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Another day, another ESPN apology for something its employees have done.
Curt Schilling tweeted, and later deleted, a Hitler meme regarding Muslims and Nazis. For future reference, comparing anything to Nazis along with a picture of Hitler, always a bad idea.
Curt Schilling tweeted this a few minutes ago and then deleted it. pic.twitter.com/utGwlnYfOW— Aaron Gleeman (@AaronGleeman) August 25, 2015
Of course Schilling later deleted it when he realized his mistake, or when people kept saying what a completely idiot he was. ESPN issued the standard PR tweet on the matter.
ESPN Statement on Curt Schilling: Read: http://t.co/cpkXwgxxC2— ESPN PR (@ESPNPR) August 25, 2015
Perhaps it would make too much sense not to hire those who have a history in saying questionable things.
Believe it or not, the college football offseason is almost over. This time next week will be an actual game week with teams installing game plans and prepping for real, live opponents.
That brings us to the last of our conference preview podcasts, this one highlighting the Pac-12.
Oregon has won four of the last six league championships with Stanford claiming titles in 2012 and 2013. Since the league began divisional play, the South has been shut out of the Pac-12 title race.
With Heisman winner Marcus Mariota gone, plus a host of impact defenders for the Ducks, Oregon could be seeing its window — as a Pac-12 champ and Playoff contender — closing.
On this week’s podcast, we discuss:
• The hurdles Oregon must overcome to remain a Pac-12 favorite, and not all of them are related to the quarterback position.
• Why Stanford isn’t just a good bet to bounce back from an eight-win season but to challenge for the league title.
• Why picking USC, UCLA or Arizona State in the Pac-12 South is an impossible task.
• Why Arizona and Utah will be dangerous to league favorites again.
• Which four teams might escape the morass of the bottom of the Pac-12 North.
Send any ideas, questions or comments to @BradenGall or @DavidFox615 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. The podcast can be found on athlonsports.com/podcast, iTunes, Stitcher and our podcast RSS feed.
In a report first released by Joe Schad on ESPN.com, Rutgers has suspended five players, including quarterback Chris Laviano and team captain wide reciever Leonte Carroo, for its season opener against Norfolk State. The players are reportedly suspended for the first half of the opener due for a violation of a team curfew rule.
The report comes just minutes after Keith Sargeant of NJ.com reported the school opened an internal investigation on head coach Kyle Flood, who's already on the hot seat with the Scarlet Knights football program, for reportedly inquiring about the status of junior cornerback Nadir Barnwell's academic eligibility.
In addition to Laviano and Carroo, the team also suspended linebacker Kevin Marquez, punter Tim Gleesson, and cornerback Ruhann Peele.
In light of Laviano's suspension, 2014 transfer quarterback Hayden Rettig, who sat out last season after his departure from LSU gets the nod under center in Week 1. Rettig, a former four-star recruit from Los Angeles, Calif. realized he wouldn't see much playing time behind Brandon Harris and Anthony Jennings and chose Rutgers as his destination. Flood was recently quoted as saying the decision on a starter was "getting close" after the full-team scrimmage last Saturday night. With Laviano's suspension, obviously that decision was made for him.
The ramifications of these suspensions may not mean much on the field against FCS opponent Norfolk State, but it's just another black eye for a program that's looking to turn the corner after an impressive 8-5 debut campaign in the Big Ten.
Flood needs a solid season to ensure his job security with the Scarlet Knights, especially if this current investigation turns out uglier than expected. It doesn't seem that e-mailing an administrator is a damning offense. However, simply put: He broke the rules. The e-mail incident only gives the school more leverage to fire the up-and-down coach at any point, as they now stand with "cause" in their corner if they feel firing Flood would be necessary.
Follow Chris on twitter @warontheweekend as he continues to update this story.
— Written by Chris Dougherty, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Dougherty also serves as a National Recruiting Analyst for 247Sports.com and has written for other sites, including FanSided.com and Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter @warontheweekend.
Don't aim low if you're going to try to tackle Devonte Wilson this season.
The Kansas running back posted videos to his Instagram page that show his leaping ability, and it's nothing to mess with. The growth and solid work ethic has made this guy the posterchild for "practice makes perfect."
According to a report from NJ.com, Rutgers coach Kyle Flood is under investigation for a rules violation. The story from reporter Keith Sargeant indicates the investigation is due to “impermissible contact with a university faculty member regarding the status of one of his players.”
Cornerback Nadir Barnwell is the player in question, as the junior’s status has been a question mark this offseason due to academics. Barnwell is a key piece of the secondary for the Scarlet Knights, starting six games and recording 29 tackles in 2014.
The NJ.com article indicates Flood allegedly sent an e-mail from a personal account to a faculty member regarding Barnwell and his status.
The punishment for the contact could range from a reprimand to a suspension or a firing.
The big question for the investigation will be the content and intent of the e-mail Flood sent. Was it a simple check-in e-mail? Or was there another motive for contacting the faculty member? Flood’s punishment will revolve around the contents of that e-mail.
Flood was promoted to head coach after Greg Schiano left for the NFL after the 2011 season. In three years with Rutgers, Flood is 23-16 and guided the program to an 8-5 record in its Big Ten debut last season.
BREAKING: Rutgers investigating football coach Kyle Flood for possible rules violation http://t.co/olek6NIOZX— Keith Sargeant (@KSargeantNJ) August 25, 2015
Per 2 sources, Rutgers expected to have outside investigator handle investigation and present findings to university general counsel.— Keith Sargeant (@KSargeantNJ) August 25, 2015
Key point: The severity of any potential punishment depends on the content of the email. Intent is also important to uncover.— Keith Sargeant (@KSargeantNJ) August 25, 2015
Every season of college football starts out the same way. We have all of these things that we think are knowns — lead-pipe locks as one popular radio host calls them. Then, by midseason, we're all wrong, sitting around wondering what happened to all that we thought was written in stone.
It shouldn't surprise us, considering that we are dealing with young men in their late teens and early 20s, but it always does.
The Pac-12 Conference is full of a bunch of things we think we know heading into the 2015 season. We think USC is a serious national title contender. We think Oregon will take a small step back without Marcus Mariota. We think the Pac-12 is the best or second-best conference in college football.
As the great Lee Corso always says, "Not so fast, my friend."
Here are some outrageous predictions for the Pac-12 in 2015.
USC will be out of national title contention before November
It would be shocking to see a team with two or more losses qualify for the College Football Playoff. USC has a good chance of losing two games before Halloween. Everyone wants to crown the Trojans as the top dog in the conference, but you don't lose two of the top players in the nation on each side of the ball and just be better than you were a year earlier. After two easy non-conference games, they host Stanford, travel to Arizona State, host Washington, travel to Notre Dame and host Utah. They'll lose two of those games.
Colorado will be bowl eligible by the end of the season
The lowly Buffaloes return their starting quarterback, one of the conference's best wide receivers, two tackles, their center and nine defensive starters. One of the softest non-conference schedules you'll ever see a Power 5 team play is accompanied by two very winnable conference road games at Oregon State and Washington State. Toss in one upset somewhere and you're looking at a seven-win campaign.
Arizona State will lose at least five games
Despite being ranked in nearly everyone's preseason Top 25, the Sun Devils will struggle to finish in the "others receiving votes" category. This is a very young and inexperienced team on both sides of the ball, led by a head coach who really hasn't won anything with guys he actually recruited. They'll play games against USC, UCLA, Oregon, Arizona, Utah, Washington and Texas A&M. I'll be stunned if they win more than two of those.
2015 will be David Shaw's last season at Stanford
No, he's not on the hot seat, and he's won't leave his alma mater for another college. He'll stay right in the Bay Area and follow the footsteps of his Stanford predecessor to the San Francisco 49ers. Shaw is only 43, yet he has 10 years of coaching experience in the NFL. As far as coaching the 49ers, it's not so much that Harbaugh wasn't the "yes man" Jed York wanted, but you get the sense that he's just not a very pleasant guy to be around. Shaw, on the other hand, is about as personable as you'll find.
UCLA will play in the College Football Playoff
This may be the least outrageous of the five predictions. That said, I don't see a whole lot of other people calling it. The Bruins are arguably the most complete and experienced team in the nation with exception of the quarterback position. Normally, I'd say that's a problem. In UCLA's case, however, the inexperience at quarterback comes in the form of Josh Rosen, a talented signal-caller who became a household name in the state of California while still in high school. He'll play on Sundays someday, but not before driving this well-oiled UCLA machine to the top of the college football mountain.
On Monday, Georgia senior wide receiver Justin Scott-Wesley was giving instructions on the sideline, instead of receiving them on the field. Scott-Wesley, who is recovering from yet another knee injury, was at practice with his teammates, but not dressed in uniform. Instead he was in shorts and a long-sleeve grey shirt, acting as somewhat of a coach to his fellow wide receivers. Scott-Wesley then posted an Instagram photo (right) that said:
“When one door closes, another opens! That’s how God works! Blessed for the opportunity to learn and teach! #CoachMeCoach”
This comes a month after Scott-Wesley hurt his right knee in practice on Aug. 17. This is the third time he has had an injury to this same knee. On Saturday, Bulldogs head coach Mark Richt even said that Scott-Wesley’s return might not happen this year. In fact Richt went as far to say that Scott-Wesley might not return “for awhile, if at all.”
Scott-Wesley initially tore the ACL in his right knee in October 2013. He returned midway through last season but then needed arthroscopic knee surgery in early July. He was able to return for the start of fall camp before his latest injury.
A fifth-year senior, Scott-Wesley was a 4-star recruit out of high school; injuries have plagued his entire Georgia career. To date, Scott-Wesley only has 25 catches for 498 yards and four touchdowns.
— Written by Justin Nails, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @justinnails.
Brigham Young University boasts many award winners over the years, including 1990 Heisman Trophy recipient, quarterback Ty Detmer.
Detmer is the last player to win college football’s most prestigious award from a school outside of what is now called a Power 5 conference. How did Detmer do it? A lot of it stemmed from BYU’s success before that 1990 season. Remember, BYU was only six years removed from being a national champion.
The Cougars had a reputation nationally of producing elite quarterbacks, and winning big games. Arguably the biggest win for BYU in program history was when Detmer and his ’90 BYU squad knocked off No. 1-ranked Miami, when the Hurricanes were one of college football’s most dominant programs.
In 2015 Taysom Hill doesn’t lead a BYU program that is viewed as a national contender like Detmer did, nor will Hill face a team on the 2015 schedule like those swaggerlicious Hurricanes. But what Hill has in common with Detmer is the ability to rack up eye-popping stats, and to Hill’s credit, he will be facing arguably BYU’s toughest schedule ever. The now-defunct WAC was a competitive league, but it doesn’t compare to facing Nebraska, Boise State, UCLA, Michigan and Missouri in a season.
When people in the college football world think of Taysom Hill, they instantly go back to the dominating performances that he has had against the Texas Longhorns the past two years.
How many QBs do you see with a knee brace running for 259 yards in a game, or hurdling over talented Texas defensive backs? The answer is none. Hill is a unique breed of quarterback. He’s built like an All-American linebacker or safety, playing the quarterback position.
After defeating the Longhorns in dominating fashion again last season in Austin, the nation was buzzing about Hill and BYU. He was thrown into the Heisman discussion, and he followed up that performance against Texas with great showings against Houston and Virginia to put BYU at 4-0, and in the top 20 of the polls.
Then for the second time in three seasons, Hill suffered a season-ending injury against Utah State, and the same Aggie defender made the tackle, Brian Suite. Suite is no longer at USU, so that should give folks more hope that Hill can stay healthy for the entire 2015 season, which he will need to do if he has any hopes to earn the Heisman.
Along with staying healthy, Hill will need to put up video game-like numbers, and lead BYU to a lot of wins. Hill has already shown an ability to produce the big numbers, and he’s shown when healthy, he wins.
In 2013, Hill’s only season where he played all 13 games, he racked up 4,282 total yards. Hill also is only the 12th quarterback in FBS history to eclipse 4,000 yards passing and 2,000 rushing yards entering his senior season.
This is a wide-open year for the Heisman Trophy. With how unique of a player Hill is, and the quality of opponents BYU will be facing in the early part of its schedule, his Heisman stock could rise in a hurry. The downfall for Hill is that he’s not on a team from a Power 5 conference. BYU is an interesting case because the Cougars aren’t affiliated with any Power 5 leagues, but at time same time, the SEC and Big Ten consider the Cougars as a P5 opponent when it comes to scheduling non-conference opponents.
How will voters view Hill? It’s an interesting question. BYU already has four games scheduled on ESPN networks, and that number will continue to grow as all of BYU’s home games (except versus Wagner) will be on a channel owned by the world-wide leader. Also, you have to think games against Michigan and Missouri that are away from Provo, Utah, will end up on networks that the nation can watch. If the Cougars are winning, they will get the visible slots for the nation to take in Hill’s potential “Heisman Moments.”
For a player like Hill that is outside of the Power 5 establishment, getting an invite from the Downtown Athletic Club to New York City is probably the ceiling right now. In this year of no clear-cut favorites to take home the Heisman, college football needs a star, why can’t Taysom Hill be that guy?
— Written by Mitch Harper, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Harper is the BYU reporter and insider for 1320 KFAN and co-host of "The Cougar Center" podcast. Follow him on Twitter @Mitch_Harper.
The name Justin Wilson has made NASCAR, Bristol, the Chase, all of stock car competition irrelevant these past few days during a time when everyone involved with racing is in mourning. During lap 179 of Sunday’s 200-lap IndyCar race at Pocono, race leader Sage Karam wrecked into the wall and tore his racecar to pieces.
One of those sharp metal objects, a nosecone, got launched into the air and crossed the track at the exact moment Wilson was coming off turn 1. Hitting Wilson right in the head, tragedy ensued as the driver lost consciousness, never regained it and was a passenger as his car slammed hard into Pocono’s inside wall.
The record will show Wilson died of a traumatic brain injury, the second IndyCar driver to do so within the last four years. He joins Indy 500 winner Dan Wheldon in racing heaven; Wheldon died in the 2011 Las Vegas season finale when, during a multi-car wreck his head made contact with the track’s outside wall at speed. Both men were British transplants, beloved within the open-wheel world and two great spokesmen for a series that has needed a sense of leadership and direction within a shrinking paddock.
IndyCar may not be my beat; NASCAR has been, part- or full-time for nearly a decade now. But the series in which a racer dies is always inconsequential for those who live, breathe, and experience the sport. The nightmare of these tragedies for all of us will remain as painfully fresh as the first time we went through it. NFL players like Jordy Nelson tear their ACL; the painful reality for our sport is role models face injuries that tear them from this world, often in the prime of their lives.
It also puts racing in a difficult position when placed within a generation of Americans far removed from the horrors of risking death, whether through wartime or primitive working environments. It’s a difficult concept for them to accept in a sport they turn to for entertainment.
Problem is, the scientific limits drivers push makes elimination of that risk impossible; the cat-and-mouse game of safety will go on for years. NASCAR has done the best at it, managing to avoid serious injuries and death in their top three series since Dale Earnhardt Sr.’s tragic ending at Daytona in February 2001.
But rest assured, as much as I don’t like to write the sentence we will be dealing with tragedy again someday. Kyle Busch’s injury this season was a stark reminder, followed up by Austin Dillon’s July wreck in which the car almost completely disintegrated and sent small pieces of debris through the catchfence at Daytona. That Dillon walked away was a remarkable testament to NASCAR’s innovation but also a bit of good fortune. Just ask any driver within that garage and they’ll tell you about the relief of watching him walk away from an incident where all feared the worst, both for Dillon and fans in the stands.
The reality of the risk, accepted by the crowd perhaps in the 1950s seems to hit harder in 2015. Thousands of people saw their first IndyCar race at Pocono Sunday, including children looking to find a hero. Mom and Dad will now need to explain instead to their young child what grown-up moment they witnessed, what they hope they’ll never see again as a paying customer. Will that horror prevent them from coming to a track in the future? I don’t know. The NFL’s concussion problem hasn’t slowed them down but in that case, death isn’t instant. It isn’t sitting in front of you while you’re supposed to keep cheering during the fourth quarter.
What we do understand is that, like with the Earnhardt tragedy in NASCAR, great changes will come as a result of Wilson’s accident. IndyCar drivers have always been more difficult to protect because they’re out in the open, driving without a windshield or any type of “debris protector” beyond a helmet. Two deaths in four years will almost certainly get open-wheel racing over the hump of tradition and into the new reality of “closed-cockpit” competition. It’s bound to make racing safer, at least for a time. But the risks are still there. Just like we keep finding places without SAFER Barriers in NASCAR, there will be another crash where the speed of fire, a mechanical breakdown in the closed cockpit endangers the safety of the driver. The cat wants so badly to catch the mouse but the mouse, in the form of scientific realities, will always find a way to escape.
It’s why these athletes deserve the highest levels of respect, engaging in an activity where we often forget their worst-case scenario until it’s sitting front and center on the national news.
This case seems particularly unfair considering Wilson was beloved within the IndyCar paddock. Known as the “Gentle Giant,” he possessed an even-keeled temperament, a dry sense of humor and an incredible talent that was never fully realized. Leaving behind a wife and two young daughters, the 37-year-old was in the middle of a part-time ride at Andretti Autosport that seemed one step away from the “A” quality, full-time opportunity he craved before hanging up the helmet for good.
Instead, we weep for Wilson and work hard to ensure it never happens again. We pray, we hope, but we can never guarantee – the rough reality that keeps racing in a unique but sometimes awkward place in today’s pantheon of major sports.
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and the Majority Owner of NASCAR Web site Frontstretch.com. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.
Justin Wilson photo by Getty Images
The rise of spread offenses and the different schemes teams face on a week-to-week basis in a college football season has altered how some defensive coordinators think. While some are placing more emphasis on building a secondary, the success of any defense starts up front. Generating a pass rush and stopping the run are two staples of any defensive scheme.
How did we come up with these rankings? A couple of factors were considered. Depth, overall talent, production, level of competition and projected output in 2015 all factored into the rankings for the backfield. While some teams may have experienced a down year last season, having a different quarterback or a change of scheme can make a huge difference. These rankings reflect projection for 2015, not solely what teams have accomplished in 2014.
College Football's Top 35 Defensive Lines for 2015
Nearly everyone from a dominant 2014 group is back for coordinator Kirby Smart. The Crimson Tide allowed only five rushing scores last year and limited opponents to 3.2 yards per carry. A’Shawn Robinson won’t post huge numbers, but the junior is versatile enough to play on the outside or on the interior and is the top player in this unit. Ends Jarran Reed and Jonathan Allen played in all 14 games and combined for 17.5 tackles for a loss last year. Helping the starting trio is a deep and experienced group of reserves, including D.J. Pettway and 2014 five-star recruit Da’Shawn Hand.
An aggressive and deep defensive front is becoming an annual storyline for Michigan State. The Spartans have ranked among the top 10 nationally in rush defense in four consecutive seasons and finished first last year by holding opponents to just 88.5 yards per game. Shilique Calhoun decided against entering the NFL Draft for one more season in East Lansing, and the senior is a first-team Athlon Sports All-American. Senior Lawrence Thomas slides from tackle to end, but sophomore Demetrius Cooper and redshirt freshman Montez Sweat will push for snaps. The interior is set with Malik McDowell and Joel Heath.
Virginia Tech’s offense remains a work in progress, meaning the Hokies have to ask their defense to carry this team once again. Fortunately for coordinator Bud Foster, that won’t be a problem with eight returning starters and the best defensive line in the ACC. The Hokies allowed 144.8 rushing yards per game last season, but that number should decrease with the return of Luther Maddy from injury at tackle. And the rotation on the interior is set with Nigel Williams, Corey Marshall and Woody Baron. The Hokies could have the nation’s top duo at end with Dadi Nicolas and Ken Ekanem. True freshman Tim Settle is another name to watch.
Baylor’s high-powered offense garners all of the attention, but the defense has made considerable progress under coordinator Phil Bennett. The Bears held opponents to 3.2 yards per carry last year and ranked 16th nationally against the run. At 6’9” and 280 pounds, end Shawn Oakman is as physically gifted as any defender in the nation. He recorded 11 sacks last season. End Jamal Palmer is back as a starter on the other side after missing most of 2014 with a torn ACL. The interior is stout with senior Beau Blackshear and the underrated Andrew Billings back in 2015.
5. Ole Miss
Even though the Rebels lose three contributors from last year’s line, this group could be deeper and better than it was in 2014. Tackle Robert Nkemdiche earned first-team All-SEC honors last season, and the NFL prospect is primed for his best year as a junior. Issac Gross joins Nkemdiche as a disruptive force on the interior, with junior college recruit D.J. Jones supplying depth. Freshman Victor Evans and junior Fadol Brown are expected to start on the edges, but sophomore Marquis Haynes should see an increased role after leading the team with 7.5 sacks in 2014.
6. Ohio State
The defending national champs have a few losses to address up front. Standout tackle Michael Bennett departs after recording 14 tackles for a loss and seven sacks last season, and the Buckeyes must find a new starter at end after Steve Miller and Rashad Frazier expired their eligibility. While two new starters join the lineup, this unit still features Joey Bosa – arguably the nation’s No. 1 player – and senior Adolphus Washington at tackle. The Buckeyes have plenty of options and talent to fill the voids up front, so a drop-off in production should be minimal.
Another year, another strong defensive front for coach Gary Patterson. The Horned Frogs suffocated opposing offenses with an aggressive defensive front in 2014, holding rushing attacks to just 108.8 yards per game and recording 39 sacks in 13 games. This year’s line returns three starters from 2014, with tackle Chucky Hunter the lone departure. Ends James McFarland, Terrell Lathan, Mike Tuaua and Josh Carraway return after combining for 18.5 sacks in 2014. Aaron Curry, Chris Bradley, Tevin Lawson and Davion Pierson form an effective and talented group of options at tackle.
While the offense has its share of question marks, Florida’s defense should be among the best in the SEC in 2015. The Gators return seven starters, including two in the trenches with senior Jon Bullard and junior Bryan Cox Jr. Junior Alex McCalister is poised for a breakout season after generating six sacks in a reserve role in 2014. Touted true freshman CeCe Jefferson will also see snaps in the end rotation, as the line looks to replace the production lost by Dante Fowler’s departure to the NFL. Sophomore Caleb Brantley and redshirt freshman Taven Bryan are two names to watch on the interior. The Gators held opponents to just 116.2 rushing yards per game last season.
9. Boise State
With eight returning starters and a year of experience under coordinator Marcel Yates, the Broncos’ defense is poised for big improvement on the stat sheet. Each of the three units on defense could be among the best in the nation, but the success of this group starts up front. End Kamalei Correra returns after recording 12 sacks last season, and senior Tyler Horn returns after missing nearly all of 2014 due to injury. The Broncos ranked fifth nationally after recording 47 sacks last year.
A similar theme is set to unfold in Austin this season. The Longhorns should be stout on defense, but the offense will be a work in progress. The strength of Texas’ defense is located up front, where junior Hassan Ridgeway and sophomore Naashon Hughes are back as returning starters. Desmond Jackson’s return from injury and Poona Ford’s continued development will help the Longhorns remain strong at the point of attack. Junior college transfer Quincy Vasser, senior Shiro Davis and junior Bryce Cottrell are more options for coach Charlie Strong at the defensive end spot.
13. Penn State
17. Texas A&M
18. Notre Dame
20. Oklahoma State
21. Florida State
24. Boston College
33. Georgia Tech
35. Mississippi State
No one likes NFL preseason games. Fans think they're a waste of time and everytime a fan-favorite goes down with an injury, the question of "do we really need them?" is asked again.
Troy Aikman is only the latest person to speak out about them. After the injuries to Jordy Nelson, Maurkice Pouncey, and Kelvin Benjamin, it's hard to find reasons to oppose his theory.
4 preseason games but don't play anyone of significance for too long in fear of injury. Makes sense but why 4 preseason games then? Oh yeah— Troy Aikman (@TroyAikman) August 24, 2015
NFL line is always "all about the fans". Have yet to run into an NFL fan that loves preseason.— Troy Aikman (@TroyAikman) August 24, 2015
Outside of 10 guys tops, coaches could've picked their rosters when camp began. They've only been evaluating these guys since May.— Troy Aikman (@TroyAikman) August 24, 2015
Aikman does make valid points that many are hoping the NFL is making note of.
Injuries are never a good thing, but especially when it involves a top-five fantasy wide receiver. Jordy Nelson's season-ending torn ACL is just not a blow to Green Bay, but also to the fantasy outlook for Aaron Rodgers and certainly the wide receiver landscape. Nelson's absence presents an opportunity for teammate Davante Adams to break out in a big way, but also keep an eye on Jeff Janis and rookie Ty Montgomery moving forward. Randall Cobb will replace Nelson as the Rodgers' No. 1 target, which results in him moving up a few spots higher in the top 10. Elsewhere, veteran Reggie Wayne signed a one-year deal with New England, but don't expect him and Tom Brady to repeat the production of Wayne's glory days when he and Peyton Manning were in Indianapolis. Julian Edelman remains the Patriots' No. 1 wide receiver (tight end Rob Gronkowski is Brady's No. 1 target), as Wayne's addition just adds even more uncertainty to the pecking order behind the top two.
Fantasy Football 2015 Wide Receiver Rankings
(Updated Aug. 25)
In my early 1980s youth, I would always look forward to the annual football tab that The State and Columbia Record put out.
It wasn't because I was finally ready to hear about Sloan's Bears but rather because Bob Gillespie and whoever was covering Clemson that year would come out with preseason, game-by-game picks for the Tigers as well as the South Carolina Gamecocks.
Every football fan goes down their favorite team's schedule when it comes out and does a quick pick of the games; "North Carolina's a W. They moved up the Kentucky game this year? Georgia's probably an L," etc.
Now, I could read such an endeavor, usually with humorous comments attached ("there's always the chance Danny Ford's team gets locked in the locker room"), from the experts who would let me know what to look for that season.
We're not doing that in this article. First, because that's not what Athlon has instructed me to do. They've instructed me to rank the games on the Gamecocks' schedule in order of difficulty.
And second, because in 1982 The State/Columbia Record's football tab just nailed Clemson's schedule at the beginning of the year, picking the Tigers to go 10-1 when they finished 9-1-1. The only game picked incorrectly was a 17-17 tie to Boston College, quarterbacked by a then-unknown Doug Flutie — hardly an inexcusable blight on the record.
Gillespie, however, picked the Gamecocks to go 7-4 and make a bowl game. Instead, they went 4-7 and lost to Furman.
So, of course, in 1983 The State/Columbia Record had Gillespie revive his preseason picks for South Carolina while a new writer was found to pick the Clemson games. Oh, and the Record ceased publication five years later.
Considering the fact I wish to stay employed and Athlon wishes to stay in business, here's the schedule South Carolina will navigate in 2015, ranked in order of difficulty.
12. Nov. 21 vs. The Citadel
South Carolina's 38-35 loss to The Citadel in 1990 probably kept the Gamecocks out of a bowl game. If it happens this year, expect the same. The Bulldogs lost their leading rusher and quarterback from last year and return only two starters on defense. Besides, the days of Carolina losing to Division I-AA/FCS teams went out with Sparky Woods and Richard Bell.
11. Oct. 17 vs. Vanderbilt
In 2007 and ‘08, Vandy would take the wind out of South Carolina's sails by upsetting the Gamecocks and sent the message they weren't ready to be considered elite. Now the Commodores are sending the message they have never won an SEC championship and don't intend to any time soon. Ralph Webb rushed for more than 900 yards as a freshman last year, but so what?
10. Sept. 26 vs. UCF
The Golden Knights have had a nice 21-5 run during the past two seasons. In fact their only loss of 2013 came to the Gamecocks. This year UCF has to replace 13 starters from last season, its entire secondary, and even its athletic director. Quarterback Justin Holman throws too many picks and the Knights did not run the ball particularly well last season.
9. Sept. 12 vs. Kentucky
With new offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson the Wildcats will play a new, fast-break offense designed to keep the offense on the field for at least 85 plays. They'll also employ a new 3-4 defensive front. Kentucky put up 45 points on South Carolina last year, but are slated to start five sophomores and a freshman on offense and haven't won in Columbia since 1999.
8. Sept. 3 vs. North Carolina (in Charlotte, N.C.)
If there was a defense that was actually worse than the Gamecocks’ last season, it was North Carolina. The Tar Heels allowed at least 20 points in all of their games, 27 or more in 11, and ranked 101st or worse in all major defensive categories. Still, the Tar Heels went to a bowl game with an offense that returns dual-threat quarterback Marquise Williams and favorite receiver Ryan Switzer. The "Carowinds Bowl" is must win if the Gamecocks wish to have any sort of national prominence this season.
7. Oct. 3 at Missouri
Now it gets difficult. Athlon has the Tigers 27th in its preseason rankings, the Gamecocks 37th. Four seniors weighing more than 300 pounds return to the Tigers’ offensive line and quarterback Maty Mauk returns for this third year as a starter. But he has no experienced wide receivers to throw to. Three starters are gone from the defensive line. Can Missouri continue to produce quality pass rushers?
6. Nov. 14 vs. Florida
Let's face it, one of the reasons the Gamecocks have been able to contend in the SEC East in recent years is the demise of Florida and Tennessee, the two teams that ruled the 1990s. Oh, and the fact the Gamecocks have the Gators' former head coach. New Florida boss Jim McElwain has landed some quality linemen in Martez Ivey and CeCe Jefferson, but what will their immediate impact be? What this game may come to is how well the Gators' Vernon Hargreaves III, perhaps the best cornerback in the SEC, handles Pharoh Cooper, in a matchup that figures to be replayed at some point in the NFL.
5. Nov. 7 at Tennessee
In South Carolina's first season in the SEC, the magic of quarterback Steve Taneyhill upset Tennessee 24-23, effectively ending John Majors' career as the Volunteers’ head coach. Tennessee has never let the Gamecocks forget it, punishing the Gamecocks in the 1990s, and squeaking past them annually the following decade to keep USC under its thumb, and even ruining the Gamecocks' national championship aspirations two years ago on Marquez North's catch after South Carolina had finally passed them in the SEC pecking order. Make no doubt, even more than Clemson, THE VOLS ARE THE MUST-WIN GAME ON CAROLINA'S SCHEDULE AND ALMOST ALWAYS ARE. Butch Jones seems to have the Vols on the right track, but for now the program is still running on recruiting rankings instead of results. A third straight loss to Tennessee will likely insure South Carolina's place behind the Vols in the SEC East pecking order for the foreseeable future, a victory will likely change the hierarchy momentum and could give the Gamecocks a chance to win the division.
4. Oct. 31 at Texas A&M
South Carolina was supposed to defend the honor of the SEC last Aug. 28 in the Aggies' conference debut. You know what happened. Now the Gamecocks must travel to College Station. Texas A&M has a new quarterback this season, a new running back, and a completely new set of linebackers, but by Halloween do returning starters from 2014 really matter? It's just so hard to get 52-28 out of one's mind.
3. Oct. 10 vs. LSU
This is not an unwinnable game for South Carolina. It's at home, the Tigers are coming off a 7-5 season, and they have inconsistency at quarterback (Anthony Jennings? Brandon Harris?). But LSU figures to be one of the best defensive teams in the country behind free safety Jalen Mills and linebacker Kendell Beckwith. Additionally, the Tigers are from the mighty SEC West and the Gamecocks also have only beaten LSU once (1994) since Paul Dietzel came from Baton Rouge to Columbia.
2. Nov. 28 vs. Clemson
It had appeared South Carolina had finally moved ahead of Clemson in state hierarchy. Five straight victories and being the member of the superior football conference have a way of doing that. But last year's 35-17 Clemson victory may have been a telling sign of the "You know, Steve isn't going to be there by the time you graduate" recruiting line. Good news for Gamecocks fans is the Tigers' top-ranked defense lost NFL draft first-round choices Vic Beasley, Stephone Anthony, along with seven other starters, and quarterback Deshaun Watson is injury prone. Bad news is Mike Williams and Artavis Scott might still both haul in 1,000 yards this year. A victory to knock the Tigers out of College Football Playoff contention would be sweet, but having both teams nationally ranked may be even sweeter.
1. Sept. 19 vs. Georgia
A South Carolina victory in this series doesn't always insure a great season. Brandon Bennett's touchdown in 1993 to beat the Bulldogs on the last play of the game looked like it was going to kick off a new era of prestige behind the aforementioned Tanneyhill, then a sophomore. Instead it kicked off a 4-7 season and the coach was fired. And last season's 38-35 victory didn't spark a run for a division championship. But more times than not — 1984, 1987, 2000, 2001, 2010-12 — a South Carolina victory against Georgia indicates a special season is on the horizon.
Georgia's the hands-down favorite in the SEC East. Nick Chubb may someday win a Heisman. The entire secondary returns. But there's a whole new defensive line and a new quarterback under center as well. A victory here and reports of the demise of Gamecocks football will be greatly exaggerated. A loss and well…
— Written by Marky Billson, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. An experienced beat reporter and sports writer, Billson has been a contributor to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for 15 years. He has covered the Steelers, Panthers, MLB and more during his career. Follow him on Twitter @MarkyBillson.
Dalvin Cook has been found not guilty of battery, which will most likely open the door for his return to the Florida State football team. The University has lifted his suspension and he will likely be back on the practice field later today.
This is great news for a program whose offense will look radically different than the past two years. Jameis Winston, of course, is in Tampa Bay and his two safety blankets – Rashad Greene and Nick O’Leary – are in NFL camps as well. Travis Rudolph and Ermon Lane along with Jesus Wilson are looking to develop cohesion with the new quarterback, whether that is Sean Maguire or Everett Golson.
While the passing game kinks are being worked out early in the season, Florida State would love to lean heavily on its running game. The Seminoles also have an inexperienced offensive line and one way for that group to gain confidence is for them to establish aggressiveness by run blocking.
FSU also will have a very talented defense. The last thing the coaching staff wants to do is put the defense in bad spots by turning the ball over, something that one of their quarterbacks did with regularity last season. Keeping the ball on the ground, especially early in the season as the entire team builds a belief in itself, will at worst keep the defense away from defending short fields.
With Texas State and South Florida as the first two games, the Seminoles probably would have run the ball a lot with Mario Pender, Jonathan Vickers and Jacques Patrick. Cook’s return will allow head coach Jimbo Fisher to use the ground attack in an even more dynamic way. That young line will gain even more confidence with the 1,000-yard rusher bolting through the holes that are opened.
In the same way that the quarterbacks will have to get in synch with the receivers, the offensive line will have to gel with the backs too. It is true that FSU should have no trouble in either of the first two games, regardless of who is in the backfield. But the more reps Cook can get before the season starts and in the first two contests, the more in tune he will be with his blockers, which will pay dividends later in the season.
Florida State has won the last three ACC titles and wants another this year. Despite having to replace departed stars, the Seminoles live by the Ric Flair adage that if you want to be the man, you’ve gotta beat the man. Getting back Cook is a huge boost in Florida State’s quest to be the man for another year.
— 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.
Tennessee fans have finally received the long awaited validation that their Vols are once again relevant in the landscape of college football. Unfortunately, it isn’t yet in the form of wins on the gridiron. However, they will be happy to find out that their iPhone is a fan of the Volunteers.
If you were to ask Apple’s Siri, “Who is your favorite college football team?” the response is this: “I always like to root for the underdog. I guess that makes me a fan of Tennessee right now.”
Just to be clear, all Siri equipped iPhones and iPads currently give the “Tennessee” response, regardless of fan affiliation or who owns the phone. In all actuality, Siri’s response is triggered as a result of the recently released AP pre-season top 25 college football rankings that will also accompany Siri’s reply on your iPhone screen.
Each week during the season, and in this case the pre-season, Siri will proclaim the team that resides in the 25th and final spot in the AP rankings as her favorite, proving that she's no fair weather bandwagon fan. Hence, the "I always like to root for the underdog" statement that Siri uses to preface her current allegiance to the 25th ranked Volunteers.
It is fitting that Siri prefers Tennessee at the moment with all the hype and fanfare surrounding the Vols heading into the season, and while she is not likely to remain loyal to Tennessee throughout the entire year, the important thing is that she bleeds orange now.
Siri’s reply also makes for the perfect novelty for Vol fans who want all of their friends and family members who are fans of rival schools to know exactly who their phones are rooting for heading into the 2015 season. So, if you see a Vandy or Bama fan throwing their phone against a brick wall, you'll now know why.
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. McVey is a diehard Tennessee Volunteers' fan who loves singing "Rocky Top" every opportunity he gets. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS
Just about every sports fan is tied to their team’s logo, which makes ranking logos complicated. To get an educated opinion on what is a good logo and what isn't, Athlon Sports turned to one of the people most responsible for helping produce some of the best-looking magazines on the newsstands, graphic designer Daly Cantrell.
Here is what she had to say about the SEC's football logos:
|1.||Tennessee||The Volunteers’ power T is probably the best logo in the SEC for one reason: it’s so recognizable. The unique style of the T is unlike any other and who can forget that bright orange?|
|2.||LSU||I love that LSU finally realized its initials alone are very recognizable. This newer look is sleeker and not so busy. Though the LSU tiger is also very well known and loved, the Tiger is much better as a secondary logo in this case.|
|3.||Auburn||My roommate is an Auburn grad and I can hardly stand the site of the mass amount of Auburn things in our apartment, but if you actually look at the logo, for what it is, then you’ll notice how well done it is. The pairing of AU is perfectly placed where both letters stick out, but also evolve into its own logotype. It has a great look and they do a good job not overdoing it.|
The Commodores’ logo is flashy and fun. The gold and black keep sleekness to the logo and the white V really pops next to the black.
|5.||Georgia||I actually really love the Georgia logo, but I also love the Green Bay Packers’ logo and they look identical. Georgia’s logo is perfectly clean, both in color combination and in the marriage of the G and the thin red oval.|
|6.||Texas A&M||Thank you Aggies for beveling your T correctly. I can only hope some schools take notice of how well done this look is (cue Texas Tech).|
|7.||Ole Miss||This logo is near and dear to me, being an Ole Miss grad. I personally think it looks good on everything, but that’s just me finding sentiment in the logo (which I told myself I wasn’t going to do). If you really take a look at the logo for what it is, it could definitely be updated. The brush script font went out of style ten years ago, but I guess it just works for Ole Miss… or so I think.|
|8.||Alabama||The Crimson Tide’s logo is hard for me to take seriously because I think the Alabama A and the Atlanta Braves A are identical. One of the teams needs to claim it.|
|9.||Mississippi State||I like the look of the Bulldogs’ power M. It has a great shape to it and the slabs of the typeface are not overdone. The ribbon adds a nice touch, but I do not think it is necessary to outline the entire thing in gray unless it is behind a dark color.|
|10.||Florida||The colors in this logo blend too much. The gator logo is very well designed, but I wish the gator popped a little more.|
|11.||Kentucky||The Wildcats’ logo has improved a lot since their old one, but I wish the typeface did not look so stretched out. I liked the condensed look of the old one.|
|12.||Arkansas||This logo has improved a lot throughout the years, but it could still take a more modern route. Animal logos do much better when they are more stylized.|
|13.||Missouri||Missouri has an aggressive logo. Toning it down a bit by taking off some of the detail would take this logo to another level.|
|14.||South Carolina||Gamecocks, you’ve got too much going on in your logo. It all starts to blur together and then it’s hard to see what it really is.|
Projecting college football’s breakout players for any given season is no easy assignment. After all, each person has a different take on what a “breakout player” is, and college football is always home to several new faces throughout the season. While it’s difficult to label breakout players, the new stars of any season can have a huge impact on conference championship or national title races.
The balance of power in the Big Ten clearly resides in the East Division this season. Ohio State is the favorite to repeat, and Michigan State should be a top-10 team once again in 2015. While both programs return plenty of talent and experience, there’s no shortage of breakout candidates for either team. And for the seven teams in the West Division, the emergence of a few stars is critical with each team entering 2015 with significant personnel issues.
Who will be the new stars in the Big Ten this year? Here's a handful of names to watch:
Big Ten Breakout Players for 2015
C.J. Beathard, QB, Iowa
Beathard was handed the keys to Iowa’s offense after the loss to Tennessee in the TaxSlayer Bowl, and the coaching staff hopes the junior sparks an attack that averaged only 28.2 points per game last season. Beathard has a stronger arm than former starter Jake Rudock and isn’t afraid to take chances. Additionally, Beathard can extend plays with his mobility. After completing 52 of 92 passes for 645 yards and five scores last season, all eyes are on Beathard to deliver in his first full year as Iowa’s starter.
Simmie Cobbs, WR, Indiana
Indiana’s passing attack ranked at the bottom of the Big Ten last season, but the Hoosiers are due for a quick turnaround with a healthy Nate Sudfeld at quarterback in 2015. Finding capable targets in the passing game is a must for coach Kevin Wilson. Cobbs played in all 12 games as a true freshman last season and caught seven passes for 114 yards. Expect Cobbs to easily exceed those totals as one of Sudfeld’s top weapons in 2015.
Mason Cole, OT, Michigan
Michigan’s offensive line has struggled over the last two seasons, but there’s optimism going into 2015. Jim Harbaugh’s arrival should help the entire offense improve, and line coach Tim Drevno was a key hire to bolster the play in the trenches. Cole started all 12 games for the Wolverines as a true freshman last season and is expected to anchor the line from the left tackle spot.
Michael Dieter, OL, Wisconsin
It’s safe to assume Wisconsin will field a strong offensive line once again in 2015. However, the Badgers are dealing with a few injuries and overall uncertainty about the position battles in the trenches this fall. There’s work to be done up front, but the coaching staff should feel secure in three positions (left tackle Tyler Marz, center Dan Voltz and Dieter at right guard). After a redshirt season in 2014, Dieter is poised to be a key cog in Wisconsin’s revamped line.
T.J. Edwards, LB, Wisconsin
Two spots in Wisconsin’s linebacker unit are set with the return of Vince Biegel and Joe Schobert. Finding two other starters has been a key challenge this fall for coordinator Dave Aranda, but all signs point to Edwards claiming a starting job at the end of practice. The redshirt freshman had a strong spring and is expected to anchor the interior of the linebacking corps.
Hank Ekpe, DE, Minnesota
The Golden Gophers may not have a household name up front this season, but this unit is quietly in the top half of the Big Ten’s best defensive lines. Ekpe has played in 23 career games and registered three tackles for a loss and 1.5 sacks last season. Contributing to the low stat totals was trouble with a severe sinus infection, but all signs point to a big year from Ekpe in 2015. With an All-Big Ten candidate on the other side (Theiren Cockran), Ekpe should see plenty of one-on-one opportunities to get to the quarterback.
Mike Gesicki/Adam Breneman, TE, Penn State
Pencil in a tight end in the breakout category for Penn State. Gesicki showed promise by catching 11 passes for 114 yards in 12 appearances last season, and the 6-foot-6 target is due for an even bigger role in 2015. Breneman redshirted last year due to injury, but the touted recruit is ready for a bounce back campaign.
Derwin Gray/Damian Prince, OT, Maryland
Gray and Prince are two reasons to be optimistic about improvement for Maryland’s offensive line in 2015. This duo was a key pickup on the recruiting trail for the Terrapins in 2014 and redshirted in their first season on campus. Gray suffered a shoulder injury in the spring, but he should return in September. This redshirt freshman duo should anchor the Maryland offensive line for the next few seasons.
Grant Haley, CB, Penn State
Penn State’s secondary should be among the best in the Big Ten this season. Coordinator Bob Shoop is making a couple of tweaks to this unit, as Jordan Lucas shifts from corner to safety, opening the door for Haley to start. He played in 13 games for the Nittany Lions as a true freshman last season, recording 18 tackles, one interception and two pass breakups.
Kiy Hester, SS/Blessuan Austin, CB, Rutgers
Rutgers’ secondary remains unsettled into fall camp, but two freshmen could see extended snaps or win a starting job. Hester – a transfer from Miami – and Austin are being counted on by coordinator Joe Rossi this season, as the Scarlet Knights return only one starter in the secondary, and the status of Nadir Barnwell is uncertain.
Josh Hicks/Robert Martin, RB, Rutgers
Rutgers’ backfield is quietly one of the deepest in the Big Ten. Paul James was off to a hot start last season but an ACL injury sidelined him for the rest of 2014. In James’ absence, Desmon Peoples, Josh Hicks and Robert Martin effectively carried the ground attack. While James is the lead back, he’s never played a full season of snaps. The duo of Hicks and Martin is a dynamic option for coach Kyle Flood, as both players averaged at least five yards per carry in 2014.
Related: Big Ten Predictions for 2015
Godwin Igwebuike, S, Northwestern
Northwestern’s defense returns 10 starters from a unit that ranked seventh in the Big Ten in points allowed last season. With plenty of proven options, as well as talented youngsters like Igwebuike, improvement is expected in 2015. Igwebuike played in 11 games as a freshman last season, recording 51 tackles, three pass breakups and three interceptions. He should thrive in his first full year as a starter.
Jeff Jones, WR, Minnesota
Jones was a touted recruit at running back, but the redshirt freshman shifted to receiver this offseason. There’s an immediate need for playmakers at receiver, which should allow Jones to make an instant impact in 2015. There will be some ups and downs as Jones learns the nuances of the position, but he’s too talented to sit on the bench for a team that needs playmakers.
Markell Jones, RB, Purdue
Purdue must replace its top two rushers from an offense that averaged 162.4 yards per game on the ground in Big Ten play. Jones enrolled early after earning Mr. Football honors in Indiana and is projected to push for carries in a backfield featuring intriguing options in D.J. Knox, Keyante Green and Tario Fuller.
Jalin Marshall, WR, Ohio State
Marshall is suspended for the opener against Virginia Tech, but a one-game hiatus shouldn’t stop the sophomore from becoming an even bigger part of Ohio State’s offense this season. In 15 games last year, Marshall caught 38 passes for 499 yards and six scores. Additionally, he rushed for 145 yards and one touchdown and averaged 11.8 yards per punt return. Marshall could finish 2015 as one of the Big Ten’s top receivers.
Malik McDowell, DT, Michigan State
The Spartans’ defensive line is one of the best in the nation, and this unit will only get better with McDowell’s emergence in 2015. As a true freshman last season, McDowell chipped in 15 tackles (4.5 for a loss) and 1.5 sacks. The Detroit native was a big-time catch for coach Mark Dantonio on the recruiting trail and is poised to claim a starting spot at tackle this fall.
Raekwon McMillan, LB, Ohio State
The Buckeyes already have two of the nation’s top linebackers in Joshua Perry and Darron Lee. Add in McMillan’s potential as a sophomore and it’s easy to see why this trio is among the nation’s best linebacker units. McMillan recorded 54 tackles and 2.5 sacks as a reserve last season and could push for All-Big Ten honors in his first year as a starter.
Terrell Newby, RB, Nebraska
Newby doesn’t quite have the starting job locked down, but he’s the frontrunner for carries with less than two weeks to go before the opener against BYU. In 13 games last season, Newby recorded 297 yards and five scores and caught eight passes for 45 yards. The junior has big shoes to fill with the departure of Ameer Abdullah. Nebraska will throw more under new coach Mike Riley, but there should be plenty of opportunities for Newby (or another Husker running back) to impress early in 2015.
Yannick Ngakoue, DE, Maryland
Ngakoue is just one of four returning starters for Maryland’s defense this season, and the junior is also a key cog in the transition to a 4-3 scheme. Ngakoue thrived at linebacker last year, recording 13.5 tackles for a loss, six sacks and 37 tackles. He’s charged with leading Maryland’s pass rush from the edge in 2015.
Montae Nicholson, S, Michigan State
Michigan State’s “No Fly Zone” has a few holes to fill this offseason. The Spartans lost standouts in safety Kurtis Drummond and cornerback Trae Waynes, and Pat Narduzzi is now the head coach at Pittsburgh. Nicholson should be one of the new stars for Michigan State’s secondary after recording 31 tackles in 13 appearances as a redshirt freshman. The sophomore should push for All-Big Ten honors.
Jabrill Peppers, DB, Michigan
Peppers was poised for a significant role in Michigan’s defense last year, but a season-ending leg injury ended his 2014 campaign after the third game. In limited snaps in 2014, Peppers recorded eight tackles and returned one punt for six yards. Peppers was a five-star recruit in the 2014 signing class and should be an impact defender for new coordinator D.J. Durkin.
Tegray Scales, LB, Indiana
Improving the defense is coach Kevin Wilson’s top priority this offseason. The Hoosiers allowed 36 points per game in Big Ten action last year and ranked last in the conference against the pass. Scales is the type of player Wilson needs to generate improvement on this side of the ball, as the sophomore is an impact defender and a potential difference maker. In 12 games last season, Scales recorded 46 tackles (4.5 for a loss), two sacks and three interceptions.
Miles Taylor, S, Iowa
Iowa’s secondary is relatively set with the return of cornerbacks Greg Mabin and Desmond King, along with senior Jordan Lomax at safety. One spot is up for grabs this offseason, with Taylor expected to fill the strong safety job. In 13 appearances last year, Taylor recorded eight tackles. The sophomore is known for his big hits, but he has to prove he can handle more of a workload at safety this fall.
Malik Turner/Geronimo Allison, WR, Illinois
With Mike Dudek sidelined indefinitely with a torn ACL, Turner and Geronimo Allison are the top targets at receiver for quarterback Wes Lunt. Both players are poised for a jump in production with Dudek out, with Allison the favorite to lead the team in catches after grabbing 41 receptions for 598 yards last year. But Turner also showed promise, catching 25 passes for 256 yards, including 10 receptions over the final three games.
Anthony Walker, LB, Northwestern
Walker quietly led all Northwestern defenders with nine tackles for a loss last season. Expect bigger and even better things from the sophomore in 2015, as he looks to build off a strong freshman season that resulted in 51 tackles and 1.5 sacks.
Jihad Ward, DE, Illinois
Ward flashed potential last season and should build off a promising debut for the Fighting Illini in 2015. Of course, there’s one problem for the senior, as he is expected to miss two games due to a knee injury. In 13 contests last season, Ward recorded three sacks, 8.5 tackles for a loss and two forced fumbles. Assuming he returns at full strength, the senior will be a difference maker for the Illinois’ defensive front.
Dedrick Young, LB, Nebraska
Don’t be surprised if Nebraska turns to a true freshman to start at linebacker this season. Young enrolled in time to compete in the spring and is pushing for a starting spot alongside upper classmen Josh Banderas and Michael Rose-Ivey. Young ranked as a three-star recruit in the 2015 signing class by 247Sports. Even if he doesn’t win the starting job, Young will be a major contributor in the linebacking corps.
Minnesota's football program has shown continuous improvement each year under head coach Jerry Kill. That improvement has raised the bar of expectations in some circles, as the Golden Gophers are being mentioned as a front-runner in the Big Ten West, despite losing two of the conference's most talented offensive weapons from a season ago.
The 2015 slate will present plenty of challenges for Minnesota in its attempt to win a division title and possible more. Matchups with a couple of top-5-caliber teams as well as some tricky road games are scattered throughout the schedule.
Here now are Minnesota's 12 regular season games, ranked according to degree of difficulty from easiest to most difficult.
12. Sept. 19 vs. Kent State
This will be the first home game of the season with no limelight or pressure on the Gophers. The early start should eliminate any butterflies and allow Minnesota to go out and take care of business as expected.
11. Sept. 26 vs. Ohio
Ohio will be the third consecutive Group of Five team the Gophers play to wrap up their non-conference schedule. They'll need to remain focused, as Ohio head coach Frank Solich has won bigger games against better teams. His Bobcats will be ready.
10. Sept. 12 at Colorado State
Win or lose against TCU to open the season, the Gophers will need to be mentally prepared for a road trip against a team that won 10 games a season ago. New head coach Mike Bobo is trying to instill a bit of "SEC toughness" in Colorado State.
9. Nov. 21 vs. Illinois
Illinois' strength is going to be its passing game. Thankfully for Minnesota, the secondary may be the defense's best unit. Aside from being more talented than the Illini, Minnesota's style of play is conducive to a sound win in this one.
8. Oct. 10 at Purdue
The Boilermakers are going to be in the same boat as Illinois. Purdue's strength will be its offense, but it'll still be no match for the talented playmakers on Minnesota's defense. The Gophers should be able to win this game even with a pedestrian effort from their offense.
7. Oct. 3 at Northwestern
The Wildcats are consistently one of the tougher teams to read and predict. This game being the Big Ten opener doesn't make things any easier for Minnesota. The Gophers will be favored, but anything can happen in Evanston.
6. Oct. 31 vs. Michigan
The Wolverines are probably going to get back to the top of the conference under Jim Harbaugh, but it won't be in 2015. These two teams have similar talent in a lot of places, but coaching continuity in Minnesota and question marks at quarterback in Michigan both favor the Gophers in this one.
5. Nov. 14 at Iowa
Kinnick Stadium is never an easy place to place. It's even tougher under the lights with the fans dressed in all black. The Hawkeyes have enough talent on both sides of the ball to make this battle for the Floyd of Rosedale an interesting one.
4. Oct. 17 vs. Nebraska
Minnesota has beaten the Huskers twice in a row. Nebraska wants to end that streak in the worst way. New coach Mike Riley is likely going to field a much more composed version of the Huskers. They won't crumble when the chips are down, and this one won't be decided until the fourth quarter.
3. Nov. 28 vs. Wisconsin
These two teams are almost mirror images of one another. The Badgers are going through a coaching change, but in reality, that's not going to mean much in terms of strategy and attack. This could be the de facto Big Ten West Division title game.
2. Sept. 3 (Thursday) vs. TCU
The Horned Frogs could very well be the best team in the country. The Gophers are going to find out just how good TCU is in Week 1. This game will either serve as a measuring stick for how far Minnesota needs to go or an announcement to the nation that the Gophers have arrived.
1. Nov. 7 at Ohio State
Minnesota played the Buckeyes tough a season ago at home. This one could be different. Ohio State might be better than it was last season and the Buckeyes will likely be firing on all cylinders in November. Incidentally, this might be the first of two meetings between the teams in 2015.
Two weeks ago, my enthusiasm over finally seeing the New Orleans Saints play football for the first time in eight months quickly turned to dismay. The Saints’ performance in their first preseason game caused me to dread the upcoming. The weakest link in the defense, the secondary, saw two players leave the game with injuries in the first quarter at Baltimore. The Saints piled up 16 penalties for 143 yards. The first-string defense allowed touchdowns during the Ravens' first two series.
Meanwhile, the offense went three-and-out during its first two possessions. Topping off the mountain of calamities, the defense gave up a first down on fourth-an- 20 in the final minute, allowing the Ravens to continue the drive toward the game-winning points. After the first quarter, I was already designing a paper bag to wear while watching Sean Payton's team this season.
After awaking the next morning, the light of a new day provided some different perspectives. I watched a replay of the fiasco just to torture myself a little bit more. I halted my nearly completed headgear of shame for the upcoming season.
First of all, Drew Brees did not take a single snap during the game. The Saints will succeed in nothing on offense other than setting the NFL record for punts in a season if he misses multiple games due to injuries. He served the team in a more valuable fashion by riding the bench. Other conclusions in this same vein include these: water is wet, the sun rises in the east and soccer is boring.
Secondly, Marques Colston and C.J. Spiller never did appear for a single down. Both will serve as vital cogs in this offense. Therefore, their absences made this game an invalid evaluation.
Finally, the Saints did win the turnover battle 2-0. That was encouraging considering that a team that does not give away the ball while taking away two from the opponent will very rarely lose.
On Saturday, I watched the Saints' second preseason game. Once again, they lost the lead in the last minute to drop to 0-2. They flubbed two-point conversion attempts three times during the game. They turned over the ball after not having done so last week.
Despite the loss to New England, New Orleans provided more reasons for optimism:
1. The Saints' defense held the Tom Brady-led Patriot starters to three-and-out on their first three offensive possessions.
2. The Saints’ expected offensive starters scored a field goal then two touchdowns on their first three possessions.
3. The number of penalties was cut in half compared to the first game, costing the name just 88 yards.
In the final analysis, I remind Saints fans everywhere to avoid overreacting to two defeats in both preseason games. The team did show improvement in most areas compared to the first game. Also, preseason games are notorious for misleading fans and media into predicting glorious success or humiliating failure in the upcoming season. If only I can convince myself to follow my own advice.
— Written by John La Fleur, who is part of the Athlon Contributor network. A graduate of Michigan State and LSU, La Fleur also has been a Saints fan since he was old enough to understand football. Follow him on Twitter @FBConnoisseur.
The Tennessee Volunteers received a boost to their 2017 recruiting efforts in the form of a big-time commitment on Sunday. Hunter Johnson, who is ranked as the No. 1 high school quarterback in the nation for the 2017 class, has pledged to take his talents to Rocky Top.
The 6-foot-3, 197-pound, pro-style signal-caller from Brownsburg High School in Indiana is a 5-star prospect according to the 247Sports Composite Rankings. 247Sports also ranks him as the No. 11 overall player in the nation for the class of 2017, and he has already committed to play in the 2017 U.S Army All-American game.
Johnson claims more than 20 offers from some of the best schools in the country. He ultimately chose Tennessee over the likes of Notre Dame, Florida, Michigan, Miami, Oklahoma, Nebraska and Penn State to name a few. The home state Fighting Irish were believed to be Tennessee’s toughest competitor in landing Johnson. NC State also was named as a finalist.
Johnson, who is just now entering his junior year at Brownsburg, decided to make the early commitment in order to focus on his final two seasons of high school football and avoid the many distractions that accompany the recruiting process. He has visited Knoxville on at least six occasions, citing comfort level as the deciding factor in choosing the Vols. Johnson becomes the Vols’ first commitment for the class of 2017 and plans on enrolling early at Tennessee.
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. McVey is a diehard Tennessee Volunteers' fan who loves singing "Rocky Top" every opportunity he gets. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS
Normally after a Pittsburgh Steelers game the five key points of the contest are reviewed here. But Sunday's 24-19 victory against the Green Bay Packers was notable not so much in that it was only Pittsburgh's second preseason victory in its last 11 exhibition games, or that it ended a four-game August losing streak.
It was notable because of the injury factor, namely that center Maurkice Pouncey could be lost for the season with a broken left ankle. Pouncey's injury wasn't the only one the Steelers suffered. Last year's second-round draft choice, defensive end Stephon Tuitt, also suffered a left ankle injury, and backup quarterback Bruce Gradkowski, like Pouncey recently removed from the Physically Unable to Perform list, may be returning to inactivity after injuring his left hand.
The Packers also suffered potential season-defining injuries. Star wide receiver Jordy Nelson is out for the season after sustaining a serious right knee injury, while guard T.J. Lang suffered a concussion.
Calls to shorten or end the preseason will likely become more prevalent, and the standard Pittsburgh sense of panic has accompanied Pouncey's injury. He is, after all, a four-time Pro Bowler. But is it valid?
It's true Pouncey was injured and did not play in Super Bowl XLV or in the playoffs the following season. The Steelers lost to the Packers, 31-25, in the Super Bowl and to the Broncos, 29-23, in overtime in the Wild Card round of the 2011 playoffs.
Some have pointed to Pouncey's injury as a reason for the losses. But to blame these defeats on Doug Legursky is a bit much. Legursky did not allow the Howard Green hit of Ben Roethlisberger that resulted in Nick Collins' game-changing interception in the Super Bowl, nor did he cause the key fumble from Rashard Mendenhall in the third quarter.
In fact, despite playing catch-up for the entire game, the Steelers outrushed Green Bay, 126-50, and Green's hurry notwithstanding, Roethlisberger was only sacked once despite attempting 40 passes.
Against Denver, Isaac Redman ran for 66 yards on three carries through the middle of the line, and the Steelers outrushed the Broncos, 156-131. While Roethlisberger was sacked five times, one has to wonder if this is because of Legursky's blocking calls or a bum ankle suffered the previous month by Big Ben in a 14-3 victory against Cleveland. Two weeks before the playoff loss, Legursky had started at center against the Rams along with backup quarterback Charlie Batch, who was not sacked once.
Others pointed to the fact the Steelers started the 2013 season 0-4 after Pouncey was lost for the season in Week 1. But the final record of 8-8 was the same as the season before, and one has to wonder if this poor start was solely the result of Pouncey's right ACL and MCL injury or a continuation of the team's demise that saw them lose five of its last seven games in 2012 and all four preseason games in ‘13.
The man who will step in for Pouncey this season is Cody Wallace. The journeyman lineman, 30, played in 15 games last season and actually started the final four games of the 2013 season after Fernando Velasco, signed to replace Pouncey, was injured and lost for the season in the 12th game of the year. For the record, the Steelers allowed only three sacks in their final three games that year behind Wallace, all victories, after allowing 40 sacks in the previous 13 games.
While the running game averaged roughly four yards a rush in two games with Wallace as the starting center, the Steelers gained less than three in a frigid 30-20 victory against the Bengals in their 14th game, and more than five per carry in a 38-31 victory at Green Bay the following week.
Wallace played college football at Texas A&M and was drafted by the San Francisco 49ers in the fourth round in 2008. The Steelers are the sixth organization he's been with, but they thought enough of Wallace to give him a three-year contract in 2014. Now he’ll have a chance to earn his paycheck, as the trigger man for what should be one of the NFL’s most explosive offenses.
— Written by Marky Billson, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. An experienced beat reporter and sports writer, Billson has been a contributor to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for 15 years. He has covered the Steelers, Panthers, MLB and more during his career. Follow him on Twitter @MarkyBillson.
Florida State running back Dalvin Cook is back with the team after a one-day trial on misdemeanor battery charges ended in a not guilty verdict.
According to a release from the school, Cook has been reinstated immediately and is eligible to practice. The sophomore is expected to open the 2015 season as Florida State’s No. 1 running back. Cook is one of the nation’s top rushers after an impressive freshman campaign and is a key piece of the Seminoles’ offense with the departure of quarterback Jameis Winston. Cook's return to the field is also a huge boost for a Florida State backfield that should be one of the best in the nation. In addition to Cook, the Seminoles have touted freshman Jacques Patrick and Mario Pender.
The sophomore running back was suspended after charges were filed in early July, putting his status in question for the 2015 season. However, any doubts about Cook’s playing status for the upcoming year have cleared, as the verdict has opened the door for a full return.
Statement from FSU athletics reinstating Dalvin Cook. pic.twitter.com/OrmmuoU3IN— Jared Shanker (@JShankerESPN) August 25, 2015
25 minutes. 25 minutes of deliberation. Tell me how charging that was a legit case and not a PR stunt. Sure.— Bud Elliott (@TomahawkNation) August 24, 2015
FSU says Dalvin Cook will return to practice immediately— Joe Schad (@schadjoe) August 25, 2015
Well that didn't take long. Jury with quick decision to exonerate FSU Dalvin Cook.— Danny Kanell (@dannykanell) August 25, 2015
Oklahoma’s quarterback battle was one of the biggest in college football this fall, but the intrigue is over in Norman. On Monday, the Sooners announced Baker Mayfield edged Trevor Knight and Cody Thomas for the starting spot for the Sept. 5 opener against Akron.
The decision to pick Mayfield as the starter is really no surprise. The Texas Tech transfer was considered the favorite since the spring and remained at the top of the depth chart over Knight and Thomas.
Mayfield has traveled an interesting path to Norman. The Texas native was a walk-on to Texas Tech in 2013 and started seven games for the Red Raiders. Mayfield threw for 2,315 yards and 12 scores during the regular season but decided to leave prior to the Holiday Bowl. Mayfield appealed for immediate eligibility with the Sooners in 2014. However, that appeal was unsuccessful, and Mayfield sat out 2014 as a result of transfer rules.
The play of the offense is under the microscope for Oklahoma this season. The Sooners averaged 36.4 points per game last year but ranked eighth in the Big 12 in passing and needed a new identity and direction.
Coach Bob Stoops decided to hit the reset button on offense, hiring rising star Lincoln Riley to call the plays. Riley plans on implementing an offense similar to the Air Raid approach he learned at Texas Tech under Mike Leach, as well as the one he coordinated at East Carolina from 2010-14.
Mayfield is well versed in this offense from his time at Texas Tech and in high school at Lake Travis. Having a grasp of this scheme certainly helped in this battle, and the junior possesses the confidence and playmaking ability to help Oklahoma make a quick transition to the new scheme.
Mayfield isn’t shy about taking chances with the ball, but he’s also accurate. The junior doesn’t necessarily have to connect on big plays every week, just be accurate and distribute the ball to the playmakers on the outside.
While Mayfield is likely the best fit among the Oklahoma quarterbacks for the new scheme, the strength of this offense still resides with its running backs. Samaje Perine, Alex Ross and Joe Mixon form one of the top backfields in the nation.
Choosing Mayfield as the starter should come as no surprise for the Sooners. But here’s the big question for Oklahoma: How much will the offense improve under Riley this year? With a loaded backfield and talent at receiver, there’s reason for optimism. However, there are four new starters on the line and a transition in schemes.
Is Mayfield the right player to lead this offense? Or will Thomas and Knight play their way into snaps? The Sept. 12 date at Tennessee should be a huge barometer test for Mayfield, Riley and Oklahoma’s new offense. For now, everything suggests Mayfield is the right (and easy) pick.
Several SEC teams opened fall practice with uncertainty at quarterback, but Texas A&M ended any controversy about its signal-caller with 10 days until its opener against Arizona State. On Monday, coach Kevin Sumlin picked sophomore Kyle Allen as the team’s starter over talented freshman Kyler Murray.
The decision to go with Allen should come as no surprise. The sophomore was the favorite to win the job and played well in his stint as Texas A&M’s starter. With the announcement out of the way, Allen has a chance to spend a full allotment of practices over the next two weeks as the starter for game preparation against the Sun Devils.
As a true freshman last season, Allen guided the Aggies to an upset road victory over Auburn, passed for 237 yards and three scores in a 34-27 loss to Missouri and threw for 294 yards and four touchdowns in the 45-37 win over West Virginia in the Liberty Bowl.
The Arizona native was a five-star prospect in last year’s signing class and showed plenty of promise in a limited run as the starter. With a full offseason to work in the No. 1 role, the sophomore should be ready to build off that success in 2015 and could challenge for All-SEC honors.
Murray was also a five-star prospect, ranking as the No. 1 dual-threat quarterback in the 2015 signing class by 247Sports. The touted true freshman should see some snaps this year but picking Allen as the starter was the right move by Sumlin. With valuable experience gained last season, combined with an impressive finish to the season, the sophomore is poised to emerge as one of the SEC’s top quarterbacks.
Scoring points hasn’t been a problem for Texas A&M since joining the SEC. And with one of the nation’s top receiving corps and a solid offensive line in place, the Aggies’ offensive attack won’t be easy to stop for opposing defenses once again in 2015. Murray is a dynamic and intriguing talent, but naming Allen as the team's starter was the right (and easy) call for Sumlin.
Fans of USC are fired up, but not nearly as much as Steve Sarkisian was during a team rally.
The Trojans head coach was assumed to be intoxicated while giving a little speech to pump up the crowd during USC's Salute To Troy.
"Get ready to [expletive] fight on baby," Sarkisian yelled.
Sarkisian issued an apology this morning.
"I sincerely apologize to my players and staff and to our fans for my behavior and my inappropriate language at our kickoff event Saturday night. I have a responsibility to all of them and I let them down. [USC Athletic Director] Pat Haden talked to me after the even about my actions and I assured him this will not happen again."
Haden also mentioned the encounter and wants Sarkisian to use it as a learning experience.
"I met with Coach Sarkisian and I expressed my disappointment in the way he represented himself and the University at our Salute To Troy event. While the details of our conversation will remain between us, I am confident he heard my message loud and clear."