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The best thing possible happened to NASCAR’s high-drag, highly destructive to competition package this week. As of Wednesday afternoon, nobody officially cares anymore. The past 24 hours has been an onslaught of news, from Danica Patrick’s contract extension to the demise of two-car Michael Waltrip Racing.
For Patrick, the emergence of Nature’s Bakery was paired with a longtime contract extension to keep her behind the wheel of Stewart-Haas Racing’s No. 10 Chevrolet. She’ll run there through at least 2018 despite zero top-5 finishes in her first 105 career starts. By comparison, teammate Kevin Harvick sits as the reigning Cup Series champion, posting 30 top-5 finishes in his first 59 starts running with SHR.
Nature’s Bakery itself doesn’t care. The five-year-old company, whose revenue was reported to be $100 million for 2014 is clearly going “all in” with its next level of growth based on Patrick’s ability to be a spokesperson off the track. Her visibility with soon-to-be-former sponsor GoDaddy.com, culminating in a series of Super Bowl commercials, makes her one of the most recognizable racecar drivers in the country. What better way to get to the next level in business than by pairing with a “celebrity” spokesperson?
That brand won’t be affected if Patrick finishes 35th each week instead of fifth. For Patrick, that’s a blessing and a curse within an SHR organization that has another driver struggling within its four-car ranks: co-owner Tony Stewart. What’s more important now that Patrick’s sponsorship future is secure; getting the three-time champ, who’s also the manager of this multi-car giant, on track or getting the underperforming No. 10 more competitive?
SHR likes Patrick and there are plenty of reasons why — they come in the size of dollar bills. It’s great for her future as a millionaire but you wonder how much better she can be as a driver during a season where the other two SHR cars (Harvick and Kurt Busch) are challenging for the championship. Patrick now gets six years to rise to that level where someone else in her position elsewhere might get six races. It’s the name of the game in the sport these days — finding money to race gets you farther than your on-track results — but that doesn’t mean we all have to like it.
As for Michael Waltrip Racing, the demise of the organization beyond 2015 finishes off a slow death that’s been brewing for over two years. Two, of course also is the number of times MWR got caught with a major cheating scandal. Their first, occurring prior to the 2007 Daytona 500 when jet fuel was discovered, disrupted their growth for three years, scarred the Toyota brand and left their reputation an uphill climb. The Spingate incident six years later, one where Clint Bowyer spun out intentionally in order to try and ensure Martin Truex Jr.’s slot in the Chase, finished off any hope the organization could one day grow into a title contender.
MWR hasn’t made the Chase since, a track record that left sponsors and investor/co-owner Rob Kauffman unable to feel comfortable over the long term. Truex and sponsor NAPA left, cutting the team to two cars and they were never replaced; another driver, Brian Vickers has endured an onslaught of health problems due to blood clots, currently sidelined for the rest of the 2015 season. It was clear the upward path of mobility was no longer there and finally Kauffman, the financial brains behind the operation, decided to pull the plug.
Where does everyone go from here? Kauffman, Waltrip’s co-owner and financial arm, will be headed to Chip Ganassi Racing for 2016. Bowyer becomes the sport’s most prized free agent, likely headed to Furniture Row Racing as that team undergoes a long-awaited expansion. And Waltrip? The TV broadcaster must now hope FOX retains his analyst role while he’s forced to restart ownership from scratch.
“We just have the perfect workplace, and unfortunately in 2016, we’re not going to be racing there,” he said. “My hope is somebody wants to have a really nice shop full of really cool people that work together well and want to have a race team and we can provide that for them.”
Just think of a mid-level baseball team – say, the Cleveland Indians – having to stop, disband their franchise and sell everything they own piecemeal. That’s what is happening for Waltrip right now and you have to feel for him.
What happens to his former driver jumpstarts this edition of Through the Gears as we try and “forget” Michigan and remember the four biggest storylines facing the sport…
FIRST GEAR: The MWR Impact on the Chase Race
Today’s news for MWR comes at a critical time in NASCAR’s playoff race. Bowyer was the biggest casualty from Sunday’s Michigan 400-miler; a mid-race wreck left him in 41st place, leaving him as the last driver currently inside the Chase on points. A win by someone outside the current field of 16 will drop Bowyer out. Aric Almirola, the first driver below him is only 23 points behind.
The official dissolution of MWR is bound to be a distraction for Bowyer and the No. 15 team going forward. So will be any announcement of Bowyer’s future plans, a decision that could come as soon as this weekend at Bristol. With 2016 closing in rapidly it’s not prudent for Bowyer to wait around a few weeks now that the door has closed on following co-owner Kauffman to Chip Ganassi Racing.
That opens an opportunity for Almirola as well as Kasey Kahne to sneak into the Chase while Bowyer deals with a circus. But they’re not the only ones potentially affected. CGR is dealing with getting Kauffman’s deal done and their two-car organization is in the dark about the future. How will that adjust preparations for Jamie McMurray as he prepares for his first-ever Chase? Or how will Furniture Row handle potential expansion at the same time they have their best shot ever for a championship with Truex Jr.?
It’s hard to say. Suddenly, though the final spots in this year’s playoff just got a whole lot more interesting.
SECOND GEAR: Bye-Bye, High-Drag. Hello… 2015 Rules?
The big news has pushed the utter failure of the high-drag aerodynamics package for NASCAR to the back burner. At Michigan, Matt Kenseth dominated the race, leading 146 laps and at one point had a lead of well over 13 seconds. A mysterious debris caution may have been the only thing stopping the No. 20 car from lapping the field; meanwhile, cars behind him ran single file as loose conditions kept passing to an absolute minimum.
Garage chatter after the race ranged from “no comment” to “never again.” NASCAR vice president Steve O’Donnell all but confirmed the combination would not reappear this week, quickly killing the grand experiment while leaving the low downforce package used at Kentucky the front-runner to be used in 2016.
So why aren’t we seeing low downforce utilized in this year’s Chase? It’s rough to go back to the normal 2015 rules package, one that reduced competition to the point we experimented with aerodynamics in the first place. But it’s unfair to teams like Kevin Harvick, Truex, Jimmie Johnson and others who have dominated the season to this point to suddenly have to scrap the millions they’ve put into a rules package that was supposed to be used for the playoffs. What if the NFL changed rules a week before the Super Bowl? Everyone involved, from fans to players would be furious. It’s a tough call for NASCAR to keep the 2015 rules but also the right one.
THIRD GEAR: Is Gibbs for Real?
The return of that rules package for the Chase also makes it difficult to determine just how strong Joe Gibbs Racing is compared to the rest of the field. JGR won again at Michigan, their sixth victory in eight races, and is running a level above the competition on paper right now. Here’s the problem though; three of those wins were with rules that won’t be in effect during the 10-race playoff stretch.
That leaves Sonoma, a road course where Kyle Busch dominated; Kentucky, a low downforce package where Busch has a history of running well; and Loudon, featured in the Chase but a track where the rest of JGR struggled behind a red-hot Busch. So are these stats a bit of “smoke and mirrors” for the final 10-race stretch? JGR has struggled on intermediate tracks with the old rules and five of the final 10 races are on 1.5-milers. I’m not saying they haven’t improved but beware; this four-car team may be peaking before the playoffs rather than in it.
FOURTH GEAR: The Emergence of Austin
The feel-good story from Michigan was the run of Austin Dillon, coming from the back of the field after an engine change to post his best career finish (fourth) driving the No. 3 car. Since earning the pole for the 2014 Daytona 500, Dillon has largely underachieved while trying to fill the shoes of a number once owned by a legend. Dale Earnhardt Sr. Dillon clearly is not, but he’s also shown flashes of consistency on the circuit, completing 10,488 laps as a rookie (second best in Cup) while keeping his nose clean. The midseason pairing of him and crew chief Slugger Labbe seems to have shaken off a slump; the youngster needed someone with better chemistry on top of the pit box.
Will Dillon win before the year is out? Probably not. But this run is a sign things will be looking up for what is supposed to be Richard Childress Racing’s premier operation come 2016.
Greg Biffle and his Roush Fenway Racing No. 16 team used to be a dominant force at Michigan. This year? He posted an average finish of 29.5 in two races. My, how mighty RFR has fallen… Rumors are popping up that Sam Hornish Jr. will not be back with Richard Petty Motorsports in 2016. Adding the freed-up Bowyer will be a longshot for RPM but how about the other Michael Waltrip Racing driver, David Ragan? Ragan has done well substituting for Vickers in the No. 55, was paired with Ford for several years (RFR) and has put himself in position for one last Chase-contending opportunity… Timmy Hill and Premium Motorsports were embarrassing at Michigan. The No. 98 leaked oil all over the track, then saw part of the oil cooler/pan come right off to cause a debris caution. At Indianapolis the car was literally falling apart coming to the green. It’s admirable the team is trying to run the distance but their existence is a reminder of how difficult it’s been these days for NASCAR to find teams to fill the 43-car grid.
If only Alabama’s Derrick Henry had a twin. One with a cannon of an arm and pinpoint accuracy.
That would solve a lot of questions.
"Somebody's got to make it happen," a somewhat exasperated Nick Saban said of the quarterbacks this past Saturday following the Crimson Tide’s first fall camp scrimmage. "I can't make it happen. As bad as I'd like to make it happen, I can't make it happen.
"As bad as everybody wants it to happen and they want to create this great hope that Coach said this guy is the man, I can't make it happen."
A few feet behind the handful of quarterback contenders receiving snaps from center this fall ... it's a far different story. At the running back position, somebody is making it happen. And somebody is the man. And that somebody is Henry.
Maybe it started last January when Ohio State — not Alabama — was putting a pounding on Oregon in the inaugural College Football Playoff championship game. During the sans-Crimson Tide title game, Henry put out a photo of himself on Instagram drenched in sweat working out inside Alabama's weight room.
His caption? “Only way I can release anger.”
Podcast: Complete 2015 SEC Preview
That drive to get Bama back to the mountaintop of college football apparently hasn't waned in the Tide’s new feature running back for 2015. Henry was co-recipient, along with Kenyan Drake, of the Johnny Musso Offensive Back Award this past spring, and Henry has continued to impress and — to stick with Saban's phraseology — “make things happen” in fall camp thus far.
"He has done a great job in this camp of carrying the football and being a hard guy to tackle and finishing plays," the Bama head coach said Saturday of the 6-foot-3, 242-pounder. "Nobody can complain about his work ethic and how he's playing. He's doing a fabulous job."
As a sophomore last season, Henry, playing behind then-starter T.J. Yeldon, rushed for 990 yards and 11 touchdowns, while averaging a hefty 5.8 yards per carry. He also had five catches for 133 yards and two more scores.
With Yeldon now gone to the NFL, everyone expects all those numbers to go up — maybe way up — for the one-time, record-setting high school running back out of Yulee, Fla., this fall. Especially if that fire that started in his belly last January continues to rage.
Yeah, Alabama may not have its “man” at quarterback just yet. But it does at running back.
— Written by Erik Stinnett, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Stinnett is an experienced college football beat writer who has been covering Alabama since 2009.
Odell Beckham Jr. was a shining star for the Giants last season.
With no Victor Cruz due to injury, OBJ took full advantage. From glorious catches to sponsorships and endorsements, it's safe to say the young star had a good year.
Now that Cruz is back, things get a little awkward in their new Foot Locker commercial.
The lawyers from the NFL and NFLPA were back in Judge Richard Berman's court on Wednesday and the judge continued to hammer the NFL on a number of fronts. At last week's hearing, Judge Berman took aim at the NFL's lack of hard evidence against Tom Brady in the Deflategate scandal, a curious move considering Berman is supposed to be ruling on the fairness of the process, not whether or not Brady actually did have a role in deflating footballs.
But this time, Berman was more concerned with the NFL's process in deciding punishment, the area under scrutiny if he's to dismiss Brady's suspension. The two most interesting points Berman made:
Berman: "I don't understand the thinking to not allow Mr. Pash as a witness. Who else but Pash had the opportunity to edit the Wells Report?— Stephen Brown (@PPVSRB) August 19, 2015
Berman: "I believe some arbitration awards have been vacated" because a witness was not allowed to be called without explanation.— Stephen Brown (@PPVSRB) August 19, 2015
Make no mistake, the Berman would prefer the sides settle without him having to make a ruling that will inevitably mean Deflategate drags on into next year with appeals. So while his hard questioning of the NFL poked obvious holes in its process, it was once again done with the purpose of pushing settlement.
Brady's camp has acknowledged they're willing to accept some form of punishment, but what he won't do is admit guilt.
Adam Schefter of ESPN even went so far to report that Brady would accept a reduced suspension without admitting guilt, though this report has now been disputed. Still, this goes on top of last week's admission by Brady's lawyer Jeffrey Kessler, that Brady's cooperation "could've been handled differently," acknowledging some gray area for settlement talks as far as Brady's cooperation with the investigation goes.
But the NFL seems to be on a hard line for Brady to accept guilt as part of any settlement and that is why Berman made it clear that there's enough evidence for him to vacate the "award."
The ball is once again in the NFL's court, but if it didn't get the message last week it certainly should've gotten it today. Brady has publicly acknowledged he's willing to make concessions, but if the NFL refuses to negotiate without an admission of guilt, Berman will have no choice to make a ruling, and it's very possible the NFL won't like that ruling.
The sides, including Brady and Commissioner Goodell, will be back in court on Aug. 31 for another settlement hearing, and if that final session does not produce results, Berman will "try" to make a ruling by Sept. 4 to allow Brady and the Patriots enough time to prepare for their season opener with or without him.
Berman made no promises as to issuing a ruling by that date, adding just a little more pressure to the settlement talks.
There seems to be little doubt now that Deflategate will almost certainly bleed into the regular season unless the NFL realizes it has to concede some points if it doesn't want to be litigating this entire farce for the foreseeable future.
Nebraska’s offense suffered a setback on Wednesday, as receiver De’Mornay Pierson-El was ruled out for six to eight weeks after a foot injury in fall camp. Pierson-El was slated to be a key piece of the Cornhuskers’ passing game in 2015 under new coach Mike Riley.
Pierson-El finished third on the team with 23 catches for 321 yards and four touchdowns last season but expected to see more passes in his direction with the departure of Kenny Bell, along with Nebraska’s new offense under Riley and coordinator Danny Langsdorf.
The overall receiving totals don’t explain how valuable Pierson-El was to Nebraska last season. As a freshman in 2014, he was a dynamic punt returner, averaging 17.5 yards per return and scored three times.
In addition to his role on special teams, Pierson-El was pegged as an all-purpose threat for the Cornhuskers’ offense. At Oregon State, Riley and Langsdorf frequently used receivers on handoffs on fly sweeps or in quick passes in space. Pierson-El has the ability to be a dynamic gamechanger for the offense, and the new role was a great fit for his talent.
While Pierson-El’s absence will be felt on an offense transitioning to more of a pro-style approach from a spread, he could return for the meat of Nebraska’s season. The Cornhuskers play BYU, South Alabama, Miami, Southern Miss and Illinois before a critical Big Ten West showdown against Wisconsin on Oct. 10. There’s a good shot Pierson-El is back in the lineup before the game against the Badgers, which could decide the Big Ten West.
In the meantime, Nebraska can lean on an experienced core of Jordan Westerkamp, Jamal Turner, Brandon Reilly and Alonzo Moore at receiver. But does this offense have a versatile, all-purpose threat to lean on until Pierson-El is back? That’s the key task for Riley and Langsdorf to decide in the remaining days of fall camp.
What adjustments will the Cornhuskers make for the opener? How will the offense change? Those are two key questions to watch against BYU, which certainly isn’t a guaranteed victory. And the road date at Miami gets a little tougher too with Pierson-El sidelined.
Injuries are an unfortunate part of fall camp for any college football team. While Pierson-El’s injury has to alter Nebraska’s gameplan just a bit early in the season, the dynamic sophomore should return in time for the biggest game on the schedule (Wisconsin). Not having Pierson-El for a full year is a setback. However, getting the sophomore back in time for a the Big Ten stretch is a huge plus for Riley and Langsdorf, as well as Nebraska's hopes of winning the Big Ten West Division.
On Tuesday's "Hard Knocks" we all learned an important opinion of Brian Cushing. Only chicks drink Starbucks.
The Texans linebacker made his stance on lattes and Starbucks pretty clear.
"I don't even go to Starbucks," Cushing said. "I mean I used to... then I realized I wasn't a chick."
Don't even think about challenging Cushing on his stance, because this could happen to you.
LOS ANGELES — Freshmen are off limits to media during USC fall training camp — the youngsters have enough on their plates as is.
The weeks leading up to the Trojans’ 2015 season opener put first-year players through a crash course in College Football 101.
“We do the best we can to put a lot on the young kids,” said linebackers coach Peter Sirmon. “But at the same time, you have to coach young kids differently than older kids.”
USC’s highly regarded class of newcomers will be graded on a steeper learning curve than some of their freshman counterparts around college football. That’s because the Trojans will rely on first-year contributors up and down the lineup.
The influx of instant-impact newbies is a result of both necessity — three years of NCAA sanctions rendered USC’s roster thin, and the program’s first full signing class since 2012 adds needed depth – and, quite simply, because the Trojans can.
The 2015 signing class ranked No. 1 or No. 2, depending on the outlet. It features a variety of 4-and-5-star prospects ready to contribute right away. But that doesn’t mean they don’t also have lessons to learn in the meantime.
“When you’re a freshman and a newcomer, it’s all about consistency that’s needed to be a great player,” said defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox. “It’s a very simple concept: You’ve got to bring it every day. Everybody says that every day, in your job and my job. But you have to do it, and it takes mental maturity.”
For coaches, getting the freshmen up to speed both with strategic concepts and in cultivating that mental maturity is a balancing act.
“The challenge when you get really talented players [is] not to over-coach them,” Sirmon said. “You give them the big-picture structure of what we want to do, then you’ve got to let some of that talent shine through.”
A portion of the teaching duties fall with the team’s veterans, a tradition that carries on from season-to-season as seniors graduate and newcomers arrive. Cornerback/wide receiver Adoree’ Jackson knows the freshman process well, having experienced it himself just last year.
“That’s why I want to go out there and help them as much possible,” he said. “When I was coming in, we had Josh Shaw, Kevon Seymour, Gerald Bowman, Su’a Cravens, all those guys wanted to help me out. Now, it’s just me returning the favor.”
For a fourth-year player like linebacker Scott Felix who has been through scores of these preseason workouts, he knows what to look for from first-timers — positive or negative. And according to him, it’s so far, so good for the new Trojans.
“They’re learning fast,” Felix said. “They’re getting competitive with us. Overall, most of the freshmen here are competing and that’s what we want to see from them.”
The linebacker corps is especially rife with freshman talent, which Felix said he, “like[s] a lot.” And with good reason.
USC signed a pair of 5-star prospects in Porter Gustin and Osa Masina, as well as 4-star recruits John Houston and Cam Smith. They may be freshmen in terms of their age and experience, but physically is another story in a few instances.
Gustin in particular has a build one would not expect of a first-year player. The only “person” with a more statuesque physique on USC’s campus is Tommy Trojan.
“He was a highly sought-after kid for a reason,” Sirmon said.
Smith is the furthest along of the fab four, having joined the Trojans as an early enrollee in the spring. Smith went through spring workouts and player-led workouts in the early summer, in that time earning kudos from such teammates as Cravens.
“He's playing like a veteran,” Cravens said of Smith at July’s Pac-12 media days.
Smith’s quick acclimation to the duties of a Trojan middle linebacker have earned him first-team repetitions. He anticipates and pursues the run well and reads the quarterback on pass plays effectively enough to have done something no one defender in the Pac-12 can claim. Per Cravens, Smith intercepted Heisman Trophy-contending quarterback Cody Kessler twice.
The youngster from Granite Bay, Calif., has been good enough for head coach Steve Sarkisian to resurrect an old tradition. Sarkisian gave Smith the No. 35, a number donned by great Trojan linebackers like Scott Ross, Rex Moore and Riki Ellison.
The head start was an obvious boon for Smith.
“You go through 15 sessions of anything, add on the meetings, and then the offseason program, you’re going to be ahead of the game that way,” Wilcox said. “That doesn’t mean the guys who got here in summer and the start of camp can’t pick it up quickly.
“But yeah,” he added. “If you’re going to learn French, and you took 15 classes, you’re going to be ahead of the people who joined you on the 16th, right? Same idea.”
No word if any of USC’s freshman class is taking French once classes start in September. That’s the next phase in their adjustment to college: balancing obligations as a student-athlete.
By then, however, the football stuff will be old hat.
“You’re only a freshman until you play,” Kessler said.
The NFL season is almost here and gamblers are looking for any sort of value that will get them a little extra cash and props from their friends. There's always a wager or two out there that the general public may not think is worth its time, but it should be on their radar. We head back to 5Dimes Sportsbook for the values. These props will be at underdog prices for the most part. Wager at your own risk
Baltimore Ravens to win the AFC (+1000)... Super Bowl (+2250)
Listen it's hard to find an underdog in terms of a Super Bowl champion. The usual suspects are at the top of the board with the Ravens being one of the lowest of the probable playoff teams. Word is early on that the secondary is going to be improved, which was the weak link of the Ravens. Joe Flacco has the pedigree to lead this team far, but he needs more weapons to be developed around him. If you absolutely don't want to wager on some of the favorites, then head to Baltimore for your Super Bowl champ.
Cincinnati Bengals to not make the playoffs (-135)
I'm not as big of a fan of the Bengals as most. Their defense didn't get the quarterback much in 2014 and I don't trust Andy Dalton at all. The schedule is real tough and doesn't lay out too nicely for Cincy. I think the Ravens win the division and the wild cards come from the AFC East and West.
Washington Redskins to make the playoffs (+700)... to win the NFC East (+1500)
It may be because I've been planted in Redskins training camp, but I like what they have got right now. Their front seven is fierce and if they stay healthy, then the defense will keep them in games. The big question is Robert Griffin III and how effective he will be. If the rookie RG3 shows up, then this team is capable of winning the division. No one in the NFC East enters this season without question marks. The Cowboys and Giants will have poor defenses while the Eagles have plenty of concerns on offense. This one will be tough to do, but there's value here with a team that if all breaks right, could win its division.
Carolina Panthers to win the NFC South (+250)
Carolina's got the only defense in the division and a competent enough offense that the Panthers should win this weak division for the third year in a row. Cam Newton has a solid run game with Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert and enough weapons to make things interesting. (Note: This changes with the injury to Kelvin Benjamin. You may be able to get a better number, but I'm not as confident in this selection.)
Note: I came really close to putting Minnesota Vikings to make the playoffs (+260) and win the division (+775) on here, but I think they are still another year away. We'll see what Teddy Bridgewater can do with Adrian Peterson in the backfield and some weapons being developed. Their defensive stars are all young and all improving. I just didn't see a scenario where they beat both the Packers and Lions in the NFC North standings.
— 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.
It's the most wonderful time of the year (if you're a walk-on who's been working hard).
Bowling Green head coach Dino Babers surprised a couple players with the best thing they've heard in a while, they no longer have to pay for school. Terrance Bush and Trenton Greene are both on scholarship and "won't have to worry about [paying tuition] anymore."
The Crimson Tide open the season in Dallas against Big Ten opponent Wisconsin in the 2015 Cowboys Classic, and host Ole Miss just two weeks later. Road games at Georgia and Mississippi State, with home dates against Arkansas, LSU and Tennessee splashed in between, will provide head coach Nick Saban with perhaps one of his most challenging coaching jobs to date.
If Alabama can make it to the Orange or Cotton Bowl (College Football Playoff Semifinals sites), consider the Crimson Tide to be well equipped to handle whichever opponent it draws.
Here is a look at Alabama’s 12 regular-season games, ranked according to degree of difficulty from easiest to toughest:
12. Nov. 21 vs. Charleston Southern
By the time this game rolls around it should be nothing more than an opportunity for inexperienced players to receive live reps as Alabama will likely sit its starters early ahead of a matchup against in-state rival Auburn.
11. Sept. 26 vs. UL Monroe
UL Monroe went 0-3 against the SEC (LSU, Kentucky and Texas A&M) in 2014. Alabama hosts the Warhawks before embarking on a brutal six-game SEC tilt. UL Monroe defeated Alabama 21-14 in Tuscaloosa in Nick Saban’s first season as head coach, but don’t bet on it happening again.
10. Sept. 12 vs. Middle Tennessee
Middle Tennessee finished 6-6 overall and 5-3 in C-USA play last season. Barring a major letdown after a Week 1 slugfest against Wisconsin, Alabama should cruise past the Blue Raiders and have plenty of time to rest its starters before the team’s Week 3 SEC opener against Ole Miss.
9. Oct. 17 at Texas A&M
To be frank, the Aggies under head coach Kevin Sumlin have underwhelmed on defense. This offseason Sumlin brought in defensive coordinator John Chavis to turn it around. Chavis, who previously coached at LSU and Tennessee, faces a tall order. ‘Bama lit Texas A&M up for 59 points and 602 total yards of offense last October in a shutout in Tuscaloosa. While Chavis will eventually make the Aggies formidable on defense, this isn’t the year.
8. Nov. 14 at Mississippi State
Expectations in Starkville remain high for school-record-setting quarterback Dak Prescott following his team’s 10-win season in 2014. But a mass exodus of talent will make it difficult for him to turn in an encore performance. ‘Bama defeated the Bulldogs by five points last season and should win by a larger margin this year.
7. Oct. 24 vs. Tennessee
Butch Jones enters his third year as Tennessee’s head coach and many expect his young team to have a breakout season. The Volunteers coalesced as the year progressed and closed out the 2014 season winners of four of their last five games, including a 45-28 TaxSlayer Bowl victory over Iowa. The Vols return 18 starters from last year's team. This could be Jones’s signature win at Tennessee in what figures to be a competitive contest.
6. Sept. 5 vs. Wisconsin (at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas)
Alabama gets its first major test of the season Week 1 in Dallas against first-year Wisconsin head coach Paul Chryst’s Badgers. The two teams meet for the first time since 1928, when Wisconsin won 15-0 in Madison. The 2015 Cowboys Classic will set this year’s expectations for the Crimson Tide fan base.
5. Sept. 19 vs. Ole Miss
The Tide welcome a loaded Ole Miss team to Bryant-Denny Stadium in Week 3. Ole Miss, winners of nine games in 2014, returns 16 starters. The Hugh Freeze-led Rebels stunned the Tide 23-17 in Oxford last season, so Saban and company would love nothing more than to return the favor in 2015.
4. Nov. 7 vs. LSU
The Crimson Tide host LSU after a much-needed bye week. This one went into overtime last season before Alabama walked away with a 20-13 win. Since 2012, the Tigers are winless in four tries against the Tide, including the 2012 BCS National Championship Game. Heisman Trophy candidate running back Leonard Fournette could be the trump card the Tigers need for a victory.
3. Oct. 10 vs. Arkansas
The Crimson Tide was able to fend off Arkansas 14-13 in Fayetteville last year. This year, Alabama’s vaunted defensive line will get all it can handle from Arkansas' punishing ground game, led by Alex Collins (1,100 yards in 2014). Razorback signal-caller Brandon Allen returns for his third year as a starter on an Arkansas squad that is arguably head coach Bret Bielema's most talented since arriving in 2013. This one should be good.
2. Oct. 3 at Georgia
This one has all of the ingredients to make an SEC classic. Georgia suffered a heartbreaking 32-28 loss to Alabama in the 2012 SEC Championship Game, and Bulldog fans have waited three years for this rematch. Georgia head coach Mark Richt would go a long way in silencing his critics with a win. Alabama defeated Georgia 41-30 in 2008, the last time the two teams met in Athens.
1. Nov. 28 at Auburn
The SEC Championship Game picture should be pretty clear by the time these two teams meet, and the outcome of the Iron Bowl will likely have conference implications. Last year’s meeting was a barnburner, as the two teams combined for 1,169 yards and 99 points in a 55-44 Alabama win. While fans shouldn’t expect another shootout, they should definitely expect another exciting episode of one of the game’s most heated rivalries.
— Written by Elton Hayes, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. A Washington, D.C.-based sports writer, Hayes is a member of the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA) and he also has been an invited guest on “The Paul Finebaum Show.” Follow him on Twitter @EHDC12.
Since the NFC South's inception in 2002, only one team has won back-to-back division titles — the Carolina Panthers from 2013-14. However, they finished with a sub-.500 record last year. With no true dominant team, this division is really a toss-up. Any of these teams could win this division, but will any of them clearly stand out from the others?
In order to get an accurate assessment of the NFC South heading into 2015, Athlon asked NFL scouts to talk anonymously about the Falcons, Panthers, Saints and Buccaneers.
Note: These scouting reports come directly from NFL scouts and do not necessarily reflect the views of Athlon's editorial staff.
“The lack of difference-making talent on this Falcons roster cost head coach Mike Smith his job, so now the organization has shuffled the deck in the player personnel department and hired Dan Quinn from the Seahawks to fix the worst defense in the league."…
"Scott Pioli will have more say in the draft, but GM Thomas Dimitroff will inevitably lean on Quinn to shape their philosophy."…
"The heat is on because Matt Ryan does have franchise QB ability, but will be entering his 10th season when Atlanta moves into a new stadium for the 2017 season."...
"When healthy, Julio Jones is at the top of the league’s wide receivers, however, the offensive line has been a total failure and they still haven’t found a top-shelf replacement for Tony Gonzalez at tight end."…
"Third-round draft pick Indiana RB Tevin Coleman brings big speed to the table and he should pair off well with Devonta Freeman."…
"Amazingly, the defense is in worse shape. The Falcons were 32nd in rush, total and third down defense because they simply could not rush the passer and no one in the secondary has shut-down capability."…
"To upgrade the pressure issue, they drafted Clemson DE Vic Beasley at sixth overall and he should fit their coveted ‘hybrid’ DE/OB spot."…
"Paul Worrilow has emerged as a steady linebacker after injuries decimated the position each of the past two seasons."…
"CBs Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford are OK, but neither has the height/weight/speed to contend with the giant-sized receivers in this division, so the club took a shot in the second round on LSU CB Jalen Collins (6-1, 203)."…
"At safety, maybe William Moore will finally reach his potential in Quinn’s scheme and the club is counting on second-year prospect Dezmen Southward to become a capable starter."…
"While things have not gone well for two straight seasons, none of their NFC South brethren have run off and dominated the division, so the Falcons have real hope that Quinn can engineer a quick turnaround.”
“As expected, Carolina took a step back in 2014 after the retirement of LT Jordan Gross and the free agent departure of WR Steve Smith, however, the entire division literally went ‘south,’ so the Panthers got into the playoffs and actually won a game over a QB-depraved Arizona Cardinals squad."…
"QB Cam Newton was harassed and hit all year behind a porous offensive line and then capped off the season with a near-tragic car accident."…
"In the draft, LSU’s La'el Collins was off the board due to a bizarre set of circumstances surrounding the death of a female acquaintance and Pittsburgh’s T.J. Clemmings was not a consideration at No. 25 due to a stress fracture, so they opted for Washington LB Shaq Thompson."…
"2014 first-round pick WR Kelvin Benjamin showed that he was far more advanced than people expected and looks like a future star in the league."...
"TE Greg Olsen has quietly enjoyed a very productive NFL career after being traded from Chicago in July 2011."…
"The Greg Hardy legal situation drained the entire organization on and off the field, and while he spent almost the entire season on the Commissioner’s Exempt List, the Panthers still managed to finish 10th in total defense."…
"Their front seven is strong with legit interior defensive linemen and all-star LBs Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis."…
"The secondary survived due to the emergence of two rookies: CB Bene Benwikere and SS Tre Boston, but surprisingly, the entire unit was not addressed in the draft."…
"With Newton and Kuechly as their cornerstones, Carolina will always contend for division honors, the question is can they improve enough everywhere else to challenge for a Super Bowl?."...
"The guess here is probably not due to their weaknesses at OT and in the secondary.”
New Orleans Saints
“On paper, the Saints made a financial commitment for the 2014 season that was going to put them in position to challenge for a Super Bowl championship. Instead, they finished 7-9 and found themselves $30 million over the salary cap heading into the 2015 league year."…
"After all the contract angst about TE Jimmy Graham last year, they traded him to Seattle on the eve of free agency for a first-round pick (No. 31) and center Max Unger. The offensive line still has OG Jahri Evans and they drafted Stanford OT Andrus Peat with the 13th overall selection."…
"RB Mark Ingram was extended, while C.J. Spiller was added to the backfield in March."…
"Drew Brees is a tactical QB and needs precision around him in the form of timing and disciplined routes. WR Kenny Stills was shipped to Miami and, from afar, it appears that he and Graham were not on the same page with the face of the franchise."…
"The defense hit rock bottom in nearly every statistical category and it all began with the knee injury to Jairus Byrd after four games."…
"The Rob Ryan scheme never generated the chaos needed to create fumbles and interceptions and the Saints finished the year minus-13 in turnover margin."…
"With Seattle's first-round pick, New Orleans drafted Clemson LB Stephone Anthony who will bring leadership and production to the position.”
"If DE Cameron Jordan can return to form and Byrd and fellow safety Kenny Vaccaro bounce back from their injuries, with the addition of CB Brandon Browner to counter the big receivers in this division, New Orleans could bounce back in a big way in 2015."…
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
“In the first year of the Lovie Smith/Jason Licht era, the Buccaneers were very aggressive in free agency and praised for all their additions last March. After a disastrous 2-14 campaign, veterans Josh McCown, Anthony Collins and Michael Johnson were released and Tampa Bay appears ready to start over with No. 1 pick QB Jameis Winston as the central figure in their rebuilding efforts."…
"He will have the ability to play 'above-the-rim' with over-sized WRs Vincent Jackson and Mike Evans on the perimeter, but someone needs to emerge as a slot receiver and the offensive line has to be better than last year’s horrid group that contributed to the Bucs being 29th in rushing offense and tied for 29th in sacks allowed."…
"Penn State OT Donovan Smith and Hobart College OG Ali Marpet were both selected in the second round, so that’s a start to constructing a pocket for Winston who needs room to operate because of his leggy build and one-speed athleticism."…
"Dirk Koetter is the new offensive coordinator and he will be tasked to maximize the abilities of TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins who flashed as a rookie."…
"Defensively, DT Gerald McCoy and LB Lavonte David are Pro Bowl-caliber players, but no one else must be game-planned for by opponent offenses."…
"The pass rush was not addressed in the draft, so George Johnson (trade with Lions) and Jacquies Smith will enter camp as the opening day starters."…
"The back end has been turned over completely since 2013 with only CBs Johnthan Banks and Alterruan Verner returning from last year’s unit."…
"Safeties Mark Barron (in-season trade to Rams) and Dashon Goldson (March trade to Redskins) were both jettisoned, so while the offense has received all of the media attention, the defense has been completely re-worked from front to back, but this is a group that is a work in progress.”
TCU or Baylor? That’s the big question at the top of the Big 12 in 2015. The Bears and Horned Frogs shared the conference crown last season, with Baylor claiming the head-to-head victory in a 61-58 shootout in early October.
The debate between Baylor and TCU continued this offseason, and the Big 12 player rankings reflect the balance of power in the conference. In Athlon’s expert poll, the Bears and Horned Frogs claimed four of the top six spots.
With the season right around the corner, Athlon Sports sought to answer this question: Who are the best 15 players in the Big 12 for 2015?
In order to rank the top 15 players in the Big 12 for 2015, Athlon Sports sought the insight of several experts from the conference. The voting process was simple. Using criteria such as career performance so far, 2015 potential/projection, pro outlook, recruiting ranking, value to team or overall talent, each voter was asked to rank their top 15 players for 2015.
A point system was assigned, giving 15 points for a player with a No. 1 vote, 14 points for a No. 2 vote, 13 points for a No. 3 vote and so on.
Ranking the Big 12's Best Players for 2015 (Experts Poll)
Trevone Boykin, QB, TCU
(18 first-place votes)
Shawn Oakman, DE, Baylor
(1 first-place vote)
Samaje Perine, RB, Oklahoma
(1 first-place vote)
Spencer Drango, OT, Baylor
(1 first-place vote)
|5||Emmanuel Ogbah, DE, Oklahoma State||231|
Andrew Billings, DT, Baylor
(1 first-place vote)
|7||Eric Striker, LB, Oklahoma||158|
|8||Karl Joseph, S, West Virginia||149|
|9||Corey Coleman, WR, Baylor||126|
|10||Le'Raven Clark, OT, Texas Tech||120|
|11||Sterling Shepard, WR, Oklahoma||92|
|12||Josh Doctson, WR, TCU||84|
|13||Pete Robertson, DE, Texas Tech||50|
|14||Shock Linwood, RB, Baylor||45|
|15||Zack Sanchez, CB, Oklahoma||44|
|16||Kevin Peterson, CB, Oklahoma State||39|
|17||Dante Barnett, S, Kansas State||33|
|18||Nick Kwiatkoski, LB, West Virginia||20|
|19T||KD Cannon, WR, Baylor||19|
|19T||Cody Whitehair, OT, Kansas State||19|
|21||Davion Pierson, DT, TCU||18|
|22||Joey Hunt, C, TCU||17|
|23||Mason Rudolph, QB, Oklahoma State||16|
|24||Daryl Worley, CB, West Virginia||14|
|25||Seth Russell, QB, Baylor||13|
|26||Aaron Green, RB, TCU||9|
|27||Tyler Orlosky, C, West Virginia||6|
|28||Danzel McDaniel, CB, Kansas State||5|
|29T||Wendell Smallwood, RB, West Virginia||4|
|29T||Ryan Simmons, LB, Oklahoma State||4|
|31T||Derrick Kindred, S, TCU||1|
|31T||DeAndre Washington, RB, Texas Tech||1|
|31T||Sam Richardson, QB, Iowa State||1|
* TCU quarterback Trevone Boykin ranked No. 1 or No. 2 on all 22 ballots.
* Baylor led all teams with seven selections. TCU ranked second with six picks, while West Virginia was third with five players receiving votes.
* Kansas and Texas were the only teams to not have a player receive a vote in the expert poll.
* The top 10 players receiving votes were split evenly among the offense (five) and defense (five).
As we turn our calendars over to August, the college fantasy football season is kicking into high gear. Are you prepared?
Athlon Sports has teamed up with college fantasy veterans CollegeFootballGeek.com to help you dominate in 2015! Over the course of the preseason, CFG will be providing insight into their player rankings, as well as helping you identify sleepers and breakout candidates to bolster your lineups.
Whether you play daily or season-long college fantasy football, CollegeFootballGeek.com (@CFFGeek) prepares you to win with the best advice, tools and customer service in the industry — they've been doing it since 2008. Click here to learn how you can subscribe to CFG for FREE.
Below, you will find CFG writer and AthlonSports.com contributor Mike Bainbridge's top five sleepers for 2015. To see the full in-depth article of over 60 sleepers, make sure to check out CollegeFootballGeek.com.
Matt Johnson, QB, Bowling Green
Any thought that James Knapke could possibly challenge Johnson for the starting quarterback job went out the window as Johnson looked to be his old self this spring. While Knapke did perform well in his absence last season, Johnson is clearly the guy for the Falcons and should only help Bowling Green improve upon its 30 points per game from head coach Dino Babers’ first season at the helm. Johnson was listed as the No. 1 quarterback following spring practice and showed well in the team’s spring game with four touchdown passes. Watch for Johnson to be drafted as a No. 2 quarterback on most fantasy rosters, but outperform his draft status by putting up numbers that rival or top most No. 1 QBs.
Devonte Boyd, WR, UNLV
Any questions of a sophomore slump for Boyd were quickly erased with a 132-yard, three-touchdown performance in UNLV’s Spring Showcase. Boyd was outstanding as a freshman for the Rebels, leading the team in receptions (64), yards (964) and touchdowns (4), and those numbers are only expected to improve as he will no longer be overshadowed by the presence of the graduated Devante Davis. Senior quarterback Blake Decker also returns, giving Boyd a familiar face with an already-established connection from a season ago. The expectation here is that Boyd builds upon his successful opening season and becomes a household name in fantasy football, finishing in the top 10-15 wide receivers in 2015.
Jamal Robinson, WR, UL Lafayette
Robinson earned himself a fifth year of eligibility after missing the final nine games of 2014 due to a knee injury. In the three games he played, Robinson was big-time with 15 receptions for 260 yards and four touchdowns. The senior wideout also led ULL in receiving in 2013 with 54 catches and eight touchdowns. With the Ragin’ Cajuns breaking in a new starting quarterback this season, Robinson will be looked upon frequently to provide the deep threat that the group was sorely lacking with his absence. Make sure not to forget about this guy on draft day.
Ray Lawry, RB, Old Dominion
Gone is the face of the football program in quarterback Taylor Heinicke and his 14,000-plus career passing yards. His likely replacement is redshirt freshman Shuler Bentley, who has yet to throw a collegiate pass after spending last season holding a clipboard. That to me sounds like a situation where a promising young running back like Lawry should get a TON of carries. As a freshman, Lawry was outstanding with 947 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns on just 134 carries, including a 213-yard effort in the season finale. He has top-10 potential as a RB.
Deon Watson, TE, Idaho
Because of the depth developed over the spring at the wide receiver position, the Vandals are converting Watson to tight end. With his slight frame (only listed at 210 pounds), Watson won’t spend much time blocking as a result of the position change, and should still figure prominently into the passing game as he did a year ago with 37 receptions. Part of the reason for the switch is the return of Dezmon Epps, who was kicked off the team the year prior due to an off-the-field incident. With triggerman Matt Linehan also back in the fold, Idaho’s passing game is projected to take a major step forward this season.
— Written by Mike Bainbridge, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Bainbridge is a graduate of Northern Illinois University and current writer for CollegeFootballGeek.com. Make sure to follow him on Twitter @MikeBainbridge2.
These NFL joint practices are getting a bit out of hand.
During the Rams-Cowboys practice, there was some talking back and forth and it ultimately led to a huge fight. Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant seemed to get caught in the middle of it, taking a shot from Rams fullback Zach Laskey.
That was a pretty hard punch, so hard in fact, Bryant lost his diamond earring. He even tweeted, and later deleted, about the altercation afterward.
And if you're worrying about a millionaire's diamond earring (which is an odd thing to do), it was found and promptly returned by a member of the security team. Bryant mentioned he owed the guy one. Pretty sure it won't be a diamond earring though.
The last three seasons, there has been no question who the starting running back for the Miami Hurricanes would be. Duke Johnson rushed for a school-record 3,519 rushing yards and 26 touchdowns before departing for the NFL.
Instead of trying to replace Johnson with just one running back, the Hurricanes are expected to use a committee of ball carriers, including Joseph Yearby, Gus Edwards and Mark Walton.
Last season Yearby was the Canes’ second-leading rusher with 509 yards, a touchdown and an impressive 5.9 yards per carry average. Yearby is more of a shifty running back, but he has put on weight so he can take on more of the load.
“We gave him a goal weight of 195, and he just kept lifting and getting stronger and bigger," said head coach Al Golden “He’s moving really well at that weight.’’
Running backs coach Tim “Ice” Harris also has a lot of confidence in Yearby. Harris thinks Yearby can handle the load and grind of the season.
“He’s turning himself into an every-down back, Harris said. “From all the things that have been happening this summer to the two days of practice that we just went through, he really is putting himself in position to say that he can be an every-down back.”
Gus Edwards (6-2, 238) is more of the power back with deceptive speed. Yearby says he has a similar style to Edwards.
“We’re similar, said Yearby. "He’s a lot bigger, but we both got the same cuts, same speed, so there isn’t too much of a difference.”
Edwards rushed for 349 yards and finished second on the team with six touchdowns last season. He got a lot of first-team reps in the spring with Yearby suspended for a violation of team rules.
Despite losing Johnson, Edwards believes the Canes’ running backs have a lot of potential.
“I think we’re great as a unit. We have a lot of running backs. [Mark] Walton just showed what he brings to the team and he’s ready right now. We have great depth and just as much depth as we had last year.”
Walton is the highly prized freshman from Booker T. Washington High School in Miami. As a senior last season, Walton rushed for 1,472 yards and 22 touchdowns, while helping Booker T. Washington win a state championship.
Offensive coordinator James Coley believes Walton can be a contributor in the Canes’ offense this season.
“He reminds me a lot of Joe [Yearby], but he just didn’t have the broken ankle, and he’s a lot stronger than Joe was his freshman year,” said Coley. He’s about 198 [pounds] right now, so he’s not a small running back.”
If Miami can find solid starters on its offensive line, there is no reason the team can’t get close to the same production Johnson had last year. It will take more of a collective effort but Yearby, Edwards and the true freshman Walton certainly have enough talent to keep Miami’s rushing attack clicking on all cylinders.
— 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.
After a 7-0 start that included a 23-17 upset victory over Alabama, Ole Miss became a legitimate contender not only in the SEC West, but also for a national title. Even with a loss to LSU, the Rebels were ranked No. 4 in the very first College Football Playoff rankings. Unfortunately for Ole Miss fans, the Rebels stumbled down the stretch and finished 9-4, including an embarrassing 42-3 loss to TCU in the Peach Bowl.
However, Ole Miss returns a lot of talent from last season’s squad, which coupled with a crop of talented newcomers, makes the Rebels a threat again in 2015. But will Ole Miss get over the hump and win the SEC West?
Three Reasons Why Ole Miss Will Win the SEC West in 2015
1. High-End Talent
Head coach Hugh Freeze and his coaching staff have recruited extremely well since they came to Oxford. In fact, the Rebels have put together one of the most impressive collections of players in the nation — especially in terms of high-end, All-America-caliber, NFL Draft-level talent.
Four Ole Miss players are arguably the best players at their position in the SEC — possibly the entire nation: wide receiver Laquon Treadwell, tight end Evan Engram, left tackle Laremy Tunsil and defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche. Treadwell, Tunsil and Nkemdiche were all 5-star recruits in 2013 that have lived up to the hype in their first two seasons. Each is likely to be selected in the first round of the 2016 NFL Draft, and safety Tony Conner, who also is a potential All-America candidate, could be as well.
Simply put, there are very few teams in the nation that have that much elite talent spread across the field. Alabama and Ohio State are close, but that’s it.
2. The Nation’s Best Defense
Ole Miss led the nation in scoring defense last season, allowing just 16 points per game. The unit, led by All-American defensive backs Senquez Golson and Cody Prewitt, also ranked in the nation’s top 25 in passing defense (No. 16, 192.1 ypg) and total defense (No. 13, 329.0 ypg). Golson and Prewitt graduated, but seven starters return and the replacements in the secondary could possibly be even better in 2015.
Tony Bridges, a 6-foot-2, 190-pound junior, was the nation’s top-ranked junior college defensive back in the 2015 recruiting class. He’ll step into Golson’s shoes at cornerback. Tee Shepard, a 6-foot-1 junior that was nearly as highly recruited as Bridges out of the JUCO ranks in 2014, is healthy after missing all of last season due to a toe injury. He’ll start at the other corner, replacing last year’s starter Mike Hilton, who moves to safety after leading the Rebels with 71 tackles in 2014. Hilton, who had three interceptions and seven pass breakups last year, isn’t guaranteed a spot in the starting lineup and will compete with Chief Brown, who also missed 2014, at strong safety. And that’s just the secondary.
Despite the loss of leaders Serderius Bryant and Deterrian Shackelford, the linebacker corps is stacked again with Denzel Nkemdiche back in the mix and former defensive end C.J. Johnson moving to middle linebacker. Up front, Issac Gross anchors the middle along with Robert Nkemdiche. Talented ends Victor Evans and Fadol Brown will rush the passer from the outside. Reserve Marquis Haynes was the team’s most successful pass rusher last season, leading the way with 7.5 sacks.
It’s an impressive group that has the talent and depth to be just as good as last year’s top-ranked unit. Maybe even better.
3. The Most Experienced Offensive Line in the SEC
Talent always trumps experience in the SEC, but there’s one position where experience matters more than any other — the offensive line. Luckily for Ole Miss, the Rebels have the most experienced O-line in the SEC.
Overall, Ole Miss linemen have made 120 career starts, which is the third most among all 128 FBS programs. Among SEC rivals, Missouri ranks second with 97 career starts to date. All five primary starters — four seniors and All-America candidate/future first-rounder Tunsil — return from last year’s unit, and backups gained starting experience when Tunsil and Aaron Morris missed time due to injury. Jovon Patterson, a 5-star recruit in the most recent class, will make the Rebels even deeper up front this season.
Unfortunately sophomore Rod Taylor, one of the top reserves and a candidate to unseat one of those four returning senior starters, reportedly suffered a shoulder injury while boxing. Boxing? Luckily, the injury is expected to be less serious than originally reported, and Taylor is expected to miss just a few weeks.
Podcast: Complete 2015 SEC Preview
Three Reasons Why Ole Miss Won’t Win the SEC West in 2015
1. Quarterback Uncertainty
It’s no longer a secret that teams don’t need an experienced signal-caller to compete for conference championships and national titles. Jameis Winston won it all at Florida State as a redshirt freshman in 2013, and took home the Heisman Trophy in the process. Last year, first-year starter J.T. Barrett and third-stringer Cardale Jones helped Ohio State claim the first national championship in the College Football Playoff era. Plus, quarterbacks like TCU’s Trevone Boykin and USC’s Cody Kessler had a huge impact in their first season atop the depth chart.
But, most coaches would rather have a quarterback that’s battle-tested and is familiar with the system heading into the season. That’s not an option this year for Ole Miss because career total offense leader Bo Wallace has exhausted his eligibility.
Therefore, Freeze must turn the keys of the offense over to either former Clemson and JUCO QB Chad Kelly or returning sophomores Ryan Buchanan or DeVante Kincade. Buchanan had the edge in the competition coming out of spring practice, but few outside the Ole Miss program expect him to win the job this fall.
The best bet is Kelly, who led East Mississippi Community College to the NJCAA national championship in 2014 while racking up 3,906 passing yards and 446 rushing yards. That is, if he can stay out of trouble, which has been an issue in the past.
2. Rough Road in the SEC
Every SEC West team faces the same problem — they have to play the other six members of the division, plus two more tough opponents from the SEC East. Ole Miss has the benefit of Vanderbilt being its annual cross-division rival, but every other conference game could be either a win or a loss.
Ole Miss opens SEC play on the road against Alabama, and the Crimson Tide will be out to avenge last season’s upset in Oxford. After hosting the Commodores, Ole Miss must travel to The Swamp to play a talented, albeit rebuilding Florida team. It’s a game the Rebels should win, but winning is never easy in Gainesville.
After a couple of non-conference dates (including a short, tricky trip to Memphis), Ole Miss finishes the season with five straight SEC West showdowns – two of which are road games against league favorite Auburn and archrival Mississippi State.
It’s a similar slate of games to the stretch last season in which Ole Miss lost three SEC contests in a row, which knocked them out of the race in the SEC West.
3. Lack of a Consistent Running Game
The Rebels have a solid, experienced offensive line and a lot of questions at quarterback, which means they would like to be able to rely on the running game early and often in 2015 – especially since the team’s top two returning rushers are back.
However, Ole Miss struggled mightily running the football last season. The Rebels averaged just 155.5 yards on the ground in 2014, which ranked tenth in the SEC, and was inflated by the 402 yards the team rolled up on the ground against FCS opponent Presbyterian. In SEC play, Ole Miss gained just 139 rushing yards per contest, averaging 3.9 yards per carry.
Jaylen Walton led the squad with 586 yards on 106 carries (5.5 ypc) and five touchdowns. Jordan Wilkins followed with 361 yards and a TD on just 52 carries, which gave him an impressive 6.9 yards per carry average. Both Walton and Wilkins showed flashes of big-play ability – but can they pick up the slack needed to take pressure off of a new starting quarterback?
At 5-foot-8 and 166 pounds, Walton doesn’t fit the profile of a typical every-down back, so expect the 209-pound Wilkins to see his role increase as a sophomore. Junior Akeem Judd also should factor in after redshirting last season, and freshman Eric Swinney has exciting potential. A running back by committee may be in the works.
There is a lot for Ole Miss fans to be excited about heading into the 2015 season. Despite the sour taste left in their mouths by the Peach Bowl humiliation, the Rebels have momentum because they can still hang their hats on beating Alabama and Mississippi State — both of whom spent time as the nation’s No. 1 team. Plus, nine wins and a New Year’s Six bowl game are great achievements for Freeze in only his third year in Oxford.
But, in many ways, the season was still disappointing. After reaching the No. 3 spot in the AP Poll and No. 4 in the College Football Playoff rankings, Ole Miss fans were dreaming of a conference title and national championship in 2014. Despite key losses on both offense and defense, the 2015 Rebels have the talent and experience to avenge last year’s shortcomings. But will they?
If Chad Kelly (or Ryan Buchanan or DeVante Kincade) takes control of the offense with the help of a solid offensive line and one of the SEC’s deepest groups of playmaking receivers, Ole Miss will score lots of points. With one of the nation’s best defenses, points will be tough to come by for the opposition. However, the tough road trips and brutal SEC West schedule may be too much.
Not many teams can survive playing at Bryant-Denny, at The Swamp, at Jordan-Hare and in Starkville, where Hugh Freeze has yet to win and Ole Miss hasn’t beaten the Bulldogs since 2003. If Ole Miss splits those road games – even if the Rebels run the table at home – it won’t be enough to make it to the SEC Championship Game.
Alabama or Auburn probably won’t lose three league games, and Texas A&M, Arkansas and LSU are all better than they were last year (and don’t forget LSU and Arkansas beat the Rebels in 2014). As it looks right now, Ole Miss can afford only one conference loss to have any shot at making it to Atlanta – and that just isn’t likely to happen.
— Written by Nicholas Ian Allen, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Allen's work on college football can also be found on SaturdayBlitz.com and FanSided.com. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasIAllen.
Steph Curry is pretty much living the dream at this point. He's an NBA champion and he gets to play golf with the president.
The Warriors star went on "Jimmy Kimmel Live" to talk about the experience of playing golf with President Barack Obama. Fun fact: Obama is quite the trash talker.
Curry also discusses what it was like growing up around the NBA when his father Dell was in the league.
Of course, it wouldn't be a true Curry experience without Riley!
Predicting the ACC Coastal Division is a total crapshoot this season. While the teams, including Virginia Tech, may have different strengths and weaknesses, they all seem to have an equal amount of talent.
Ranking the difficulty of games on a Coastal Division team’s schedule is equally as challenging. For the Michael Brewer and the Hokies, their easiest game is an obvious choice and picking the two hardest contests is pretty simple. But arguments can be made for just about everything in between.
Here are my rankings of Virginia Tech’s games from easiest to most difficult.
12. Sept. 12 vs. Furman
Virginia Tech gets the Purple Paladins five days after facing off with Ohio State, which would normally be a concern. But Furman was a 3-9 FCS team last year so this should not be much of a challenge for the Hokies.
11. Sept. 19 at Purdue
The Hokies get the Boilermakers the week after Furman. Purdue has 15 starters back though it is hard to imagine last year’s 111th-ranked offense doing much of anything against the Virginia Tech defense.
10. Sept. 26 at East Carolina
Ruffin McNeill has built a solid program but the Pirates must replace quarterback Shane Carden and top receiver Justin Hardy. While this road game will not be a complete cakewalk it is one that Virginia Tech will handle.
9. Nov. 28 at Virginia
Last game of the year. Rivalry game. Virginia coach Mike London may be fighting for his life or already gone. Virginia Tech could have a lot riding on this game while the result may not matter to the Cavaliers. Give me the focused, motivated team, especially when it's more talented.
8. Oct. 17 at Miami
Miami has some questions along the offensive line and if there is a team built to exploit those issues, it is Virginia Tech.
7. Oct. 24 vs. Duke
The Blue Devils have beaten the Hokies in consecutive games, meaning motivation should not be a problem for Virginia Tech. Duke has 12 starters returning but this team also has lost some key components to its recent success.
6. Oct. 31 at Boston College
Boston College should struggle offensively, which would not appear to be a good recipe for success against Virginia Tech this season. But the Eagles have a strong defense, the game will be played in Chestnut Hill, and the Hokies have to avoid looking ahead to Georgia Tech.
5. Oct. 9 (Thursday) vs. NC State
Both teams only have six days to prepare for this match up, with the Hokies squaring off with Pittsburgh the weekend prior while the Wolfpack take on Louisville in their first real test of the season.
4. Oct. 3 vs. Pittsburgh
The Hokies' defense could be tested by the Panthers' offensive weapons. Plus, if new Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi can stiffen what was a decent defense, this game could be a battle for Virginia Tech. Pittsburgh will have an off week prior to going to Blacksburg.
3. Nov. 21 vs. North Carolina
North Carolina should be improved in 2015, but this ranking is based primarily on where the game falls on the schedule. Virginia Tech is at Georgia Tech the week before and a win or a loss in Atlanta could be a letdown after playing the Yellow Jackets.
2. Nov. 12 (Thursday) at Georgia Tech
While the trip to Atlanta may not be the most difficult game on the schedule, it is the most important. On that Thursday night in November, both teams should be contending for the ACC Coastal crown and the winner will get a huge leg up in that race.
1. Sept. 7 (Monday) vs. Ohio State
The virtually unanimous No. 1 preseason pick and defending national champion will come to Virginia Tech to open the season with the Buckeyes looking to avenge their only loss of 2014. Suspensions or no suspensions, beating Ohio State will be a chore.
— 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.
Steve Smith is always watching.
It all started with a simple tweet praising Smith for being great, as fans are known to do from time to time.
A Browns fan, and SB Nation blogger, couldn't see that scroll down their timeline without saying something.
The same guy who broke a team mates nose and challenged other players to fist fights? He's a punk. https://t.co/YveXosmph8— Dawgs By Nature (@DawgsByNature) August 18, 2015
Smith is never one to back down to someone on Twitter. The Ravens receiver fired back at him, stating when he would be in the neighborhood.
What were you expecting? A time & place to fight? I'm an adult. My dad can beat up your Dad too. https://t.co/3yPp9XFsbI— Dawgs By Nature (@DawgsByNature) August 18, 2015
All I said is that he isn't a bad ass, he is a punk who beats up team mates. Think he showed that I was correct. https://t.co/UvXK12Dcc0— Dawgs By Nature (@DawgsByNature) August 18, 2015
A good effort, but Smith (and his children) got the last laugh.
Smith may be on the brink of retirement but he's still one of the best on Twitter.
Is there anything J.J. Watt can't do? The answer is no.
The Texans star throws a perfect spiral during a game of catch with a fan. The difference here is that this fan was in the upper deck. Watt is spot-on even though he's throwing the ball almost directly in the air.
Eyes of the collective Chicago media were surely rolling inside The Cubby Bear, Wrigleyville’s most popular bar, when new Cubs manager Joe Maddon proclaimed, “In my mind’s eye I’m going to be talking playoffs this year,” at his introductory press conference.
Maddon then later hailed for the nearest bartender and offered to buy the first round of drinks for all the media present, “A shot and a beer…That’s the Hazleton Way.”
That press conference was last November. Fast forward to today, where the Cubs at 67-49, have the fourth-best record in baseball, third best in the National League, and an 86 percent chance of making the postseason.
Eyes have stopped rolling.
The Cubs are good — the Cubs are really, really good.
Before July 27, the Cubs were sitting at a respectable record of 51-46, a record that every Cubs fan was praying for…in 2016 or even ‘17. But the post All-Star break Cubs were coming back down to earth it seemed, back to what an everyday lineup featuring four rookies should have been, back to realistic expectations.
It was a perfect opportunity to gain ground on the rest of the NL, but the Cubs went 5-8 after the break, all against teams with below .500 records — a stretch that was capped off by getting swept and no-hit at Wrigley Field by the abysmal Phillies.
It was on Monday, July 27, that many are pointing to as the turning point in the Cubs’ 2015 season. That night rookie third baseman Kris Bryant rocked a two-out, second-pitch slider from then-Rockies closer John Axford to deep left-center field into the renovated Wrigley bleachers for a walk-off, two-run home run.
Since Bryant’s game winner, the Cubs have won 16 of their last 19 games, a stretch that included a 10-game winning streak that was only stopped by an outrageous 15-strikeout performance by White Sox ace Chris Sale on Sunday.
Less than a month ago this team seemed to be heading toward another “next year” mantra. Now, the Cubs are sitting with one of the best records in the majors (67-49), four games up on the Giants for the second NL wild card spot, and nipping at the Pirates’ heels for the top wild card slot.
This begs the question — How did the Cubs become good? I mean, really, this good?
In what seemed to be the perfect offseason storm, Cubs’ president Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer made the two biggest moves of their North Side tenure by signing rotation ace and anchor Jon Lester and scooping up baseball mad scientist Maddon to be their team’s manager — making the obvious and purely business decision to fire then-skipper Rick Renteria.
What followed was a series of less celebrated, yet equally significant offseason moves: acquiring pitchers Jason Hammel (again) and Jason Motte, catchers Miguel Montero and David Ross, and centerfielder Dexter Fowler.
These kind of moves the Cubs have been making the past several seasons — calculated, not flashy. Calculated, like bringing in pitchers Jake Arrieta, Hector Rondon, Pedro Strop and outfielder Chris Coghlan.
Lester, Arrieta, and Hammel have all had strong seasons, turning the Cubs’ rotation into one of the NL’s best. The Cubs starters rank first in the NL in strikeouts-per-nine innings (8.57 K/9), second in FIP (3.34) and WHIP (1.15).
Lester, the $155 million man, was shaky at the start, but over the month and a half he has been worth every penny. Since July 1, Lester has started eight games and posted a 1.92 ERA, giving up just 12 earned runs over 56 innings pitched, striking out 63 batters and only walking nine.
Arrieta (2.39 ERA, 2.67 FIP, 0.99 WHIP, 4.2 WAR) has turned himself into a bona-fide ace, giving the Cubs the best one-two pitching punch this side of Zack Greinke and Clayton Kershaw — and forcing Maddon to dodge questions about who he would start between Lester and Arrieta in a one-game, Wild Card playoff. A conundrum Cubs’ managers historically aren't used to.
Hammel (3.10 ERA, 3.41 FIP) couldn’t have picked a better time to have a career year. The six-foot-six righty re-signed with Chicago after being dealt with Jeff Samardzija to Oakland last season in the Addison Russell deal. Hammel’s resurgence has been a welcome surprise for the Cubs, as his current 1.042 WHIP is better than that of Michael Wacha, Gerrit Cole, Cole Hamels or even his teammate Lester.
The starters aren’t the only group of Cubs arms that have been revived. The additions of Tommy Hunter, Motte, and revivals of Rondon, Strop, and Justin Grimm give Maddon plenty of weapons to use out of the bullpen in late-game situations. The Cubs’ bullpen ranks in the top four in the NL in ERA (3.24), FIP (3.28), and holds (73), all while not having a traditional go-to closer. Rondon (1.65 ERA, 0.988 WHIP, 21 saves) has been the man of late, but Maddon isn’t afraid to move his guys into different roles, as four different relievers have multiple saves.
No pitching staff is complete without the entire battery, a need the Cubs finally addressed this winter. In acquiring Lester, the Cubs also added his favorite target in veteran catcher Ross and also the free-swinging Montero. Together, the catching duo has provided the needed on-field tools and clubhouse leadership the Cubs’ inexperience and youth require.
Another area the Cubs’ brass addressed was the need for an improved outfield. In comes Fowler, a plus-defensive centerfielder known for stealing bases and scoring runs, which he has done better than any other Cub in 2015, leading the team in both categories with 17 and 76, respectively.
The Cubs’ conglomerate of veterans and Joe Maddon’s unique managing approach has made the transition for the club’s four rookies in the starting lineup a smooth one.
Top prospect Kris Bryant was making Cubs fans giddy early in the season as he and first baseman Anthony Rizzo were named to the NL All-Star team and participated in Home Run Derby. Bryant finished the first half with 12 home runs, 52 RBIs and an OPS of .858. Since the break, Bryant’s average has dipped to .254 and he’s currently leading the NL in strikeouts, however; Bryant is still showing plate discipline, boasting a .361 on-base percentage and OPS just north of .800.
Rizzo, on the other hand, has been a force all season long, hitting .296/.407/.543 with 23 home runs, 30 doubles, 15 stolen bases, and a .950 OPS. Over the past 19 games, Rizzo has hit .369/.462/.769, with an insane 1.231 OPS, with seven home runs and 17 RBIs.
Where Bryant left off is where rookie catcher/outfielder Kyle Schwarber has picked up and taken off along with Rizzo. Since his second call up from Triple-A Iowa on July 17, Schwarber has hit .300/.402/.578 with an impressive .980 OPS, seven home runs, 22 runs, and 21 RBIs in 28 games.
Fellow rookies Russell and Jorge Soler haven’t received the publicity that Bryant and Schwarber have but both have been instrumental in the Cubs’ success. Russell, only 21, has proven that he has the athleticism and raw talent to be a plus defender at short stop, recently winning over the full-time job from the incumbent and two-time All-Star, Starlin Castro.
Castro was thought to be part of the Cubs’ young core, but has sharply declined since last season’s All-Star campaign and has been temporarily moved to a much less prominent role off the bench and spot starting at second base.
Soler has essentially been learning to play right field as he goes, but has been one of the more reliable bats for Maddon’s daily lineup — especially during the Cubs’ recent surge. Soler is hitting .323/.391/.403, with a .795 OPS, 20 hits and 14 RBIs since July 27.
The unique mix of savvy veterans, second-chance pitchers, rookies playing beyond their age, and Maddon’s savvy has given these Cubs a legitimate chance at making noise this fall. And for the first time since 2008, Cubs fans have a legitimate reason to pack Wrigley Field to the brim.
It’s okay to admit that it feels that baseball is just a little bit more fun when the Cubs are good and Wrigleyville is buzzing, or as Joe Maddon might say, “It’s really groovy, man.”
— Written by Jake Rose, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. An avid baseball fan, Rose also takes time to do some play-by-play work for the radio broadcasts of Middle Tennessee State Blue Raider baseball games. Follow him on Twitter @JakeRose24.
The SEC is in a state of crisis. Well, maybe not really.
The league was considered strong enough to produce the No. 1 seeded team in the College Football Playoff and as many as three teams in the top four in early polls.
But the conference is also two seasons removed from a national championship (even though Auburn and Alabama both ahad a shot at a title in each of the last two seasons). Bowl season put a damper on banner seasons for Ole Miss and Mississippi State. At the same time, perhaps no league is closer to producing multiple playoff teams. Will that happen in 2015 or will the league find itself out of the playoff altogether?
On this edition of the Athlon Sports Cover 2 Podcast:
• We tackle the big question on if the SEC can produce two playoff teams or could the league beat itself up and out of the top four.
• We break down the SEC East into tiers. Which of the Kentucky, Florida and South Carolina group has the best reason to be optimistic?
• We discuss how our opinions changed over the summer regarding the top tier of the SEC East. We like Tennessee and Missouri better than we did in the spring, but do the Volunteers and Tigers have what it takes to overtake Georgia at the top?
• We breakdown the brutal SEC West, where the best quarterback in the league might be destined for a last place finish in his division.
• After conceding Alabama and Auburn as the top two in the conference, how does the rest of the West division break down. We have strong cases for Ole Miss, LSU and Texas A&M as the No. 3 teams in the conference.
• And finally, the Iron Bowl again looms over the division. Both Alabama and Auburn have major shoes to fill and unproven, if talented, quarterbacks.
Oregon draws USC and Arizona State in cross-divisional play, both of which appear on the back half of the Ducks' 2015 schedule. The Trojans and Sun Devils were picked No. 1 and 2 by the Pac-12 media preseason poll, respectively.
The Ducks' 2015 slate also includes treacherous road trips to Stanford and the Week 2 date with Michigan State. Oregon's trip to East Lansing, Mich., is a rare non-conference tilt with potential College Football Playoff implications at stake.
The lower half of Oregon's schedule does not look too difficult, on paper, but business picks up considerably in the Ducks' marquee games.
12. Sept. 19 vs. Georgia State
Fledgling program Georgia State is still seeking its elusive, first win over a Football Bowl Subdivision opponent since moving up in 2013. When that will come is unclear, but a resounding certainty: It won’t come against Oregon.
11. Sept. 5 vs. Eastern Washington
You are probably well aware that possible Week 1 starting quarterback Vernon Adams lit up Eastern Washington’s Inferno for the past three seasons. You may have also read Adams scored a whole lot of touchdowns against Pac-12 opponents Oregon State and Washington while donning the Eagles' red, white and black.
In order for Adams to do so, he needed a pretty good team around him. Eastern Washington is no pushover under head coach Beau Baldwin, having routinely played in the FCS Playoffs. The Eagles won the last national title that didn't go to North Dakota State. While its limitations make this a difficult matchup, Oregon can't expect Eastern Washington to lay down in Week 1.
10. Nov. 27 vs. Oregon State
Oregon’s Civil War rival Oregon State will have played an entire regular season, and thus not be the inexperienced roster upon which it enters the season. Nevertheless, there’ll likely be a considerable gap between the Ducks and Beavers at the conclusion of Oregon State head coach Gary Andersen’s first year at the helm.
9. Oct. 10 vs. Washington State
Washington State has played Oregon tough in Mike Leach’s tenure on the Palouse. The Ducks escaped Pullman last season with a one-score victory, and in the Cougars’ last visit to Autzen Stadium, they forced three turnovers to keep a would-be laugher competitive through the first half.
Washington State is in something of a state of flux heading into 2015. Leach parted ways with both his special teams and defensive coordinators, and his version of the "Air Raid" offense has not quite flourished with the Cougars as it did with Texas Tech. Forcing a competitive game in Autzen Stadium should prove challenging for this bunch.
8. Oct. 3 at Colorado
Since Colorado moved into the Pac-12 in 2011, last year’s 44-10 Oregon win was the Ducks’ most narrow margin of victory in four meetings. Buffs head coach Mike MacIntyre has his best team in three years on the job, and Colorado will play spoiler to someone in 2015. But Oregon is simply a bad matchup for this squad.
7. Oct. 17 at Washington
Decidedly one-sided of late, Washington hasn’t taken a decision in this rivalry since 2003. And, whether the winner was Oregon or Washington, the margin of victory was last within 17 points in 2000.
Second-year Huskies head coach Chris Petersen had Oregon’s number for a time in his stint at Boise State. That’s no longer the case. A Washington team shrouded in uncertainty will be hard-pressed to end the streak.
6. Nov. 7 vs. Cal
Quarterback Jared Goff leads an intriguing dark-horse competitor in the Pac-12 North race. The Golden Bears can score points in bunches, operating out of head coach Sonny Dykes' "Bear-Raid" offense. When the two teams met last year in Levi's Stadium, Cal's potent offense kept the Golden Bears in the game until late in the fourth quarter.
Continued defensive strides under second-year coordinator Art Kaufman are a must, because Oregon has deluged Cal for 43, 55 and 59 (twice) points in the teams' last four meetings.
5. Sept. 26 vs. Utah
Utah's M.O. against Oregon the last two meetings has been similar. The Utes play the Ducks tough for a half, but seemingly run out of gas in the second half. Both those encounters came in the final month of the regular season, so whether drawing Oregon earlier into the slate this time around helps or hurts Utah to that end could be a major factor.
Utah's hard-nosed defensive style does resemble schemes that has given Oregon fits in the past. The Utes lose Nate Orchard at defensive end, but should still have one of the better lineups on that side of the ball in the Pac-12.
4. Nov. 21 vs. USC
There may not be a more highly anticipated date on the Pac-12 ledger than this one, USC and Oregon's first encounter since 2012. The Ducks ran roughshod over the Trojans then, exacting revenge for the 2011 meeting. That was USC's last visit to Autzen Stadium, and the Trojans escaped to L.A. with an upset in tow.
These are obviously two entirely different teams, with two different head coaches. The stakes should be high, however, as the Pac-12 standard bearers for each of the last two decades square off in a late-season showdown that could be a preview of the Pac-12 Championship Game just two weeks later.
3. Nov. 14 at Stanford
Oregon successfully exorcised its demon last November in a blowout of burgeoning rival Stanford. As gratifying as that win may have been, however, the Cardinal being relatively down had to put something of a damper on the Ducks' first win in the series since 2011.
That should be of no concern in 2015. Stanford is poised for a bounce back, and should be in contention for the Pac-12 North when the Ducks come to The Farm for this one.
2. Oct. 29 (Thursday) at Arizona State
Mid-week contests have posed problems to Oregon recently, with two of the Ducks’ last three, regular season losses coming on Thursday nights. Not that Arizona State's typically rowdy student section needs that as added motivation to get Sun Devil Stadium rocking, however. The party on Mill Avenue will spill into the stands to make for a noisy and intimidating atmosphere.
Arizona State head coach Todd Graham has not shied from talking national championship, and this is one the Sun Devils need to make their case as viable contenders for that crown Oregon came oh-so-close to a season ago.
1. Sept. 12 at Michigan State
The Ducks repay Michigan State’s visit to Eugene last September in a showdown of College Football Playoff hopefuls. This looks to be the most intriguing non-conference matchup of the entire college football slate, with the Spartans’ typically tenacious defense juxtaposed against Oregon's quick-strike offense.
Michigan State dominated the first half of last year's encounter, but the Ducks went to work in the second, burying the Spartans in the quicksand so many Pac-12 opponents experienced previously.
The Pac-12 is generally known for its high-scoring offenses. While there’s plenty of firepower on the offensive side of the ball in 2015, the Pac-12 returns two of the nation’s top defenders in UCLA’s Myles Jack and Arizona’s Scooby Wright. This linebacker duo earned the top two spots in Athlon’s Pac-12 media expert poll, but the offense playmakers and top quarterbacks weren't far behind.
With the season right around the corner, Athlon Sports sought to answer this question: Who are the best 15 players in the Pac-12 for 2015?
In order to rank the top 15 players in the Pac-12 for 2015, Athlon Sports sought the insight of several experts from the conference. The voting process was simple. Using criteria such as career performance so far, 2015 potential/projection, pro outlook, recruiting ranking, value to team or overall talent, each voter was asked to rank their top 15 players for 2015.
A point system was assigned, giving 15 points for a player with a No. 1 vote, 14 points for a No. 2 vote, 13 points for a No. 3 vote and so on.
Ranking the Pac-12's Best Players for 2015 (Experts Poll)
|1||Scooby Wright, LB, Arizona|
(16 first-place votes)
Myles Jack, LB, UCLA
|3||Cody Kessler, QB, USC|
(2 first-place votes)
|4||Jared Goff, QB, California||181|
|5T||Devontae Booker, RB, Utah||175|
|5T||Su'a Cravens, LB, USC||175|
|7||DeForest Buckner, DL, Oregon||160|
|8||Royce Freeman, RB, Oregon||154|
|9||Adoree' Jackson, CB/WR, USC||151|
|10||Paul Perkins, RB, UCLA||82|
|11||Max Tuerk, C, USC||81|
|12||D.J. Foster, WR, Arizona State||61|
|13||Nelson Spruce, WR, Colorado||48|
|14||Kyle Murphy, OL, Stanford||44|
|15||Kenny Clark, DL, UCLA||43|
|16||JuJu Smith, WR, USC||27|
|17||Nick Wilson, RB, Arizona||24|
|18||Budda Baker, S, Washington||21|
|19||Christian McCaffrey, RB, Stanford||20|
|20||Vernon Adams, QB, Oregon||19|
|21||Byron Marshall, WR, Oregon||16|
|22||Hunter Dimick, DE, Utah||9|
|23||Cayleb Jones, WR, Arizona||8|
|24||Bralon Addison, WR, Oregon||7|
|25T||Mike Bercovici, QB, Arizona State||6|
|25T||Kevin Hogan, QB, Stanford||6|
|27T||Victor Bolden, WR, Oregon State||5|
|27T||Pharoh Brown, TE, Oregon||5|
|27T||Eddie Vanderdoes, DL, UCLA||5|
|30T||Demario Richard, RB, Arizona State||4|
|30T||Kenny Lawler, WR, California||4|
|32T||Gionni Paul, LB, Utah||3|
|32T||Tom Hackett, P, Utah||3|
|32T||Jake Brendel, C, UCLA||3|
|35||Joshua Garnett, OL, Stanford||2|
|36T||Sefo Liufau, QB, Colorado||1|
|36T||Josh Rosen, QB, UCLA||1|
|36T||Tyler Johnstone, OT, Oregon||1|
|36T||Deon Hollins, LB, UCLA||1|
* UCLA and Oregon tied at seven with the most selections by team.
* Balance of power? 23 of the 39 players receiving votes play in the South Division. Additionally, seven of the top 10 selections play for teams in the Pac-12 South.
* 11 of the Pac-12’s 12 teams were represented in this poll.
* Seven quarterbacks received votes, including UCLA freshman Josh Rosen.
Is there anything better than winning your fantasy football league? Whether or not you get to rub your victory in your friend’s faces or just let it rain greenbacks, winning in fantasy football is supremely satisfying.
But winning is easier said than done.
Of course, if you could guarantee that you’d have Le’Veon Bell, Jamal Charles, Megatron, A.J. Green and let’s say Jimmy Graham on your team then winning would be easy.
But assembling a team like that is never going to happen… unless you play in a four-team league.
Yes, you need studs to win at fantasy football, but they aren’t invincible. They can get injured, have poor matchups and even go into slumps.
The people who win fantasy football champions are the ones who best identify those players who are severely underrated and grab them at such an amazing value that everyone thinks they are some kind of fantasy savant.
Identifying players that no one else thinks is going to break out is fun, challenging and super frustrating.
So here are some players for the 2015 season that are extremely underrated that just may help carry your team to fantasy football glory.
1. Ryan Tannehill, QB, Miami Dolphins
Believe it or not Tannehill finished last year as a top-10 fantasy quarterback. Not bad for someone who went undrafted in most leagues. Now he enters his second year under offensive coordinator Bill Lazor’s system and while the Dolphins let Mike Wallace walk (boo hoo), they added some serious weapons in Kenny Stills, Jordan Cameron, Greg Jennings and explosive rookie DeVante Parker to go along with their current stud wideout Jarvis Landry and finally No. 1 RB Lamar Miller.
Tannehill is also a decent runner for a quarterback; last year he finished fifth in QB rushing yards, which are just bonus points when it comes to QBs in fantasy football.
The reason Tannehill is tops on this list is not only because of his ability, his weapons or his gaining experience, it’s because he also won’t cost nearly as much on draft day. Tannehill will put up top-5 QB numbers this year and he will be drafted anywhere from being the eighth off of the board at the position to No. 15.
In some drafts, guys like Andy Dalton and Colin Kaepernick are being drafted before him, that’s just crazy. If you wait on a QB and fill up your other roster spots and can grab Tannehill in, let’s say, the ninth round, you’re making the playoffs – guaranteed.
My guess: 4,372 passing yards, 28 TDs
2. Brandin Cooks, WR, New Orleans
Cooks was having himself a decent rookie season until Week 10 when he broke his thumb, ending his 2014 campaign. He was getting better and better each week and you could tell that he was quickly becoming one of Drew Brees’ favorite targets.
Now Cooks enters his second year fully healthy and as the Saints’ most explosive playmaker. Gone are Jimmy Graham and Kenny Stills, and while Marques Colston is still around, his value and production have gone down each of the past three years.
This is the year that New Olreans switches to a more balanced and more run-focused offensive approach with Mark Ingram showing that he can carry the load, along with the addition of C.J. Spiller. But while Drew Brees might be on the decline (see my top 8 overrated players), he still is going to throw for over 4,000 yards and get 30 TD passes. Someone has to catch those balls, and Cooks will be the man.
The other thing to note here is that because Cooks missed the last six games of last year, he probably won’t be on many people’s radars this year. This is where you can swoop in and reap the benefits as he puts up solid WR1 numbers.
My guess: 79 catches, 1,117 yards, 9 TDs
3. C.J. Spiller, RB, New Orleans
Remember 2006 when the Saints had a dynamic running back duo in Deuce McAllister and Reggie Bush? That’s the last time that head coach Sean Payton has had a thunder-and-lightning RB tandem. That year both McAllister and Bush finished in the top 15 in fantasy scoring among RBs. Not bad.
Now past production is not a good way to predict future success, especially when it come to fantasy football, but if you look at the Saints, what do you see?
An aging quarterback in Drew Brees, who has lost some of his magic, a team that traded away it best offensive weapon in Jimmy Graham for a stud center in Max Unger and whose No. 1 wide receiver is a second-year guy coming off a broken thumb (but also a player I view underrated).
The trade for new center Max Unger should really stand out. This year the Saints will transition to more of a balanced run team utilizing Mark Ingram between the tackles and Spiller in the open field and on screen plays.
If you are in a PPR league get your hands on Spiller as quickly as you can. He will be an excellent RB2 and will fight to be a RB1. Not bad for a guy going in the fourth round of most drafts.
My guess: 160 carries, 768 rushing yards, 3 TDs, 71 receptions, 623 receiving yards, 4 TDs
4. Jeremy Hill, RB, Cincinnati
How can a guy who was a top-3 fantasy running back in the second half of last year be considered a breakout candidate this year? Well, if you do some research you’ll notice that Hill is usually being drafted in the mid-to-late second round and is currently ranked on average as the 11th RB. The eleventh-best running back? You should take that ranking all the way to the bank when Hill finishes as a top-6 fantasy RB this year.
After Giovani Bernard suffered a hip injury in Week 8, Hill managed to gain over 140 yards rushing four times in nine games and scored nine TDs. No one can trust Andy Dalton to carry a team to any kind of success, and even with stud WR A.J. Green and his counterpart Marvin Jones coming back from injury, the only way the Bengals make the playoffs and lose in the first round again, is on Hill’s legs.
Now it’s true that Bernard is healthy and ready to go to start the season, but Hill is the man in the Bengals’ backfield. Unfortunately Bernard is too talented to keep off the field, so Hill won’t be the third down back or get many chances to catch balls in the open field.
What Hill will do is get you almost 100 yards rushing every game and score a ton of TDs. That’s what you want from every running back, especially one that you might draft as your RB2.
My guess: 280 carries, 1,316 rushing yards, 13 TDs, 26 catches, 247 yards, 1 TD
5. Eli Manning, QB, NY Giants
Most people don’t want anything to do with the other Manning unless their starting QB is on a bye week. It makes perfect sense. Two years ago he was terrible – throwing 18 TD passes and a whopping 27 picks. It also didn’t help that Manning and the entire Giants offense really struggled out of the gate last year as they adapted to new offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo’s new system.
Then came along is guy named Odell Beckham Jr. and what happened? Manning took off – he finished the year with over 4,000 passing yards, 30 TD passes and only 14 picks.
Now Manning is in his second year of McAdoo’s system (and by the way McAdoo’s the guy who ran the Green Bay offense until last year and it’s safe to say that Green Bay had an okay offense) so he’ll be more comfortable and his numbers will rise.
Manning also should get a full year out of Beckham Jr. (provided his most recent hamstring issue is nothing serious), will welcome Victor Cruz back from injury, has an ever-improving Reuben Randle as his No. 3 WR, an emerging tight end in Larry Donnell and a fairly deep stable of running backs.
If the Giants are going to be any kind of serious contender this year they will do it on the arm of Manning, aided by the one-hand catches of Beckham Jr.
Manning is ranked outside of the top 12 QBs, which means he’s being drafted in the late rounds as a QB2. If you take the strategy to wait on a QB and stockpile fantasy gold at other positions and end up with Manning as your starting QB, you might not love it at first, but you will.
My guess: 4,885 yards passing, 32 TD passes
6. Latavius Murray, RB, Oakland
If you can get a top-15 running back in the fifth round you can go to sleep with a big smile on your face.
Murray is the man in Oakland after he finally grabbed the starting job in December and flashed the crazy raw skills that have tempted many fantasy owners over the previous two years. Think of Murray like this – he’s got Eddie George size (6-3, 225) and Jamal Charles-like speed (he ran a 4.38 40 at his pro day).
Add all of that together with the fact that Murray has zero competition for the starting job (no, Roy Helu doesn’t count) and that second-year QB David Carr will improve on a decent rookie season. Especially with the addition of coveted rookie wide receiver Amari Cooper.
The Raiders’ offense is going to be better than a lot of people think and Murray is going to be a big reason why. He won’t catch many balls out of the backfield, but he will get his carries and score TDs. That’s a recipe for success, especially coming from a guy who is being drafted as the No. 23 option among RBs.
My guess: 1,113 rushing yards, 8 TDs, 21 catches, 186 yards, 1 TD
7. Justin Forsett, RB, Baltimore
When you think of the Baltimore Ravens you don’t usually think of fantasy football stars. But that needs to change this year because in the offseason the Ravens hired ex-Bears coach Marc Trestman as their new offensive coordinator.
With Trestman on board the sky's the limit for Forsett. He will be used exactly the same way that Matt Forté was used in Chicago. Forté was always a first-round pick in fantasy drafts. Forsett is currently ranked on average as the 16th-best fantasy running back and is being drafted in the fourh and fifth rounds.
Last year Forsett came out of nowhere (at the start of the season he was fourth on the Ravens’ depth chart) and he finished the year as fantasy’s No. 8 RB. While it’s true that this year Forsett turns the much dreaded running back age of 30, he has never been a feature back before so he has plenty of gas left in the tank.
Forsett also will be a PPR monster. Last year in Trestman’s offense Forte caught a single-season RB-record 102 passes. That’s insane value from a RB in a PPR league. Forsett might not catch 100 balls, but he’s going to get a lot of opportunities and you should target him early in a PPR league.
My guess: 1,236 rushing yards, 6 TDs, 78 catches, 685 yards, 4 TDs
5 other players that are severely underrated…
Joe Flacco, QB, Baltimore – because he has Marc Trestman as his offensive coordinator
Mark Ingram, RB, New Orleans – because the Saints are going to run the ball more than ever
Carlos Hyde, RB, San Francisco – because last year Frank Gore ran for over 1,100 yards at the age of 31
Keenan Allen, WR, San Diego – because he’s healthy this year and his value has dropped
Jonathan Stewart, RB, Carolina – because IF he can stay healthy, he can be a top-10 fantasy RB
— Written by Michael Horvath, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Horvath is a Canadian who also happens to be a fantasy football (not to be confused with CFL) and fitness nut. Follow him on Twitter @realmikehorvath.