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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2012 PRESEASON TOP 25

#39

NATIONAL FORECAST

#39

Big Ten Leaders PREDICTION

#3

HEAD COACH: Bill O'Brien, 8-4 (1 year) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Bill O'Brien | DEF. COORDINATOR: John Butler

OFFENSE

The Nittany Lions need a quarterback after losing Matt McGloin following a highly productive senior season. There are two contenders for the job, a lightly recruited junior college transfer (Tyler Ferguson) and a true freshman who won’t arrive on campus until the summer (Christian Hackenberg). Starting a true freshman is never ideal, but Hackenberg, one of the top recruits in the nation, will be given every opportunity to win the job.

If coach Bill O’Brien is able to find a reliable passer, Penn State should be in good shape. Running back Zach Zwinak was a pleasant surprise last season, leading the team in rushing with 1,000 yards. The Lions also return Bill Belton in the backfield and figure to get a boost from the debut of redshirt freshman Akeel Lynch. With his 4.4-second 40-yard speed, Lynch could give Penn State’s running game the breakaway threat it lacked last year.

The Lions will have five of their top wideouts from last season, including Big Ten Receiver of the Year Allen Robinson. And they are just as deep at tight end, with Kyle Carter, Matt Lehman and Jesse James back. Carter was a revelation last year, catching 36 passes for 453 yards as a redshirt freshman.

Penn State has the makings of a solid offensive front, with guards John Urschel and Miles Dieffenbach and left tackle Donovan Smith all set to return. Urschel was a first-team All-Big Ten honoree as a junior, while Smith, a 6'5", 327-pound sophomore, is a potentially dominant tackle.



DEFENSE

Veteran assistant coach Larry Johnson almost always finds a way to put a solid defensive front on the field. This year, he’ll need tackles DaQuan Jones and Austin Johnson to step up and Deion Barnes to continue the rapid ascent that began last season when he made six sacks and finished as Big Ten Freshman of the Year.

In the secondary, Penn State will be more experienced than last season, with junior cornerback Adrian Amos and senior safeties Stephen Obeng-Agyapong and Malcolm Willis all set to return. However, the defensive backs will need to be more opportunistic than last year when they combined to intercept only three passes.

The biggest concerns on defense are at linebacker, where depth is lacking following the graduation of Michael Mauti and Gerald Hodges. Junior outside linebacker Mike Hull is a rising star after finishing last season with 58 tackles, four sacks, two fumble recoveries, a blocked punt and an interception. In the middle, dependable senior Glenn Carson is the team’s top returning tackler with 85 stops last season. 

SPECIALISTS

After a rough start, Sam Ficken ended his sophomore season by making his last 10 field goal attempts. But he might have to fight off incoming walk-on Chris Gulla to keep his job. Gulla was rated 19th in the nation by one recruiting service and may get a chance to challenge both Ficken and starting punter Alex Butterworth. The Lions are desperate for some big plays in the return game. It wouldn’t be surprising to see a freshman or two get a tryout on punts and/or kickoffs. 

FINAL ANALYSIS

The Nittany Lions have the potential to score a lot of points if they’re able to find a reliable quarterback. They averaged just under 30 points per game last season, and that was while everyone was adapting to a radically new offense. This year, the schemes are familiar and players have adjusted to strength coach Craig Fitzgerald’s modernized weight program, so optimism is running high. That said, Penn State may need all the points the offense can muster. An injury or two at linebacker, where depth is precariously low, could create major problems.

The Debate

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2012 PRESEASON TOP 25

#38

NATIONAL FORECAST

#38

ACC Coastal PREDICTION

#4

HEAD COACH: Larry Fedora, 8-4 (1 year) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Blake Anderson | DEF. COORDINATOR: Vic Koenning

OFFENSE

Say this much for North Carolina coach Larry Fedora: The man knows how to coach offense. Fedora used his fast-paced attack to help the Tar Heels set nearly 40 school records on offense in his first season at the helm, and more marks could fall in 2013.

Third-year starting quarterback Bryn Renner, who made big strides in the new system during the second half of last season, is the undisputed leader of the team. Renner posted four consecutive 300-yard passing games to close out 2012, and he picked up in the offseason right where he left off.

Renner won’t have do-it-all running back Giovani Bernard behind him this season, but UNC features a nice 1-2 punch on the ground with A.J. Blue and speedster Romar Morris. In the passing game, wide receiver Quinshad Davis and tight end Eric Ebron are two targets that any team would love to have.

The question facing UNC’s offense is up front, where the Tar Heels must replace three-fifths of the ACC’s top offensive line. Left tackle James Hurst is among the nation’s best players at his position, and Russell Bodine is a returning starter at center, but UNC needs some solid contributors to emerge at right tackle and both guard spots.



DEFENSE

The outlook isn’t as rosy on this side of the ball. A unit that gave up at least 33 points in six games last season must replace its only two standout performers, linebacker Kevin Reddick and defensive tackle Sylvester Williams.

Kareem Martin is UNC’s best returning defensive player, and he provides a legitimate pass-rush threat from his spot at end. Vocal leader Tim Jackson, who has played inside and outside during his career, takes over for Williams at tackle.

Tommy Heffernan was solid at linebacker a year ago, but UNC also needs Travis Hughes to emerge at that position and fulfill his potential. Finding playmakers at Bandit and Ram, two hybrid positions that place a premium on versatility in UNC’s 4-2-5 scheme, also is important. The Tar Heels have little returning experience at either spot.

The secondary, where UNC repeatedly gave up big plays a year ago, remains a concern. Senior Tre Boston led the team in tackles and tied for the lead in interceptions in 2012, but he must do a better job preventing receivers from getting behind him.

SPECIALISTS

Fedora places a heavy emphasis on special teams, using many of his offensive and defensive starters in the kicking game. Morris and Sean Tapley are dynamic kickoff returners, but UNC must find someone to catch punts (muffs were a problem during the spring). Kicker Thomas Moore gained some experience over the last two years by filling in when Casey Barth was injured, but he has not been effective from long range. Punter Tommy Hibbard enjoyed a breakout season in 2012 while helping the Tar Heels lead the ACC in net punting.

FINAL ANALYSIS

Fans who like offense should get ready for another exciting season in Chapel Hill. Points should be plentiful once again — on both sides of the scoreboard.

The Tar Heels have sufficient firepower on offense as long as the offensive line can hold its own during a transition year up front and Renner can stay healthy. The latter, of course, is at least somewhat dependent upon the former.

On the other side of the ball, UNC players and coaches believe that a year of experience will lead to fewer missed assignments and penalties. With little proven talent on defense, the question is whether the Tar Heels can produce enough stops to emerge victorious from shootouts. The answer will go a long way in determining whether UNC can contend for the ACC Coastal Division crown.




COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2012 PRESEASON TOP 25

#37

NATIONAL FORECAST

#37

Pac-12 North PREDICTION

#4

HEAD COACH: Steve Sarkisian, 26-25 (4 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Eric Kiesau | DEF. COORDINATOR: Justin Wilcox

OFFENSE

A badly worn Husky Stadium has been torn down and put back together in majestic fashion. Washington’s next restoration project is senior quarterback Keith Price. Entering coach Steve Sarkisian’s fifth year in Seattle, the Huskies have new digs, 16 starters returning and a toned-down schedule. They have a chance to regain long-lost prominence. Much depends on whether the Huskies can get Price — who regressed from a sensational sophomore showing to a decidedly mediocre junior campaign — back on track.

With so much weighing on the coming season, Washington has gone to drastic means to revamp Price. A new quarterbacks coach (former Huskies QB Marques Tuiasosopo) was brought in to tutor him; a no-huddle, up-tempo offense was installed in an effort to jump start his considerable playmaking ability; and Sarkisian sat him down in the offseason and tried to offer more of his quarterback expertise.

At running back, a potentially disastrous situation turned out far better than anyone could have hoped when starting tailback Jesse Callier tore up a knee in last season’s opener without getting a carry. Bishop Sankey, an unproven backup, took over and rushed for 1,439 yards and 16 touchdowns, readily establishing himself as one of the Pac-12’s better backs. The Huskies will have both juniors available.

Here’s why Price’s 2012 struggles were so confounding: In wide receiver Kasen Williams and tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins, he had one of college football’s most effective young pass-catching combos. As sophomores, Williams hauled in 77 passes for 878 yards and six scores, and Seferian-Jenkins caught 69 passes for 850 yards and seven TDs.

Four offensive line starters return in junior left tackle Micah Hatchie, sophomore left guard Dexter Charles, junior right guard Mike Criste and junior right tackle Ben Riva, all of whom were forced into action as young players and are now battle-tested.



DEFENSE

The Huskies return plenty of experience across their front wall, but D-line might be the team’s weakest position area. End Josh Shirley is an accomplished pass-rusher but has struggled against the run. End Andrew Hudson and tackle Danny Shelton can get into opposing backfields, but they disappear at times against the better teams.

The Huskies got a lot faster at linebacker last season when newly hired defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox teamed three former safeties together in John Timu, Travis Feeney and Shaq Thompson. Collectively, these three linebackers came up with seven interceptions and eight sacks. Thompson is a potential All-American.

The secondary will get the biggest makeover with two new starters. Back are senior strong safety Sean Parker and sophomore cornerback Marcus Peters. Parker is a big hitter and the leader of this group. Peters, inconsistent at times, will assume the role as top cover corner. Joining them in the lineup are senior free safety Will Shamburger and senior cornerback Greg Ducre, on-and-off starters throughout their careers.

SPECIALISTS

Dependable senior Travis Coons was an exhaustive, do-everything kicker, handling field goals (9-of-14), extra points (perfect on 39 tries), punting (39.8 yards per kick) and kickoffs, but he may have to relinquish the latter duty. The Huskies want to get incoming freshman placekicker Cameron Van Winkle, described as having a big-league leg, immediately in the mix in some manner.

FINAL ANALYSIS

With a more imposing Husky Stadium, a new era of Washington football excellence is expected. The Huskies have nearly everyone back, but they need Price at the top of his game.

Anything short of eight or nine wins and more serious title contention will be disappointing for a program eager to return to the national conversation.




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