Articles By All
Nebraska improved its win total by three games in head coach Mike Riley’s second season, but the Cornhuskers stumbled towards the end, losing four of their final six contests. This season is shaping up to be somewhat of a transitional one with a new quarterback and defensive coordinator taking over and a total of 12 starters returning. Nebraska should be able to stay in the hunt in the Big Ten West Division, but winning it may be too much to expect with all of the turnover.
Previewing Nebraska Football’s Offense for 2017
With the departure of Tommy Armstrong Jr., who started more games than any quarterback in Husker history, the offense will be different — more like what coach Mike Riley ran at Oregon State, with fewer designed quarterback runs. “We want a passer,” Riley says. “If that guy can run, too, that’s really good.” But passing is the priority. Tulane transfer Tanner Lee provides that, as does redshirt freshman Patrick O’Brien. Lee has starting experience, however, which gives him the advantage. Don’t expect 35 drop-back passes per game. Riley’s system is controlled passing.
Nebraska must run the ball better, which might be accomplished by committee, at least early on. The three returning running backs had fewer carries combined than last year’s starter, Terrell Newby. Devine Ozigbo got far and away the most of that group. Tre Bryant is the best blocker, which is an important consideration, while Mikale Wilbon might be the most elusive runner.
The receiving corps was depleted by graduation, but Stanley Morgan Jr. and De’Mornay Pierson-El are proven playmakers. Four of five offensive linemen who started the Music City Bowl return.
Previewing Nebraska Football’s Defense for 2017
Mick Stoltenberg is 20 to 25 pounds heavier than a year ago and has the strength to play nose tackle. Carlos Davis, another 300-pounder who saw significant playing time with four starts at tackle as a redshirt freshman, is alongside Stoltenberg.
Diaco is working with the linebackers, along with Trent Bray, and is counting on Dedrick Young II and Marcus Newby to provide leadership at a position with talented but inexperienced youngsters and players adjusting to new roles in the 3-4.
The Huskers are deepest on defense in the secondary, with Joshua Kalu, Aaron Williams and Kieron Williams leading the way. Kieron Williams, the top returning tackler and leading interceptor last season, has been pushed by talented young safeties. Standout cornerback Chris Jones suffered a knee injury over the offseason. His status is in doubt for the 2017 season.
Previewing Nebraska Football’s Specialists for 2017
Riley also fired special teams coordinator Bruce Read, with whom he had worked for 16 years, and now handles special teams by committee. Placekicker Drew Brown is a rather ordinary 17-of-24 from 40 to 49 yards in his career. Punter Caleb Lightbourn expected to redshirt as a freshman but stepped in following the death of Sam Foltz just before the start of fall camp in 2106. Lightbourn, who averaged 39.7 yards, needs to be more consistent.
The Huskers improved from 6–7 to 9–4 in Riley’s second season, although the improvement could be partially attributed to better breaks. Plus, the four losses came in the final six games. After battling Wisconsin to overtime, they lost at Ohio State 62–3, at Iowa 40–10 and to Tennessee in the Music City Bowl 38–24, allowing a combined 1,519 yards of offense in those games, leading to Banker’s firing. A year ago, Riley fired defensive line coach Hank Hughes. Despite his nice-guy personality, Riley has shown a hard edge in trying to get this team to where he wants it.
Nebraska hasn’t won a conference championship since 1999 and has played in only one Big Ten Championship Game — a 70–31 loss to Wisconsin in 2012. With so many changes on offense, defense and special teams, the Huskers would seem to be long shots to play in a second this season.
National Ranking: 43
Big Ten West Prediction: 3
How fast did Deion Sanders really run the 40-yard dash at the 1989 NFL Combine?
The tall tale of Deion Sanders’ 40-yard dash raced back into the news this year when Washington receiver John Ross broke the official NFL Combine record, with a blazing 4.22 in the 40-yard dash — besting the previous record of 4.24, held by Chris Johnson since 2006. Yet some people insist that Deion is the “unofficial” record-holder.
“In 1989, the Combine was nothing like it is today,” Sanders told NFL Network. “I wanted to go to the Combine to prove everything you heard was true. It was no doubt that I was going to run the 40, and I was going to break the 40 record. That’s all I came for. I don’t even believe I stretched. You know why? Because I’ve never seen a cheetah stretch before he go get his prey.”
No one doubts Deion’s speed, but according to Charley Casserly — who was at the 1989 Combine as the Redskins’ GM — Sanders’ official times (from his only run, hand-timed on four different stop watches) were 4.27, 4.27, 4.29 and 4.33.
Has there ever been a No. 1 overall NBA Draft pick whose college team had a losing record in his final season?
Anything can happen on draft night (June 22), but Washington combo guard Markelle Fultz has been viewed as the consensus top prospect for much of the scouting process, despite leading the Huskies to a 9–22 record in his lone season in Seattle — UW’s fewest wins since 1994-95. Fultz would become the first No. 1 overall pick coming off a losing season since LaRue Martin led the Loyola (Ill.) Ramblers to an 8–14 mark before becoming the top pick of the Portland Trail Blazers in 1972.
In fact, since the NCAA Tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985, only two collegiate No. 1 picks failed to lead their teams to the Big Dance, Pacific’s Michael Olowokandi (Clippers, 1998) and LSU’s Ben Simmons (76ers, 2016). In contrast, 10 of 27 top picks from the Field-of-64 (and Field-of-68) era led their teams to the NCAA title game at some point during their collegiate career.
Of the five non-college players selected No. 1 during that time, only Georgia high schooler Kwame Brown (Wizards, 2001) failed to win a championship in his respective league the season before being drafted. Historically, the No. 1 overall pick has a winning, if not championship, track record before arriving on the NBA scene. Fultz is a definite statistical outlier.
A giant statue of Miles the Monster adorns the outside of Dover International Speedway. It’s a tribute to a nickname for this NASCAR racetrack that once treated half the field like lunch meat due to its tricky concrete surface.
Ten years from now, don’t be surprised if there’s a second statue getting erected next to Miles. That’s because of all NASCAR’s top drivers, only one has been able to stand up to him a record 10 times – Jimmie Johnson.
As the influence of Miles has waned – last year’s 18-car accident has been an anomaly at Dover as of late – the strength of Johnson at this track has remained legendary. He’s got a 33.3 percent win rate (or one out of every three starts) and has earned a top-10 finish 70 percent of the time.
The last two seasons, though have been a challenge for a team that’s been dominant here. Mechanical failures and wrecks not of their making have led to just one win and 117 laps led in the four most recent races. In some organizations, they’d beg to have those types of numbers.
For Johnson and Co.? It’s a borderline failure.
All these trends point in the direction of a rebound this weekend at Dover. After a near-miss in the Coca-Cola 600, Johnson showed the team’s capable of championship-level speed and has already won twice this season. Dover also is an important early test, a look at a playoff track where the No. 48 team will have to be on top of their game in a few short months.
Hall of Fame-level drivers are experts at turning disappointments into dominating victories the next weekend. Don’t expect Johnson to start up front but you’re a fool if you think he won’t be a factor by the time these 400 laps are up.
AAA 400 Drive for Autism
Time: 1 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Track: Dover International Speedway (Dover, Del.)
TV: FOX Sports 1
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who’s at the Front: Austin Dillon
Dillon’s surprise victory has been swept under the radar this week due to other off-track storylines. It shouldn’t be. The victory was momentous for a fourth-year Cup driver who finally got over the Earnhardt hump driving the legendary No. 3 car. Leading the last two laps due to pit strategy, Dillon had just enough extra fuel to outlast the rest of the pack.
The win wiped out a sorry start for a team that is already on its third crew chief through 12 races. (Full-timer Slugger Labbe, after a one-race internal suspension for a post-race inspection failure, left RCR last month). Middle-class RCR is now overachieving, locking two of their three cars in the playoffs at a time other, bigger organizations (see: Joe Gibbs Racing) have no wins yet this season.
Who’s at the Back: Chase Elliott
Ruh-roh. Is one of the sport’s super sophomores, oh-so-close to his first victory this season headed towards a slump instead? Elliott’s pretty much already there, earning four straight finishes outside the top 20 and cratering with Sunday’s ugly wreck after sliding through debris in the Coca-Cola 600.
Last summer, he went through a similar funk as a rookie but had enough cushion to make the playoffs. Wins like Dillon’s, though mean a little less postseason protection in 2017 should Elliott shovel deeper into this hole.
Jeffrey Earnhardt surprised observers Friday morning with an unexpected sponsorship announcement with Hulu. The streaming company is going to back his small-time No. 33 Chevrolet for 19 of 24 regular-season races the rest of the year. Will this be the funding needed to boost the next-generation Earnhardt into contention?
On the other side of the coin, Kasey Kahne found out this week he’s losing Great Clips as a sponsor at the end of the season. The news means at least 22 races of inventory need to be sold for Hendrick Motorsports’ No. 5 car next season. The veteran is signed through 2018 but the contract could get bought out if financial backing becomes an issue.
Overnight ratings for both the Indy 500 and Coca-Cola 600 were down 13 percent. It was a disappointing result to swallow after Memorial Day Sunday, always one of the biggest racing weekends of the year.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Laps led by Kyle Busch, the second most of any driver in Cup this season aside from Martin Truex Jr. Busch, though has yet to win a points-paying Cup event in 2017.
Laps led by Kasey Kahne since the 2016 Daytona 500. The Hendrick Motorsports driver went through the entire 2016 season without leading a lap.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
Johnson. Johnson. Johnson. Need we say more?
If, for some reason you’re unable to go with the No. 48 team, hometown boy Martin Truex Jr. would run a close second. He’s got two wins at the track, including last season and hasn’t run lower than 11th with his current No. 78 program at FRR.
Kyle Larson, still in the middle tier for some fantasy programs, was fastest in practice Friday and is entering the weekend a bit of a favorite. Considering what happened last spring, when he led 85 laps and nearly ran down winner Matt Kenseth, it’s a smart move to put Larson on the roster. Charlotte’s struggles last week should be an anomaly.
I’d also throw some momentum behind the Austin Dillon camp. He earned his first-ever top-10 finish at Dover (seventh) in a Cup race last fall. The average finish is not so attractive but we’ve seen a win do wonderful things for drivers in the series. Look at Ricky Stenhouse Jr., riding a top-15 finish streak after his surprise spring win at Talladega.
Chris Buescher ran 18th and 23rd last year for an underfunded program in Front Row Motorsports. This year, the money and equipment is slightly better so you might be able to squeeze out a better result. He’s the best in a field of shoddy candidates unless you want to take a flier on the rookies: Ty Dillon, Daniel Suarez, or Erik Jones.
What Vegas Thinks
Kyle Larson and Martin Truex Jr. lead the way amongst oddsmakers with 5/1 bets according to Vegas Insider. Jimmie Johnson runs close behind at 11/2.
What I Think
How many times have we seen Johnson dominate here? It may take awhile for the No. 48 team to get up front but I’m not going to bet against them.
(Photo by ASP Inc.)
College football’s 2017 season starts on Aug. 26 and concludes with the national championship on Jan. 8 in Atlanta. The season is still a few months away, but it's never too early to project and rank college football's top 25 teams.
Each season brings plenty of surprises, disappointments and unexpected teams emerging in the national title picture, but a familiar program tops Athlon's rankings. Alabama is the projected national champion, while two other teams - Washington and Ohio State - join Florida State to round out the CFB Playoff picks.
The Athlon Sports 2017 preview magazines are slated to arrive on newsstands on Tuesday, May 23 and feature in-depth predictions, previews, rankings and insightful stories to prepare for the upcoming year. All five regional - ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC - and national preview editions can be ordered from Athlon Sports' online store.
Here's Athlon’s projected top 25 teams in college football. This ranking takes into account where we think teams will finish after the national championship in January.
College Football Top 25 for 2017
25. Virginia Tech
After an appearance in the ACC Championship Game and a 10-win 2016 season, coach Justin Fuente will once again have the Hokies in the mix to win the Coastal Division. The second-year coach is regarded for his work on offense, especially at the quarterback position. Fuente will be tested once again this season, as Jerod Evans left early for the NFL, and standout receiver Isaiah Ford and tight end Bucky Hodges are also at the next level. Redshirt freshman Josh Jackson closed spring ball with an edge at quarterback, with junior college recruit A.J. Bush and true freshman Hendon Hookier fighting for snaps. The battle will resume in the fall, but the Hokies have to find playmakers around receiver Cam Phillips, along with generating more production from the ground game. A defense that returns seven starters should be among the best in the ACC. Cornerback Greg Stroman and linebacker Tremaine Edmunds should challenge for All-America honors on a unit that allowed only 22.8 points per game last year. The opener against West Virginia at FedEx Field should give some early insight into the quarterback situation. However, it’s likely Virginia Tech’s hopes of another division title rest with the Nov. 4 trip to Miami.
The Bulls are not only Athlon's pick to win the American Athletic Conference, but this team is also the projected top Group of 5 program for 2017. New coach Charlie Strong inherits a strong foundation from former coach Willie Taggart, starting with dynamic quarterback Quinton Flowers. As a junior in 2016, Flowers threw for 2,812 yards and 24 scores and accounted for 1,530 yards and 18 touchdowns on the ground. Standout running back Marlon Mack departed early for the NFL and will be missed. However, D’Ernest Johnson, Darius Tice and redshirt freshman Elijah Mack should be a capable trio to handle the carries. The Bulls also must replace left tackle Kofi Amichia and leading receiver Rodney Adams. The defense gave up 31.6 points per game last season but should improve with nine returning starters, including standouts Auggie Sanchez (LB), Deadrin Senat and Bruce Hector (DL) and Deatrick Nichols (CB). Strong’s arrival and background on this side of the ball should also help USF’s defense take a step forward. The schedule for USF is favorable. The Bulls could be favored in all 12 regular season games and host Temple, Houston and Tulsa.
It’s a close call for the top spot in the ACC’s Coastal Division, but Athlon gives the nod to Miami. The biggest offseason question mark for coach Mark Richt remains at quarterback. Brad Kaaya departed early for the NFL, leaving junior Malik Rosier, true freshmen N’Kosi Perry and Cade Weldon and sophomore Evan Shirreffs as the top contenders for the No. 1 spot. Rosier has one career start, but he may not hold onto the job for long if Perry shows a good grasp of the offense in fall workouts. Regardless of which quarterback starts, expect to see plenty of running back Mark Walton, along with emerging star Ahmmon Richards at receiver. Until the pieces fall into place on offense, the Hurricanes can lean on a defense that returns seven starters from a group that limited opponents to just 18.5 points per game in 2016. The line has a chance to be among the best in the nation, and the starting trio of linebackers will be better in 2017 after getting significant playing time as true freshmen. The secondary is the biggest concern for defensive coordinator Manny Diaz. Road trips to Florida State, Pitt and North Carolina will be challenging in conference play. However, Miami hosts Virginia Tech on Nov. 4 – a game that could decide the Coastal Division winner.
22. Kansas State
Bill Snyder’s team is always dangerous in the Big 12 and could be a dark horse to contend for the conference title in 2017. Kansas State returns a good chunk of its core from a team that won nine games last season. Quarterback Jesse Ertz headlines the offense, and he’s surrounded by breakout candidates in receiver Byron Pringle and running back Alex Barnes. The Wildcats also return three starters from an offensive line that should be one of the best in the Big 12. Replacing standout linebacker Elijah Lee and end Jordan Willis are the biggest concerns on defense. This unit led the Big 12 in scoring defense last year (22.3 ppg) but shouldn’t slip too far despite losing Lee and Willis. End Reggie Walker anchors the line after recording 6.5 sacks as a freshman last season, while cornerback D.J. Reed – the Big 12’s Defensive Newcomer of the Year in 2016 – leads the way in the secondary. The Wildcats have to play at Oklahoma State and Texas, but Oklahoma visits Manhattan on Oct. 21.
New coach Willie Taggart inherits a promising core of young talent for his first season in Eugene. Although the Ducks are coming off their first losing record since 2004, a quick rebound should be in order. Quarterback Justin Herbert threw for 1,936 yards and 19 touchdowns as a true freshman last fall and is surrounded by a strong supporting cast that features running back Royce Freeman and receivers Darren Carrington and Charles Nelson. The Ducks also went with a youth movement in the trenches last season and this unit is slated to return four starters from the final two-deep. Additionally, left tackle Tyrell Crosby returns after missing nearly all of 2016 due to injury. Scoring points won’t be a problem for Taggart’s team, but the defense needs to take a step forward if Oregon wants to challenge Stanford or Washington in the Pac-12 North. The good news? Taggart hired standout coordinator Jim Leavitt away from Colorado and has plenty of experience at all three levels of the defense returning for 2017. Sophomore linebacker Troy Dye is one of the Pac-12's rising stars on defense, and the addition of Clemson graduate transfer Scott Pagano provides a boost up front. The Ducks also catch a break in scheduling by missing USC in crossover play, while Washington State and Utah visit Eugene.
20. Notre Dame
Yes, Notre Dame finished 4-8 in 2016. However, the Fighting Irish lost seven of those games by eight points or less and finished No. 29 in the F/+ ratings. While there is certainly cause for concern in South Bend, coach Brian Kelly hired two standout coordinators this offseason (Chip Long on offense and Mike Elko on defense), and there’s a good core of talent in place. A quick rebound back to a winning record should be in order for 2017. New quarterback Brandon Wimbush ranked as the No. 45 overall recruit in the 247Sports Composite and is a breakout candidate this fall. Running back Josh Adams (933 yards) just missed on a 1,000-yard season last year and will be joined by Dexter Williams to form an effective one-two punch in the backfield. Torii Hunter Jr. elected to skip his final year of eligibility for baseball, but the Fighting Irish have a capable group of targets. Equanimeous St. Brown (58 catches) is back as the team’s leading receiver, with Kevin Stepherson (18.5 ypc) and C.J. Sanders (24) headlining the secondary targets. Tight end Alize Mack (formely Jones) is back after a one-year suspension and could be a difference-maker. Mike McGlinchey and Quenton Nelson are All-America candidates up front and anchor a line that returns four starters. Improving the defense was Kelly’s top priority this offseason and the arrival of Elko should help this unit take a step forward. Most of last year’s depth chart returns intact, but linemen Isaac Rochell and Jarron Jones, linebacker James Onwualu and cornerback Cole Luke depart South Bend. The strength of this group is at linebacker, largely due to the play of senior Nyles Morgan. Cornerback Shaun Crawford and safety Nick Watkins are back from injury to bolster a secondary that allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete 61.7 percent of their throws last season. The schedule features 11 bowl teams (and Michigan State). However, games against Georgia, USC, Navy and NC State are in South Bend next season.
The Volunteers fell short of most preseason expectations of a SEC East title in 2016, but coach Butch Jones has still pieced together back-to-back nine-win seasons. In order for Tennessee to edge Florida and Georgia in the East this fall, this team has to navigate a schedule that features games at Alabama and Florida, while LSU and Georgia visit Neyland Stadium. The SEC slate presents its share of challenges, but the Volunteers also have some significant personnel concerns on both sides of the ball. There’s also a new play-caller on offense with Larry Scott taking over for Mike DeBord. Scott has two talented quarterbacks – Quinten Dormady and Jarrett Guarantano – at his disposal, with the battle for the starting job expected to continue into the fall. Junior John Kelly is due for a breakout year at running back, but depth is an issue at the position. Junior Jauan Jennings leads the way at receiver, but similar to the running back spot, the overall depth is a concern for Jones. The Volunteers also need more consistent play from their offensive line, with true freshman Trey Smith expected to play a key role this year. Injuries hit Tennessee’s defense hard in 2016, and this unit loses two standouts in end Derek Barnett and cornerback Cam Sutton. Considering all of the injuries this team dealt with on defense, the playing time by backups and new starters should improve the overall depth for this unit in 2017. Linebacker Darrin Kirkland should be the leader of the front seven for coordinator Bob Shoop. The success of the defense will largely hinge on the development of the line. Former top recruits Jonathan Kongbo, Shy Tuttle, Kahlil McKenzie and Kyle Phillips need to deliver on their potential.
After a dynamic sophomore campaign, quarterback Lamar Jackson hopes to take Louisville into contention for the CFB Playoff once again. He’s also back for another run at the Heisman after accounting for 3,543 yards and 30 touchdowns through the air and adding 1,571 yards and 21 scores on the ground last season. Jackson set the bar high last year and matching those totals in 2017 could be difficult. However, he’s the nation’s best playmaker and is only going to get better as a passer this fall. Jackson’s supporting cast features some new faces after the departure of running back Brandon Radcliff, receivers James Quick (45 catches), Jamari Staples (36) and tight end Cole Hikutini (50 catches). While those are big losses, the cupboard isn’t bare for coach Bobby Petrino. Jeremy Smith should be a capable fill-in at running back, with Reggie Bonnafon chipping in as an all-purpose threat, and Seth Dawkins, Jaylen Smith and Dez Fitzpatrick filling out the receiving corps. The biggest concern for Petrino’s offense remains up front. Left tackle Geron Christian is one of the ACC’s top linemen, but this unit surrendered 47 sacks in 13 games last fall. New coordinator Peter Sirmon inherits a defense that allowed only 23.8 points per game last season and returns a solid foundation with seven starters back. Senior linebacker Stacy Thomas and cornerback Jaire Alexander are two of the ACC’s top returning defenders. This unit could get a huge boost if senior Trevon Young returns to 100 percent after missing all of 2016 due to injury. A Week 3 showdown against Clemson is an early barometer test for Jackson and Louisville’s ACC title hopes.
Stanford has been a model of consistency under coach David Shaw. The Cardinal have won at least 10 games in five out of the last six seasons. Reaching that total in 2017 is within reach, as Stanford is the biggest threat to Washington in the Pac-12 North. Some mystery surrounds the quarterback position. Quarterback Keller Chryst suffered a knee injury in the Sun Bowl win over North Carolina and is on track to return by fall practice. If Chryst suffers any setbacks, Ryan Burns has starting experience, and redshirt freshman K.J. Costello was one of the top quarterbacks in the 2016 signing class. In addition to the quarterback uncertainty, the Cardinal have to replace running back Christian McCaffrey. While McCaffrey’s all-around versatility is unlikely to be matched by one player, the running back duo of Bryce Love and Cameron Scarlett should be a capable one-two punch on the ground. Trenton Irwin (37 catches) and JJ Arcega-Whiteside (15.8 ypc) are back to lead the receiving corps, while the offensive line returns four starters, including Nate Herbig and center Jesse Burkett. Solomon Thomas is a big loss for Shaw’s defense, but the secondary should be among the best in the nation with the return of cornerback Quenton Meeks and safety Justin Reid. Road trips to Washington State, Utah and USC are on tap, while Stanford hosts Oregon, UCLA and Washington next season.
The Gators have claimed back-to-back SEC East titles under coach Jim McElwain, and a third one is within reach. In order to edge Georgia for the division crown, improvement on offense is a must. Florida finished 100th nationally in scoring in 2015 and 107th in 2016. Luke Del Rio is the team’s most experienced quarterback and missed spring ball due to a shoulder injury. However, Del Rio was facing an uphill battle to hold onto the starting job, as redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks is the team’s most talented option under center and worked all spring as the No. 1 quarterback. He won’t have much time to grow into the job, as Florida takes on Michigan in its season opener, followed by a matchup against Tennessee in Week 3. Until the passing game develops, the Gators could lean heavily on running back Jordan Scarlett. Antonio Callaway anchors the SEC’s top receiving corps and should ease Franks’ transition into the No. 1 role. The offensive line should improve even though tackle David Sharpe left early for the NFL. McElwain has holes to fill on defense at each level and a new coordinator (Randy Shannon) calling the plays in 2017. Linebacker Jarrad Davis, safety Marcus Maye, lineman Caleb Brantley and cornerbacks Jalen Tabor and Quincy Wilson headline the key departures on defense. Despite losing a wealth of talent, this unit may not slip too far on the stat sheet. Cornerback Duke Dawson is an All-America candidate, and there’s plenty of promise in the front seven.
Related: Ranking the SEC Coaches for 2017
Kirby Smart’s debut (8-5) was a mild disappointment. But after losing three games by three points or less last season, the Bulldogs aren’t far from the top of the SEC East. With 11 returning starters on defense, and the continued development of Jacob Eason at quarterback, Georgia is Athlon’s pick to win the SEC East in 2017. Eason should benefit from a full offseason to work as the starter, and the backfield tandem of Nick Chubb and Sony Michel should ensure the ground game is among the best in the nation. The question marks on offense remain up front and outside with the receiving corps. Former No. 1 recruit Trenton Thompson had a breakout performance in the Liberty Bowl but was away from the team in the spring. The junior lineman is expected to return, providing Smart with a talented anchor to build around in the trenches. The linebacking corps is among the nation’s best, and three seniors lead the way in the secondary. The annual showdown against Florida in Jacksonville is likely to decide whether or not the Bulldogs win the SEC East.
14. Oklahoma State
The big-play connection of quarterback Mason Rudolph to wide receiver James Washington is more than enough to keep Oklahoma State in the hunt for the Big 12 title next year. The Cowboys also return promising running back Justice Hill (1,142 yards), and there’s optimism the offensive line will continue to improve behind guard Marcus Keyes and tackle Zach Crabtree. The post-spring addition of Cal graduate transfer Aaron Cochran was a huge boost for coach Mike Gundy’s offensive line. Washington has plenty of support at receiver. Jalen McCleskey returns after leading the team with 73 catches, Marcell Ateman returns from injury, and LSU transfer Tyron Johnson is eligible in 2017. This is the nation’s No. 1 receiving corps. The early departure of tackle Vincent Taylor was a setback for a unit already losing cornerback Ashton Lampkin, linebacker Jordan Burton and safety Jordan Sterns. Gundy also dipped into the graduate transfer ranks on defense, landing former Clemson cornerback Adrian Baker after spring ball. After finishing second in the conference in back-to-back years, the mission for 2017 is pretty simple: Win the Big 12. To do that, the Cowboys have to navigate road trips to Texas and West Virginia but host rival Oklahoma on Nov. 4.
The Longhorns won the offseason coaching carousel by bringing Tom Herman to Austin after a successful two-year run at Houston. The former graduate assistant under Mack Brown inherits a team that finished 5-7 last year but features plenty of promising pieces to build around on both sides of the ball. Shane Buechele returns as the team’s quarterback after throwing for 2,958 yards and 21 scores as a true freshman in 2016. Freshman Sam Ehlinger could push Buechele for the starting job in the fall, but the sophomore is expected to hold onto the top spot. Buechele will be throwing behind an offensive line that features four returning starters, including standout left tackle Connor Williams. Running back D’Onta Foreman (2,028 yards) is the biggest loss on offense. However, Chris Warren returns after missing most of 2016 due to injury. Sophomore Collin Johnson is expected to be the go-to target, with sophomore Devin Duvernay seeing an increased role. Improving the defense is a must for Herman, and the addition of coordinator Todd Orlando will pay dividends right away. This unit returns largely intact, but depth on the line is an issue after two players transferred in May. Linebacker Malik Jefferson seems primed to deliver a huge junior year. The schedule sets up favorably with Kansas State and Oklahoma State visiting Austin.
After facing one of the nation’s most difficult schedules in 2016, the 2017 slate for coach Paul Chryst and the Badgers is considerably easier. A crossover game against Michigan and a road trip to Nebraska are challenging, but Wisconsin won’t have to play Ohio State or Penn State from the East. And after coming up just short in the Big Ten title game last year, can Chryst’s team take the next step this fall? In order to knock off the East champion in Indianapolis, the Badgers need more consistency out of the passing game. The good news? Sophomore quarterback Alex Hornibrook is promising, and the receiving corps features All-America tight end Troy Fumagalli. Standout left tackle Ryan Ramczyk will be missed, but there’s plenty of experience and talent returning to keep the offensive line among the best in the Big Ten. The trio of Bradrick Shaw, Chris James and Taiwan Deal should be enough to compensate for the loss of running back Corey Clement. New defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard inherits a unit that allowed only 15.6 points per game last season. The Badgers don’t have many glaring weaknesses on this group, but linebackers T.J. Watt and Vince Biegel leave big shoes to fill. The return of Chris Orr and Jack Cichy from injury should alleviate some of the concern at linebacker. Hornibrook’s development is crucial for Wisconsin to climb higher in the top 25 this season.
Ed Orgeron’s first full season at the helm in Baton Rouge begins with a familiar question: What will LSU get out of its offense? It’s no secret the Tigers have one of the nation’s top running backs in Derrius Guice and a strong foundation to build around on the offensive line. New coordinator Matt Canada was one of the SEC’s top assistant hires for 2017, but this offense needs more from its passing attack. Danny Etling had offseason back surgery but will return in time for fall practice and is expected to hold onto the starting job. Etling’s performance is critical to LSU’s hopes of pushing Alabama in the SEC West. In addition to the concerns about quarterback production, there’s also uncertainty at receiver, as just one player (D.J. Chark) returns with more than 10 catches. LSU’s defense returns only four starters, but under coordinator Dave Aranda, this unit will be one of the best in the nation next fall. End/linebacker Arden Key could lead the SEC in sacks in 2017. Cornerback Donte Jackson should push for All-SEC honors, and true freshman JaCoby Stevens could see significant playing time at safety. Linebacker is Aranda’s biggest concern. Talent certainly isn’t an issue in Baton Rouge. However, the Tigers will only go as far as the quarterback play allows it to.
Jim Harbaugh has a major rebuilding project on his hands for 2017. However, thanks to back-to-back top-five recruiting classes, the Wolverines won’t be down for long. Quarterback Wilton Speight is back after a promising first year as the team’s starter. The receiving corps must be revamped, with incoming freshmen Donovan Peoples-Jones and Tarik Black likely to play a huge role in the passing game this season. The strength of the offense should be the ground game. Sophomore Chris Evans leads a talented group of running backs, with Ty Isaac, Kareem Walker and Karan Higdon providing support. The left side of the line should be anchored by Mason Cole and Ben Bredeson, but this unit did not perform well late in the 2016 campaign and remained a concern exiting spring ball. The Wolverines return only one starter – linebacker Mike McCray – on defense. But don’t expect this unit to slip on the stat sheet. Sophomore lineman Rashan Gary is a rising star, senior tackle Maurice Hurst is a candidate for All-America honors and the recent recruiting efforts should produce starting talent in the back seven. Matchups against Wisconsin and Penn State come on the road this year, but rival Ohio State visits Ann Arbor on Nov. 25.
The Tigers are the biggest threat to Alabama in the SEC. With the addition of former Baylor quarterback Jarrett Stidham, the offense now has a difference-maker under center to go with one of the conference’s top ground attacks. Stidham impressed this spring and possesses the arm strength and accuracy to open up the passing game downfield. He’s also surrounded by a cast of promising playmakers on the outside, including sophomore Nate Craig-Myers. Kamryn Pettway emerged as one of the SEC’s top running backs after posting 1,224 yards in 2016. He’s joined by Kerryon Johnson to form one of the league’s top tandems, while the offensive line is once again a strength with the return of three starters. Kevin Steele’s defense also is in good shape for 2017. Sophomore Marlon Davidson should fill the void left behind by Carl Lawson in the trenches, while the linebacker unit is anchored by Deshaun Davis and Tre Williams. Depth is an issue at safety, but cornerback Carlton Davis is one of the best in the SEC. A Week 2 road trip to Clemson is a huge opportunity to make an early statement, while contending in the West is likely to come down to an Oct. 14 road date at LSU and the Nov. 25 Iron Bowl.
The Sooners are aiming for a third consecutive Big 12 title and a berth in the CFB Playoff in 2017. But this task got a little harder in June, as coach Bob Stoops retired and handed over the keys to the program to offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley. He's one of the rising stars in the coaching ranks, but this will be Riley's first chance to be a head coach - at the age of 33. Quarterback Baker Mayfield leads the way for Oklahoma's high-powered offense. The senior has tossed 76 touchdown passes under Riley the last two years and returns as one of the front-runners to win the Heisman Trophy. Mayfield is supported by one of the nation’s top offensive lines, but question marks surround the receiving corps after losing Dede Westbrook. Who steps up to be the No. 1 receiver? Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon leave big shoes to fill at running back, but Rodney Anderson and Abdul Adams should be an effective one-two punch. The defense surrendered 28.8 points a game in 2016 but should improve on that total in 2017. Linebacker Jordan Evans was a big loss, and lineman Jordan Wade and Austin Roberts also expired their eligibility. However, standout pass rusher Ogbonnia Okoronkwo returns, and coordinator Mike Stoops has an emerging star in Caleb Kelly at linebacker. Steven Parker and Jordan Thomas return to anchor a secondary that showed improvement late in the 2016 season. Spring star Parnell Motley and the development of sophomore Jordan Parker adds to the talent on the back end. The path to a second playoff bid runs through road trips at Ohio State, Kansas State and Oklahoma State next season.
The defending national champs are due for a small step back in the rankings in 2017. However, as the No. 7 ranking indicates, Clemson is still one of the top contenders to earn a spot in the CFB Playoff. Considering the amount of talent leaving Death Valley – quarterback Deshaun Watson, receiver Mike Williams, linebacker Ben Boulware, cornerback Cordrea Tankersley and running back Wayne Gallman – it’s a testament to the job coach Dabo Swinney has done on the recruiting trail and in overall program development. A three-man competition to replace Watson is expected to extend deep into fall workouts. Junior Kelly Bryant is the front-runner, but true freshman Hunter Johnson is the name to remember. Left tackle Mitch Hyatt anchors a line that could be the best in the ACC this fall. While Williams and Artavis Scott will be missed on the outside, the receiving corps is still one of the deepest in the nation, headlined by Deon Cain and Hunter Renfrow. Similar to the offense, the defense has a couple of voids to fill this offseason. However, coordinator Brent Venables should quickly find the right answers to keep this unit performing at a high level. Ends Christian Wilkins and Clelin Ferrell, tackle Dexter Lawrence and linebacker Kendall Joseph are the anchors on defense next year. If Bryant, Johnson or Zerrick Cooper settles into the starting job, the Nov. 11 home game against Florida State could decide the ACC Atlantic title.
6. Penn State
The Nittany Lions were one of the nation’s most improved teams over the second half of 2016 and that momentum should carry into the '17 campaign. After just missing on a CFB Playoff berth last year, coach James Franklin’s team won’t have to go far in order to crack the top four. The defending Big Ten champions are loaded on offense with the return of quarterback Trace McSorley and running back Saquon Barkley. Wide receiver Chris Godwin left for the NFL draft, but tight end Mike Gesicki is a go-to target for McSorley and an All-America candidate for 2017. Even though Godwin is a big loss, Penn State should be fine at receiver with DaeSean Hamilton (34 catches), DeAndre Thompkins (27) and Saeed Blacknall (15). Additionally, sophomore Juwan Johnson had a breakout spring and is poised to take on a bigger role in 2017. An improving offensive line loses only one starter (Brian Gaia), and there’s plenty of depth with the return of Andrew Nelson and Brendan Mahon after both players missed significant time in 2016. The defense gave up 5.04 yards per play under first-year coordinator Brent Pry and returns a good chunk of talent. However, top cornerback John Reid was lost for the year due to a spring knee injury. One of Pry’s top offseason concerns is at defensive end following the departures of Garrett Sickels and Evan Schwan. Penn State’s toughest game is at Ohio State (Oct. 28), but Michigan (Oct. 21), Nebraska (Oct. 18) and Pitt (Sept. 9) all visit Happy Valley.
Related: Ranking the Big Ten Coaches for 2017
Thanks to the emergence of quarterback Sam Darnold, USC should be a playoff contender in 2017. Darnold’s play was a big reason why the Trojans showed marked improvement after starting 1-3 last season. As a redshirt freshman last year, he threw for 3,086 yards and 31 scores and added 250 yards and two touchdowns on the ground. Darnold is good enough to carry this team to a Pac-12 title on his own, but the supporting cast features a likely All-Pac-12 running back in Ronald Jones, as well as a solid group of receivers. The biggest concern on offense remains up front. Standout tackles Chad Wheeler and Zach Banner expired their eligibility, and guard Damien Mama left early for the next level. Projected starters Toa Lobendahn and Viane Talamaivao are recovering from injuries but will return for the start of the season. Coordinator Clancy Pendergast proved to be one of the top assistant hires of last offseason, as USC’s defense limited opponents to 24.2 points per game despite major question marks in the front seven. Pendergast will have a solid core in place for 2017, but tackle Stevie Tu’ikolovatu must be replaced, and cornerback Adoree’ Jackson decided to leave early for the NFL. This unit features an All-America candidate at linebacker in junior Cameron Smith, along with rising stars Rasheem Green (DL) and Iman Marshall (CB). The schedule features its share of challenges, starting with games against Stanford and Texas in September, along with road trips to Washington State, Notre Dame and Colorado.
Even though Chris Petersen has to replace a few key cogs from last season’s playoff team, Washington is primed for another run at the Pac-12 title and spot among the nation’s top four teams. Quarterback Jake Browning is back after throwing for 3,430 yards and 43 scores last season, but the junior has to find a new go-to target after the departure of receiver John Ross to the NFL. Dante Pettis (53 catches) moves into the No. 1 role, while the Huskies will be counting on bigger contributions from Chico McClatcher, Ty Jones, Aaron Fuller and Quentin Pounds in the receiving corps. The one-two punch of Myles Gaskin and Lavon Coleman provides plenty of balance and support on offense out of the backfield, while three starters are back on a standout line. The biggest concerns for a repeat trip to the CFB Playoff rest with a defense that loses standout safety Budda Baker, cornerbacks Kevin King and Sidney Jones and lineman Elijah Qualls. However, coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski is one of the best in the nation, and this unit is anchored by standout senior linebacker Azeem Victor. Junior Vita Vea leads the way up front, while the rebuilding effort in the secondary should be minimized thanks to the emergence of cornerbacks Jordan Miller and Byron Murphy in the spring, along with the return of rising star Taylor Rapp at safety. The schedule also sets up for anotherplayoff berth. Washington does not play USC in the regular season and hosts Oregon and Washington State. A trip to Stanford on Nov. 10 is the team’s toughest road test.
Related: Ranking the Pac-12 Coaches for 2017
3. Florida State
The balance of power in the ACC should shift back to Tallahassee in 2017. The Seminoles return nine starters from a defense that showed marked improvement over the second half of last year, and safety Derwin James is back after missing nearly all of 2016 due to a knee injury. James is arguably the best defender in college football. The line is overflowing with talent, as ends Josh Sweat and Brian Burns anchor a standout pass rush, and tackles Derrick Nnadi and Demarcus Christmas plug the interior. Cornerback Tarvarus McFadden is a lockdown cover man on the outside. Quarterback Deondre Francois threw for 3,350 yards and 20 touchdowns in an impressive freshman debut in 2016. Now as a sophomore, Francois is expected to take his game to the next level and help carry this team to a CFB Playoff berth. That’s certainly within reach for the sophomore, but he also needs more help from the offensive line and receiving corps. Receivers Nyqwan Murray and Auden Tate are primed for breakout seasons as the top targets for Francois. The big-play ability and production of running back Dalvin Cook will be missed. However, junior Jacques Patrick and five-star recruit Cam Akers are a capable tandem and should prevent any drop-off in ground game. Florida State will be tested right away with a matchup against Alabama in Atlanta to open the season. The Seminoles host Miami, NC State and Louisville in key conference games, but a matchup at Clemson and a road date at Florida will determine whether or not Fisher’s team can finish in the top four.
2. Ohio State
Considering Ohio State returned only six starters headed into 2016, a trip to the College Football Playoff was probably a year ahead of schedule for coach Urban Meyer’s team. Despite losing a few key pieces from last season’s team, the Buckeyes are primed for another run at the national title. In an effort to jumpstart the offense, coach Urban Meyer hired former Indiana coach Kevin Wilson to take over the play-calling duties. Wilson’s arrival is good news for quarterback J.T. Barrett, as the senior begins 2017 as one of the leading Heisman candidates. A big concern is finding playmakers at receiver, especially after Noah Brown and Curtis Samuel declared for the NFL draft. Junior Parris Campbell and sophomore Demario McCall are two players to watch in the passing game this fall. The offensive line loses standout center Pat Elflein, but guard Billy Price is expected to slide to the middle to fill the void. The strength of the defense will be in the trenches. This unit is headlined by All-America candidates Sam Hubbard, Tyquan Lewis and Nick Bosa, and rivals Clemson as the best in college football. Raekwon McMillan will be missed at linebacker, but Jerome Baker, Chris Worley and Dante Booker form a solid trio. For the second preseason in a row, uncertainty surrounds the Ohio State secondary. This unit lost cornerbacks Gareon Conley and Marshon Lattimore and safety Malik Hooker to the NFL. However, thanks to elite recruiting classes, the drop-off should be minimal. Junior college recruit Kendall Sheffield and incoming freshmen Jeffrey Okudah and Shaun Wade should make an instant impact, with junior Denzel Ward and safety Damon Webb back as the unit’s top veterans. Ohio State has to head to Michigan next year, but Penn State and Oklahoma visit Columbus.
Nick Saban’s team must replace a few key players from last season, but the Crimson Tide are once again the pick to win it all in 2017. The defense suffered key losses at each level, yet still figures to rank as the nation’s top unit. Nose guard Da’Ron Payne and end Da’Shawn Hand are the new leaders up front after Jonathan Allen expired his eligibility. The linebacker unit features three new starters, but the next wave of standouts is ready to emerge for the Crimson Tide. Seniors Shaun Dion Hamilton and Rashaan Evans lead this group for Saban, with Christian Miller and Anfernee Jennings slated to pick up the slack left behind by edge rushers Ryan Anderson and Tim Williams. True freshman Dylan Moses is another name to watch in this unit. The secondary is the strength of the defense. Marlon Humphrey departed early to the NFL, but seniors Anthony Averett and Tony Brown return at cornerback. The safety pairing of Minkah Fitzpatrick and Ronnie Harrison is the best in college football. Fitzpatrick’s versatility to play cornerback or safety is a huge asset for this defense. New play-caller Brian Daboll isn’t expected to make too many changes on offense, but he is tasked with helping quarterback Jalen Hurts develop more as a passer. Hurts’ dual-threat ability is no secret after rushing for just under 1,000 yards last fall. But the sophomore must become more consistent as a passer for this offense to improve in 2017. Hurts will be throwing to one of the nation’s best receiving corps. Junior Calvin Ridley will challenge for All-America honors, with seniors Cam Sims and Robert Foster and freshman Jerry Jeudy rounding out the key targets. Left tackle Jonah Williams anchors one of the nation’s best offensive lines, and the running back position is the deepest in college football. Bo Scarbrough came on strong at the end of 2016, and he’s joined by Damien Harris, Joshua Jacobs and five-star freshman Najee Harris as the key backfield pieces. Making it through the regular season undefeated won’t be easy, but Alabama is Athlon’s pick to hoist the national championship trophy in Atlanta on Jan. 8.
Who started the NHL’s playoff beard tradition?
According to hockey historians, the unofficial tradition of not shaving from the beginning of the NHL’s Stanley Cup Playoffs until your team is eliminated from the tournament was started by the New York Islanders around 1980. Members of the Islanders’ dynasty have pointed to four-time Stanley Cup champion Butch Goring as originator of a tradition that has since taken over all levels of hockey and spread across several other sports’ respective postseasons. Some players, like Penguins’ superstar center Sidney Crosby, struggle to grow a playoff beard. But others, like Predators’ thick-ginger-beard-sporting defenseman Ryan Ellis (pictured above), make the tradition a thing of beauty.
The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series heads to Dover International Speedway for the AAA 400 Drive for Autism Sunday at 1 p.m. ET. Cars will be on the track Friday morning for practice; Coors Light Pole Qualifying follows that afternoon.
ELITE TIER: $10,000 and up
Jimmie Johnson ($10,600)
Dover: 30 starts, 10 wins, 15 top fives (50 percent), 21 top 10s (70 percent)
Average finish at Dover: 9.5
Johnson has won four of the last 10 races held at Dover, his best track. He has 10 total wins, an all-time record along with 3,093 laps led. In three of those victories, he led over 240 laps.
In this race last year, Johnson was running inside the top 10 when he was involved in an 18-car wreck before the No. 48 could make a push to the front. He still managed to finish 25th. In the fall Dover race, he led 90 laps and wound up seventh.
Johnson has led laps in 27 out of his 30 starts at Dover, earning an average finish of 9.5. His starting position has not played a factor in how well the No. 48 runs on race day, so focus more on practice times than qualifying.
Kyle Larson ($10,300)
Dover: six starts, two top fives (33.3 percent), four top 10s (66.7 percent)
Average finish at Dover: 9.3
Last week was a disappointment for Larson. First, he failed to pass pre-qualifying inspection at Charlotte and had to start the race from 39th. Then, he clipped the wall not once, but twice on Sunday. That second hit ended his day. After all was said and done, Larson lost his points lead and dropped to second in the standings.
But Dover offers a chance for redemption. Larson was the runner-up in this race last season, leading 85 laps. He was running down Matt Kenseth for the win, but simply ran out of laps. With four top-10 finishes in six Dover starts, he remains one of the favorites to pick up the win on Sunday.
Brad Keselowski ($10,000)
Dover: 14 starts, one win, five top fives (35.7 percent), six top 10s (42.9 percent)
Average finish at Dover: 12.1
Keselowski has an average finish of 9.7 in the last 10 Dover races. He finished sixth in this race last season while leading 49 laps, and then ran fourth after starting from the pole last fall.
Keselowski will be looking to bounce back after his race ended prematurely last weekend in a bizarre wreck with Chase Elliott. Elliott’s car caught fire on the track after being damaged by debris, and as he was slowing down, Keselowski drove into the back of him at near full speed. He finished 39th, his worst result of the season.
ALL-STAR TIER: $8,000 – $9,900
Martin Truex Jr. ($9,900)
Dover: 22 starts, two wins, two top fives (9.1 pecent), 11 top 10s (50 percent)
Average finish at Dover: 14.2
Dover is Truex’s hometown track, a place where he has two career wins. One of those came in the fall race last season. He started on the outside of row one and led 187 laps.
Truex has five top-10 finishes in the last six Dover races and is the hottest driver on the circuit. He snagged the points lead with a third-place finish last weekend at Charlotte, leading 233 laps in yet another dominant Charlotte performance. If he can duplicate that success for another week, he'll wind up in Victory Lane and can extend his lead over Larson.
Chase Elliott ($9,600)
Dover: two starts, two third place finishes
Average finish at Dover: 3.0
In both of Elliott's third-place finishes, he finished ahead of his starting position. He started 13th in the spring race, and started ninth in the fall race.
He is currently on a three-race skid. His best finish within the past four races is 24th back at Richmond in week nine. On the bright side, his poor finishes at Talladega and Charlotte were a result of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Elliott has done well on short tracks this season with finishes of third at Martinsville, seventh at Bristol. Even though his Dover resume is small, it is impressive, and should give hope for Chase to recover from his recent struggles.
Joey Logano ($9,200)
Dover: 16 starts, three top fives (18.8 percent), 10 top 10s (62.5 percent)
Average finish at Dover: 13.4
Logano struggled at Dover over the first three years of his career, but has come around over the past 10 races. He has eight top-10 finishes over that span, and his worst performance is 22nd in the spring Dover race last season.
Since winning at Richmond, Logano has wrecked out of two of the last three races. Luckily for DraftKings players, Logano is the most consistent driver in recent Dover history. After some tough luck during the month of May, he is arguably the best bet at a top-10 finish this week.
BARGAIN TIER: $4,500 – $7,900
Dale Earnhardt Jr. ($7,800)
Dover: 33 starts, one win, seven top fives (21.2 percent), 12 top 10s (36.4 percent)
Average finish at Dover: 16.2
Earnhardt was another driver caught in the big wreck last spring at Dover. He finished 32nd. Before that race, his worst result in the past 10 Dover races was a 17th-place finish in 2014. He ended up third here in 2015, the closest he's come to Victory Lane.
Junior kept it clean and finished 10th at Charlotte last weekend. His 2017 season has been all about getting comfortable again in a race car, and at Charlotte he looked to be back in form.
Earnhardt’s DraftKings salary has reached bargain tier levels, which has high upside potential at a track where he is averaging just shy of a top 15. If Earnhardt can continue to build upon his solid finish, he could be a big value play.
Kasey Kahne ($7,700)
Dover: 26 starts, three top fives (11.5 percent), eight top 10s (30.8 percent)
Average finish at Dover: 18.7
Kahne has not had the best week. He crashed out of last week’s Charlotte race, and then it was revealed that he will be losing a second primary sponsor following this season. Kahne’s Hendrick Motorsports career has had its ups and downs, but it seems like it has been more on the downside the past couple seasons.
There's one statistic, though which doesn’t show on that box score: motivation. Kahne has a chip on his shoulder to prove that he belongs at Hendrick and Dover has been kind to him over the past 10 races. The No. 5 team has an average finish of 12.5 and earned three top-10 finishes in the past four races. Events like these could be key moments going forward, playing a major role in how his career path goes after this season. Kahne has to capitalize on his best tracks.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. ($7,600)
Dover: nine starts, one top 10 (11 percent), five top 15s (55 percent)
Average finish at Dover: 19.1
Stenhouse is having by far his best season to date. He is on a seven race top-15 streak, which of course includes his win at Talladega. Also included is a fourth-place performance at Richmond. Ricky has become a near lock for a top-half finish as a result.
Speaking of top 15s, Ricky has three straight at Dover. He notched a career best eighth in 2015 and then followed up with runs of 14th and 11th a season ago.
Stenhouse has locked himself into the playoffs, which allows the veteran to drive more aggressively with less consequence. He is already an incredibly aggressive driver, and 2017 has found him more ways to impress both on the track and on DraftKings.
(Photo by ASP Inc.)
Northwestern finished tied for fourth in the Big Ten West last season, but the Wildcats could challenge for the top spot thanks to a mix of experience and depth. The offense will be led by one of the conference’s better backfields and a veteran offensive line, but some reliable targets will need to emerge. The defense has the potential to open some eyes, but that’s only if some dependable linebackers emerge to support a deep front and back end. Northwestern’s schedule isn’t that daunting, so this could be the season Pat Fitzgerald’s team takes a step or two forward in the division standings.
Previewing Northwestern Football’s Offense for 2017
Northwestern’s coaches are both bullish on why the offense can become more dynamic and blunt about why the unit could struggle. The skill position pieces appear to be in place, especially at running back, but if things don’t improve up front, it will be a slog. “We’ve got to be more consistent,” coach Pat Fitzgerald says. “We have to have competitive depth. Two years ago, we had that and we won 10 games. Last year, we didn’t have that, and it was painfully obvious at times.”
Guard Tommy Doles will lead the group, and Fitzgerald is hoping for steadier play from left tackle Blake Hance and center Brad North. The line can create rushing lanes — Northwestern rushed for 526 yards and eight touchdowns in its final two games of 2016 — but must improve substantially in protection after allowing 39 sacks last season and 102 over the past three seasons.
Northwestern features one of the nation’s more underrated backfields in Justin Jackson, who soon will become the school’s all-time leading rusher, and Clayton Thorson, 17–9 as the team’s starting quarterback. Wide receiver once again is a question after the departure of Biletnikoff Award finalist Austin Carr, but superback (Northwestern’s version of tight end) Garrett Dickerson should contend for All-Big Ten honors. Oregon transfer Jalen Brown could spark an offense that has produced only 85 completions of 20 yards or longer since 2014, third fewest among Power 5 teams.
Previewing Northwestern Football’s Defense for 2017
“We’ve got a lot coming back,” Fitzgerald says. “We’ve got to identify our best 11 and then some.”
The line goes two and often three deep at every position. Veterans Tyler Lancaster and Jordan Thompson lead arguably the best group of tackles in Fitzgerald’s tenure. The coaches like the edge-rushing speed of Xavier Washington, Joe Gaziano and redshirt freshman Mark Gooden, who stood out in the spring.
Northwestern doesn’t lack playmakers in the back end. Cornerback Montre Hartage returns after recording five interceptions in 2016, and veteran safeties Godwin Igwebuike, Kyle Queiro and Jared McGee combined for seven interceptions last fall. The Wildcats also regain cornerback Keith Watkins II from injury. “He’s an All-Big Ten-level player,” Fitzgerald says.
Previewing Northwestern Football’s Specialists for 2017
Veteran punter Hunter Niswander returns after averaging 41.3 yards per punt last season. Dynamic kickoff returner Solomon Vault suffered a lower-body injury and was ruled out for the year in May. Fitzgerald lost confidence in the team’s placekicking last season — a league-low 12 field goal attempts — and needs new blood there, likely Mason Weissenhofer or incoming freshman Charlie Kuhbander.
After recording multiple 10-win seasons and multiple bowl wins since 2012, Northwestern now hopes to contend in the Big Ten West. The return of 15 starters and a fairly favorable schedule (no Ohio State nor Michigan) suggests that this is the season to make a move. But a larger indicator, according to Fitzgerald, is how many starters will be pushed or displaced by others. Northwestern must show it can handle inevitable injuries as well as underperforming play better than it did early last season.
Consecutive games against West Division winner Wisconsin (road) and league champion Penn State (home) on Sept. 30 and Oct. 7 should show whether Northwestern is for real or not.
National Ranking: 41
Big Ten West Prediction: 2
South Carolina won six games and went bowling in head coach Will Muschamp’s first season despite having an offense that was among the least productive in the nation. Quarterback Jake Bentley is back to lead the Gamecocks’ attack and is one of 10 returning starters on that side of the ball. The defense also gets a big boost with the return of linebacker Skai Moore, who missed all of 2016 because of a neck injury. Moore’s presence will certainly help a unit that desperately needs to find a pass rush and features a secondary that has experience but must become more reliable. South Carolina should at least be competitive in every game with the exception of the finale against Clemson. How many games the Gamecocks win and where they fall in the SEC East standings will likely depend on whether or not the offense takes a small or significant step forward.
Previewing South Carolina Football’s Offense for 2017
For the first time in his five-year head-coaching career, Will Muschamp seems to have found the answer at quarterback. Sophomore Jake Bentley started seven games last year after skipping his senior season at Opelika (Ala.) High School to join the Gamecocks. Bentley threw for 1,420 yards, nine touchdowns and four interceptions and led South Carolina to an upset of Tennessee.
Bentley will be surrounded by plenty of offensive talent. Junior wide receiver Deebo Samuel is one of the most dynamic athletes in the SEC. He had 783 receiving yards, 98 rushing yards and seven combined touchdowns last year despite being limited throughout the first half of the season due to injury.
The running game will be paced by returning sophomores Rico Dowdle and A.J. Turner and North Carolina transfer Ty’Son Williams, but the most intriguing offensive prospect might be tight end Hayden Hurst, a former walk-on who spent two years in the Pittsburgh Pirates organization before trying college football.
Previewing South Carolina Football’s Defense for 2017
“We have to get more guys we can count on up front,” Muschamp says. “We are very thin from the standpoint of experience and guys we feel like we can win the SEC East with. I’m just being honest. We have to get faster twitch and we have to get better rushers.” One name to watch is sophomore end Dennis Wonnum.
The good news is that linebacker Skai Moore, the team’s leading tackler in 2013, ’14 and ’15, is back after missing the 2016 season due to a herniated disc in his neck that required surgery. Moore brings more speed than the team had at the position last year, which should help in Muschamp’s system, and he’ll join Bryson Allen-Williams and T.J. Brunson to form a talented but thin linebacking corps.
The secondary brings back every starter but still is a work in progress. South Carolina spent spring practice trying to figure out who among Rashad Fenton, Jamarcus King and Chris Lammons would play the nickel and which two would get the starting cornerback jobs. Incoming four-star recruit Jamyest Williams will get a chance to play right away. At safety, D.J. Smith and Steven Montac return but need to improve their level of play.
Previewing South Carolina Football’s Specialists for 2017
Placekicker Elliott Fry, the school’s all-time leading scorer, is gone. The Gamecocks are expected to turn to a homegrown product, Alex Woznick, to replace him. South Carolina also must find replacements for punter Sean Kelly and longtime long snapper Drew Williams. The inconsistency of the competitors at all three specialist positions was a concern for Muschamp in the spring.
Muschamp and his coaching staff took over a roster so depleted that some of the struggles of the 2016 season — such as an offense that finished last in the SEC in scoring with 20.8 points per game — can hardly be held against them. It’s a different story in Year 2. The Gamecocks should build on the offensive momentum established with Bentley at the helm in the last half of 2016, but Muschamp’s defensive acumen will be tested by this year’s thin group.
The schedule starts out with a toss-up game against NC State that could set the tone, and there are another half-dozen games on the schedule that could go either way. How South Carolina fares in those will determine whether the Gamecocks are able to make a move in the SEC East standings.
National Ranking: 40
SEC East Prediction: 4
After taking a back seat to Taysom Hill last season, Tanner Mangum is back as BYU’s starting quarterback. His experience should help the Cougars’ offense stay productive, although replacing the program’s all-time leading rusher won’t be easy. On defense, BYU is strongest in the back seven thanks to the return of its top three tacklers, all linebackers. Once again the Cougars are facing a challenging schedule that features teams from the Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC but another eight- or nine-win season should be the expectation.
Previewing BYU Football’s Offense for 2017
In ordinary circumstances, BYU quarterback Tanner Mangum’s 2015 and 2016 seasons would have been reversed. He logically would have played behind Taysom Hill as a freshman, then taken over the starting job as a sophomore. Instead, Mangum started 12 games as a freshman after Hill was lost for the season with an injury in the opening game, and then Hill returned last season. Mangum’s only start came in the Poinsettia Bowl after Hill was injured again.
The positive aspect of his career arc is that Mangum was able to watch and learn for a year in offensive coordinator Ty Detmer’s system, and he will be protected by a more experienced line in 2017. Mangum passed for 3,377 yards and 23 touchdowns as a freshman and is a classic drop-back passer in the BYU tradition.
With the loss of career rushing leader Jamaal Williams, the Cougars will rely on several running backs. Squally Canada should get his shot after running for 315 yards in relief of Williams. KJ Hall showed some flashes of speed late in the season as a runner and receiver.
The Cougars must replace their top three receivers, so the re-stocking of the passing game features the tight end, a key element of Detmer’s own quarterbacking era. To accelerate the process, Detmer moved Moroni Laulu-Pututau, who had 27 receptions last season, from receiver to tight end. Jonah Trinnaman is the top returning receiver, having caught 28 passes as a junior college transfer.
Four offensive line starters return, with Thomas Shoaf moving from right tackle to left tackle.
Previewing BYU Football’s Defense for 2017
Tuiaki must replace three starters on the line, and he likes Trajan Pili’s development. At linebacker, Fred Warner, Butch Pau’u and Francis Bernard produced nearly identical statistics last season as the team’s top three tacklers.
The Cougars will miss safety Kai Nacua, who led the team with six interceptions last season and picked off 14 passes in three years. Aside from games against Toledo and Boise State, BYU played consistently in the secondary and should improve in 2017. Dayan Ghanwoloku and Troy Warner, Fred’s younger brother, are capable cornerbacks, and Micah Hannemann is a solid safety.
Previewing BYU Football’s Specialists for 2017
In the first half of the season, BYU won two games with field goals on the final play — by two different kickers. Rhett Almond delivered the game-winner vs. Toledo and finished with 17 field goals in 21 attempts. Jonny Linehan’s 2016 season is best remembered for his failed effort on a fake punt, when the Cougars faced fourth-and-19 from their 5-yard line at Boise State and he barely made it out of the end zone. As a rugby-style punter, though, Linehan was effective. He averaged 42.5 yards, and the longest return for any opponent was nine yards.
BYU coach Kalani Sitake’s first season was an adventure. In addition to those two last-play wins, BYU lost four games by a total of eight points.
The Cougars should have more close games in 2017 as they tackle another ambitious, front-loaded schedule in the program’s seventh season of independence. BYU will meet LSU, Utah, Wisconsin, Boise State and Mississippi State by mid-October, so Mangum and his offense will have to be sharp from the start. The season likely will play out much like 2016, when the Cougars won their last five games to finish 9–4.
National Ranking: 39
After a three-year run which saw North Carolina win the ACC Coastal in 2015 and finish no worse than a tie for third the other two seasons, the Tar Heels are practically starting over. Six starters return on each side, but the offense is looking to replace a most, if not all, of its production. The defense will have a new coordinator running things and hopefully will hold up better against the run than it did in 2016. Even though the Coastal seems wide open once again, it would be somewhat of a surprise to see this Tar Heels team among the contenders.
Previewing North Carolina Football’s Offense for 2017
If North Carolina again fields a high-powered offense that has become its trademark, it will do so despite major personnel changes. The Tar Heels lost 99.0 percent of their rushing yards, 98.3 percent of their passing yards, 70.5 percent of their receiving yards and 85.7 percent of their scoring from a year ago.
The identity of the starting quarterback will be decided in training camp, but LSU graduate transfer Brandon Harris is the favorite. Harris is the only quarterback on the roster with starting experience, and his dual-threat ability is ideal for UNC’s spread attack. The receivers have plenty to prove, regardless of who is delivering the passes. Senior Austin Proehl is the only player on the roster with more than 275 career receiving yards.
Harris isn’t the only graduate transfer who figures to have a significant role. Stanton Truitt from Auburn will get reps in a backfield that features just one player (sophomore Jordon Brown) who had carries for UNC a year ago. Freshman Michael Carter also will get significant playing time.
Up front, grad transfers Cam Dillard from Florida and Khaliel Rodgers from USC will add needed depth to the offensive line. The group returns three-year starter Bentley Spain at left tackle and promising sophomore Tommy Hatton at guard, but creating cohesion during training camp will be key.
Previewing North Carolina Football’s Defense for 2017
The defensive line returns 11 of its top 13 contributors, including team sack leader Malik Carney, from a year ago. But improvement against the run, where the Tar Heels allowed an ACC-worst 227.3 yards per game, is paramount. UNC returns its top five linebackers, which should help improve the run defense now that they have a year of experience. Andre Smith is the headliner of the group, providing a hard-hitting presence in the middle of the field.
The secondary, which was the strength of last year’s defense despite totaling an NCAA-worst one interception, has a nice mixture of proven talent and potential. M.J. Stewart is one of the ACC’s top cornerbacks, and Donnie Miles is a sure-tackling safety. A large group of young players — including four who played last year as true freshmen — will rotate in and gain experience.
Previewing North Carolina Football’s Specialists for 2017
The loss of kicker Nick Weiler and returners Ryan Switzer and T.J. Logan, who were multi-year stars in their respective roles, leaves the Tar Heels vulnerable in the kicking game. On the positive side, punter Tom Sheldon is back after allowing opponents a total of two yards on punt returns (best in the nation) last season. Freeman Jones could be a capable replacement for Weiler, but he has yet to be tested in game situations.
Hopes were high a year ago, but the Tar Heels fell short in their quest to reach the ACC Championship Game for the second year in a row. While the Coastal Division race remains as unpredictable as ever, UNC probably has too much uncertainty to be considered a legitimate threat. Are there enough playmakers on offense? Can the graduate transfers provide a big lift immediately? Can the defense become an asset instead of a liability? Can the team hold its own on special teams? The Tar Heels have enough talent to earn a fifth consecutive postseason berth, but doing so probably won’t be easy.
National Ranking: 42
ACC Coastal Prediction: 5
Over the last three seasons, Utah has won at least nine games and been a tough out in the Pac-12 South Division. However, the Utes are still looking for their first division title since joining the conference in 2011. Head coach Kyle Whittingham is hoping a change at offensive coordinator will jumpstart a unit that had its share of struggles in 2016. Having an experienced quarterback should help but otherwise, Utah is dealing with a lot of turnover on both sides of the ball. The Utes should reach bowl eligibility with little difficulty, but how competitive they’ll be in the Pac-12 South will depend largely on how quickly all of the new pieces come together.
Previewing Utah Football’s Offense for 2017
Utah coach Kyle Whittingham blames an inadequate offense for making the Utes the only Pac-12 South program that has not won a division title since the conference’s expansion six years ago. That’s why he hired Troy Taylor as his eighth play caller in nine seasons.
Taylor’s charge is to energize an offense led by quarterback Troy Williams, who started all 13 games in 2016 as a junior college transfer, passing for 2,757 yards and 15 touchdowns. He led the Utes to a victory over USC by directing three consecutive touchdown drives in the second half. Williams played inconsistently in losses to Washington, Oregon and Colorado late in the season, but he expects to be sharper as a senior in what he says is a “quarterback-friendly” system.
The story of Utah’s 2016 season at running back may never be duplicated. Joe Williams retired from football after two games only to return a month later and produce a 1,407-yard season. Williams’ comeback became necessary because of injuries to his top replacements. Those players, Armand Shyne and Zack Moss, will be the Utes’ primary rushers. Devonta’e Henry-Cole, who carried the ball only once as a freshman, was a star of the spring.
Raelon Singleton, Siaosi Wilson and Demari Simpkins are among the receivers who hope to thrive in a more dynamic offense. The Utes are replacing four starters, notably left tackle Garett Bolles, from one of the Pac-12’s best offensive lines. Bolles’ departure to the NFL after one season as a junior college transfer is a big loss, but the Utes have the makings of another solid group.
Previewing Utah Football’s Defense for 2017
After being considered the defense’s weakest area in 2016, the linebacking is “one of our stronger positions,” defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley says. “They’re the same guys, they’re just older now.”
Sunia Tauteoli and Kavika Luafatasaga should be more productive in a scheme that primarily uses only two linebackers, with five defensive backs being needed against the passing offenses of the Pac-12.
The Utes are in the midst of a “complete rebuild” in the secondary, Whittingham says. The exception is strong safety Chase Hansen, a converted quarterback who has become a defensive star. Hansen had four fumble recoveries, three interceptions and 7.5 tackles for a loss in 2016.
Previewing Utah Football’s Specialists for 2017
The Utes have made punting and placekicking fun to watch in recent years, although Whittingham would rather have drives finish with extra points than punts and field goals. Mitch Wishnowsky won the program’s third consecutive Ray Guy Award as the nation’s top punter, averaging 47.7 yards. He rarely sacrificed hang time for distance, although Utah allowed a punt return for Washington’s winning score. Utah must replace kicker Andy Phillips, who concluded his record-setting career with the winning field goal in the bowl game.
Utah has established itself as one of the Pac-12’s most consistent programs, but there’s more to do. Whittingham is driven to make his team the South’s sixth winner in seven seasons.
“We’re not going to apologize for winning nine-plus games the last three years, but we want to win a championship,” Whittingham says. “We’ve got to find a way to break through.”
The Utes’ Oct. 14 visit to USC will be pivotal. Utah has beaten the Trojans two of the past three seasons.
National Ranking: 38
PAC-12 South Prediction: 4
Georgia is looking for a breakthrough in Kirby Smart’s second season in Athens. Such are expectations at a historical power that returns its starting quarterback, two talented running backs and 11 starters on defense.
The non-conference slate presents some challenges for the Bulldogs, with an opener against always-dangerous Appalachian State, a finale at rival Georgia Tech and a tough road matchup with Notre Dame in between (plus Samford). And the SEC West crossovers are never easy when Auburn is an annual matchup, and Mississippi State comes to town this year as well.
Here is how the entire Georgia schedule stacks up, ranked from easiest game to most difficult.
12. Sept. 16 vs. Samford
Samford went 7-4 last season and made the FCS playoffs. That said, these Bulldogs shouldn’t be much of a test for Georgia, even if the game is sandwiched between a trip to Notre Dame and a home game against Mississippi State.
11. Oct. 14 vs. Missouri
It’s Barry Odom’s second year at Mizzou, but it remains to be seen what he has to work with. The offense looks like it has some playmakers, but the defense has some holes to fill. Could this game end up being much tougher for Georgia than No. 11? Sure. But at a crowded bottom of the SEC East, the Tigers might be the least sure thing.
10. Nov. 4 vs. South Carolina
The Gamecocks were among the league’s biggest surprises last season, going 6-7 in Will Muschamp’s debut campaign. Muschamp appears to have a strong quarterback to work with, too, in Jake Bentley. You could easily flip-flop South Carolina with Kentucky in this spot, but Kentucky comes in the SEC finale, before rival Georgia Tech — an option team that can give even the best defenses fits on short notice.
9. Nov. 18 vs. Kentucky
Are the Wildcats on the rise? Perhaps. Kentucky won seven games last season, nearly beat the Bulldogs and got head coach Mark Stoops a two-year extension this offseason. The ground game should be good, but the defense has to get better, which is possible given the amount of experience returning on that side of the ball.
8. Sept. 2 vs. Appalachian State
The Mountaineers have gone 21-5 over the past two seasons, and they darn near ruined Tennessee’s Thursday night opener last season, so this isn’t a game Georgia can overlook by any means, especially with a road trip to Notre Dame looming a week later.
7. Oct. 7 at Vanderbilt
The Commodores ruined Georgia’s homecoming last season, beating the Bulldogs 17-16 en route to a six-win season and Independence Bowl berth in Derek Mason’s third campaign. Vanderbilt did go 4-2 at home last year, too, and returns 1,000-yard running back Ralph Webb and several other key pieces on offense.
6. Sept. 23 vs. Mississippi State
This is a tough crossover test for Georgia, especially early in the season. (Although it does help to have a tune-up against Samford the week before.) Mississippi State returns Nick Fitzgerald under center after a breakout campaign and now has Todd Grantham running the defense, which struggled at times getting to the passer last season. We’ll see how quickly Grantham can get the unit up to speed after churning out some terrific units at Louisville.
5. Sept. 30 at Tennessee
Georgia lost a home heartbreaker to the Volunteers last season on a Hail Mary, but there is enough turnover, especially on offense, for UT to potentially be more vulnerable this season — despite back-to-back nine-win seasons and this game coming at home.
4. Nov. 25 at Georgia Tech
This game is never easy, as evidenced by the Yellow Jackets’ two wins over Georgia in the past three years. Georgia Tech is coming off a nine-win season and Paul Johnson would love nothing more than to beat an SEC team once again, after going 3-0 against the league last year. There could be plenty on the line during rivalry week for both teams.
3. Sept. 9 at Notre Dame
Perhaps this game is a bit too high, but there’s always so much intrigue around high-profile non-conference matchups, especially involving the Fighting Irish and the SEC, two entities that haven’t met in the regular season since 2005. The Irish went 4-8 last season and the pressure is on in South Bend, making this primetime Week 2 matchup all the more intriguing, considering the Dawgs are looking for a breakthrough this season.
2. Oct. 28 vs. Florida (in Jacksonville, Fla.)
The Gators have won the past two meetings, after Georgia won three in a row… after Florida won three in a row. Unpredictability is the theme when these two rivals clash in Jacksonville, Fla., and it’s anyone’s guess what will happen when the two-time defending division champs meet with the presumed division favorite this fall.
1. Nov. 11 at Auburn
Another rivalry, another bout of unpredictability. Georgia has won three straight against Auburn but three of the past four games have been decided by seven points or fewer. The Tigers are widely predicted to be among the SEC’s top teams this season after making the Sugar Bowl last year, so if they live up to the hype, Georgia will have its work cut out for it on the road.
— 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.
For the third straight year, a strong finish by Texas A&M gave way to a late-season fade as the Aggies lost four of their final five games, including the Texas Bowl to Kansas State. Kevin Sumlin enters 2017 needing to break out of this 8-5 rut but he will have to do so with a new starting quarterback and the guy who was the No. 1 overall pick in the April’s NFL draft. The Aggies have a few playmakers and a veteran interior offensive line, but wide receivers not named Christian Kirk need to emerge and new tackles need to be identified. The defense lost its top pass rusher and continues to have issues stopping the run. Recruiting hasn’t necessarily been an issue for Texas A&M, but several players will need to step up or Sumlin’s job security could become the storyline in College Station this fall.
Previewing Texas A&M Football’s Offense for 2017
Junior receiver Christian Kirk and sophomore running back Trayveon Williams are big-time playmakers. Kirk has accumulated nearly 2,000 receiving yards in two seasons, while Williams rushed for 1,057 yards as a freshman. The Aggies are facing major questions almost everywhere else, though. Again, they will start the season with a new starting quarterback.
Whether that’s senior Jake Hubenak, the backup to Trevor Knight a year ago, redshirt freshman Nick Starkel or highly acclaimed true freshman prospect Kellen Mond likely won’t be determined until late August.
Kirk has caught 163 passes in his brief career, but the other receivers on the roster combined for just eight receptions a year ago. However, there is great optimism surrounding freshmen Quartney Davis, Jhamon Ausbon and Hezekiah Jones.
Interior linemen Connor Lanfear, Colton Prater and Erik McCoy anchor an offensive line that enabled A&M to average 211.8 rushing yards per game and allowed just 21 sacks in 2016. New starters are needed at tackle. Promising junior Koda Martin is expected to step in at left tackle, where the Aggies have excelled the last five years.
Previewing Texas A&M Football’s Defense for 2017
However, the Aggies’ primary worry continues to be its porous run defense and lackluster linebacker play. Fingers are crossed both will be much improved. That could happen if they get better in the middle. Junior Otaro Alaka may get the call there, although he’s performed better on the weak side. Sophomore Tyrel Dodson is another possibility to fill that void. Heralded true freshman Anthony Hines could also make an immediate impact.
A&M projects to be very good in the interior line. Defensive tackle Kingsley Keke looks to take the step from effective starter to genuine star. Senior Zaycoven Henderson is also coming off his best year. The ends are much more uncertain with Qualen Cunningham and Jarrett Johnson, who have been moderately productive in backup roles. Junior college transfer Micheal Clemons also was brought in to boost the pass rush.
Safety Armani Watts will contend for All-SEC recognition, but much better play is needed from the cornerbacks.
Previewing Texas A&M Football’s Specialists for 2017
As his All-America credentials suggest, Kirk is among the elite in the country at returning punts. He just needs more chances. In 26 career games, he’s returned only 27 punts, yet he’s averaged 23.0 yards per return and has scored five touchdowns. Punter Shane Tripucka is almost as good but needs to be more consistent. Last season he averaged 42.9 yards per attempt with 27 kicks downed inside the 20-yard line. More consistency is also needed from kicker Daniel LaCamera. He converted 17-of-24 field goal attempts, but four misses came inside 40 yards. A reliable kickoff returner is needed.
The Aggies are trying to end a trend of three consecutive 8–5 seasons that have featured late-season collapses. Also, they haven’t finished higher than fourth in the SEC West since 2012. Inexperience at quarterback, issues in run defense and dependency on unproven players render the season outlook quite suspect. The schedule won’t do them many favors, either, with road trips to UCLA, Florida, LSU and Ole Miss, where they typically struggle.
Coach Kevin Sumlin’s job could be in jeopardy if the Aggies cannot break out of their 8–5 rut. Ironically one of Sumlin’s best coaching efforts may be required this season for A&M to post eight victories.
National Ranking: 37
SEC West Prediction: 6
Clemson’s first national title since 1981 was a blast for everyone involved. But once the regular season kicks off on Sept. 2, despite the championship and the heavy personnel losses, expectations will remain sky high.
In order for Clemson to again take home an ACC crown and contend nationally, several players must step up this fall. Here are five (in alphabetical order) to watch.
Kelly Bryant, Quarterback (Jr., 6-3, 215)
Or Zerrick Cooper. Or Hunter Johnson. Or Tucker Israel. It is true that none of these guys will be Deshaun Watson, but head coach Dabo Swinney would love it if one of them emerged as the clear-cut starter. Though Bryant currently tops the depth chart, many analysts believe that someone else will be uncer center when the Tigers suit up for Kent State. Cooper showed promise while redshirting in 2016 and has the dual-threat skills to run the Clemson offense.
Deon Cain, Wide Receiver (Jr., 6-1, 210)
Hunter Renfrow is Hunter Renfrow and Ray-Ray McCloud has the skill set to replicate the game of Artavis Scott. Now, it is time for the immense talent of Cain to blossom into a complete receiver. A downfield weapon during his first two seasons with Clemson, Cain has the size, speed, and ball skills necessary to become a No. 1 target.
Tavien Feaster, Running Back (So., 5-11, 210)
Much like at quarterback, there are a number of running backs eyeing playing time this fall. Adam Choice and C.J. Fuller have been in the system longer and also will see considerable action now that Wayne Gallman has moved on. But Feaster averaged six yards per carry last season and has a big-play burst that the others lack.
Tre Lamar, Linebacker (So., 6-3, 240)
With Kendall Joseph and Dorian O’Daniel returning, Clemson has two solid players on the second level. But Ben Boulware is no longer around and he leaves a big void. Lamar was a heavily recruited prospect in the 2016 class and defensive coordinator Brent Venables needs him to take a major step forward. Dexter Lawrence and Christian Wilkins will be causing problems up front, so there will be opportunities for Lamar to make plays.
Trayvon Mullen, Cornerback (So., 6-2, 185)
A major part of the Clemson success in recent years resulted from having a shutdown corner in place. Mackensie Alexander gave way to Cordrea Tankersley and the Tigers didn’t miss a beat in coverage. The defensive backfield has senior leadership in Ryan Carter and Marcus Edmond, but Mullen is a very good athlete and has desirable size (6-2) for a corner.
— Written by Jon Kinne, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a college football fanatic. Kinne has been writing about recruiting for the Irish Sports Daily for 10 years. Follow him on Twitter @JonRKinne.
Thanks to a strong finish, Georgia Tech enters 2017 with momentum in what looks to be a crowded ACC Coastal Division. The Yellow Jackets return plenty of experience, but will be breaking in a new starting quarterback and have some questions up front on defense. As usual, Paul Johnson’s team should be able to run the ball effectively, but the development of the passing game and the maturation of the defense will determine whether Georgia Tech will contend for a division title or merely jockey for a bowl bid.
Previewing Georgia Tech Football’s Offense for 2017
With the bulk of a promising young offensive line returning along with its most productive running backs and every contributor at receiver, Georgia Tech has a chance to be more potent offensively than last season, when it averaged 258.1 rushing yards, the second-lowest figure in the Paul Johnson/triple-option era.
But as always with Johnson’s offense, the quarterback is the catalyst for everything, and Georgia Tech hasn’t had this much uncertainty at that position since 2013. Junior Matthew Jordan, who often handled short-yardage situations last season, will begin fall camp in the strongest position. But Johnson also likes junior TaQuon Marshall, who offers more dynamic playmaking potential and started his career as an A-back because of his speed.
Whoever starts will be helped by experienced skill players and an offensive line that jelled in the second half of last season with three freshmen contributing.
B-back Dedrick Mills, a stout physical specimen at 5'10", 217 pounds who averaged 86 yards per game as a rookie, could grow into one of the league’s best runners. Clinton Lynch (11.2 yards per carry) and J.J. Green are quick, change-of-direction types who can break big plays.
Previewing Georgia Tech Football’s Defense for 2017
The Yellow Jackets have never been dominant on defense under Johnson, but their best teams typically create enough negative plays and turnovers to give the ball to their clock-dominating offense. Last season, for example, it was nickel back Lawrence Austin’s two interceptions and fumble recovery against Virginia Tech that keyed a 30–20 upset. Austin and his twin brother Lance combined for six INTs last year, but they can’t do it all.
“When you’re trying to match scores, it’s not good,” Johnson says. “Especially when the possessions are limited, winning the turnover battle is probably the most important thing we can gauge ourselves on.”
Georgia Tech needs senior defensive end KeShun Freeman to become a more explosive playmaker while getting starting-quality production from junior Anree Saint-Amour and senior Antonio Simmons, who have flashed pass-rushing ability. There’s also some question at outside linebacker, where three-year starter P.J. Davis is gone.
Previewing Georgia Tech Football’s Specialists for 2017
With kicker Harrison Butker and punter Ryan Rodwell both graduating, Georgia Tech is putting a lot of faith in freshmen. Brenton King is an in-state placekicking prospect the Jackets identified at their summer camp, and Pressley Harvin III was one of the highest-rated punters in the 2017 class. If one or both struggle, the Jackets will have to turn to a walk-on.
Something clicked midway through 2016. The Yellow Jackets finished strong, posting a 9–4 season including a win at Georgia that should give them momentum in a division in which the top programs are all losing multiple key players. With eight returning defensive starters and nine on offense, there are some proven, experienced ingredients. But replacing Justin Thomas, a highly productive three-year starter at quarterback, may not be that simple. And on defense, the front six has some intriguing young players but no clear-cut difference makers or vocal leaders. How Georgia Tech fills those personnel holes will likely determine whether it wins the Coastal for a fifth time in Johnson’s decade on the flats or has to sweat reaching bowl eligibility.
National Ranking: 36
ACC Coastal Prediction: 4
Since Sergio Garcia won The Masters, who is the most accomplished golfer yet to win a major championship?
The tortured title of “best player without a major” has been held by the likes of Phil Mickelson and Colin Montgomerie. “Lefty” now has five majors; “Monty” never won one. Currently, England’s Lee Westwood sits atop the unenviable list. Westwood has 18 top-10 finishes (including three runners-up) in major championships since 1997 — only Tiger Woods, Mickelson, Ernie Els, Garcia and Jim Furyk have more during that time, and they have a combined 25 major wins.
Is Marshawn Lynch the best NFL player ever to come out of retirement?
“Beast Mode” is back. Lynch, 31, was traded from the Seattle Seahawks to his hometown Oakland Raiders after sitting out the entire 2016 season. But he’s not the only All-Pro to return to the NFL. Brett Favre “retired” a few times but never missed a full season. Deion Sanders was out of football from 2001-03, before joining the Baltimore Ravens in 2004 — wearing a No. 37 jersey to signify his age. As a nickel back, “Prime Time” combined for five INTs for 144 return yards and one TD in 25 games in his two post-retirement seasons.
In professional sports, there is rarely anything guaranteed. Certainty always seems to be lacking with an unexpected twist here or a surprising turn there altering the previously assumed course of action. That’s what makes things so thrilling (or painful) to watch across hundreds of games over the course of many seasons.
That, however, was not the case when it came to the NBA this year. This season will mark the third straight time that the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors will meet in the Finals, a matchup that has seemingly been set in stone since the moment their series ended last year in a thrilling Game 7 slugfest. These two super teams feature no fewer than four of the top 10 players in the league and are the un-questioned best of the best — just as they were in the previous two seasons. Luckily for fans in both cities and those across the world, a rubber match awaits and it promises to complete a trilogy of high-end play on the court coupled with some superhuman performances from future Hall of Famers.
From the typically brutal Western Conference, the Warriors find themselves playing June basketball once again after having laid waste to everyone in their path on the way to a so far perfect 12-0 postseason run. Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and company are no doubt motivated to make up for last year’s loss that spoiled a historic season but the dynamics of the team are slightly different thanks to the presence of former league MVP Kevin Durant. The perennial All-Star signed with Golden State for one reason: to win a ring. Now he and the rest of the team are on that very door step and looking to add further validation to what has become the marquee franchise in basketball.
Standing in their way are the defending champion Cavaliers, who have been nearly as flawless this postseason in defense of their well-earned crown. Leading the way once again has been arguably the game’s best player in LeBron James. Making his seventh straight trip to the Finals is as impressive as it sounds and he’s done so this year thanks to a supporting cast that has really stepped things up once the regular season ended. A budding offensive juggernaut has made Cleveland quite the threat to bring back another victory parade to the shores of Lake Erie and sets up what should be an enthralling third matchup for the Larry O’Brien Trophy.
We’ve seemingly known for over a year now which teams will be playing in these NBA Finals. After a drama-free postseason that was low on entertainment and close games, it’s finally time for the matchup we’ve all been promised to take center stage and inject a little bit of life into one of the most thrilling sports around. While everything up to this point has been predicted in stone, it’s finally time for the unexpected to play out in the final series of the season.
Cleveland Cavaliers (51-31) vs. Golden State Warriors (67-15)
Game 1 - Thursday, June 1, 9 p.m. ET
Game 2 - Sunday, June 4, 8 p.m. ET
Game 3 - Wednesday, June 7, 9 p.m. ET
Game 4 - Friday, June 9, 9 p.m. ET
Game 5 (if necessary) - Monday, June 12, 9 p.m. ET
Game 6 (if necessary) - Thursday, June 15, 9 p.m. ET
Game 7 (if necessary) - Sunday, June 18, 8 p.m. ET
Note: All games will be broadcast on ABC. Games 1, 2, 5, 7 will be played at Oracle Arena in Oakland, Calif., while Games 3, 4, 6 will take place at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland.
Keys for Cleveland
There will likely be a ton of overanalyzing the lone loss to Boston in the Eastern Conference Finals but make no mistake that this Cavaliers roster is finally rounding into the form many expected to see this year but never did until the playoffs began. The shooting in particular has been off the charts no matter what player has the ball in his hands and they’re going to need keep that up in order to lift the trophy once again. With a lone exception the past few weeks, LeBron James has been incredible in not only getting his numbers but also lifting the game of his teammates on the offensive end.
The issue for Tyrone Lue’s squad comes when they’re trying to guard the Warriors’ playmakers. This is a team that has dealt with issues defensively all season long and there have been stretches in the past three series where those same flaws have popped up time and again. Scoring so well has covered up some of those issues but their next opponent presents so many challenges from all over the court that everyone will have to step their games up. Tristan Thompson was key defensively down the stretch last year but he’ll need a lot more help this time around given the opposing starting five is that much more dangerous with a scorer like Kevin Durant on the floor.
Keys for Golden State
Given all of the shooters on the roster for the Warriors, it’s understandable to think of this team as offense-first. Whether it’s the “Splash Brothers” raining down threes or Kevin Durant knocking down mid-range jumpers, it goes without saying that the Dubs can score. Despite that reputation though, the past three years have taught us that they are vastly underrated in terms of what they do on the defensive end of the court. Their play there more often than not is what leads to effortless baskets going the other way and if Golden State wants to shake off what happened last year, continuing to clamp down defensively is a must.
That won’t be easy given just how hot Cleveland has been over their past 13 games on the offensive end (historically so, depending on the metric used). It’s paramount that the Warriors are able to slow down shooters like Kyle Korver, J.R. Smith, Kyrie Irving and Channing Frye. Then, of course, is how to handle the King. Preventing LeBron James from driving to the hoop is no easy task and it seems pretty apparent that a host of bodies will rotate onto him over the course of the series. Whether it’s Draymond Green, Klay Thompson or Durant who is charged with the honors, the entire team must be aware of where the Cavs’ star is on the court and what lanes are open for him.
Finally, don’t discount the role the non-superstars will play on this run either. Whether that’s Zaza Pachulia or David West or somebody like Matt Barnes, getting contributions from everybody will be crucial in major moments during the second half of games or when trying to close out a win.
Let’s face it, this is a series that has been a year in the making and the only one that most NBA fans have pined to see since then. The addition of Kevin Durant to the Warriors’ already potent roster will be a continuing theme throughout the series as much as the lengthy debate over the legacy of LeBron James. Either way, one thing is for certain: these are the two best teams in the NBA meeting for the right to be called champions. Perhaps the only shame of this year’s Finals matchup is that it didn’t start weeks ago and isn’t a best of 21.
This rubber match will do just fine though and has the chance to be the first real compelling series of this year’s playoffs that is competitive from start to finish. There are superstars galore, some incredible outside shooters and a pair of vastly underrated defensive units. Short of having it go more than seven games, perhaps the only shame is that it will all be over in just a few weeks.
Which team will emerge victorious when all is said and done though? A title defense is one of the hardest things one can do in major professional sports and the Cavs have to be cognizant of that fact. Luckily they have the best basketball player on the planet in James and a bench that is deeper and more flexible than last year’s edition. If Cleveland is to emerge as champions once again, it will be well earned and come as a result of an incredible offensive surge that covers up some of the Cavaliers’ defensive flaws that have been apparent since the beginning of the year.
Cleveland will be underdogs for a reason however and the addition of a former MVP to an already stacked roster only adds to Golden State’s arsenal. While the regular season edition of the Warriors wasn’t quite as sharp as last year, the postseason has refocused every member of the squad and turned them into the group of assassins that everybody suspected they would be when Durant put pen to paper last summer. This is a group on a singular mission to correct last year’s Finals result and solidify their place in the game’s history with another ring for the Bay Area.
There are few outcomes that would be surprising given the mix of personalities, players and coaches involved in this year’s NBA Finals but when all is said and done, the best team usually prevails over the course of a playoff run. That’s been Golden State throughout this season and the Dubs will confirm that with another thrilling series win to capture yet another title to solidify their legacies.
Prediction: Warriors 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.
(Top photo courtesy of Getty Images)
The Big 12 didn’t experience a ton of turnover in the coordinator ranks this offseason, but there were a few big changes to watch in 2017. Doug Meacham left behind his play-calling duties at TCU to coordinate the offense under coach David Beaty at Kansas. Meacham’s arrival should provide an instant spark for the Jayhawks’ attack. On defense, the addition of Todd Orlando as coordinator is a huge boost for a Texas unit that finished near the bottom of the conference in points allowed last year.
Which teams made the best coordinator hires in the Big 12 for 2017? Here are five names to know, followed by a handful of assistant coach hires to watch.
Big 12's Top Coordinator Hires for 2017
Sonny Cumbie, Co-Offensive Coordinator, TCU
With Doug Meacham’s decision to leave TCU for Kansas, Cumbie was promoted to play-caller, with Curtis Luper joining him as a co-offensive coordinator. Cumbie – a former Texas Tech quarterback – came to Fort Worth in 2014 and worked closely with Meacham to mold TCU’s offense into one of the Big 12’s best over the last three years. In addition to his role as the play-caller, the Texas native will also tutor the quarterbacks. What tweaks could Cumbie make to the TCU attack in 2017? Don’t expect major changes, but the Horned Frogs could lean on their ground attack a little more. And Cumbie and Luper have an additional voice to lean on, as former California coach Sonny Dykes is working with the team as an offensive analyst.
Related: College Football Top 25 for 2017
Doug Meacham, Offensive Coordinator, Kansas
After three seasons at TCU, Meacham is making a move north to Kansas. Under Meacham’s watch, the Horned Frogs showed marked improvement on offense. Meacham inherited a unit that averaged only 25.1 points per game in 2013 but improved to over 40 points per contest from 2014-15. TCU averaged 6.1 yards per play last season but slipped to eighth in the Big 12 in scoring last year. Prior to TCU, Meacham called the plays at Houston in 2013 and previously worked at Oklahoma State from 2005-12. Head coach David Beaty has Kansas moving in the right direction, and the addition of Meacham should instantly help an offense that ranked last in the Big 12 in scoring last fall.
Todd Orlando, Defensive Coordinator, Texas
Orlando worked under new Texas coach Tom Herman for the last two years at Houston and takes over a Longhorn defense that ranked eighth in the Big 12 by surrendering 31.5 points per game last fall. Orlando’s arrival should provide instant help for Texas, especially with a strong personnel foundation in place at each level. Under Orlando’s direction, Houston’s defense limited opponents to 20.7 points per game in 2015 and 23.5 per contest last year. The Cougars also led the nation in forced turnovers (35) in 2015 and generated 75 sacks over the last two seasons. Prior to Houston, Orlando called the defensive signals at Utah State (2013-15), FIU (2011-12) and UConn (2005-10). He’s a rising star and a future head coach at the FBS level.
Related: Big 12's 2017 All-Conference Team
Phil Snow, Defensive Coordinator, Baylor
Snow is a grizzled veteran in the assistant ranks. He started his coaching career in 1976 at Berkeley High School and followed with stops at Winters High School and Laney College (1979-81) before landing at Boise State in 1982. After five years with the Broncos, Snow spent time with California, Arizona State, UCLA, Washington, Eastern Michigan and in the NFL with the Lions before joining Matt Rhule’s staff at Temple in 2013. The California native engineered a defense that led the American Athletic Conference in scoring defense in 2014 and 2016. Additionally, the Owls allowed just under five yards per play (4.6 and 4.8) in those two seasons. The Bears have a few holes to fill on defense this offseason, but Snow should help this defense progress over the course of the 2017 campaign.
Jake Spavital, Offensive Coordinator, West Virginia
Spavital departed Morgantown after the 2012 season, but he’s returned to West Virginia to handle the play-calling duties for the Mountaineers in 2017. Coach Dana Holgorsen still has a large influence on the offense, but Spavital’s arrival should alleviate the workload. The Oklahoma native is only 32 years old and this will be his third stop as a coordinator at the Power 5 level. Spavital worked as the offensive coordinator at Texas A&M from 2013-15 and for one season at California (2016). Under Spavital’s direction, the Golden Bears ranked third in the Pac-12 by averaging 37.1 points per game. Even if Holgorsen still takes on a role in play-calling or building game plans, Spavital is a trusted (and valuable) voice to have on offense.
Other Key Assistant Hires
Oscar Giles, Defensive Line Coach, Texas
Josh Henson, Offensive Line Coach, Oklahoma State
Jabbar Juluke, Running Backs Coach, Texas Tech
Collin Klein, Quarterbacks Coach, Kansas State
Drew Mehringer, Wide Receivers Coach, Texas
Elijah Robinson, Defensive Line Coach, Baylor
Mike Siravo, Linebackers Coach, Baylor
Chris Thomsen, Offensive Line Coach, TCU
Doug Meacham photo by Jeff Jacobsen/Kansas Athletics, courtesy of www.kuathletics.com
Todd Orlando photo courtesy of www.texassports.com
Boise State won 10 games last season, but that wasn't good enough to get a chance to play in the Mountain West Championship Game. The Broncos bring back just eight starters, but with quarterback Brett Rypien returning the offense should remain productive, although new playmakers need to emerge. The defense is just as unproven, but there are pieces to work with on each level. Even with all of the uncertainty and inexperience, head coach Bryan Harsin has enough talent for Boise State to remain a threat to win the conference and stake a claim as one of the Group of Five’s top teams.
Previewing Boise State Football’s Offense for 2017
Boise State moved the ball with relative ease in 2016, leading the Mountain West in total yardage, but the Broncos were sixth in the conference in scoring (33.8 ppg), their second-lowest output since 1998.
Junior quarterback Brett Rypien enters his third season as starter, and after an up-and-down sophomore year, he will look to improve his decision making in key situations. He loses the school’s all-time leading receiver in Thomas Sperbeck but returns senior Cedrick Wilson (56 catches, 1,129 yards, 11 TDs). The rest of the receiving corps has combined for 28 career receptions.
The Broncos lost ultra-productive running back Jeremy McNichols to the NFL Draft, though sophomore Alexander Mattison, who had 328 yards on 67 carries last season, has the makings of the next great Boise State back. Only one other running back on the roster has played in a game for the Broncos.
Three starters graduated off the offensive line, but senior tackle Archie Lewis and senior center Mason Hampton were solid last season. The Broncos allowed 19 sacks last season, 12 fewer than in 2015. Boise State’s tight end unit, which is seven deep, could be the X-factor after injuries and inexperience led to the group notching just 21 regular-season receptions.
Previewing Boise State Football’s Defense for 2017
A key part of that is trust in a deep back end with four safeties who made at least one start last season, though interception leader Chanceller James (three) graduated. Junior cornerback Tyler Horton has shown plenty of promise and is now by far that group’s most experienced member.
The linebackers lose three of their top five tacklers, in addition to Joe Martarano, who left the team in March to pursue a baseball career. Junior Leighton Vander Esch missed most of last season with injuries, but the former 8-man football high school star should be in for a big year at the weak-side spot.
Boise State led the nation with 17 sacks in the first four games but had only 12 in the final nine games, due in part to a defensive line that wore out as the season progressed. Two starters graduated, but junior David Moa (8.5 sacks) moves from an undersized nose tackle to defensive tackle, where he could be even more potent. Four first-year players who saw time in 2016 will have much larger roles this season.
Previewing Boise State Football’s Specialists for 2017
At times, the Broncos were brutally bad on special teams, but they improved late in the year, especially after Wilson (13.2-yard average) took over as the punt returner. Gone is excellent punter Sean Wale and placekicker Tyler Rausa, with both roles likely to be filled by redshirt freshman Joel Velazquez.
Bryan Harsin has won 31 games in three years as the head coach at his alma mater, but the Broncos’ performance within the conference must improve. Boise State has played in the Mountain West Championship Game once in its four years of existence and is 4–5 in the last nine games against teams from its own division.
There is, however, still plenty of talent in the program. If Rypien can take a step forward and the offense can turn yards into points, Boise State should be in position to reclaim its spot as the premier program in the league.
National Ranking: 35
MW Mountain Prediction: 1
Being the manager of a fantasy football league isn't easy. There are players in your league that either take it way too serious or not serious enough and you have to babysit them all. And don't get us started on trying to collect prize money from all the participants (if that's how your league rolls). But one thing that can be easy is choosing a funny, cool, clever or simply great fantasy football league name.
To help you, we compiled our favorite fantasy league names below. Here they are in no particular order of awesomeness:
Fantasy Football League Names
- Greatest Show on Paper
- League of Ordinary Gentlemen
- 12 Angry Men
- The Madden Curse
- The Motley Crew
- If At First You Don't Succeed, Play Fantasy
- If you’re not FIRST; you’re LAST League
- Injured Head & Shoulders
- Fantasy Football Factory (FFF)
- Show me the Money
- I'm Surrounded by Idiots
- Too Poor to Golf
- There Can Only Be One
- Fam Bam!
- Smackmouth Smackdown
- C’mon Man!
- Fantasy League of Advanced Sports Historians (FLASH)
- The Dirty Dozen
- The Boldin the Beautiful
- Weekend at Hernie's
- 12 Men Out
- Fantasy Fanatics
- Fantasy Field of Dreams
- Our Boss Think's We're Working
- Belichick Film School
- 4TH AND DRUNK TO GO
- In Memory of Tebowing
- Fantasy League of Below Average Gentlemen
- There can only be one
- No Punt Intended
- League of Champions
- Gridiron Gurus Only!
- The League
- Sunday Funday
- Justice League
- Bragging Rights League
- The Dirty Dozen
- Weekend Warriors
- Lombardi would be Proud
- 10 Geniuses and 2 Idiots
- Road to Glory
- Coast to Coast
- Goodfellas and Bad Girls
- Darwin’s Theory
- The Unusual Suspects
- The Longest Yard
- Show Us Your TDs
- Easy Money
- LIFO – Last in First Out
- Average Joes
- 11 Amateurs and 1 Pro
- Winner, Winner Chicken Dinner League
- League of Our Own
- Somewhere Bill Walsh is Crying League
- Low Expectations League
- Armchair Football League (AFL)
- League of Misfits
- Stumblin’, Bumblin’ and Fumblin’
- Legends in their own Minds
- Last Man Standing League
- 12 enter; 1 leaves
- League of Leagues
- Way Cool League
- Flaunt and Taunt League
- Playing for Keeps League
- Fleur de League
- 2 Minute Drill
- League of Nations
- The Federation of Dunces
- For the Love of the Game
- The Showdown
- Pigskin Junkies
- Legion of Doom
- King of Kings League
- Bring it On
- Stay Thirsty My Friends League
- The Professionals
- Snapping necks and cashing checks
- They are who we thought they were
- Call of Duty
- Pigskin Prognosticators
- The Statement in the Basement
- Any Given Sunday
- Lombardi’s Tudor League
- E-lemon-ator League
- A League of Our Own
- No Guts No Glory
- Blood, Sweat and Beers
- League of Extraordinary Nerds
- All in the Family
- Best of the Rest
- Football Junkies
- Game of inches
- Frozen Tundra League
- Are you Ready for Some Football League
- Frantic Football Freaks
- Gridiron Great
- No Fun League
- We Need Some Time Away from our Family
Be sure to check out our other team name posts, including volleyball team names, bowling team names, soccer team names, softball team names, fantasy baseball team names, and fantasy football team names.
Colorado broke through in a major way in head coach Mike MacIntyre’s fourth season, winning 10 games and the Pac-12 South title. The Buffaloes will need to replace a four-year starter at quarterback and nine starters from a defense that ranked in the top 20 in the FBS, but the cupboard isn’t completely bare in Boulder either. The new signal-caller saw plenty of action of last year and the offense has a 1,200-yard rusher, a productive group of wide receivers and a veteran offensive line to lean on. Defense is the bigger question with so many new starters and a new coordinator taking over. It took a while for Colorado to get back to being competitive in the Pac-12 and even with all of the turnover, don’t expect these Buffaloes to give up their title without a fight.
Previewing Colorado Football’s Offense for 2017
Colorado will miss the leadership of quarterback Sefo Liufau, a four-year starter, the school’s all-time leading passer and the heart and soul of last year’s South Division champions. There are, however, nine offensive starters back, and confident sophomore Steven Montez is ready to take over at quarterback. Montez went 2–1 as a starter last year when Liufau went down with an ankle injury, and he finished the season with nine touchdown passes in only 140 attempts (Liufau had 11 in 319 passes). Montez has a gunslinger mentality and needs to improve on his decision making, but he makes big plays with his strong arm and legs.
Senior Phillip Lindsay is one of the most versatile running backs in the Pac-12. He had 1,745 yards from scrimmage, led the league with 16 rushing touchdowns and finished third on the team with 53 receptions.
At receiver, seniors Devin Ross, Shay Fields and Bryce Bobo combined for 169 catches for 2,218 yards and 16 touchdowns, while junior Jay MacIntyre — the son of head coach Mike MacIntyre — added 32 catches for 412 yards and a touchdown. Junior Juwann Winfree, a junior college transfer, was believed to be the best of the bunch last year before tearing his ACL in fall camp and missing the entire season.
Four of five starters return to the line, led by sixth-year senior left tackle Jeromy Irwin and sophomore Tim Lynott at right guard.
Previewing Colorado Football’s Defense for 2017
Despite the turnover, CU returns several players who have either started or had significant playing time in their careers.
Rick Gamboa has started 25 consecutive games at inside linebacker, while safety Afolabi Laguda and “Buff” back Ryan Moeller were also starters last year. Cornerback Isaiah Oliver is an exceptional athlete (he pulls double duty as a decathlete for the track team) and will become a full-time starter for the first time in his career. Outside linebacker Derek McCartney (25 career starts) is back after a season-ending ACL tear in Week 3 last year, and end Leo Jackson III leads the front. He was a starter in 2015 and the top backup on the line last year.
Previewing Colorado Football’s Specialists for 2017
Kickers Chris Graham and Davis Price both struggled with field goals and extra points last year, so the Buffs signed 30-year-old freshman James Stefanou, a former professional soccer player from Australia. All three will compete in the fall. Punter Alex Kinney struggled a bit last year but is expected to handle the job for the third year in a row.
Colorado had its best season in 15 years and snapped a nine-year bowl drought with an inconsistent offense and a top-notch defense. This year, the Buffs will lean more on an experienced offense. There is a lot of excitement about Montez’s potential, and with the weapons around him, the expectation is for the offense to improve upon last year’s 31.1 points per game, which ranked seventh in the Pac-12. Given the losses on defense, it’s tough to expect the Buffs to be as good as they were a year ago, but if they can keep opponents under 28 points per game and the offense improves, this team has the ability to challenge for the South title and get back to a bowl game.
National Ranking: 34
Pac-12 South Prediction: 3
It goes without saying that you need a good quarterback in order to be a successful college football team. While it may not wholly determine a team’s success each season if they have a quality signal-caller behind center, one doesn’t become a consistent winner without a quarterback making all the throws and executing the right decisions on offense.
That’s why the position is so important across college football and a big reason why each quarterback matchup is highlighted on the schedule each week of the season. Heading into 2017, a strong group of returning starters and a handful of big-time transfers across the country make for some extremely enticing meetings that are worth circling on the calendar. We made life a little easy on you and did just that for most major conferences so you know just what to watch for when teams hit the field this year.
But which position battles are really the best of the best in 2017? Here are the top 25 quarterback matchups involving college football’s best signal-callers:
1. Sam Darnold (USC) vs. Josh Rosen (UCLA) – Nov. 18 (Los Angeles)
The best quarterback matchup in the country is one many scouts view as a potential battle to be the No. 1 overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft. Rosen was injured for last season’s meeting between the two crosstown rivals so this likely one-and-done matchup will be all the more interesting when things kickoff at the venerable Coliseum.
2. J.T. Barrett (Ohio State) vs. Baker Mayfield (Oklahoma) – Sept. 9 (Columbus, Ohio)
It goes without saying that this rematch from last year will be one of the early games of the season and will likely come up prominently when discussing which teams are in the conversation for the College Football Playoff come November. Barrett got the better of the matchup when he threw for four touchdowns and ran for 74 yards in 2016, but don’t discount Heisman Trophy finalist Baker Mayfield stealing the show in Columbus for this year’s meeting.
3. Baker Mayfield (Oklahoma) vs. Mason Rudolph (Oklahoma State) – Nov. 4 (Stillwater, Okla.)
The Big 12 has gone back to having a championship game but for several seasons it wasn’t an issue for the conference as Bedlam acted as a de facto one at the end of the regular season. That won’t be the case once again in 2017 but the thrilling annual rivalry contest between the Oklahoma powers will still bring the goods when it comes to a top-tier quarterback matchup between the flashy Mayfield and the strong-armed Rudolph.
4. Lamar Jackson (Louisville) vs. Deondre Francois (Florida State) – Oct. 21 (Tallahassee, Fla.)
You don’t have to look too hard to find the early candidate for game of the year in the ACC, as Louisville’s trip to Florida State could very well determine which Atlantic Division team winds up in Charlotte later in the season. This matchup was one that contributed heavily to Jackson winning the Heisman Trophy last year and he’ll need an equally impressive outing if he wants to make history and defend that trophy in 2017. Francois had a really impressive debut in taking over for a Heisman winner himself and could re-insert himself into the award’s conversation if he can come up with a big performance in this one.
5. Trace McSorley (Penn State) vs. J.T. Barrett (Ohio State) – Oct. 28 (Columbus, Ohio)
McSorley came out of nowhere last season to lead the Nittany Lions to the Big Ten title and is no doubt set on keeping the team on the top of the conference standings in 2017. While last year’s meeting between the two teams was thrilling, it wasn’t exactly a showcase for either signal-caller. With all eyes on the pair this time around, something says that kind of repeat performance won’t be the case when two of the Big Ten’s best battle it out at the Horseshoe.
6. Josh Allen (Wyoming) vs. Brett Rypien (Boise State) – Oct. 21 (Boise, Idaho)
Allen is considered by some to be a potential No. 1 overall pick in next year’s draft if he puts together a good season for the Cowboys and all eyes will be on him when he takes on Boise State for a game that likely decides the Mountain West Mountain Division. He’ll be taking on a QB with NFL bloodlines himself in Rypien, who has thrown for more than 3,000 yards and 20 touchdowns each of the past two seasons.
7. Luke Falk (Washington State) vs. Jake Browning (Washington) – Nov. 25 (Seattle)
The Apple Cup is always one of the better rivalry games out there and it’s sure to be on everybody’s bucket list this season given the two signal-callers involved. Falk has been terrific on the Palouse in piling up numbers for the Cougars and will be looking to get the win over the Pac-12’s reigning Offensive Player of the Year in Browning.
8. Jalen Hurts (Alabama) vs. Deondre Francois (Florida State) – Sept. 2 (Atlanta)
The non-conference game of the year pits two top-five teams against each other in a fantastic opener at the future home of this season’s national title game. While all the attention will likely be on the two head coaches, this also will be a fascinating meeting between two rising young signal-callers. Given the caliber of defenses involved, the winner between Hurts and Francois could emerge as the favorite to eventually wind up with the Heisman.
9. Josh Rosen (UCLA) vs. Jake Browning (Washington) – Oct. 28 (Seattle)
A Jim Mora trip back to Seattle may draw a lot of the attention in this one but the real stars of the show when the Bruins travel to play the Huskies in late October will be the guys under center. Both Rosen and Browning had terrific debut campaigns as freshmen and will be hoping that their game takes the next step in 2017.
10. Jalen Hurts (Alabama) vs. Jarrett Stidham (Auburn) – Nov. 25 (Auburn, Ala.)
The Iron Bowl might be the SEC’s fiercest rivalry and the quarterback battle in this one could be the best in some time thanks to the arrival of Stidham, who has buoyed the hopes of those on the Plains quite a bit. The talented Baylor transfer would certainly make a mark in Auburn history if he’s able to end Alabama’s dominance in the series in 2017 and top Hurts for a victory.
11. Sam Darnold (USC) vs. Luke Falk (Washington State) – Sept. 29 (Pullman, Wash.)
Size? Check. Rocket arms? Check. Tough as nails? Check and check. Yes, when the Trojans travel to face off against Wazzu, the quarterbacks involved will tick off just about every box you’re looking for at the position in a game that probably won’t be any fun for the defensive backs involved.
12. Trace McSorley (Penn State) vs. Wilton Speight (Michigan) – Oct. 21 (University Park, Pa.)
The offensive systems of Michigan and Penn State are an interesting study in contrasts but both need a good quarterback who can make all the throws in order to operate effectively. In McSorley and Speight, each team has a signal-caller who can do just that, which makes this a fascinating matchup in one of the Big Ten’s best games on the conference slate.
13. Jalen Hurts (Alabama) vs. Nick Fitzgerald (Mississippi State) – Nov. 11 (Starkville, Miss.)
If you’re in the mood to catch two of the SEC’s best dual-threat quarterbacks, feel free to tune in for this meeting of SEC West rivals. Hurts and Fitzgerald each were solid last year but are looking to take their all-around games to the next level this season and this will be a big test in proving they can threaten teams equally with their arms as much as their legs.
14. Josh Rosen (UCLA) vs. Riley Ferguson (Memphis) – Sept. 16 (Memphis, Tenn.)
Ferguson reignited his career last season and put up some big numbers (32:10 TD-to-INT ratio) in Mike Norvell’s pass-happy system for the Tigers. He’ll be able to showcase those skills when the Bruins make the trip east in what is an enticing matchup against one of the best the Pac-12 has to offer and a potential top pick in next year’s draft with Rosen.
15. Kyle Allen (Houston) vs. Quinton Flowers (South Florida) – Nov. 4 (Tampa, Fla.)
It doesn’t get better than this in the American Athletic Conference for a quarterback battle that may very well decide the conference title and a berth in a New Year’s Six bowl. Flowers is a budding Heisman candidate after posting eye-popping numbers through the air and on the ground for the Bulls while Allen takes over the Cougars after transferring in from Texas A&M. Don’t miss the subplot of former Texas quarterback Major Applewhite taking on former Longhorns head coach Charlie Strong in this one either.
16. Tanner Mangum (BYU) vs. Nick Fitzgerald (Mississippi State) – Oct. 14 (Starkville, Miss.)
Fitzgerald pushed a tough BYU defense to double overtime out in Provo and will be looking for a bit of revenge this time around at home. Standing in his way will be one of the more electrifying quarterbacks from west of the Mississippi in Mangum, who has saved some of his most thrilling moments for meetings with schools from big-time conferences.
17. J.T. Barrett (Ohio State) vs. Wilton Speight (Michigan) – Nov. 25 (Ann Arbor, Mich.)
The annual rivalry game between the Wolverines and the Buckeyes is always a must-watch no matter what part of the country you’re from and last year’s double-overtime thriller certainly showcased why. That hard-fought battle between two great defenses didn’t leave a ton of room for these two quarterbacks to show what they can do but this season’s edition could very well be a major exhibit for the two veterans in yet another must-see affair.
18. Baker Mayfield (Oklahoma) vs. Shane Buechele (Texas) – Oct. 14 (Dallas)
The Red River Showdown is annually a bucket list game on the Big 12 slate and more often than not comes with some serious national expectations. That will likely be the case once again this year with the addition of Tom Herman to spice things up on the Longhorns side but don’t overlook the fun battle under center between Austin native Baker Mayfield and his opposite number in burnt orange who had an impressive freshman year in 2016.
19. Brett Rypien (Boise State) vs. Luke Falk (Washington State) – Sept. 9 (Pullman, Wash.)
These two regional rivals staged an entertaining game last season and round two should be just as fun given they’re two of the best in their respective conferences. While the receiving corps will be a bit different in 2017, expect both of these strong-armed, tough quarterbacks to put on a show through the air.
20. Austin Allen (Arkansas) vs. Jalen Hurts (Alabama) – Oct. 14 (Tuscaloosa, Ala.)
Allen was one of the big surprises in the SEC last season and really put the team on his back with strong performances through the air with the Razorbacks. He was one of only a handful of QBs to put up big numbers on Alabama’s secondary (400 yards, three TDs as well as three INTs) during their meeting in 2016 and will be hoping for more of the same when he faces off against Hurts again in Tuscaloosa.
21. Brett Rypien (Boise State) vs. Tanner Mangum (BYU) – Oct. 6 (Provo, Utah)
The Broncos and Cougars have staged some absolute classics in recent memory and the latest edition has the chance to keep that streak going given who’s behind center for each side. Rypien played a big role in helping the Broncos sneak by the Cougars last season with an impressive 442 passing yards while Mangum, an Idaho native, has an intimate history with Boise State after throwing a Hail Mary to secure the victory two years ago.
22. Shane Buechele (Texas) vs. Sam Darnold (USC) – Sept. 16 (Los Angeles)
You would have to search far and wide to find a college football fan who doesn’t have fond memories of the epic national title game that Texas and USC staged over a decade ago and their rematch in 2017 will no doubt be one of the highlights of the non-conference slate. Darnold is considered by many to be a future No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft after a stellar debut for the Trojans a year ago that was capped off with a thrilling Rose Bowl comeback. Buechele is no slouch in this meeting though having thrown for more than 3,000 yards as a freshman himself.
23. Jacob Eason (Georgia) vs. Jarrett Stidham (Auburn) – Nov. 11 (Auburn, Ala.)
The Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry might be a quarterback showcase in this season’s edition as both sides are hoping for big strides being made behind center after last year’s offensive debacle. In beating the Tigers as a freshman, Eason delivered his signature SEC victory but will find things much tougher this time around in trying to out-duel the equally talented Stidham.
24. Justin Herbert (Oregon) vs. Josh Rosen (UCLA) – Oct. 21 (Pasadena. Calif.)
The Pac-12 has a history of young quarterbacks bursting onto the scene and these two teams are acutely aware with this pair adding to the legacy in recent years. Each side will be sporting a new-look offense for this year’s contest, adding to this top-tier matchup of quality passers.
25. Jarrett Stidham (Auburn) vs. Kelly Bryant (Clemson) – Sept. 9 (Clemson, S.C.)
The defenses ran the show during last year’s meeting between these two but something says that the offenses might have the last laugh this September. At Auburn, that optimism is buoyed by the arrival of Stidham, the highly touted transfer from Baylor. He’ll be watched closely as he gets to run Gus Malzahn’s offense and might be the most talented passer on the Plains since Cam Newton. Bryant figures to be the guy to replace departed star Deshaun Watson and will be tested right away in this one.
— 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.
After winning at least eight games in each of the past four seasons, UCLA cratered to 4-8 in 2016. Injuries, namely to quarterback Josh Rosen, certainly contributed to the decline, but that’s done little to squelch any talk about head coach Jim Mora’s job security. Rosen’s healthy return is critical, although he will need more support from the running game and his offensive line. The defense has some pieces to work with, but there are plenty of questions on that side of the ball too following the loss of three NFL draft picks. UCLA should be better with Rosen back under center, but does that mean simply getting back to a bowl game or competing for the Pac-12 South title?
Previewing UCLA Football’s Offense for 2017
Los Angeles is a city rife with total makeovers, and after last year’s 4–8 record, it was not surprising to see Jim Mora opt for a complete overhaul on offense for the Bruins. Four new coaches were brought in as part of a staff revamp, highlighted by new offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch. Expect an emphasis on establishing the run early in games, and the fact that the entire running back corps returns, including the trio of Soso Jamabo, Bolu Olorunfunmi and Nate Starks, should help tremendously.
All eyes this fall will be focused on other areas, however, and that chiefly means quarterback, where junior Josh Rosen is hoping to get his promising career back on track after a shoulder injury in 2016. The signal caller was at 100 percent for spring practice, and it’s safe to say that the former five-star is hoping to make up for lost time even if the receiving corps he’ll be throwing to is lacking veteran standouts.
Any optimism UCLA fans feel about Rosen’s return will be tempered by offensive line concerns, which have been the team’s Achilles heel. All-Pac-12 center Scott Quessenberry anchors the group, which loses only one starter but needs vast improvement across the board after struggling to run the football (2.93 yards per carry last season) and keep the QB upright.
Previewing UCLA Football’s Defense for 2017
Leading the way is linebacker Kenny Young, who developed into a quality starter and should be able to improve significantly upon the 5.0 sacks and 8.5 tackles for a loss as a junior. Jacob Tuioti-Mariner has the flexibility to play at just about every spot along the defensive line and could follow his former teammates to the NFL with more seasoning. How stingy this group is defensively may come down to how well a pair of five-stars rush the passer though — 2015 signee Keisean Lucier-South and 2017 early enrollee Jaelan Phillips.
Previewing UCLA Football’s Specialists for 2017
Placekicker JJ Molson was just 12-of-20 on field goals as a freshman, but the coaching staff hopes that a full offseason of work will be enough to turn things around. Austin Kent (38.3 yards per punt) figures to take over full-time punting duties, while return duties are set to be taken over by Jordan Lasley after several misadventures in that area a season ago.
Those who swear allegiance to the powder blues have been trying to figure out if the Bruins’ disastrous 2016 season was a blip in the radar or part of a troubling trend under Mora. Injuries to key players like Rosen were a big factor in the team’s recent backslide, but two straight campaigns of declining win totals have many thinking that 2017 will be a referendum on the head coach’s tenure.
Despite concerns, the return of Rosen to the starting lineup is enough to get people to buy low on a team that should make big gains offensively. That should take some pressure off a re-tooled defense that is stuffed with talented players, and it’s hard to go anywhere but up on special teams.
It might be tough to have a breakthrough season given how competitive Pac-12 South has become, but this has the potential to be a top-25 team if the pieces fall into place.