Articles By All
We do it every year. We label guys in the NFL Draft as "can't miss" and "sure thing" — and that's rarely the case. Be that as it may, it doesn't stop us from going through the exercise of elevating successful college players to future Hall of Famers as the draft approaches every spring.
I've singled out four players who will likely be drafted fairly early the end of this month. Scouts, talking heads and fans love these guys, but the pessimist in me sees chinks in their armor that could result in them being average at best, as opposed to the elite players many project them to be. I'm officially placing these four players on "bust watch."
2017 NFL Draft Bust Watch
Mitchell Trubisky, QB, North Carolina
This is not so much an indictment on Trubisky's talent as it is the team he ends up with — even though his body of work is slim. He's going to go early, likely to a team looking for an immediate or sooner-rather-than-later, long-term starting quarterback. The issue with that is, the teams that fall into that category are all missing very important pieces that you'd like to already have when you plug in a young signal-caller. Look at a guy like Andrew Luck. He has as much talent as any quarterback in the league. Be that as it may, the perpetual mess that surrounds him in Indy has made him a non-factor in terms of competing for championships. If Trubisky gets stuck with the Browns, 49ers, Jets or Bears, it will be a very steep uphill climb to NFL success for him.
John Ross, WR, Washington
Ross wowed everyone at the NFL Scouting Combine with his time in the 40-yard dash. Yes, he's very quick. In the right system, he has the chance to excel and be a nice, situational, complementary weapon for an offense that already has decent pieces in place at the receiver position. The problem is, he's being projected to go to a lot of teams that don't have a No. 1 option at receiver. He would be it — all 5-foot-11, 188 pounds of him. Smaller receivers like Julian Edelman and Antonio Brown have Hall of Fame quarterbacks throwing to them in systems designed largely around their skill sets. There's no guarantee that ends up being the situation Ross finds himself in once his name is called on draft day. He can be good, but his ceiling is probably somewhere on the Brandin Cooks spectrum. I'm not sure that's worth a pick in the top half of the first round like some are projecting.
Jabrill Peppers, S, Michigan
Just like in college, Peppers is going to be one of the better overall athletes on the field in every game he participates in. That's terrific. His problem will be finally mastering one skill. He's projected as a safety, but there were plenty of instances in college where — as a safety — he was out of place against both the run and the pass. In most cases, his athleticism made up for it. That won't be the case at the next level. The team that drafts him will need to fight the urge to make him a gimmick player they use in all three phases of the game, instead focusing on making sure he masters a single craft. Unless he falls to a more stable franchise in the bottom third of the first round, that is not very likely to be the case. In the NFL, gimmicks don't last.
Leonard Fournette, RB, LSU
Fournette is a physical specimen. He's essentially a linebacker carrying the ball with some underrated breakaway speed. What will cause Fournette to fail to meet expectations at the next level is his projected role vs. his actual skill set. The modern game has almost completely moved on from the 25-30 carries per game running backs who were the focal points of their respective offenses. Championship-caliber clubs usually only utilize big, physical backs situationally, preferring smaller, quicker backs who double as virtual slot receivers in their pass-friendly offenses. That being the case, Fournette's build and playing style could actually be liabilities with the exception of first down and short-yardage plays. He simply doesn't possess that same quickness that made Ezekiel Elliott such an asset in the Cowboys' offense. Taking him with a top-10 pick like some are projecting could end up being a franchise-altering mistake.
— Written by J.P. Scott, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. His work has appeared on SI.com, FoxSports.com, Yahoo! and Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @TheJPScott.
News broke early Wednesday morning on the death of former Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez.
Aaron Hernandez committed suicide - statement from prison authorities. pic.twitter.com/xgQLA20x6Q— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) April 19, 2017
Hernandez was recently found not guilty of a double murder but was still serving life in prison for being found guilty in the 2012 murder of Odin Lloyd. Once word spread on the 27-year-old's death, members of the NFL community reacted on Twitter.
Damn I hated wakin up to that news. Regardless of how he lived his life he still has a family and friends that loved him. RipAaronHernandez— Jacoby Ford (@JacobyFord12) April 19, 2017
RIP Aaron Hernandez— Dorin Dickerson (@scorindorin) April 19, 2017
Tragic story of one man's life decisions who affected many families including his own. Aaron Hernandez.— Gerald Alexander (@GAlexander21) April 19, 2017
Two things hearing from players re Hernandez:— mike freeman (@mikefreemanNFL) April 19, 2017
1. Sympathy for family of Odin Lloyd;
2. Wondering if what happened to Hernandez CTE related.
The Patriots are not currently set to make a statement.
When it comes to strength of schedule, you'd be hard-pressed to top the road the Wisconsin Badgers had to navigate in 2016. But in true Wisconsin fashion, all they did was win on the way to a Big Ten Championship Game appearance.
As for 2017, a couple of games against teams from the state of Utah along with what should be a yawner against Florida Atlantic will serve as an early-season tune-up for the Badgers. Their conference schedule – as are most in the Big Ten – looks formidable, but much more manageable than what they faced a season ago. The Badgers also get a week off to prepare for their conference slate after wrapping up the non-conference schedule.
2017 Wisconsin Badgers Schedule
Bye: Week 4
The Aggies have become a bit of a tough out over the years, but had a rough go of it in 2016. Head coach Matt Wells will be looking to improve on last season’s 3-9 showing but his team will have its work cut out for it in their opener at Camp Randall Stadium.
The Badgers welcome new FAU head coach Lane Kiffin to town. If nothing else, this will be a game that keeps the Wisconsin defense on its toes, thanks to both Kiffin's creative mind and the underrated athletes the Owls have at the skill positions.
Wisconsin makes its first road trip of the season, and it won't be easy. BYU returns a seasoned team whose core was a part of nine wins in 2016.
Pat Fitzgerald's Wildcat's are always ready for a fight and 2017 will be no different. Veterans at quarterback and running back will keep Northwestern competitive in most games, including this one against the Badgers.
|6.||Oct. 7||Lincoln, NE|
Mike Riley has slowly filled the Nebraska offensive depth chart with guys who fit his system. On defense, the Huskers are transitioning to a 3-4 defense led by new coordinator Bob Diaco. There's no telling how good – or bad – this season's version of Nebraska could be.
A sneaky-talented Purdue squad will be tough to put a bead on in under first-year head coach Jeff Brohm. The Badgers shouldn't have any issues getting the win, but the trip to Nebraska the previous week could have lingering effects.
Maryland head coach DJ Durkin is quietly building a competitive roster in College Park, but the Terrapins are still a season or two away from being a consistent threat to a program like Wisconsin.
As many expected, Lovie Smith is still climbing uphill in an effort to get the Fighting Illini relevant and competitive again. Like Maryland and Purdue, Illinois is not yet a real threat to the Badgers.
The departure of head coach Kevin Wilson and subsequent hiring of Tom Allen should not change a whole lot about Indiana's offensive attack in the short term. If anything, the Hoosiers may become more defensive-minded in their approach.
|11.||Nov. 11||Madison, WI|
Once again, this will probably be like looking in the mirror for the Badgers. Iowa should have some stability at quarterback by the time these two meet in what promises to be another physical matchup between the last two champions of the Big Ten West.
|12.||Nov. 18||Ann Arbor, MI|
Any reloading Jim Harbaugh has to do thanks to the mass exodus of talent from a season ago should be complete by the time this game takes place. This could be the first of two meetings between the Badgers and Wolverines.
|13.||Nov. 25||Minneapolis, MN|
Records won't matter in this one, as new Golden Gophers head coach P.J. Fleck will inject his energetic personality into his team and have them up for every games – especially this season-ender against a hated rival.
— Written by J.P. Scott, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. His work has appeared on SI.com, FoxSports.com, Yahoo! and Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @TheJPScott.
Florida has won the SEC East each of the past two seasons, but is another team ready to knock the Gators from their perch? Jim McElwain and company figure to be in the hunt once again, but Florida lost several key pieces of their defense to the NFL draft and the quarterback position remains unsettled.
Georgia and Tennessee figure to be the primary challengers to the Gators, but both of these teams finished two games behind Florida last season and each has their own share of question marks. So if this is a three-way race, which team has the edge at this point?
The 2017 season is still a few months away, but it’s never too early to analyze the upcoming year. Athlon’s editors and writers will debate some of college football’s top offseason questions until the release of its top 25 in May.
Florida, Georgia or Tennessee: Which Team Wins the East Division in 2017?
Antwan Staley (@antwanstaley), AthlonSports.com contributor
For Florida, can the offense improve enough to get back to Atlanta? The Gators lost eight defensive starters from a unit that finished fifth in the country. Also, have the Gators finally found a quarterback in Feleipe Franks? If Florida's offense struggles again, it will be hard to get back to the SEC title game.
Much like Florida, Tennessee also has questions at the quarterback position as junior Quinten Dormady and redshirt freshman Jarrett Guarantano are competing to be Joshua Dobbs’ replacement. Tennessee also needs to replace several standouts on defense, including defensive end Derek Barnett. The Volunteers’ schedule is demanding with road trips to Florida and Alabama on tap, but they do host Georgia, LSU and South Carolina, so that will help.
Georgia is the likely favorite to win the East mainly because sophomore quarterback Jacob Eason is expected to take the next step in his maturation. The Bulldogs will, however, need to replace three starters on the offensive line. Another reason Georgia is likely the favorite in the East is because its defense finished 16th in the nation a year ago and returns just about every starter. That is not the case for neither Florida nor Tennessee.
My money is on Georgia at the moment.
I like the Gators to win the East for the third consecutive season. Whether it's Feleipe Franks or Luke Del Rio that ultimately wins the starting quarterback role in Gainesville, Florida's offense will be loaded with experience and talent at every other position on the field. While it's accurate to say the defense has lost several key contributors, many of those same defenders missed significant action last season, and the unit did not suffer a significant drop-off without them in the lineup - speaking to the depth and coaching of the program. The schedule lines up in Florida's favor as well, the Gators face only three true road games in conference play (Kentucky, Missouri, South Carolina) and get Tennessee in Gainesville.
Tennessee certainly has the talent to make some noise in the East, but with so much uncertainty following the offseason staff shakeup, it's hard to predict how the Vols will respond. Mixing a first-time play-caller with a starting quarterback without any meaningful college experience should be a huge concern for UT. Georgia will have all the summer hype, but several offensive issues remain unresolved in Athens. The Bulldogs need to find answers at receiver and offensive line to help the team's quarterback live up to his massive recruiting hype. UGA doesn't have the luxury of facing any of the three best league teams on its schedule in Athens this season (Tennessee, Florida, and Auburn).
Cody McClure (@CodyMcClureCFB), AthlonSports.com contributor
Georgia should be the favorite to win the SEC East in 2017. The Bulldogs are loaded on offense with the return of the SEC's top running back duo in Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, as well as one of the conference's top quarterbacks in Jacob Eason. The 'Dawgs addressed their biggest need in the offseason by bulking up on the offensive line with the 2017 recruiting class. Georgia also brings back the majority of a nasty Kirby Smart-led defense that got progressively better week-to-week last season and ended up ranking No. 4 in the SEC in total defense.
Florida has won the division the past two seasons, and teams like Tennessee and South Carolina could also be in the mix. But Georgia has the most talent in the East. While 'Dawgs fans have seen that before – only to end up disappointed – it's important to remember that Georgia has a new coach now. Smart hasn't shown any signs of underachievement yet, so it's best to give him the benefit of the doubt. Georgia fans should be cautiously optimistic.
Rob McVey (@Rob_UTVOLS), AthlonSports.com contributor
Georgia returns arguably the best running back tandem in the country, along with most of the starters from a solid defense. Sophomore quarterback Jacob Eason should be much improved in year two as well. The only real question mark is the offensive line.
Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven), Athlon Sports
It’s tough to pick against Florida after back-to-back East titles, but I’m leaning Georgia as the East champ in 2017. The Bulldogs return 11 starters on a defense poised to rank among the SEC’s best after limiting opponents to 24 points per game last year. The offense is still a work in progress. However, the running back tandem of Sony Michel and Nick Chubb is among the nation’s best – if not No. 1 – and quarterback Jacob Eason will take a step forward in his second season as the starter. The biggest question marks about this unit still rest with the playmakers on the outside and on the offensive line.
While Georgia is my early pick, I don’t think there is much separation between the Bulldogs and Florida. The Gators will remain stout on defense even with some significant personnel losses. And the offense is poised to take a step forward with redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks under center. Florida also has a favorable path. LSU, Texas A&M and Tennessee come to Gainesville, and the annual matchup with Georgia is in Jacksonville. The Bulldogs have to play Auburn and Mississippi State in crossover play, while taking on Tennessee in Knoxville. The Volunteers aren't far behind Florida and Georgia, but I think coach Butch Jones' team ends up No. 3 in the division in 2017.
Trying to pick your optimal DraftKings lineup for this week's (April 20-23) golf tournament: the Valero Texas Open in San Antonio, Texas? Our fantasy golf experts are ready to help.
Here's what our optimal lineup looks like.
Charley Hoffman ($10,700)
He's trimmed his flowing mane, but Hoff is a horse for this course — no finish worse than T13 in seven Valero Texas Open starts since 2010.
Billy Horschel ($8,900)
Another horse worth riding this week, with three top-4 finishes here in his last four appearances. One caveat: His wife just gave birth, so he may not be exactly rested.
Luke Donald ($8,700)
We told you last week that Donald was worth a pick, and he justified our faith with a runner-up. We'll double down on Donald this week. He was T13 here last year.
Soren Kjeldsen ($7,500)
He's a TPC San Antonio newbie, but Kjeldsen has been sneaky tough over a recent stretch thanks to a solid short game that'll come in handy this week.
Daniel Summerhays ($7,000)
Last four Valero Texas Open finishes: T7, T2, T4, T13. Five for five in cuts made at TPC San Antonio. In terms of horses for courses, he's Secretariat.
Sam Saunders ($7,000)
Arnie's grandson has three straight top-20 finishes. TPC San Antonio rewards good putters, and Saunders was fifth in strokes gained, putting at Harbour Town.
The Boston Marathon is difficult to get through, but this veteran is as tough as they come.
Former Army Staff Sgt. Earl Granville carried a woman across the finish line while she held the American flag. Granville, who lost one of his legs during his third deployment in Afghanistan, completed the marathon and helped out a fellow runner along the way.
Army National Guard vet Earl Granville, who lost his leg in Afghanistan, carries a woman across the finish line of the Boston Marathon. pic.twitter.com/3S3e2nad10— ABC News (@ABC) April 18, 2017
A true hero's work is never done.
Boston fans are still not fond of ESPN after the whole Deflategate thing.
One Twitter user uploaded a picture he took during the Boston Marathon of a bystander holding the famous 3-28 score when the Falcons were leading the Patriots in the third quarter of the Super Bowl, and everyone seemed to love it.
When the photo had gone viral ESPN's assignment desk asked if the worldwide leader in sports could use it on all platforms. That wasn't going down in this fan's mind.
That's got to hurt.
Going to your first baseball game is priceless.
Kolt Kyler, a huge Cubs fan, is being repaid for being such a big help around the house and with anything his family needs. His dad decided to surprise him with tickets to a Cubs game at Wrigley Field when they play the Cardinals. You may get a little teary-eyed watching this video.
Experiencing his favorite team for the first time is a dream come true for the young baseball fanatic.
Thanks to what could only be called "widespread mediocrity" across the NFC, the NFC North got two teams into the playoffs this past season. Be that as it may, the division — outside of Green Bay with Aaron Rodgers under center — is full of question marks and teams looking for direction and identities.
The Packers remain the team to beat heading into the draft, but the Lions and Vikings are only a piece or two away from dethroning them. The Bears, on the other hand, appear to be in rebuilding mode. Luckily for all four teams, the 2017 NFL Draft has enough quality prospects at every position help them improve immediately. It's just a matter of making the right choices once they are on the clock.
2016 Snapshot: It wasn't pretty for the Bears last season. Four different quarterbacks took snaps for the team en route to a three-win season. As a result — and to the delight of many Bears fans — Jay Cutler is no longer on the roster. Unfortunately, Alshon Jeffery — arguably the team's best player over the last couple of seasons — now plays for the Philadelphia Eagles. The lone bright spot heading into 2017 appears to be running back Jordan Howard. The rookie out of Indiana topped 1,300 yards on the ground and found the end zone seven times.
Biggest needs: Even though they signed Mike Glennon, the Bears are still in need of a long-term option at the quarterback position. Additionally, help is needed at both offensive tackle spots. On defense, they have no real pass-rushing threats.
First-round pick: No. 3 overall
Potential picks: The are whispers here and there that Chicago really likes North Carolina quarterback Mitchell Trubisky. He'd likely sit behind Glennon most, if not all, of the year if selected. If the Bears don't pull the trigger on a quarterback and hold onto the pick, they'll likely go with the best player available. In that case, you're looking at Stanford defensive end Solomon Thomas, LSU safety Jamal Adams or Alabama defensive tackle Jonathan Allen.
2016 Snapshot: The Lions had a bit of a roller-coaster season, losing their last four games and backing into the playoffs before getting bounced on wild card weekend by the Seahawks. The good news was that Matthew Stafford seemed to have gotten his groove back, and the offense is only a piece or two away from being one of the most dangerous in the league.
Biggest needs: As much as they need more big-time weapons on offense, the Lions need even more help on defense — particularly at linebacker. Once they address that need, they could use an upgrade at running back and a bigger receiver for Stafford to target in the red zone.
First-round pick: No. 21 overall
Potential picks: This first-round pick is probably going to be a linebacker. If that's the case, you're looking at Temple's Haason Reddick, Vanderbilt's Zach Cunningham and Wisconsin's T.J. Watt as possible options. Don't be shocked, however, if they try to make a splash by landing Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey.
Green Bay Packers
2016 Snapshot: The Packers fought through injuries and a mid-season slump to win the division and come within a game of playing in the Super Bowl. In the NFC Championship Game against Atlanta, Green Bay's defense was exposed. The offense proved it has enough pieces in place to score with anyone as long as the defense holds up its end of the bargain. That tells you the direction the Packers are likely to go during the draft.
Biggest needs: The Packers need help at cornerback, thanks to the departure of Micah Hyde. They also are desperately in need of more depth at inside linebacker and lack consistency in their pass rush.
First-round pick: No. 29 overall
Potential picks: Wisconsin's T.J. Watt would be a perfect fit in so many ways if he's still around when the Packers are on the clock. If not, you are likely going to see them go with a cornerback first. Look for Washington's Kevin King or USC's Adoree' Jackson to be in the mix.
2016 Snapshot: The season started off shaky for the Vikings, as quarterback Teddy Bridgewater was lost for the year dropping back during a practice in the preseason. Sam Bradford stepped in and kept the ship afloat as long as he could, but was eventually done in by one of the worst collective offensive line performances in the league. The end result was a .500 season where four mid-season losses by a combined 17 points cost Minnesota a division title.
Biggest needs: The guard and center positions on the offensive line need to be addressed. Additionally, some depth and youth is needed at the safety position. I also would not be stunned to see the Vikings draft a quarterback early as a long-term insurance policy to Bridgewater's serious injury situation.
First-round pick: none
First pick: No. 48 overall
Potential picks: It'll be tough to avoid drafting a guard or center with the 48th pick. If he's still on the board, Ohio State center Pat Elflein makes a lot of sense, as does Indiana guard Dan Feeney. If Minnesota decides to gamble at quarterback, Patrick Mahomes II out of Texas Tech could also be in play.
— Written by J.P. Scott, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. His work has appeared on SI.com, FoxSports.com, Yahoo! and Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @TheJPScott.
Auburn has quite the challenge ahead of it this season. Yes, the Tigers made the Sugar Bowl last season and are expected to make another run at a New Year’s Six bowl in 2017, but the schedule has plenty of obstacles, from a Week 2 trip to Clemson to a three-game road stretch against SEC West opponents. Oh, and there’s the Iron Bowl too.
Here’s the road the Gus Malzahn and the Tigers need to navigate if they are to build off last season’s surprise campaign and give the SEC more firepower after a down year for the league in 2016.
2017 Auburn Tigers Schedule
Bye: Week 7
This is no layup of an opener, not against a triple-option offense — although having plenty of offseason time to prepare for that certainly helps. (Assuming the Tigers aren’t already looking ahead to Week 2.)
A road date with the defending national champs. It doesn’t get much tougher than that. Clemson will be going for its second win over schools from the state of Alabama in the past three games.
Wake us up later.
|4.||Sept. 23||Columbia, MO|
This rematch of the 2013 SEC Title game — a 59-42 Auburn win — is actually the first scheduled meeting between the two teams since Mizzou joined the SEC in 2012. That says something about a conference’s scheduling philosophies... we’re just not sure what.
|5.||Sept. 30||Auburn, AL|
Is Nick Fitzgerald ready to become an elite SEC QB? And what will new Bulldogs defensive coordinator Todd Grantham bring to Stark Vegas in Year 1?
|6.||Oct. 7||Auburn, AL|
This caps arguably the easiest stretch of Auburn’s season — three home dates in four games, all against teams that did not go bowling last year. It gets much more difficult for the Tigers in the second half.
|7.||Oct. 14||Baton Rouge, LA|
This is the Auburn’s third game of the season against another team named the Tigers. Oh, and LSU might be out for revenge after last year’s loss to Auburn cost Les Miles his job.
|8.||Oct. 21||Fayetteville, AR|
This could be a tough one for the Tigers, as it comes right before the bye and sandwiched between trips to LSU and Texas A&M. Gus Malzahn has won three of four against Bret Bielema, including a 56-3 rout last year.
|10.||Nov. 4||College Station, TX|
Maybe by this point the Aggies will finally play like the program they’ve recruited to be, which could spell trouble for the rest of the SEC. Or maybe Kevin Sumlin will be on the hot seat yet again by this point — real or perceived.
|11.||Nov. 11||Auburn, AL|
What’s Auburn’s reward for navigating a grueling there-game SEC West road swing? Two home dates in three weeks with rivals Georgia and Alabama. Some reward.
|12.||Nov. 18||Auburn, AL|
Will Matt Viator have the Warhawks up and running in Year 2? Even if he does, it probably won’t be enough to slow down Auburn.
|13.||Nov. 25||Auburn, AL|
The Iron Bowl. What more needs to be said? Perhaps an SEC West title could be on the line between these two in this contest, not that the game ever needs any added juice.
— 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.
Looking to rebound after an embarrassing 31-0 defeat to Clemson in the College Football Playoff semifinals, Urban Meyer returns another talented group of Ohio State players intent upon making another run at a national title. With a team returning veterans to virtually every position group except the secondary, the Buckeyes should be in the thick of the race in the Big Ten and for a playoff spot right up to the very end of the 2017 regular season.
While this season’s schedule has its share of challenges, Ohio State will probably be favored in virtually every contest this season, including several on the road. The questions that still remain to be answered are how effectively has Meyer and the Buckeyes solved the offensive inconsistencies that plagued them in 2016.
2017 Ohio State Buckeyes Schedule
Bye: Week 8
For the first time in more than 40 years, Ohio State will open up the season against a Big Ten opponent. Throw in the added intrigue of former Indiana head coach Kevin Wilson making his debut as Ohio State's offensive coordinator, and this will only add to the considerable anticipation for the beginning of the 2017 season.
Oklahoma returns to Ohio Stadium for the first time since 1977. Considering how handily the Buckeyes defeated the Sooners in Norman in 2016 (45-24), look for Oklahoma to come into Columbus eager to make amends in the eyes of college football fans across the nation.
This will mark the first time that Army and Ohio State have ever played. Army is coming off an 8-5 season that concluded with an overtime win over North Texas in The Heart of Dallas Bowl.
Another first-time meeting on the gridiron between these two programs. UNLV is coming off of a 4-8 showing in 2016 and should offer little resistance in the Horseshoe.
|5.||Sept. 30||Piscataway, NJ|
Former Ohio State assistant Chris Ash may not be eager to welcome the Buckeyes to New Jersey. Ash’s Scarlet Knights were shut out 58-0 in Columbus last season. The rebuild for Rutgers continues, so expect more growing pains.
Another former Urban Meyer protégé DJ Durkin, put together a solid debut as Maryland’s head coach going 6-7 with an appearance in the Quick Lane Bowl. However, one of those losses came courtesy of the Buckeyes, a 62-3 mauling at home.
Ohio State will make its first trip to Lincoln since the 2011 season. Ohio State has not lost to Nebraska since that game, putting up more than 60 points in a pair of home victories over the Cornhuskers in 2012 and last season.
Revenge will be on the minds of every Ohio State coach, player and fan, as the Nittany Lions will make a trip to Ohio Stadium. Last year's stunning, come-from-behind victory snapped a four game winning streak for the Buckeyes against their division rivals.
|Iowa City, IA|
Trips to Iowa are few and far between. This game will mark the first time the Buckeyes have traveled to Iowa City since the 2010 season, a game that has since been vacated from the record books. Iowa last defeated Ohio State at home in 2004.
|11.||Nov. 11||Columbus, OH|
These teams have split the past two meetings against each other with the road team winning each time. Ohio State will try to buck that trend this season, and don’t be surprised if it’s another close. The last two games have been decided by a total of four points.
|12.||Nov. 18||Columbus, OH|
Former Ohio State secondary coach (1996) Lovie Smith will bring his Fighting Illini to Ohio Stadium for the Buckeyes’ final home game. Illinois hung pretty tough with Ohio State the last time these two teams played, losing 28-3 in Champaign in 2015.
|13.||Nov. 25||Ann Arbor, MI|
After last season’s excruciating double-overtime loss that cost the Wolverines a spot in the Big Ten Championship Game you know Jim Harbaugh will be pulling out all the stops with the Buckeyes coming to the Big House. Michigan also will be looking for its first win in “The Game” since 2011. It’s only fitting that this would decide the East Division (and perhaps more) yet again.
— Written by Chip Minnich, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @ChipMinnich.
Who says Easter egg hunts are just for kids?
One Minnesota linebacker will never look at them the same again. Blake Cashman, a walk-on, learned he was getting a scholarship through a pretty fun game. Leave no egg unturned.
It's better than candy.
The Dallas Cowboys returned to on-field relevance in 2016 on the back of two outstanding rookies and elite offensive line play. Suffice to say, the NFL Draft was a hit for them. The other three teams in their division would all love to have the same luck in this year's draft – and all three need it. The Eagles are in the middle of a rebuild, the Giants are still looking for parts to make everything work and the Redskins appear to be a soap opera gone wrong.
There is plenty of talent available in the 2017 NFL Draft, and all four NFC East team will be in position to acquire players who can change the fortunes – both long- and short-term – of their franchises.
2016 Snapshot: Dallas knew what they were getting when they drafted Ezekiel Elliott. What they didn't know was what would happen when Tony Romo went down with a back injury during the preseason. Enter Dak Prescott, and as we all found out, the Cowboys had caught lightning in a bottle. Prescott was the perfect combination of athletic player and cautious game-manager. He led Dallas to the No. 1 overall seed in the NFC playoffs. Unfortunately, Dallas' dream season ended in a shootout against a red-hot Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers.
Biggest needs: The Cowboys are in the very fortunate position of not really needing anything. The could be helped by a productive edge rusher, another solid cornerback or the addition of some depth and a possible future starter at offensive tackle. They also could look for a capable heir to Jason Witten at tight end. They'll have plenty of options – even picking as late as they do in the first round – to land a player who will fit one of those roles.
First-round pick: No. 28 overall
Potential picks: It all depends on the direction they go. If they are looking for a pass-rushing defensive end, Auburn's Carl Lawson could be their guy. At corner, UCLA's Fabian Moreau makes sense. Miami tight end David Njoku also is an intriguing option.
New York Giants
2016 Snapshot: The Giants qualified for the playoffs after a roller-coaster season of early drama, late injuries and an inability to get into the end zone. Eli Manning topped 4,000 yards passing again, but it was not one of the more impressive campaigns of his career. On defense, the Giants looked to be without a true leader or playmaker. That cost them against some of the league's higher-octane offenses.
Biggest needs: The Giants had a hard time scoring in 2016, never hanging more than 28 points on the board in any one game. You simply are not going to be able to consistently contend with the likes of Green Bay, Dallas or Atlanta with an offense that cannot finish. The brought in Brandon Marshall in free agency, and he'll make a fine No. 2 option to Odell Beckham Jr., What this offense is missing, however, is a reliable tight end. A serious threat over the middle would open a lot of other options up for the Giants. Unfortunately, the all-important left tackle position also is somewhat unsettled.
First-round pick: No. 23 overall
Potential picks: If the Giants want to gamble, they can probably get their tight end in the second round. In that case, they would likely go left tackle and select either Utah's Garrett Boles or Alabama's Cam Robinson. If they decide to reach for a tight end early, Ole Miss' Evan Engram would be a nice addition to the offense.
2016 Snapshot: The season started out great for the Eagles, led by rookie quarterback Carson Wentz. After Week 3 however, it quickly became apparent how far the team still had to go to become realistic contenders in its own division. Wentz had no consistent receiver to target and a revolving door at running back. Defensively, the Eagle defense had a hard time matching up with the better passing attacks in the league.
Biggest needs: The receiver problem was addressed in free agency, so now the Eagles need to focus on shoring up the running back position and solidifying their secondary. Adding some depth to the interior of the defensive line also is on the list of things to do.
First-round pick: No. 14 overall
Potential picks: The smart move would be to draft the best corner available – likely Alabama's Marlon Humphrey or Colorado's Chidobe Awuzi. That said, it will be tough for the Eagle brass to fight the urge to take Florida State running back Dalvin Cook or LSU's Leonard Fournette if either on falls to them.
2016 Snapshot: Washington was nothing short of dysfunctional down the stretch, losing four of its last six games. The problem with looking back to last season is that, perhaps more than any other team in the league, the Redskins of 2017 are going to be a completely different version of what we saw last season. Between a polarizing owner, the firing of a general manager and the saga of Kirk Cousins and his desire to leave town, the Redskins are quite simply a mess.
Biggest needs: The Redskins need to be proactive in the Cousins situation and hedge their bets with a long-term option at quarterback at some point. Additionally, they'll need targets for that quarterback to throw to. Linebacker and guard also are two positions of need going forward, regardless of who is taking the snaps.
First-round pick: No. 17 overall
Potential picks: If it's going to be a quarterback, I don't see any way it's not Clemson's Deshaun Watson. He's the safest option at the position in the draft. If they decide to go receiver, Washington's John Ross is a guy who might remind some Redskin fans of Santana Moss. If they are looking for a bigger, more traditional No. 1 receiver, they are better off waiting until the second round and potentially grabbing Penn State's Curtis Godwin. Kentucky guard Forrest Lamp also is in play.
Isaiah Thomas' sister Chyna tragically passed away in a car accident a day before the Celtics were set to begin their playoff push. The star point guard was obviously overcome with grief.
There was talk about Thomas missing Game 1 against the Bulls but Thomas persevered and scored 33 points in a loss. Everyone talked about his strength and how brave he was for going out there... except Charles Barkley. The NBA on TNT host said when he saw Thomas crying on the sideline it made him "uncomfortable" and that it was a "bad look."
Barkley on Isaiah Thomas:— FootBasket.com (@FootBasket) April 16, 2017
"I'm uncomfortable with him crying on the sidelines like that... it's a bad look." 😒pic.twitter.com/duj61ZXGdE
The video of Thomas crying was hours before the game, not minutes. No matter when it was, you can't question Thomas' heart for going out there, leaving everything on the floor, and being there for his team during a difficult time in his own life.
Texas A&M pass rusher Myles Garrett was a five-star recruit out of high school, an All-SEC and All-America performer for the Aggies, and the unofficial heavyweight champ of the NFL Scouting Combine — prompting one defensive coordinator to tell The MMQB, “I don’t have a player comparison for what I just saw. He looked like Wolverine.”
The 6’4”, 272-pounder who inspires comic book hero comparisons has cemented his status as the consensus No. 1 prospect in the 2017 NFL Draft (April 27-29). We talked to the 21-year-old, whose ability to terrorize QBs in the pocket is about to help line his own pockets in the NFL.
What are you looking forward to at the next level?
Dominating. Having fun. They go hand-in-hand. If you’re having fun, you’re dominating, usually. And if you’re dominating, you’re definitely having fun.
What NFL goals have you set for yourself?
Rookie of the Year, I want to win a Super Bowl, I want to be Defensive Player of the Year, I want to be MVP, I want to be Super Bowl MVP. But I’ve got to work hard to achieve all those things. It’s obviously not going to be handed to me.
What players do you model your game after?
Von Miller and J.J. Watt. Those are the top two.
Who’s the best player you’ve faced?
(Louisville QB and reigning Heisman Trophy winner) Lamar Jackson. In most games, he’s accurate with the ball and if you’re lacking off contain, he’ll escape and go 10, 20, 30, 40 yards down the field to score on you.
Has your love of dinosaurs been overblown?
I am big into dinosaurs, but I have many other interests that I’m passionate about. That’s something people gravitate to. That’s fine with me. As long as you don’t see me as a “dinosaur” man. I’m much more than that. I’m into poetry. I’m into writing. I love reading. I love sports outside of football. I’m a basketball fan through and through. I love boxing and soccer. I’m a huge Barça fan.
Who’s your favorite player on FC Barcelona?
It’s hard not to say Messi. He’s probably 80 percent of the world’s favorite. But if not him, probably Piqué.
Who’s your favorite poet?
What’s your favorite dinosaur?
Spinosaurus aegyptiacus. It’s the biggest land carnivore of all time. They love to eat fish, but it can also eat anything else because it was so massive — over 50-60 feet long — had a huge shell on its back and was bigger than anything else around.
Other than Jurassic Park, what dinosaur movie should people check out?
If you’re a kid and you haven’t seen Land Before Time, I can’t understand you. That’s the thing that everybody just has to see.
You studied architecture at Texas A&M, do you plan on designing your own house?
I’d like to. If I get the chance and get the time, I’d like to do that.
Should you have been paid for playing college football?
You’re putting your body on the line. You do deserve more money than you’re getting. Guys want to be paid for their likeness. Their jerseys are out there. It’ll be your number and your team. It can’t have your name on it, but it’s still your number. Do you get paid for your likeness yet? Or are you owned by the university?
Do you have any big plans for your first big purchase with your signing bonus?
Get my dad a car. Whatever he wants. He deserves it.
What’s your best pass rush move?
I don’t think I have any move that’s better than the another. If you try to rely on me being a speed rusher, I’ll show you great power. If you think I’m a bull rusher, I’ll run right by you.
In the NFL, every rule written is to protect quarterbacks. How does that impact you?
I just do what I do. Nothing really changes. Don’t hit him below the knees. Don’t hit him in the head. Be ferocious.
Are you still planning on watching the draft with your family in Arlington, Texas?
Still my plan. Quiet at the house. We’ll see what goes from there. I don’t know what we’ll be doing by then, but I know we’ll be eating and celebrating.
Who should be the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL Draft?
Who do I think should be the number one pick? Who? Me.
A new era has kicked off in Baton Rouge this spring with Ed Orgeron fully in command as LSU’s head coach, replacing Les Miles. Miles and his 114 career wins with the Tigers are gone, but there’s still plenty of talent remaining. Fans can expect the same hard-nosed defense under returning coordinator Dave Aranda but a long desired opening up of the offense has been promised with the arrival of Matt Canada.
The Tigers turned in a wild 8-4 season in 2016, fighting through all the ups and downs, the coaching change and some costly injuries, including one to running back Leonard Fournette. LSU opened the season ranked fifth in the country, but stumbled out of the gates to a 2-2 start, which ultimately cost Miles his job.
On the surface, the four losses are nothing to be ashamed about, as one came in the season opener to a Wisconsin team that started out unranked but wound up going 11-3, winning the Big Ten West Division and finishing things off with a victory in the Cotton Bowl over previously undefeated Central Michigan. The other three losses came to SEC foes Auburn, Alabama and Florida. So LSU won eight games and lost four others to teams that went to a bowl game (three of which won their respective divisions), and still a national championship-winning head coach was shown the door. Welcome to life in the SEC West.
As for this coming season, the Tigers’ schedule can be viewed at in two different parts. While the first five games shouldn’t present too much of a challenge, the final seven are a brutal lineup of SEC matchups. LSU’s slate in October and November alone could be viewed as the toughest in the nation, and that doesn’t include a neutral-site game against BYU and a road game at Mississippi State. Also adding to the difficulty is the fact that the Tigers have five SEC road games this season because of the one with Florida that got re-scheduled and eventually moved to Baton Rouge in 2016 because of the impact of Hurricane Matthew.
2017 LSU Tigers Schedule
Bye: Week 9
Both LSU and BYU fans are getting a treat as these tradition-rich programs are set to meet for the first time ever. The Tigers will more than likely be favored, but the Cougars are no stranger to playing SEC West teams. BYU beat Mississippi State 28-21 in double overtime last season, although that game was on the Cougars’ home turf in Provo, Utah.
|Baton Rouge, LA|
Chattanooga was among the FCS’ top teams last season, making the playoffs and finishing ranked 10th in the final poll. But LSU should have little trouble with the Mocs, who gave Alabama some fits last season before falling 31-3 in Tuscaloosa.
Since 1985, LSU has owned Mississippi State, holding a 28-4 advantage during that stretch. More recent meetings have been closer, as Dan Mullen and the Bulldogs continue to prove the doubters wrong. This will be the Tigers’ first real test of the season, as Mississippi State boasts Nick Fitzgerald, one of the SEC’s best quarterbacks.
|4.||Sept. 23||Baton Rouge, LA|
After hosting LSU in 2015, Syracuse will pay its first-ever visit to Baton Rouge. The Orange, who went 4-8 last season, are rebuilding under second-year head coach Dino Babers, while Ed Orgeron and company will no doubt be happy to be back at home after opening SEC play on the road.
|5.||Sept. 30||Baton Rouge, LA|
Troy is coming off of its best season as a FBS program, going 10-3 and at one point finding itself ranked in the AP Top 25 poll for the first time. The Trojans gave Clemson all it could handle last year at home before falling 30-24 to the eventual national champions, so they won’t be intimidated playing in Tiger Stadium.
|6.||Oct. 7||Gainesville, FL|
Last season, Florida rolled into Tiger Stadium and stunned LSU 16-10. The Tigers may have been worn down by a tough stretch of SEC West games prior to playing the Gators, but that excuse won’t fly this fall. Florida is the two-time defending SEC East champs and getting a win in The Swamp is never easy.
|7.||Oct. 14||Baton Rouge, LA|
The last time these two teams played Les Miles was still the head coach, but LSU had a last-second, game-winning touchdown pass from Danny Etling waved off upon review because the play clock had expired before the ball was snapped. The 18-13 loss ended up being the final game Miles coached for the Tigers, as he was relieved of his duties shortly afterwards. Miles may no longer be around, but LSU would love to exact some revenge if for no other reason the fact that it would mean a win over a key SEC West rival.
|8.||Oct. 21||Oxford, MS|
LSU was impressive on both sides of the ball in beating Ole Miss 38-21 at home last season. The Tigers ran for 311 yards, while holding the Rebels to just 107 on 36 carries. Once again this game precedes LSU’s big showdown with Alabama (following a bye), but the Tigers did not get caught looking ahead in 2016. Except the same this October.
|10.||Nov. 4||Tuscaloosa, AL|
It’s no longer Les Miles vs. Nick Saban, but that doesn’t change the significance or magnitude of this game. Alabama has had its way with LSU recently, beating the Tigers the past six meetings going back to the 2012 BCS National Championship Game. New offensive coordinator Matt Canada will have a chance to earn his big salary in this one, as LSU’s offense has to be clicking on all cylinders to have any shot of winning in Bryant-Denny Stadium. The Tigers were shut out 10-0 at home by the Crimson Tide last season.
|11.||Nov. 11||Baton Rouge, LA|
Another tough out for LSU has been Arkansas, as these teams have split the last 10 meetings. The Razorbacks beat the Tigers 31-17 in their last trip to Death Valley in 2015 with LSU returning the favor in Fayetteville, winning 28-10 last season. Arkansas gets a break in that it will have played Coastal Carolina the week before, while the Tigers will have just faced Alabama. The Razorbacks also have been a tough team to beat in November under head coach Bret Bielema.
|12.||Nov. 18||Knoxville, TN|
LSU’s challenging November slate continues with a visit to Neyland Stadium to face Tennessee. The Volunteers figure to be among the favorites in the SEC East and will be aiming for their first win over the Tigers since 2005. The last time LSU came to Knoxville was in 2011. The Tigers won that game easily, 38-7.
|Baton Rouge, LA|
Texas A&M has lost six games in a row to LSU, a streak that dates back to the 2011 Cotton Bowl when the Aggies were still members of the Big 12.How much significance this season-ending matchup will hold remains to be seen, but Texas A&M has to replace key pieces on both sides of the ball, and November has not been kind to Kevin Sumlin’s team recently when it comes to SEC games. The Aggies are just 3-9 in the last month of the regular season over the past four years.
— Written by Ryan Wright, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and an established media professional with more than two decades' worth of experience. Over the years, Wright has written for numerous sites and publications and has his own site, www.recruitingnewsguru.com. Follow him on Twitter @RyanWrightRNG.
(Ed Orgeron photo courtesy of www.lsusports.net)
Once again, the balance of power in the ACC weighs heavily in the Atlantic Division.
With Florida State, Clemson and Louisville bringing back what they do, those three teams all look like top 15-type squads heading into the 2017 college football season. Therefore, when we look at which ACC schedules are the toughest that has to be taken into account.
However, the gap closes slightly this season. Both Virginia Tech and Miami are in the second year of promising new head coaches in Justin Fuente and Mark Richt, respectively, and programs like North Carolina, Pittsburgh and Georgia Tech are probably a slight step ahead of the second group in the Coastal Division.
There will be some terrific non-conference battles (hello, Alabama vs. Florida State), and whenever Clemson, Florida State or Louisville play, it should have national attention.
So let's take a peek around the league to see which teams have the toughest roads to hoe.
1. Florida State
Non-Con: Alabama (in Atlanta), vs. ULM, vs. Delaware State, at Florida
Atlantic Home: NC State, Louisville, Syracuse
Atlantic Road: Wake Forest, Boston College, Clemson
Crossover: vs. Miami, at Duke
Obviously, the season opener with the Crimson Tide is not just the best non-conference game in the league, but the country, as both teams have realistic national title ambitions. Add in road trips to Clemson and SEC East defending champion Florida and the slate outside of Doak Campbell Stadium is fierce. The Seminoles should be favored against Miami, but only beat the Hurricanes by a point last season.
Non-Con: vs. Kent State, vs. Auburn, vs. The Citadel, at South Carolina
Atlantic Home: Boston College, Wake Forest, Florida State
Atlantic Road: Louisville, Syracuse, NC State
Crossover: at Virginia Tech, vs. Georgia Tech
The non-conference slate is highlighted by a home game against an Auburn team that should be much improved with the addition of JUCO/former Baylor quarterback Jarrett Stidham. The Louisville game could have gone the other way last year and that's at Papa John's Stadium this time around. The Tigers also pulled one of the most difficult crossover assignments from the Atlantic in going to Blacksburg to face Virginia Tech.
3. Georgia Tech
Non-Con: Tennessee (Atlanta), vs. Jacksonville State, at UCF, vs. Georgia
Coastal Home: Pittsburgh, North Carolina, Virginia Tech
Coastal Road: Miami, Virginia, Duke
Crossover: vs. Wake Forest, at Clemson
The Yellow Jackets return enough to be a contender in the Coastal Division, but they get no help from their schedule. The non-conference tussles with Tennessee and what should be a much-improved Georgia squad won't be easy. Conference road games against Miami and Clemson will also make life difficult for coach Paul Johnson and Co.
Non-Con: vs. Central Connecticut, vs. Middle Tennessee, vs. Central Michigan, at LSU
Atlantic Home: Clemson, Wake Forest, Boston College
Atlantic Road: NC State, Florida State, Louisville
Crossover: vs. Pittsburgh, at Miami
Three of the non-conference games are manageable, but the trip to Death Valley to face LSU, whose new offensive coordinator rolled up 76 points against Syracuse last year with Pittsburgh, is a bear. Outside of Clemson, NC State, Florida State and Louisville make up probably the toughest road stretch an Atlantic team can find. The trip to Miami also will be treacherous for the Orange.
Non-Con: vs. Youngstown State, at Penn State, vs. Oklahoma State, vs. Rice
Coastal Home: Virginia, North Carolina, Miami
Coastal Road: Georgia Tech, Duke, Virginia Tech
Crossover: at Syracuse, NC State
Yes, the Panthers avoid Clemson, Louisville and Florida State, so the crossover slate is manageable, as both the road trip to Syracuse and the home date against NC State are winnable. That said, the non-conference schedule is brutal, traveling to Happy Valley to face what should be a top-10 Penn State squad and hosting an Oklahoma State team that will be at least in the top 15 to start the season.
6. Boston College
Non-Con: at Northern Illinois, vs. Notre Dame, vs. Central Michigan, UConn (in Boston)
Atlantic Home: Wake Forest, Florida State, NC State
Atlantic Road: Clemson, Louisville, Syracuse
Crossover: vs. Virginia Tech, at Virginia
The meat of this schedule's challenges come within the division. The Eagles have to travel to both Clemson and Louisville and will be heavy underdogs in both. Boston College nearly upset Notre Dame the last time the teams met and traditionally plays the Irish tough, but pulling Virginia Tech out of the Coastal makes for a hard road.
Non-Con: vs. NC Central, vs. Northwestern, vs. Baylor, at Army
Coastal Home: Miami, Pittsburgh, Georgia Tech
Coastal Road: North Carolina, Virginia, Virginia Tech
Crossover: vs. Florida State, at Wake Forest
As far as non-conference games are concerned, Duke has a pretty interesting group. The home games against Northwestern, which is expected to be a fringe top-25 team, and Baylor will both make for an uphill battle for the Blue Devils. Most of the toughest games on the schedule are at home, including the crossover heavyweight opponent in Florida State. The trip to Virginia Tech is the toughest road test.
Non-Con: vs. William & Mary, vs. Indiana, vs. UConn, at Boise State
Coastal Home: Duke, Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech
Coastal Road: North Carolina, Pittsburgh, Miami
Crossover: Boston College, at Louisville
There are a few interesting non-conference battles on the horizon, particularly the trip to Boise to play the Broncos on the Blue Turf. Indiana and UConn are winnable games. The crossover trip to Papa John's Stadium to face Louisville will be intriguing, as the Cavaliers nearly pulled off the upset last year. Although Virginia has not beaten its in-state rival since 2003, avoiding the trip to Blacksburg to face Virginia Tech is preferred.
9. North Carolina
Non-Con: vs. California, at Old Dominion, vs. Notre Dame, vs. Western Carolina
Coastal Home: Duke, Virginia, Miami
Coastal Road: Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech, Pittsburgh
Crossover: vs. Louisville, at NC State
The Tar Heels have an interesting non-conference slate with visits from Cal and Notre Dame, both of which are at home. The crossover games are tough, as Louisville at home and the trip to NC State gives the Tar Heels games against two of the top four teams in the Atlantic. The road games within the division are also about as rough as it gets with visits to the three of the top four Coastal teams.
10. NC State
Non-Con: South Carolina (in Charlotte), vs. Marshall, vs. Furman, at Notre Dame
Atlantic Home: Syracuse, Louisville, Clemson
Atlantic Road: Florida State, Boston College, Wake Forest
Crossover: at Pittsburgh, vs. North Carolina
The non-conference portion of a neutral site game with South Carolina and a trip to Notre Dame is difficult, but the Wolfpack should be competitive with both and maybe favored against the Gamecocks. The trip to Tallahassee to face the Seminoles will be the toughest divisional game, but avoiding Miami and Virginia Tech out of the Coastal helps.
Non-Con: at Purdue, vs. Kent State, vs. Murray State, at Kentucky
Atlantic Home: Clemson, Boston College, Syracuse
Atlantic Road: NC State, Florida State, Wake Forest
Crossover: at North Carolina, vs. Virginia
Credit the Cardinals for playing two non-conference teams from Power Five conferences on the road, but neither Purdue nor Kentucky is a major player, even though the Wildcats beat Louisville last year. The Cardinals avoid Miami and Virginia Tech in the crossover games, but a trip to North Carolina won't be easy. Don't expect the trip to Tallahassee to be as easy for the Cardinals as their blowout win over the Seminoles last year.
12. Virginia Tech
Non-Con: West Virginia (Landover, Md.), vs. Delaware, at East Carolina, vs. Old Dominion
Coastal Home: North Carolina, Duke, Pittsburgh
Coastal Road: Miami, Georgia Tech, Virginia
Crossover: Clemson, at Boston College
For the most part, outside of the West Virginia neutral site game against a team many expect to start the season in the top 25, the non-conference games should be wins. The crossover games bring Clemson to Blacksburg, which should be one of the better matchups of the first half of the season. Miami and Georgia Tech are tough road games inside the division, but, realistically, 10 wins are not out of the question here.
Non-Con: vs. Bethune-Cookman, at Arkansas State, vs. Toledo, vs. Notre Dame
Coastal Home: Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech, Virginia
Coastal Road: Duke, North Carolina, Pittsburgh
Crossover: at Florida State, Syracuse
When you look at this non-conference schedule, it's easy to envision the 'Canes winning all four. Three of the games should be layups, while Notre Dame is at home. The annual rivalry game with Florida State is in Tallahassee and will likely be the only road game, at least at this stage, where the Hurricanes are the underdog. Getting Virginia Tech at home could be critical to how the Coastal title is decided. The 'Canes should win a minimum of nine, maybe 10 games with this schedule.
14. Wake Forest
Non-Con: vs. Presbyterian, vs. Utah State, at Appalachian State, at Notre Dame
Atlantic Home: Florida State, Louisville, NC State
Atlantic Road: Boston College, Clemson, Syracuse
Crossover: at Georgia Tech, vs. Duke
Even for an Atlantic team, this schedule is on the easier side when compared to the rest of the ACC teams. As far as the non-conference schedule is concerned, the trips to Appalachian State and Notre Dame will both be tough for the Demon Deacons, but the crossover games with Georgia Tech and Duke are manageable. Obviously, going to Clemson is no picnic, but Boston College and Syracuse are not all that difficult when it comes to divisional road games.
— 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.
Few debates in sports has become as heated as who should be this year’s NBA Most Valuable Player so is it too late to just hold off voting and declare the winner of the Western Conference’s most compelling first-round playoff series the winner?
Perhaps the league won’t be interested in changing the rules to allow that but it doesn’t make this MVP-caliber duel between James Harden’s Rockets and Russell Westbrook’s Thunder any less enticing. Both teams have undergone impressive transformations in their own right but the end result will be one team moving on and the other moving on to a vacation. The playoffs have a ton of fantastic matchups this year but few will be must-see TV quite like this one.
Houston enters the series as a trendy dark horse to break the hold that the Warriors and Spurs have had on the Western Conference in recent memory. Mike D’Antoni was initially thought to be a questionable hire for a franchise that had a number of flaws but has turned out to be just the right man for the job in leading an impressive turnaround. The up-and-down style the team plays is conducive to high-scoring affairs but the development of Harden into an all-around player instead of just a volume scorer has been key to the Rockets’ resurgence. The team is more than just their MVP candidate running the show however, and the big stage afforded by the playoffs represents a chance for everybody in the Lone Star State to recognize the talent on the roster.
Sitting on the other bench and welcoming the challenge is the league’s fastest guard in Westbrook. While everybody expected him to step things up this year after being spurned by Kevin Durant in the offseason, few could have predicted the guard becoming the second player in NBA history to average a triple-double for the entire season. Westbrook has seemingly been a man on a mission each time he steps on the court and it’s almost scary to think about him turning things up even more in the postseason.
It simply doesn’t get much better than this one and if you’re a fan of basketball, make sure to set your calendar reminders for each and every game of this series.
No. 6 Oklahoma City Thunder (47-35) vs. No. 3 Houston Rockets (55-27)
Game 1 – Sunday, April 16 at 9 p.m. ET (TNT)
Game 2 – Wednesday, April 19 at 8 p.m. ET (TNT)
Game 3 – Friday, April 21 at 9:30 p.m. ET (ESPN)
Game 4 – Sunday, April 23 at 3:30 p.m. ET (ABC)
Game 5 (if necessary) – Tuesday, April 25
Game 6 (if necessary) – Thursday, April 27
Game 7 (if necessary) – Saturday, April 29
Note: Games 1, 2, 5, 7 will be played at Toyota Center in Houston, while Games 3, 4, 6 will be at Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City
Keys for Oklahoma City
As much as the NBA playoffs are a time for stars to shine, OKC will need some significant performances from everybody around Russell Westbrook if they hope to move onto the second round. Victor Oladipo hasn’t been on this kind of stage before and will need to step up as a reliable second option as a scorer and Steven Adams must not only control the paint but also maintain his stance as an interior defender.
Perhaps nobody will have as much pressure on them than Andre Roberson, who will have to bump up his scoring from his average of 6.6 per game while also using his length defensively to slow down James Harden when he’s picking and popping. Second-chance opportunities and loose balls on every possession will be huge for a team like the Thunder given the volume of 3-pointers they’re likely to see in this one from the likes of Trevor Ariza, Eric Gordon and others.
Finally, it goes without saying that Westbrook must be on every night for the team to have a chance. If he’s not feeling his outside shot or is having trouble getting to the basket, life will be pretty tough for OKC during this series.
Keys for Houston
Head coach Mike D’Antoni doesn’t subscribe to the philosophy of defense winning championships but it’s probably safe to say that end of the court will play a key role in his team going one-and-done or advancing to the next round. Chiefly that concerns how the Rockets plan to defend Russell Westbrook and stop him from racking up postseason triple-doubles as often as he did during the regular season.
Patrick Beverley figures to handle those duties first and foremost and the tenacious defender did a pretty good job on the MVP favorite during the teams’ regular season meetings. Defending Westbrook isn’t just a one-on-one battle though and it goes without saying that when he gets up to full steam, the interior defenders will need to step up and help as well. The Thunder are not just a one-dimensional team but making the supporting cast beat you instead of their superstar point guard is certainly the way to go.
Offensively, Houston has been getting just about every shot they’ve wanted this year and are hoping that carries over into the postseason. If the three’s are falling only one or two teams in the entire league are even capable of hanging with James Harden and company on the floor. The Thunder are not one of them so getting up and down should pay off in a big way as these games progress.
We may have to get deep into this series but eventually the focus will fade over the MVP race between Russell Westbrook and James Harden, as the attention will rightfully turn to these two teams and what they’re able to do out on the court. There’s no question that each player is going to be the difference between an early exit or a sustained playoff run but the Rockets taking on the Thunder figures to be the most compelling first-round series in the postseason thanks to each team’s style matching up well with the other.
Oklahoma City certainly wants to clamp down on things defensively and force players like Patrick Beverley, Trevor Arizia and Ryan Anderson out of their comfort zones both offensively and defensively. They do have a big advantage down low and when it comes to rebounding the basketball and any hope of an upset could hinge on those two factors alone.
Houston won’t be intimidated and likely welcomes all the attention that this matchup will bring in order to prove it is a real threat to the West’s top two teams. The Rockets’ bench is much deeper than their opponents and you figure that will come into play as this series progresses and the crunch time minutes get altered depending on how games are flowing and what the foul situation is.
So yes it’s worth tuning in for Russ and Harden battling back and forth alone. It’s also worth making the effort to catch this one because there should be any number of highlights every night that result from either team getting out and running. Houston has the edge in most areas but the Rockets should have their hands full night in, night out before eventually taking the series.
Prediction: Rockets in six
— 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.
The Western Conference is stuffed with compelling matchups but if you’re grading first-round series’ based on the potential for fantastic late night games, it’s hard to go wrong with the compelling pairing of the Portland Trail Blazers and Golden State Warriors. Look past the two seed lines and mismatched records, this series features plenty of superstars, lots of offense and a handful of fascinating one-on-ones that are worth tuning in for alone.
The headliner is not surprisingly the West’s best team of the past three seasons in the Warriors, who cruised to a league-best 67 wins behind their potent trio of Steph Curry, Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson. While the middle name of that group has spent a good chunk of the back half of the season on the bench with a knee injury, the other two have more than made up for the loss and continued to keep the team’s incredible offense humming. Durant has returned to the lineup in the past week though, making the starting five even more lethal and offering head coach Steve Kerr even more flexibility on defense.
On the opposite side is Oakland native Damian Lillard and his cast of confident shooters, who ran off 10 wins in their final 14 games to sneak into the final spot in the West. While you normally wouldn’t think of drawing the top-seeded Warriors in the playoffs is much of a reward for all that effort, this Trail Blazers squad is actually pretty excited at the prospect of playing the underdog and slaying an NBA Goliath over the next few weeks.
It won’t be easy to do so however, as Golden State swept the four-game regular season series and did so by averaging more than120 points per game. The pair haven’t met since January however and undergone significant changes since then so this is a much different ball game than some of the numbers suggest. While we probably should be a tad disappointed that two teams of this caliber are meeting so early in the NBA playoffs, the flip side is one of the most fascinating set of first-round games in the Western Conference.
No. 8 Portland Trail Blazers (41-41) vs. No. 1 Golden State Warriors (67-15)
Game 1 – Sunday, April 16 at 3:30 p.m. ET (ABC)
Game 2 – Wednesday, April 19 at 10:30 p.m. ET (TNT)
Game 3 – Saturday, April 22 at 10:30 p.m. ET (ESPN)
Game 4 – Monday, April 24 at 10:30 p.m. ET (TNT)
Game 5 (if necessary) – Wednesday, April 26
Game 6 (if necessary) – Friday, April 28
Game 7 (if necessary) – Sunday, April 30
Note: Games 1, 2, 5, 7 will be played at Oracle Arena in Oakland, Calif., while Games 3, 4, 6 will be at the Moda Center in Portland, Ore.
Keys for Portland
Health may be the biggest factor for the Trail Blazers if they’re to make a run at a career-defining upset this year. Though every team is banged up after the grueling 82-game schedule, Portland has a host of key players who will need to be monitored during this series. If the team wants to take some of the scoring load off of Damian Lillard and running mate C.J. McCollum that means that Allen Crabbe needs to be good to go. He was dealing with foot issues that caused him to spend the past several games in a boot on the bench but is apparently fine for this series. Keeping him in the game and not in street clothes is going to be pretty important for a team already behind the eight-ball in terms of talent.
As big as Crabbe’s injury is, the one to center Jusuf Nurkic looms even larger. The double-double machine could hold a huge advantage in the paint if he’s in the lineup but it remains to be seen if that will actually be the case come tip-off in Game 1. Nurkic was a difference-maker once he arrived from Denver and played a big role in the playoff push despite eventually winding up with a right leg fracture. The drop-off to Meyers Leonard is steep and it goes without saying that one can’t be shorthanded against a team like the Warriors and expect to pull out four victories.
Outside of those two however, one area to really pay attention to is if Portland can take advantage of being physical in the backcourt on defense. Both of the team’s starting guards are a tad smaller than Klay Thompson but it’s possible to really make life much tougher for Steph Curry on both ends of the court. Tiring out the league MVP doesn’t always work given the amount of stars on the other bench but it has proven to be a useful strategy to use against the team everybody is aiming to beat.
Keys for Golden State
As good as the Warriors have been, this isn’t an opponent they can just show up to the arena and beat. Steve Kerr knows this and so does his group of veteran players, most of whom know exactly what it takes to not only survive the first round but make it all the way to the Finals in June. With the intensity turned up to the max as a result, all eyes will be on how well this team plays and particularly when it comes to the return of Kevin Durant.
Prior to the injury that caused him to miss 19 games, Golden State was just starting to hit its stride in terms of integrating the former league MVP into the lineup. With so many talented shooters and offensive threats, it goes without saying that finding minutes and shots for everybody was going to be a challenge but Steph Curry and the rest of the team eventually found their rhythm mid-season. That was broken up with Durant out of the lineup so it will be interesting to track how well the ball moves around with him back in the starting five and logging significant minutes with the pressure turned way, way up in the postseason. If things are not flowing as crisply as we’re used to seeing, don’t be surprised if Kerr is forced to make adjustments in terms of both play calls and the lineup to make sure things go smoothly for the No. 1 seed.
Aside from the starters though, the Warriors can really take advantage of their diverse options off the bench in this kind of series and really hammer home their frontcourt’s ability to get up and down on both ends of the floor. Being able to insert somebody like Andre Iguodala is truly a luxury few teams have and is one area where the team really needs to be able to extend leads when the time comes.
In the past three decades, the No. 8 seed has pulled off the unthinkable and upset the top seed in the NBA playoffs just five times. Warriors fans know this better than most having pulled it off 10 years ago against the Dallas Mavericks, but the team is certainly hoping history does not repeat itself here.
The Trail Blazers are not backing down from the challenge however and may even be secretly excited over the prospect of doing just that. Star guard Damian Lillard has not shied away from the attention offered by the first-round matchup and has even publicly stated that Portland will advance in six games. That may be some bold talking only a handful of underdogs can do but it fits the mentality of a Portland team this season that has been through plenty of ups and downs.
Staring them down however is the best team in the league by a significant margin. Last year’s painful ending to the Finals has only added fuel to the fire inside of this team that managed to add an NBA MVP to the starting lineup as part of the impressive response to 2016’s letdown. This group is hungry and experienced enough that all the brash talk coming out of the other locker room is very unlikely to faze them.
This has not been the smoothest path to the playoffs for either side but the fact is, Golden State is the better team in just about every area across the board. Given the injuries that Portland is dealing with right now, it’s hard to go with the team from the Pacific Northwest in this West Coast battle and it wouldn’t at all be that shocking to see a sweep. Despite the potential for a lop-sided series in terms of wins and losses, this one should be a thrilling first-round matchup that won’t lack highlights on the offensive end of the floor.
Prediction: Warriors in five
— 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.
(Steph Curry photo courtesy of Getty Images)
Larry Wayne “Chipper” Jones Jr., 44, did it all during his career with the Atlanta Braves — as the No. 1 overall pick in 1990, World Series champion in 1995, NL MVP in 1999 and MLB batting champion in 2008. Chipper’s new autobiography, Ballplayer, covers those bases and much more. We caught up with the switch-hitting third baseman, who will be eligible for the Hall of Fame in 2018.
What was it about those 1990s Braves teams that made them so successful?
I would say cohesiveness, especially ‘95. Coming off the heartbreaks in ‘91 and ’92, got ousted by the Phillies in ‘93 really kind of unexpectedly. The strike in ’94. Everything really set up for that (1995) team to be successful. We got to the World Series against Cleveland, and their obviously vaunted offense — one of the scariest I’ve ever played against, they were awesome. It lends more credence to the fact that good pitching is going to shut down good hitting, 90 percent of the time anyway.
Could you sense that everything was going to culminate with a World Series win in your first full big league season in 1995?
Yeah, it was time. I didn’t have the monkey on my back that some of the other guys did. All I knew was a little itty bitty part of me didn’t want the Braves to win the World Series until I got there. That sounds terrible to say. I was obviously rooting for the Braves to win. But, yeah, there was a little part of me that said, okay, ’95, I’m here now, it hasn’t been done yet, let’s see what I can contribute to us getting back and getting it right. And it worked out.
What was it like as a rookie on that loaded Braves team?
One of the biggest things with championship ball clubs is trust, and your teammates have to trust that you’re going to go out and do your job, that you’re going to be one-ninth of the equation every day that helps you win ball games. Earning that trust in Spring Training and in the early season, until the guys knew, “Hey, this kid’s come in, he’s hitting third, in front of McGriff and Justice and behind Grissom and Lemke, and he’s not missing a beat.” Gaining that trust from my teammates early on in ‘95 was paramount for me.
Your parents were seemingly at every game you played. What did that mean to you?
Yeah. I owe them everything. Every championship that I ever won, whether it was Babe Ruth or a high school state championship or a World Series, I was never going to let the moment slip by to let them know that I was sharing it with them. And I was always glad that they were there.
I remember the state championship my junior year, come off the field first thing and dad’s there with a big old hug. All those hours and hours and hours and days and days and days of fieldwork when I was a kid in the backyard, imitating the lineups that we saw on TV on a Saturday afternoon. I’d turn it around and hit left-handed whenever a lefty was hitting, and then I’d go out trying to be my dad. When you win a championship you have a time of reflection. After Game 6 was over, I went and tried to get my parents’ attention up in the stands and blow them a kiss, because I owe it to them that I’m standing in after this and right there.
I get chill bumps just thinking about it now, and a little choked up. Nobody will ever know the amount of work that was put in, and to have it culminate with the people that I love most in the stands, and us being the last team standing in ‘95, doesn’t get any better than that.
Why do they call you Chipper?
I’m obviously a junior, and my mom got really sick of “Big Larry” and “Little Larry” when I was a kid. People always said I looked like “a chip off the old block” when I was a kid. Yep, he’s a “Chipper,” and it just kind of stuck. That’s how it was explained to me. I’ve been Chipper my whole life. The only person that ever called me Larry, when I was growing up was my great-grandma. She couldn’t get Chipper out for some reason, she just called me “Little Larry.” I didn’t hear it again until I got to New York.
You broke into the bigs and you were almost young enough to be a teammate’s son and then you retired as a man old enough to be a teammate’s father. Which side of that spectrum suited you best?
I was probably suited better to be the mentor. Most of my teammates will probably tell you that I was brash and cocky and sometimes open my mouth when I shouldn’t have and sometimes did things when I shouldn’t have, got a little lippy from time to time. Fortunately, I grew out of that and I had some instances during my career and during my life off the field that kind of humbled me a little bit. And I learned from it and I became what I feel is hopefully a good mentor. You would have to ask some of the younger guys that I played with towards the end of my career, whether I was or not.
The fact of the matter is I tried the best I could to lead by example, tried the best I could to pull guys aside and let them know how things were done, maybe give them a suggestion here or there that might help them. So I would definitely say I was better suited to be the old fogey as opposed to the brash young kid.
There’s another No. 1 overall pick on the Braves right now. What advice do you have for Dansby Swanson?
Keep your head down. Don’t read your press clippings. Go to work every day, play every day, lead by example. I really see Dansby as a Derek Jeter-type of player, personality. Now, he will not have the spotlight on him ever, like DJ does because Dansby plays in Atlanta and DJ played in New York for the Yankees. That being said, he has some of the same attributes as Derek, and I think that the Braves are damn lucky that they got this kid because feel like he’s something that they can build around for many years still.
Speaking of Derek Jeter, your career and Derek Jeter’s career, there are many parallels. Do you think you were underrated because you played in Atlanta and not New York?
You can’t help where you’re drafted. I could not be happier to play for the Atlanta Braves. I’m a southern kid. I wouldn’t trade my life, my career for anything. I go out and I put up the best resume possible and let other people decide all that. I had a blast playing for Bobby Cox, playing for the Atlanta Braves, playing with the Hall of Famers that I did throughout my career.
Who’s to say that playing in New York would have suited me? I know that Derek had the perfect personality and outlook to play in New York. And I can’t say that I necessarily had that. I might’ve gotten in a lot more trouble than he did, through the years. Atlanta’s a lot more laid back, you get away with a lot more in Atlanta. But as far overrated/underrated, I’m up for the Hall of Fame coming up this year, and there’s people out there that say that I got a great shot to get in. How can I deem that being underrated?
You did play well in New York, well enough to name your son Shea…
New York was a special place to me. My dad always said if you can be successful on that stage, in New York, you’ll be successful anywhere. And fortunately for me, I got off to a good start in New York, hitting my first home run in the big leagues in Shea Stadium, playing a couple of World Series and some playoff games there in New York, so a lot of experience in New York, some love/hate along the way with some of the fans and whatnot, but I thoroughly enjoyed my experiences every single time going to the Big Apple and playing.
You mentioned the Hall of Fame and you are eligible for this next class. What will that mean to you? What does the Hall of Fame mean to you?
It means a lot. It’s not everything. It is a crowning achievement, but it’s not why I played the game. It will be quite an honor if I’m selected, but it will not be the end of the world if I’m not. Is that politically correct enough for you? I spent 20 years of my life trying to put up the best resume possible. And right now it’s out of my hands. My motto in life is to not worry about things I can’t control. And I can’t control that right now. I spent 19 years having it in my hands and now it’s on to somebody else.
Speaking of the Hall of Fame, how do you think the Hall of Fame voters should handle the "Steroids Era" of the late ‘90s, early 2000s? Guys like Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens are not in the Hall of Fame...
I would say use common sense. Your instincts are normally correct. You know? If you think somebody is doing something bad, chances are they probably are. If you haven’t heard anything and they’ve been clean, chances are they probably have. It’s a very tough situation for those guys to be in. I get it. It’s unfortunate that some of the best players in the game are linked to steroids, but not everybody did them. There were guys that took pride in their job and doing it the right way. And I think if these voters use their heads and do their due diligence, and investigate a little bit, they’ll have a pretty good idea who was doing it and who didn’t.
What was the best prank you were part of or that you saw?
Oh, boy. I would have to say Maddux was probably the king as far as that goes. But see, Greg was gross. He was one of the grossest human beings you’ll ever want to meet in your life. He would come in — I don’t even know if you can print this — he would come in after playing golf all day, and drop trou right there at his locker, and take his underwear off. And the sanitary bin was right next to his locker, and he would take his sanitary and he would wipe his rear end with his sanitary. And he would put the sanitary back into the sanitary bin, and he would wait patiently for somebody to come by and pick up that sanitary to wipe off. So, yeah, that’s Greg Maddux in a nutshell right there. Many hours of entertainment that guy provided me.
In each issue of Athlon Sports & Life, we pick six of our favorite things. They may be books, automobiles, games, gear, booze, apparel or whatever happens to be awesome. Here's what made our shortlist this month:
Revo Ryker Sunglasses
They may have been inspired by surfers, but you don’t need a surfboard to don these stylish shades. The oversized square frames help keep the sun out of your peripheral vision, while the high-contrast polarized lenses block out 100% of UVA, UVB and UVC light. The lightweight frames are flexible enough to handle any outdoor adventures on the beach, slopes or trail. The Rykers come with choices of frame colors (black, white and tortoise) as well as lens options (graphite and blue water). Find the combination that fits your style and relax knowing that your eyes are safe and more importantly, you look damn good. Revo.com, $199
Garmont 9.81 Trail Pro III GTX
After putting these trail dogs through the uneven paces and pounding of the great outdoors, we were impressed with their durability, comfort and support. The midsole is built for better shock absorption, while the outer-sole’s tread provides a solid grip on both wet and dry terrain. Your feet will stay a comfortable temperature, never feeling sweaty, even during long hikes. The lower-cut provides more ankle mobility and is ideal for subalpine hikes, fast hikes, and even urban environments. Trust us, your feet will thank you. garmont.com, $170
Adventure Medical Kits Mountain Series
You’d like to think you could go for an overnight hike and not injure yourself. But branches, rocky terrain, biting bugs, lurking animals and Mother Nature often have different ideas. So before heading out for a long hike, or trekking up a mountain, it wouldn’t hurt to bring this lightweight and compact (about the size of a vending machine bag of chips) medical kit in your backpack. It can patch up cuts, scrapes, burns, bites, blisters and any minor injury that comes along in the wild. adventuremedicalkits.com, $25
Camerons Portable Tailgating Table
Anyone who’s organized a tailgating event knows there’s lot of packing, unpacking and lugging around tables, chairs, coolers and more. It’s a hassle. So, when we heard there was a portable table that held four drinks, a spot for snacks, and a cooler pouch built for keeping our beer cold, we knew we had to try it. The result? It carries easily, unfolds quickly and makes for an easy tailgating set-up. We loaded it up (for testing purposes, mind you) and it handled beer, ice, chips, and drinks without tipping or strain. And when we were done, it folded up and slid into its carrying pouch that comes with a strap. So easy. So, so easy. cameronproducts.com, $55
Wilson Staff Triton DVD Driver
Everyone likes customizing things to fit their preferences, whether it’s a car or a cheeseburger. So why not have options for a golf club? Wilson’s new driver offers just that, with two changeable sole plates to dial in your launch. One allows for high launch (a titanium sole, weighing 22 grams), the other provides low launch (a carbon fiber sole, weighing just 9 grams). There are also four movable weights that, mixed with the soles, offer 12 different combinations to aid with your ball flight. Want more? You can also adjust the hosel with six different settings.
To truly appreciate the club’s full potential, we recommend taking it to the driving range and start tinkering. We did, and it didn’t take long for us to dial in a combination to fit our swing and give us a glimpse of the options it could provide on the golf course. Making changes was easy, thanks to the included wrench and carrying pouch. For those who love fine-tuning their clubs, you’re going to love it. wilson.com, $450
Flair Hair Visor
Because sometimes you want to stand out in the crowd AND support your favorite team at the same time. Problem solved. mlbshop.com, $17
The fact that the two most historically successful Eastern Conference teams are meeting in the NBA playoffs this year shouldn’t exactly come as a big surprise but the fact that the Boston Celtics and Chicago Bulls are matching up in the first round as the No. 1 and No. 8 seed, respectively, might cause the average basketball fan to do a bit of a double take. Each team arrived in the postseason by taking two very different paths but the end result is one compelling matchup for the right to advance into the semifinals.
The Celtics arrive as the East’s top dog thanks in part to their MVP candidate, Isaiah Thomas. The guard has flourished this season under the tutelage of terrific head coach Brad Stevens and picked up All-Star honors on his way to finishing second in the league in scoring at 29 points per game. Thomas’ play really shines through in the fourth quarter and he’s proven to be a very effective combo with both Jae Crowder and offseason addition Al Horford. That trio helped power the team to their first division title in five years but Boston wants a lot more than just that given the limited amount of space up in the rafters of TD Garden.
Standing in their way is a Bulls team that needed plenty of late help to make the push into the final spot in the East. Hardly anything has come easy for Chicago in the second season under head coach Fred Hoiberg but here the Bulls are and they’re hoping to avoid a one-and-done entry to this year’s dance. The team is not surprisingly led by their trio of guards, with Rajon Rondo distributing, Jimmy Butler contributing on both ends and Dwyane Wade chipping in as needed across the board. Lingering injuries after such a grinder of a season could be the thing to keep an eye on in particular with this squad as Wade recently returned from an elbow fracture and Rondo did the same after a wrist injury.
The two teams split their regular season series at two games apiece, with three of the four contests turning out to be extremely competitive, back-and-forth affairs. Boston ran away with the final meeting last month however and enters the series on quite the upswing. Consistency has been an issue with Chicago but the Bulls have a quality starting five and should benefit quite a bit from a shortened rotation in the playoffs.
This won’t be a walk in the park for either team given some of the star power on the two benches and could very well wind up as one of the most competitive first-round series in the Eastern Conference. It doesn’t feel like a meeting of the top and bottom seeds when you look at things from a lot of angles and the product on the court could turn into must-see TV as a result.
No. 8 Chicago Bulls (41-41) vs. No. 1 Boston Celtics (53-29)
Game 1 — Sunday, April 16 at 6:30 p.m. ET (TNT)
Game 2 — Tuesday, April 18 at 8 p.m. ET (TNT)
Game 3 — Friday, April 21 at 7 p.m. ET (ESPN)
Game 4 — Sunday, April 23 at 6:30 p.m. ET (TNT)
Game 5 (if necessary) — Wednesday, April 26
Game 6 (if necessary) — Friday, April 28
Game 7 (if necessary) — Sunday, April 30
Note: Games 1, 2, 5 and 7 will be played at TD Garden in Boston while Games 3, 4, 6 will be at the United Center in Chicago.
Keys for Chicago
Some in the Windy City probably wouldn’t have minded if the Bulls faded down the stretch and made the lottery instead of grabbing that No. 8 seed, leaving more time to watch the Chicago Blackhawks’ postseason run. While it hasn’t always been pretty, this is still a veteran roster that knows what it’s like to be in the playoffs and just as importantly what it takes to win games in the final few minutes. Given how closely contested most of the regular season meetings have been with Boston that could be a factor at some point over a potential seven games.
The health of Rajon Rondo and Dwayne Wade will be something to watch as each could be limited early on in the series as they continue to make their return back from injuries. Their stint in suits could have been a blessing in disguise though as the former’s absence in particular allowed Jerian Grant to really step up his play heading into this series. While he may have been an odd-man out before in playing the Celtics, now he could wind up seeing some quality minutes. Fellow backup Michael Carter-Williams is a bit more defensive-minded on the court and head coach Fred Hoiberg will likely need to insert him when Isaiah Thomas starts to heat up. In short, the Bulls certainly won’t lack options on the perimeter no matter how the game is trending and it will be up to their head coach to figure out the right matchups for the moment.
Few players will play a more pivotal role than Nikola Mirotic however. This team has really thrived during games when he’s been hot from the field and it’s likewise been difficult to overcome an off night from him. He’s tough to guard on pick-and-rolls so staying on the court will be a big deal offensively for a team that can play off him in so many different ways.
Keys for Boston
While many see the Celtics holding home-court advantage until the NBA Finals as the product of issues in Cleveland, this is still a dangerous team that is a threat to emerge out of the East thanks to the play of Isaiah Thomas. What he lacks in stature is more than made up for in scoring ability and it’s all come together for him in his best year in the league. That he’s been able to score so well despite playing fewer minutes (34 per game) than you’d expect should be a bonus for head coach Brad Stevens heading into the first round as the point guard will be able to contribute even more offensively with his playing time increased quite a bit against the Bulls.
Thomas is a defensive liability but that could be canceled out somewhat by matching him up on Rajon Rondo and rotating help around when needed. That’s not the only defensive matchup that could keep Stevens up at night however, as dealing with Chicago’s frontcourt of Robin Lopez and Nikola Mirotic could also pose some big problems if either Al Horford or Amir Johnson get into foul trouble. Boston is lucky to have quality options off the bench in Kelly Olynyk and Jaylen Brown and, in the case of the latter, it wouldn’t be all that surprising to see the rookie play quite a bit in this series given how he can defend the wing and contribute in spots offensively.
Likewise, given the guards that the Bulls are trotting out in the starting lineup, Marcus Smart could play a key role as a reserve in certain stretches where he’ll need to be his pesky self defensively. Boston’s depth is an asset to use in this series and forcing its opponents to extend rotations — especially in pressure situations that happen nightly in the playoffs — will be key for Stevens and company.
The league office and their television partners might have jumped for joy this year at landing a first-round series matching up Boston and Chicago, even if it does open the door to one of the bigger upsets in recent memory. No. 8 seeds have made a run at the top teams time-after-time in the NBA playoffs but only five times have the lower-seeded team actually completed the process and advanced into the second round. Given the makeup of both of these rosters, it wouldn’t be shocking to see it happen a sixth time at some point and many around the Bulls are thinking the time is now.
The reason for that thinking starts with the big names in the backcourt that the team can trot out onto the court. Jimmy Butler has developed into a star in his own right the past few years and makes his presence felt on both ends of the court night after night. Teammates Rajon Rondo and Dwayne Wade are no strangers to having big postseason performances and are certainly looking to do so one more time even if both are a little banged up. The former’s return to Boston on the big stage of the postseason will certainly enhance the appeal of this series and should make things even more interesting come tip-off.
Despite all that, the Celtics ascent to the top seed in the East has been one of the most intriguing storylines of the year in the NBA and a great credit to All-Star Isiah Thomas. His supporting cast has certainly filled out in impressive fashion as the year has gone on and few coaches in the league are as good at game planning as Brad Stevens has proven to be since he arrived in Beantown.
So don’t be surprised if this is a back-and-forth type series with each seizing momentum before giving it right back. The Celtics do have the edge in most areas coming into this one but the Bulls are such a tricky team to face in the opening round. Boston may wind up advancing in the end but this certainly won’t be a walk in the park over the next few weeks.
Prediction: Celtics in six
— 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.
(Isaiah Thomas photo courtesy of @celtics)
Jay Cutler is still without a job and depending on who you ask, that isn't surprising.
Former teammate Antrel Rolle gave a little insight as to why no one has taken a chance on the free agent quarterback yet. The retired safety also compared him to Giants quarterback Eli Manning who shares similar traits, but has also won two Super Bowls.
"He was a little bit more laid back," Rolle told NFL.com about Cutler. "He wasn't a front-row leader. Neither was Eli Manning, but Eli has a way about himself to lead every guy. I just feel like, honestly, if Jay involved himself with more of the team, more of the receivers, I think he'd get better results on the playing field."
Rolle went on say that Cutler can be reclusive at times and that doesn't bode well for the a quarterback who needs to have some kind of chemistry with the team, especially the receivers.
"I just honestly feel like he would get much better results if he involved himself more on the team collectively, with all individuals," Rolle continued. "It doesn't have to be offense, defense, special teams, but just everyone as a collective unit, I think he would get more out of his game for himself. I think at this point and time in his career, I think he's looking for something that's suitable for his skill set. I think he needs multiple weapons and more importantly, he just needs a new start."
Only time will tell if some team can ignore the outside noise and actually take a chance on Cutler.
The term “redefined the game” is one of the most clichéd phrases in all of sports. As individuals in all professions will tell you, revolutions usually come in small tweaks and not sweeping changes.
Yet in basketball, there have been those rare, once-in-a-lifetime basketball players who force teams to start making those small changes or rethink the way they do business on and off the court. Here are the five players who have had a lasting impact on the NBA.
Boston Celtics (1956-69)
The first African American superstar in NBA history, Russell proved to the league that defense wins championships, as the Celtics won 11 titles during his 13-year career. Russell snagged more than 20 rebounds a game and Boston sported one of the top defenses in the league throughout his entire career (Unfortunately, blocked shots were not recorded until 1973 so there is no definitive record of how many he batted away. Many anecdotal news reports often mentioned him blocking six to eight shots in a game.). With his 6-foot-10, 220-pound frame, it is unclear whether Russell would be a power forward or center in today’s game, but his play back then prompted teams to transition from the run-and-gun style of the 1950s and ‘60s to a slower-paced, more physical game in the ‘70s.
Philadelphia/San Francisco Warriors (1959-65)
Philadelphia 76ers (1965-68)
Los Angeles Lakers (1968-73)
Bill Russell’s archrival makes this list not because of his 100-point game or seasons where he averaged more than 40 and 50 points a game, but because of his influence on the NBA rulebook. The NBA widened the lane from 12 to 16 feet and outlawed goaltending because the 7-foot-1 Chamberlain had an unfair advantage over the opposition. The league also banned inbounding the ball over the basket, thus making it easier for big men to snag it and score, as well as slam dunking free throws. With today’s players, can you imagine an NBA without these rules in place?
Chicago Bulls (1984-93, ’95-98)
Washington Wizards (2001-03)
While Magic Johnson and Larry Bird are credited with rescuing the NBA from the doldrums of mediocrity and increasing its popularity, Jordan is credited with turning it into worldwide phenomenon. He is arguably the greatest player of all time and definitely the most marketed. Air Jordan was the centerpiece of ad campaigns with Gatorade, McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, Wheaties and, of course, Nike, as the Bulls won six titles in front of record television audiences. The 1998 NBA Finals – the last one Jordan played in – remains the most watched Finals in history, averaging an 18.7 rating / 33 share and 29.04 million viewers a game. No player before or since has garnered that type of popularity, though players are still benefiting from his influence.
Orlando Magic (1992-96)
Los Angeles Lakers (1996-2004)
Miami Heat (2004-08)
Phoenix Suns (2008-09)
Cleveland Cavaliers (2009-10)
Boston Celtics (2010-11)
The history of NBA centers reached its apex in 1992, when the greatest athlete to ever play the position joined the league. Forget the movies, rap albums and one-liners, Shaq was 7-foot-1, weighed 325 pounds and was as agile as most power forwards. His dominant play meant any team with a strong supporting cast had a chance to win at all as his playoff success shows. Since teams could not beat him in the middle, they moved to the outside and imported excellent shooters with great fundamentals from Europe. Although there are exceptions like Dwight Howard, today’s centers join their teams in shooting more frequently from the outside thanks to Shaq.
Minnesota Timberwolves (1995-2007, ’15-16)
Boston Celtics (2007-13)
Brooklyn Nets (2013-15)
In 1975, the NBA drafted two players – Darryl Dawkins and Bill Willoughby – straight out of high school. Neither lived up to expectations and the experiment of drafting high school players was quickly scrapped. (Some players would go into the NBA if they were not able to play in college, but that was a last resort.). Then in 1995, Garnett, USA Today’s National High School Player of the Year, announced his intentions to forgo college and enter the draft. At the time the time, the decision seemed like it had disaster written all over it and he was even stricken with the curse of the Sports Illustrated cover a week before the draft. Yet Garnett proved the experts wrong and had a great 21-year career. He was drafted fifth overall by the Timberwolves and led them to eight consecutive playoff appearances.
During his career, he was named the 2004 MVP, made the All-Star Game 15 times and won a title with the Celtics in 2008. His immediate success prompted more teams to draft players straight out of high school. There were some failures, but there were many – pardon the pun – slam dunks, including Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard and LeBron James. However, not everyone is ready to play in the NBA straight out of high school so in 2005, the league set the minimum age for players at 19. Now superstars play a year of college before entering the NBA. For better or for worse, “The Big Ticket” ushered in today’s era of younger professional basketball players.
— Written by Aaron Tallent, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Tallent is a writer whose articles have appeared in The Sweet Science, FOX Sports’ Outkick the Coverage, Liberty Island and The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter at @AaronTallent.
It’s year seven of football independence for BYU but in some ways, it feels like a new start. The Cougars know the Big 12 isn’t calling anytime soon or any Power Five conference for that matter. So independence is the path for BYU football for the foreseeable future.
Like previous independent schedules, the 2017 slate looks to be front-loaded once again with the slate easing heading into November. That’s life in the strange world of independence where you walk and act like a have, but the powers that be in your sport still deem you a have not.
The only thing BYU can control at this point is winning football games. If the Cougars win big this season, the nation will not view them as a “have-not” this fall.
2017 BYU Cougars Schedule
Bye: Week 4
BYU had to get creative in order to find a sixth home game. Luckily for the Cougars, they were able to add a 13th game (Hawaii exception) allowing for a contest a week before a majority of the country against FCS opponent Portland State who knocked off two FBS teams in 2015. This is the first time since 2012 that BYU has opened a season in Provo.
In terms of sheer talent, LSU might be one of the most talented teams BYU will have faced in the last 10 years. This game will be played at NRG Stadium, the home of the NFL’s Houston Texans as part of the ever trendy opening week game at a neutral site.
The Cougars have lost six in a row to the rival Utes. There was a lot of second-guessing after head coach Kalani Sitake’s decision to go for two and the win on the road in last year’s game. If there was ever a “must-win” for Sitake and BYU in 2017, it’s going to be this one.
|3.||Sept. 16||Provo, UT|
For the first time in program history, BYU will host a Big Ten program in Provo. The defending Cotton Bowl champions could be a top-10 team entering Provo. This is the second of a three-game series between these two schools.
8 PM ET
Just a few years ago, people around the state of Utah were wondering if Utah State was closing the gap on BYU. After two dominating wins the past two seasons, that discussion has come to a screeching stop.
10: 15 PM ET
Whenever these two teams get together, expect wild things to happen. Last year, Boise jumped out to an early lead before BYU stormed back with a pair of pick-sixes to get back in it. Despite the theatrics, the Cougars came up short yet again on the blue turf. The good news for BYU is that the Cougars have yet to lose to the Broncos in Provo since this series was renewed back in 2012.
Remember that odd Friday night game from last season where a 2-4 SEC team played BYU in Provo and it ended with a double-overtime thriller with BYU fans storming the field afterward? That SEC team was Mississippi State, and now the Bulldogs will have a shot at revenge in Stark Vegas.
BYU and East Carolina had a thrilling back-and-forth game two years ago in Provo. This will be an important game for the Pirates as they seek their first bowl appearance since the 2014 season.
|9.||Oct. 28||Provo, UT|
First-year head coach Brent Brennan comes from Oregon State to the Bay Area with a youthful approach that surprised some folks with the recruiting class he hauled in. Still, this is San Jose State. If he goes bowling in year one, that’s an accomplishment.
BYU returns to the Valley for the first time since the 1998 season when the two were old WAC rivals. Fresno State’s new head coach, Jeff Tedford, coached against BYU once when he was the head man at Cal in the 2005 Las Vegas Bowl.
10:30 PM ET
|Las Vegas, NV|
Go look at the secondary ticket market right now for this game, the prices may surprise you. The cheapest ticket right now is going for at least $100 at the moment. Why? BYU has tens of thousands of fans in the Southern Nevada area. Whenever BYU goes to Vegas to face the Rebels, it’s basically Provo South. This if the first time the Cougars will face UNVL in Vegas since the 2009 season when BYU was a member of the Mountain West Conference.
|12.||Nov. 18||Provo, UT|
This season’s home schedule is the best BYU has had since becoming an independent in 2011. Fellow independent UMass is not one of the reasons why the home slate is so good.
9 PM ET
BYU offensive coordinator Ty Detmer returns to the islands where as a player the Rainbow Warriors gave his BYU teams some lopsided defeats, including one on the night of the quarterback’s Heisman acceptance ceremony in 1990. There’s a lot of history between these two programs and the natives on the islands love seeing BYU roll into Aloha Stadium.
— Written by Mitch Harper, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Harper is publisher of Rivals' BYU site, CougarNation.com, and also is the BYU reporter and insider for 1320 KFAN and co-host of "The Cougar Center" podcast. Follow him on Twitter @Mitch_Harper.