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Path: /college-basketball/wisconsin-badgers-vs-florida-gators-ncaa-tournament-sweet-16-preview-prediction-2017
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The second of the East Region’s Sweet 16 matchups on Friday is not one many people expected to see. As a No. 4 seed, some projected to see Florida advance to play in Madison Square Garden, but not necessarily No. 8 Wisconsin.

 

In one of the bigger upsets in this year’s NCAA Tournament so far, the Badgers defeated overall No. 1 seed Villanova 65-62 last weekend to advance to their fourth straight Sweet 16. After finishing the regular season second in the Big Ten, Wisconsin and many others felt the Badgers were mis-seeded by the selection committee and they certainly didn’t hurt their case with the big win over the defending national champions.

 

Florida has been one of the most impressive teams in the Tournament as the Gators dominated No. 5 Virginia 65-39 in the round of 32 last weekend. In the first round, they beat No. 13 East Tennessee State 80-65.

 

East Region: No. 8 Wisconsin Badgers (27-9) vs. No. 4 Florida Gators (26-8)

 

When: 9:59 p.m. ET (Friday)

Where: Madison Square Garden (New York City)

TV: TBS

Line: Florida -2

 

Keys for Wisconsin

The Wisconsin game plan against Florida is simple – play good defense, slow the game down and create turnovers. The Badgers need forward Nigel Hayes to have an impact game in the Garden.

 

In the win against Villanova, Hayes scored 19 points and pulled down eight rebounds. In five postseason games this season, Hayes is averaging 15.4 points, 9.6 rebounds and 1.8 assists per game.

 

Wisconsin also needs leading scorer Bronson Koenig to continue his hot shooting. After hitting eight three-pointers against Virginia Tech in the first round, Koenig had 17 points in the upset of Villanova.

 

Keys for Florida

Against Virginia, Florida might have put forth its best defensive effort of the season, holding the Cavaliers to just 39 points. Virginia shot a meager 29.6 percent from the field overall and made just one of its 15 three-point attempts (6.7 percent). Even though the Cavaliers aren’t known for their offense, it was still an impressive performance by the Gators.

 

Florida will need to continue to defend the three-point line against Wisconsin. The Gators also need to try to take advantage of their depth and speed. They are balanced on offense with four players – KeVaughn Allen, Canyon Berry, Devin Robinson and Kasey Hill – that are capable of coming up with points at any given time.

 

Final Analysis

 

On paper, Florida appears to have the advantage because of greater depth and more talent spread across the roster. However, Wisconsin is playing its best basketball of the season and this is a veteran, NCAA Tournament-tested team.

 

Wisconsin allows 61.8 points per game, which was first in the Big Ten. If the Badgers can hold the Gators to around that total, they should be in good shape. Expect Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig to remain hot and the Badgers to play good enough defense to win this Friday night Garden party.

 

Prediction Wisconsin 69, Florida 66

 

— Written by Antwan Staley, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and has extensive experience covering Florida sports teams. Staley has written for Bleacher Report, the Miami Herald and the Palm Beach Post and is a reporter for Pro Player Insiders. Follow him on Twitter @antwanstaley.

 

(Top photo courtesy of @GatorsMBK)

Teaser:
Wisconsin Badgers vs. Florida Gators: NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 Preview and Prediction
Post date: Thursday, March 23, 2017 - 11:30
Path: /college-basketball/ucla-bruins-vs-kentucky-wildcats-ncaa-tournament-sweet-16-preview-prediction-2017
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Nineteen national titles. A combined 35 Final Four appearances. Countless March Madness memories. UCLA and Kentucky are the two programs that reign over the rest of college basketball from a historical perspective and truly put the blue into blue bloods.

 

Luckily for all of us, they meet again.

 

While it might be a little earlier than many would have liked in the 2017 NCAA Tournament, this year’s Sweet 16 delightfully gives us a meeting of the two most successful programs in the country. This will be just the third time ever that the Wildcats and Bruins hook up on the sport’s grandest stage but the second time this season after the pair staged an absolute classic back in December.

 

With two of the highest-scoring offenses in the country, numerous freshmen phenoms, NBA lottery picks galore and two head coaches who have been there and done that in the tourney, we should be in for a real treat come tip-off of this one. It’s hard to dream up a better matchup than this one and, even beyond the historical implications, this one figures to be about as entertaining as a college basketball game can get and may make the winner the favorite to win it all the next weekend.

 

South Region: No. 3 UCLA Bruins (31-4) vs. No. 2 Kentucky Wildcats (31-5)

 

When: 9:39 p.m. ET (Friday)

Where: FedExForum (Memphis, Tenn.)

TV: CBS

Line: UCLA -1

 

Keys for Kentucky

It’s so rare to have teams meet in the NCAA Tournament for a second time in the same season but it seems even rarer when it’s two programs of this stature. The Wildcats will no doubt be extra motivated from that first meeting considering it was one of the very few times under head coach John Calipari that the team faltered at home. While the team did play well in that loss, they didn’t control the game like we’re used to seeing and will next a bit extra from their star players.

 

That starts with Malik Monk, who has shown he’s one of the best players in all of college basketball but was not quite himself during the first two rounds of the Tournament. If Monk is shooting well, UK has more than a good chance to advance into the Elite Eight. If his shot isn’t falling, that puts even more pressure on De”Aaron Fox and will stress the defense even more to get stops. Having guys like Derek Wills and Wenyen Gabriel being more active on loose balls will help too as there’s a premium on every possession in a game like this.

 

Keys for UCLA

The Bruins wouldn’t mind following a similar blueprint to that first meeting and running up and down the court at will while knocking down big shots. Whether it’s Lonzo Ball or Bryce Alford, this is a squad loaded with shooters and they typically don’t miss if left open. That will mean ball movement is going to play a key role and it wouldn’t be that surprising to see TJ Leaf become the pivotal man on the block like he was back in December.

 

As always though, UCLA coming out with a win depends pretty much on just two things: defense and rebounding. Through the first two rounds, there were moments where the Bruins flipped the switch and tried hard on the defensive side, leading to some big runs on the other half of the court. There also were times where they looked disinterested and saw the game get closer than expected on the scoreboard. Grabbing boards plays a role in that as well and things might be a bit tougher on the glass this time around.

 

Final Analysis

 

The first meeting between these two teams was one of the best games of the regular season. It’s probably not asking too much for a similar outcome on Friday night and these two are plenty capable of delivering too. Whether you’re a die-hard follower of either program, a casual fan, an NBA scout or just an interested outside observer, there’s a little something for everybody in a matchup like this.

 

The Wildcats remain one of the most talented teams left in the field and what they lack in experience, they more than make up for it when it comes to scoring in droves and locking down on defense. While there were some early struggles, Kentucky has managed to evolve into a cohesive unit that is playing as well as anybody in the country this March. They’ve won more than anybody coming into this game and it’s downright bizarre to see them as the slight underdog.

 

The big reason for that lies in the dynamic playmaker running the Bruins’ offense in Lonzo Ball. The young freshman is not only a good player because of his offense, but also his ability to elevate his teammates’ games is what truly makes him special. UCLA has been on another level when the Bruins have been interested on both ends of the floor and given the significance of this one, it should probably be expected that they’ll be up for this one throughout. With that in mind, the Bruins should sneak out of the Sweet 16 in a high-scoring thriller on Friday night.

 

Prediction: UCLA 91, Kentucky 88

 

— Written by Bryan Fischer, an award-winning college football columnist and member of the Athlon Contributor Network. You can follow him from coast-to-coast on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat at @BryanDFischer.

 

(Top photo courtesy of UCLA Men's Basketball Facebook page)

Teaser:
UCLA Bruins vs. Kentucky Wildcats: NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 Preview and Prediction
Post date: Thursday, March 23, 2017 - 11:15
All taxonomy terms: College Basketball
Path: /college-basketball/south-carolina-gamecocks-vs-baylor-bears-ncaa-tournament-sweet-16-preview-prediction-2017
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South Carolina was not supposed to be playing at this point, but instead finds itself in the Sweet 16 for the first time in school history after beating No. 10 Marquette and knocking off No. 2 Duke. The Gamecocks were buoyed by great defense and the advantage of playing close to home in Greenville, factors that seemed to energize this team.

 

Meanwhile Baylor won two games in Tulsa, rediscovering the consistency that got the Bears off to a hot start this season in the process. They rolled through No. 14 New Mexico State (91-73) before holding off No. 11 USC (82-78) to advance to their second Sweet 16 in the past four seasons (2014). This is a dangerous team that is gaining confidence and hoping to get past this point for the first time since 2012.

 

East Region: No. 7 South Carolina Gamecocks (24-10) vs. No. 3 Baylor Bears (27-7)

 

When: 7:29 p.m. ET (Friday)

Where: Madison Square Garden (New York)

TV: TBS

Line: Baylor -3

 

Keys for South Carolina

It’s pretty simple – keep the momentum going from the two wins in Greenville. This is a Gamecocks team whose offense was not their strength during the regular season, but Sindarius Thornwell and Duane Notice have suddenly found the range. Defense has not been an issue for Frank Martin’s team, as they held Duke to 41.5 percent shooting from the field and 37 percent (10-for-27) from three-point range. South Carolina also will want to try and keep the pace to more of its preferred tempo rather than ran up and down the court with Baylor.

 

Keys for Baylor

Baylor has the size and the athleticism advantage here. The Bears want to get up and down and to not only provide easier scoring opportunities, but also to wear South Carolina down and loosen up the Gamecocks’ defense. If this game is played in the 70s or even the 80s, Baylor should be well positioned to win. Manu Lecomte has to stay out of foul trouble as he is the straw that stirs the drink. Johnathan  Motley is the Bears’ primary offensive threat, but junior forward Terry Maston has contributed 19 points and nine rebounds off of the bench in both of Baylor’s Tournament wins.

 

Final Analysis

 

To me, a lot of what South Carolina accomplished in Greenville was because of the boost they got playing two de facto home games. Credit to the Gamecocks for taking advantage of this, but remember this is a team that that had lost five of their last seven games entering the NCAA Tournament. Defense will keep them in it, but a lack of offense will put an end to their magical run.

 

Prediction: Baylor 74, South Carolina 67

 

— Written by Matt Josephs, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Josephs prefers non-Power 5 college football and may be the only one wagering on the Sun Belt. Follow him on Twitter @MidMajorMatt.

 

(Top photo by Travis Bell, courtesy of www.gamecocksonline.com)

Teaser:
South Carolina Gamecocks vs. Baylor Bears: NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 Preview and Prediction
Post date: Thursday, March 23, 2017 - 11:00
Path: /college-basketball/butler-bulldogs-vs-north-carolina-tar-heels-ncaa-tournament-sweet-16-preview-prediction-2017
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Nine ACC teams earned NCAA Tournament bids. Only North Carolina remains after the first weekend.

 

The top-seeded North Carolina Tar Heels (29-7) earned the regular season ACC championship and have played like champions so far in reaching the Sweet 16 for a third consecutive season. UNC routed No. 16 Texas Southern in its Tournament opener and then used a game-ending 12-0 run to escape with a 73-65 win over No. 8 Arkansas.

 

Fourth-seeded Butler (25-8) figures to pose major challenges when it faces off with the Tar Heels in Memphis on Friday. Butler has already beaten several high-profile teams, including Arizona, Villanova, Northwestern, Vanderbilt, Cincinnati and Xavier. The Bulldogs had no trouble eliminating No. 13 Winthrop and No. 12 Middle Tennessee to return to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2011.

 

Butler and North Carolina have never met in the postseason. The Bulldogs do have a history of success against the Tar Heels, leading the all-time series 3-2. Butler has eventually been eliminated from the NCAA Tournament by an ACC team each of the past two seasons.

 

South Region: No. 4 Butler Bulldogs (25-8) vs. No. 1 North Carolina Tar Heels (29-7)

 

When: 7:09 pm ET (Friday)

Where: FedExForum (Memphis, Tenn.)

TV: CBS

Line: North Carolina -7.5

 

Keys for Butler

One thing Butler is good at is slowing things down. The Bulldogs can muck up the tempo enough to fluster good offenses and force opponents to get bogged down in a defensive battle. That's the recipe Butler needs to follow against the Tar Heels to cook up a victory.

 

The Bulldogs hold opponents to 68.2 points per game. North Carolina is imposing on offense and will test Butler's ability to reduce the number of possessions. Four players average double figures in scoring for the Tar Heels – led by Justin Jackson with 18.1 points per game. Only five opponents have held North Carolina to fewer than 70 points in a game this season. Still, 70 is a magic number for the Tar Heels because they are 1-4 in games where they score fewer than that.

 

Butler needs to avoid long shooting slumps on the other end to give the defense a chance. The Bulldogs are at their best when Kelan Martin is doing damage inside and outside. Martin is Butler's top scorer (16.0 ppg) and rebounder (5.8 rpg). He can't do it alone. Players like Andrew Chrabascz and Kamar Baldwin need to absorb some of the defensive pressure so that North Carolina can't simply lock onto Martin and focus on shutting him down.

 

Keys for North Carolina

Few teams have as many offensive weapons in their arsenal that can match what North Carolina can put into action. The Tar Heels have four starters – Jackson, Joel Berry II, Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks – who have totaled 1,000 or more career points at Chapel Hill. All four players average double figures in scoring this season.

 

North Carolina needs to start fast and bury Butler quickly with its offense. The Bulldogs are not built for a fast-paced shootout and could struggle to slow down a Tar Heels offense that scores 85.1 points per game. One way North Carolina can make it happen is through controlling the glass for the bulk of 40 minutes.

 

No other team consistently dominates the boards as well as the Tar Heels. North Carolina leads the nation in rebounding margin. The Tar Heels collect 47.3 rebounds per game, while limiting their opponents to 30.7 boards per contest. That spells trouble for a Butler team that snags just 34.7 rebounds per game. If the Bulldogs can't keep pace on the glass, they will struggle to do it on the scoreboard.

 

Final Analysis

 

Butler built a reputation as a giant killer earlier in the decade under former head coach Brad Stevens. It will take a similar David vs. Goliath effort for the Bulldogs to return to the Elite Eight for the first time since those back-to-back Final Four runs under Stevens. Butler is a tenacious defensive team, but North Carolina has far too many options on offense for the Bulldogs to completely subdue the Tar Heels for 40 minutes. The last team standing in the ACC will live to play on for at least another round.

 

Prediction: North Carolina 76, Butler 68

 

— Written by John Coon, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Coon has more than a decade of experience covering sports for different publications and outlets, including The Associated Press, Salt Lake Tribune, ESPN, Deseret News, MaxPreps, Yahoo! Sports and many others. Follow him on Twitter @johncoonsports.

 

(Photo courtesy of @UNC_Basketball)

Teaser:
Butler Bulldogs vs. North Carolina Tar Heels: NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 Preview and Prediction
Post date: Thursday, March 23, 2017 - 10:45
All taxonomy terms: College Basketball
Path: /college-basketball/2017-ncaa-tournament-friday-sweet-16-preview-and-predictions
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By the time we hit Friday, there will be 12 teams left with a chance to win the title. One could almost call this blue blood Friday with North Carolina, Kentucky and UCLA among those taking the court.

 

We've also got the great stories in South Carolina and Butler who each dispatched solid opponents themselves. Outside of the North Carolina-Butler matchup, Vegas has a bunch of close spreads so we should be in for a doozy of a night of hoops.

 

NCAA Tournament Friday Sweet 16 Games

Note: All times Eastern, some start times approximate.

 

No. 4 Butler vs. No. 1 North Carolina

TV: 7:09 p.m., CBS

Site: Memphis (South Region)

 

Preview: The two teams took different paths to get here. North Carolina crushed Texas Southern but needed late rally to knock off Arkansas. The Tar Heels looked bored almost at times against the Razorbacks, especially after jumping out to a big lead early, and it almost cost them. ACC Player of the Year Justin Jackson once again filled the stat sheet with 15 points, five assists and eight rebounds.

 

The Bulldogs haven't really been tested seed-wise, beating a No. 12 and No. 13 so far. In their last victory, they shot 51.1 percent from the field in knocking off Middle Tennessee. Kelan Martin has awakened a bit from his midseason slump and that's huge for a Butler team looking for more scorers.

 

To me, this one should be a blowout as I just don't see Butler keeping up with UNC. The Bulldogs aren't that deep and they don't have anyone to cover Jackson well.

 

Prediction: North Carolina 78, Butler 69

 

Related: Butler Bulldogs vs. North Carolina Tar Heels Preview and Prediction

 

No. 7 South Carolina vs. No. 3 Baylor

TV: 7:29 p.m., TBS

Site: New York (East Region)

 

Preview: South Carolina finally has to leave its home state as the Gamecocks travel to New York to play Baylor. Frank Martin’s team rode a wave of emotion in wins over Marquette and Duke in Greenville, which is less than two hours away from campus in Columbia. The Gamecocks used great second half offensive outputs in both games to go along with some fantastic defense when it mattered. Sindarius Thornwell introduced himself to the world with 24 points in the win over the Blue Devils.

 

Baylor also beat a pair of double-digit seeds in No. 14 New Mexico State and No. 11 USC. The Bears struggled with consistency as they were down at one point in both games. Jonathan Motley is the key as when he is going offensively, he's more engaged on the defensive end.

 

The crowd won't be overwhelmingly on either side in this one so we should get a more accurate picture of the Gamecocks. I think the Bears’ athleticism is just too much in this one.

 

Prediction: Baylor 70, South Carolina 61

 

Related: South Carolina Gamecocks vs. Baylor Bears Preview and Prediction

 

No. 3 UCLA vs. No. 2 Kentucky

TV: 9:39 p.m., CBS

Site: Memphis (South Region)

 

Preview: This may be the game of the Tournament and it's only the Sweet 16 with the winner probably getting North Carolina. The two sides played a 97-92 game back in December with the Bruins getting the win. These two teams have a lot in common with the amount of talent being put on the floor.

 

UCLA's numbers are incredible, averaging more than 90 points per contest while shooting 52 percent from the field. The Bruins have six double-digit scorers and are led by one of the best PGs in the country in Lonzo Ball. Thomas Welsh and TJ Leaf provide the inside presence to balance things out. The Bruins ran away from Cincinnati in the second half of their second round matchup.

 

Kentucky is putting up 85.2 points per game while shooting around 47 percent from the field. The Wildcats are immensely talented per usual with a trio of freshmen – Malik Monk, Bam Adebayo and De'Aaron Fox leading the way. Monk led all scorers with 24 points in the first game against UCLA. Expect plenty of points and a glimpse at several future (i.e., about two months from now) NBA lottery picks in this one.

 

Prediction: UCLA 94, Kentucky 90

 

Related: UCLA Bruins vs. Kentucky Wildcats Preview and Prediction

 

No. 8 Wisconsin vs. No. 4 Florida

TV: 9:59 p.m., TBS

Site: New York (East Region)

 

Preview: Most expected Villanova to be in this game and maybe even Virginia as well, but neither got past their stubborn, second-round tests. The Badgers seemingly find themselves in this situation often and are led by the usual suspects of Bronson Koenig, Nigel Hayes and Ethan Happ. They are sound both on offense and defense. Wisconsin showed that in knocking off the defending national champions and has to be brimming with confidence.

 

Florida gave Virginia a taste of its own medicine by completely stifling the Cavaliers, holding them to just 39 points and 29.6 percent shooting from the field in the Gators’ dominating, 26-point victory. Florida will need to maintain that level of defense but also get more scoring from guards KeVaughn Allen, Canyon Barry and Kasey Hill, who combined for just 14 points on 4-of-18 shooting against Virginia. Mike White is an up-and-coming head coach who will have UF ready.

 

If you like defense, you'll probably be watching this game instead of UCLA-Kentucky. First team to 60 points wins.

 

Prediction: Wisconsin 63, Florida 59

 

Related: Wisconsin Badgers vs. Florida Gators Preview and Prediction

 

— Written by Matt Josephs, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Josephs prefers non-Power 5 college football and may be the only one wagering on the Sun Belt. Follow him on Twitter @MidMajorMatt.

 
(Top photo courtesy of @KentuckyMBB)
Teaser:
2017 NCAA Tournament: Friday Sweet 16 Preview and Predictions
Post date: Thursday, March 23, 2017 - 10:30
Path: /mlb/5-mlb-teams-could-disappoint-2017
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Opening Day is right around the corner, and though the 2017 MLB season has yet to officially begin, the projections and predictions on how teams will fare are being discussed and debated by both baseball experts and casual fans alike. With spring training near the home stretch, here is a look at five teams that could disappoint in 2017 – including a few inclusions that may surprise you.

 

Related: 5 MLB Teams on the Rise in 2017

 

Texas Rangers

Which team had the best record in the American League in 2016, and was second only to the Chicago Cubs in the majors? Texas finished 95-67 – a full nine games better than the second-place Mainers – to win a second straight AL West title.

 

The obvious measuring stick for baseball success is the win column. Overall, the Rangers did enough to win 95 games, and that’s a fantastic feat. However, when diving into the numbers, Texas might not have been as good as its record would indicate.

 

When comparing the Rangers’ runs scored (765) to the number of runs surrendered (757) in 2016, Texas’ Pythagorean win-loss record was 82-80. No big league team had a larger difference in the number of games it won compared to the number it was expected to win based on run differential, and no playoff team surrendered more runs. Also, the Rangers posted an amazing 36-11 record in one-run games, which was the best record in baseball, but also nearly impossible to replicate.

 

Traditionalists may scoff and point to a team’s “grit” and “will to win,” or “doing the little things” necessary to win, but such a lucky outcome one season often means a regression to the mean.

 

On paper, the Rangers are solid. The infield is one of the best offensive units in the American League with Adrian Beltre, Elvis Andrus, Rougned Odor and Mike Napoli around the horn, plus Jonathan Lucroy behind the plate. Jurickson Profar is slated to start in left field, but could also help out elsewhere, center fielder Carlos Gomez hit .284/.362/.543 with eight home runs in 33 games with Texas after coming over from the Astros, and right fielder Nomar Mazara hit 20 home runs and finished fifth in the AL Rookie of the Year vote as a 21-year-old.

 

Defensively, Beltre is one of the best all-time, and the rest of the group is adequate overall. Add DH Shin-Soo Choo to the mix and there’s no easy out in the lineup. However, there’s not a ton of depth, either.

 

The starting rotation also has its fair share of big names, most notably Yu Darvish and Cole Hamels, and the bullpen was dynamite last season. But, the starting staff also has its fair share of injury concerns (including three pitchers expected to begin the season on the DL), and bullpens are capable of blowing up (in a bad way) at any time. With apologies to Sam Dyson, who was fantastic in the closer role last year, there’s no dominant reliever in the bunch.

 

Also, the AL West is becoming increasingly difficult. The Astros are the Las Vegas favorite to win the division, and could make a World Series run, the Mariners are a legitimate postseason contender, and the Angels and A’s are two teams that could start to turn things around in 2017.

 

Coming off an overachieving season, don’t be surprised to see the Rangers take a natural step back. If injuries strike and expose depth issues, or the bullpen struggles, a .500 record or worse is possible.

 

Baltimore Orioles

No team in baseball has been as underrated as the Orioles this decade. The good folks at Baseball Prospectus, whose PECOTA player projection system is often considered the gold standard in the industry, has underestimated Baltimore’s win total in each of the past five seasons. Over that span, the O’s have won more games than any AL team.

 

This year, BP projects Baltimore to win 74 games – which would be a dramatic 15-game downturn. While such a drop-off appears unlikely for a club that has made the postseason three times in the last five years, a step back is very possible.

 

On the surface, like the Rangers, the Orioles feature a fearsome lineup. The team’s top six sluggers – Mark Trumbo, Chris Davis, Manny Machado, Adam Jones, Jonathan Schoop and Pedro Alvarez – are all back. While there’s no reason to expect the group will fall dramatically short of the 198 combined home runs they totaled in 2016, Trumbo was a surprise last season and could take a step back. Alvarez isn’t currently on the active roster participating in camp as a spring training invitee, and Davis is a strikeout machine that has led the league in punch outs in each of the last two years.

 

There are other concerns as well. The O’s won quite a few slugfests in 2016, but Baltimore allowed 715 runs last season. That’s a small increase from 2015 (693), when the Orioles finished 81-81, but a huge jump over the 96-win team in 2014 (593) that made it to the ALCS. Baltimore’s 4.22 team ERA was the second highest among all playoff teams in 2016 (Texas).

 

Starter Chris Tillman is expected to miss at least the first month of the season with a sore shoulder, and Kevin Gausman was the only other full-time member of the starting rotation that posted a sub-5.00 ERA. Depth is a concern, and it’s unreasonable to expect closer Zach Britton to carry the bullpen with a second straight historic season.

 

And, while run prevention is often seen as a pitching issue, defense plays just as big a role. Machado and J.J. Hardy are well-respected defenders on the left side of the infield, and Jones is a solid center fielder, but the rest of the unit is lacking – especially in the outfield corners.

 

Miami Marlins

It’s disappointing to include the Marlins on this list. It’s also disheartening to give such a reason as to why, but it’s unavoidable. There is simply no way to replace Jose Fernandez. The tragic death of the young superstar pitcher reaches beyond his performance on the mound, as the impact stretches into the dugout, the clubhouse and out into the community.

 

Without Fernandez, the Marlins’ rotation consists of newcomers Edinson Volquez, and Dan Straily, veteran lefty Wei-Yin Chen, and other holdovers Tom Koehler and Adam Conley. There is a bit of depth to the staff with Jose Urena and Justin Nicolino in the mix, but no one expected to start a game for the Fish in 2017 comes close to Fernandez’s skill or potential.

 

Volquez has been good at times, but last season was not one of them. The 33-year-old was 10-11 with a 5.37 ERA in 34 starts for the Royals. He led the AL in earned runs allowed (113) and struck out just 16.3 percent of the hitters he faced – his lowest strikeout rate since 2006. Straily posted a decent 3.76 ERA, but surrendered an NL-worst 31 home runs and posted an ugly 4.88 FIP. Chen set career highs in ERA (4.96), FIP (4.50), home runs allowed per nine innings (1.6) and hits allowed per nine innings (9.8).

 

The bullpen should be a strength, and the lineup has power, particularly in Giancarlo Stanton, Marcell Ozuna, and underrated Christian Yelich. Dee Gordon won the 2015 batting title and Adeiny Hechavarria is as good a fielder as anyone at shortstop. However, the starting rotation – like the franchise itself – lost its crown jewel in heartbreaking fashion, and the loss will hurt badly in 2017 and beyond.

 

Chicago White Sox

The roster teardown is a popular strategy around the majors for clubs that have struggled to sustain success, and after years on the fence, the White Sox have finally embraced the trend.

 

Perhaps watching their crosstown rivals win the World Series helped the White Sox’ front office decide to push the reset button. After all, the South Siders didn’t blow up their roster after the division rival Royals emerged from a long rebuild to reach the Fall Classic twice and win a ring in 2015. But between that and seeing other franchises like the Astros (on the field) and the Braves (farm system rankings) make strides, the other Chicago team decided it was time to change strategies.

 

Whatever it was, the White Sox have embraced the teardown – and though it is probably the best thing for the franchise in the long run, it is going to get much worse before it gets better.

 

With a top-heavy roster and little depth, the White Sox made modest improvement in the win column in each of the last four seasons – going from a meager 63 wins in 2013 to 73 in ‘14, 76 in ‘15 and 78 last year. But it wasn’t enough to snap a postseason drought that dates back to 2008. In early December, when the White Sox received an offer they couldn’t refuse from the Washington Nationals, they parted with outfielder Adam Eaton. The next day, the right offer came along for superstar left-hander Chris Sale, and Chicago jumped at the opportunity to ship him off to Boston.

 

If you don’t know them already, learn the names Yoan Moncada, Lucas Giolito, Michael Kopech and Reynaldo Lopez – the key pieces in the two trades. The good news is that all four are legitimate top-50 prospects (and the infielder Moncada may be baseball’s most talented prospect) and should soon become franchise cornerstones alongside shortstop Tim Anderson and starter Carlos Rodon. The bad news is that all four are likely to begin the season in the minors.

 

Third baseman Todd Frazier and outfielder Melky Cabrera are very likely to be traded this summer since both will be free agents after 2017. Slugger Jose Abreu, starter Jose Quintana and closer David Robertson are still around, but might not last through July as GM Rick Hahn and the rest of the front office continue to reshape the roster. Hahn has been patient enough to find the right deals, however.

 

Given the expected roster upheaval over the course of the season, as well as the moves that have already been made, oddsmakers set the White Sox’ 2017 win total at 69.5. The under looks like a good bet.

 

San Diego Padres

Speaking of low win totals, no team got less respect from oddsmakers than the San Diego Padres, listed at 66.5 wins by online sports book Bovada. The Padres finished 2016 tied for the second-worst record in the majors (68-94), slashed payroll, and set forth a plan designed to rebuild their farm system.

 

Like the White Sox, Padres fans should have fun prospect watching. However, watching the team in San Diego probably won’t be very fun, especially since the top pitching prospects in the organization – Anderson Espinoza, Cal Quintrill, Adrian Morejon and Jacob Nix – all played in the low minors in 2016 and probably won’t be ready for the big leagues until ‘18 or later.

 

Beyond young, talented starter Luis Perdomo (who was just 9-10 with a 5.71 ERA with the big league club last season), the starting rotation is a collection of veteran castoffs. Clayton Richard, Jared Weaver, Jhoulys Chacin, Trevor Cahill and Jared Cosart are all likely to start games for San Diego in 2017. Christian Friedrich and Robbie Erlin also are in the mix, but Friedrich is dealing with arm soreness and Erlin won’t be back until at least midseason as he recovers from Tommy John surgery.

 

All-Star first baseman Wil Myers, who hit .259/.336/.461 with 28 home runs and 94 RBIs last year and signed an $83 million contract extension over the winter, is back. Second baseman Ryan Schimpf and third baseman Yangervis Solarte combined for 35 home runs last season, and backup catcher/pitcher Christian Bethancourt will be an intriguing experiment to keep an eye on. Outfielders Hunter Renfore and Manuel Margot, shortstop Luis Sardinas and catcher Austin Hedges all are talented prospects that should be fun to watch.

 

However, there simply isn’t enough talent to overcome what is expected to be a poor pitching staff, as well as one of the toughest divisions in the big leagues. It’s very possible that the Padres will lose 100 games for the first time since 1993.

 

Others teams to be concerned about (alphabetical order)

Cincinnati Reds

Detroit Tigers

Kansas City Royals

St. Louis Cardinals

Toronto Blue Jays

 

— Written by Nicholas Ian Allen, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasIAllen.

Teaser:
5 MLB Teams That Could Disappoint in 2017
Post date: Thursday, March 23, 2017 - 10:00
All taxonomy terms: ACC, College Football, Virginia Tech Hokies
Path: /college-football/virginia-tech-hokies-2017-spring-football-preview
Body:

The 2016 Virginia Tech football season had its ups and downs. It started slowly with a sluggish effort against Liberty followed by the turnover-fest in a loss to Tennessee at Bristol Motor Speedway. There was the huge win at North Carolina that gave the Hokies control of the Coastal Division and the dismal loss to Syracuse the next week. There also was the setback at home to a Georgia Tech team playing with its backup quarterback.

 

But Virginia Tech finished the season strong, winning three of four with the only loss coming at the hands of eventual national champion Clemson in the ACC title game. The big Belk Bowl comeback over Arkansas gave Justin Fuente’s crew a ton of momentum heading into next season.

 

But the Hokies have plenty of challenges this spring and here are five areas to watch.

 

5 Storylines to Watch During Virginia Tech's Spring Pratice

 

1. Quarterback

Jerod Evans’ unexpected declaration for the NFL Draft put the position in flux. The word last August was that true freshman Josh Jackson was pushing Evans for the starting spot. Now Jackson enters the spring as the No. 1 guy and he is being chased by junior college transfer A.J. Bush and early enrollee Hendon Hooker. Tech has options but would love for Jackson to lock down the job during the next few weeks.

 

2. Receivers

Not only has Evans departed, but top pass catchers Isaiah Ford and Bucky Hodges are gone as well. Fortunately, Cam Phillips and his 76 catches for 983 yards and five scores is back and will be the team’s top target. But he will need help. C.J. Carroll, who surprised many last fall, will miss the spring due to an injury, giving a big opportunity to Eric Kumah and Phillip Patterson, two big-bodied receivers that can be outside threats.

 

3. Bounce Back by Travon McMillian

After a 1,000-yard season in 2015, McMillian dipped to 671 rushing yards last fall. It was in part due to the effectiveness of Evans both throwing and running the football. But one reason Virginia Tech relied more on Evans was that McMillian was so inconsistent. With a new quarterback guiding the team and less depth at the position in 2017, the Hokies will need more out of McMillian in his fourth year in the program.

 

4. Mixing and Matching on the Defensive Line

In Vinny Mihota, Tim Settle and Ricky Walker, Virginia Tech has some talent up front on defense. But you can’t just shrug off the losses of Woody Baron, Ken Ekanem and Nigel Williams. Those three were productive players and provided great leadership. Minota and promising end Trevon Hill will miss spring drills while recovering from shoulder surgeries, making defensive end a wide open spot.

 

5. And More Injuries in the Secondary

Defensive backs Mook Reynolds and Greg Stroman also will be out of action this spring and there will be some shuffling to fill the holes. With Chuck Clark graduated, Terrell Edmunds will be counted on to a greater extent and after a very good sophomore campaign, he would appear to be ready for added responsibility. The good news is that the Hokies have a lot of capable bodies returning and when Reynolds and Stroman come back in the fall, the secondary should be a strength.

 

Pre-Spring Outlook for Virginia Tech in the ACC

 

The defending Coastal Division champs suffered heavy personnel losses and many key components are injured this spring. And injuries will be something to monitor once fall camp opens in August. If QB Josh Jackson develops as many feel he can and RB Travon McMillian returns to being a top-level ACC ball carrier, Justin Fuente will find a way to put points on the board. And Bud Foster is still running the defense. While there is skill on both sides of the ball, depth will be a huge concern in 2017. Contending for the division again may seem like a stretch looking at the amount of talent that is no longer part of the program. But just about every team in the Coastal will have its share of re-tooling to do this year and if Virginia Tech can stay healthy, the Hokies could be heard from once again.

 

— Written by Jon Kinne, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a college football fanatic. Kinne has been writing about recruiting for the Irish Sports Daily for 10 years. Follow him on Twitter @JonRKinne.

Teaser:
Virginia Tech Hokies 2017 Spring Football Preview
Post date: Thursday, March 23, 2017 - 09:30
Path: /college-football/penn-state-nittany-lions-2017-spring-football-preview
Body:

Coming off its first outright Big Ten championship since the 1994 season, Penn State has raised the bar for success and is aiming higher in 2017. The Nittany Lions bring back a loaded offense highlighted by not one, but two, potential Heisman Trophy candidates and a sense of confidence in the program not seen in some time. The road back from the rubble of the fall of 2011 has been a bumpy one at times, but Penn State roared back to national prominence last season and begins the spring looking to bounce back for some unfinished business.

 

Penn State celebrated a Big Ten championship and was minutes away from adding a Rose Bowl trophy to the shelf before letting one slip away against USC. Penn State also may have deserved a spot in the College Football Playoff but became the first power conference champion to be bypassed by the selection committee for a division rival it beat head-to-head during the regular season (Ohio State). All of this gives Penn State some fuel to run on this spring and offseason leading up to the 2017 season.

 

5 Storylines to Watch During Penn State’s Spring Practice

 

1. Offense is back in gear
This spring it looks as though Penn State offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead will have little to be concerned about with his offense. With a healthy stable of running backs led by Saquon Barkley and Trace McSorley back at quarterback, Penn State will be in good hands. For Moorhead, the task will be getting some new faces involved to take some of the pressure off of Barkley and McSorley, and he’ll have options to play with.

 

2. Replacing Chris Godwin? No problem
Godwin is off to the NFL, leaving Penn State with one fewer experienced wide receiver to rely on, but the program has accumulated some pass catchers more than capable of stepping into a starting role. Having DeAndre Thompkins and DaeSean Hamilton back ensures there is still some veteran leadership in the open field, but players like Irvin Charles and freshman KJ Hamler also will get some opportunities that will hopefully pay off. Penn State also has Saeed Blacknall, who was suspended for the Rose Bowl, to look to.

 

3. Living up to Linebacker U reputation
Penn State’s linebackers have been reliable but some may say the level of play at the signature position has not quite been up to par with the greats of the past in State College. This season could see some new faces emerge in the middle of the defense alongside returning starter Jason Cabinda. Manny Bowen is expected to lock down a starting role, but who else joins them is a mystery. If there is one position Penn State could benefit from building depth, it may be the linebacker position.

 

4. Defensive line has holes to plug once again
The defensive line has been a strength of Penn State in recent years. Despite having to replace three NFL-caliber players last year, the Penn State front line showed it had players more than capable of stepping in to fill some big shoes. That will have to be the case once again this spring with two starters gone from last year. The good news for Penn State is there are options and depth to rely on. Redshirt freshman Shane Simmons will draw the most attention as the highly-rated recruit gets a chance to contribute.

 

5. How to deal with expectations
It has been a while since Penn State entered a spring with such lofty national expectations, which means head coach James Franklin and his staff will have to focus on not allowing egos to get inflated while also building off the success of last season. A game-by-game approach was well-executed last season as the possibility of playing for a Big Ten championship started to come into view. Keeping that mentality going this spring should be managed well after seeing the season end with a blown fourth-quarter lead in the Rose Bowl against USC.

 

Pre-Spring Outlook for Penn State in the Big Ten

 

Penn State should be in a position to once again contend for the Big Ten championship, and it will not come as a surprise this season. Penn State’s offense could potentially improve and avoid some disastrous slow starts that came back to haunt them last season, and the roster is built to once again thrive and be considered among the best offenses in school history. The offense will be among the Big Ten’s best and the defense should be in a position to potentially improve in spots.

 

The schedule features a road trip to Ohio State, which is never easy, but Penn State will host the two teams that handed the Nittany Lions their losses in the regular season last year, Pitt and Michigan. Those games will carry quite the revenge factor as those losses were ultimately what left Penn State out of the College Football Playoff last season despite winning the Big Ten championship.

 

Penn State’s Big Ten championship may have been a surprise last season, but it would not be a shock at all in 2017.

 

— Written by Kevin McGuire, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a member of the Football Writers Association of America and National Football Foundation. McGuire also contributes to College Football Talk and The Comeback as well as hosts the No 2-Minute Warning Podcast. Follow him on Twitter @KevinOnCFB and Like him on Facebook.

Teaser:
Penn State Nittany Lions 2017 Spring Football Preview
Post date: Thursday, March 23, 2017 - 09:00
Path: /college-basketball/west-virginia-mountaineers-vs-gonzaga-bulldogs-ncaa-tournament-sweet-16-preview-prediction-2017
Body:

Gonzaga faces its toughest hurdle yet in a potential Final Four run. When the top-seeded Bulldogs face fourth-seeded West Virginia in the Sweet 16 on Thursday, they will finally draw an opponent who can stand toe-to-toe both on offense and defense.

 

The Bulldogs rank in the top 15 nationally in scoring offense (83.9 ppg) and in the top five in scoring defense (61.1 ppg). The Mountaineers are in the top 20 in scoring offense (82.1 ppg) and top 50 in scoring defense (66.8 ppg). Both teams rank in the top three nationally in scoring margin.

 

Gonzaga (34-1) is in the Sweet 16 for a third consecutive season after dispatching No. 16 South Dakota State and No. 8 Northwestern. West Virginia reached the Sweet 16 for the second time in three seasons after holding off No. 13 Bucknell and No. 5 Notre Dame.

 

A win for Gonzaga would put the Bulldogs a step closer to reaching the Final Four for the first time in school history. West Virginia is seeking to return to the Final Four for the first time since 2010.

 

West Region: No. 4 West Virginia Mountaineers (28-8) vs. No. 1 Gonzaga Bulldogs (34-1)

 

When: 7:39 pm ET.

Where: SAP Center (San Jose, Calif.)

TV: TBS

Line: Gonzaga -3.5

 

Keys for West Virginia

Hitting outside shots early will be critical. West Virginia does not have enough size in the post to combat Gonzaga's twin towers Zach Collins and Przemek Karnowski. The Mountaineers will need to light it up from mid-range and the perimeter to keep Collins and Karnowski from simply choking off driving lanes to the basket.

 

West Virginia's top two scorers, Jevon Carter and Esa Ahmad, are also two of the better perimeter shooters on the team. Carter leads the Mountaineers with 13.3 points per game while shooting 38.6 percent from 3-point range. Ahmad contributes 11.3 points per contest while shooting 39.5 percent from long distance.

 

The Mountaineers will need to make each shot count because they won't get a ton of second chances. Gonzaga averages 40.6 rebounds per game and collects 7.9 more boards per game than its opponents. The Bulldogs rank in the top 10 nationally in both categories. It's one reason why they limit opponents so much on the offensive end.

 

Keys for Gonzaga

Taking care of the ball is essential against West Virginia. The Mountaineers are masters of disrupting offenses by forcing bunches of turnovers. West Virginia forces opponents to commit 20.1 turnovers per game, which ranks first among NCAA Division I teams. Opponents turn the ball over on 28 percent of their possessions against the Mountaineers.

 

Turnovers could be an area of concern for Gonzaga after the Bulldogs coughed up the ball 13 times in the second round against Northwestern. The Wildcats scored 17 points off of turnovers and rallied in the second half before finally falling to the Bulldogs.

 

One secret weapon for Gonzaga is Nigel Williams-Goss. The junior guard doesn't get frazzled easily under pressure. Williams-Goss averages 4.7 assists per game while turning it over just 2.1 times per contest. The Bulldogs may need to make sure he gets extra touches when West Virginia applies pressure. If Williams-Goss can get it across half court quickly, Collins or Karnowski can easily break a press in the post.

 

Final Analysis

 

Beating West Virginia will take a complete game from Gonzaga. The Bulldogs have not yet put together two full halves in the NCAA Tournament. They started slow against South Dakota State and sputtered in the second half against Northwestern. Either scenario would prove fatal versus the Mountaineers. Still, West Virginia does not have enough size to match Gonzaga in the post and the Bulldogs are not likely to get as flustered by the press as the Mountaineers’ previous opponents. The odds favor Gonzaga moving one step closer to that elusive Final Four bid.

 

Prediction: Gonzaga 75, West Virginia 72

 

— Written by John Coon, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Coon has more than a decade of experience covering sports for different publications and outlets, including The Associated Press, Salt Lake Tribune, ESPN, Deseret News, MaxPreps, Yahoo! Sports and many others. Follow him on Twitter @johncoonsports.

 
Teaser:
West Virginia Mountaineers vs. Gonzaga Bulldogs: NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 Preview and Prediction
Post date: Wednesday, March 22, 2017 - 16:30
Path: /college-basketball/michigan-wolverines-vs-oregon-ducks-ncaa-tournament-sweet-16-preview-prediction-2017
Body:

Perhaps the most unlikely story of this March, including the 2017 NCAA Tournament, is the suddenly inspired play out of John Beilein's Michigan Wolverines. A loss at Northwestern to open the month of Madness dealt a serious blow to Michigan's NCAA Tournament hopes.

 

After the team's airplane skidded off the runway en route to the Big Ten Tournament, however, a series of events began that elevated Michigan to the Sweet 16. The Wolverines ripped off conference tournament wins over Purdue, Minnesota and Wisconsin to earn the league's automatic bid into the Big Dance.

 

A frenetic First Round victory over Oklahoma State set up a showdown with second-seeded Louisville. Despite a considerable halftime deficit, the Wolverines rallied to book their spot in the Sweet 16. They now stand one win away from their third Elite Eight appearance in the last five years. Between Michigan and the Midwest Region final is a uniquely talented Oregon team.

 

The Pac-12's co-regular-season champions fell out of the West Region and contention for a No. 1 seed with a loss in the conference tournament. The bigger loss during the Ducks' time in Las Vegas, however, was center Chris Boucher to a knee injury. Boucher's defensive presence was sorely missed in the loss to Arizona, as well as a tightly contested Round of 32 win over Rhode Island.

 

The Ducks gave up 46 first-half points to the Rams, but rallied with a 26-point defensive yield in the second half. They'll need to replicate their final 20 minutes to slow a red-hot Michigan offense.

 

Midwest Region: No. 11 Xavier Musketeers (26-11) vs. No. 3 Oregon Ducks (31-5)

 

When: 7:09 p.m. ET (Thursday)

Where: Sprint Center (Kansas City, Mo.)

TV: CBS

Line: Michigan -1

 

Keys for Michigan

In the First Round, Michigan relied on its perimeter play to out-gun Oklahoma State. Against Louisville, forward Moritz Wagner took over. He scored 20 more points against the Cardinals (26) than in the opening round. Combined with D.J. Wilson, Wagner gives Michigan scoring might on the interior that Oregon's less equipped to defend now that Boucher is out.

 

Oregon is a high-scoring offensive team, and Michigan's No. 73-ranked defensive efficiency isn't the most conducive to slowing down the Ducks. The Wolverine guards and wings will have to expend more energy keeping Dillon Brooks out of the paint off the dribble and hot-shooting Tyler Dorsey from bombing away from deep. That puts the offensive onus on the blocks against a thin Oregon front court.

 

If Wagner and Wilson can draw Jordan Bell into foul trouble and force Oregon's perimeter players to help on the post that should open up the floor more for Zak Irvin and Derrick Walton Jr.

 

Keys for Oregon

Oregon's proven the ability to score in buckets, but the Ducks' best course of action against Michigan is to bring down the tempo. The Ducks rarely commit turnovers, ranking No. 4 nationally in percentage of possessions with a giveaway. They'll need to be just as careful with the ball in a Sweet 16 matchup that may come down to pace of play.

 

Michigan's been at its best when it can get out and run. While limiting turnovers will be crucial for Oregon preventing that, so too will run-outs on long misses. Oregon relies heavily on the 3-pointer, which proved critical in the win over Rhode Island. But as the old adage goes: Live by the three, die by the three.

 

In losses, Oregon's shot below 37 percent from behind the arc, including 28 percent vs. Arizona. While Dana Altman can't take Dorsey's green light off, the Ducks may be best serve taking their shots deeper in the shot clock to slow the Wolverines.

 

Final Analysis

 

Oregon's struggles to defend Rhode Island on shots inside the arc – the Rams connected on 65 percent of attempts from 2-point range – does not bode well for a matchup with Michigan. The Wolverines shoot the nation's eighth-best 2-point field-goal percentage.

 

With Jordan Bell having to carry much of the interior defensive load, that means more inside looks for either Moritz Wagner or D.J. Wilson. The 3-pointer must be Oregon's great neutralizer – and it certainly can be, as the Ducks have proven in wins over Arizona, UCLA, and most recently, Rhode Island. If they go cold, however, Michigan's unlikely run continues.

 

Prediction: Michigan 78, Oregon 74 

 

— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Kensing is publisher of CFBHuddle.com. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.

 

(Top photo courtesy of @umichbball)

Teaser:
Michigan Wolverines vs. Oregon Ducks: NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 Preview and Prediction
Post date: Wednesday, March 22, 2017 - 13:30
Path: /college-basketball/xavier-musketeers-vs-arizona-wildcats-ncaa-tournament-sweet-16-preview-prediction-2017
Body:

Following a legend is no easy task, but Arizona head coach Sean Miller has done so admirably. Hired in 2009 as the indirect replacement for Hall of Famer Lute Olson, Miller's enjoyed a successful tenure in the desert. The 2017 NCAA Tournament marks his fifth time overseeing a team that reached at least the Sweet 16 since ‘11, and is the fourth time in five seasons the Wildcats have played into the second weekend.

 

For as much as Miller's won at Arizona, his own replacement at Xavier – head coach Chris Mack – has performed just as well.

 

Miller coached Musketeer teams in 2008 and ‘09 to the Elite Eight and Sweet 16. In the seasons since with Mack at the helm, Xavier's been to four other Sweet 16s, including this year. The Musketeers' last journey to this point in the Tournament ended in a wildly competitive 2015 game against Miller and the Wildcats.

 

Xavier made its way to the Sweet 16 this year most improbably. XU opened the season ranked in the Top 25, and a trendy pick to contend for the Final Four. Losing point guard Edmond Sumner to a torn ACL in January doomed the Musketeers to a six-game slide. From Feb. 8 to March 8, their only wins were three over lowly DePaul.

 

With an upset of Butler in the Big East Tournament, however, Xavier booked its ticket to the Big Dance, and made the most of it with wins over Maryland and Florida State. The No. 11-seeded Musketeers destroyed the ACC's Seminoles 91-66 in the Round of 32 behind 29 points from Trevon Bluiett.

 

The only double-digit seed left in the Tournament has the momentum to spring another upset against a coach who knows the program well.

 

West Region: No. 11 Xavier Musketeers (23-13) vs. No. 2 Arizona Wildcats (32-4)

 

When: 10:09 p.m. ET (Thursday)

Where: SAP Center (San Jose, Calif.)

TV: TBS

Line: Arizona -7.5

 

Keys for Xavier

Chris Mack isn't married to any one defensive strategy, instead employing man-to-man or 1-3-1 zone depending on the situation. Zone defenses have given Arizona trouble this season, in particular the trapping 1-3-1. UCLA used the look to stymie the Wildcats in a Bruins win at McKale Center last month, and Arizona can expect plenty of the look on Thursday.

 

Xavier's 1-3-1 forces opponents into rushed 3-point attempts. Nearly 40 percent of all field-goal attempts taken against the Musketeers are from deep, per KenPom.com, but shots drop only 33 percent of the time.

 

Arizona's had success shooting from long range this season, connecting on better than 39 percent, but the Wildcats have to effectively establish their dribble-drive offense to free up shooters. If Xavier can clog lanes of penetration and contest shots effectively, the Musketeers will control tempo – and controlling tempo is critical in this matchup.

 

Keys for Arizona

Arizona’s play on the glass has been critical this season. Last Saturday's win over Saint Mary's offered a snapshot of the full campaign, as the Gaels led when they enjoyed a commanding edge on the boards. As the Wildcats erased that advantage, so too went Saint Mary's lead.

 

Arizona's last loss came in February against UCLA in a game the Bruins owned on the boards. In particular, UCLA capitalized on extra looks off the offensive glass. The Wildcats face a Xavier team with similar ability to own the boards.

 

Xavier ranks No. 29 nationally in offensive rebound percentage, making effective use of its collective size. Mack's lineup is actually the eighth tallest in all of college basketball. Of the few bigger, one is Arizona.

 

Miller needs aggressive – and foul-free – play out of Dusan Ristic, Keanu Pinder and Chance Comanche. The rotation of big men all proved effective in Arizona's comeback vs. Saint Mary's, and will serve similarly critical roles against Xavier.

 

Final Analysis

 

Mack vs. Miller is among the more intriguing coaching chess matches of the Sweet 16 slate. The two know each other well, and not surprisingly, they employ similar styles. Both also have wing players who can take over a high-profile game like this one in Trevon Bluiett for Xavier and Allonzo Trier for Arizona.

 

While 7-foot stretch-four Lauri Markkanen might seem like the x-factor for Arizona, Kadeem Allen's defensive presence could make the difference for the Wildcats – and not necessarily by matching up with Bluiett. JP Macura is often the Musketeers’ secondary scoring option who can make opponents pay for focusing too heavily on Bluiett.

 

Arizona's perimeter defense on Macura and hot-shooting Malcolm Bernard could prove pivotal – especially if the Wildcats can keep Xavier off the boards effectively.

 

Prediction: Arizona 76, Xavier 68

 

— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Kensing is publisher of CFBHuddle.com. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.

 
Teaser:
Xavier Musketeers vs. Arizona Wildcats: NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 Preview and Prediction
Post date: Wednesday, March 22, 2017 - 11:00
Path: /college-basketball/purdue-boilermakers-vs-kansas-jayhawks-ncaa-tournament-sweet-16-preview-prediction-2017
Body:

For the first time since 2010, the Purdue Boilermakers will play on the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament. They advanced after their close victory over No. 5 Iowa State 80-76 this past Saturday. Now, the Boilermakers will look to pull off the upset against one of the most impressive teams in the Tournament thus far, the top-seeded Kansas Jayhawks.

 

In their round of 32 game, the Jayhawks flattened No. 9 Michigan State 90-70. In the first round, Kansas cruised to a 100-62 win over No. 16 UC Davis. Any concerns about how Kansas would respond after its opening Big 12 Tournament loss to TCU has been erased in the first two NCAA Tournament games.

 

Midwest Region: No. 4 Purdue Boilermakers (27-7) vs. No. 1 Kansas Jayhawks (30-4)

 

Time: 9:39 p.m. ET (Thursday)

Where: Sprint Center (Kansas City)

TV: CBS

Spread: Kansas -5

 

Keys for Purdue

Sophomore Caleb Swanigan gets a ton of credit for the Boilermakers’ success in the Tournament and deservingly so. The Naismith Player of the Year finalist is averaging 18.6 points and 12.6 rebounds in Purdue’s two wins. But if Swanigan and company are going to pull off the upset, they will need Vince Edwards to be a big part of the team’s game plan.

 

In two games, Edwards is averaging 21 points and 7.5 rebounds per game. There were times throughout the season where Edwards would disappear in games, most notably in the Big Ten Tournament overtime loss to Michigan. Purdue needs Edwards to continue his strong play against a talented Kansas team.

 

Keys for Kansas

The Jayhawks have the luxury of boasting two of the best players in the nation in senior Frank Mason III and freshman Josh Jackson. Mason, a Naismith finalist in his own right, is averaging 20.8 points, 5.2 assists and 4.1 rebounds per game as a Swiss Army knife-type of player for Bill Self’s team. Jackson, a star freshman who was suspended for the Big Ten Tournament loss to TCU, is second in both scoring (16.6 ppg) and rebounding (7.1 rpg), and looked quite impressive in the win over the Spartans on Sunday.

 

If Kansas can get Devonte’ Graham (13.3 ppg) involved as well, it could be a long night for Purdue. Although the Jayhawks are full of top-heavy talent, they’re not as deep as some teams. If Mason, Jackson or Graham get into foul trouble, that could spell trouble for KU.

 

Kansas also will need Landen Lucas to continue to crash the boards. He leads the team with 8.6 per game this season and has posted double-doubles in each of the first two Tournament games.

 

Final Analysis

 

While Purdue has Caleb Swanigan, one of the most productive and reliable big men in the nation, the Boilermakers don’t have the same amount of firepower that Kansas has on its roster. Expect Frank Mason III, Josh Jackson and Devonte’ Graham to hit some three-pointers, get to the foul line and score in bunches.

 

It will be difficult for Purdue to match Kansas’ scoring output unless it can get the key Jayhawks in some early foul trouble. The Boilermakers should keep the game close in the first half before KU pulls away for the victory.

 

Prediction: Kansas 91, Purdue 76

 

— Written by Antwan Staley, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and has extensive experience covering Florida sports teams. Staley has written for Bleacher Report, the Miami Herald and the Palm Beach Post and is a reporter for Pro Player Insiders. Follow him on Twitter @antwanstaley.

 

(Top photo courtesy of @BoilerBall)

Teaser:
Purdue Boilermakers vs. Kansas Jayhawks: NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 Preview and Prediction
Post date: Wednesday, March 22, 2017 - 10:45
All taxonomy terms: College Basketball
Path: /college-basketball/2017-ncaa-tournament-thursday-sweet-16-preview-and-predictions
Body:

Hard as it is to believe, but we’re about to hit the halfway point of March Madness. While that may evoke a few sad feelings about something coming to a close, the 2017 NCAA Tournament is really about to kick into high gear as a host of blue bloods, up-and-comers, and at least one Cinderella vie for this year’s national title.

 

Thursday’s action in particular should be quite the highlight as eight tourney regulars are looking to survive and advance one more time. The Midwest Region in particular should be a real treat as Kansas has been the rare team to live up to its seed line and they’ll be running right into a Purdue team that refuses to be pushed around. Michigan and Oregon both have their own flaws but have been playing inspired basketball ever since the calendar turned to March.

 

Out West, San Jose will play host to four teams that each bring a unique style of basketball to the court. Bob Huggins’ “Press Virginia” loves to make things interesting as soon as the whistle blows while Sean Miller’s Arizona team has multiple looks it can throw at you on both ends of the court. As fun as it is to watch those two however, Gonzaga is hoping to continue its magical run and finally make it to that elusive final weekend while familiar face Xavier is well accustomed to playing on the big stage.

 

A few folks may have lamented the lack of mid-major success and complained about a shortage of buzzer-beaters during the first weekend of the Tournament but it’s not hard to push those thoughts out and focus on what should be a fantastic group of games in the Sweet 16. Which teams will make it to the Elite Eight? We’ll find out four of them on Thursday night after what should be a great slate of games.

 

NCAA Tournament Thursday Sweet 16 Games

Note: All times Eastern, some start times approximate.

 

No. 7 Michigan vs. No. 3 Oregon

TV: 7:09 p.m., CBS

Site: Kansas City (Midwest Region)

 

Preview: Oregon has experienced plenty of success since Dana Altman took over in Eugene but the Ducks may be running into the one team left in the Tournament that might be able to one-up everybody else and claim winning has become its destiny. At least it certainly feels that way for Michigan, which has reeled off six straight victories ever since the Wolverines endured a harrowing plane crash just prior to the Big Ten Tournament.

 

These Wolverines are not just a good story though, this is a legitimately good team that has plenty of pieces to keep this run going. Moritz Wagner was the star in last week’s win over Louisville and will be a real threat to keep things going in the middle of the floor. Derrick Walton Jr. saw his hot streak from the field slow down a bit in that second round win but he remains one of the best scoring threats left in the bracket and has the ability to distribute the ball effectively if his outside shooting isn’t falling. Head coach John Beilein remains one of the best veteran coaches in the game at getting his team ready and no doubt should have a couple of defensive game plans to use against Oregon.

 

The Maize and Blue will probably need them too given what the Ducks trot out on the floor. Yes, the Sweet 16 might be the time where big man Chris Boucher’s absence starts to rear its ugly head but there’s plenty of offense on the team to make up for that. Dillon Brooks has been one of the best players in the country this season but has almost had to become second-fiddle on the team thanks to the hot play of the aptly-nicknamed Mr. March, Tyler Dorsey. Oregon never seems to be out of a game thanks to those two and one better be on alert if the situation calls for a big shot because each has shown they can knock one down time after time this month.

 

The end result is a pair of closely matched teams that give every indication of staging a thriller in the opening salvo of the second weekend. Be prepared for plenty of back-and-forth exchanges and this one may very well come down to who has the ball last. These types of matchups are what March Madness is all about but as good as Oregon has been, don’t discount Michigan continuing to shoot the lights out in order to take home the victory and move on to Saturday.

 

Prediction: Michigan 78, Oregon 72

 

Related: Michigan Wolverines vs. Oregon Ducks Preview and Prediction

 

No. 4 West Virginia vs. No. 1 Gonzaga

TV: 7:39 p.m., TBS

Site: San Jose (West Region)

 

Preview: It’s been a storybook season for Gonzaga, who enters the Sweet 16 with a just a single loss on the year. While some questioned the competition the Bulldogs faced in 2017, the team has their sights focused firmly on proving the rest of the country wrong and ticking off those last remaining boxes on the program’s checklist this weekend.

 

Standing in the way of the deep and talented ‘Zags is one program that knows all about playing with a chip on the shoulder in West Virginia. The Mountaineers lead the nation in forcing turnovers and utilize their extended bench with ease to consistently create fresh challenges and plenty of matchup issues. Jevon Carter stays on the court the longest and is one of a trio of guards who helped the team shoot the lights out from three-point range in a win over Notre Dame. If there is one area of concern though, it might be down in the paint where the undersized team would rather avoid a slow, half-court game that is centered on the block.

 

That just so happens to be the area Gonzaga can take advantage of the most. Center Przemek Karnowski is a load in the low post and enters as one of the more experienced big men left in the Tournament. He forms a nice inside-out tandem with guard Nigel Williams-Goss, one of the best players on the West Coast, who will be counted on to avoid turning the ball over in this one. If the game becomes a little more up-tempo than normal, don’t be surprised if Few just goes with the flow and opts to sub out Karnowski’s girth for freshmen Zach Collins and Killian Tillie. The two forwards still have plenty of size down low but bring more of a shooter’s touch to the game.

 

Under those circumstances, don’t be shocked if this turns out to be the best game of chess matches played on Thursday as Few and Huggins battle it out on the sidelines. It really could go a number of different ways and should not surprisingly come down to turnovers — namely if Gonzaga can prevent and if West Virginia can force them. For as good a passing team as the Bulldogs have been this season, they didn’t quite flash the same crispness in their two opening round wins and that could prove to be their undoing against a team that is tougher than nails to defeat.

 

Prediction: West Virginia 71, Gonzaga 66

 

Related: West Virginia Mountaineers vs. Gonzaga Bulldogs Preview and Prediction

 

No. 4 Purdue vs. No. 1 Kansas

TV: 9:39 p.m., CBS

Site: Kansas City (Midwest Region)

 

Preview: Every year Kansas City turns into “Allen Fieldhouse East” when the Big 12 Tournament rolls into town but this year is a little bit different because Sprint Center will transform into it twice. That’s because the Jayhawks will get the rare distinction of coming about as close to home-court advantage as one can get in the NCAA Tournament when they tip off against Purdue just 40 miles east of Lawrence.

 

As much as folks will be talking about the atmosphere though, the reason KU is the prohibitive favorite in the region has nothing to do with how loud the crowd will be but everything to do with the terrific backcourt that Bill Self has assembled. Freshman guard Josh Jackson has been at the forefront of the group lately and brings just about everything to the table from size to athleticism to jaw-dropping, playmaking ability. Senior Frank Mason III is the more veteran presence but brings the same ability to take over the game as his younger teammate. That the Jayhawks cruised to another Big 12 regular season title was not surprising but it’s clear that this team has its sights aimed much higher in the postseason.

 

Standing in their way, quite literally, is Purdue’s Caleb Swanigan. The big man has been a double-double machine all year long for the Boilermakers as they captured the Big Ten regular season title and is a tough matchup thanks to his shooting touch and ability to fight for balls off the glass. He teams up with Vince Edwards and Isaac Haas to form an imposing front court that few teams can compete with, much less contain.

 

While Purdue does pose plenty of matchup issues given all that length, the Boilermakers will certainly be playing what amounts to a road game on Thursday night and will no doubt be battling the crowd as much as their opponent. The Jayhawks have proven to be one of the best teams left in the field and should be able to use their superior outside game to stay ahead of the overmatched Boilermakers and eventually pull away midway through the second half.

 

Prediction: Kansas 81, Purdue 68

 

Related: Purdue Boilermakers vs. Kansas Jayhawks Preview and Prediction

 

No. 11 Xavier vs. No. 2 Arizona

TV: 10:09 p.m., TBS

Site: San Jose (West Region)

 

Preview: To say Xavier is familiar with Arizona might be the understatement of the Tournament. While it’s true that this is the second time in three years that the Wildcats and Musketeers have met in the Sweet 16, the long and intertwined history the two head coaches share makes this that much more interesting. For those unfamiliar, Sean Miller once led Xavier all the way to the Elite Eight before eventually moving on to Tucson. One assistant he left behind? None other than Chris Mack, who was promoted to the first chair as a result.

 

It is the latter who has done the best coaching job so far, overcoming the loss of the team’s starting point guard earlier this year and rebounding from a disastrous losing streak late in the season to somehow wind up as the lowest seed left in the entire NCAA Tournament. Trevon Bluiett, who was a freshman when the teams first met, has been the star of the show for the Musketeers and done just about everything he can in willing his team to the second weekend.

 

As good of a story as Xavier is however, the Musketeers will be running into a much more talented Arizona team that has looked like they’re plenty capable of winning the whole thing. Freshman Lauri Markkanen has played like a top-five NBA Draft pick so far and guard Allonzo Trier has proven to be an equally dynamic scorer from just about any spot on the floor. Being a Miller-coached team you know the Wildcats will play tough defense but the offensive balance this group has is the most remarkable thing about them this time of the year.

 

Xavier has been up against more talented teams plenty this season and still found a way to sneak out with a victory though. Don’t be surprised if this one is fairly close throughout with the Musketeers scrapping at every possession and Bluiett knocking down some big threes. In the end though, there’s just too much on Arizona’s roster and Miller will have to bittersweetly knock out his old school once again to move onto the regional final.

 

Prediction: Arizona 84, Xavier 70

 

Related: Xavier Musketeers vs. Arizona Wildcats Preview and Prediction

 

— Written by Bryan Fischer, an award-winning college football columnist and member of the Athlon Contributor Network. You can follow him from coast-to-coast on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat at @BryanDFischer.

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USC and Washington are the early favorites to claim the top spots in the Pac-12 next fall, so it should be no surprise both teams feature a good chunk of the conference’s individual talent. The Trojans take four spots in Athlon’s spring Pac-12 player rankings, while the Huskies have eight. Quarterbacks Sam Darnold (USC) and Jake Browning (Washington) are the top two players on this list, with two other signal-callers – Josh Rosen and Luke Falk – rounding out the top four.

 

With spring practice underway and plenty of position changes or depth chart movement coming, this list of best players in the Pac-12 could look a lot different by the time fall practice arrives. Our rankings are compiled by using many factors including career stats so far, 2016 statistics, pro potential, positional importance, projection for 2017, value to the team, recruiting background and just overall talent. Think of this list as an early power ranking for 2017, with tweaks expected at the end of spring and prior to Week 1.

 

Here’s a quick primer on the top 25 players in the Pac-12 for next season, as well as a few names to watch.

 

Pac-12's Spring Top 25 Player Rankings for 2017

 

Just Missed: Ryan Nall, RB, Oregon State; James Looney, DL, California; Koron Crump, LB, Arizona State; Jeromy Irwin, OL, Colorado; Taylor Rapp, DB, Washington; Jaleel Wadood, DB, UCLA; Demetris Robertson, WR, California; Bryce Love, RB, Stanford; Harrison Phillips, DL, Stanford; Rasheem Greene, DL, USC; Cole Madison, OL, Washington State

 

25. Shay Fields, WR, Colorado

Fields is the Pac-12’s top returning receiver in terms of yardage (883) from 2016. He grabbed 56 passes (15.8 ypc) and nine scores for the Buffaloes last season.

 

Related: College Football's Top 25 Quarterbacks on the Rise for 2017

 

24. Quenton Meeks, CB, Stanford

Stanford’s secondary should be one of the best in the Pac-12 next season, and the San Diego native is the anchor for this unit after earning honorable mention all-conference honors in 2016. Meeks has 10 pass breakups over the last two years.

 

23. Iman Marshall, CB, USC

With Adoree’ Jackson off to the NFL, Marshall is slated to take over as the team’s No. 1 cover. After earning honorable mention All-Pac-12 honors in 2016, Marshall is certainly up to the task.

 

22. Kylie Fitts, DE, Utah

Fitts was poised to emerge as one of the Pac-12’s top defensive linemen last year but had his season cut short after just two games. As a junior in 2015, Fitts led the Utes with seven sacks and recorded eight tackles for a loss.

 

Related: 20 Redshirt Freshmen to Watch in the Pac-12 for 2017

 

21. Dante Pettis, WR, Washington

Pettis ranked second among Pac-12 receivers with 15 touchdown grabs last season and should see even more targets in his direction with the departure of John Ross to the NFL.

 

20. Troy Dye, LB, Oregon

Dye was one of the nation’s top freshmen on defense last fall and is a key piece of new coordinator Jim Leavitt’s quest to improve Oregon’s defense in 2017. Dye recorded 91 stops, 13 tackles for a loss and led the team with 6.5 sacks last season.

 

19. Coleman Shelton, C, Washington

Shelton started all 14 games for the Huskies and earned second-team All-Pac-12 honors last season.

 

18. Scott Quessenberry, C, UCLA

UCLA’s line had its share of ups and downs last fall, but Quessenberry started all 12 games and center and was one of the bright spots for this group. He was selected as a first-team All-Pac-12 performer in 2016.

 

Related: Grading College Football's New Head Coach Hires for 2017

 

17. Cameron Smith, LB, USC

Smith showed no ill-effects from a season-ending knee injury in 2015, as he led the Trojans with 83 stops and earned second-team All-Pac-12 honors last fall.

 

16. Greg Gaines, DL, Washington

Gaines has earned honorable mention All-Pac-12 honors in each of the last two seasons and helped to anchor a standout Washington line in 2016 by recording eight tackles for a loss.

 

15. Phillip Lindsay, RB, Colorado

Last season, Lindsay became the first Colorado running back to reach 1,000 rushing yards in a season since Rodney Stewart posted 1,316 yards in 2010. In 14 games in 2016, Lindsay posted 1,252 yards and 16 scores and added 53 receptions for 493 yards.

 

14. Ronald Jones, RB, USC

Jones led the way for USC’s ground attack last fall and led the team with 1,082 yards and 12 scores. He should add another 1,000-yard campaign to his total in 2017.

 

Related: Ranking College Football's Rosters for 2017

 

13. Tyrell Crosby, OL, Oregon

Crosby had his 2016 cut short after just two games due to injury. The Nevada native has 23 career starts entering 2017 and was a 2016 preseason first-team All-Pac-12 selection by Athlon Sports.

 

12. Hercules Mata’afa, DL, Washington State

Considering the firepower on the other side of the ball, Washington State’s defense is often overlooked. However, Mata’afa has emerged as one of the conference’s top linemen and led the team with 13.5 tackles for a loss and five sacks in 2016.

 

11. Vita Vea, DL, Washington

Vea played in all 14 games for the Huskies last season and dominated the line of scrimmage. En route to earning second-team All-Pac-12 honors, he recorded 6.5 tackles for a loss, five sacks and one forced fumble.

 

10. Lowell Lotulelei, DL, Utah

Lotulelei has recorded 87 tackles and 8.5 sacks in his three seasons with the Utes, but the 317-pound tackle has an impact beyond the stat sheet for the defense. The Utah native is a key cog on the interior of the defense against opposing ground attacks and helps to occupy blockers to free up the pass rush off the edges.

 

9. Myles Gaskin, RB, Washington

Gaskin recorded 1,302 yards and 14 touchdowns as a freshman in 2015 and followed up his debut with another standout season in Seattle. In 14 games, Gaskin rushed for 1,373 yards and 10 touchdowns and caught 19 passes for 137 yards and one score.

 

8. Trey Adams, OL, Washington

Adams started all 14 games for the Huskies last season and earned first-team All-Pac-12 honors. He’s started 23 games over the last two years and should be one of the nation’s top linemen in 2017.

 

7. Royce Freeman, RB, Oregon

Injuries derailed Freeman’s hopes of a third consecutive 1,000-yard season in 2016. Despite the injuries last fall, Freeman still managed 945 yards and nine touchdowns. He should contend for All-America honors under new coach Willie Taggart in 2017.

 

Related: College Football's Top 25 Quarterbacks on the Rise for 2017

 

6. Cody O’Connell, OL, Washington State

O’Connell was the leader for Washington State’s offensive line last season and is among the nation’s top returning performers on the line of scrimmage for 2017. O’Connell was a first-team All-American by Athlon Sports last year.

 

5. Azeem Victor, LB, Washington

Victor’s season-ending leg injury in early November was a huge loss for Washington’s standout defense. Despite the injury, Victor still earned first-team All-Pac-12 honors. He’s on track to return to full strength for the opener and maintain his place among the top defenders in the Pac-12.

 

4. Josh Rosen, QB, UCLA

Rosen’s 2016 season was derailed by a shoulder injury suffered against Arizona State in early October. A full recovery is expected for 2017, which means Rosen should return to his 2015 form (3,669 yards and 23 scores) under new coordinator Jedd Fisch. However, Rosen needs more help from the supporting cast this fall, especially for a ground game that struggled mightily in 2016.

 

3. Luke Falk, QB, Washington State

Falk led the way for Washington State’s prolific aerial attack and eclipsed 4,000 (4,468) passing yards for the second season in a row. Over the last two years, Falk has tossed 76 touchdown passes.

 

Related: 20 Redshirt Freshmen to Watch in the Pac-12 for 2017

 

2. Jake Browning, QB, Washington

Browning delivered a breakout campaign in his second season as Washington’s starter, throwing for 3,430 yards and 43 scores. He also completed 62.1 percent of his throws and tossed only nine picks on 391 attempts.

 

1. Sam Darnold, QB, USC

The insertion of Darnold into the starting lineup was a big reason why USC earned a trip to the Rose Bowl and begins 2017 as one of the favorites to earn a spot in the College Football Playoff. Darnold threw for 3,086 yards and 31 scores last season and rushed for 250 yards and two touchdowns.

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Spring training is winding down, and rosters are being finalized. As each of the 30 Major League Baseball clubs prepares to leave sunny Arizona or Florida, we take a look at five clubs capable of putting poor past results behind them. Expect these clubs to be on the rise in 2017.

 

Tampa Bay Rays

Following a competitive 2015 and led by a strong starting rotation, underrated position players and face of the franchise Evan Longoria, the Rays began last season with postseason aspirations. Unfortunately, almost nothing went right and Tampa Bay slumped to a 68-94 record – the worst for the franchise since 2007 when they were still the Devil Rays.

 

Longoria had one of his best seasons, and Brad Miller hit a surprising 30 home runs, but otherwise the Rays struggled to score runs. Injuries were a major issue. Outfielder Kevin Kiermaier – the elite defender that has been the team leader in WAR the past two seasons – broke his hand and missed 48 games. The team was 14-34 without him, including an especially dreadful 3-27 mid-summer stretch.

 

Health also was an issue for the pitching staff. Brad Boxberger, who led the AL in saves in 2015, made just one appearance before the trade deadline and Alex Cobb pitched in only five games all season – all in September when a losing record had already been guaranteed.

 

Also, the Rays were a bit unlucky. Looking at the Pythagorean win-loss record, the number of runs Tampa Bay scored (672) compared to the runs the team allowed (713) suggest the Rays should have won 77 games last season. Base Runs indicates the club should have posted a .500 record, which equated to a minus-13 total that was the most in the big leagues. Simply put, the Rays didn’t play as badly as their record, and there should be a natural rebound this year as that luck evens out.

 

A healthier 2017 would do wonders, and the team also made some intriguing offseason moves that should help reverse its record. Losing Logan Forsythe and Drew Smyly stings, but newcomer Colby Rasmus is a bounce-back candidate, new catcher Wilson Ramos should provide a spark when he joins the lineup in May, and pitcher Jose De Leon (the return for Forsythe) has promise. Also, Mallex Smith (a key piece in the Smyly deal) is a sparkplug with the speed and defensive ability the Rays love.

 

Related: Tampa Bay Rays 2017 Preview, Predictions & Schedule

 

Minnesota Twins

Like Tampa Bay, the Twins took a nosedive in 2016 despite confidence gained through a strong ‘15 campaign. Also like the Rays, the Twins were a bit unlucky. Minnesota posted a 59-103 record – the worst in baseball by nine games – though the club’s Pythagorean win-loss record was 66-96 and Base Runs suggests the clubs should have won 65 games.

 

Of course, that doesn’t mean the Twins were good. Thanks to poor pitching and terrible defense, Minnesota struggled mightily to keep opponents off the scoreboard. However, the Twins should be better in both aspects in 2017.

 

Byron Buxton is a Gold Glove-caliber center fielder, and he should hopefully, finally, put together a full season in the big leagues. Max Kepler isn’t a great defender, but the 24-year-old has shown improvement and will be far better in right field than slugger Miguel Sano, who started 2016 there but has shifted back to third base, his natural position. Eddie Rosario was average in left field last season, but was terrific in 2015.

 

An infield consisting of Sano, Jorge Polanco, Brian Dozier and Joe Mauer may not put together a ton of Web Gems or win many Gold Gloves, but it should be more than adequate and fairly productive, especially if Sano can realize his potential as a middle-of-the-order impact bat. But, the biggest reason the Twins should prevent more runs is new catcher Jason Castro. Castro is one of the best pitch framers in baseball, and he takes over for Kurt Suzuki, who despite a solid defensive reputation was one of the worst. The move was one of the few made by Minnesota’s new, more analytical front office over the winter, but it is a good sign for the future.

 

In the starting rotation, Ervin Santana was solid, but Phil Hughes, Tyler Duffy, Kyle Gibson and Jose Berrios all finished with ERAs over 5.00 – but also posted lower FIPs – so there is hope that Castro can get the unit in line. There’s particular anticipation for Berrios to regain the form that made him one of baseball’s top pitching prospects – as well as provide strikeouts the rotation desperately needs.

 

Also, Hector Santiago’s track record in Los Angeles (a 3.82 ERA across three seasons with the Angels) and Chicago (a 3.41 ERA in three years with the White Sox) means the lefty should be better than the 5.58 ERA he posted in 11 starts with the Twins last season.

 

Finally, the Twins should score more runs in 2017. Though it’s unlikely Dozier will hit 42 home runs again, Buxton was brilliant in September, giving a glimpse into why he was often compared to Mike Trout as a minor leaguer. A healthy Sano can take any pitcher deep, Kepler will benefit from being in the lineup every day, and Mauer looked like his old self in both April and August last year.

 

Related: Minnesota Twins 2017 Preview, Predictions & Schedule

 

Oakland Athletics

Sensing a theme yet? Tampa Bay, Minnesota and Oakland all suffered disastrous 2016 seasons, but all three have hope for ‘17 and beyond. For the A’s, the best chance for a turnaround can be found with a dynamic, young starting rotation.

 

Though Sonny Gray suffered through a disappointing campaign and will begin 2017 on the DL, Sean Manaea and Jharel Cotton showed top-of-the-rotation potential, and Kendall Graveman got stronger as the season wore on. In 16 starts from June 12-Sept. 4, Graveman posted a 2.90 ERA with 53 strikeouts and just 19 walks in 105.2 innings. The 26-year-old had an 8-3 record in those games, and the A’s were 12-4.

 

As for the rest of the squad, the A’s lineup has a lot of power, particularly outfielder Khris Davis and shortstop Marcus Semien, who combined for 69 home runs last season. Ryon Healy hit 13 bombs in 72 games as a rookie. The front office added Rajai Davis, Matt Joyce and Trevor Plouffe to the mix, which should help the team’s defense and clubhouse atmosphere, both of which were issues in 2016. Also, a veteran bullpen features four pitchers with closing experience.

 

Unfortunately for the A’s, the AL West is one of the toughest divisions in baseball. The Rangers posted the best record in the American League last season, the Astros are a legitimate World Series contender, and the Seattle Mariners made huge strides in 2016 while Jerry DiPoto’s never-ending wheeling and dealing have the M’s poised for a postseason run. Plus, the Angels have the best player in the world on their team.

 

Nevertheless, as the old saying goes, good pitching beats good hitting. Therefore, the A’s have a chance to significantly improve their record thanks to a strong pitching staff.

 

Related: Oakland A's 2017 Preview, Predictions & Schedule

 

Los Angeles Angels

If you’re trying to build a postseason contender, having the best player in baseball on your team is an excellent place to start. Mike Trout has been in the majors just five full seasons, but he has already established himself as the top player in the game and is well on his way to becoming one of the all-time greats. Last season, Trout hit .315/.441/.550 with 29 home runs, 100 RBIs and 30 stolen bases on his way to a second career AL MVP Award. He led majors in on-base percentage (.441), runs scored (123), OPS+ (174) and walks (116).

 

Of course, having Trout in the lineup hasn’t been enough for the Angels to establish themselves as a dominant force in the AL West. He’s led them to the playoffs only once (2014), and the team was promptly swept out of the ALDS. The club’s record has fallen sharply in the two years since, and last season’s 74-88 mark was the worst for the franchise since 1999.

 

However, there are reasons to be optimistic about the Angels in 2017. Opponents outscored the Angels by just 10 runs last season, meaning its Pythagorean won-loss record was 80-82. That suggests the team played better than its record indicated.

 

Trout isn’t the only capable hitter, either. Albert Pujols is a Hall of Famer that the team hopes has plenty left in the tank, Kole Clahoun made huge strides in terms of getting on base in 2016, Luis Valbuena has plenty of pop and newcomer Cameron Maybin posted some of the best numbers of his career with the Tigers last season.

 

Also, the defense is solid. Andrelton Simmons is a two-time Gold Glove winner and has recorded 131 Defensive Runs Saved over the course of his five-year big league career – more than anyone else in the game. Danny Espinosa is smooth at second base and Martin Maldonado and Carlos Perez are a solid defensive combination behind the plate. Also, despite poor numbers last season, Calhoun and Maybin have shown defensive prowess in the past.

 

The pitching staff is a work in progress, particularly the bullpen, though a healthy Garrett Richards and Tyler Skaggs at the top of the starting rotation would go a long way towards flipping the record back to the right side of .500.

 

Related: Los Angeles Angels 2017 Preview, Predictions & Schedule

 

Pittsburgh Pirates

Four of our first five MLB teams on the rise hail from the American League, which appears to be in a more unstable state in early 2017 than the NL. That likely stems from the overwhelming odds associated with overtaking the defending World Series champion Chicago Cubs, the four-time defending NL West champion Los Angeles Dodgers, and the heavyweight NL East rival Washington Nationals and New York Mets. However, despite a big step back last season the Pirates can break through and shake up the senior circuit.

 

After Pittsburgh made it to the postseason three straight seasons from 2013-15, the Bucs fell to a surprising 78-83 record last year – a dramatic 20-win slide from their 2015 results. The Pirates weren’t even unlucky. Unlike the Rays and Twins, Pittsburgh hit its Pythagorean projection on the nose. The NL’s version of the Moneyball A’s suddenly became the current post-Moneyball A’s.

 

While many pointed fingers towards a subpar season from superstar Andrew McCutchen, the offense wasn’t an issue. In fact, Pittsburgh scored 729 runs in 2016 – more than the franchise managed in any of the previous seven years. Instead, the Pirates’ biggest area of concern was a sudden inability to prevent runs. After holding opposing teams to 631 runs or fewer in each of the three previous seasons (including two seasons of sub-600 totals), the Pirates allowed 758 in 2016.

 

A mediocre pitching staff was largely to blame. Of those that remain from a mid-season shakeup that continued over the winter, Gerrit Cole was good, but not great like he had been in 2015, and multiple injuries led to considerable time missed and a disappointing campaign. Cole should show ace form if healthy in 2017.

 

Ivan Nova posted a solid 3.06 ERA and an even better 2.62 FIP in 11 starts. Jameson Taillon finally made his big league debut following a long and injury-plagued road through the minors, and flashed the brilliance that made him the No. 2 pick in the 2010 draft. Current top prospect Tyler Glasnow also debuted and though he may not begin the season in the majors, the 22-year-old right-hander should be a key piece of the rotation soon. Chad Kuhl showed promise as well.

 

There are questions on the infield, given the uncertain status of third baseman Jung Ho Kang, the development of young first baseman Josh Bell, and underperforming second baseman Josh Harrison, but the Pirates have one of the best outfields in the majors. Expect McCutchen to bounce back, and his shift to right field should strengthen the defense as a whole. Starling Marte, who hit .311/.362/.456 and added 47 stolen bases takes his rightful spot in center. Right fielder Gregory Polanco busted out with 22 home runs and 86 RBIs last season.

 

Also, Francisco Cervelli is one of the most respected catchers in the game. Injuries plagued Cervelli last season, which disrupted the pitching staff, so his health will be a major factor as the Pirates take aim at climbing back into the postseason race in 2017.

 

Related: Pittsburgh Pirates 2017 Preview, Predictions & Schedule

 

Others to Watch (alphabetical order)

Arizona Diamondbacks

Atlanta Braves

Colorado Rockies

New York Yankees

Philadelphia Phillies

 

— Written by Nicholas Ian Allen, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasIAllen.

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The Iowa Hawkeyes entered the 2016 season with sky-high expectations, coming off the historic ‘15 campaign in which they went 12-2, won the Big Ten West Division, and earned a berth in the Rose Bowl. With more returning firepower than any Iowa team in recent memory, and a schedule that included the most difficult games in the friendly confines of Kinnick Stadium, there appeared to be nothing in the way of a return to the national title discussion.

 

But somewhere along I-80 fate intervened and the Hawkeyes’ fortunes were redirected, taking a sharp turn south as the powerful, high-octane, and often fortunate offense of 2015 sputtered to a crawl.  The team eventually finished just 8-5 with a season-ending blowout loss to the Florida Gators in the Outback Bowl.

 

Entering spring practice, much has changed in Iowa City. Gone are the core players from those 2015 and '16 teams. But with a stable full of stellar incoming recruits, combined with a crop of fresh young faces on the sidelines in new coaching roles, there is some sense among observers that the Hawkeyes’ tumble from grace may have finally found its low point.

 

Without the presence of the newest recruiting class, the spring game may provide a limited glimpse into just what this team can accomplish. But it's still the best indicator to date for how the Hawkeyes get back on the road to another Big Ten title and when.

 

5 Storylines to Watch During Iowa’s Spring Practice

 

1. Which QB emerges from the field?
Heading into spring drills, it's technically a two-horse race for the starting QB slot between Nathan Stanley and Tyler Wiegers. But it's probably Stanley's job to lose after the sophomore served as a reliable backup to C.J. Beathard, seeing action in seven games. But don't be surprised to see the coaching staff test Wiegers’ arm strength and agility as well. A junior, Wiegers’ played limited snaps in 2015 but didn’t get in a game last season. With quarterbacks coach Ken O'Keefe back after a five-year run with the Miami Dolphins, a renewed focus will be put on developing future NFL prospects at the position as well.

 

2. Where's the beef?
The O-line is the Hawkeyes’ bread and butter year in and year out. With four starters returning from a unit which won the prestigious Joe Moore Award for best offensive line in college football in 2016, that won't be changing this year either. With an average weight of 303.4 pounds, Iowa’s front will be just as big and physical as ever. The biggest question in this unit is depth and how the five or six other candidates for backup roles distinguish themselves in the weight room between now and August.

 

3. Who emerges as the No. 2 running back?
Akrum Wadley, who finished seventh in the Big Ten in rushing with 1,081 yards last season is back, but someone will need to fill LeShun Daniels Jr.’s shoes behind him. Daniels ended the season just behind Wadley in yards (1,058) and tied him for the team lead with 10 touchdowns. With Iowa relying so heavily on the run, there will be plenty of carries for whoever gets the backup role. The most likely candidate for that job appears to be true freshman Kyshaun Bryan, but he hasn’t arrived on campus yet. That leaves an opportunity for sophomore Tokis Akinribade to make a strong impression during the spring as the staff limits the direct hits on Wadley while he works on bulking up for the regular season.

 

4. What does this offensive overhaul mean for the TE position?
With the Hawkeyes looking at developing this team for the long haul, look for Noah Fant to get the bulk of the reps at tight end this spring. The sophomore will be joined by senior Peter Pekar on the depth chart at the position. But the Hawkeyes also may be ready to return to the Hayden Fry-era philosophy once also espoused by head coach Kirk Ferentz that favors a more robust usage of the tight end. This may mean more multiple-tight end sets. If that happens, look for redshirt freshman Shaun Beyer to become a factor too.

 

5. Who are all those dudes in the white shirts along the Hawkeye sideline?
Tim Polasek will take up where Brian Ferentz left off on the O-line before his promotion to offensive coordinator. Kelton Copeland will assume the coaching of the wide receivers. And most shockingly, O'Keefe has returned to Iowa City as quarterbacks coach. This mix of old and new faces has one thing in common – they all have first-hand knowledge of how the Hawkeyes play, and win, football games. But head coach Kirk Ferentz didn't make these changes to maintain the status quo.  He’s looking to shake up the offense. So expect the unexpected this spring, including a renewed emphasis on the passing game to return to a balance that eluded the Hawkeyes in 2016. Which is why the newfound depth at wide receiver and tight end, and the progress these position groups make this spring, is critical in translating recruiting success to success on the field this fall.

 

Pre-Spring Outlook for Iowa in the Big Ten


If it's true that what you don't know can't hurt you, then Iowa fans ought to feel pretty good right about now. Because the only thing anyone really knows about this team at this point, is what they don't know. Head coach Kirk Ferentz has been very open about the likelihood that the offense will include an army of fresh young recruits. The good news for fans is that this particular recruiting class appears on paper to be far better than their average ranking of 38th. But anyone who expects that to translate to immediate success may be disappointed yet again. It's highly likely that this edition of the Hawkeyes will win early and often, but once again sputter down the stretch with some difficult games on the road in which their youth and inexperience are tested under the brightest of lights. 

 

With the wholesale changes to the offensive coaching staff, and the renewal of confidence that comes with them, there's no reason to believe that the Hawkeyes will not at least match last season’s 8-5 record and go to another bowl game. But if the team or coaching chemistry doesn't gel quickly, it could be another frustrating year of “what if” for the Hawkeye faithful.

 

— Written by Robert A. Boleyn, an independent writer and member of the Athlon Contributor Network since July 2015. Currently based in Southern California, Boleyn attended both the University of Iowa and UCLA. Follow him on Twitter @BoleynRobert.

Teaser:
Iowa Hawkeyes 2017 Spring Football Preview
Post date: Wednesday, March 22, 2017 - 09:00
All taxonomy terms: College Football, Oklahoma Sooners, Big 12
Path: /college-football/oklahoma-sooners-2017-spring-football-preview
Body:

After a short period of scuffling, the 2015 and ‘16 campaigns represented a welcome return to normalcy at Oklahoma. The Sooners followed up their College Football Playoff appearance in ‘15 with a season that was pretty much par for Bob Stoops’ course: double-digit wins, a second consecutive conference championship and a major bowl win.

 

A number of standouts who helped lead OU’s rise back to college football’s upper crust have moved on – Joe Mixon, Samaje Perine, Jordan Evans, Dede Westbrook. Stoops still has plenty of raw materials to work with, though, including quarterback Baker Mayfield. This spring, OU’s coaching staff will look to identify replacements who can keep the Big Crimson Machine rolling.

 

Podcast: The 2017 Big 12 Primer



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5 Storylines to Watch During Oklahoma's Spring Practice

 

1. Adjusting to a four-man defensive front
The Stoops brothers historically preferred four-man defensive fronts, but they switched to a 3-4 base defense in 2013 and stuck with the odd-man front almost exclusively for four seasons. Defensive coordinator Mike Stoops announced on National Signing Day that the Sooners are reverting to more of a 4-3 look, ostensibly to generate more quarterback pressure.

 

The down linemen appear set with Ogbonnia Okoronkwo and D.J. Ward at defensive end and Matt Romar and Neville Gallimore on the interior. How will the coaching staff opt to fill out the linebacker positions, though?

 

Expect Stoops and linebackers coach Tim Kish to tinker with a variety of personnel groupings. Jon-Michael Terry and Ricky DeBerry, in particular, need big springs as they are competing for the opening at middle linebacker.

 

2. Setting the running back rotation
Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine left early for the NFL, so it’s up to a new crop of precocious ball carriers to take their places. Rodney Anderson and Abdul Adams already have accrued at least a year in OU’s offense, putting them in prime position to share the bulk of the carries this fall.

 

Newcomers Marcelias Sutton and Trey Sermon can use the spring session to show out for the fall. Notably, offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley can experiment with strategies for taking advantage of Sutton’s versatility as a runner and receiver.

 

3. Who’s the new No. 1 receiver?
Following the graduation of Dede Westbrook, receivers coaches Dennis Simmons and Cale Gundy will be holding auditions for a new go-to wideout during spring practices. Holdovers such as Mark Andrews, Mykel Jones, Jeffery Mead and Nick Basquine already have their names in the hat. That group will look to build on their existing bodies of work.

 

Junior college transfer Marquise Brown gives the Sooners another intriguing option. Like Westbrook, Brown can fly, and he has the skills to contribute immediately. Unlike Westbrook, however, Brown is stepping into a situation without an obvious No. 1 receiver already on campus. In fact, he might be it already.

 

4. The race for backup quarterback
Former five-star recruit quarterback Kyler Murray made waves when he left Texas A&M after just one season to come to OU. After sitting out his transfer year, Murray now has the chance to compete for playing time.

 

However, with Murray playing baseball this spring, his chances to supplant Austin Kendall as Baker Mayfield’s understudy this season are limited. As such, spring ball will likely be more about whether or not Kendall can solidify his spot on the second line of the depth chart.

 

Maybe touted freshman Chris Robison makes a move of his own?

 

5. Secondary personnel
The details of OU’s new defensive alignment remain scarce, but it’s a good bet that the Sooners will primarily play five defensive backs most of the time. The corner positions are likely set with Jordan Thomas and Jordan Parker, as is one of the safety spots with Steven Parker.

 

The safety position vacated by veteran Ahmad Thomas could come down to third-year players Will Sunderland and Kahlil Haughton, neither of whom has made as much of an impact as would be expected of prospects with their credentials. It’s possible that the safety who doesn’t get Thomas’ former job will play nickel back instead, although incumbent Will Johnson will have something to say about that.

 

Pre-Spring Outlook for Oklahoma in the Big 12

 

There’s nothing fun about pegging OU as the preseason favorite in the Big 12. The Sooners have ended the season with the conference title in hand more often than not since Bob Stoops was hired in 1999. Not exactly stepping out on a ledge to predict history will keep repeating itself.

 

Unfortunately for those seeking a little variety in their preseason picks, OU still looks like the class of the conference. Despite the high-profile losses at the skill positions, the Sooners bring back arguably the best QB in the country and the entirety of their offensive line. OU won’t have the same level of firepower as the last couple of years, but this is a program that has a deserved reputation for its plug-and-play offense.

 

More importantly, for as poorly as OU’s defense played overall last season, the Sooners started coming together on that side of the ball late in the year. That probably has a lot to do with the maturation of freshmen studs Caleb Kelly and Jordan Parker, who were pressed into service at outside linebacker and cornerback, respectively. They’re now two cornerstones of a D that returns seven of the top 10 tacklers from a year ago. The coaches also have four freshman defenders on campus this spring as early enrollees, which should help put the newcomers in position to provide depth in the fall.

 

The reality is that six months before the start of the season, OU still looks like more of a sure thing than any other team in the Big 12.

 

— Written by Allen Kenney, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Kenney is founder and editor of BlatantHomerism.com and host of the Blatant Homerism Podcast. Follow him on Twitter @BlatantHomerism.

Teaser:
Oklahoma Sooners 2017 Spring Football Preview
Post date: Tuesday, March 21, 2017 - 11:00
All taxonomy terms: Alabama Crimson Tide, College Football, SEC
Path: /college-football/alabama-crimson-tide-2017-spring-football-preview
Body:

Alabama returns to the field on March 21, as the Crimson Tide open spring ball. For Nick Saban, this is Year No. 11 in Tuscaloosa, a reign that has featured a ridiculous four national titles.

 

Of course, the Tide came as close as humanly possible to winning their fifth title under Saban in January before falling in the final seconds, so you can bet this team will carry an edge with it throughout 2017.

 

What can we discover about Alabama this spring? Glad you asked.

 

5 Storylines to Watch During Alabama’s Spring Practice

 

1. Offensive coordinator Brian Daboll
Alabama hired Daboll, former tight ends coach for the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots, as its offensive coordinator, marking the third different person to hold that post for the Tide in the year 2017. Seriously. Lane Kiffin, who was the Tide’s coordinator for 2014-16 and won the SEC with three different quarterbacks, was cast aside after the Peach Bowl when he took the head job at FAU. And the title-game replacement, Steve Sarkisian, left to run the offense of the NFL’s runner-up, the Atlanta Falcons. So in comes Daboll, who has quite the talent at his disposal in the backfield, as the Tide return starters Damien Harris and Bo Scarbrough at running back, in addition to talents B.J. Emmons, Joshua Jacobs and five-star early enrollee Najee Harris. Oh, and Daboll has a returning starting quarterback to work with, too.

 

2. Jalen Hurts’ next step
Speaking of that returning QB... Hurts impressed throughout 2016, taking the reins as a freshman starter and never looking back. He nearly won the national title game for the Tide, putting the offense on his back and giving Bama the lead on his 30-yard touchdown scamper with a little more than two minutes remaining. He is the first returning starter under center for the Tide since AJ McCarron, who won national titles in 2011 and ‘12 and was the Heisman Trophy runner-up in ‘13. What can Hurts do in his second year? Tide fans have to be excited about the possibilities.

 

3. Which receivers step up?
Gone are ArDarius Stewart, Gehrig Dieter and O.J. Howard, who were three of Bama’s top pass catchers from a year ago. Calvin Ridley (73 catches, 769 yards, 7 TDs in 2016) is back, but after next on the list in terms of production — who is actually a receiver, that is — is Cam Sims, who caught 14 balls for 152 yards last season. Expect more from Trevon Diggs (11 catches, 88 yards, TD) in his sophomore year. Bama has shown it has no shortage of running backs capable of making big plays in the passing game, although it will be interesting to see how Daboll utilizes them. We just don’t know yet.

 

4. New staff members
Daboll isn’t the only new Alabama assistant after the offensive coordinator exodus of 2017. The aforementioned receivers will be coached by Mike Locksley after Billy Napier left to become Arizona State’s offensive coordinator, and Joe Pannunzio will coach the tight ends and coordinate special teams after tight ends/offensive tackles coach Mario Cristobal left to join Willie Taggart’s staff at Oregon. Locksley has been with the program before as an offensive analyst, while Pannunzio had been Saban’s director of operations from 2011-14 before holding a similar role with the Philadelphia Eagles. The Bama history for both new assistants is important, as the chemistry of a new staff can often be an unpredictable, overlooked storyline.

 

5. Who fills in at linebacker?
You may have noticed that none of the above storylines focus on the defense. We may have come to take the Tide’s annual dominance on that side of the ball for granted, but there is still turnover to be addressed and questions to be answered, especially at linebacker, where the Tide say goodbye to Ryan Anderson, Reuben Foster and Tim Williams. Two guys worth keeping an eye on: senior Rashaan Evans, who made his first start in the College Football Playoff semifinal against Washington, and five-star early enrollee Dylan Moses.

 

Pre-Spring Outlook for Alabama in the SEC

 

There’s a lot to like about Bama in 2017. A lot. Consider the sour taste this program likely has in its mouth from losing a national title game with one second to play. Then consider the fact it had a new offensive coordinator in that game, a freshman quarterback who was not fazed and a running back who, if healthy, will legitimately challenge for the Heisman Trophy in 2017.

 

Yeah, the Crimson Tide will be just fine. They have won the last three SEC titles, made the College Football Playoff in every year of its existence and have a potential long-term leader under center. The only thing slowing them down could be complacency, and luckily for them, they have a head coach whose M.O. is essentially to combat that. Doing so will be a little bit easier this time around, too, without a championship ring to show for the 2016 season.

 

— Written by Matt Fortuna, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and spent six seasons covering college football for ESPN.com. Fortuna’s work has been honored by the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA) and U.S. Basketball Writers Association (USBWA) seven times. Follow him on Twitter @Matt_Fortuna and like his Facebook page.

Teaser:
Alabama Crimson Tide 2017 Spring Football Preview
Post date: Tuesday, March 21, 2017 - 10:30
All taxonomy terms: College Basketball
Path: /college-basketball/2017-ncaa-tournament-ranking-sweet-16-teams
Body:

Hard as it is to believe, but 52 games are already in the books in the 2017 NCAA Tournament and it won’t be long before we whittle 16 teams down to four. While there may be no true Cinderella-type team in this year’s Sweet 16, there are plenty of powerhouses, Hall of Fame head coaches and future NBA lottery picks that should make for one impressive slate of games in the four regionals.

 

How do the remaining basketball teams in the field stack up against each other? After surviving and advancing into the Sweet 16, here’s a bit of re-seeding to rank the title contenders:

 

1. Kansas

The early favorite for Most Outstanding Player in the NCAA Tournament might just be freshman Josh Jackson. He’s been terrific for KU in its first two wins and it’s hard to find more consistent guard play from a team than this one. Some folks may hesitate given past jitters for Bill Self but it’s hard to understate battle-tested Kansas’ chances right now.

 

2. Arizona

Sean Miller may be in pole position to claim being the best active head coach to not reach the Final Four but he’s got an Arizona team that has what it takes to make it all the way... up the road to Phoenix. Guard Allonzo Trier can get a shot just about everywhere on the floor and big man Lauri Markkanen is playing himself into the top five of this year’s NBA Draft. The Wildcats have always been good defensively and might finally have the offense to match this year with a deep team primed to keep things rolling.

 

3. North Carolina

Roy Williams’ team needed to pull one out against Arkansas in order to reach the Sweet 16 but the Tar Heels remain one of the favorites to win it all as they head to Memphis. Such a close call may have helped jolt some life into the squad, which knows just how hard it is to get to the Final Four after last year’s run. Justin Jackson and Kennedy Meeks are a heck of a combo on the floor and one figures that an extra few days of rest will help Joel Berry II get his shooting touch back after rolling his ankle late in the first round win against Texas Southern.

 

4. West Virginia

The Mountaineers may have struggled a tad in their opening round game but they showed why they’re a threat to win it all by clamping down on Notre Dame to advance to the second weekend of the Tournament. Jevon Carter paced a really efficient effort on the offensive end and when West Virginia is knocking down shots like it did in Buffalo, this team will be a tough out for everybody in its path. We all know about how tough Bob Huggins’ squad plays defense but the offensive stride the Mountaineers find themselves in means a Final Four is clearly in reach.

 

5. Michigan

If you had to pick a team of destiny this March, it’s hard to go with anybody other than the Wolverines. After surviving a plane clash prior to the Big Ten Tournament, this team hasn’t lost at all and has been playing to its full potential ever since. They moved past two of the toughest outs of any Sweet 16 team last week and have a deep roster of players who can go off on any one night from Moritz Wagner down low to Derrick Walton Jr. on the perimeter.

 

6. UCLA

There are a few stretches each game where the Bruins are passing and scoring like they’re the Golden State Warriors at full strength. Lonzo Ball is running the team’s high-powered offense to perfection and multiple scoring options like Bryce Alford and T.J. Leaf will hurt you if you try to double one player. Defense and rebounding remain a concern but if the switch is flipped on, there aren’t many teams that can beat UCLA.

 

7. Wisconsin

On Wisconsin! It seems like the Badgers have gotten used to knocking off the tourney’s No. 1 overall seed in recent years and pulled off the upset of 2017’s edition by beating the defending champions, Villanova. This is a veteran group who knows how to win in this setting, featuring the terrific shooting duo of Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig. Everybody questioned Wisconsin being seeded so low and now everybody knows why.

 

8. Gonzaga

Many folks questioned whether the Bulldogs would be battle tested after ripping through a relatively soft schedule and earning the No. 1 seed in the West. The team showed flashes of a squad that could finally reach that ever-elusive Final Four during the first two rounds but never put together a complete 40 minutes during their time in Salt Lake City. The emergence of big man Zach Collins is a positive development but the backcourt needs to be more consistent or the Zags will face another early exit.

 

9. Baylor

Scott Drew got his team off to an incredible start to the year before hitting a few road bumps during conference play. So far though, we’ve seen the early season version of the Bears. Johnathan Motley remains a beast down in the paint and they’ve got a great option off the bench in blossoming star Terry Maston. There may be no more physically imposing squad left in the running for the title and Baylor will make things tough for anybody.

 

10. Oregon

Yes the Ducks’ title hopes took a hit with the loss of big man Chris Boucher but this is still a team capable of making it all the way. Dana Altman is an experienced head coach who gets the best out of his bunch and he’s been doing that the past few weeks. Dillon Brooks has been great to nobody’s surprise but the emergence of Mr. March, Tyler Dorsey, gives Oregon plenty of options.

 

11. Kentucky

This isn’t the most talented Kentucky team of the past few seasons nor have the Wildcats been playing their sharpest basketball during the opening two rounds. That said, there is still an amazing array of top-tier basketball players on the squad and the combination of De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk has the potential to take over any game. If UK is hot from the field, these ‘Cats can beat just about anybody but they’re susceptible given all the youth and inexperience.

 

12. Florida

Mike White manages to reach his first Sweet 16 with the Gators and has the team playing like it did earlier in the season after a rather lackluster March prior to the opening round. Forward Devin Robinson has really been playing well on the offensive end and is a terror on the defensive boards. The UF defense really clamped down on two teams to make it to New York and remain one of the more balanced teams in the bracket.

 

13. Purdue

Pundits spent countless hours talking about the Big Ten seeds and low and behold the regular season conference title winners made a pair of statements on the opening weekend of the Tournament. While the Boilermakers did collapse a bit in that win over Iowa State, they still gutted it out behind Caleb Swanigan’s incredible play.

 

14. Butler

A familiar face during March Madness is back in the Sweet 16. This run by the Bulldogs isn’t quite as out of nowhere as some of the other ones however, as the team proved it was capable of beating heavyweights coming into the tourney. The teams the Bulldogs have drawn along the way has helped them get to this point but the balance in scoring and good defense has Butler looking dangerous once again.

 

15. South Carolina

It took 44 years for South Carolina to end their NCAA Tournament drought with a victory and just 48 hours for another monstrous win for Frank Martin’s team. Let’s face it, there’s getting hot and getting hot at the right time, which is exactly what the Gamecocks did in the first two rounds after slumping massively coming into the tourney. As good as they’ve been, we’ll see if things change as they travel away from South Carolina to play the next few games.

 

16. Xavier

Hats off to Chris Mack, who has done a terrific job in reaching the Sweet 16 for a fourth time after a tumultuous past six weeks. He’s re-tooled the lineup after the loss of Edmond Sumner and the team is finally starting to hit its stride after a bit of running in place. The Musketeers thrashed a much bigger Florida State team to reach the second weekend and are still a threat to keep going even if they don’t have quite as much talent as the rest of the bracket.

 

— Written by Bryan Fischer, an award-winning college football columnist and member of the Athlon Contributor Network. You can follow him from coast-to-coast on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat at @BryanDFischer.

 

(Top photo by Jeff and Laura Jacobsen/Kansas Athletics, courtesy of www.kuathletics.com)

Teaser:
2017 NCAA Tournament: Ranking the Sweet 16 Teams
Post date: Tuesday, March 21, 2017 - 10:00
All taxonomy terms: ACC, College Football, Miami Hurricanes
Path: /college-football/miami-hurricanes-2017-spring-football-preview
Body:

Mark Richt’s first season at the University of Miami went probably better than most expected. The Hurricanes finished the season 9-4 and there’s a lot of optimism coming into spring practice, which begins on March 21.

 

Although there will not be a spring game for fans to observe how much the team has improved, they’re still some questions Hurricanes fans have. As Miami will look to win their first ACC Coastal Division title, here are a few storylines to watch this spring.

 

5 Storylines to Watch During Miami’s Spring Practice

 

1. Quarterback competition
Now that three-year starter Brad Kaaya is off to the NFL Draft, the Hurricanes will need to find a new starter at quarterback. Kaaya set a ton of records at Miami including passing yards and completions, so finding his predecessor won’t be easy. 

 

Redshirt junior Malik Rosier is the quarterback with the most experience, but he has one start in his career as most of his snaps have been in mop-up duty. Jack Allison, a four-start recruit from the 2016 recruiting class, redshirted last year and is expected to be the player with the best chance to unseat Rosier as the favorite for the starting job. In his senior season in high school, Allison threw 11 touchdowns and completed 62.1 percent of his passes.

 

Freshman Cade Weldon enrolled in the spring, so he is expected to figure into to competition this spring. With no spring game don’t expect Richt to announce his decision at least until freshman N’Kosi Perry arrives in the fall.

 

2. With Stacy Coley and David Njoku gone, who will step up as pass catchers?
Coley and Njoku will both be selected in April’s NFL Draft, which will leave the Hurricanes with some questions at wide receiver and tight end. Sophomore Ahmmon Richards returns after recording 49 receptions for 934 yards and four touchdowns in 2016, but the depth chart behind him is a mystery.

 

Braxton Berrios is the returner with the most catches – 12 for 178 yards and two scores. Miami hopes Dionte Mullins and DeeJay Dallas will continue their development and emerge as realistic options during the spring.

 

Chris Herndon, who will likely be the starting tight end, saw a lot of action a season ago as he caught 28 passes for 334 yards and two touchdowns. Both Michael Irvin and Jovani Haskins were suspended for the Canes’ Russell Athletic Bowl victory over West Virginia, so it remains to be seen where either fits into the picture at this point.

 

3. Can Miami’s offensive line improve?
The Hurricanes struggled to protect the quarterback throughout last season, giving up 25 sacks. Nearly all of those (20) came in the first eight games, so the offensive line did show some improvement at the end of the campaign.

The good news is that several key members return, which means Miami will be able to build on some momentum and enjoy some continuity headed into the fall. Guard/tackle KC McDermott, center Nick Linder and guard/tackle Trevor Darling are all back with LSU transfer George Brown Jr. considered the favorite to wind up at left tackle.

 

4. Is Miami’s defensive line their strength of the team?
The one unit that resembled the old Hurricane teams from the past was the defensive line. Defensive coordinator Manny Diaz and defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski oversaw a unit that spent plenty of time in opponents’ backfield last season. With several key linemen returning, the expectation is for more of the same this fall.

 

Kendrick Norton and Chad Thomas are back and coming off of campaigns in which each recorded more than 10 tackles for a loss. End Joe Jackson had 10.5 stops behind the line of scrimmage and led the team with 7.5 sacks.

 

Not only do the Hurricanes appear to have NFL-caliber talent up front, they also have depth with Jon Ford set to enroll this summer. It’s possible Miami could field the best defensive line in the country, which is saying something with defending national champion Clemson and Florida State residing in the same division.

 

5. Youth in secondary
Corn Elder, Rayshawn Jenkins, Adrian Colbert and Jamal Carter are all gone, meaning the Hurricanes’ secondary will undergo a major makeover. There is not a lot of game experience returning, so this figures to be one of Diaz’ points of emphasis this spring.

Jaquan Johnson is the veteran of the returners after recording 38 tackles, an interception and 1.5 sacks last season.

Malek Young figures to be one of the favorites to start at corner. As a freshman, Young had 22 tackles and a pick. Miami will add more names to the mix this summer when transfers Dee Delaney and Jhavonte Dean, as well as freshman Trajan Bandy are expected to enroll.

 

Pre-Spring Outlook for Miami in the ACC

 

Many didn’t have high expectations for Mark Richt in his return to his alma mater. But all of that changed after the Hurricanes went 9-4 last season. Now, many are full expecting Miami to not only contend in, but win the ACC Coastal Division.

 

Whoever winds up at quarterback, he will have a productive running game led by Mark Walton to rely on. The offensive line also should be better, especially compared to how it performed through the first eight games of last season.

 

Miami has non-conference games against Bethune-Cookman (home) and Arkansas State (away) before its ACC opener at Florida State, the likely preseason favorite in the conference. If the Hurricanes were to somehow win that game in Tallahassee, the rest of their schedule is favorable with Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech and Notre Dame coming to Hard Rock Stadium. Even if Miami loses to the Seminoles, a rematch in the ACC Championship Game in December is entirely possible.

 

— Written by Antwan Staley, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and has extensive experience covering Florida sports teams. Staley has written for Bleacher Report, the Miami Herald and the Palm Beach Post and is a reporter for Pro Player Insiders. Follow him on Twitter @antwanstaley.

Teaser:
Miami Hurricanes 2017 Spring Football Preview
Post date: Tuesday, March 21, 2017 - 09:30
All taxonomy terms: ACC, College Football, Syracuse Orange
Path: /college-football/syracuse-orange-2017-spring-football-preview
Body:

In a way, the loss to Pittsburgh on Nov. 26 perfectly summed up Dino Babers' first season as the Syracuse head coach. When the Orange fell to the Panthers, 76-61, to conclude a 4-8 year, it contained some of 2016's ups and downs. Yes, like many of the Orange games, the offense made impressive strides, as 61 points is nothing to be ashamed about. But, also like a lot of Syracuse games in Babers' first season, the defense was sorely lacking and quite honestly something to be ashamed about.

 

As Babers gets ready for his second spring practice in Central New York, he'd like to continue that offensive ascension while fixing those problems along the defensive side of the ball. There is enough experience to possibly make some headway on both fronts, and Babers has a history of turning programs around quickly.

 

5 Storylines to Watch During Syracuse's Spring Practice

 

1. Quarterback depth
The Orange have a clear starter at quarterback in junior Eric Dungey, so there is no controversy as they enter camp. However, Dungey has a history of injury problems, as missing the last three games of 2016.

 

Senior Zack Mahoney is a solid option if Dungey is not available, while redshirt freshman Rex Culpepper might not be an immediate answer but could be down the line. True freshman Tommy DeVito arrives in the summer to throw his hat in the ring, but the goal now is to build depth behind Dungey.

 

2. Protecting the pocket
Experience on the offensive line will not be a problem. The Orange have pieces like Cody Conway, a junior who is the returning starter at left tackle, and fellow classmate Aaron Roberts at left guard.

 

The issue is how much better the unit can perform. The Orange were 119th in the nation in sacks allowed per game. Especially given Dungey's injury concerns, the Orange need to improve up front.

 

3. Finding Etta-Tawo's replacement
The surprise of last season was the emergence of wide receiver Amba Etta-Tawo, the graduate transfer from Maryland who caught 94 passes for 1,482 yards and 14 touchdowns. Now that he's gone, the question becomes who replaces that production?

 

Players like Steve Ishmael and Ervin Phillips are known quantities who will be counted on to make plays. Someone like junior Jamal Custis, who missed last season with an injury, would be one candidate to watch as a breakout performer.

 

4. Building defensive line depth
At the moment, the Orange are simply short on bodies on the defensive line. Heading into the spring, there are only three scholarship defensive ends practicing with the team.

 

Things are not great at defensive tackle, either, as junior Steven Clark is dealing with blood clots. This is a team that was not great up front on defense to begin with last year, so building depth along this unit is critical.

 

5. Cordy's return
After missing most of last season with a broken forearm, safety Antwan Cordy is back this spring. He is a key member of the back seven and can play a vital role in the defense's improvement.

 

Just one player is not going to be able to turn around a defense that gave up 76 points in its last game, but Cordy is the best playmaker in the secondary and the junior should be a leader that unit can count on.

 

Pre-Spring Outlook for Syracuse in the ACC

 

The rebuild process in Syracuse still has a long way to go. Teams like Clemson, Florida State and Louisville are way ahead of where the Orange are, as Syracuse still needs to shore things up on the defensive end to get to the lead pack in the Atlantic Division. That said, Syracuse did make some strides last season with wins over teams that went bowling like Virginia Tech and Boston College. If the Orange can beat teams like Boston College, Wake Forest and even NC State in the division, bowl eligibility is possible.

 

— Written by Adam Kurkjian, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and is a reporter for the Boston Herald. He has covered the World Series, Super Bowl, Stanley Cup playoffs, Boston Marathon and Little League World Series, among other events from the high school, college and pro ranks. Follow him on Twitter @AdamKurkjian.

Teaser:
Syracuse Orange 2017 Spring Football Preview
Post date: Tuesday, March 21, 2017 - 09:00
All taxonomy terms: College Football, News
Path: /college-football/podcast-2017-sec-college-football-primer
Body:

-Braden Gall and Mitch Light breakdown the latest in college football. Don't forget to subscribe here and rate us if you like (or don't like) what you hear!

 

Today, we begin our 2017 spring primer series and it has nothing to do with spring practice. We start with the Big 12.

 

- What is the biggest issue facing the future of SEC football and its perceived drop-off? There is one simple solution.

 

- Missouri, Vanderbilt and Kentucky are all looking up at the rest of the SEC East. What are the next steps for each program?

 

- Is South Carolina the Wild Card in the East?

 

- What seperates Florida (quarterback), Tennessee (leadership) and Georgia (offensive line) from one another? Is this a coin flip and does Butch Jones' job depend on the outcome?

 

- What else can we say about Alabama?

 

- There are two clear challengers to the Crimson Tide and we'll break down both Auburn and LSU.

 

- Can Nick Fitzgerald and Mississippi State be the surprise team this fall? What the hell will happen to Hugh Freeze?

 

- Will Texas A&M or Arkansas do something other than finish in the middle of the pack?

 

 

Send any ideas, questions or comments to @BradenGall or @AthlonMitch or email [email protected]. The podcast can be found on athlonsports.com/podcastiTunesStitcher and our podcast RSS feed.

Teaser:
Podcast: 2017 SEC College Football Primer
Post date: Monday, March 20, 2017 - 13:53
All taxonomy terms: College Basketball, News
Path: /college-basketball/ncaa-tournament-2017-sweet-16-bracket-cheat-sheets
Body:

It took a little longer than recent years, but March Madness finally made an appearance in the 2017 NCAA Tournament this past weekend and no doubt laid waste to many a bracket. But then again the upsets and the unexpected are what make this time of year and filling out a bracket so much fun, right?

 

Had defending national champion Villanova making it back to the Final Four? Sorry, about that. Thought the ACC would be well represented in the Sweet 16? Only North Carolina made it out unscathed, as Duke, Louisville, Florida State, Notre Dame and Virginia all lost their second round games. And what about the East Region? If you had No. 3 Baylor, No. 4 Florida, No. 7 South Carolina and No. 8 Wisconsin as the four teams that would play in Madison Square Garden for a spot in the Final Four then take a bow.

 

So now that everyone’s bracket is beyond recognition with all of the crossed out teams, here's your chance to start fresh. Impressed with Xavier? Now you can jump on the Musketeers’ bandwagon all the way to the Final Four in Glendale, Arizona. And what about Michigan? Can the Wolverines continue their run that started with the Big Ten Tournament? And which team do you think will come out of the South Region, the only one in which the top four seeds remain?

So if you could start over, how would your Final Four look? Here is how some Athlon Sports editors see this week’s action playing out. Just don’t ask to see our original brackets.

 

Mitch Light
East           Midwest
     
Final Four
         
 
     
             
West           South
     
     
         
 
     

 

Braden Gall
East           Midwest
     
Final Four
         
 
     
             
West           South
     
     
         
 
     

 

Mark Ross
East           Midwest
     
Final Four
         
 
     
             
West           South
     
     
         
 
     

 

Jasmine Watkins
East           Midwest
     
Final Four
         
 
     
             
West           South
     
     
         
 
     
Teaser:
NCAA Tournament 2017: Sweet 16 Bracket Cheat Sheets
Post date: Monday, March 20, 2017 - 11:30
Path: /college-basketball/2017-ncaa-mens-basketball-tournament-sweet-16-schedule
Body:

A rather mundane first round gave way to a thrilling second round as the 2017 NCAA Tournament field has been whittled down from 68 teams to 16. The action will resume in San Jose, California, and Kansas City, Missouri, on Thursday, and then switch to Memphis, Tennessee and the Big Apple on Friday as the path to the Final Four in Glendale, Arizona, has been laid out.

 

Here are the matchups, times and broadcast information for Thursday’s and Friday’s Sweet 16 games.

 

Note: Some start times may be approximate.

 

Thursday, March 23

 

No. 7 Michigan vs. No. 3 Oregon (Midwest Region)

7:09 p.m. ET, CBS
Sprint Center (Kansas City, MO)

 

No. 4 West Virginia vs. No. 1 Gonzaga (West Region)

7:39 p.m. ET, TBS

SAP Center at San Jose (San Jose, CA)

 

No. 4 Purdue vs. No. 1 Kansas (Midwest Region)

9:39 p.m. ET, CBS

Sprint Center (Kansas City, MO)

 

No. 11 Xavier vs. No. 2 Arizona (West Region)

10:09 p.m. ET, TBS

SAP Center at San Jose (San Jose, CA)

 

Friday, March 24

 

No. 4 Butler vs. No. 1 North Carolina (South Region)

7:09 p.m. ET, CBS

FedEx Forum (Memphis, TN)

 

No. 7 South Carolina vs. No. 3 Baylor (East Region)

7:29 p.m. ET, TBS

Madison Square Garden (New York City)

 

No. 3 UCLA vs. No. 2 Kentucky (South Region)

9:39 p.m. ET, CBS

FedEx Forum (Memphis, TN)

 

No. 8 Wisconsin vs. No. 4 Florida (East Region)

9:59 p.m. ET, CBS

Madison Square Garden (New York City)

 

Teaser:
2017 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament: Sweet 16 Schedule
Post date: Monday, March 20, 2017 - 10:30
All taxonomy terms: College Football, Tennessee Volunteers, SEC
Path: /college-football/tennessee-volunteers-2017-spring-football-preview
Body:

The Tennessee Volunteers entered spring practice in 2016 with lofty aspirations and even bigger expectations. The pressure factor was high, but question marks were few and far between for a star-studded Tennessee roster. While an injury-plagued season ultimately failed to live up to expectations, 2016 wasn’t a complete failure for the Vols. They managed to cap off a 9-4 season with their third consecutive bowl victory. And highlight wins against Florida, Georgia and Virginia Tech helped to offset embarrassing losses to South Carolina and Vanderbilt to some extent.

 

While the hype surrounding the program isn’t at the same fevered pitch heading into spring practice in 2017, the pressure to succeed has never been higher for fifth-year head coach Butch Jones. And unlike 2016, the Volunteers embark on spring practice with more questions than answers. The cupboard is far from bare on Rocky Top in terms of potential talent. However, there are some really big shoes to fill and much of that potential talent is still unproven. Adding to the uncertainty is an overhauled Tennessee coaching staff. This spring probably won’t unlock all of the answers, but it should provide some much-needed insight on the current state of Tennessee football and the season to come.

 

5 Storylines to Watch in Tennessee’s Spring Practice

 

1. The All-Important Quarterback Battle
The most pressing issue on the agenda for the Volunteers this spring will be to start the process of finding Joshua Dobbs’ successor at quarterback. That’s no easy task considering everything that Dobbs has meant to this program over the last four years. The primary contenders to land the starting job are junior Quinten Dormady and redshirt freshman Jarrett Guarantano. Redshirt sophomore Sheriron Jones and true freshman Will McBride also could factor into the mix with a good showing this spring.

 

Dormady, a prototypical pocket-passer, should have a leg up on the competition to begin spring drills. He is the only quarterback on the roster with actual game experience, albeit marginal, serving as the primary backup to Dobbs in each of the last two seasons. Guarantano has never taken a meaningful snap at the collegiate level. However, the former No. 1-ranked high school dual-threat quarterback could have an edge of his own. The read-option has been a crucial part of Tennessee’s identity on offense with Butch Jones in charge, and Guarantano appears to be the best fit in that regard. That said, it will ultimately come down to which quarterback shows the best command of the offense and most promise in the passing game. This is a battle that could linger all the way into the season.

 

2. New-Look Coaching Staff
Jones didn’t completely clean house this offseason, but the Tennessee coaching staff did undergo a major overhaul with six big changes. Perhaps the biggest move in the offseason was the promotion of tight ends coach Larry Scott to offensive coordinator. It’s a move that has drawn some criticism, which isn’t unreasonable considering Scott has no prior experience in that role. While all of the new coaches will be under the microscope this spring, no one will be scrutinized more than Scott. It should be interesting to see if he brings any of his own nuances to the Volunteer offense this spring.

 

All in all, most of the staff changes have been well received and considered to be upgrades. A fresh start for coaches and players alike could be exactly what Tennessee needs right now as well. However, any time a staff undergoes wholesale changes, there is always some cause for concern. Continuity can be a critical component to a team’s success, and the Vols enter 2017 with little of it in regard to the coaching staff.

 

3. Strength and Conditioning
One area of contention surrounding the Tennessee football program last season was the lack of a true director of strength and conditioning following the firing of Dave Lawson. In fact, there are many who believe that it was the single biggest factor in the Vols’ failure to live up to expectations. There may actually be some merit to that theory as well. Tennessee was decimated by injury last season and clearly outmuscled by smaller teams at times. Both are issues that could be attributed to a deficiency in strength and conditioning.

 

One of the first orders of business in the offseason was to address the matter. The Volunteers did so by bringing in 16-year NFL veteran strength and conditioning coach Rock Gullickson. He is highly regarded as one of the best in the business. And the early reviews have been glowing. Gullickson’s presence is already said to be yielding positive results in the weight room and paying dividends with player conditioning. Spring practice will provide our first glimpse at the team’s offseason progression under Gullickson’s tutelage. Additionally, it should provide further insight to help determine if those results are actually going to show up on the field. This could prove to be Jones’ best move of the offseason.

 

4. Replacing the Stars on Offense
The good news is that the Volunteers will be well represented at the upcoming NFL Draft for the first time in a while. The bad news is that leaves plenty of big shoes to fill on Rocky Top. Tennessee loses a huge chunk of its offensive production from last season with the departures of Dobbs as well as RB Alvin Kamara, WR Josh Malone and RB Jalen Hurd.

 

The Vols’ offensive line returns almost completely intact which helps tremendously. And players such as RB John Kelly, WR Jauan Jennings, WR Josh Smith and TE Ethan Wolf have the experience and upside to help fill the void. But there will be a lot of new faces at the skill positions, particularly at wide receiver. This should be where Tennessee’s efforts on the recruiting trail pay off. This spring should go a long way in helping the coaching staff identify those young players that can step up and have a positive impact this season, as well establish quality depth.

 

5. Replacing the Stars on Defense
Tennessee may be even more hard-pressed to fill the voids left behind on defense. Most notably, the departures of Derek Barnett and Corey Vereen at defensive end. Barnett and Vereen accounted for 20 of Tennessee’s 31 sacks last season. While there are several promising candidates on the roster, it will be a tall order to replace the Vols’ all-time sack leader and a skilled pass rusher in Vereen. Jonathan Kongbo, Kyle Phillips, Darell Taylor and Deandre Johnson will get the first opportunity this spring.

 

Tennessee also must find a replacement for its top linebacker in Jalen Reeves-Maybin. He was injured for the majority of the 2016 season and his absence proved to be a major blow to the Vol defense. It will be critical to find a suitable replacement this spring, something that never really materialized last season, in part due to a rash of injuries that decimated the depth chart at linebacker. Both outside linebacker positions should be up for grabs this spring, including the spot vacated by Reeves-Maybin. Cortez McDowell, Daniel Bituli, Dillon Bates and Elliott Berry are just a few candidates worth keeping tabs on this spring.

 

Additionally, the Volunteers must replace their best cornerback and punt returner in Cameron Sutton. They have plenty of experienced players returning at cornerback, as well as some talented newcomers that will compete for the vacant spot. Emmanuel Moseley, Justin Martin, Rashaan Gaulden, Baylen Buchanan and Marquill Osborne are all players of note that will be vying for valuable reps at cornerback this spring. It will be intriguing to see how these players progress under new defensive backs coach Charlton Warren. It will also be interesting to see how the depth chart at defensive back unfolds during the spring.

 

Pre-Spring Outlook for Tennessee in the SEC

 

The Volunteers enter spring practice as kind of an enigma. The roster features more upper classmen than it has in years, and on paper, this is still one of the most talent-rich teams in the SEC East. The problem is that much of that potential talent is still unproven at this point. There’s also the matter of replacing so many valuable players, most notably Joshua Dobbs at quarterback. You add in all of the changes to the coaching staff, and it’s difficult to gauge the current condition of Tennessee football heading into the spring. The next few weeks should provide some answers.

 

If the Vols can remain reasonably healthy, and a solid replacement emerges at quarterback, there is no reason to believe that Tennessee can’t be a threat to compete for a division title. But as of now, the phrase “cautiously optimistic” best describes the way to feel about the Vols’ prospects in the SEC for 2017.

 

— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.

Teaser:
Tennessee Volunteers 2017 Spring Football Preview
Post date: Monday, March 20, 2017 - 10:00

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