from a quality set of skill players. The receiving crew, led by led Brandon Coleman, Mark Harrison and Quron Pratt, has plenty of big-play potential. Rutgers has two solid tailbacks in Jawan Jamison (897 rushing yards in 2011) and heralded sophomore Savon Huggins, and they will run behind a line that has plenty of talent despite lacking experience together.

The Scarlet Knights will have an adjustment period to the new staff, and early games against Tulane and Howard will give them time to develop chemistry. September trips to South Florida and Arkansas will be difficult, but the schedule October is very manageable. A season-ending slate of Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and Louisville will decide Rutgers’ Big East fate, as Flood looks to win the league title that eluded his predecessor.
 


9: Notre Dame battled the turnover bug for all of the 2011 campaign, from five giveaways in an unlikely season-opening defeat against South Florida to three each in losses to Stanford and Florida State to end the year. In fact, only nine teams in college football turned the ball over more than the Irish did a year ago. It wasn’t all doom and gloom in South Bend with ND compiling eight wins, but it’s obvious where Brian Kelly’s team must improve as a tougher schedule looms in 2012. The focus of that desired improvement will be on the quarterback position, where junior Andrew Hendrix and redshirt freshman Everett Golson are battling to replace suspended incumbent Tommy Rees. Hendrix has game experience, but Golson starred (11-15 passing for 120 yards and two touchdowns) in the spring game.

The new signal caller will benefit from quality running backs Cierre Wood (1,102 yards and nine touchdowns a year ago) and Theo Riddick, an All-America candidate in tight end Tyler Eifert and a veteran offensive line. The Irish will need a playmaker to emerge on the outside from the group of TJ Jones, John Goodman and Robby Toma. On defense, Notre Dame should have a solid front seven. Manti Te’o is an All-American at linebacker, and the defensive line of Kapron Lewis-Moore, Louis Nix III and Stephon Tuitt is very talented. The secondary is experienced at safety with Jamoris Slaughter and Zeke Motta, but the cornerback position has question marks — especially after the season-ending injury to Lo Wood.

The Notre Dame schedule is very difficult, with Michigan State and Michigan highlighting the September slate. Opponents hardly ever win at Oklahoma, and the season finale in Los Angeles could be against an 11-0 USC squad. If the quarterback(s) can avoid costly turnovers and the secondary develops quickly, the Irish can reach win the eight or nine-win mark in 2012.
 


10: A season after intrepid coach Jim Harbaugh departed for the 49ers, the Stanford Cardinal have the monumental task of trying to replace the NFL’s No. 1 pick in quarterback Andrew Luck. Junior Josh Nunes and sophomore Brett Nottingham are competing for the starting quarterback gig, but they have combined to attempt only 10 passes in their careers. And as difficult as losing Luck will be, the two-time Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year and runner-up for the Heisman Trophy is not the only key departure from last year’s stellar attack. Three other top 42 NFL Draft selections — tight end Coby Fleener and offensive linemen David DeCastro and Jonathan Martin — will also be missed.

Despite the attrition, the Cardinal offense still has solid potential. As good as Luck was in the passing game, Stanford also has a very effective, physical running game led by tailback Stepfan Taylor and a quality line. The senior runner has compiled 2,467 yards and 25 touchdowns on the ground over the last two seasons, and three starters return up front. The new signal caller(s) will have dependable tight ends in Levine Toilolo and Zach Ertz, and sophomore Ty Montgomery could become a star at receiver. On defense, the Cardinal should be excellent in the front seven after finishing third nationally against the run last year. The 3-4 scheme will be led by one of the best linebackers units in the country, and Chase Thomas is an All-America candidate. The secondary will have to replace safeties Delano Howell and Michael Thomas while also trying to improve on last season’s 95th ranking against the pass.

Coach David Shaw and staff have recruited well enough to sustain the program’s recent success. The 2012 schedule is difficult, with the Cardinal hosting USC in week three plus playing road games at Washington, Notre Dame, Cal, Oregon and UCLA. A third consecutive BCS bowl is unlikely, but Stanford has the ability to remain near the top of the Pac-12 pecking order if the passing game and secondary can develop quickly.
 


11: The Florida Gators performed below expectation in Will Muschamp’s first season, finishing with their first losing SEC record since 1986. With UF ranking eighth nationally in total defense and 105th in total offense, it’s pretty clear where improvement is needed. In fact, the Gators only averaged 11 points per game in their six losses a year ago. Muschamp replaced former offensive coordinator Charlie Weis with Brent Pease, who had an amazing run as Boise State’s wide receivers coach and coordinator in 2011. The first question for the 2012 Florida offense is at the quarterback position, where sophomores Jeff Driskel and Jacoby Brissett are in a heated battle to be the starter. Both signal callers, as well as the rest of the offense, will have a significant adjustment to Pease’s offense that involves a ton of pre-snap movement and multiple formations.

While fans and media focus on the QB battle, the key to a successful Gators attack may lie in its ability to run the ball. The one-two punch of senior Mike Gillislee and sophomore Mack Brown will bring a more physical rushing game than UF has seen in years, especially carrying the rock behind a very experienced offensive line. However there are questions at receiver, as the team’s leading returning pass catcher is tight end Jordan Reed (28 reception in 2011). Florida will need Andre Debose to produce on the outside. On defense, the Gators should be stout once again. Tackles Sharrif Floyd and Omar Hunter plus end Dominique Easley will lead a very athletic line. Jon Bostic and Jelani Jenkins project as all-conference linebackers, and safeties Matt Elam and Josh Evans will head a secondary with vast potential.

The UF schedule will be difficult as usual, and back-to-back September trips to Texas A&M and Tennessee will provide a quality litmus test for Muschamp’s crew. The Gators will face three October opponents (LSU, South Carolina and Georgia) who rank in the preseason top ten, and the regular-season ending game in Tallahassee will be very tough. If the offense shows marked improvement and the defense can avoid the late-game breakdowns of last season, Florida can challenge the Bulldogs and Gamecocks in the SEC East.
 


12: The Iowa Hawkeyes went through a major transition this offseason, with offensive coordinator Ken O’Keefe leaving the program and defensive coordinator Norm Parker retiring. Both assistants had been with Kirk Ferentz for over a decade, and now former Texas offensive boss Greg Davis and longtime defensive backs coach Phil Parker (no relation to Norm) will coordinate the Iowa units. The first priority for Davis will be improving a Hawkeyes rushing attack that ranked 12th in the Big Ten last season. That dead-last finish becomes more difficult to fix in 2012 without tailback Marcus Coker (1,384 yards and 15 touchdowns a year ago). Sophomore Damon Bullock and former fullback Brad Rogers will start the season receiving the most carries, but the position could be in flux for a while if a dependable option does not emerge.

The good news for the running game is that Iowa has a dependable senior quarterback in James Vandenberg (3,022 yards and 25 TDs in 2011). However he will have to find a new top target with the departure of Marvin McNutt, the Hawkeyes’ all-time leading receiver. Wideout Keenan Davis had 713 yards and four touchdowns a year ago, and tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz has vast potential. The offensive line will need to develop chemistry after losing three starters, including NFL first-round selection Riley Reiff. On defense, Phil Parker will need to find some answers on an inexperienced line. The back seven could be solid, and cornerback Micah Hyde is an all-conference candidate.

The 2012 campaign will be an important one for Kirk Ferentz, as the fan base would like to see Iowa perform above the expectations of another fourth-place finish in the Legends Division. The league will be challenging, but the Hawkeyes catch a break not playing Ohio State or Wisconsin from the Leaders. If Iowa is going to compete with Michigan, Nebraska and Michigan State, the running attack and defense will have to develop quickly under their new coordinators.
 


13: Virginia Tech had another outstanding season last year, winning 11 games and making a BCS bowl. However there was one major problem for Frank Beamer’s bunch in 2011; Clemson. The Tigers were the only regular-season loss for the Hokies, and Clemson won the ACC Championship Game as well. In those two contests, Virginia Tech only managed to score a total of 13 points. This season, the Hokies return star quarterback Logan Thomas but little other experience on offense. ACC Player of the Year David Wilson and his school-record 1,709 rushing yards have departed, along with four offensive line starters and the top two wide receivers. That fact puts a tremendous burden on Thomas, but he has the ability to carry the Tech attack. Thomas set the single-season school record for total yardage (3,482) and accounted for 30 touchdowns as a sophomore.

The key to the 2012 Virginia Tech season will be how the rest of the offense develops around Thomas. He will have three senior wideouts on the outside, and Marcus Davis (510 yards and five TDs in 2011) could be a star if he fulfills his vast potential. Redshirt freshman Michael Holmes could be the next great Hokies running back, and he will run behind a line that has talent but lacks experience. While the offense gets up to speed, the good news is that Virginia Tech should have an excellent defense with eight starters returning from a unit that ranked No. 7 nationally in points allowed a year ago.

The Hokies project as the favorite in the Coastal Division, but they do draw Clemson and Florida State from the Atlantic. The season-opener against Georgia Tech looms large, but the veteran defense should be up for the challenge. If the offense can grow around Thomas, look for Virginia Tech to win double-digit games for an amazing ninth season in a row.
 


14: Derek Dooley has been in Knoxville for two seasons, and the Tennessee Volunteers have lost an unacceptable 14 games during that span. Not all of the blame should go on the likeable head coach, since the end of the Phil Fulmer era and the Lane Kiffin scorched-earth season left the roster in shambles. Dooley has recruited well, but it’s time for those efforts to start producing wins on the field. The strength of the 2012 Tennessee squad is its passing game, led by junior quarterback Tyler Bray (3,832 yards and 35 touchdown passes in 16 career games) and imposing wideouts Da’Rick Rogers and Justin Hunter. When you add heralded junior college receiver Cordarrelle Patterson into the mix, the Vols could be lethal through the air.

The key to Tennessee becoming a big-time SEC offense will be showing dramatic improvement in the running game (116th in the nation in 2011). Dooley brought in former Vol Jay Graham to coach the backs, and junior Rajion Neal has the early lead as the starter. UT also has a new line coach in Sam Pittman, and he inherits a veteran unit. With highly-touted sophomore “Tiny” Richardson (6’6”, 332) taking over at left tackle, look for better line play from the Vols this season. On defense, there will definitely be an adjustment period to the 3-4 scheme of new coordinator Sal Sunseri. The line has size with newcomers Daniel McCullers (6’6”, 377) and Darrington Sentimore, and the starters at linebacker should be solid with Herman Lathers, Curt Maggitt and A.J. Johnson leading the way. The secondary gained valuable experience last year, and corner Prentiss Waggner has a nose for turnovers.

The Vols open in Atlanta against a tough NC State team, and the Big Orange fan base is thirsting for a big win. The SEC slate is always challenging — especially with trips to Georgia and South Carolina — but Missouri and Mississippi State replace LSU and Arkansas from last year’s schedule. If the running game improves as expected and Tennessee’s depth on defense is not overly tested, look for the Vols to win at least eight games and return the program to the top tier of the conference.
 


15: The West Virginia Mountaineers are going through a major change in moving from the Big East to the Big 12 this season, but Dana Holgorsen has the offense to make that transition much easier. The former Oklahoma State offensive coordinator has experience in WVU’s new conference, and the All-America trio of quarterback Geno Smith (4,385 yards, 31 touchdown passes) and wideouts Tavon Austin (101 catches, 1,186 yards, eight TD receptions) and Stedman Bailey (1,279 yards, 12 TD catches) could top the list of formidable Big 12 passing attacks. In fact Mountaineers receivers combined for 15 100-yard games last season, almost doubling the previous school record of eight.

While the WVU aerial assault should be excellent, the running game has question marks. Last season’s leading rusher, Dustin Garrison, is still recovering from a December ACL tear. Senior Shawne Alston and sophomore Andrew Buie will carry the load early, and they will run behind an offensive line that returns three starters. On defense, the Mountaineers lost key players in pass rusher Bruce Irvin, linebacker Najee Goode and cornerback Keith Tandy. New coordinators Joe DeForest and Keith Patterson will need to build up a solid front seven, with Terence Garvin topping the linebackers and Jorge Wright and Will Clarke leading the way up front. The veteran secondary should be a strength of the defense, but Darwin Cook and company will be tested thoroughly in their new pass-happy league.

West Virginia has five home games in Big 12 play, and the non-conference schedule is very light. If the defense develops on the line and the run game can show just slight improvement, West Virginia could match last year’s total of 10 wins and challenge Oklahoma and Texas for the Big 12 crown.
 


16: Michigan had an excellent turnaround campaign under Brady Hoke a year ago, winning 11 games including the Sugar Bowl. The next step for the Wolverines is to win the Big Ten for the first time since 2004, and they have the roster to do just that in 2012. The offense will be led by star quarterback Denard Robinson, No. 16, who has been a dual-threat force over the last two seasons. He will be joined by running back Fitzgerald Toussaint (after he returns from suspension) to form a stellar rushing attack in Ann Arbor. The passing game does have question marks, with and inexperienced receivers group and Robinson trying to cut down on interceptions. Senior Roy Roundtree should be UM’s leading wideout this season, but he will miss significant practice time in training camp after having arthroscopic knee surgery.

While Robinson’s weapons get up to speed, the Michigan defense will look for a repeat of last season’s outstanding performance. The Wolverines ranked sixth in the country in scoring defense a year ago, but three of the four line starters must be replaced. Craig Roh returns, but intrepid coordinator Greg Mattison will need the boys up front to gel quickly. The back seven should be a quality group, with Kenny Demens leading the linebackers and an excellent secondary. Three defensive back starters return, and the emerging star of the unit is sophomore cornerback Blake Countess.

The Michigan schedule begins with a major challenge — a neutral site game against defending champion Alabama — and the week four trip to Notre Dame will be tough as well. The end of October slate could decide the Legends Division, with back-to-back contests versus Michigan State and at Nebraska. And of course, the trip to Columbus at the end of the season is always difficult. If the receivers and defensive line can develop consistency, look for Michigan to compete for that long-awaited Big Ten crown.
 


17: The expectations are always high for the Oklahoma Sooners, and that fact only increased when OU’s all-time leading passer Landry Jones decided to return to Norman instead of entering the NFL Draft. Despite the loss of NCAA career receptions leader Ryan Broyles, Jones should have enough weapons to produce another elite aerial attack. Kenny Stills (61 receptions for 849 yards and eight touchdowns) is the leading returning receiver, plus Jaz Reynolds and Trey Franks have been reinstated after off-the-field issues but could face suspensions. However the most intriguing wideout is newcomer is No. 17 Trey Metoyer. The heralded Texas native originally signed as part of the 2011 recruiting class but spent last year at prep school. Metoyer joined the Sooners in January and starred in the spring game with six catches for a team-high 72 yards.

The Oklahoma running game will get a boost with the healthy return of Dominique Whaley, who will team with Roy Finch in a solid backfield. The offensive line projected as a strength with its experience and depth, but the health-related retirement of center Ben Habern and season-ending knee injury to guard Tyler Evans were big blows up front. On defense, Mike Stoops returns to Norman to coordinate a unit with seven starters returning. Pass rushers Frank Alexander and Ronnell Lewis will be missed on the line, and the Sooners will need ends David King and R.J. Washington to fulfill their potential. The back seven should be stout Tom Wort and Corey Nelson leading the linebackers and a secondary that returns four starters, including all-star candidates in safety Tony Jefferson and cornerback Demontre Hurst.

The Sooners project as the favorite in the new-look Big 12, and the schedule is fairly manageable. The September slate will provide time for both lines to develop before the challenge of October battles versus Texas and Notre Dame. The final three games will be difficult as OU travels to West Virginia, hosts Oklahoma State and plays at TCU, but Jones and


18: The 2011 Kansas State season was quite an interesting adventure. The Wildcats won 10 games despite ranking 101st nationally in total offense and 72nd in total defense. In fact, K-State went 7-2 in the Big 12 while being outgained by over 100 yards per game in league play. Two of the main factors that led to those fortunate results were a top 10 ranking in turnover margin and the outstanding running of quarterback Collin Klein (1,141 rush yards and an amazing 27 touchdowns on the ground). The senior signal caller will need to improve as a passer for the same type of results this year, and he’ll have leading receiver Chris Harper back on the outside. However a potential difference maker for the Wildcats offense is sophomore wideout Tyler Lockett, who totaled 18 catches for 246 yards and three scores as a freshman before a season-ending injury in early November. The K-State legacy was also excellent on kickoff returns, averaging 35.2 yards with two touchdowns.

The Kansas State running game has solid options with Klein and tailback John Hubert (970 yards in 2011), but the offensive line must replace three starters from last year’s excellent unit. On defense, The Wildcats have studs on all three levels — All-America candidate Arthur Brown at linebacker, leading sacker Meshak Williams at end and Nigel Malone (seven interceptions a year ago) at cornerback — but must improve as a whole group. That challenge will fall to new coordinator Tom Hayes, who takes over for the effective Chris Cosh. The front seven should have solid depth, but the secondary will be tested early and often in the pass-happy Big 12.

Many around the college football world doubt that Kansas State can repeat last year’s success, but intrepid coach Bill Snyder has a way leading teams past others’ expectations. The non-conference slate is manageable with a depleted Miami bunch coming to Manhattan. However the league schedule has five road games, including tough trips to Oklahoma, West Virginia and TCU. Ten wins may be tough to match in 2012, but Kansas State will be a difficult opponent each week in the Big 12.
 


19: The Mississippi State Bulldogs have never been known for their aerial attack, but they did set a school-record with 19 touchdown passes a year ago despite ranking 94th nationally in pass offense. Tyler Russell tossed eight of those scores, and he will take over as the starting quarterback after sharing duties with Chris Relf the last two seasons. The Bulldogs fan base is hoping that Russell can fulfill the expectations that existed after his stellar career at Meridian High School, and he will have a solid receiving group in seniors Chad Bumphis, Chris Smith and Arceto Clark. MSU lost its top rusher in Vick Ballard (1,189 yards and 10 TDs), but LaDarius Perkins and Nick Griffin should give the Bulldogs capable runners. The question on offense will be the development of an inexperienced offensive line that returns only two starters.

Mississippi State finished 16th in the country in scoring defense last season but had trouble stopping the run. Seven starters return from that unit, but NFL first-round pick Fletcher Cox will be missed. The linebacking group should be active, with senior Cam Lawrence and his 2011 team-high 123 tackles leading the way. The secondary projects as the strength of the defense, and cornerbacks Johnthan Banks and Corey Broomfield should be one of the top cover tandems in the nation.

The reality for the Bulldogs is that they must get past the 0-12 mark against SEC West foes not named Ole Miss. While it’s obviously tough to make progress in college football’s toughest division, Dan Mullen enters his fourth year in Starkville with the most depth and talent he’s had during his tenure. If Russell and the two lines show marked improvement, Mississippi State can move up the pecking order in the brutal SEC.
 


20: The Oregon Ducks have gone 34-6 in Chip Kelly’s three seasons as head coach, and they have mainly been known for his high-octane offense scoring points at will. However, people may forget that the Ducks finished 12th nationally in scoring defense in 2010 when they played for it all against Auburn. Last year’s unit went through some headaches but gained valuable experience, and the 2012 defense could be coordinator Nick Aliotti’s best group yet. Leading the way will be senior free safety John Boyett, No. 20, who topped Oregon with 108 tackles last season. He’ll be joined by sophomore cornerbacks Terrance Mitchell and Ifo Ekpre-Olomu in a secondary that should be much better against the pass this season. Hybrid end/linebacker Dion Jordan (7.5 sacks in 2011) will lead the pass rush for a front seven that is deep and athletic.

The biggest news with the Ducks offense is the ongoing quarterback competition between sophomore Bryan Bennett and redshirt freshman Marcus Mariota. Either signal caller has big shoes to fill in replacing Darron Thomas, who threw for over 5,000 yards and 63 touchdowns over the last two seasons. Oregon must also deal with the loss of running back LaMichael James (53 rushing TDs in the last three seasons), but senior Kenjon Barner and all-purpose machine De’Anthony Thomas are proven weapons. There are some question marks on the outside, where UO will look for Josh Huff to emerge as a threat. A very capable offensive line returns three starters and should pave the way for another productive Ducks attack.

A light early schedule and a solid defense should give Kelly plenty of time to solve the quarterback puzzle and get the Oregon offense producing at its usual high level. The November 3 matchup at USC could be college football’s game of the year, although most believe the Ducks and Trojans will meet again in the Pac-12 Championship Game — where Kelly’s squad would play for an outstanding fourth-straight conference crown.
 


21: This is an important season for California Golden Bears football, as they move back into a renovated Memorial Stadium and try to scale back up the Pac-12 pecking order. There was significant attrition off last year’s conference-leading defense, but the offense has big-time playmakers. The top weapon is wide receiver Keenan Allen, No. 21, who totaled 98 receptions for 1,343 yards and six touchdowns a year ago. The Bears will need another target to develop in order to prevent double-teams on Allen, and quarterback Zach Maynard must play with the consistency he showed late last season. The running game should be solid with the return of three offensive line starters and stud back Isi Sofele, who produced 1,322 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns in 2011.

The Cal defense has topped the Pac-12 over the last two seasons, but intrepid coordinator Clancy Pendergast must find some new solutions in 2012. The losses from last year’s unit include linebacker Mychal Kendricks, the conference Defensive Player of the Year, top lineman Trevor Guyton and starting safeties Sean Cattouse and D.J. Campbell. Nose tackle Aaron Tipoti is a quality player up front, but the rest of the front seven is fairly inexperienced. The secondary could be a strength with the solid cornerback tandem of Marc Anthony and Steve Williams. On special teams, the Bears must replace an excellent punter in Bryan Anger as well as kicker Giorgio Tavecchio.

The Cal schedule is very challenging, with a September trips to Ohio State plus having to play USC, Utah, Arizona State and UCLA from the South Division. Jeff Tedford has totaled 12 wins over the last two seasons, and the Bears fan base is ready to see the team return to the upper level of the Pac-12. For that to happen, Cal will need continued improvement from Maynard and some new playmakers to emerge on defense.
 


22: Purdue made the postseason last year for the first time since 2007, winning the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl in Danny Hope’s third season as head coach. To play past November this season, the Boilermakers must be better on defense. New coordinator Tim Tibesar inherits a unit that finished 82nd against the run last year and only compiled 22 sacks. The good news is that seven starters return, including All-America candidate Kawann Short at tackle. He’ll lead an experienced group up front that should be better at the point of attack this season. Purdue’s leading returning tackler, linebacker Dwayne Beckford, is back on the team after serving a suspension for off-the-field trouble. The Boilermakers have a quality cornerback tandem in junior Ricardo Allen and senior Josh Johnson, and they would benefit greatly from an improved pass rush.

The Purdue offense has plenty of options at quarterback, with senior Caleb TerBush as the starter. Robert Marve and Rob Henry can provide an interesting change of pace for an attack that showed promise a year ago. The skill players should be solid with receivers Antavian Edison and O.J. Ross and running backs Akeem Shavers and Ralph Bolden leading the way. They will need support from a line that has potential but must develop chemistry quickly.

The Boilermakers have a tough game at Notre Dame in week two but should be able to manage the rest of the non-conference slate. The Big Ten schedule is always challenging, but the absence of Michigan State and Nebraska from the Legends Division will help. If the lines can show marked improvement, look for Purdue to make a bowl game for the second-straight season.
 


23: South Carolina set a new school record with 11 wins last season, and the Gamecocks have enough talent and depth to approach that total once again. There were some big personnel losses on defense in NFL first-round selections Melvin Ingram and Stephen Gilmore, but the most difficult void to fill may be the presence of wide receiver Alshon Jeffery. Steve Spurrier’s club does not have many proven wideouts, and Jeffery totaled 23 touchdown catches over his three seasons in Columbia. Ace Sanders can produce at the SEC level, but he is the only returning Gamecock who had over 20 catches in 2011. The focus of Spurrier’s offense in 2012 will be on the running game, especially with the return from injury of All-America tailback Marcus Lattimore. Additionally, quarterback Connor Shaw proved to be a dual-threat after running for 415 yards and eight scores over the final six games of last year.

The South Carolina defense should be a quality group once again, but there was offseason change with new coordinator Lorenzo Ward taking over for new Southern Miss coach Ellis Johnson. Ward inherits a pair of excellent defensive ends in Jadeveon Clowney and Devin Taylor, plus a senior-laden linebackers group led by Shaq Wilson and former safety DeVonte Holloman. The secondary starters should be solid, but depth could be an issue.

The Gamecocks swept the Eastern division last season, but losses to Arkansas and Auburn prevented USC from going to Atlanta in December. Carolina faces the Razorbacks and LSU from the West this year, while Georgia does not play Alabama, LSU or Arkansas. However if Lattimore returns to form and some solutions emerge at receiver, South Carolina will be in the hunt for a second SEC Championship Game appearance in three seasons.
 


24: Coach Jimbo Fisher has the roster to lead Florida State to an ACC title this season. The Seminoles have the proven formula in 2012 of a stout defense and a senior quarterback. Veteran signal caller EJ Manuel has 24 career touchdown passes, but he could easily match that total this year if he plays well. The FSU receiving group should be much improved, with Rashad Greene, Rodney Hood and Willie Haulstead serving as the top FSU targets. The rushing duties will begin with senior Chris Thompson and sophomore Devonta Freeman, but they will be running behind a line that only returns one starter and is lacking experience.

The Florida State defense returns eight starters and has the athleticism and depth to repeat last season’s top five statistical ranking. The offseason loss of senior corner and punt returner Greg Reid will be felt, but there are still plenty of veterans for coordinator Mark Stoops. The line should be excellent, with pass rushers Brandon Jenkins and Bjoern Werner leading the way.
The linebacking unit has solid experience, while the secondary has stars in safety Lamarcus Joyner and cornerback Xavier Rhodes.

The Seminoles won seven of their last eight games to end last year with the defense serving as a catalyst. If the offensive line can develop and Manuel shows consistency, Florida State will favored to win its first ACC crown since 2005.
 


25: Georgia Tech won eight games in 2011 with a young roster, and the Yellow Jackets should challenge Virginia Tech in the Coastal Division this season. Senior quarterback Tevin Washington accounted for 25 touchdowns — 14 on the ground and 11 passing — a year ago, but he must be more consistent in ACC play. Washington led the Yellow Jackets in rushing, but he had zero touchdown passes over the last seven regular-season games. The receiving unit is completely inexperienced after the loss of Stephen Hill to the NFL, as no returning wideout has a single career catch. However, we all know the focus of Paul Johnson’s offense is run, run, and more run. Georgia Tech returns four starters on an offensive line that could be the best of Johnson’s tenure, and veteran backs Orwin Smith and David Sims will join Washington to lead the vaunted spread-option attack.

The Yellow Jackets defense must be better against the run to beat the top opponents on their schedule. Al Groh’s group ranked 66th nationally in run defense last year, and there was a lack of pressure on opposing quarterbacks as well. Defensive end Izaan Cross will lead a defensive line looking for playmakers, while the linebackers group should be solid with Jeremiah Attaochu leading the way. The secondary should be a quality group with returning corners Louis Young and Rod Sweeting, plus leading tackler Isaiah Johnson back at safety.

Georgia Tech has a challenging season-opener in Blacksburg, as the Hokies get all summer to prepare for the Jackets’ run game. The Clemson trip will be tough as well, but Florida State is not on the schedule. If the offense plays with more precision and the defense can show marked improvement, Johnson’s club will be an ACC contender.
 


26: Arkansas State enjoyed its best football season at the Division I/FBS level in 2011, going undefeated as Sun Belt champions and winning 10 games. That success led to coach Hugh Freeze moving on to Ole Miss and the SEC, but the Red Wolves found another bright offensive mind from America’s toughest conference in new coach Gus Malzahn. The former Auburn offensive coordinator will inherit an ASU attack with veteran skill players, led by Sun Belt Player of the Year Ryan Aplin. The senior dual-threat quarterback has scored 26 touchdowns in his career, as well as totaling 43 TD passes. Aplin is fourth among active FBS signal callers with 8,734 career yards of total offense, and he should continue to flourish in Malzahn’s fast-paced offense.

Seniors Taylor Stockemer and Josh Jarboe are back as the top receivers, but the Red Wolves will need to find a running back to complement Aplin — last year’s leading rusher. Speedy Frankie Jackson is the top candidate, and he will run behind a line that must replace three starters. On defense, new coordinator John Thompson will be searching for playmakers. ASU ranked 24th nationally in total defense in 2011, but only four starters return. The defense may give up some points this year — especially in September trips to Oregon and Nebraska — but the offense should be able to compensate. Malzahn knows there are good things happening in Jonesboro, and the Aplin-led Red Wolves look like the favorite to repeat in the Sun Belt.
 


27: UCLA football is going through a transition, as former Atlanta Falcons and Seattle Seahawks head coach Jim Mora takes over the Bruins program. Former coach Rick Neuheisel made progress in recruiting and was well-liked, but he could never get the offense going on the way to a four-year record of 21-29. In fact, UCLA has only 27 passing touchdowns over the past two seasons — the lowest total in the Pac-12 by far over that span. New offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone will try to change that fact with a fast-paced attack, but he must find a quarterback first. Redshirt freshman Brett Hundley may be the most-talented candidate, and he will compete with seniors Kevin Prince and Richard Brehaut for the job. The Bruins have two solid running backs in Johnathan Franklin and Malcolm Jones, but the offensive line needs much improvement and to find some depth.

Mora and new defensive coordinator Lou Spanos will employ multiple schemes with the front seven. The line has a ton of talent, but must be better on the field after the Bruins defense finished 96th in the country against the run last season. Top tacklers Patrick Larimore and Eric Kendricks are back to lead the linebackers group, while the secondary has quality experience — especially in cornerbacks Sheldon Price and Aaron Hester. There are too many playmakers on this side of the ball for the Bruins to repeat a finish of 92nd nationally in scoring defense.

The new staff has many challenges in getting the football culture changed at UCLA, but there is plenty of talent on the roster. Getting back to the postseason would be a solid accomplishment in 2012 for Mora, and then he can work towards the goal of returning the Bruins to the Rose Bowl for the first time since the 1998 season.
 


28: The Washington program is on the rise in the Pac-12, and Steve Sarkisian has the Huskies fan base energized for the first time in a decade. The offense found a star in quarterback Keith Price last year, but the UW defense was awful on its way to ranking 106th nationally. After the humiliating 67–56 Alamo Bowl loss to Baylor and Heisman winner Robert Griffin III, changes were made on the staff. Sarkisian paid a hefty ransom to bring coordinator Justin Wilcox back to the west coast. The former Oregon player and Boise State defensive boss did a solid job at Tennessee, where he took a talent-depleted unit and had them ranked 28th in the country in total defense last season. Wilcox will also have top recruiters/coaches under him in Peter Sirmon and Tosh Lupoi. Can that group turn around the defense in Seattle?

The Huskies have some productive players in linemen Hau'oli Jamora and Josh Shirley, as well as defensive backs Desmond Trufant and Sean Parker. However there is little depth and playmakers are needed badly at linebacker. There will be an infusion of talent with a solid recruiting class, and heralded freshman Shaq Thompson could move into the lineup immediately at safety. The Washington offense, which scored over 33 points per game in 2011, should be excellent with Price throwing to top pass catchers Austin Seferian-Jenkins at tight end and Kasen Williams at receiver. Jesse Callier will try to replace All-Pac-12 rusher Chris Polk, and he will run behind a solid O-line with three starters returning.

The UW defense does have to be a shutdown unit, but it must improve greatly to give the Huskies a shot at challenging Oregon and Stanford in the Pac-12 North. The first half of the schedule is brutal with LSU, Stanford, Oregon and USC, but look for Washington to build momentum late on its way to becoming a perennial conference contender.
 


29: The Georgia Bulldogs will have a great shot to repeat in the SEC East, and the catalyst in Athens will be an experienced and athletic defense. Todd Grantham’s group finished fifth in total defense last season and returns 10 starters. The lead Dawg will be outside linebacker Jarvis Jones, No. 29 — a consensus All-American who led the SEC with 13.5 sacks a year ago. He’ll be joined on the linebackers unit by solid contributors Mike Gilliard and Alec Ogletree, and the line is stout with John Jenkins at nose tackle and Abry Jones at end. The secondary should be excellent, with senior safeties Bacarri Rambo and Shawn Williams. However there were some off-the-field issues with multiple defenders, and they will be suspended for two to four games.

The offense has a catalyst as well, as junior quarterback Aaron Murray comes off a 2011 campaign when he set a new school single-season record for touchdown passes with 35. His top target should be senior wideout Tavarres King, who led the team with 47 receptions for 705 yards and eight scores last season. Malcolm Mitchell was the Dawgs’ second-leading receiver a year ago, but he may split time between offense and defense in 2012. The UGA running game could be a concern after the dismissal of Isaiah Crowell, unless Ken Malcome or heralded freshmen Keith Marshall and Todd Gurley can emerge. The patchwork line lacks depth, but there is talent in the starting five.

The schedule is friendly — no Alabama, LSU or Arkansas from the West — for a UGA team that has the proven formula of a top defense and stud quarterback. If the Dawgs can survive the early suspensions and develop a rushing attack, they should return to Atlanta this December with a solid chance of winning an SEC crown.
 


30: The Arkansas Razorbacks and their fans have been through quite the offseason. It started out on a positive note when quarterback Tyler Wilson and his 30 career touchdown passes returned to Fayetteville instead of opting for the NFL. However the Razorbacks program would be shocked a few months later with the Bobby Petrino saga, which would lead to the firing of the coach who compiled a 21-5 record over the last two seasons. John L. Smith will coach the Hogs this year, and he announced earlier this week that promising receivers Marquel Wade and Maudrecus Humphrey — plus tight end Andrew Peterson — will not play this fall because of legal issues.

So how will Wilson and the vaunted passing attack fare after the losses of Petrino and three receivers to the NFL? The senior signal caller has two top pass catchers in receiver Cobi Hamilton and tight end Chris Gragg, but there is little other experience on the outside. The offense will be bolstered by the return of running back Knile Davis, who had an incredible 2010 season with 1,322 yards and 13 touchdowns. The offensive line brings three starters back, with All-America candidate Alvin Bailey leading the way.

The Arkansas defense has talent but lost a key player on each level in Jake Bequette, Jerry Franklin and Tramain Thomas. New coordinator Paul Haynes will look for improvement against the run, where the Hogs finished 74th nationally last season. The tackle rotation has depth, but the ends must show consistency. The linebackers group should be solid with Alonzo Highsmith — the Razorbacks’ top defender — and converted end Tenarius Wright, while the secondary has playmakers in safety Eric Bennett and corner Tevin Mitchel. Arkansas should still be a top 10-15 team in 2012, but the offseason turmoil may prevent the Hogs from challenging LSU and Alabama in the brutal SEC West.
 


31: The forecast for the Miami Hurricanes in 2012 looks fairly similar to the 6-6 campaign of last season. With looming NCAA sanctions and a depleted roster, Al Golden is looking for any positives as he and the staff try to develop young talent. Miami will have a new look on offense after losing top playmakers Lamar Miller, Jacory Harris, Tommy Streeter and Travis Benjamin. Stephen Morris and transfer Ryan Williams will battle for the starting quarterback gig, and that competition could last into the season. Junior Allen Hurns is the team’s leading returning pass catcher with 31 receptions a year ago, and he will be joined by Rashawn Scott and Phillip Dorsett on a receivers unit look for a top target to emerge. Mike James will start at running back, and he will run behind an offensive line that returns only two starters.

Despite being porous against the run last season, the Hurricanes ranked 17th nationally in scoring defense. This year’s group has some talent, but there are question marks as well. The defensive line lacks experience, but sophomore end Anthony Chickillo could become a star. Fellow sophomore Denzel Perryman had a solid freshman season with 69 tackles, and he will move to middle linebacker in 2012. Seniors Vaughn Telemaque and Brandon McGee will lead a secondary that needs to force a few more turnovers while also supporting the run.

Al Golden has recruited some big-time talent to ‘The U’, but the Hurricanes will be inexperienced in 2012. The ACC slate will be challenging, plus there are tough non-conference games against Notre Dame, Kansas State and South Florida. It may not be the norm at Miami, but making a bowl game could be considered a quality accomplishment this season.
 


32: The Nevada Wolf Pack will move up in competition this year with the transition to the Mountain West Conference. Hall of Fame coach Chris Ault has led Nevada to bowl games in each of the last seven years on the strength of his run-heavy Pistol offense, but the Wolf Pack finished 32nd in the country in passing offense a year ago — its highest ranking in years. To continue the upward trend with the aerial attack, Ault brought in new offensive coordinator Nick Rolovich from Hawaii. The emphasis on a balanced offense will be enhanced by Cody Fajardo, who took over at quarterback in mid-October last season and his dual-thereat play earned him WAC Freshman of the Year honors. Fajardo will benefit from the return of receiver Brandon Wimberly and tight end Zach Sudfield to the lineup, and he’ll be protected by a solid offensive line with three starters returning. Several running backs will have the opportunity to emerge as the leader, with junior Stefphon Jefferson as the top candidate.

The move to the Mountain West will be challenging for the Nevada defense, which lost some key contributors. Five starters do return, all in the back seven and all seniors. Mike Bradeson takes over at coordinator, and the strength of his defense should be the unit he previously coached — the secondary. The senior-laden group isled by safeties Duke Williams and Marlon Johnson and corner Khalid Wooten. The linebackers unit has quality veterans as well in seniors Albert Rosette and Jeremiah Green. The challenge for Bradeson will be finding playmakers on an inexperienced defensive line.

Nevada should play well in the Mountain West, with Fajardo and the offense as the catalyst. Boise State is still the preseason favorite despite major personnel losses, but the winning tradition that Ault has built in Reno should produce a team that competes with the Broncos for the MWC crown.
 


33: The college football world has not witnessed many seasons like the one Wisconsin running back Montee Ball had in 2011, rushing for 1,923 yards and an astounding 33 touchdowns. He made the Badgers fan base very happy by deciding to return to school rather than enter the 2012 NFL Draft, and the All-America back will now try to lead UW to a third-straight Rose Bowl. There was some serious offseason attrition in Madison with the loss of quarterback Russell Wilson, three quality offensive line starters and heralded offensive coordinator Paul Chryst. However, the program did receive good news with the transfer of talented signal caller Danny O’Brien from Maryland. He will have solid targets in receiver Jared Abbrederis and tight end Jacob Pedersen, plus the line does return All-America candidates in tackle Ricky Wagner and center Travis Frederick.

While the Badgers offense should still score plenty of points, the defense must improve against the run. Six starters are back from a unit that finished 13th nationally in scoring defense, but there were some lapses against teams like Ohio State, Michigan State and Oregon that will need to be corrected. The line should have better depth this year, and the linebackers group is excellent with all-conference players in Chris Borland and Mike Taylor. If the secondary can develop some early consistency, the defense should be a solid group.

Wisconsin seems to have a fairly clear path to the Leaders crown, with a quality roster and the fact that Ohio State and Penn State are ineligible for the postseason. There is a little uncertainty with O’Brien and the defense, but Ball and the other weapons on offense should put the Badgers in a good position to win a third-straight Big Ten title.
 


34: South Florida is still looking for its first Big East title, and the roster is stocked enough for that to happen in 2012. Louisville is the preseason favorite, but the Bulls return a senior quarterback and a veteran defense. The back seven should be particularly strong, with an excellent linebacking group led by No. 34 DeDe Lattimore. The all-conference candidate will be joined by senior backers Mike Lanaris and Sam Barrington on a defense that finished 15th nationally against the run last year. The secondary has quality experience with senior corner Kayvon Webster and senior safety Jon Lejiste leading the way, but they must find a way to not break down on drives late in games — a factor that hurt the Bulls multiple times in 2011. The line has question marks, but junior end Ryne Giddens could be a star.

Most of the attention on offense will go to senior quarterback B.J. Daniels, who is statistically productive but does have lapses in the passing game. He’ll have a quality group of receivers and backs around him, led by wideout Sterling Griffin. The offensive line returns three starters, and they should pave the way for a solid running game that produced over 180 yards a game last season.

Coach Skip Holtz must find a way to reverse the USF pattern of playing well during the non-conference slate but then faltering in Big East play. There is too much talent on the Bulls roster for another 1-7 end to the season. If Holtz can get a little more consistency across the board and finish off games, South Florida can challenge in the Big East.
 


35: Mike Riley, one of the nicest and well-liked coaches in college football, led Oregon State to bowl games in six of the seven seasons from 2003-09. However the Beavers have gone 8-16 over the past two years, including a lackluster 3-9 last season. OSU’s problems during the 2011 campaign stemmed from an inability to run the ball or stop the run on defense. The Beavers finished an anemic 118th in the country in rushing and had to rely on the arm of Sean Mannion to move the ball. The sophomore quarterback could become a big-time Pac-12 player, but he must cut down on interceptions this season. While Mannion has a solid receivers group coming back in Markus Wheaton, Jordan Bishop and Brandin Cooks, he must get some help from the running game. OSU’s leading returning rusher is No. 35 Malcolm Agnew, and he will be joined by Storm Woods and incoming freshman Chris Brown in a backfield looking for a consistent threat.

The Oregon State defense returns eight starters from a group that ranked 101st nationally against the run and last in the Pac-12. Sophomore defensive ends Scott Crichton and Dylan Wynn have potential on the line, but they will need help inside. The back seven has solid experience, led by veterans Feti Unga and Michael Doctor at linebacker and Jordan Poyer at cornerback. Riley’s teams have played solid run defense historically, so the OSU fan base is hoping last year’s performance was just an injury-filled outlier. If the Beavers are not more competitive this season, that same fan base will demand a change in the direction of the program.
 


36: Cincinnati had a rough first season (4-8) under Butch Jones in 2010, but the Bearcats rebounded last season with 10 wins and a share of the Big East title. The UC formula was fairly simple a year ago: run the ball and stop the run on defense. Cincinnati ranked 36th in the country in rushing, led by Big East Offensive Player of the Year Isaiah Pead (1,259 yards and 12 touchdowns) and quarterback Zach Collaros (eight rushing TDs). With those two stars gone, Jones will need to find some new weapons for his running attack. Senior George Winn tallied 219 yards in 2011 and should be the starter this year, but he will be challenged by Jameel Poteat, Ralph David Abernathy IV and Aaron Harris. Quarterback Munchie Legaux can also add to the rushing attack, and he will have veteran targets in Anthony McClung and Kenbrell Thompkins.

The Bearcats defense finished sixth nationally in rushing defense last season, but two key components — tackle Derek Wolfe and middle linebacker JK Schaffer — will be missed greatly. Senior ends Dan Giordano and Walter Stewart will lead a defensive line with solid potential, while Maalik Bomar tops the linebackers group. The UC defense had 16 interceptions last year, but the secondary must cut down on opponents’ passing yardage this season.

Cincinnati still has talent on the roster, but it will be tough to replace second-round NFL draft picks like Pead and Wolfe. Another strong campaign in Jones’ third season would go a long way in making the Bearcats fan base feel confident that UC football can continue to be a top Big East program.
 


37: New Ole Miss boss Hugh Freeze has been a college head coach for 37 games, 25 at NAIA Lambuth and 12 at Arkansas State. That resume might not sound like the usual path for an SEC head coach, but Freeze just may be the solution to what’s needed in Oxford. The Mississippi native won 30 of those 37 games, including a 10-2 season at ASU that resulted in a Sun Belt Championship. His up-tempo offense was a hit in Jonesboro, and points seem to follow the likeable coach wherever he works.

The issue(s) facing Freeze is that he inherited a Rebels team lacking the talent of its SEC brethren, as Ole Miss has lost an astounding 14 league games in a row. Last year’s club finished 116th in scoring offense and 96th in scoring defense, so there is quite a bit of work to be done in Oxford. The 2012 season will be about establishing a new football culture as much as wins and losses, and Freeze seems to be off to a good start with discipline, academic improvement and recruiting. The schedule is brutal in the SEC West, plus the Rebs face Georgia and an improved Vanderbilt program from the East and Texas in a non-conference tilt.

The losing may continue this season at Ole Miss, but Freeze has been excellent at every stop and should get the program moving in the right direction. He has put together a solid staff, but it will take some time to start winning in America’s toughest conference.
 


38: Utah had a quality season in its first Pac-12 campaign, winning eight total games including a bowl victory over Georgia Tech. The catalyst for the Utes was a defense that finished 38th in the country last year, led by the league’s top defensive lineman in Star Lotulelei. The effective unit ranked 19th in the nation and best in the conference in scoring defense, allowing 20.2 points per game. Utah’s top two tacklers from last year — linebackers Chaz Walker and Matt Martinez — must be replaced, but seven starters return for coordinator Kalani Sitake. Lotulelei and the Kruger brothers will lead a solid line, and an experienced secondary should be a major strength.

If the Utes are going to improve on their 4-5 conference record from 2011, the offense will need to find more weapons on offense than just star running back John White. The talented junior college transfer totaled 1,519 yards and 15 touchdowns a year ago, yet Utah finished 80th nationally in rushing. New coordinator Brian Johnson will try to resuscitate the Pac-12’s worst passing attack, with former starter Jordan Wynn probably returning to the quarterback position this fall. The receivers are veterans, but the O-line must replace quality tackles in Tony Bergstrom and John Cullen.

Kyle Whittingham’s crew is not expected to challenge USC in the South, but many believe the Utes can finish second in the division. Avoiding Oregon and Stanford helps with the league schedule, plus the non-conference slate is manageable. If the offense can just become a little more productive, the Utah defense can lead the club to big things in 2012.
 


39: Coach Frank Spaziani has been the head coach at Boston College for 39 games, and he has led to the Eagles to a 20-19 record. After winning an “interim” game in 2006 and then 15 games in his first two seasons at the helm, Spaziani’s Eagles dropped to 4-8 last year and BC missed the postseason for the first time since 1998. Many in the fan base fear the program is headed in the wrong direction, and attendance in Chestnut Hill has dipped to unhealthy levels. Most of the talk regarding Eagles football these days revolves around Spaziani and the “hot seat”, and that chatter increased when multiple assistants decided to take jobs at other schools this offseason.

A 20-19 record may not sound incredibly bad, but you have to examine the recent success of Boston College to understand the feelings of the fan base. Tom O’Brien won 66 games in his last eight seasons at BC, including taking the Eagles to a bowl game each season from 1999-2006. Jeff Jagodzinski then won 20 games in two years before his controversial firing for interviewing for a job with the Jets. If Spaziani is to get the current Eagles turned around, then they will simply have to find a way to score more points. BC finished 112th in the country in both scoring and total offense a year ago.

The 2012 schedule will not make it easy on Spaziani and staff as they try to lead Boston College back to the postseason. The Eagles play non-conference games against Notre Dame and at Northwestern, plus difficult ACC battles with Clemson, Florida State and Georgia Tech Virginia Tech and NC State.
 


40: The Oklahoma defense will have a new boss with a familiar name this season. Former coordinator Brent Venables is now at Clemson, while Bob Stoops welcomes back his brother, Mike, to run the Sooners defense like he did from 1999-2003. Last year’s unit was solid early but fell off in the second half of the season. OU tied for eighth in the nation with 40 sacks last year, and key pass rushers Frank Alexander and Ronnell Lewis are off to the NFL. That duo combined for 32 tackles for loss and 14 sacks a year ago. Stoops will have five seniors in the defensive line rotation with ends David King and R.J. Washington, plus tackles Casey Walker, Stacy McGee and Jamarkus McFarland. Junior college transfer Chaz Nelson should also contribute in getting to opposing quarterbacks.

If the front four plays well, the Sooners should be excellent on defense. A secondary with vast potential returns all four starters, including All-America candidate Tony Jefferson at safety. The linebackers are also good, with Tom Wort in the middle and emerging star Corey Nelson on the outside. Additionally, two top Big 12 quarterbacks who hurt the Sooners last season — Robert Griffin III and Brandon Weeden — have moved on to the next level.

Oklahoma looks like the league favorite and national title contender, and we all expect big things from senior Landry Jones and the Sooners offense. If Stoops can get the defense to play to its talent level, look for OU to return to its usual spot for the last decade-plus — the top of the Big 12.
 


41: Vanderbilt made a bowl game in James Franklin’s first season in Nashville, but the excitement on West End wasn’t just because the Commodores reached the postseason for the fifth time in school history. It was because VU dominated lesser opponents and stood toe-to-toe with the big boys of the SEC. Can Franklin keep the momentum going in 2012? The offense has solid weapons, led by star running back Zac Stacy (1,193 yards, 14 touchdowns) and quarterback Jordan Rodgers. The senior signal caller took over during the second half of last season, and the Vanderbilt offense saw its production increase greatly. Rodgers has a pair of quality targets in Chris Boyd (eight TDs) and Jordan Matthews, who led the team with 41 catches and 778 yards a year ago.

The Commodores return seven starters on defense, but they did lose some high-end talent and leadership with the departures of Casey Hayward, Sean Richardson, Tim Fugger and Chris Marve. The line has plenty of experience and will be led by Walker May at end and Rob Lohr at tackle. The starting linebackers have potential but little depth, while the secondary could be excellent with stud cornerback Trey Wilson topping the unit.

Franklin has raised the expectations at Vanderbilt with the team’s on-the-field performance as well as impressive recruiting results. The 2012 Commodores should make a bowl game for the second straight season (for the first time in school history) and could pull a major upset or two in America’s toughest conference.
 


42: We knew the 2011 season would be challenging for the Auburn Tigers, who had massive personnel attrition from the 2010 BCS Championship team. Gene Chizik’s bunch lost its best offensive (Cam Newton) and defensive (Nick Fairley) player, four offensive line starters, its two best linebackers and top two receivers. The results last year were surprisingly good for a team that was outscored by 42 points on the season, as Auburn finished with eight wins. The inexperienced Tigers did lose badly to some top 25 teams, but they did show major potential with a victory at South Carolina and a Chick-fil-A Bowl win over Virginia.

The 2012 Auburn squad returns 16 starters, although both coordinators changed during the offseason. Former Michigan, Florida and Temple coach Scot Loeffler takes over the Auburn offense, which will have a much more conventional feel than Gus Malzahn’s attack. Kiehl Frazier and Clint Moseley will compete for the starting quarterback gig, and either one will have solid senior weapons at his disposal in receiver Emory Blake, running back Onterio McCalebb and tight end Philip Lutzenkirchen.

Former Falcons and Georgia coordinator Brian VanGorder will lead the Auburn defense, and he is walking into a gold mine of talent. All four defensive line starters return, including All-America candidate Corey Lemonier at end. The back seven should also be solid, led by seniors Daren Bates at linebacker and T’Sharvan Bell at cornerback. There will be an adjustment to the new schemes, but Auburn should move back towards the upper echelon of the SEC West in 2012.
 


43: Northwestern will be striving for a school-record fifth consecutive bowl appearance this season, and quarterback Kain Colter will be the focus of the offense. The dual-threat signal caller filled in for Dan Persa early in 2011 and was also the hero of the Nebraska victory in Lincoln last November. Colter is the Wildcats’ leading returning passer (55-for-82 for 673 yards and six touchdowns) and rusher (135 carries for 654 yards and nine scores). Additionally, the talented junior is Northwestern’s leading returning receiver after compiling 43 catches for 466 yards and three TDs in 2011. Colter may not be catching passes this season, but he should have solid targets in Demetrius Fields, Rashad Lawrence and Tony Jones.

Colter is obviously a dynamic threat on the ground, but NW must get more production from its running backs. The offensive line returns three starters, and that group should be solid if the pass protection improves this year. Coach Pat Fitzgerald and coordinator Mike Hankwitz will need more from their defense that finished 80th in the country in 2011. The linebackers unit has experience, but there are question marks on the line and in the secondary. This group simply has to better all over the field, from stopping the run to getting more pressure on opposing quarterbacks.

The Big Ten’s Legends Division is challenging, but the Wildcats play a manageable non-conference schedule and miss Wisconsin and Ohio State from the Leaders. If Colter gets some support and the defense can show improvement, then Northwestern will have a shot at winning its first bowl game since January 1, 1949.
 


44: The Texas Longhorns look primed to return to a double-digit win total in 2012. Mack Brown won nine games in each of his first three seasons (1998-2000) in Austin, and then compiled at least 10 victories per year for almost a decade (2001-09). The bottom fell out in the non-bowl season of 2010, but the Horns rebounded with eight wins last year. A huge reason for the current burnt-orange optimism is a loaded defense led by top pass rusher Jackson Jeffcoat, No. 44, and fellow stellar end Alex Okafor. The pair combined for 35 tackles for loss and 15 sacks a year ago. Texas also has one of the best secondaries in the country, with safety Kenny Vacarro and cornerbacks Quandre Diggs and Carrington Byndom all being candidates for All-America and All-Big 12 honors.

Texas does have to replace leading tacklers Emmanuel Acho and Keenan Robinson at linebacker, but coordinator Manny Diaz has plenty of talent on that unit with Jordan Hicks, Steve Edmond and Demarco Cobbs. The key to hitting the 10-win level once again will be improving a passing game that ranked 86th in the nation in 2011. Sophomore quarterback David Ash will have a chance to do that with an experienced receivers group, led by Mike Davis, Jaxon Shipley and Marquise Goodwin. The running game should be excellent with four offensive line starters returning, plus talented backs in Malcolm Brown (742 yards and five TDs as a freshman), Joe Bergeron (463 yards and five TDs) and heralded freshman Johnathan Gray.

The Texas defense ranked 11th in the country last season even in the pass-happy Big 12. Look for more positive results this year with studs like Jeffcoat, Okafor, Vaccaro and Diggs leading the way. If the Longhorns can find some consistency at signal caller, Mack Brown’s bunch will be right back to competing for league and national crowns.
 


45: Washington State made big news this offseason with the hiring of former Texas Tech coach Mike Leach. The controversial bench boss has a reputation for a wide-open passing offense and saying whatever is on his mind, but he also gets results. Texas Tech had an 84-43 record during his decade in Lubbock, and the Red Raiders made a bowl game in each of those 10 seasons. Last season in Pullman, the Cougars offense finished 45th in the nation in scoring despite having the ninth-rated passing attack. That could be the Leach difference this year — taking the same highly-rated pass offense (with a lacking run game) and getting more points out of it.

Senior Jeff Tuel is back at quarterback after multiple 2011 injuries, and he had an excellent performance in the spring game. His top target will be All-America candidate Marquess Wilson, who compiled 1,388 yards and 12 touchdowns a year ago. The offensive line returns three starters, but they must do a better job of protecting the passer after ranking in the bottom five in the country in sacks allowed per game. The defense will change to a more aggressive 3-4 scheme under new coordinator Mike Breske, and he will benefit from the return of pass rusher Travis Long and a veteran secondary.

Leach has the signal caller and top wideout to build a potent offense in his first season at Washington State. The Cougars have not made a bowl game since 2003, but six wins looks like a solid possibility with a proven coach steering the ship.
 


Editor's Note: After a our Penn State entry, Silas Redd and Rob Bolden have transferred.

46: The Penn State community has been through the worst scandal in school history over the last nine months. The nation was shocked to learn of Jerry Sandusky’s crimes and the subsequent silence by PSU decision makers, including Joe Paterno. The release of the Freeh Report has people talking more about cover-ups and further prosecutions than football, but new coach Bill O’Brien and his football team will try to move forward amid distractions and an awkward atmosphere in Happy Valley.

On the field, the new Penn State staff will be challenged to simply find a way to score more points. The Nittany Lions defense was good enough to lead the team to nine wins a year ago, but PSU only scored 46 points in its four losses. O’Brien will begin with senior Matt McGloin at quarterback, while Rob Bolden or Paul Jones could claim the job as well if the Nittany Lions do not improve on their 96th in the country ranking in passing offense. Any of the trio of signal callers will be helped by the return of top running back Silas Redd, who was very impressive last season on his way to 1,241 yards rushing and seven scores. However there is only one starter back on the offensive line, and the receivers lack a big-time playmaker.

The PSU defense should be a quality group, with tackle Jordan Hill and linebacker Gerald Hodges leading the way. The Nittany Lions will also count on seniors Michael Mauti and Pete Massaro to solidify the front seven, which will be needed with the loss of all four secondary starters. Penn State has a manageable non-conference schedule and avoids both Michigan schools from the Legends Division, but O’Brien and staff may be challenged by off-the-field distractions as much as gridiron issues.
 


47: Baylor fans were witness to a magical season in 2011, as the Bears won 10 games and Robert Griffin III took home the Heisman Trophy. The star quarterback compiled almost 5,000 total yards and accounted for 47 touchdowns a year ago. While Griffin was the brightest star in the country last season, he is not the only playmaker coach Art Briles will have to replace on offense. Star receiver Kendall Wright (1,663 yards and 14 TDs) and lead running back Terrance Ganaway (1,547 yards and 21 TDs) were incredibly productive in 2011, and NFL linemen Philip Blake and Robert Griffin paved the way.

There really is no replacing RG3, but the passing game should be fine. Senior signal caller Nick Florence has some experience, and the starting receiving group of Terrance Williams, Lanear Sampson and Tevin Reese is excellent. Three starters return on the offensive line, and the trio of Jarred Salubi, Glasco Martin and transfer Lache Seastrunk will compete for carries. The Baylor defense struggled last season (116th in the nation), but eight starters are back. The secondary should be a solid group, as Phil Bennett tries to improve a fast and experienced unit.

Baylor may not contend for the Big 12 title or wins 10 games again, but the performance of the 2012 team should show how much the program has grown under Briles. Making a bowl game for a third-straight season (which has never happened in school history) would be a quality accomplishment for the Bears.
 


48: The Missouri Tigers have won 48 games over the last five years, as coach Gary Pinkel has shown the ability to consistently produce winning seasons in Columbia. Mizzou made two Big 12 Championships Games in 2008 and 2009 but lost both. In 2012 the challenge gets much bigger as the Tigers join the SEC, America’s toughest conference. Another major offseason development for Missouri was the shoulder injury to star quarterback James Franklin during spring ball. He had surgery in late March, and Franklin’s presence will be paramount to the Tigers’ success after a sophomore season where he had 3,846 total yards and accounted for 36 touchdowns.

Franklin will have senior T.J. Moe back as his top target, but the rest of the receivers lack significant experience. Missouri did pull off a big-time recruiting coup by inking the nation’s top wideout in Dorial Green-Beckham, and it will be interesting to see how much he can contribute as a true freshman. The offensive line should be solid with three returning starters, plus getting sixth-year tackle Elvis Fisher back on the fold. With top runner Henry Josey expected to miss the season after multiple knee surgeries, the Tigers will count on Kendial Lawrence (566 yards and five TDs in 2011) to carry the rock.

The Missouri defense will be led by senior end Brad Madison, a veteran linebacker group and experienced cornerbacks E.J. Gaines and Kip Edwards. The Tigers have played solid defense over the last few years in the pass-happy Big 12, but they will face a more physical league in the SEC. The 2012 schedule will be tougher for Pinkel’s crew, but he has built a program that will compete in its new conference.
 


49: Virginia Tech has won at least 10 games in every season since 2004, and the Hokies have played in five of the seven ACC Championship Games — winning three. Frank Beamer’s club is always a national contender and looks like the clear favorite in the Coastal Division in 2012. The strength of this year’s squad will be in its eight returning starters on defense, led by all-conference ends James Gayle and J.R. Collins. The dynamic duo combined 13 sacks and 49 quarterback hurries last season, and Virginia Tech led the ACC in getting to opposing signal callers. With stud ends and the Hopkins brothers — Derrick and Antoine — at tackle, the Hokies have one of the best defensive lines in the country.

Senior Bruce Taylor will lead a linebacker group that has talent and experience, but also has had the injury bug. Junior cornerbacks Kyle Fuller and Antone Exum are the latest in a long line of excellent secondary members to play in Bud Foster’s defense. This unit will have to carry the team early while the offense looks to replace All-America running back David Wilson, four offensive line starters and its top two receivers. However Virginia Tech has a star in quarterback Logan Thomas, who accounted for 30 touchdowns a year ago.

Some Hokies fans may be frustrated that their team has lost six of its last nine bowl games, but this program is a proven winner under Beamer. On the strength of a shutdown defense and a top signal caller, look for Virginia Tech to be playing for another ACC title in 2012.
 


50: Boise State has had an amazing run over the last decade plus, and current head coach Chris Petersen has posted a phenomenal record of 73-6 in his six seasons at the helm. The overall strength of the program will have to be on display this year, as the Broncos must replace the winningest quarterback in NCAA history (Kellen Moore), NFL first-round picks in defensive end Shea McClellin and running back Doug Martin, All-America offensive tackle Nate Potter, the school record-holder for touchdown catches in a season (Tyler Shoemaker) and top defenders like George Iloka, Tyrone Crawford and Billy Winn. Moore set the all-time college football record with 50 career wins, while ranking second in NCAA history in career touchdown passes and fifth in career passing yardage.

Joe Southwick will get the first chance to succeed Moore as the Boise signal caller, and the junior will have a solid group around him. Senior tailback D.J. Harper (24 career rush TDs) is a proven player, and three starters return on a quality offensive line. Southwick will also have productive targets in receivers Matt Miller (679 yards and nine TDs as a freshman) and Mitch Burroughs, plus tight end Gabe Linehan. The Broncos defense is a larger concern, with only one starter back from last season. However there is talent on this side of the ball with proven tackles Michael Atkinson and Ricky Tjong-A-Tjoe, and senior cornerbacks Jamar Taylor and Jerrell Gavins will lead the secondary.

Boise State has a chance to win another season opener over a big-time opponent in Michigan State on August 31. If the Broncos top the Spartans, the BCS talk in Idaho will resume. This team should win the Mountain West title before moving to the Big East in 2013. Even with the personnel attrition, Petersen has built a perennial Top 25 program that should win double-digit games once again.
 


51: The USC Trojans were named our preseason No. 1 team because of a loaded roster on both sides of the ball. Senior quarterback Matt Barkley will be a Heisman favorite, the receiving duo of Robert Woods and Marqise Lee is probably the best in the country, and the defense has a ton of talent on all three levels. So what could prevent the Trojans from playing for both the Pac-12 and national crowns? Depth looks like the only concern for the SC staff, although a running game that finished 51st in the country could become a potential liability. Tailback Curtis McNeal finished last season on a major roll, compiling 876 yards and six touchdowns in the final eight games. However the depth chart is thin after McNeal, with Tre Madden out for the season, Amir Carlisle’s transfer and the inexperience of D.J. Morgan.

The Trojans do return four starters on the offensive line, so USC should be able to find effective runners to complement McNeal. Plus, the passing attack is lethal enough to score big-time points on its own. Besides the terrific tandem of Woods and Lee, Barkley will also have reliable targets in receiver George Farmer and tight ends Randall Telfer and Xavier Grimble. The defense should be improved as well, with All-America candidates T.J. McDonald, Nickell Robey and Dion Bailey leading the way.

The November 3 game against Oregon and a potential rematch with the Ducks in the Pac-12 title game loom large for USC, but the Trojans look like a heavy favorite to win the conference and compete for the national title.
 


52: The Nebraska defense allowed 5.2 yards per play last season, which led to an alarming opponent’s total of 350.7 yards per game. The Cornhuskers powerful running attack was good enough to overcome those totals on the way to nine victories, but the defense will need to show much improvement to compete for the Big Ten crown. The NU defense has also totaled 52 sacks over the last two seasons, as compared to 79 in the 2008 and 2009 campaigns when Ndamukong Suh was making like miserable for opposing quarterbacks.

Carl Pelini is now the head coach at Florida Atlantic, and new defensive coordinator John Papuchis and new line coach Rick Kaczenski will face the challenge of bettering a unit that ranked eighth in the Big Ten in rushing defense (158.5 YPG). There is talent to work with up front, as tackle Baker Steinkuhler and end Cameron Meredith provide experience and senior leadership. Top tackler Lavonte David will be missed, but Will Compton will lead a veteran linebacker group. The secondary also has playmakers in cover corner Andrew Green and safety
Daimion Stafford.

The 2012 Cornhuskers have the ability to win the Legend’s Division and the Big Ten, especially with offensive stars Rex Burkhead and Taylor Martinez. If the defense can improve against the run and put more pressure on opposing quarterbacks, Nebraska can reach the goals of its passionate fan base.
 


53: Ravens third-round pick Bernard Pierce was a major factor in the newfound success of Temple football over the last few years. The workhorse tailback ran for over 3,500 yards and 53 touchdowns in the last three seasons, and the 26 wins for the Owls during that time is the most-ever in school history for a three-year period. Al Golden and Steve Addazio have taken the program to a competitive level, but the challenge to sustain winning seasons becomes much more difficult this year with Temple (re)entering the Big East.

Running back Matt Brown (916 yards and six scores in 2011) will take over as the starter, but don’t look for him to tote the rock 273 times like Pierce did a year ago. Dual-threat quarterback Chris Coyer took over at the end of last season, running the ball especially well. Those are the positives for new coordinator Ryan Day, who will have his work cut out developing an inexperienced offensive line and depth at the receiver position. Temple’s defense was excellent last season, allowing the third-fewest points in the country. However, coordinator Chuck Heater will need another excellent effort after the loss of four All-MAC defenders. It may take a couple of years for Temple to be a player in the Big East, but the program and its leadership are as strong as ever.
 


54: NC State finished 54th nationally in both scoring offense and scoring defense a year ago. That sounds fairly average, but Tom O’Brien’s club was able to win eight games and beat North Carolina for a fifth consecutive season. How much better will the Wolfpack be in 2012? The forecast looks bright in Raleigh, with a proven senior quarterback and seven starters returning on both sides of the ball. Mike Glennon threw for over 3,000 yards and 31 touchdowns a year ago, and the running game should be improved with a veteran offensive line and leading rusher James Washington back in the fold. The Wolfpack defense is built on pressure and causing turnovers. NC State had 40 sacks (T-8th nationally) and the second-most takeaways in the country last season on the strength of a nation-leading 27 interceptions.

The key to the 2012 campaign will be consistency on both units. The talented offense produced 37, 56 and 31 points in NC State’s final three games a year ago, but tallied only 0, 13, and 10 points in the three prior games. The defense played well versus top foes like Clemson, Virginia and North Carolina, but struggled badly against Cincinnati, Wake Forest and Florida State. The start of the season will be challenging with a neutral-site contest against Tennessee and a trip to Connecticut, and the Wolfpack have tough trips to Miami, North Carolina and Clemson. The Seminoles and Tigers are the favorites in the ACC’s Atlantic Division, but NC State could shake up the balance of power in the league with a little more consistency across the board.
 


55: Louisville is our preseason favorite in the Big East, with a rising star in sophomore quarterback Teddy Bridgewater and a solid defense. Another positive for Charlie Strong’s club is four returning starters on the offensive line, led by No. 55 Mario Benavides. The senior center will help pave the way for what should be a much-improved offense in 2012. Bridgewater showed a ton of potential last season, tossing 14 touchdowns and running for four more scores during his freshman campaign. His top targets should be a trio of fellow sophomores — Eli Rogers, Michaelee Harris and DeVante Parker — who gained valuable experience last season. Junior running back Dominique Brown had the most carries last season, but he will compete with Jeremy Wright, Senorise Perry and Corvin Lamb to be the top Card in 2012.

The Cardinals defense may be young, but Strong and staff have upped the talent level greatly since arriving at Louisville. Last season’s group finished 10th nationally in run defense, but this year’s unit will need to improve against this pass. Louisville has challenging road trips to Pittsburgh and Rutgers and hosts USF and North Carolina, but a double-digit win season looks like a good possibility. If the offense develops as expected, look for the Cardinals to win the Big East and play in the BCS.
 


56: Michigan State set a school-record with 11 wins in 2010, and the Spartans followed that up with the same total a year ago. In fact, MSU is one of only seven BCS teams to win 11 games in each of the last two seasons. The Spartans stingy defense has been the catalyst for the recent success, but another major factor was the steady play of quarterback Kirk Cousins. He tossed 45 touchdown passes over the last two years and was an excellent leader. Michigan State ranked 56th nationally in total offense last season, but Cousins passing combined with the country’s sixth-best defense was enough to win the Big Ten’s Legends Division.

Eight starters return from the Big Ten’s top defense of 2011, and the running game should be improved with top back Le’Veon Bell (948 yards and 13 touchdowns) and four offensive line starters returning. The big focus in August will be on new quarterback Andrew Maxwell. The junior signal caller has the talent to continue MSU’s winning ways, but replacing Cousins’ leadership will not be easy. Additionally, the Spartans also lost top receivers B.J. Cunningham and Keshawn Martin to the NFL. Maxwell does not have to be a star because of MSU’s excellent defense, but his play may determine if Mark Dantonio’s bunch can reach the double-digit win mark once again.
 


57: Kansas made a splash this offseason with the hiring for former Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis. After a dramatic end to the Mark Mangino era and two painful seasons under Turner Gill, the Jayhawks and their fans are desperate for any good news. Weis and staff have major work ahead to get KU competitive in the Big 12. As an example, last year’s squad finished 57th nationally in rushing offense. While that does not sound very impressive, it was the only major statistical category where the Jayhawks ranked in the top 90 in the nation. Ouch.

Weis is known for offense, and he started his Kansas tenure by bringing in two talented quarterback transfers — Dayne Crist (Notre Dame) and Jake Heaps (BYU) — as well as signing JUCO signal caller Turner Baty. Crist will start this season while Heaps sits out, and the former Irish QB will have three senior starters returning on the offensive line and three senior wideouts. Leading rusher James Sims is back (although he’ll serve a three-game suspension), and sophomore runners Tony Pierson and Brandon Bourbon have big potential. It may take former Dallas Cowboys coach Dave Campo a while to fix the nation’s worst defense, but the Kansas offense should be much improved in 2012.
 


58: North Carolina is not eligible for a bowl game this season because of NCAA sanctions from the Butch Davis regime. New coach Larry Fedora inherits a quality roster, and the Tar Heels should be among the ACC’s top teams. One main goal for UNC this season will be to beat rival NC State for the first time since 2006. Last year’s loss to the Wolfpack was especially painful, as North Carolina only gained 165 yards in 58 plays and was shut out 13-0. The Tar Heels have traditionally dominated their instate rival, but the current five-game losing streak has been tough on the fan base.

Fedora is known for offense, and his current UNC attack has a ton of potential. Running back Giovani Bernard is an All-America candidate after totaling 1,253 yards and 13 touchdowns last season. Quarterback Bryn Renner tossed a school-record 26 touchdown passes last season, and four starters return on a solid offensive line. The Tar Heels do have to replace Dwight Jones at receiver, but an offense with this much talent should not be blanked in any game. The NC State matchup on October 27 will be the Tar Heels “bowl game” this season, and Fedora could please UNC fans greatly by ending the streak against the Wolfpack.
 


59: The Notre Dame defense tied for 59th in the nation in sacks per game last season. The Irish were looking forward to improving that fact with the development of rising sophomore pass rushers Stephon Tuitt, Aaron Lynch and Ishaq Williams. However ND was dealt a major personnel blow the offseason with the transfer of defensive end Lynch, the team’s leading sacker in 2011, to South Florida. The three-man line should still be very solid with Tuitt, senior end Kapron Lewis-Moore and nose guard Louis Nix III, and the Irish did get their leading tackler back when linebacker Manti Te’o decided to return to South Bend for his senior season.

That group will need to play quality ball in front of a defensive backs unit that lost corners Robert Blanton and Gary Gray, plus top safety Harrison Smith. The reworked secondary would benefit greatly this season if the front seven can get more pressure on opposing signal callers, especially with the Irish facing three of the country’s top quarterbacks in Michigan’s Denard Robinson, Oklahoma’s Landry Jones and USC’s Matt Barkley. Bob Diaco’s defense played solid football last season, but the Te’o-led group will need to improve in forcing turnovers (only 14 takeaways in 2011) and sacks against a challenging 2012 schedule.
 


60: There were two huge moments for Iowa State football in 2011, the 44-41 triple-overtime win against rival Iowa and the 37-31, double-overtime thriller over Oklahoma State on national television. The Cyclones were obviously able to put the ball in the end zone in those two contests, but they struggled reaching paydirt in several other games. Despite ranking 60th in the nation in total offense, ISU only finished 90th in scoring. The biggest culprit for the disparity was the fact that the Cyclones tied for 115th in the nation in red zone efficiency.

New offensive coordinator Courtney Messingham, who replaces the departed Tom Herman (Ohio State), will have a tough decision at quarterback between Steele Jantz and Jared Barnett. Jantz had some early success before being replaced by Barnett in mid-October. The freshman showed his potential with a great performance in the Oky State victory, but then he was replaced by the older Jantz in the Pinstripe Bowl loss. Either quarterback will benefit from a solid 1-2 punch at running back in James White and Jeff Woody, and the offensive line should be a quality group. The deciding factor in the signal caller derby may be red zone proficiency, as the Cyclones offense must be better at taking advantage of its yardage success this season. That factor will be a key for ISU reaching a bowl game for a third time in four seasons under Paul Rhoads.
 


61: The 2011 season was a magical one for Oklahoma State, winning a school-record 12 games and a first-ever Big 12 crown. Obviously the nation’s second-highest scoring offense was the main catalyst for the championship campaign, but an opportunistic defense played a part as well. Although the Cowboys ranked 107th in the country in total yardage allowed, they were 61st in scoring defense. The reason for such a positive gap was OSU’s ability to create turnovers, as the defense compiled a nation-leading 44 takeaways in 2011. In fact, the second-best total in the Big 12 was Baylor with 29.

Can the Cowboys do it again? Even though Mike Gundy’s offense has been successful over the years with multiple quarterbacks, it’s difficult to see the 2012 attack putting up the same numbers as the Brandon Weeden-Justin Blackmon crew of the past two years. Last season, OSU averaged over 545 yards and 48.7 points per game. Eight starters do return to Bill Young’s crew, including the entire linebackers group and All-America candidate Brodrick Brown at cornerback. However, the Cowboys did lose All-Big 12 stalwarts Markelle Martin at safety and Jamie Blatnick at defensive end. If Oklahoma State is going to stay near the top of the conference pecking order, the defense will need to improve overall while still forcing the opponents’ miscues that were so important in 2011.


62: Texas A&M has a new coach and a new league, with Kevin Sumlin leading the Aggies into the challenging SEC. There will also be a new quarterback in College Station, with Ryan Tannehill going to the Dolphins in the top ten of the NFL Draft. Tannehill was a 62% passer last season, which probably does not sound overly impressive. However, it was as accurate a season as the Aggies had seen – along with Stephen McGee’s 2006 campaign – in a decade.

Now the offense belongs to Sumlin and coordinator Kliff Kingsbury, and they will be looking for a very accurate passer. The leading candidate for the A&M signal caller gig is sophomore Jameill Showers, who battled redshirt freshman Johnny Manziel this spring. Either quarterback will be protected by an excellent offensive line, and the Aggies have a big-time running back unit with Christine Michael, Ben Malena and true freshman Trey Williams. With only four starters back on defense, the offense will need to put up big points as the Aggies compete in the loaded SEC West.


63: Former Oregon quarterback Darron Thomas threw 63 touchdown passes over the last two seasons, but then made the ill-fated decision to go to the NFL early and was undrafted. The Ducks will move forward with Bryan Bennett, who was a solid backup in 2011, or redshirt freshman Marcus Mariota, who was better in the Oregon spring game. Obviously the expectations are high for any offense coached by Chip Kelly, and the signal caller decision will be a huge story in August.

Either quarterback will enjoy a solid offensive line and electric weapons in running back Kenjon Barner and all-purpose machine De’Anthony Thomas, but some new receivers will need to emerge on the outside. The defense returns six starters and should be much better than last year’s unit. The Ducks should be favored in every game with the exception of the November 3 road trip to USC. There may be some growing pains with a new quarterback, but look for Oregon to win the Pac-12 North and battle the Trojans for conference supremacy.


64: South Carolina has scored 64 points against Arkansas over the last three years, but the problem is that the Razorbacks have put up 118 and won by double-digits in all three games. The Gamecocks ran the table in the SEC East last season but because of two West losses, they saw Georgia go to Atlanta in December. Once again, Steve Spurrier’s bunch has a tougher league schedule than the Bulldogs. UGA avoids LSU, Alabama and Arkansas for a second straight season, while the Gamecocks must travel to LSU and host the Hogs.

All-America running back Marcus Lattimore will provide a huge boost to the SC offense, and quarterback Connor Shaw was excellent at the end of last season. The defense should be a quality unit once again with ends Jadeveon Clowney and Devin Taylor, although there were some important losses to the NFL. If the Gamecocks can survive a brutal October slate (Georgia, at LSU at Florida and Tennessee), they will be in the mix to win the East. However, it is doubtful that South Carolina can afford a fourth-consecutive defeat to Arkansas and hope to make it to Atlanta.


65: Urban Meyer compiled 65 wins in 80 games at Florida, but then left Gainesville in controversial fashion. After a year away from the sideline, the polarizing Meyer is the Ohio State boss and is already stirring up Big Ten coaches with his highly-questioned recruiting methods. The Buckeyes are not eligible for the postseason in 2012 because of NCAA violations during the Jim Tressel era, but Meyer’s first club could be the best team in the conference.

The OSU defense will be one of the best in the country, with a nasty line and an excellent secondary. Quarterback Braxton Miller looks like a perfect fit for Meyer’s dual-threat system, and the sophomore could be primed for a monster season if he can find reliable targets on the outside. The Buckeyes will need left tackle Jack Mewhort and tight end Jake Stoneburner to return to scholarship, but the offense should be much improved under Meyer. With a favorable 2012 schedule, it would not be a surprise to see Ohio State reach the double-digit win mark even without the Big Ten Championship or a bowl game. 


66: We’re taking a little liberty with the number today, looking at the unique nature of Illinois’ 6-6 regular-season record in 2011. The Illini became the only team in FBS history to finish the regular season 6-6 after starting the year 6-0. That six-game losing streak sealed the fate of Ron Zook after seven seasons in Champaign. Tim Beckman was hired after a solid three-year run at Toledo, and the new coach has some talent on the roster.

The defense returns seven starters, although national sack leader Whitney Mercilus will be missed. That unit ranked seventh in the nation in total defense and 15th in scoring defense. The key for success in 2012 will be a better offense, a group whose performance mirrored Illinois’ historic collapse last season. Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase will have to learn another new system while not having much experience at receiver. Sophomore Donovonn Young looks like an adequate runner, and his emergence could be huge this season. The Leaders Division is a little down, but road trips to Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio State and Northwestern will make it a challenging first campaign for Beckman.


67: We like to feature some of the big boys in the trenches on our countdown, and one of the more underrated blockers in the country plays at KentuckyNo. 67 Larry Warford. The powerful guard will be a top candidate this season for All-SEC and even All-America honors. Unfortunately, Warford’s name is not better known because of UK’s struggles on offense. In fact, the Wildcats only scored 22 touchdowns in 2011. Only three teams in the country — Akron, Florida Atlantic and New Mexico — had fewer visits to the end zone.

Warford is one of three starters returning on the Kentucky offense, and that unit will need to be vastly improved to get Joker Phillips off the hot seat in Lexington. The Wildcats have suffered 14 losses over the last two seasons under the former UK player, and he took over a program that had won 30 games in Rich Brooks’ final four seasons. Sophomore quarterback Max Smith played well late last season and in the spring, and he will have some veteran skill players in the huddle. Warford and center Matt Smith will lead an offensive line that will be challenged weekly in the brutal SEC.
 


68: Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson has accounted for 68 touchdowns over the last two seasons. The speedy signal caller followed his breakout sophomore campaign (18 TD passes, 14 TD runs) in 2010 with better scoring totals (20 TD passes, 16 TD runs) in 2011 despite having to change offensive systems. His play, along with a much-improved defense, was a catalyst for 11 wins and a Sugar Bowl victory for the Wolverines.

So what can we expect from the electric Robinson as a senior, besides a Heisman campaign? He calmed any fears last season in regards to executing the Al Borges offense, upping his scoring plays and leading the nation with a 15.3-yard average per pass completion. With the emergence of Fitzgerald Toussaint at tailback last year, Robinson was able to run a little less, take fewer hits and still produce more touchdowns. Look for more of the same this season, when Michigan returns to being a favorite in the Big Ten.
 


69: The Backyard Brawl between West Virginia and Pittsburgh has been played for 69 straight years, but conference realignment has caused the rivalry to cease in 2012. The Mountaineers are headed to the Big 12, while the Panthers will compete in the Big East for one more year before joining the Atlantic Coast Conference. The two schools seem interested in revisiting the game that has happened 104 times, but the new league schedules could be problematic. When Pitt joins the ACC, it will play a nine-game conference slate. That fact plus the Panthers’ rivalry with Notre Dame could mean little room for the Mountaineers.

Hopefully games like West Virginia-Pitt, Missouri-Kansas and Texas-Texas A&M will not permanently end because of the conference musical chairs we’ve seen over the last few years, but that could be the case. The SEC and ACC have several rivalry clashes (Florida-Florida State, South Carolina-Clemson, Georgia-Georgia Tech) at the end of the season, so it is possible for a school like Pitt to still play WVU. With all of the playoff and league restructuring, let’s hope that college football’s power brokers remember that one of the game’s biggest identities is its regional rivalries.
 


70: Clemson had a successful 2011 season, winning 10 games and its first ACC title since 1991. Unfortunately the number that seems to stick out from last year is 70, the numbers of points allowed by the Tigers in their Orange Bowl loss to West Virginia. That 70-33 drubbing in Miami led to defensive coordinator Kevin Steele’s ouster and the hiring of former Oklahoma defensive boss Brent Venables. Will things improve in 2012? Brandon Thompson, Andre Branch and Coty Sensabaugh were drafted into the NFL, and tackles Rennie Moore and Tyler Shatley will be missed as well.

The Tigers do have some solid talent on defense, but there is a ton of work to be done on a unit that allowed 29.3 points per game a year ago. Top tackler Rashard Hall and Jonathan Meeks return at safety and should lead a veteran back seven, while Malliciah Goodman will be the only upperclassman on an inexperienced defensive line. Venables does not need to produce a dominate defensive unit, just one that can give Clemson’s powerful offense a chance to win games. The trio of Tajh Boyd, Sammy Watkins and Andre Ellington should light up the scoreboard in 2012, and the Tigers improvement on defense will likely decide if they can repeat as ACC champion.
 


71: LSU had the perfect season in 2011, until facing the one January rematch the Tigers could not win. Les Miles’ crew will be right back in the championship hunt this season with the same physical run game and elite defense that produced wins over Alabama, Oregon, West Virginia, Georgia and Arkansas a year ago. The lone question mark in Baton Rouge remains the passing game, and much of the offseason attention has gone to new quarterback Zach Mettenberger. However, LSU also has to replace 71 receptions by top wideout Rueben Randle and tight end Deangelo Peterson. Sophomore Odell Beckham showed that he is ready for SEC defenses last year, catching 41 passes for 475 yards and two touchdowns during an impressive debut campaign. But who else will step up for the Tigers?

Senior Russell Shepard caught 33 passes in 2010 but faded last year with only 14 receptions. A bounce-back 2012 season by Shepard will help Mettenberger and the offense greatly. Jarvis Landry was a highly-decorated recruit in 2011, and he caught four passes in limited duty. Juniors Kadron Boone and James Wright will provide depth, and true freshman Avery Johnson from Florida could also sneak into the mix. At tight end, senior Chase Clement has nine career receptions while sophomore Travis Dickson has one.

Obviously the Tigers offense is focused on pounding the rock, with four tailbacks who each scored at least seven touchdowns in 2011. But if Mettenberger and the receivers can add just a little more production than last year’s squad, LSU will be the heavy favorite to repeat as SEC champion and play for the national title once again.
 


72: The Florida State defense struggled early in ACC play last year, as the Seminoles lost consecutive 35-30 games at Clemson and Wake Forest. However Mark Stoops’ crew would only allow 72 points in the final six league games, turning around FSU’s season and setting the table for major accomplishments in 2012. Nine starters return on the Noles defense, and there is quality depth because of the recruiting efforts of Jimbo Fisher and staff. The defensive line is loaded with veterans, including a superb pass-rushing tandem in ends Brandon Jenkins and Bjoern Werner. Leading tackler Nigel Bradham must be replaced at linebacker, but FSU should have three upperclassmen starting for that group. The secondary, like the D-line, is one of the best units in the country. Xavier Rhodes and Greg Reid are a stellar pair of cornerbacks, and junior safety Lamarcus Joyner is an emerging star.

The Florida State offense has potential with senior quarterback EJ Manuel and some quality young playmakers, but the offensive line will need to improve greatly. The Noles defense will be the catalyst if the 2012 team is going to reach its goal of winning the ACC. From the middle of October through the bowl win against Notre Dame, Mark Stoops’ bunch did not allow 20 or more points in any game. Look for more of the same this season, as the Seminoles defense — along with Manuel and excellent special teams — carries the program back into the nation’s top 10.
 


73: Much of our countdown features offensive skill players and top defenders, but we also need to highlight the big boys up front. The Washington offensive line, led by No. 73 center Drew Schaefer and his 30 consecutive starts, could be the key to quarterback Keith Price remaining at an elite production level while finding new weapons. Price emerged as a star last year, throwing for 3,063 yards and 33 touchdowns against 11 interceptions. However, the Huskies lost All-Pac-12 running back Chris Polk (1,488 yards and 12 touchdowns) and their two leading receivers in Jermaine Kearse (699 yards, 7 TDs) and Devin Aguilar (611 yards, 6 TDs) from last season’s attack that averaged over 33 points per game.

While that is some significant attrition, the cupboard is not bare around Price. Jesse Callier averaged 5.5 yards per carry in backup duty in 2011, so he and sophomore Bishop Stanley will look to replace Polk’s production. UW has a pair of sophomores, tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins and receiver Kasen Williams, who were very productive in both scoring six touchdowns as freshmen.

It may take a year for Steve Sarkisian’s new all-star defensive staff – coordinator Justin Wilcox and position coaches Peter Sirmon and Tosh Lupoi – to repair a unit that gave up a school-record 467 points last season. It’s difficult to see the Huskies surpassing Oregon in 2012, but catching Stanford and fending off Cal for the second spot in the Pac-12 North would be a solid achievement. With Schaefer and fellow returning starters Erik Kohler and Colin Tanigawa clearing the way, Washington has a good shot to continue its climb up the conference food chain.
 


74: Pittsburgh finished 74th nationally in rushing offense last season, but look for that to change in 2012. The main culprit for the running struggles a year ago was the ACL injury to star back Ray Graham, whose season ended in the Panthers eighth game against UConn. There were key offensive line injuries as well, but Graham may be the best player in the Big East when healthy. The senior back from New Jersey ran for 893 yards and nine touchdowns in Pitt’s first six games of 2011.

Another major offseason addition was new head coach Paul Chryst. His offenses at Wisconsin were extremely productive, and the Badgers consistently ran the ball as well as any program in the country. If Graham needs time to work back in, Pitt should have solid depth at running back to go with an experienced line. Isaac Bennett ran the rock well in the spring, and top incoming recruit Rushel Shell set a national prep record with 39 consecutive 100-yard games. The improved running attack will help quarterback Tino Sunseri immensely, after a junior season plagued interceptions and a ton of sacks.

Pitt has many questions on defense – especially in the front seven – and has to adjust to another new staff, but the Panthers offense should be an effective group in Chryst’s first season.
 


75: The Alabama defense allowed only 75 plays of 10 or more yards last season in leading the Crimson Tide to a National Championship. In fact that total was by far the lowest in the country, as South Carolina was second with 122. But now Nick Saban and Kirby Smart must adjust to life without four defenders — Mark Barron, Dre Kirkpatrick, Dont’a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw — who were taken in the first 35 overall picks in the NFL Draft. Additionally, nose tackle Josh Chapman and defensive back DeQuan Menzie were selected in the fifth round. That’s a ton of attrition from the unanimous No. 1 defense nationally in 2011.

So for all of those thinking the Tide will subside in 2012, think again. Saban and staff have recruited at an elite level over the past few years, so the Bama defense may lack some experience but it will not lack talent. There are senior leaders on each level, with Damion Square and Jesse Williams on the line, Nico Johnson at linebacker and Robert Lester in the secondary. Sophomores backers Trey DePriest and Adrian Hubbard have the potential to be stars, and cover corner Dee Milliner is special as well. With elite talent and superb coaching, the Alabama defense will not take long to get back to the top of college football.
 

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<p> Countdown to College Football</p>
Post date: Wednesday, August 29, 2012 - 08:22
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Path: /nfl/amazing-end-zone-flip-235-pound-titans-running-back
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It’s always impressive to see an athlete turn a flip, but a 235-pound running back in pads right after scoring a touchdown?! That’s awesome. Here’s Jamie Harper of the Tennessee Titans after reaching the end zone in last night’s win against the Arizona Cardinals.

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Post date: Friday, August 24, 2012 - 11:53

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