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Former Raiders defensive end Anthony Smith has been sentenced to life in prison.
Smith is serving the sentences for killing three men between 1999 and 2001. He played for Oakland for six seasons. The accusations against Smith are that he kidnapped two brothers from a car wash and then shot them, dumping their bodies less than 10 miles apart from each other.
Two years later in 2001, Smith was allegedly a part of a group that kidnapped another man and stabbed him to death.
Smith received the three life terms without the possibility of parole.
The 2016 NASCAR Sprint Cup season is just around the corner. And after watching Kyle Busch return from a serious injury to win his first Sprint Cup title in dramatic fashion, fans can't wait for the green flag to drop on a new season. The 14th edition of Athlon Sports Racing arrives just in time to provide the preseason analysis and predictions craved by race fans from Sonoma to Daytona and everywhere in between.
The most complete preview of the year in racing is available now on newsstands across the country.
Related: Top 35 Drivers for 2016
We take a few laps around the track, asking "10 Tough Questions" and providing the politically incorrect answers — exploring hot topics like the new NASCAR rules package, the late-season Matt Kenseth-Joey Logano dustup, “fixing” Daytona and Talladega and more.
In this year’s edition, Athlon gets personal with some of the sport’s most compelling figures. We take a look at how Kevin Harvick has transformed himself into the sport’s front-runner. Our exclusive Q&A with Joey Logano brings you the unfiltered opinions of the defending Daytona 500 champ (and “star” of “Sharknado 3”).
There’s always been a tension in the sport between its love for tradition and its embrace of new technology in the quest for speed. We take a look at how technology, advanced analytics and fan demands are changing a sport that still clings to its roots in our feature “Culture Clash.”
As always, Athlon Sports takes you inside the garage with anonymous, highly opinionated quotes from rival head wrenches, crewmen and wheelmen. Every track is previewed extensively, as are the top 25 drivers and the best of the rest racing for the checkers. There's also a rundown of the Truck Series and XFINITY Series, both of which are populated by racing's future stars.
Even though the Pac-12 fell short of landing a team in the College Football Playoff, 2015 wasn’t a bad year for the conference. Stanford finished 12-2 and won the Rose Bowl in impressive fashion over Iowa, Oregon and Washington State each finished with nine victories, Utah posted its highest win total since joining the Pac-12 and 10 teams played in a bowl game. As the focus shifts to 2016, the Pac-12 could be on the outside looking in for a playoff spot once again – at least in the early predictions. Stanford is the team to beat in the North, but Washington, Oregon and Washington State will be a factor in the division race. The South is USC’s to lose, with UCLA and Utah in the next tier.
It’s never too early to think about predictions or rankings for the 2016 college football season. With that in mind, Athlon provides its early power rankings for the Pac-12 for 2016:
Early Pac-12 North Rankings for 2016
Stanford certainly has its share of personnel concerns, but it’s hard to pick against coach David Shaw’s team. Of course, a lot could change between now and the end of spring practices. The Cardinal returns Heisman Trophy candidate and the nation’s top all-purpose threat in Christian McCaffrey. After McCaffrey is where the question marks begin. Who will replace quarterback Kevin Hogan? And who steps up to fill the voids in the trenches? Five starters return on defense, and coordinator Lance Anderson has personnel concerns to address at each level. In addition to the personnel concerns, the schedule provides plenty of obstacles, including road dates at Washington, Notre Dame, Oregon and UCLA.
The Huskies are a team on the rise and a Pac-12 North title in 2016 wouldn’t be a surprise. Coach Chris Petersen has plenty of reasons to be optimistic on offense next year with the return of freshmen standouts Jake Browning (QB) and Myles Gaskin (RB). The development of the receiving corps and offensive line are two areas to watch in offseason workouts. With eight starters back, the defense should be the best in the Pac-12 next year. Azeem Victor and Keishawn Bierria anchor an active linebacking corps, while the secondary returns All-America candidates in Budda Baker (safety) and Sidney Jones (cornerback). The Sept. 30 matchup against Stanford in Seattle could decide the winner of the Pac-12 North.
3. Washington State
Last season’s 9-4 mark was the highest for Washington State in Mike Leach’s four years in Pullman. With a favorable schedule and the return of quarterback Luke Falk, the Cougars should be a factor in the Pac-12 title race. In addition to Falk, receivers Gabe Marks and River Cracraft are back, while three starters return up front. The departures of left tackle Joe Dahl and guard Gunnar Eklund are the biggest losses for Washington State’s offense. Coordinator Alex Grinch was a solid hire for Leach last season, improving the defense from 10th in the Pac-12 in points allowed per game to seventh in 2015. Grinch loses a few cogs in the front seven, but the secondary returns cornerback Darrien Molton after a solid freshman season, along with safety Shalom Luani (four picks).
College Football Podcast: Early 2016 Top 25 Breakdown
It’s dangerous to pick Oregon outside of the top three, but the Ducks are a tough team to elevate prior to spring practice. Coach Mark Helfrich has plenty of question marks on both sides of the ball to address this offseason. Talented – but unproven at the FBS level – Montana State transfer Dakota Prukop is slated to replace Vernon Adams at quarterback. Running back Royce Freeman is a candidate for All-America honors, and the receiving corps features talented targets in Darren Carrington, Devon Allen and Dwayne Stanford. Tight end Pharaoh Brown is also slated to return after missing all of 2015 due to injury. Regardless of how explosive the offense is, the Ducks need improvement on defense. How much of an impact will new coordinator Brady Hoke make in one offseason? Five starters are back, but this unit loses standout end DeForest Buckner and three starters in the linebacking corps.
The Golden Bears are coming off their best season under Sonny Dykes, but a step back is in order for 2016. Quarterback Jared Goff left Berkeley a year early for the NFL, leaving Ross Bowers, Chase Forrest and Luke Rubenzer battling for the starting job. In addition to Goff’s departure, California must replace five of the top six statistical receivers, including Kenny Lawler (13 TDs) and Bryce Treggs (21.2 ypc). The news isn’t all bad for Dykes on offense. Four starters are back up front, and there’s a trio of capable options at running back – Tre Watson, Khalfani Muhammad and Vic Enwere. Progress is needed on defense, but California’s 6.1 yards per play allowed in 2015 was the best mark under Dykes. End Kyle Kragen, linebacker Jalen Jefferson and safety Stefan McClure are the biggest losses for coordinator Art Kaufman.
6. Oregon State
Expect improvement from the Beavers in coach Gary Andersen’s second year in Corvallis. Andersen inherited a team with just nine returning starters and uncertainty at quarterback last season, so a winless record in Pac-12 action wasn’t a surprise. Utah State transfer Darell Garretson joins the competition at the quarterback, while last year’s starter Seth Collins transferred in late January after moving to a slash (QB/WR) role. Restocking the offensive line is a priority for Andersen after center Josh Mitchell expired his eligibility and guard Isaac Seumalo left early for the NFL. New defensive coordinator Kevin Clune inherits a group that surrendered 6.4 yards per play last year. Most of the unit returns intact, but the defensive line loses three key contributors.
Early Pac-12 South Rankings for 2016
The Trojans are the early favorite in the South Division, but there’s a lot of uncertainty surrounding all six programs in 2016. What changes will Clay Helton make in his first season as the full-time coach? Helton wants the offense to be physical and establish the run, and the pieces are in place in the backfield with the return of Ronald Jones and Justin Davis. The offensive line should be one of the best in the Pac-12. Max Browne and Sam Darnold will battle this spring to replace Cody Kessler, but regardless of who wins the starting nod, expect to see plenty of passes in JuJu Smith-Schuster’s direction. Clancy Pendergast returns after a two-year stint in the NFL to coordinate USC’s defense, and the veteran signal-caller has work to do in the trenches with the departure of Delvon Simmons, Claude Pelon, Antwaun Woods and Greg Townsend. Additionally, linebacker Su’a Cravens left early for the NFL. The secondary is the strength of USC’s defense in 2016.
The Bruins were hit hard by early departures to the NFL. Six players are leaving Los Angeles for the next level, including standout linebacker Myles Jack, two starters on the offensive line and All-American defensive tackle Kenny Clark. Despite the personnel losses, UCLA has enough returning talent to exceed last year’s 8-5 mark. Quarterback Josh Rosen should be better in his second season on campus, and Soso Jamabo is a capable replacement for Paul Perkins at running back. Clark and Jack are big losses for the defense, but this unit should get a boost from the return of end Eddie Vanderdoes from a season-ending knee injury.
Last season’s 10-3 record was Utah’s highest win total since joining the Pac-12 in 2011. Additionally, the Utes have back-to-back finishes inside of the top 20 in the final Associated Press poll and climbed as high as No. 3 in 2015. Utah will take a step back with a few personnel losses, but coach Kyle Whittingham’s won’t be an easy out for the rest of the South Division. Junior college recruit Troy Williams is expected to compete for the starting quarterback job, but the strength of the offense should be its returning talent in the trenches and running back Joe Williams. Six starters are back on defense, including standout safety Marcus Williams and cornerback Dominique Hatfield. The biggest concern for new coordinator Morgan Scalley is the linebacking corps. Gionni Paul, Jared Norris and Jason Whittingham leave big shoes to fill.
4. Arizona State
It’s a tough call between Arizona State, Utah and Arizona at No. 3. Each of the teams has its share of personnel concerns, but for now, let’s give an edge to the Utes, with the Sun Devils just a step behind. Coach Todd Graham’s team returns 10 starters, including running back Demario Richard and receiver Tim White. Quarterback Mike Bercovici expired his eligibility after a solid senior year (30 TDs). Three candidates – Manny Wilkins, Bryce Perkins and Brady White – will compete for the starting job this spring. In addition to finding a new quarterback, the Sun Devils need to retool the offensive line. The defense ranked near the bottom of the Pac-12 in yards per play allowed (6.24), but six returning starters provide some hope for improvement in 2016. The schedule-makers weren’t kind to Arizona State for 2016. Crossover games against Washington, Oregon and Washington State are on tap, and the Sun Devils visit Arizona and USC.
A similar theme is set to play out in Tucson next season. Arizona should have an explosive offense, but the defense is a major question mark. How much improvement can new coordinator Marcel Yates get out of this group in 2016? Seven starters are back, but the Wildcats are losing their best defender – linebacker Scooby Wright – to the NFL. Arizona is going to have to win its share of high-scoring affairs next season, but coach Rich Rodriguez’s team has the firepower to do so. If quarterback Anu Solomon and running back Nick Wilson can stay healthy in 2016, both players should push for all-conference honors. In addition to a non-conference matchup against BYU, Arizona’s conference slate features crossover games against Washington, Stanford and Washington State and road trips to UCLA and Utah.
Progress has been slow for the Buffaloes under coach Mike MacIntyre, but the program is moving in the right direction. While the final record for 2015 was only 4-9, Colorado lost four Pac-12 games by seven points or less. Can the program take the next step and play in a bowl next year? The Buffaloes return most of their starting lineup from last season, but standout receiver Nelson Spruce is a huge loss, and left tackle Stephane Nembot, safety Jered Bell, cornerback Ken Crawley and defensive tackle Justin Solis must be replaced. Quarterback Sefo Liufau suffered a foot injury against USC and is not expected to compete in spring practice. The schedule isn’t kind to Colorado. Crossover games against Oregon, Stanford and Washington State are challenging, and MacIntyre’s team catches Michigan in non-conference play. That’s not exactly an ideal schedule for a program looking for a trip to the postseason.
The Gainesville Police Department just sky-rocketed to the best in the nation with this video.
After getting a call about a noise complaint, an officer was dispatched to tell the kids to keep it quiet. Honestly, how can you keep a basketball game quiet? The officer did the only thing he could think of and joined in on the fun.
Officer White was recently dispatched to a call of kids playing basketball "loudly" in the streets. In the evening. Having fun. Not committing crimes. Let's see how he handled it.Posted by Gainesville Police Department on Thursday, January 21, 2016
Four years ago, the San Francisco 49ers began a stretch of playing in three straight NFC Championship Games, from 2011-13. The past two seasons, the 49ers have been in a bit of turmoil.
San Francisco parted ways with head coach Jim Harbaugh after the 2014 season after he finished with an 8-8 record and third in the NFC West. The team then promoted defensive line coach Jim Tomsula to head coach, but he was fired after just one season following a 5-11 finish.
After making yet another coaching change, 49ers owner Jed York and general manager Trent Baalke decided to hire former Philadelphia Eagles head coach Chip Kelly.
The biggest decision Baalke and Kelly will have to make this offseason is if they want to move forward with either Colin Kaepernick or Blaine Gabbert as their starting quarterback. In his introductory press conference on Wednesday, Kelly was noncommittal to either player.
“I think specifically when it comes to quarterbacks, or any other position here, it’s an ongoing process and evaluation,” Kelly said. “I’ve had a chance to meet Kap, he stopped by the facility the other day. Part of the CBA rule is you’re not allowed to discuss football with anybody until April 4, so it was just a hey, how are you, get to know you. I’ve talked to him a couple times on the phone. I also met Blaine [Gabbert]. I talked to Blaine on the phone. Blaine stopped by to say hello. I think the process itself, we have a lot of time."
If Baalke and Kelly decide that neither Kaepernick or Gabbert are in their future plans, the 49ers will have a number of draft picks in their arsenal. San Francisco will have 12 selections in the 2016 NFL Draft. The team also could potentially have more than $46 million in cap space to work with, according to Spotrac.com
Should the 49ers decide to draft a quarterback, the names the team will likely look at are California junior Jared Goff, Memphis junior Paxton Lynch or North Dakota State senior Carson Wentz.
Goff is the highest QB prospect on most draft boards right now, but at pick No. 7, he may not be available when the 49ers select. The Cleveland Browns, who pick second overall, have been on record saying they are looking for a quarterback. The Dallas Cowboys (fourth pick), who could be looking for an heir apparent to Tony Romo, also could be in the market for a quarterback in the upcoming draft.
Kelly could just keep both Kaepernick and Gabbert and select a quarterback in the later rounds of the draft. Kaepernick appears to be a good fit for Kelly's spread offense system because of his running ability and athletic skill set.
There also have been rumors that the team could prefer to keep Gabbert and move on from Kaepernick. Either way, Kelly and Baalke will have to decide can either guy lead the 49ers moving forward.
"Everything’s under evaluation as coach mentioned and we’re going to take a hard look at this roster," Baalke said. "The number one thing is getting a staff in here. Once we get the staff complete, then we can sit down. The guys that are on staff already are already sitting down and going through the evaluation process. That will continue over the next couple of weeks and then we’ve got free agency, we’ve got the draft to get ready for. There are a lot of things coming up in a hurry and we’ve got to get to work on them.”
Another major issue the 49ers will have to address this offseason is how can they improve their defense. After San Francisco ranked in the top five in total defense from 2011-14, the unit slipped to 29th in 2015.
Reportedly, Kelly has offered the defensive coordinator position to Houston Texans linebacker coach Mike Vrabel, according to ESPN. If the 49ers can find quality players to put around All-Pro linebacker NaVorro Bowman, the team could reload rather quickly.
San Francisco’s hire of Kelly is a high-risk, high-reward move for the team. If Kelly has learned from his downfalls while with the Eagles, this team could potentially contend in a few seasons. If Kelly’s communication problems follow him to the Bay Area, it could be a rocky ride for 49er fans.
— Written by Antwan Staley, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and has extensive experience covering Florida sports teams. Staley has written for Bleacher Report, Pro Player Insiders and is a reporter for Sports Talk Florida. Follow him on Twitter @antwanstaley.
(Photo courtesy of Getty Images)
It's always a special moment when a walk-on gets a scholarship.
LSU basketball coach Johnny Jones decided to surprise junior guard Henry Shortess with a scholarship as a token of appreciation for all the hard work he's put in. The best part of the video was when Shortess called his family to let them know the good news.
"I'm not a walk-on anymore," Shortess said. "I'm on scholarship."
Mississippi State’s 2016 recruiting class is still in limbo with less than two weeks remaining until National Signing Day. On Jan. 17, news broke that 4-star defensive tackle Raekwon Davis had flipped from Alabama to the Bulldogs, but conflicting reports leave his status up in the air. However, one positive for Mississippi State that this class is headed in the right direction was a verbal commitment from Southlake Carroll (Texas) wide receiver Zach Farrar on Thursday.
Farrar (6-4, 205) had a breakout season in 2015, recording 56 receptions for 1,114 yards with 19 touchdowns. During his senior season, interest and offers started coming in from everywhere for the Lone Star State native with teams like Nebraska, Texas Tech, Iowa, Louisiana Tech, Maryland, Boston College and BYU all offering. In total, Farrar secured more than 20 offers but limited his visits to Oklahoma State (unofficial, Nov. 28), an unofficial, Washington (Dec. 12) and Mississippi State (Jan. 15).
This past weekend was a big one recruiting-wise for Dan Mullen and his staff, as they also secured commitments from a quartet of Mississippi prospects in West Point offensive lineman Scott Lashley, Noxubee County defensive end Jeffery Simmons and Starkville defensive lineman Kobe Jones and wide receiver Nigel Knott, as well as a tentative one from the aforementioned Davis, and the Texan Farrar. The Bulldogs also hosted current SEC commits defensive end Cecil Stallings (South Carolina) and linebacker Jeremiah Moon (Florida).
Mississippi State currently has 16 verbal commitments, highlighted by a pair of 4-star defensive end recruits from the state — Drelan Porter (South Panola) and Marquiss Spencer (Greenwood). However, to this point, the Bulldogs have thus far lost the in-state recruiting battle to Ole Miss after winning the Magnolia State in this respect in 2015. The Rebels have landed 4-star in-state recruits wide receiver DeKaylin Metcalf (Oxford), defensive tackle Benito Jones (Wayne County), athlete Justin Connor (North Panola) along with 3-star offensive lineman Eli Johnson (Lafayette), and 3-star tight end Octavious Cooley. Mullen and his staff have laid the groundwork to gain recruiting ground, as Mississippi State appears headed towards a total of 25 signees, which could easily flip the scales in term of this class ends up ranking when all is said and done.
All the recruiting excitement will culminate with National Signing Day on Feb. 3.
— Written by Ryan Wright, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and an established media professional with more than two decades' worth of experience. Over the years, Wright has written for numerous sites and publications and he recently started his own recruiting site, www.recruitingnewsguru.com. Follow him on Twitter @HogManInLA.
Cleveland radio host Kevin Kiley has some thoughts about about the Buffalo Bills hiring Kathryn Smith as the NFL's first full-time assistant coach. He has some serious complaints about it.
"Women are intellectual beings," Kiley said. "They have to be in order to overcome the physical advantage [that men have]... there's no place for a woman in professional sports."
When Kiley mentioned women getting to vote for the Baseball Hall of Fame, his co-host points out that some men vote who've never actually played the game themselves. Kiley's response, "But they're guys." Ah, it all makes sense now.
In case you don't know about Kiley's sports accomplishments, a quit check shows that he played college football for the University of Wyoming, but got cut by the New York Jets before ever playing in the NFL. He did however get to play with the World Football League's Chicago Fire.
Interestingly enough, Kiley is able to host this radio show in Cleveland despite being at an "intellectual disadvantage" to women who may be more qualified, and frankly better, at his job than he is.
Form has held in the NFC playoffs, and as a result, fans get to see the conference’s two best teams — and the squads that were most successful throughout the entire season — square off for a trip to Super Bowl 50. Neither can exactly boast of storming into the championship round, since Arizona needed overtime to subdue Green Bay at home, while Carolina almost gacked up a 31-0 halftime advantage against Seattle.
Still, the NFL can’t be disappointed with the matchup, since it pits a pair of outstanding quarterbacks against each other. In fact, Carolina’s Cam Newton and Arizona’s Carson Palmer could well finish one-two in the MVP balloting, while plenty of top-shelf performers from both teams add star power to the proceedings. It will be an interesting matchup of Arizona’s blitzkrieg attack against the ground-game-and-defense approach of the Panthers.
NFC Championship Game: Arizona at Carolina
Kickoff: 6:40 p.m. ET
Spread: Carolina -3
Three Things to Watch For
1. Running Men
The Panthers prefer to control the clock and the game with their rushing attack. That was definitely on display against the Seahawks when Jonathan Stewart ran for 106 yards on 19 carries, including a 59-yard bolt on the first play from scrimmage. Carolina will no doubt give Stewart plenty of opportunity to run, since the Cardinals surrendered 135 yards and 6.1 yards per carry to Green Bay last week. Arizona, meanwhile, needs a boost on the ground after amassing only 40 yards on 19 carries in the overtime win against the Packers. Rookie David Johnson, who has been so valuable down the stretch, was limited to 35 yards on 15 attempts.
2. Fancy Passing
The Cardinals may not have run it so well against Green Bay, but there is no denying Carson Palmer’s effectiveness. He threw for 349 yards and three touchdowns against the Packers and will no doubt pay close attention to the Seattle aerial approach, which produced 366 yards and three scores by Russell Wilson. Though much of that yardage came after the Panthers built a big lead, and Wilson was harassed often by the aggressive Carolina pass rush, it is possible for the Cardinals to make some progress via the pass. For a team that boasts an outstanding quarterback, plenty of speed on the outside (John Brown, Michael Floyd), the ultimate slot weapon (Larry Fitzgerald) and a head coach (Bruce Arians) who has an outstanding offensive mind, that’s good news.
3. Home Cooking
Those who were at the Panthers’ game last week reported that they hadn’t heard Bank of America Stadium that loud in a long time. Carolina has built a 9-0 mark this year at home, and its fans believe they have played a big role in the perfect record to date. That has to inspire tremendous confidence in the Panthers, whose 15-1 record this year earned them home dates throughout the NFC playoffs. But don’t think the Cardinals will wilt because of some noise. Arizona was a franchise-best 7-1 away from the desert this year, and no one on the roster seems worried about having to play such a big game 2,500 miles from home. “We knew the importance of winning on the road, and the opportunity of setting the tone for later in the season if we had to go on the road — like we do now in the championship game — and win on the road,” Arizona safety Rashad Johnson said. “We’ve got confidence that we can get it done. We’ve been a great road team.”
This has every potential of being an exciting and dramatic conference title game. Both teams have substantial talent on both sides of the ball and are led by a pair of MVP candidates. The Cardinals have to make sure Carolina can’t control tempo with the run game and must also keep Cam Newton from getting loose on designed running plays and scrambles.
The Panthers, meanwhile, must make sure Carson Palmer cannot get too comfortable in the pocket, the better to make use of his many weapons and turn the game into a shootout. You can bet Carolina won’t fall asleep if it gets a lead, as it did last week, and Arizona will do everything it can to not be as susceptible to the run as it was last week. Do not be surprised if the last team to possess the ball wins this game.
Prediction: Panthers 27, Cardinals 23
— Written by Michael Bradley, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Bradley is a writer and broadcaster based in suburban Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter @DailyHombre.
Braden Gall and Steven Lassan break down the very early 2016 preseason college football Top 25.
- Who are the NFL Draft deadline winners and losers? And is Clemson both?
- Are the Tigers a clearcut frontrunner in the ACC? The answer is no.
- Can Ohio State overcome major losses and return to the top of the Big Ten or is Michigan primed for a big run?
- Is there anyone in the Big Ten West that can compete with the East?
- Oklahoma has to replace a lot on defense but does Baker Mayfield make them the favorite in the Big 12?
- Is Oklahoma State the big sleeper in the Big 12?
- Does the Pac-12 have a national title contender or just a lot of really good teams in 2016?
- Tennessee is the clearcut frontrunner in the East but who could be the top challenger?
- BORING: Alabama is the top dog in the SEC West again.
- What do we make of LSU vs. Ole Miss and can any other team push for a division crown?
- Who are the best Group of 5 teams going to be in 2016?
Send any ideas, questions or comments to @BradenGall @AthlonMitch or @DavidFox615 or email [email protected]. The podcast can be found on athlonsports.com/podcast, iTunes, Stitcher and our podcast RSS feed.
The New England Patriots and Denver Broncos meet for the second time in three years in the AFC Championship Game with the winner moving on to Super Bowl 50!
While this will be the 17th time Tom Brady and Peyton Manning have faced off, the two teams look a lot different than they did Week 12. The Patriots especially will have a number of key players back this time around, including important wide receivers Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola, along with linebacker Jamie Collins, The Pats also lost Dont'a Hightower and Rob Gronkowski over the course of the last game in Denver, which contributed to the Broncos' come-from-behind victory.
New England still has a number of walking wounded who are fighting through injuries, but Bill Belichick's team is healthy as it's been since the Patriots started the season 10-0 before things started to fall apart in Denver.
For the Broncos they're back with Manning at quarterback, as Brock Osweiler was the signal-caller that orchestrated the Week 12 comeback. Though Manning continued to look shaky in the divisional round against the Pittsburgh Steelers, he did enough to help the Broncos pull out another late win. The Broncos still have two of the best wide receivers in the NFL in Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders, along with a strong two-headed running attack that is tough to stop when it gets rolling.
There are the two best teams in the AFC, and with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line, both will empty their respective tanks Sunday afternoon. It should be a fantastic game with historic implications that will be discussed for decades.
AFC Championship Game: New England at Denver
Kickoff: 3:05 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Spread: Patriots -3
Three Things to Watch
1. Can Denver Stop Edelman and Gronkowski?
The Patriots have not lost to the Broncos when Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski are both in the lineup (4-0) and last week against the Chiefs it looked like each was their same old self against the Chiefs. Meanwhile, the Broncos were systematically attacked in the middle of the field by the Steelers, likely the same place the Patriots will deploy Edelman and Gronkowski. The Broncos must come up with an answer for the dynamic duo because if Tom Brady gets in sync with them, getting the ball out under two seconds, Denver's pass rush will be completely neutralized. The Broncos' defense must take away those initial reads, force Brady to hold the football and allow the unit's vaunted front seven to go to work on taking him out of rhythm.
2. How Effective Will Hightower and Collins be?
The Patriots' defense without linebackers Dont'a Hightower and Jamie Collins is a far different beast than it is with both of them. Both have injury issues going into this one, but both are expected to play. How effective they are, especially against Denver's ground game is a huge key. Once Denver got the running game going in Week 14 the Broncos' offense started rolling and that was directly related to Hightower's exit due to injury. If New England can snuff out Denver's zone running scheme the pressure will be put on Peyton Manning to complete downfield passes, certainly not his strength at this point. Hightower and Collins are the keys to everything the New England defense needs to do in this one and their health/playing level is of paramount concern.
3. One More Brady-Manning for the Ages
Brady and Manning have never actually played against each other, but they have started 16 games when their teams have faced off, with Brady holding a commanding 11-5 edge. But in the playoffs, this series is split 2-2 with Manning coming out victorious in each of the last two meetings — the 2006 (when he was with Indianapolis) and '13 AFC Championship Games. Each time the home team has won. Brady's already had two seasons end in the Mile High City, including his first-ever playoff loss in 2005. These are two of the all-time greats and this could very well be their last time competing on the same field. If nothing more we should appreciate these two Hall of Famers and hope that it's the kind of great showing both are worthy of.
Related: Ranking All 16 Manning-Brady Bowls
The Patriots are favorites on the road after looking sharp and rejuvenated against the Chiefs. The Broncos still have the top-ranked defense in the league, but Peyton Manning's limitations are obvious now. For New England, the Patriots must simply play a clean game and finish drives with touchdowns. For the Broncos, they must find an answer to stopping Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman and get their running game going to take the pressure off of Manning from having to rely extensively on his arm.
Bill Belichick is the greatest coach of all time at taking away what an offense does best, and now, as long as he has his full defense at his disposal, Denver's offense should be neutralized for large parts of the game. Denver has lived on the edge all season, often needing late turnovers to help dig itself out of multiple holes. For the Broncos to win, the game must unfold very specifically. They can no longer hope that Manning can go toe-to-to with Tom Brady throwing the ball 40-plus times. If the Patriots are on their game, they'll win.
Prediction: Patriots 31, Broncos 14
An interesting battle is set to unfold at the top of the Big Ten next season. Ohio State was the favorite to win the conference last year, but the Buckeyes fell short after a loss to Michigan State, opening the door for the Spartans to represent the East Division in the title game. Despite a handful of key players leaving for the NFL and senior departures, Ohio State is the early favorite for 2016. But the Buckeyes have plenty of competition. Michigan is on the rise under coach Jim Harbaugh, and the Wolverines return enough talent to win the Big Ten and contend for a spot in the College Football Playoff. Michigan State is also in the mix, but the Spartans must replace quarterback Connor Cook and defensive end Shilique Calhoun. Iowa is the favorite in the West Division, with Wisconsin, Nebraska and Northwestern rounding out the second tier.
It’s never too early to think about predictions or rankings for the 2016 college football season. With that in mind, Athlon provides its early power rankings for the Big Ten for 2016:
Early Big Ten Predictions and Rankings for 2016
Early East Division Rankings for 2016
1. Ohio State
It’s a close call between Ohio State and Michigan for the No. 1 spot in the East Division power rankings. Talent certainly isn’t an issue in Columbus, but there is a considerable amount of turnover on the depth chart, as nine players are leaving early for the NFL. The rebuilding effort on offense starts with quarterback J.T. Barrett and standout guard Pat Elflein, and running back/receiver Curtis Samuel is a player poised for a breakout season with more touches. Only three starters are back for new co-coordinator Greg Schiano on defense, but the pieces are in place for a quick reload. While the interior of the line needs to be rebuilt, Sam Hubbard and Tyquan Lewis are back to anchor the end spots. Raekwon McMillan is a rising star at linebacker, with cornerback Gareon Conley the lone returning starter in the secondary. The Buckeyes also have a significant schedule advantage in place next year with the annual rivalry game against Michigan taking place in Columbus.
College Football Podcast: Early 2016 Top 25 Breakdown
As mentioned above, it’s a close call between Michigan and Ohio State for the No. 1 spot in the East Division power rankings. As expected, the Wolverines have experienced a quick turnaround under coach Jim Harbaugh and another step forward should be expected next fall. After averaging only 20.9 points a game in 2014, Michigan finished fourth in the Big Ten by scoring 31.4 a contest in 2015. Finding a replacement for quarterback Jake Rudock is the biggest question mark for the offense. Houston transfer John O’Korn is the early frontrunner, but regardless of who starts under center, there’s a strong supporting cast in place. New coordinator Don Brown is one of the top assistant hires for 2016 and inherits a defense capable of being the best in the Big Ten next season. Cornerback Jourdan Lewis and safety Jabrill Peppers help to anchor one of the nation’s top defensive backfields.
3. Michigan State
Despite some key personnel departures, Michigan State isn’t going anywhere. The Spartans have plenty of staying power behind coach Mark Dantonio and the reloading process starts on offense. Quarterback Connor Cook, receiver Aaron Burbridge, center Jack Allen and left tackle Jack Conklin leave big shoes to fill. Quarterbacks Tyler O’Connor and Damion Terry will compete for the job this spring, and both players gained valuable experience in the win at Ohio State in 2015. The defensive line is the position hit the hardest by departures on defense. Ends Shilique Calhoun and Lawrence Thomas and tackle Joel Heath have expired their eligibility. Tackle Malik McDowell is the top returner in the trenches, and the front seven should get a boost from the return of linebacker Ed Davis from a season-ending knee injury.
4. Penn State
The pressure is starting to build on coach James Franklin. The Nittany Lions are just 14-12 in Franklin’s first two seasons, but the former Vanderbilt coach deserves some time to recruit and develop the roster, especially as the program continues to recover from recent scholarship sanctions. Quarterback Christian Hackenberg is off to the NFL, which leaves Trace McSorley as the early favorite under center. McSorley will have plenty of help at his disposal, as running back Saquon Barkley is one of the best in the Big Ten, and the receiving corps returns DaeSean Hamilton and Chris Godwin. Will new coach Matt Limegrover generate improvement from a struggling offensive line? The departure of coordinator Bob Shoop to Tennessee was a huge blow to the defense. New coordinator Brent Pry is tasked with replacing end Carl Nassib, tackles Anthony Zettel and Austin Johnson and keeping this unit near the top of the Big Ten. No pressure.
After a 6-7 season and the program’s first bowl trip since 2007, coach Kevin Wilson was awarded a six-year contract extension in January. Can the Hoosiers ride the momentum and earn another postseason trip in 2016? It’s possible. Finding a replacement for quarterback Nate Sudfeld is Wilson’s biggest concern this fall, while the offensive line loses standout tackle Jason Spriggs. Devine Redding proved to be a capable replacement for running back Jordan Howard last season and should have an opportunity to eclipse 1,000 yards next season. Improvement is needed on defense after Indiana surrendered 37.6 points a game last season. The hire of Tom Allen as the team’s new defensive signal-caller should help Wilson improve that side of the ball right away.
Related: 10 Teams on the Rise for 2016
D.J. Durkin was a solid hire for this program, but it’s asking a lot for the former Michigan defensive coordinator to guide Maryland to a bowl in 2016. After sporting a minus-18 turnover margin last season, the Terrapins should have more luck in holding onto the ball in 2016. But will the offense find a consistent option at quarterback and retool the starting five in the trenches? Two defensive starters on the line – end Yannick Ngakoue and tackle Quinton Jefferson left for the NFL. However, top cornerback William Likely is back for his senior year.
New coach Chris Ash will have his hands full in 2016. Transitioning schemes and to a new coaching staff requires time, but Ash seems like the right coach to get this program on track. The Scarlet Knights won only one game in Big Ten play last season – a 55-52 win over Indiana – and the schedule won’t get any easier in 2016 with Washington in non-conference action, as well as Iowa in crossover play with the West Division. Chris Laviano and Hayden Rettig are set to battle once again for the quarterback job. Top receiver Leonte Carroo and left tackle Keith Lumpkin have expired their eligibility, but the backfield features a promising duo at running back in Josh Hicks and Robert Martin. Ash’s specialty is on defense, and Rutgers has plenty of question marks there after giving up 41.8 points a game in Big Ten action in 2015.
Early West Division Rankings for 2016
Iowa was one of the nation’s biggest surprises in 2015, but the Hawkeyes won’t sneak up on the rest of the Big Ten next fall. Coach Kirk Ferentz’s team should be the early favorite in the West Division. Quarterback C.J. Beathard returns after throwing for 2,809 yards and 17 scores last season, and the ground attack is in good shape with LeShun Daniels and Akrum Wadley handling the workload from departed senior Jordan Canzeri. Two of the top three statistical pass catchers are out of eligibility and two standout performers – Austin Blythe and Jordan Walsh – depart the offensive line. Three starters are gone on defense, but this unit should be one of the best in the Big Ten. Cornerback Desmond King turned down the NFL for one more season with the Hawkeyes, and the program is waiting to hear on an additional year of eligibility for standout end Drew Ott.
A 10-3 record was a solid debut for coach Paul Chryst in his return to Madison. The Badgers lost to national champion Alabama in the season opener and lost to Iowa by four and Northwestern by six. The Badgers must replace quarterback Joel Stave, leading receiver Alex Erickson and left tackle Tyler Marz, but Corey Clement returns to lead the ground attack after missing most of 2015 due to injury. Losing defensive coordinator Dave Aranda to LSU was a huge blow for Wisconsin. The Badgers return a solid core to build around in the front seven, but cornerback Darius Hillary and safety Michael Caputo have expired their eligibility. A brutal schedule is on tap for Wisconsin in 2016. After a neutral site game against LSU in Green Bay to open the season, the Badgers play Michigan State, Michigan, Iowa and Northwestern on the road. And if that wasn’t enough, there’s a home date against Ohio State on Oct. 15.
It’s a close call between Nebraska and Northwestern for the No. 3 spot in the early power rankings. Even though the Cornhuskers finished 2015 with a 6-7 record, advanced metrics by Football Outsiders placed coach Mike Riley’s team at No. 36 overall nationally. Improving on last season’s six wins is realistic for Nebraska next fall, especially if it finds a way to eliminate some of the turnovers (-12 margin in 2015). Quarterback Tommy Armstrong has to take better care of the ball, but a full offseason working with coordinator Danny Langsdorf should help. Armstrong could use more help from the ground attack, and sophomore Devine Ozigbo could be part of the solution after rushing for 87 yards against UCLA in the Foster Farms Bowl. Defense is Riley’s biggest concern. Starting tackles Maliek Collins and Vincent Valentine are off to the NFL, and this unit ranked 11th in the Big Ten in yards per play allowed (5.88).
For the second time in four seasons, Northwestern is coming off a year with double-digit wins. That total is even more impressive when you consider the program has just four seasons of more than nine wins in its history. Can the Wildcats make another run at 10 wins in 2016? Doing so will require more from the passing attack and quarterback Clayton Thorson. Northwestern averaged only 136.1 passing yards in Big Ten contests last year and three of the top six receiving options are out of eligibility. Running back Justin Jackson is one of the best in the Big Ten. The strength of last year’s team was clearly a defense that limited opponents to 18.6 points a game. Linebacker Anthony Walker should push for All-America honors next fall, but ends Dean Lowry and Deonte Gibson, cornerback Nick VanHoose and safety Traveon Henry have expired their eligibility.
New coach Tracy Claeys begins his first full season on the job. The first order of business for Claeys this offseason was to address the coaching staff, and three new assistants join the program for 2016. New play-caller Jay Johnson is tasked with improving an offense that averaged only 22.5 points a game last season. Quarterback Mitch Leidner closed out 2015 on a high note with a solid performance against Central Michigan and needs to take another step forward for the Golden Gophers to return to the postseason. Shannon Brooks and Rodney Smith are a promising duo at running back. Claeys is handing off the defensive play-calling to Jay Sawvel and each level of the defense has voids to fill this offseason. Standout cornerbacks Eric Murray and Briean Boddy-Calhoun depart the secondary, while Theiren Cockran (DE) and linebacker De’Vondre Campbell are key losses in the front seven.
Bill Cubit might not be the long-term answer at Illinois, but the veteran coach is a solid pick to stabilize the program after a tumultuous 2015 season. The Fighting Illini fell just short of a bowl appearance last year and getting to six wins in 2016 will be a challenge with crossover games against Michigan and Michigan State. But this team has a some intriguing pieces returning on offense, and receiver Mike Dudek is back after missing all of 2015 due to a torn ACL. Quarterback Wes Lunt (14 TDs) and running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn (723 yards) could push for All-Big Ten honors with another step forward in their development. The defense took a step forward on the stat sheet last season, and coordinator Mike Phair has some work to do in order to help this unit make another jump in the standings. The Fighting Illini must replace defensive lineman Jihad Ward, linebacker Mason Monheim and three starters in the secondary.
Coach Darrell Hazell enters his fourth season on the hot seat. Purdue is just 6-30 over the last three years and has only two Big Ten wins under Hazell’s watch. While Hazell didn’t inherit the best roster situation, he needs to show progress to return in 2017. Quarterback David Blough showed promise in his freshman campaign and new play-caller Terry Malone is tasked with helping the sophomore develop after throwing for 1,574 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2015. Running back Markell Jones is another promising young talent for Hazell’s offense. The defense surrendered 6.13 yards per play last season and is under the direction of new coordinator Ross Els. With most of the defense returning intact, Purdue should expect some improvement on defense next fall.
We are down to four teams and three games in the NFL season, and yes I do realize I didn't include the Pro Bowl because if you wager on that then you need help. People will debate this, but I still maintain that the four best teams are left. You can argue Seattle and Kansas City are better, but I just don't agree. I'll take the Broncos’ talent as a whole over quite a few teams in this league.
Record: 47-25-2 (2-1 last week)
New England Patriots (13-4) at Denver Broncos (13-4)
Sunday, 3:05 p.m. ET (CBS)
Meeting number two between the Broncos and Patriots this season will take place in Denver where they also played less than two months ago. The Broncos won that one 30-24 by virtue of a very good rushing attack that accounted for 179 yards. This also was the game where Rob Gronkowski left after an injury. We can't take too much out of that contest as Brock Osweiler started for Denver and actually didn't play too badly. There were a ton of injuries on both sides as well.
First off, let me say that this line is based on reputation and somewhat the recent play of both teams. New England is perceived rightfully so as the better team with a quarterback that dominates games when they really matter. With all the pieces in place offensively, the Pats dispatched the Chiefs last week and did so rather easily. Tom Brady threw three touchdown passes in the loss in Denver back in November, but the conditions also helped his receivers get open. If we were to base this game on the recency effect, of course New England should be favored because Denver struggled with an unhealthy Pittsburgh last week. The problem with this is that it doesn't consider the whole body of work.
The Broncos limped down the stretch, but they still have the defense to hold you down and the offensive weapons that can make you pay should Peyton Manning get them the ball. Manning's arm will be the discussion for a lot of the week because he's looked shaky. You know Bill Belichick is going to probably stack the box to make Manning beat New England with his arm. That will be the focus of a lot of analysts besides the Gronk matchup as Denver has struggled with tight ends all year long.
Bottom line is this; the public is going to jump on the Patriots. I don't know if we'll see the line move too much off of the crucial number of three. Denver has been a home underdog of three points or fewer twice already this season, covering and outright winning in both games. The first of these being the Week 12 home win against the Pats Nov. 29. I'm going with the home team in this one. I think the script has been written for Manning to get to one more Super Bowl. Denver's defense will make the one stop the Broncos need for to help make it happen. SELECTION: Denver +3 (Denver 24-20)
Arizona Cardinals (14-3) at Carolina Panthers (16-1)
Sunday, 6:40 p.m. ET (FOX)
Arizona is playing its first road game in almost a month. The Cardinals nearly let one slip against Green Bay and that caused some fans to lose faith in Bruce Arians’ team. For the second straight week, Arizona showed no semblance of a run game. Luckily they have three top-notch WRs and a good quarterback to attack through the air. Arizona went 7-1 on the road, 6-2 ATS. The Cardinals’ defense has shown some leaks as of late especially against the run with Seattle and Green Bay accounting for 280 yards rushing combined the last two games.
To me, this is Carolina's world and we all just have tickets for the show. The Panthers’ defense has been incredible this season. I'm concerned about the secondary outside of cornerback Josh Norman being able to stand up to the challenge. The good thing is that the front seven can make things uncomfortable for the Cards. To me, the worst thing that happened for Arizona was that the Panthers let Seattle back in the game. Carolina will be focused for a full 60 minutes and win this one. SELECTION: Carolina -3 (Carolina 27-18)
— Written by Matt Josephs, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Josephs prefers non-Power 5 college football and may be the only one wagering on the Sun Belt. Follow him on Twitter @MidMajorMatt.
The fact that the Patriots, Broncos, Panthers and Cardinals are the last four NFL teams standing this season should not be considered outrageous by anyone. Those four teams were the class of the league all year long. All four are led by seasoned veterans at quarterback and stout defenses full of some of the game's elite playmakers on that side of the ball.
Quite simply, these guys are pretty good.
As a result, we have conference championship weekend in the NFL where no conclusion — nor any means of arriving there — should surprise us. You should always be ready for the outrageous.
Outrageous Predictions for the AFC/NFC Conference Championship Games
Manning outgains Brady through the air
New England is much better at stopping the run than the pass. The Patriots' defense is built largely around the strength of their front seven, a unit that excels against the run. Knowing that, look for the Patriots to force Peyton Manning to try and beat them through the air — something that would have sounded crazy a couple of years ago. He'll have enough targets to do damage up and down the field between the 20s on New England, piling up plenty of yards along the way. When Tom Brady and the Patriots have the ball, look for cornerback Aqib Talib to blanket tight end Rob Gronkowski, the same way New England head coach Bill Belichick once used him to shut down the Saints' Jimmy Graham. This will severely limit Brady's effectiveness through the air.
Steven Jackson eclipses the 100-yard mark on the ground
When Brady struggles — and sometimes even when he doesn't — the Patriots turn to a hammer in the backfield to change things up. When it's been Corey Dillon or LeGarrette Blount, New England's championship runs have often come, at least in some part, on the shoulders of power backs. Enter Jackson, who has been relatively quiet thus far during his tenure as a Patriot. With all of the focus on Brady, Julian Edelman and Gronkowski, look for Belichick to hit Denver with a heavy dose of Jackson and a power running game that puts the Bronco D on its heels and opens up the passing game late.
Cam Newton throws three picks
Newton has taken pretty good care of the ball this season, but he hasn't played a defense as complete as Arizona in terms of pass rush and coverage. Look for the Cardinal front seven to penetrate the pocket regularly, still keeping Newton in it and forcing him to throw ill-advised passes into a ball-hawking secondary all day. Additionally, even when Newton is not on the run, his receivers will have a tough time getting open in individual matchups against the Arizona secondary. It'll be nothing but tight windows for Carolina's passing game in this one.
Larry Fitzgerald will finish with 3 or fewer catches
Carson Palmer will target Fitzgerald plenty, he just won't have much luck in doing so. Ron Rivera has seen Fitzgerald dominate the postseason over the years and is not about to let his Panther defense become the next victim. Luckily, he has Josh Norman — arguably the best cornerback in the league —at his disposal. I like Norman to cover Fitzgerald on an island all day and force Palmer to feed the ball to John Brown and Michael Floyd instead. Whether or not that's a winning formula won't be decided until the clock hits zero, but know that it'll be a quiet day for Fitzgerald.
Colin Cowherd seems to dislike a lot of things. Judging by this video, one of them is Middle Tennessee State.
"The Herd" host went in on Middle Tennessee State's football program saying people don't care if they play football or not, and if schools like MTSU are the reason college football players aren't being paid then they need to get rid of their program. So much for sticking up for the little guy.
"Screw Middle Tennessee State, screw 'em," Cowherd said. "We don't need them. If you can't afford it, get lost."
After hearing so many of Cowherd's rants, people have to be asking themselves if there's any school that he does like.
The Blue Raiders AD took to twitter to respond to Cowherd so eloquently.
Erik Swenson had been committed to Michigan since 2013 and just like that, his offer was pulled.
The Wolverines' program called the recruit, canceled his official visit, and pulled his offer without warning or reason. Swenson said he's been trying to talk to head coach Jim Harbaugh but has been unsuccessful in his attempts. He issued a statement letting people know what happened and that he's decommitting from the university.
A reporter attempted to reach out the recruit and Swenson reiterated that he had no knowledge this was coming.
This has to be a shocking time for the recruit, having been all in on the Wolverines for about three years.
After Florida DB Jalen Tabor's comments rang through social media, another player has issued his response.
Tabor mentioned how much money the SEC made this season and then went on to say collegiate players don't get paid for their services. Now a player from Michigan State, Riley Bullough, has gone on the defense to say the scholarship money players receive is more than enough. They aren't in the pros yet.
It's no secret that Rob Gronkowski is hard to tackle.
The Patriots tight end is always quite a task for his opponents to take down, and Chris Harris Jr. already recognizes the challenge ahead. During an interview with SportsCenter, the Broncos cornerback said the best way to take down the huge Gronkowski is to aim low. That won't end well.
You had to know the comments would make their way back to Gronk, and he had the best comeback for the Broncos.
Putting together a list of Heisman Trophy candidates tends to be a dilemma for the conscience.
History tells us that if you don’t play the offensive glamour positions, you’ve got no shot. So, why bother including anyone who’s not a quarterback, running back or wide receiver? (And for that matter, we’ve reached the point where receivers can probably forget about it.)
On the other hand, the idea that the “most outstanding player” in college football might not play any other position on the field is is patently absurd.
Let’s not waste time on guys with no shot at winning. Here are the quarterbacks and running backs who should top preseason Heisman lists:
In 2015, Alabama's Derrick Henry became the first running back to take home the Heisman since Mark Ingram – also of Alabama – in 2009. So long as it's just not Crimson Tide tailbacks favored by voters these days, a deep group of ball carriers could vie for the trophy in 2016.
Leonard Fournette, LSU
LSU’s manchild looked like the clear Heisman front-runner in 2015 until he ran into Alabama’s defense. Despite carrying the ball for a measly 31 yards against the Crimson Tide, Fournette still managed to run for nearly 2,000 yards in 13 games. He did that while facing stacked fronts all year. Fournette should run wild next year before heading off to enjoy the NFL’s millions.
Dalvin Cook, Florida State
Speaking of enjoying the NFL’s millions, Cook may end up being even more coveted by the pro scouts than Fournette. The Seminoles’ lead runner carried FSU’s offense in '16. With the ‘Noles likely to challenge for the national championship in the fall, Cook will likely have plenty of time in the spotlight to build his case for the award.
Christian McCaffrey, Stanford
The 2015 runner-up to Derrick Henry dazzled in his final game of the season, Stanford’s 49-16 blowout of Iowa in the Rose Bowl. That final impression will carry over into '16. McCaffrey has the added benefit of being a standout on special teams, which will only help his candidacy. Given the Cardinal’s personnel losses, however, their star runner might have a tough time replicating his stellar year.
Samaje Perine, Oklahoma
It took a while, but first-year offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley eventually got the Sooners’ running game going last season. Once again, Perine led the way with his bruising running style, rushing for 1,349 yards and 16 touchdowns. Unfortunately for Perine, he will have to share the spotlight with talented backfield mate Joe Mixon and star quarterback Baker Mayfield.
Wayne Gallman, Clemson
Gallman flew under the radar in 2015 behind QB Deshaun Watson. He finally got a little recognition in the postseason when he carried the ball 26 times for 150 yards and two scores in the Tigers’ big win over Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl. Gallman will continue to operate in Watson’s shadow in the fall, but a big year could put him front and center.
Other potential RB candidates: Royce Freeman, Oregon; Elijah Hood, North Carolina; Jalen Hurd, Tennessee
The '16 crop of QBs might not match the RB candidates, but it's not that far off in terms of quality.
Deshaun Watson, Clemson
The Tigers’ field general arguably deserved college football’s most prestigious award in ‘15, when he rushed and threw for a combined 5,200 yards and nearly 50 TDs. His jaw-dropping performances in the College Football Playoff versus Oklahoma and Alabama helped kick off his ‘16 campaign, and he’ll enter the season as the Heisman favorite. Heavy personnel losses on defense could set Clemson up for a disappointing year, though, which would put an end to Watson’s hopes.
Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma
Mayfield’s emergence at OU in ‘15 gave college football one of its feel-good stories of the season as the two-time walk-on sparked the Sooners’ offensive renaissance. No longer a mystery, Mayfield now has to prove he can handle the expectations that will accompany his return for a final season in Norman. Like his teammate Samaje Perine, Mayfield’s talented supporting cast could hurt his candidacy. Mayfield also needs to find a new go-to receiver to replace departing star Sterling Shepard.
Chad Kelly, Ole Miss
Some may question whether the title of “Best QB in the SEC” really means all that much, but Kelly is the top returning starter in the nation’s toughest conference. He heated up down the stretch of the ‘15 season, throwing 11 TD passes and just 1 interception in the final four games of the year against Arkansas, LSU, Mississippi State and Oklahoma State. Ole Miss looks like a dark horse to unseat Alabama in the SEC West, which would make the Rebels’ talented gunslinger an intriguing possibility.
Greg Ward Jr., Houston
Houston is one of the hottest programs in the country, and Ward is the engine powering the Cougars’ offense. For Houston to replicate the success of last season, Ward will need to take his game to an even higher level in the fall. He has a chance to make an early statement in the the season opener against Oklahoma.
J.T. Barrett, Ohio State
Remember Barrett? He’s the dynamic dual-threat QB who set up the Buckeyes for a national championship in 2014. Urban Meyer yo-yoed between Barrett and Cardale Jones a year later, and his offense suffered for it. Barrett now has the job to himself. He also has the typical wealth of weapons at his disposal as Ohio State tries to reassert itself in the national picture.
Other potential QB candidates: Seth Russell, Baylor; Luke Falk, Washington State; Josh Rosen, UCLA
— Written by Allen Kenney, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Kenney is founder and editor of BlatantHomerism.com and host of the Blatant Homerism Podcast. Follow him on Twitter @BlatantHomerism.
Stephen Colbert is only here to help.
In the aftermath of the Packers-Cardinals coin flip fiasco, the late night host came up with an array of ideas the NFL could pursue instead. I vote for the "Price is Right" solution.
After a two-year drought in national champions, the SEC is back on top. Alabama defeated Clemson to win college football’s title for the 2015 season, and the Crimson Tide are one of the favorites to win it all in 2016. Coach Nick Saban’s team has a few personnel voids to fill, but the defense will be one of the best in the nation, and receiver Calvin Ridley returns after an impressive freshman season. LSU and Ole Miss are Alabama’s top competition in the SEC West, with Arkansas and Auburn in the next tier. Tennessee is the clear favorite in the East Division, as coach Butch Jones’ team has the necessary pieces in place to be a top-10 team next year. Georgia and Florida are just behind the Volunteers, while the rest of the division is up for grabs.
It’s never too early to think about predictions or rankings for the 2016 college football season. With that in mind, Athlon provides its early power rankings for the SEC for 2016:
Early SEC Predictions and Rankings for 2016
The Volunteers haven’t played for the SEC title since 2007, but that streak should end in 2016. Tennessee is an overwhelming favorite in the East Division next fall, as coach Butch Jones has improved this program’s win total by two games in each of the last two years. Quarterback Joshua Dobbs and running back Jalen Hurd anchor the offense, and four starters return up front. Generating more production from the receivers and big plays in the passing game is a must for the Volunteers next fall. The addition of coordinator Bob Shoop is an upgrade for a defense that returns nearly intact and held opponents to 20 points a game last season. End Derek Barnett and linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin should be two of the SEC’s top defenders in 2016.
College Football Podcast: Early 2016 Top 25 Breakdown
New coach Kirby Smart is tasked with elevating Georgia back into national championship contention on a yearly basis. Mark Richt set the bar high for Smart, as the Bulldogs won fewer than eight games only once from 2001-15. However, Georgia has not won a SEC title since 2005 and the 2007 Sugar Bowl was its last appearance in a big-time bowl. Smart has plenty of work to do this offseason, but the first-year coach has a favorable schedule and nine wins isn’t out of the question. True freshman Jacob Eason is expected to push for the starting job at quarterback, and the offense should get a boost with the return of running back Nick Chubb. Smart and new coordinator Mel Tucker inherit some promising pieces on defense that limited opponents to 16.9 points a game last season.
Jim McElwain’s first season in Gainesville was a success. Florida won the East Division, finished 10-4 overall and defeated rival Georgia 27-3 in Jacksonville. Despite the suspension of starting quarterback Will Grier in October, the Gators managed to hold off Tennessee and Georgia in the East but finished with three consecutive losses to close out the 2015 campaign. McElwain is losing five players early to the NFL Draft, including cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III, defensive end Alex McCalister and running back Kelvin Taylor. Improving the quarterback play is the biggest priority for McElwain, and incoming freshman Feleipe Franks, along with a pair of transfers in Luke Del Rio (Oregon State) and Austin Appleby (Purdue) will push Treon Harris for the starting job. There’s plenty of talent in Gainesville. How quickly will McElwain reload on defense and find the right answer at quarterback?
Spots four through seven in the early SEC power rankings are up for grabs. The early nod at No. 4 goes to Missouri, but there’s plenty of work needed under first-year coach Barry Odom. Addressing the offense is Odom and new coordinator Josh Heupel’s first priority. The Tigers averaged a paltry 9.1 points a game in SEC contests last year and enter 2016 with uncertainty at the quarterback spot, four new starters on the offensive line and running back Russell Hansbrough has expired his eligibility. Once again next fall, defense should be the team’s biggest strength. The line should be one of the best in the SEC and two starters return in the linebacking corps and in the secondary. Odom was a great hire, but it may take a year of rebuilding for Missouri to return to the postseason.
There are signs of progress for Kentucky entering coach Mark Stoops’ fourth season. However, the Wildcats have yet to finish better than 5-7 overall or 2-6 in league play under Stoops’ direction. Both sides of the ball are under the microscope this offseason. New play-caller Eddie Gran inherits unproven, but talented quarterback Drew Barker, as well as big-play threat at running back in Boom Williams. The offensive line returns four starters, and the top five statistical wide receivers or tight ends are back for 2016. The defense is a bigger concern for Stoops after giving up 27.4 points a game last season. Only four starters return on defense, and the staff needs a big season from players like linebacker Jason Hatcher, defensive tackle Matt Elam and cornerback Chris Westry. A crossover game against Alabama in early October and road trips to Florida, Louisville, Missouri and Tennessee certainly doesn’t help Kentucky’s chances of reaching a bowl in 2016.
Derek Mason’s second year in Nashville was certainly better than the first go-around. The Commodores improved their win total to four (up one from three in 2014) and claimed two victories in SEC play. And Vanderbilt wasn’t too far off from a bowl bid, as it lost games against WKU and Florida by two points each and South Carolina by nine. Can Mason find the right answers this offseason to help the program return to the postseason? Quarterback Kyle Shurmur and running back Ralph Webb are a promising combination for coordinator Andy Ludwig to build around, and the line will benefit from the return of Andrew Jelks from a season-ending knee injury. Taking over the defensive signals was one of Mason’s best decisions last year. Vanderbilt allowed only 21 points a game and limited opponents to 5.2 yards per play. This unit returns largely intact and is led by All-SEC linebacker Zach Cunningham.
7. South Carolina
After a failed stint at Florida, Will Muschamp is getting another chance to be a head coach in the SEC. South Carolina’s decision to hire Muschamp was a bit of a surprise, but he should help with the program’s recruiting efforts and will improve a defense that allowed 6.03 yards per play last season. Finding playmakers are a priority for play-caller Kurt Roper after receiver Pharoh Cooper left early for the NFL and leading rusher Brandon Wilds expired his eligibility. The quarterback position is also up for grabs. Perry Orth (12 TDs, 9 INTs) could be the frontrunner, but sophomore Lorenzo Nunez and true freshman Brandon McIlwain will be in the mix. After watching the defensive film from 2015, it’s probably apparent to Muschamp there’s a need for improvement at each level. However, the personnel losses aren’t too heavy, and standout linebacker Skai Moore is back in 2016.
Repeating as college football’s national champions is no easy assignment. Only one team (Alabama) since the start of the BCS era claimed back-to-back titles. History is working against the Crimson Tide, but coach Nick Saban’s team still has a talent edge on the rest of college football. Redshirt freshman Blake Barnett and Cooper Bateman are the frontrunners to take the first snap of the season at quarterback, while Bo Scarbrough and Damien Harris headline the replacements for Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry at running back. Despite a huge performance in the national championship and NFL talent, tight end O.J. Howard is back for another season in Tuscaloosa. In addition to Howard, the receiving corps is stocked with talent, including All-America candidate Calvin Ridley and ArDarius Stewart (63 catches). Center Ryan Kelly is a huge loss up front, but left tackle Cam Robinson is back to anchor the line. The defense loses a few standouts in the front seven and is under the direction of new play-caller Jeremy Pruitt. However, the reloading process won’t take long, and the secondary should take another step forward next fall.
The end of the 2015 season for LSU would certainly be characterized as bizarre. Les Miles managed to hold onto his job despite attempts from the administration to make a coaching change and upgraded at defensive coordinator with the addition of Dave Aranda after Kevin Steele left for Auburn. And make no mistake, despite the late-season turmoil, there’s enough talent in Baton Rouge to win the SEC in 2016. Running back Leonard Fournette returns as one of the top players in college football, and the receiving corps brings back Malachi Dupre and Travin Dural. However, both starting tackles depart, and question marks remain about the passing game. Aranda inherits a loaded defense, with linebackers Lamar Louis and Deion Jones and safety Jalen Mills the only major contributors leaving. End Arden Key is a rising star, while linebacker Kendell Beckwith, safety Jamal Adams and cornerback Tre’Davious White should be All-SEC performers next fall.
3. Ole Miss
The Rebels are losing three key standouts early to the NFL and a handful of starters, but coach Hugh Freeze’s team has one big advantage on the rest of the SEC – Chad Kelly. With the rest of the SEC in transition at quarterback, having a proven option like Kelly should ease some of the question marks about the Rebels. Receiver Laquon Treadwell and left tackle Laremy Tunsil leave big shoes to fill, and the offense still needs to establish a consistent ground attack. Each level of the defense was hit by departures, but there’s enough returning talent to keep this unit among the best in the SEC. Getting safety Tony Conner back after a season-ending knee injury is a huge boost to a secondary losing safeties Mike Hilton and Trae Elston. The schedule isn’t easy. Ole Miss plays Florida State, Alabama and Georgia in September and has road dates at Arkansas and LSU in October.
The Razorbacks rebounded from a 1-3 start to finish 8-5 and record the program’s highest win total in SEC play (five) since 2011. After spending last offseason working to replace the team’s top three defenders, this spring is all about finding the right answers on offense. Arkansas led the SEC (conference-only games) in scoring (34.4 ppg) but lose quarterback Brandon Allen, tight end Hunter Henry, tackle Denver Kirkland and running back Alex Collins. Austin Allen is the frontrunner to replace Brandon Allen at quarterback, with USC transfer Ricky Town an intriguing option to watch this offseason. The receiving corps should be among the best in the SEC, but there’s uncertainty in the pecking order at running back and a new offensive line coach after Sam Pittman left for Georgia. Arkansas allowed 6.07 yards per play on defense in 2015 – nearly a full yard higher than 2014. The good news? Most of the two-deep returns, including rising star Dre Greenlaw at linebacker.
After a breakthrough 12-2 season and a run to the national championship game in coach Gus Malzahn’s first year, Auburn is just 15-11 since 2014. The Tigers were a disappointing 7-6 last season, and there’s plenty of blame to go around on both sides of the ball. Quarterback play was an issue all season and remains a question mark for 2016. Will Jeremy Johnson or Sean White take a step forward? Or will junior college recruit John Franklin or true freshman Woody Barrett claim the job? Additionally, three players – running back Peyton Barber and offensive linemen Shon Coleman and Xavier Young – departed early for the NFL. New coordinator Kevin Steele inherits a few promising pieces on defense, and a full (and healthy) year from end Carl Lawson should help this unit after giving up 28.6 points a game in SEC contests in 2015.
6. Texas A&M
The Aggies are just 11-13 in SEC play under coach Kevin Sumlin in the last three years, and a little turmoil hit the program prior to the Music City Bowl. Quarterbacks Kyle Allen and Kyler Murray transferred, leaving junior college recruit Jake Hubenak as the program’s top option. Oklahoma graduate transfer Trevor Knight will join the mix this offseason, but question marks still remain under center. There’s also a new play-caller in Noel Mazzone, and three starters depart the offensive line. The receiving corps should be among the best in the nation in 2016. The addition of John Chavis as the defensive coordinator paid dividends for the Aggies last season. Texas A&M cut its yards allowed per play average on defense from 5.9 to 5.4 and limited opponents to 22 points a game. Chavis should help this unit take another step forward in 2016, especially with the return of ends Daeshon Hall and Myles Garrett, along with active safety Armani Watts (126 tackles).
7. Mississippi State
Quarterback Dak Prescott – easily one of the best players in school history – leaves big shoes to fill in Starkville. However, don’t count out the Bulldogs from pushing for a spot higher than sixth or seventh in the SEC West next year. Damian Williams is back from a redshirt season to compete with Nick Fitzgerald and Elijah Staley for the starting nod. With Prescott departing, coach Dan Mullen needs more from his ground attack after no Mississippi State running back eclipsed more than 415 yards in 2015. De’Runnya Wilson is a huge loss at receiver, but Fred Ross (88 catches) and Fred Brown are back. The question marks continue on defense, as each level loses a key contributor. Defensive tackle Chris Jones and linebacker Beniquez Brown are leaving early for the NFL, and the secondary must replace cornerbacks Taveze Calhoun and Will Redmond. Linebacker Richie Brown should be one of the best in the SEC next year. It's a coin flip between Mississippi State and Texas A&M at No. 6 in the early SEC West power rankings for 2016.
Some college players tweet things only to delete them later.
Florida's Jalen Tabor let his emotions get the best of him once the revenue numbers for the SEC came out. The conference made upwards of $500 million and upon seeing that, athletes are crying foul claiming how they should be paid, not counting their education being paid for. Players these days want incentives and a little something extra to go along with it. Tabor mentioned they aren't getting that and tweeted:
Someone having their own personal belief is fine, but the problem is sharing it with every single person who follows you. Some things are better left unsaid or there could've been a better way to phrase it. Of course, once Tabor realized his error and he quickly deleted the tweet and apologized.
Sunday’s AFC Championship Game will be the 17th time Peyton Manning and Tom Brady have faced off and probably the last. Everyone knows that this is the greatest quarterback rivalry of the 21st century, but where does it stack up amongst the other ones in NFL history?
Related: Ranking All 16 Manning-Brady Bowls
A great quarterback rivalry cannot just be confined to the regular season. It has to carry over to the postseason and last for multiple years. This has not happened often. Here are the five greatest times that it has.
5. Sid Luckman vs. Sammy Baugh
For those of you who do not read much about the pre-Super Bowl era, Luckman quarterbacked the Chicago Bears and Baugh led the Washington Redskins. In the early 1940s, these two teams met for the NFL championship three times in four years. Chicago won two (including an NFL record 73-0 beatdown in 1940) and Washington won one.
4. Terry Bradshaw vs. Ken Stabler
This contest that started with the “Immaculate Reception” could not be called a rivalry until 1976 since Bradshaw and the Steelers dominated. However, after suffering back-to-back AFC Championship Game losses to the Steelers, Stabler led the Oakland Raiders to 1976 world championship after beating the Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl XI. Along the way, the Raiders dispatched the Steelers 24-7 in the conference title game. The rivalry resumed in 1980 when Stabler was traded to the Steelers’ AFC Central rival Houston Oilers. The two teams split regular season victories in 1980 and ‘81, Stabler’s only two years in Houston.
3. Troy Aikman vs. Steve Young
This rivalry was brief but for four years all eyes were on these two teams and their respective quarterbacks. Both Aikman and Young met in the NFC Championship Game three years in a row and would have met for a fourth had the 49ers not been upset by the Green Bay Packers in the 1995 Divisional Round. The quick decline of the Cowboys and the emergence of the Packers brought this rivalry to an end way too soon.
2. Bobby Layne vs. Otto Graham
Layne’s Lions and Graham’s Browns met for the NFL title three years in a row from 1952-54. Detroit won the first two in close games, but Cleveland prevented a three-peat with a 56-10 walloping in which Graham accounted for six touchdowns.
1. Peyton Manning vs. Tom Brady
As you can see, no other rivalry even comes close. Enjoy Sunday’s game because we may never see another QB pairing like this for a long, long time.
— Written by Aaron Tallent, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Tallent is a writer whose articles have appeared in The Sweet Science, FOX Sports’ Outkick the Coverage, Liberty Island and The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter at @AaronTallent.
(Photo courtesy of Getty Images)
Two Indiana high school basketball teams' seasons are over.
Ben Davis High School and Pike High School girl's basketball teams got into a bench-clearing brawl that also included some fans. Both teams were set to enter post-season play, but instead the players and coaches will be entering sportsmanship training.
Along with the teams' seasons being canceled, both teams will be on probation for the upcoming season.
College football’s Heisman race in 2016 is filled with plenty of big names battling for the top award in the nation. Alabama running back Derrick Henry isn’t returning for another run at the Heisman, but the 2016 race is shaping up to be one of the best in recent memory.
It’s never too early to think about next season, which is why Bovada has released its early Heisman odds for 2016.
Here are the early odds from Bovada, headlined by Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson at 9/2
Bovada's Early 2016 Heisman Odds
|Deshaun Watson, QB, Clemson||9/2|
|Leonard Fournette, RB, LSU||5/1|
|Christian McCaffrey, RB, Stanford||5/1|
|J.T. Barrett, QB, Ohio State||10/1|
|Baker Mayfield, QB, Oklahoma||10/1|
|Nick Chubb, RB, Georgia||12/1|
|Dalvin Cook, RB, Florida State||12/1|
|Royce Freeman, RB, Oregon||12/1|
|Chad Kelly, QB, Ole Miss||12/1|
|Samaje Perine, RB, Oklahoma||12/1|
|Calvin Ridley, WR, Alabama||12/1|
|Joshua Dobbs, QB, Tennessee||16/1|
|Brad Kaaya, QB, Miami||25/1|