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The Broncos, coming off a 12-win season and their fourth consecutive AFC West title, may well win another 12 games and another AFC West title. But then, in the Mile High City, where the local NFL team’s standards rest considerably higher than the city limits, it isn’t about the regular season. And it isn’t about the playoffs, either. It’s about winning a Super Bowl, period, end of conversation. Question is, are the Broncos any closer to doing it this season than they were in their three previous seasons with Peyton Manning under center? By all accounts, they’re not as talented as years past, with a handful of impact players having left via free agency. But general manager John Elway, having cleaned house after last year’s one-and-done fiasco in January, is hopeful that the new coaching staff, headlined by head coach Gary Kubiak and defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, can give the 39-year-old Manning one last chance at feeling the confetti.
The media has had a field day speculating how Manning will fare in Kubiak’s zone-blocking, run-oriented offense. While only time will tell how good a fit the two will be for each other, this much is safe to say: Manning will go into this season considerably healthier than he ended the last one. He was altogether ordinary in the latter stages of the 2014 season, throwing 17 touchdown passes and 12 interceptions in the final nine regular-season games, leading to speculation that Father Time was fast approaching in his rear-view mirror. Four words: Don’t count on it. Manning’s problems were more a function of a tear in his right quadriceps and a decimated offensive line that gave him little time to throw. Manning, in fact, agreed to return for a fourth season only after receiving assurances that the issues on the offensive line would be addressed.
Unfortunately, one of the issues the Broncos will have to deal with yet again is the absence of All-Pro left tackle Ryan Clady, who tore his ACL during OTAs in May. Clady missed nearly all of the 2013 season because of a Lisfranc injury. Clady’s loss will put even more pressure on second-round pick Ty Sambrailo and veteran free agent pick-up Ryan Harris, as Chris Clark figures to serve as Clady’s replacement at left tackle once again. Harris is no stranger to the Broncos, having made 34 starts in 46 games for them from 2007-10, and also played for Kubiak in Houston in 2012-13. Last season, Harris served as the Chiefs’ starting right tackle.
But even assuming that the offensive line will be improved, Manning doesn’t figure to put up the same type of passing numbers that long ago assured him a bronze bust in Canton. Kubiak has a long history of producing huge numbers in the running game, with relatively unheralded talents such as Terrell Davis, Mike Anderson and Arian Foster becoming fantasy league studs in his offense. Now it’s C.J. Anderson’s turn to see how productive he can be behind Kubiak’s zone-blocking schemes. Anderson, undrafted out of Cal in 2013, began last season as a blip on the depth chart and finished it in the Pro Bowl. After logging 17 carries in the Broncos’ first seven games, he rolled for 648 yards in the final six.
Not that Manning won’t remain the focal point of the offense. He threw 39 touchdown passes in 2014 and could approach that number again. He’ll have to do it without tight end Julius Thomas, who wasn’t presented with a serious contract offer after catching 12 touchdown passes in 2014. Thomas signed with Jacksonville, leaving newcomer Owen Daniels as the main pass-catching threat at tight end. Then there’s wide receiver Demaryius Thomas, a mercurial talent who refused to attend the team’s offseason workouts or Manning’s annual passing camp at Duke University after being slapped with the franchise tag. If you’re looking for an X-factor, there you have it. If the two sides can’t agree on a long-term contract, Thomas’ attitude issues could be a divisive factor in what could be Manning’s final NFL season. No such issues are in play with wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders, who clicked with Manning from the earliest moments of 2014. Sanders caught 101 balls, 10 fewer than Thomas.
If Kubiak and his staff can revamp the offensive line, and if Thomas buys in, there’s no reason to believe the Broncos won’t have one of the league’s most lethal offenses.
Phillips, by his own admission, was “a lousy head coach’’ in his previous life. But if there were a Hall of Fame for assistant coaches, the 68-year-old Phillips would be a lock. The man has a way of making rock stars out of pass rushers, having worked with the likes of Reggie White, DeMarcus Ware, Rickey Jackson and J.J. Watt. The Broncos’ pass rush was sporadic last season, but with Phillips and No. 1 draft choice Shane Ray in the equation, that figures to change. Ware racked up 60.5 sacks in four seasons while playing in Phillips’ 3-4 scheme in Dallas. He should be good for double digits again coming off the corner opposite Von Miller, who needs a big season to solidify his case for a possible $100-million contract.
Ray will be in the mix mostly as a nickel pass rusher, but his role could expand as the season wears on. The defensive line has its share of question marks, particular on the nose, where 2013 first-rounder Sylvester Williams, a prototypical 4-3 tackle, has been challenged by the coaches to step up — or else. The Broncos’ blueprint calls for Bill Kollar, one of most respected defensive line coaches in the business, to solidify things up front.
All in all, Phillips and his staff have a lot of nice pieces with which to work, including a handful of Pro Bowlers. “This is probably the best situation defensively that I’ve come into,’’ says Phillips. The starting corners, Aqib Talib and Chris Harris, form one of the top tandems in the business, and Bradley Roby, the 2014 first-rounder, had an exceptional rookie season. While having three quality corners is a basic necessity for a Super Bowl contender in today’s NFL, it’s conceivable that Roby could shift to free safety after the free-agent departure of Rahim Moore. Add hard-hitting safety T.J. Ward to the mix, and the Broncos’ secondary should be among the best in the business. If the pass rush improves as Phillips’ history suggests it will, the Broncos could improve significantly over last season’s 25 forced turnovers, which tied for 13th in the league.
The Broncos are one of the few NFL teams that can afford to burn two roster spots on kickers. Veteran Connor Barth, who made 15-of-16 field-goal attempts in 2014, doesn’t have the leg to consistently produce touchbacks in the altitude, so Brandon McManus figures to handle kickoffs. Punter Britton Colquitt is coming off a mediocre season, but his roster spot is all but guaranteed. The coaches will consider a cast of seemingly thousands as return candidates, with Sanders a possibility as a punt returner and Omar Bolden and Andre Caldwell in the picture as kickoff returners. Elway and his staff didn’t draft a college player with a significant history in the return game, but a handful of rookies will get a look. Yes, there are a number of candidates to sift through, but look for new special-teams coordinator Joe DeCamillis to get the most out of the return game.
For a team coming off a Super Bowl appearance, there was a lot of unrest surrounding the 2014 Broncos. Sure enough, when they came up short in the playoffs, Elway didn’t waste any time blowing up the coaching staff. The presence of Kubiak and a veteran staff represents a breath of fresh air for the players, who are anxious to buy in to the new approach. Assuming Manning stays healthy, there’s no reason to believe the Broncos won’t win the West and be a factor in the playoffs. To win the Super Bowl, though, they’ll need to be on a roll, not an emotional downswing as they were last season, when the playoffs arrive.
Prediction: 1st in AFC West
Almost every conversation concerning the Chargers eventually veers to the question of whether they will move to the Los Angeles area beginning with the 2016 season. While the City of San Diego has never been this motivated to try to come up with a realistic plan to build a replacement for aging Qualcomm Stadium, the Chargers have never been this close to bolting up the freeway to L.A.
While the contentious issue plays out between team ownership and City Hall, general manager Tom Telesco and coach Mike McCoy are trying to stay focused on how to improve on last year’s mostly unsatisfying performance. The Chargers finished third in the AFC West for the second straight year and missed the playoffs for the fourth time in five seasons.
While stars Philip Rivers, Antonio Gates and Eric Weddle return, there’s a lot of room for improvement for a team that has gone 19–15 in two seasons under McCoy, including a playoff win and loss after the 2013 season.
Most of the pre-draft buzz surrounding the Bolts was a rumor that they would trade Rivers to the Tennessee Titans in order to draft Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota. Rivers is entering the final season of his contract and has expressed reservations about moving to the Los Angeles area — if that’s what the team decides to do. The Bolts didn’t trade Rivers, so he’ll be back for his 10th season as starter. Rivers is coming off an up-and-down season that ended when he was sacked seven times in a lackluster loss at Kansas City in the season finale that knocked the Bolts out of playoff contention.
As L.A. rumors began to swirl, Telesco worked on two areas that hurt the Chargers in 2014 — a shaky offensive line and an unproductive running game. He re-signed left tackle King Dunlap, who had a big 2014 season protecting Rivers’ blind side, and brought in free agent guard Orlando Franklin. Five different guys snapped the ball to Rivers last year, including Chris Watt, who heads into camp as the starter after getting valuable experience as a rookie.
Telesco spent heavily to move up just two spots in the first round of the draft to take Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon, who led college football with an astounding 2,587 rushing yards in 2014. Gordon will replace Ryan Mathews, whose five years in San Diego included too few Pro Bowl appearances and too many injuries and fumbles. The slashing Gordon is expected to help take the pressure off Rivers, who had a second strong season since McCoy arrived as coach.
The Chargers should be in great shape at running back, if they can stay healthy. Branden Oliver returns after stepping in as a rookie to fill in while Mathews was injured. He ended up leading the Chargers with 582 yards and three touchdowns. Third-down back Danny Woodhead returns after missing much of last season with a leg injury. In 2013, his first season with the Chargers, he rushed for 429 yards and caught 76 passes for 605 yards.
Rivers’ top targets — Antonio Gates, Keenan Allen and Malcom Floyd — will be supplemented by the addition of receiver/returner Jacoby Jones and Stevie Johnson. Gates, entering his 13th season, caught 69 passes and scored 12 touchdowns (one off his career high) last season.
The Chargers have to get more production out of their defensive line, pass rush and, specifically, inside linebacker Donald Butler. The Chargers had only 26 sacks last year, one of the weakest efforts in the NFL. At the very least, the two guys who led the team are back, defensive end Corey Liuget (4.5) and outside linebacker Melvin Ingram (4.0). Still, the Chargers have to come up with more pressure against opposing quarterbacks. They also need to get Butler back to his hard-hitting ways after he practically disappeared once he signed a long-term contract. Butler did finish third on the team with 73 tackles, but he didn’t play with the same impact he had in previous years.
There are some bright spots. Liuget had a breakout season, and the Chargers will look for even bigger things from the former first-round draft pick, especially after signing him to a five-year contract extension in early June. He had some impact plays — he recovered two fumbles, one for a touchdown in a comeback win at San Francisco, and forced two more, including one on a strip-sack that linebacker Andrew Gachkar returned for a touchdown against the Rams. Inside linebacker Manti Te’o continues to develop and had a solid second season. He finally had his first big impact play when he intercepted a pass — off Tom Brady, no less. The Chargers look for him to continue to develop, particularly in pass coverage.
Weddle stayed away from early offseason workouts, feeling disrespected because the team hasn’t offered a contract extension. He’s still growing his beard, vowing not to shave until the Chargers have won the Super Bowl. He will team with third-year pro Jahleel Addae, who started five games in 2014, and Jimmy Wilson. A San Diego native who went to Point Loma High School, Wilson signed with the Chargers as a free agent after spending his first four NFL seasons with Miami.
The Chargers remain in good hands in this department with kicker Nick Novak and punter Mike Scifres, and they’ve added Jones to the mix as a kick returner. Eddie Royal left as a free agent, leaving Allen to handle punt returns. Novak had another strong season, making 22-of-26 field-goal attempts (84.6 percent). He ranks second in franchise history with an 86.3 field-goal percentage. His franchise-record streak of 32 consecutive field goals came to an end on Nov. 16 against Oakland when he missed from 48 yards, his first miss in just more than a year. However, he bounced back and hit a season-long 52 yarder. In a home game against New England on Dec. 7, Novak had to fill in as the team’s punter for the first time in his career after Scifres suffered a shoulder injury. Novak hadn’t punted in a game since high school, but he averaged 40 yards on six attempts with a long of 51 and one punt inside the 20. It was the first time since 2003 that someone other than Scifres had punted for the Bolts. San Diego could use a little more juice in the return game, and Jones, who has 10 career special teams touchdowns including a memorable 108-yard kickoff return in Super Bowl XLVII, could provide it.
Rivers and the Chargers know exactly where they have to improve — in games against AFC West foes. The Chargers were swept by both the Denver Broncos and Kansas City Chiefs last year, beating only the lowly Oakland Raiders in the division. A lackluster effort at Kansas City in the finale, against backup quarterback Chase Daniel, cost the Chargers a playoff spot and had people wondering about their focus and motivation. A return to the playoffs isn’t out of the question, especially with the addition of Gordon, but another third-place finish is just as likely.
Prediction: 3rd in AFC West
It’s been 13 seasons since the Raiders made the playoffs and that long since they finished above .500. Bill Callahan led them to an 11–5 regular-season record in 2002 and to Super Bowl XXXVII, where they were crushed by Tampa Bay and former Oakland coach Jon Gruden. The next year the Raiders went 4–12 and Callahan was fired. Since then, Norv Turner, Art Shell, Lane Kiffin, Tom Cable, Hue Jackson, Dennis Allen and Tony Sparano have tried but failed to resurrect a once-dominant franchise that has won three Super Bowls overall but none in the past 31 seasons. Enter former Jacksonville Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio, a Bay Area native who will try to lead the team back to respectability and, ultimately, prominence in the NFL.
“I’m really not spending a whole lot of time worrying about what was,” Del Rio said at the NFL Scouting Combine. “I’m really focused on what needs to be going forward. We’re going to have a very competitive mentality throughout our organization in everything we’re doing.”
Del Rio spent the past three seasons as defensive coordinator for the Denver Broncos, who won the AFC West last season, finishing nine games ahead of the Raiders. That’s a huge gap to close, and the Raiders had hoped to gain ground after entering free agency with more than $60 million in salary cap space. Owner Mark Davis said he was ready to back up the Brinks truck and spend big money to land big-name free agents, but the Ndamukong Suhs and DeMarco Murrays of the free-agent world went elsewhere. So Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie spread the money out among a group of solid, less expensive players, including center Rodney Hudson, middle linebacker Curtis Lofton and defensive tackle Dan Williams.
The Raiders ranked last in total offense, last in rushing, 26th in passing and 31st in scoring. New offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave faces a huge challenge, but at least McKenzie got him a true No. 1 receiver, taking Alabama’s Amari Cooper with the fourth overall choice in the draft. Former 49er Michael Crabtree will likely start alongside Cooper, giving second-year quarterback Derek Carr two sure-handed targets who know how to get open. Shortly after the draft, Oakland released wide receiver James Jones, who led the team with 73 catches last season. Rod Streater and Andre Holmes, a pair of big, young receivers, should compete for playing time. Tight end Mychal Rivera is coming off a 58-catch second season, but Clive Walford, a third-round pick from Miami, could wind up starting because he’s a solid receiver who can also block, which is not Rivera’s strong suit.
Musgrave, who spent last season as quarterbacks coach for Chip Kelly in Philadelphia, plans to use some of Kelly’s warp-speed spread attack. That should help Carr, who thrived in an up-tempo offense at Fresno State. Carr started all 16 games as a rookie. He passed for 21 TDs with 12 interceptions, and was sacked only 24 times. But Carr averaged just 5.5 yards per pass, lower than any other quarterback with a top-40 passer rating. That number should improve now that he has a year’s experience in the NFL and more weapons on the field.
Running back Latavius Murray appears ready to become the Raiders’ No. 1 running back after Darren McFadden left as a free agent and Maurice Jones-Drew retired. The 6'3", 225-pound Murray rushed for 424 yards and two TDs on 82 carries for the season and started the final three games. Roy Helu Jr. will give Oakland a change of pace out of the backfield, and Trent Richardson will try to ignite his NFL career in what could be his last chance. Pro Bowl fullback Marcel Reece will likely be used in a variety of roles in Musgrave’s scheme to take better advantage of his receiving and running skills.
The Raiders’ offensive line gave Carr decent protection but opened too few holes for running backs last season. The addition of Hudson and the further development of second-year left guard Gabe Jackson could help Oakland’s power running game. Left tackle Donald Penn had a strong season last year after signing with Oakland as a free agent. Austin Howard, a former Jet, started at right guard last year in his first season as a Raider, but he’ll move to right tackle, his best position, and battle Menelik Watson for the job. The starting job at right guard could come down to a battle between veteran Khalif Barnes and rookie Jon Feliciano.
The Raiders ranked 21st in total defense last season and gave up 28.2 points per game, more than any other team in the NFL. New defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. and Del Rio have plenty of work to do just to make the defense respectable, let alone dominant. They have a nice building block in outside linebacker Khalil Mack, who had a superb rookie season after being taken with the fifth-overall pick in the draft. Mack was a monster against the run, and the Raiders believe he can become a game-changing pass rusher, too. He had only four sacks as a rookie. The Raiders should have a stronger and deeper linebacker corps after adding Lofton, who will start between Mack and Sio Moore or and ex-Seahawks outside linebacker Malcolm Smith. Miles Burris was released just days after the Raiders drafted a pair of linebackers.
Free safety Charles Woodson, who turns 39 in October, led the Raiders in tackles (110) and interceptions (four) and will play his 18th NFL season, giving Oakland’s defense an unquestioned leader. Nate Allen, a free-agent pickup from Philadelphia, should start alongside Woodson at strong safety. The question is whether the Raiders will have enough quality cornerbacks. They are counting heavily on D.J. Hayden having a breakthrough campaign after two injury-plagued seasons. Hayden, a first-round pick in 2013, could be paired with T.J. Carrie, who had a strong rookie season last year after being drafted in the seventh round.
The Raiders had just 22 sacks last season, and defensive end Justin Tuck led the team with five. They desperately need to generate more pass-rush pressure, but McKenzie did little in free agency or the draft to boost Oakland’s pass rush. Defensive end Mario Edwards Jr., a second-round pick from Florida State, had only eight career sacks. So it will be largely up to Mack and Tuck to get to the quarterback.
Kicker Sebastian Janikowski, 37, didn’t get much work last season, but he made 19-of-22 attempts, including a 57-yarder, after going 21-of-30 in 2013. The Raiders would like to reduce punter Marquette King’s workload. He punted 109 times last season, averaging 45.2 yards with a net average of 40.0 in his second year since replacing Shane Lechler. Carrie handled most of the punt return duties last year, averaging 7.5 yards with no touchdowns. Taiwan Jones, a speedster who suffered a season-ending foot injury in the opener last year, could give the Raiders a dangerous kickoff return man if he’s healthy. The team also signed Trindon Holliday, who has returned a total of six punts and kickoffs for touchdowns in his career, in early June.
After back-to-back solid drafts, the Raiders have raised their talent level and added some solid building blocks, particularly Mack, Cooper and Carr. They won three of their final six games last season, and a .500 season this year is not out of the question. That will depend on how quickly the team adapts to yet another coaching change.
Prediction: 4th in the AFC West
At 39, after 17 years of absorbing blindside hits and carrying the weight and fate of two franchises on his shoulders, is it any surprise that Peyton Manning is tired? He’s tired, all right. Tired of answering all those questions about his age.
NFL history is littered with cautionary tales of quarterbacks who were highly productive into their mid-30s, only to lose the race with Father Time as they approached 40. So how will Manning fare in this, his 18th season of working on Sundays?
“You can’t lump them all into the same category,” says Manning, when asked about all those other 39-year-old quarterbacks. “I think there are young 39s and old 39s. I’m in that young group, for sure. It’s all about trying to do your job no matter how old you are, whether you’re a 22-year-old rookie coming in or not. I guess I have to answer questions about it, but I’m not interested in talking about how old I am.”
That age-old saying about being only as old as you feel? Now that’s what Manning is talking about. Like Bob Seger, he has turned the page on a disappointing, if not depressing 2014 season, and is ready to rock ’n’ roll.
There’s no denying how ugly Manning’s third season in Denver was. Sure, the Broncos won 12 games and their fourth straight AFC West title. But they didn’t just lose their one and only playoff game. With their season on the line, they didn’t bother to show up. Instead, they imploded under the weight of personal agendas, with several players and coaches running for their professional lives the moment the final anticlimactic seconds ticked away.
Manning ended the season with a torn right quadriceps, a sizeable dent in his ego, and a major career decision to make: To return or not to return? That was the question. Or at least that was the storyline among the media. Truth is, Manning was never serious about walking away.
It happens every spring. Manning, in a personal rite of passage, sets aside his emotions and soldiers on in preparation for another season. It’s in his DNA. It’s what he does, who he is, how he’s wired. The myth and the legend can wait. He still wants to be The Man. Whether retirement is off on the horizon or just over the dashboard, he’s going to keep the pedal to the metal and compete.
Oh, and let the record show that a new coaching staff, headlined by former Broncos offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak and several assistants with long-time ties to the organization, has only served to rejuvenate him more than usual. It isn’t just apparent. It’s blatantly obvious to everyone who’s seen Manning sweating it out behind the scenes at the Broncos’ suburban Denver training facility.
“He’s still got a lot of juice in him,” says Broncos wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders. “For everyone, last year was a disappointment. But at the same time, it’s a new year so everyone is rejuvenated. It’s the same thing with Peyton. You talk about a guy who understands that the clock is ticking for him. He loves this game. I’ve never seen a guy who loves the game of football as much as he loves it. That passion and that spark is there.”
Duke head coach David Cutcliffe, Manning’s offensive coordinator back in the day at the University of Tennessee, wasn’t sure what to expect when Manning arrived in Durham, N.C., for his annual offseason passing camp. But Cutcliffe told nationally syndicated radio host Jim Rome that Manning was a “boatload of energy and enthusiasm.”
Why shouldn’t Manning be excited? He has fielded countless questions about how he’ll fit into Kubiak’s zone-blocking, run-oriented offense that requires the quarterback to make plays outside the pocket, foreign territory for Manning. But all those questions miss the fundamental point. Fact is, Manning and everyone else in the Broncos organization needed a change.
After three years of Super Bowl or bust, former head coach John Fox had run his course in Denver. Emotions were frayed, and game-planning sessions were giving way to travel itineraries. In the days preceding the Broncos’ 24–13 playoff loss to Indianapolis, both coordinators, Jack Del Rio and Adam Gase, were off interviewing for head coaching jobs. On the morning of the game, a national television report linked Fox to the head coaching job in Chicago.
Add a handful of starters with one eye on their playbooks and another on free-agent paydays, and the Broncos were anything but focused to make a second straight Super Bowl run. The day after the loss, Fox was gone. Three days later, he was hired by the Bears amid speculation — which Fox denies, but no one in the Broncos’ organization is buying — that he leaked his interest in the job because of Elway’s refusal to give him a contract extension. Del Rio, meanwhile, became head coach of the Raiders, and Gase joined Fox as offensive coordinator in Chicago.
If last season was filled with friction in Denver, this year will be defined by the excitement over the hiring of Kubiak, who served as Elway’s roommate and backup for nine years and later was Mike Shanahan’s offensive coordinator from 1995-2005 before leaving to become head coach of the Houston Texans. After leaving Houston he had settled in as offensive coordinator in Baltimore, telling teams he wasn’t interested in interviewing for head coaching positions. And then all heaven broke loose: The Broncos job became available.
“This is a game changer,” says Kubiak. “It’s as simple as that. This is where I got my start. This is home for me. I can’t wait to just go out there and fight the fight and believe in this city, this team and this organization. I was standing there with them when they won their last championship, and that’s what we all work for.”
“I know what Gary Kubiak is about,” Elway says. “I had a chance to play with him and play for him. I know his philosophies and I know what he can do. I know his goals are the same as mine, and that’s to win and win world championships. He’s a Denver Bronco. He knows the culture of this organization. He knows the culture of this building.”
And he isn’t alone. Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips had the same job in Denver from 1989-92 before serving as the Broncos’ head coach from 1993-94. Offensive coordinator Rick Dennison played linebacker for the Broncos and was an assistant coach on Shanahan’s staff before joining Kubiak in Houston. Then there’s special teams coordinator Joe DeCamillis, who has become one of the most respected assistants in the league after cutting his teeth on father-in-law Dan Reeves’ Broncos staffs more than 20 years ago.
Phillips doesn’t renovate defenses, he resurrects them. To wit: The 1988 Broncos had perhaps the worst defense of the Reeves era. One year later, with Phillips orchestrating the defense, they played in the Super Bowl. The 2003 San Diego Chargers finished 4–12. After hiring Phillips, they won 12 games and finished atop the AFC West. The Texans were 6–10 before Kubiak hired Phillips, whereupon they made their first-ever playoff appearance.
Phillips faces a different type of challenge in Denver. The Broncos return a handful of Pro Bowlers on the defensive side of the ball. Granted, statistics can lie in today’s NFL, but the Broncos finished third in the league in 2014 in overall defense. The challenge, then, isn’t to resurrect the defense so much as take it to the next level. That, of course, being the stuff of Super Bowl champions.
“I was a lousy head coach, but I’m a pretty good defensive coordinator,” says Phillips, who came out of retirement to rejoin Kubiak in Denver. “That’s what I do well. I just wanted to get back to doing that and I couldn’t be happier. This is probably the best situation, defensively, that I’ve come into. … Normally they have a bad year and they’ve brought me in as defensive coordinator. This team has a lot of talent on defense, but we’re going to do better.”
Twelve wins and four consecutive division championships, and the song remains the same in Denver: What have you done for us lately? Welcome to life in the Rockies with Manning under center. Ever since the five-time MVP’s arrival in March 2012, the Broncos have been a one-trick pony with one singular goal, one primary purpose, one reason for being. As Fox discovered, getting to the Super Bowl isn’t good enough.
Elway knows what Manning is going through, having walked in those shoes in a previous professional life. It’s remarkable, the similar paths the two have taken. Elway was the first pick in the 1983 draft, 15 years before the Colts selected Manning No. 1. Elway, like Manning, received more than his share of criticism before finally winning a Super Bowl. Elway spent 16 seasons with the same franchise, two more than Manning. During his Hall of Fame career, Elway engineered 35 fourth-quarter comebacks and 46 game-winning drives. And how many did Manning have on his résumé when he signed with the Broncos? Thirty-five comebacks and 46 game-winning drives.
Elway won Super Bowls at age 37 and 38 despite an assortment of injuries, including a deteriorating left knee that ultimately led to replacement surgery. How did he do it? With Terrell Davis behind him in the backfield grinding out huge clumps of yards in Shanahan’s system, the same one employed by Kubiak. Now comes C.J. Anderson, who emerged from the shadows last season — 17 carries in the Broncos’ first seven regular-season games, 648 rushing yards in their final six — to earn a Pro Bowl berth. In Elway’s mind, the threat of Anderson breaking loose for big plays in Kubiak’s offense can do for Manning what Davis did for him.
“Peyton could fit in this offense very easily,” says Elway. “It’s a very helpful offense. It’s a lot more dependent on balance so Peyton is hopefully not going to have to throw the ball 50 or 55 times. As an older quarterback, it’s a perfect system to be in. It’s really a great system for any quarterback, but I think it’s even more helpful the older you get.”
It’s not like Manning will morph into a game manager or one of those other catch phrases that describe your basic mediocre quarterback. He’s coming off a season in which he threw 39 touchdown passes, a career year for most quarterbacks, and undoubtedly would have had more if he hadn’t struggled down the stretch with the quad injury. If he’s going to win that elusive second Super Bowl, it will be in Denver, with Elway and another former quarterback, Kubiak, forming the foundation of his support system.
Ask him about adjusting to Kubiak’s offense, and Manning has to suppress a laugh.
“I like to think I’m pretty versatile, believe it or not,” says Manning, smirk completely intact. “I feel like I can execute whatever plays the coach calls. … You’re always looking into learning football. Whether you’ve got changes or you’re doing the same thing, you’re always learning out there. As soon as you stop learning, something is not going right. So I’m looking forward to learning Coach Kubiak’s philosophies and trying to do my part as a quarterback. I’m looking forward to the process.”
Says Kubiak: “We’re going to do what he does best. Obviously, if we run the ball well, which we plan on doing, we’re going to move the quarterback (out of the pocket) at some point. … He’s been very excited. He’s been challenged. He said that to me a couple of times: ‘I’m challenged again. I’m having to learn new stuff because I’ve been doing this for so long.’ I think that’s good for all of us no matter how long you’ve been in the league.”
Now about all those other 39-year-old quarterbacks. Elway, at 38, is the oldest starting quarterback ever to win a Super Bowl. Since 1983, only two quarterbacks 39 or older — Phil Simms and Brett Favre — have won playoff games. Some 39-year-olds, most notably Favre and Warren Moon, have put up nice numbers, but quarterbacks that old typically are stopgaps. They’re starters by default because their teams couldn’t find a younger alternative. Now comes Manning, who’ll try to lead the new-look Broncos to a Super Bowl victory with his 40th birthday on the horizon.
No-huddle offense, meet the no-time-to-waste offense.
“With Peyton, obviously there isn’t much he can add to his legacy,” says Elway. “As I told him, ‘You don’t have to throw for another yard and you don’t need to throw another touchdown pass because your legacy is going to be one of the all-time greats as it is.’ Where he can really add to his legacy is to win a Super Bowl.”
-By Jim Armstrong
The only team with wins over both the AFC and NFC champions on its résumé in 2014? That would be Andy Reid’s Kansas City Chiefs, who, despite a confounding slew of injuries and suspensions, tended to play up — or down — to just about every opponent last fall. Lose to Tennessee at home, then crush New England; top Miami and Buffalo on the road, then lose at Oakland. Which explains the end result: A roller-coaster, schizophrenic 9–7 campaign.
A healthy Jamaal Charles would get 2015 off on the right foot. As would a happy Justin Houston, who put together perhaps the quietest 22-sack season — a half-sack short of Michael Strahan’s NFL record — in modern NFL history, a run for the ages overshadowed by the monster campaign of J.J. Watt. But a slate that features just seven true home games — a Nov. 1 date with Detroit is being played in London — only makes a challenging schedule that much tougher to navigate.
Charles says he was never more “frustrated” as a pro than last fall, but the Pro Bowl back still accounted for 1,324 yards, averaged 5.0 yards per carry and totaled 14 touchdowns — nine rushing — on one good leg. Not much was done to upgrade the position behind backup Knile Davis, who could see more work to limit the wear and tear on Charles.
Quarterback Alex Smith signed a big-money extension before the start of the regular season that set him within his peers but also put him the squarely in the sights of some Chiefs fans who see that cash as better splashed elsewhere. Still one of the smarter and most accurate (65.3 percent completion rate in 2014) passers in the game, Smith has, on paper, as many toys to play with as he’s ever had in Kansas City. Chase Daniel is gaining street cred as one of the NFL’s top backups, and he’s paid like it ($3.75 million base salary in 2015).
The Chiefs became the first team since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger to go an entire regular season without a touchdown thrown to a wideout. Jeremy Maclin, signed away from Philadelphia to replace aging Dwayne Bowe, is expected to change all that, and quickly. Second-year target Albert Wilson found his groove over the final third of 2014; incoming draftee Chris Conley has crazy tools; and veteran Jason Avant, a former teammate of Maclin’s and a longtime Reid protégé, knows this offense back to front. Tight end Travis Kelce (862 receiving yards, five touchdowns) was a revelation in his first full active season; if he keeps his temper and ball security in check, Kelce could be the best tight end to put on a Chiefs uniform since Tony Gonzalez was traded out of town in 2009.
A succession of injuries and Eric Fisher’s bum shoulder forced general manager John Dorsey to piece together a makeshift offensive line last fall, and it showed, as the total sacks allowed jumped from 41 to 49 while Smith spent many Sundays running for his life. The addition of Ben Grubbs (Saints) and Paul Fanaika (Cardinals) should stabilize the interior blocking, but center Rodney Hudson, now with Oakland, could be sorely missed.
Things you can count on: death, taxes and four grinding quarters each week from nose tackle Dontari Poe. The Memphis native led all NFL interior defensive linemen in snaps played for a second straight year, rolling up a career-best six sacks in the process. Poe should benefit from the return of veteran end Mike DeVito, one of two defensive starters to suffer a season-ending Achilles tendon tear in a Week 1. DeVito’s injury allowed the club to get longer looks at Allen Bailey (five sacks) and Jaye Howard (one sack) at end in defensive coordinator Bob Sutton’s 3-4 scheme. With DeVito and former reserve Mike Catapano reportedly healed up, the Chiefs have strength, depth and flexibility up front.
Stalwart linebacker Derrick Johnson was the other veteran to tear an Achilles in the home opener, and the unit never quite recovered from the loss of its spiritual leader — especially against the run, where the Chiefs seemed to really wear down after early November. Like DeVito, Johnson said in the spring that he felt at least 80 percent of the way back. Even at that he is a more reliable anchor in the middle than super subs Josh Mauga and James-Michael Johnson, special-teams contributors who were forced to carry the rope in No. 56’s absence. Mauga was re-signed and is expected to have the inside track and a starting spot, but don’t be surprised if rookies Ramik Wilson and D.J. Alexander work their way into specific packages.
Rather than pout over the failure to land a long-term contract, Houston took his grief out on opposing quarterbacks, stringing together a career-best in sacks and affirming his status as one of the most exciting pass rushers in the game. Contract issues still loomed in the spring, though, and the former Georgia star bristled when the Chiefs slapped the franchise tag on him in March, staying away from the start of the voluntary spring OTAs. Houston’s outside linebacker bookend, Tamba Hali, saw his production slip (11 sacks in 2013; six last fall) but endeared himself to Chiefs fans by taking a pay cut rather than trying to force his way onto the open market via a release. First-round pick Dee Ford was a non-factor during the first half of 2014 but could take on more snaps (and responsibility) if the 31-year-old Hali fades.
As stunning as the Johnson/DeVito injuries were, it was nothing compared to the shocking news of late November, when Pro Bowl safety Eric Berry was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma, ending an injury-plagued season on a somber note. While expected to make a full recovery, Berry may not be healthy enough to return to football fitness before the start of the regular season. With that in mind, the Chiefs signed veteran Tyvon Branch from Oakland and re-upped with journeyman Ron Parker, who can slot into any role in Sutton’s secondary but seemed to excel as a safety. Cornerback Sean Smith is coming off his best season (18 pass breakups) in Kansas City but was expected to receive a multi-game suspension for this fall because of a drunk-driving incident dating back to last summer.
De’Anthony Thomas was drafted to change games with his legs, and the speedster didn’t disappoint as a rookie, averaging 11.9 yards per punt return with a touchdown and 30.6 yards per kickoff return. Thomas is a perfect complement to Davis, who has run a kickoff back for a score twice now in two seasons. After an impressive spring and summer, rookie kicker Cairo Santos beat out veteran Ryan Succop and rebounded from a terrible regular-season debut to hit 25-of-30 field-goal attempts and 8-of-12 from 40 yards or longer. Punter Dustin Colquitt (44.6 yards per boot) is the locker room’s resident grey beard, having survived five coaches and three GMs since joining the club in 2005.
Peyton Manning is fading, but he’s 13–1 against the Chiefs; as long as he’s at the controls, the Broncos probably aren’t going anywhere. A schedule that pairs the Chiefs with the NFC North doesn’t do them many favors, nor does getting stuck away from Arrowhead Stadium from Halloween to Thanksgiving. But three of the final four games are winnable and at home, and the locker room believes in Reid. If an answer is found at center and if Kelce stays healthy, the Chiefs should be primed to chase a playoff berth again.
Prediction: 2nd in the AFC West
Dez Bryant has been vocal his whole career, and now he’s not afraid to let it be known that he wants a lucrative, long-term deal with the Cowboys. However, holdouts during the offseason are hardly a rare occurrence, and players publicly stating their dissatisfaction with their contract situation are just a common side show. But the All-Pro wide receiver has already gone so far to claim that he will sit out once the regular season starts if there is no agreement on a new deal. The tactic is not exactly new, but if he ends up following through on said threat, it would put him in rare company.
The Cowboys desperately need their star wideout, which is one reason why they applied the franchise tag to him earlier this offseason. The tag would pay Bryant a hefty $12.823 million for the 2015 season, an extremely respectable sum. Obviously he wants more, something more in the range of Calvin Johnson’s $130-plus million over eight years, a deal he signed in 2012. If Bryant signs his franchise tag tender, he would be the second-highest paid wide receiver this year, but it's pretty clear he has no intent of playing on a one-year deal.
After losing the NFL’s top rusher in DeMarco Murray, Dallas' best offensive weapon is clearly Bryant. Darren McFadden is the new running back, while Terrance Williams and Cole Beasley would become more featured receivers. Tight end Jason Witten will still continue to be a strong player as always, but Bryant is far and away the team's leading returning scorer with the 16 touchdown passes he caught from Tony Romo last season. Romo is a Pro Bowl-caliber quarterback in his own right and has one of the league's best offensive lines to protect him, but without Bryant, who would Romo throw the ball to?
History of holdouts
Contract holdouts are nothing new to professional sports. They happen with individuals, and the situation also has impacted entire leagues. Specifically for the Cowboys, there seems to be a positive history revolving around them in this area. In 1993, Emmitt Smith demanded a better contract during the offseason and ended up sitting out a couple games. He soon became the league’s highest paid running back and carried Dallas to a Super Bowl victory. The Cowboys of the present would hope that a holdout by Bryant of any length during the regular season doesn’t occur, but they’ll surely take a Super Bowl appearance if it does.
In 1997, the Redskins tagged defensive tackle Sean Gilbert after the two sides could not reach a long-term deal, so he sat out the entire season in protest. The next season, the Redskins tried to tag him again, and he refused. Washington eventually traded him to Carolina, which signed him to a new, lucrative contract.
Hall of Fame running back Eric Dickerson held out twice during his career over contract disputes, missing two games in 1985, then five games in '90. Dickerson had ongoing issues regarding his initial contract dispute in '85, a situation that wasn't fully resolved until he was traded to Indianapolis in 1987. He and the Colts later went through the same thing, which only added on to the unwarranted attention and unnecessary publicity Dickerson received during the middle of his remarkable career.
Bluff or not?
The question remains though, is this a bluff by Bryant or is he being vehemently truthful? The Cowboys have stated a desire to lock him up long term, but they hardly seem fazed by his alleged plan.
If anything, this holdout can lead to toxic feelings within the organization. The players, coaches and management want their star to be participating in full. The franchise tag would make him the second-highest player on the team behind Romo ($18 million). Last year, the Cowboys won the division by two games, but now the Eagles have DeMarco Murray in their backfield and look poised to challenge for the NFC East crown. One player does not dictate an entire season, but there's no question how important Bryant is to the Cowboys’ success.
However, it seems highly unlikely that Bryant will sit out any games, and that’s because either side will eventually cave in. As usual, Dallas doesn't have a lot of wiggle room when it comes to the salary cap, especially after signing offensive lineman Tyron Smith to the largest contract for the position in the NFL. Last year, the Cowboys offered Bryant $114 million over 10 years, which is lengthy, but less per year than he wanted.
Dallas has until July 15 to sign Bryant to a long-term contract, and if not, he can either sign the one-year franchise tender or sit out the season. After July 15, the Cowboys cannot negotiate a new contract with Bryant until after the season, a situation that doesn't seem favorable for either party. Thus, the Cowboys do have power in the short term, but if no deal is made, Bryant's future with the team would certainly not be as secure. Also, if no deal is made soon, the Cowboys would have to give him one next year, let him go, or pay him around $15 million the next year after applying the franchise tag a second time. Bryant does not become an unrestricted free agent until 2018, so unless the two sides come to agreement on a new contract within the next three weeks, we will be revisiting this very same situation less than a year from now.
There is little time between now and July 15, but Cowboys fans should not worry too much. It is really doubtful that Bryant would sit out any games. Either he’ll get a long-term deal, or he’ll make a high one-year salary with great prospects for something big next year. There might be some frustration and resentment initially, but nothing major should really come about this whole situation. Jerry Jones will know how to deal with this situation, so these last few weeks before the deadline should be interesting.
The Confederate flag is the topic on everyone's minds these days, even Keith Olbermann.
The ESPN personality went in on his show about the flag and the lawyer for the Washington Redskins who seemed to admit the team's name falls in the category of offensive imagery, just like the flag.
"All of this happening while the name 'Redskins' is effectively on trial in Virginia," Olbermann said. "All of this happening while we see that a symbol like a flag can not only envoke and encourage racism and violence and madness and murder and treason, but that it can do something even worse. It can represent evil..and if a flag can do that, a football team name — beamed into our homes every day, to our headphones, our minds everyday — it can represent the same kind of evil."
It's put up or shut up time in the ACC Coastal.
In 10 years with two divisions, Miami has never played in the ACC title game. Neither has North Carolina or Virginia. In just two seasons, Pitt has yet to make a splash in their new home as well.
Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech have won every Coastal Division championship since the league split into divisions except one (2013) and both lead the preseason rankings in the Coastal again in 2015.
Duke, to its credit, unexpectedly broke through before the Hurricanes, Tar Heels or Cavaliers. Needless to say, David Cutcliffe is in great shape in Durham, N.C.
So is Paul Johnson. The Georgia Tech coach has had his ups and downs with the fans and administration in Atlanta, but the Yellow Jackets have gone to seven bowls games in seven seasons under Johnson — which includes three trips to the ACC title game.
After 25 losses in four seasons, his 11-win campaign last year put Johnson right back atop the division's coaching hierarchy.
But the rest of the division should be under serious pressure to perform in 2015.
Al Golden has a rising superstar at quarterback in Brad Kaaya and the No. 4-rated recruiting class in the nation according to 247Sports. He did a fantastic job at Temple but has reached a tipping point in South Florida this fall.
After a nine-win season two years ago, Miami posted a losing record in the ACC (3-5) and overall (6-7) in 2014. He's 16-16 in four seasons at the helm for the Hurricanes, and, while signs of growth and improvement can be found — the defense has gone from 97th to 80th to 15th in yards per play allowed over the last three years — this team is still mired in the middle of the pack in the Coastal.
Golden is probably a much better coach than his Miami resume indicates due to extenuating circumstances surrounding his program but he needs a splashy '15 campaign in the worst way.
Larry Fedora is in the same exact situation in Chapel Hill. Yes, there is a cloud hanging over North Carolina that makes winning difficult, but his atrocious defense hasn't helped either. He is turning to former Auburn head coach Gene Chizik to save one half of his team this fall.
Fedora's offenses have been excellent and he has yet to post a losing ACC record in three seasons, but he's running a program that hasn't lost fewer than three ACC games in a season since 1997. He, too, needs a big splash in '15.
Both teams have a lot of upside but both teams also have their share of question marks too.
Virginia's Mike London is one of the most interesting people in the business and his story is fascinating and inspiring. And while his team showed improvement last fall, his tenure in Charlottesville could come to an end quickly this fall if that improvement isn't continued in a big way.
Even veteran Hall of Fame coach Frank Beamer is entering murky waters at Virginia Tech. He's not on the hot seat in Blacksburg but after eight consecutive seasons with double-digit wins, Beamer is 12-12 in the ACC and 22-17 overall in his last three campaigns.
His offenses are impossible to watch and fifth-place division finishes aren't acceptable to Hokie faithful.
Johnson and Cutcliffe are in great shape and Pat Narduzzi is entering the fray at Pitt as a rookie head coach. But the rest of this division is clearly entering a critical season on the field.
Part of what makes the Coastal Division so entertaining is its unpredictability. Six teams enter 2015 with legitimate eyes toward an ACC title game berth.
However, only one team can make it to Charlotte at season's end and that could lead to new faces on the sidelines in 2016.
It's not just Steph Curry with the shot, boy.
Curry's wife, Ayesha, can drain a 3-pointer just as well as her husband. The kicker, Ayesha did it while nine months pregnant. That's pure skill right there.
"9 months pregnant and can still knock em down!!! NBA 3 pt line btw. I was 2 for 2 and had to leave on a good note... Just trying to make Steph proud," Ayesha's caption read.
It's not a fluke. Mrs. Curry also drilled others while barefoot.
Who is Jeremy Johnson?
We know he’s the next starting quarterback for the Auburn Tigers. He had an “outstanding spring” according to his head coach, Gus Malzahn. But most importantly he’s the next breakout star in college football.
Johnson enters his first season as a full-time starter with high expectations. In 2014, he threw for 858 yards, nine touchdowns and two interceptions on 57-of-78 passing in 11 appearances.
So what makes a guy with a small sample size a potential Heisman Trophy candidate? The right scheme and plenty of weapons.
Johnson is the perfect fit for Malzahn’s up-tempo offense. At 6-5, 240, he has a similar frame and skill set to former Auburn quarterback and Heisman winner Cam Newton, albeit somewhat less explosive yet more polished as a passer.
Newton’s Heisman-winning season in Malzahn’s scheme led the Tigers’ BCS championship run in 2010. Several odds makers are expecting the same from Johnson, who will also take over the offense as a junior.
It doesn’t hurt that he’ll have plenty of options. Auburn has one of the SEC’s most talented offenses even after the departures of leading rusher Cameron Artis-Payne and receiver Sammie Coates.
D’haquille Williams enters the 2015 season as the NFL’s top wide receiver prospect, according to ESPN’s Mel Kiper. Ricardo Louis told Al.com that he’s “more consistent” after dropping just four passes in 15 spring practices. The Tigers also signed a pair of four-star wide receivers in Darius Slayton and Ryan Davis.
Even with the loss of Artis-Payne, Auburn still has a talented tandem at running back. The Tigers will split carries between sophomore Roc Thomas and top JUCO transfer Jovon Robinson. Thomas entered as a four-star prospect but saw little action behind Artis-Payne and fellow senior Corey Grant.
Robinson is “an intriguing blend of power and quickness who possesses good natural instincts,” according to Al.com‘s Joel A. Erickson.
But the most underrated factor in Johnson’s Heisman chances may be the improvement of Auburn’s defense. In 2014, the Tigers were a bad defense — and several lapses — away from being a true contender in the SEC West. Instead, the team finished fourth behind Alabama, Mississippi State and Ole Miss.
The addition of Will Muschamp as defensive coordinator should propel Auburn. Muschamp has coached defenses ranked in the top 10 in FBS each year since 2009.
No Heisman candidacy is secure without a player leading a winning program. If Auburn becomes a national contender, Johnson’s odds improve.
The SEC also has a lack of star power at quarterback. Aside from Mississippi State’s Dak Prescott, the conference doesn’t have a bonafide star at the position.
Like Johnson, players such as Tennessee’s Joshua Dobbs and Texas A&M’s Kyle Allen are expected to have breakout seasons, but again, it’s based solely on potential and a small sample size. Whichever player emerges as the conference’s top quarterback also will have the backing of the SEC media, as well as a 24-hour television station pushing his candidacy.
Johnson could be a serious Heisman contender should he exceed lofty preseason expectations. He has the talent to excel in Auburn’s up-tempo offense and should be one of college football’s most exciting players in 2015.
— Written by Jason Hall, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and works for Fox Sports Florida. Follow him on Twitter @jasonhallFSN.
In the last two seasons, one Oklahoma team went 11–2 and upset Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. Another went 8–5 and got offensive coaches fired. According to the statistical profile, one of those teams was better and it wasn’t the one hoisting a bowl trophy.
Let’s take a closer look.
Football Outsiders F/+ ratings are an opponent-adjusted look at per-play and per-drive efficiency. They take into account the components that go into winning in the long term, and they can frequently differ from poll rankings or teams’ records because they, like most systems of computer ratings, look at what is most sustainable and controllable.
From 2006-12, Oklahoma ranked in the F/+ top 10 every year, peaking at second in 2008 and otherwise oscillating between sixth and ninth. In 2013, the Sooners stumbled to 23rd, but in 2014, they bounced up to 19th.
“Years of nearly elite play, followed by a stumble in 2013 and a slight rebound.” That’s exactly how you remember Oklahoma’s recent football history, right? No? You’re more inclined to remember the actual results (improvement to 11–2 in 2013, followed by a preseason top-5 ranking and a collapse to 8–5)? Of course you are.
Perhaps no blue-blood program has seen its stats and narratives disagree more in recent times than Bob Stoops’ Sooners. Part of this is the Sooners’ own fault. Of their 28 losses since 2006, 13 have been by double digits, and six have been by at least 28 points. Since Nick Saban took over in 2007, Alabama has lost by double digits only four times and has never lost by more than 14. And until the Rose Bowl embarrassment against Oregon in January, Florida State had made it almost five full seasons without losing by more than 11.
Be it a product of iffy motivation or smoke-and-mirror disguises of potential problems, Oklahoma doesn’t stumble — the Sooners fall down a manhole. We remember their failures more because of the significance of them.
At the same time, randomness has played a huge role in how we perceive the last decade or so of the Stoops era. And it has completely impacted the narratives surrounding the Sooners’ 2013 “rise” and their 2014 “collapse.”
In 2013, Oklahoma fell to 23rd in the F/+ ratings because it couldn’t stop the run and, until the out-of-nowhere dominance of Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, its offense couldn’t do anything at a particularly elite level. The Sooners gave up a total of 510 rushing yards and averaged just 3.9 yards per play in losses to Texas and Baylor. They gave up huge per-carry rushing averages against Notre Dame, West Virginia and Oklahoma State, too, and their offense was average at best against ULM, West Virginia and Kansas. But they continued to survive — 16–7 over West Virginia, 20–17 over TCU and 38–30 over Texas Tech. And when they improved late, they still had a chance to play for some high stakes. And then the luck kicked in.
No matter how much we want to convince ourselves that there is skill in recovering fumbles or that you create your own breaks, that is only so true. If your guys run a lot and stay near the ball carrier, you’ll have more bodies available when a fumble hits the ground. And playing a certain aggressive style on defense can lead to more forced fumbles and passes defensed (and therefore more opportunities for turnovers and lucky bounces). But you don’t control it nearly as much as you want to.
So when Oklahoma recovered nine of nine fumbles in the Kansas State, Oklahoma State and Alabama games, there was no way to spin that beyond, “That was amazingly lucky.” On a per-play basis, the Sooners were outgained in all three games — Kansas State averaged 7.3 yards per play to OU’s 6.5; OSU gained 5.7 to OU’s 4.9 and Alabama averaged 7.9 to OU’s 5.8. That Oklahoma won all three of these games by at least nine points was a combination of timely play, fortitude and pure, unadulterated luck of the bounce. And in 2013, Oklahoma proved it was a resilient, lucky team, not one destined for a national title run.
In 2014, however, luck reverted for the Sooners in a way that it hadn’t since 2009, when they lost four games by a combined 12 points. After a 4–0 start that included easy wins over what would prove to be solid Louisiana Tech (F/+ ranking: 35th) and Tennessee (24th) teams, the Sooners fell to an awesome TCU squad by four in Fort Worth. The per-play yardage was nearly even (TCU 6.01, OU 5.91), and OU won the turnovers battle, 3-to-2, but randomness played a role. First, TCU’s Trevone Boykin fumbled near the OU goal line, and his teammate Cliff Murphy recovered it for a touchdown. Then, Paul Dawson picked off a Trevor Knight pass early in the fourth quarter and returned it 41 yards for a go-ahead score.
Two weeks later, OU suffered what might have been the most random, unlikely loss in the 2014 season. The Sooners outgained Kansas State by 148 yards and created eight scoring opportunities (first downs inside the opponent’s 40) to KSU’s four. But Michael Hunnicutt, an otherwise solid placekicker, missed an extra point, a 32-yard field goal, and, in the closing minutes, a 19-yard chip shot. That was seven nearly automatic points off of the board. Plus, Knight’s only interception of the game came from his end zone and resulted in a 5-yard pick-six. The game featured 14 rather fluky points, and OU lost by one.
The Oklahoma State loss was perhaps even less expected. Despite losing star rusher Samaje Perine to injury, the Sooners held a 35–21 lead with five minutes to play, and OSU was attempting a comeback with a freshman quarterback. But Mason Rudolph connected twice with Brandon Sheperd, first for 14 yards, then for a 43-yard score, to cut the Sooner lead to 35–28. Then, after an OU interception all but iced the game, the Sooners punted from OSU territory with under a minute left. Stoops elected to re-kick after a running-into-the-kicker penalty, presumably to kill more time and perhaps pin OSU a little bit deeper, but with just under a minute left, Jed Barnett kicked a returnable ball to Tyreek Hill, who returned the punt 92 yards for the game-tying score. Following another missed Hunnicutt field goal — this one from 44 yards — OSU made a 21-yarder and stole a win.
In 2013, Oklahoma recovered 68 percent of all fumbles. In 2014, the Sooners recovered 39 percent. In 2013, they went 8–0 in games decided by 15 or fewer points. In 2014, they lost three games by eight combined points. The dis-spiriting losses to Baylor (48–14 in Norman) and Clemson (40–6 in the Russell Athletic Bowl) proved that the Sooners were not an elite team, but 2013’s late-season luck set an unfair bar. And when Oklahoma failed to meet that bar, the demands for change set in.
Barring any further changes, Stoops will take the field in September with four new assistants on the staff. That OU hasn’t produced a top-10 finish (in the F/+ rankings) for two years running suggests change might not be a bad thing, but demanding change, in part, because of fluky losses to Oklahoma State and Kansas State made no more sense than building OU into a title contender because of fluky 2013 wins against the same teams.
Our perceptions and reactions are based off of wins and losses. Players get rings because of them. Coaches get promotions and pink slips because of them. This makes sense, of course. If our team wins because of fumbles luck, we don’t say “Yeah, but that didn’t really count” afterward. We celebrate, just as we vent after losses. But stats can sometimes remind us just how fickle football can be.
-By Bill Connelly, Football Study Hall/SB Nation
Big 12 expansion is the story that won’t go away. On Wednesday, Oklahoma president David Boren said, “I’m advocate of a 12-member Big 12.” And previously this summer, West Virginia athletic director Shane Lyons also mentioned he was in favor of expansion.
It’s only two athletic directors out of 10, but it’s no secret expansion has been and will continue to be an ongoing source of debate for the Big 12.
But here’s the million-dollar question. Does it actually make sense for the conference to expand?
Currently, the Big 12 splits its television revenue among 10 teams. If the conference expands, does the available money pie get bigger or stay the same? Adding additional revenue is always a priority for conference commissioners, athletic directors and school presidents. Losing money is not something that appeals to any school in this case.
Expanding to 12 or 14 teams would certainly help with a conference championship game, which is another stream of revenue for the Big 12. But as we mentioned before, a championship game also comes with its own share of problems. Just because a team is ranked in the top four for the College Football Playoff doesn’t mean that a league championship game will help its case. A loss or close win could hurt its case.
If the Big 12 decides the money works out and wants to expand, it has to believe there are enough candidates to add value. But is that the case?
Let’s propose a few possible additions and decide for yourself:
Revamped 12-Team Big 12 - Proposal 1
|Division 1||Division 2|
|Kansas State||Iowa State|
|West Virginia||Texas Tech|
This 12-team league definitely has some intrigue. Cincinnati and BYU are good additions and each team would be competitive right away. UCF, Memphis, Boise State or Tulane also make sense. The divisions are a bit imbalanced. The power is clearly in Division 2 right now, with TCU, Texas and Baylor. But college football is cyclical and that will change.
Or, let’s split the teams up a bit to balance out the divisions
Revamped 12-Team Big 12 - Proposal 2
|Division 1||Division 2|
|Iowa State||Oklahoma State|
|Texas Tech||West Virginia|
How about a 14-team proposal?
Revamped 14-Team Big 12
|Division 1||Division 2|
While the Big 12 would prefer to have new teams from Power 5 leagues, the options are small. The rumor mill churned a few years ago about Clemson, Florida State or other ACC teams leaving to join the Big 12. Barring a complete shift or change of heart, it’s unlikely any team will choose to leave the ACC any time soon.
Without Power 5 teams willing to leave, the Big 12’s candidates to expand would seem to be these schools:
|Air Force||Northern Illinois|
|Boise State||San Diego State|
While none of those options are Florida State and Clemson, there are some quality programs available. BYU is the best option on the board, but programs in fertile recruiting areas (Cincinnati, Memphis and UCF) are intriguing.
The Big 12 doesn’t need to expand to remain viable or make the playoffs on a consistent basis. But it does seem expansion is inevitable at some point.
While getting to 12 and bringing back a conference title game is critical to some, the Big 12 should be in no rush. Let programs like UCF, Memphis and Cincinnati continue to develop and monitor in a few years (after giving the conference more data on the playoff).
There’s potential in a 12- or 14-team Big 12. But expansion anytime soon just doesn’t make sense.
After one of the best stories of the summer last year in which Jackie Robinson West won the United States’ side of the Little League World Series, it was taken away for having ineligible players. After arguing for their case, they have filed a lawsuit against Little League to take back the title. They initially were accused of stretching their geographical boundaries to gain a better selection of players.
Their lawsuit claims that they were the only team to be scrutinized and investigated, pointing out an all African American team as the reason this was done. The team claimed that their ineligible players came by as a mistake, not a way to gain an advantage. It will surely be a while before anything further happens, but most fans would like to see the title given back to them.
Take a look below as they win the US Championship:
Football players get pumped up by doing whatever they can.
Comedy Central's Key & Peele decided to put their own spin on things. The team gets a little too into the excitement but as far as getting pumped up for an NFL game, apparently nothing is too much.
To little surprise, Cavaliers’ forward Kevin Love decided to forgo the final year of his contract in an effort for a better deal. Although he would have been paid over $16 million for the year, he will now enter free agency with the hopes of a bigger, longer contract. After a season that seemed to disappoint, especially with his injury early in the playoffs, he still remains a highly valuable player.
The move, however, does not mean that he will be done in Cleveland. The team figured he would opt out, but they are still very interested in signing him to the long-term. He stated his desire to return to the team next year, but others will be looking for his services. There is also a chance that Lebron James could opt out of his contract to seek a longer deal, although Cleveland would still remain a favorite for him to return to as well.
Here are some highlights from his first year in Cleveland:
Oregon ran away with the Pac-12 North last year, winning all but one of its conference games. This season the Ducks will be without Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota, but head coach Mark Helfrich does have options to try and replace him. Stanford should be in the mix while the rest of the division will be fighting for scraps most likely.
There are six teams in the Pac-12's North Division. This article will apply the win totals from one online sportsbook and discuss if there is any value in these numbers. A selection is made based on the team's schedule, in which the games are broken down into three categories - easy wins, toss-ups and certain losses. Most conference games are in the toss-up category unless there is a clear difference in talent.
Note: Over/under odds courtesy of 5Dimes Sportsbook
Pac-12 North Division
(Over 5 wins -230...Under 5 wins +170)
Record Last Year: 5-7, 3-6
Returning Starters: 13 (8 on offense, 5 on defense)
Offense: Another year in the Bear Raid offense should benefit this unit, as the majority of the starters are back. Jared Goff threw for almost 4,000 yards last year while putting up 35 touchdowns. He's got three of his four WRs back to go along with Daniel Lasco in the backfield.
Defense: Several transfers should help this unit after they allowed 61 touchdowns last year. James Looney will help solidify the front line while Michael Barton helps out at LB. The secondary could still be an issue which will force this bunch into a lot of shootouts.
Schedule: Things start out home friendly as Grambling State and San Diego State come to Berkeley, but after that there are road trips to Texas and Washington. The Golden Bears have a pretty balanced schedule the rest of the year with four home and road games.
Selection: The play is the over, but not at this price. There are a lot of secondaries in the Pac-12 that have holes and California will take advantage of that. I wouldn't say there's no shot at the under though so if you are game, then go for it. I just think that six wins seems about right here.
(Over 9.5 wins -135...Under 9.5 wins -105)
Record Last Year: 13-2, 8-1
Returning Starters: 11 (6 on offense, 5 on defense)
Offense: Vernon Adams gets the keys to the offense as he comes over from Eastern Washington. Adams averaged 9.0 yards per play in FCS. Royce Freeman and Thomas Tyner are back to run the ball while Dwayne Stanford, Darren Carrington and Byron Marshall are on the outside. The offensive line is solid on the right side.
Defense: DeForest Buckner makes this front line pretty stout while a pair of linebackers return as well. The secondary needs to replace almost everyone after Ifo Ekpre-Olomu departed for the NFL. Despite the turnover, Don Pellum's unit should be able to improve from last year.
Schedule: Oregon opens up with Eastern Washington, which takes on a new meaning with Adams now a Duck. The Ducks also host Georgia State with a road game at Michigan State in between. October features three of four on the road while November is the opposite with three of four at home including USC and Oregon State back-to-back.
Selection: Slight lean to the under, but only because the number is 9.5. There's a lot to like about this team, but I think they fall once in October as well as at Michigan State and at Stanford. The offense will be fun to watch though with Adams under center.
(Over 4 wins -110...Under 4 wins -130)
Record Last Year: 5-7, 2-7
Returning Starters: 9 (7 on offense, 2 on defense)
Offense: New coordinator Dave Baldwin takes over and is going to try and speed things up for Oregon State. Quarterback is an issue, but whomever wins the job will have some weapons to work with. Storm Woods is back after rushing for 766 yards and five touchdowns. Keep an eye on Jordan Villamin at WR as he's got the tools to be real successful.
Defense: Another new coordinator on this side of ball and he's got less to work with. Oregon State allowed 31.6 points per game last year. Lavonte Barnett and Jaswha James will be counted on to get pressure on the quarterback.
Schedule: Oregon State has three of its first four at home, hosting Weber State and San Jose State as well as Stanford. The Beavers play at Michigan in week 2, which should be a tough road trip. Three of four in October are on the road.
Selection: The under is the play here although I did several scenarios and came up with four wins. There are too many holes on defense and too many new coordinators to expect success in year one. Gary Andersen will need time to build the Beavers into a factor.
(Over 9 wins +130...Under 9 wins -170)
Record Last Year: 8-5, 5-4
Returning Starters: 12 (8 on offense, 4 on defense)
Offense: Kevin Hogan is back and he's got multiple weapons to get the ball to. The Cardinal were a mixed bag offensively last year, scoring 20 points or less in six games while scoring 30 or more in the other seven. Devon Cajuste paces the WRs while Remound Wright and Barry Sanders Jr. lead the way in the backfield.
Defense: Stanford's defense should be just as good as last year. Its linebacking corps is led by Kevin Anderson and Blake Martinez. Martinez had 102 tackles and three interceptions last year. The secondary could be the weak link of this group.
Schedule: Stanford's schedule is bunched up a bit. The Cardinal play three of four on the road before a three-game conference home stand. After that they have two straight on the road before three more at home. The non-conference slate features Notre Dame, Central Florida and a road game at Northwestern.
Selection: I'll take the over. It's asking a lot for Hogan to be consistent all year long, but with a plus price tag, I'll take my chances he plays well and Stanford survives the early grind. Getting UCLA, Arizona, Oregon and Notre Dame at home are all a big help.
(Over 4 wins -350...Under 4 wins +230)
Record Last Year: 8-6, 4-5
Returning Starters: 9 (5 on offense, 4 on defense)
Offense: Not a single passing yard returns from last year for this offense. Whomever is under center will have Jaydon Mickens to throw to and he had 60 receptions last year. Dwayne Washington leads the way at RB. This unit will need time to gel.
Defense: The Huskies defense is changing to a 3-4, but will need to replace most of last year's starters. Shaq Thompson is gone as well as John Timu. The secondary is the strength with Budda Baker leading the way.
Schedule: UW has three of its first four at home before things normalize a bit. The Huskies play at Boise State while hosting Sacramento State and Utah State out of conference. Things will be tough with USC, Oregon, Stanford and Arizona all in a row in October.
Selection: Not going to lie, I went through this schedule trying to get to the under. I'll say this, I wouldn't fault you if you blindly took the under. You won't find too many prices like this in the preseason. Chris Petersen has his work cut out for him.
(Over 5 wins -130...Under 5 wins -110)
Record Last Year: 3-9, 2-7
Returning Starters: 13 (7 on offense, 6 on defense)
Offense: Luke Falk gets the keys to Mike Leach's offense after his successful stint last year. Falk will rely on River Cracraft and Gabe Marks out wide while Jamal Morrow and Gerard Wicks run the ball. The offensive line is completely back from last year which will help.
Defense: This was a shaky bunch last year, allowing nearly 300 yards per game through the air. The Cougars have been working on a lot more nickel defense this offseason. The front line will be a veteran bunch led by Kache Palacio and Destiny Vaeao.
Schedule: This group gets a friendly September with home games against Portland State and Wyoming to go with a road game at Rutgers. October features road games at Oregon and Arizona. Washington State misses out on USC.
Selection: Vegas was on the money with this one, as I have them tabbed for five wins. The offense will be fun to watch with Falk under center. The defense will be the question mark. If you asked me to lean either way, then I'd go over.
— 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.
A little more than a week has passed since the Golden State Warriors raised the Larry O’Brien Trophy as NBA champions, and it’s already time to start prepping for next season. On Thursday night, lives and basketball franchises will change forever as the 2015 NBA Draft is set to take place. While Karl Anthony-Towns seems to be the universal choice for the No. 1 overall selection, nothing is certain after he shakes hands with Adam Silver and exits stage left. Trade rumors are starting to run rampant and stocks of prospects continue to rise and fall with each passing moment.
Here is what we at Athlon believe is going to transpire come Thursday night in Brooklyn.
1. Minnesota Timberwolves — Karl Anthony-Towns, Kentucky (7’0, 250)
Towns may not be as NBA ready as Duke’s Jahlil Okafor, but the scouting gap between the two lottery picks has widened recently. Towns is more naturally athletic and possibly has more potential upside in the long-term. But where Towns truly surpasses Okafor is rim protection, something the T’Wolves desperately need.
2. Los Angeles Lakers — Jahlil Okafor, Duke (6’11, 270)
Okafor is an NBA starter right now. His footwork, passing, and ability to finish from the interior is already at an elite level. His game is a back-to-the-basket throwback and should be an interesting fit in the modern NBA. Once drafted, Okafor will be the Lakers’ new go-to-man. Look for possible trade scenarios as reports are surfacing that Dwyane Wade and Demarcus Cousins are on Lakers’ GM Mitch Kupchak’s radar.
3. Philadelphia 76ers — D’Angelo Russell, Ohio State (6’5, 195)
Russell is a complete point guard that can score any way he wants to. His game has a natural flow, reminiscent to that of Chris Paul, but with more physicality and roughly the same game command. The Sixers need a franchise player and D’Angelo Russell could be their new answer.
4. New York Knicks — Kristaps Porzingis, Latvia (6’11, 210)
The 19-year-old Porzingis has been catching scouts and GM’s attention after a series of fantastic workouts in recent weeks and seems to almost be a lock for the Knicks at No. 4. Porzingis is still raw but offers a lot of offensive upside down the road. Look for him to hit the Garden hardwood after he hits the weight room.
5. Orlando Magic — Justise Winslow, Duke (6’6, 225)
Winslow worked his way into the lottery after a brilliant run through the NCAA tournament that displayed his incredible physical acumen. Winslow is still underdeveloped as a pure scorer but has the tools to step in immediately as a role player for the Magic who desperately need depth.
6. Sacramento Kings — Mario Hezonja, Croatia (6’8, 200)
Emmanuel Mudiay and Winslow could also be considerations for the Kings at No. 6. Hezonja is a well rounded scorer, especially for being just 20 years old. Hezonja will definitely add depth and firepower to a marginal Kings offense. Trade talk for Demarcus Cousins is beginning to heat up and this pick could be used as a chip in such trade talks. Cousins could wind up a Laker as the Kings take the No. 2 pick.
7. Denver Nuggests — Emmanuel Mudiay, China (6’5, 200)
Mudiay is a physical specimen for being just 19 years old. Mudiay, originally committed to SMU, spent his one year of ineligibility playing professional in China. With whispers escalating that Ty Lawson’s time in Denver being over (and possibly traded to Sacramento), Mudiay could be the Nuggets new starting point guard come October. While Mudiay is exceptional in most categories, shooting will be his biggest weakness.
8. Detroit Pistons — Stanley Johnson, Arizona (6’7, 240)
Johnson was one of the better two-way players in college basketball this past season, but if he wants big NBA minutes, his offensive game is going to have to develop. Johnson is already a pro-ready defender that can be a great building block for Stan Van Gundy’s new direction Pistons.
9. Charlotte Hornets — Devin Booker, Kentucky (6’6, 205)
After the Lance Stephenson experiment fell flat — embarrassingly flat — the Hornets are left with a hole on their perimeter. Enter 18-year old Devin Booker, the sweet stroking freshman wing from Kentucky. Booker should compete for starter’s minutes immediately and lure double teams away from Kemba Walker.
10. Miami Heat — Trey Lyles, Kentucky (6’10, 240)
Pat Riley goes against his norm of drafting for now and will draft Trey Lyles for the Heat future. After losing Chris Bosh to a blood clot, Riley has to be thinking youth first, and the physical Lyles could be a solid fit amongst a group of Miami bigs that struggle to score. This pick could be a possible chip in a trade that sends Dwyane Wade to the Lakers.
11. Indiana Pacers — Frank Kaminsky, Wisconsin (7’0, 230)
This pick could be the most interesting pick in the draft. The Pacers have several needs and Murray State point guard Cameron Payne or Willie Cauley-Stein make a lot of sense here too, but Kaminsky is ready to contribute right away for a Pacers squad that is looking for more ways to score, especially on the interior. Kaminsky is a man of many offensive skills and could fit nicely in Indy’s pick-and-roll scheme with Paul George and George Hill.
12. Utah Jazz — Willie Cauley-Stein, Kentucky (7’0, 240)
If WCS isn’t scooped up by the Heat or Pacers, he is a good fit for the Jazz. Protecting the rim has become vital in the modern NBA, and Cauley-Stein is the best in the draft at guarding the iron. WCS is a student of the game and is sure to pick up the slack in his offensive repertoire as he develops.
13. Phoenix Suns — Myles Turner, Texas (7’0, 240)
Turner could end up being the steal of the draft — we just wont find out for a few years. Turner is very raw offensively, but has shown glimpses of an inside-out game that has been on display for recent workouts. Turner is ready defensively and will see solid minutes if drafted by Phoenix.
14. Oklahoma City Thunder — Cameron Payne , Murray State (6’2, 185)
The Thunder can only hope Payne is available at No. 14, and if he is, take him. By many scouts observation, Payne is ready to be an NBA point guard right now. Putting Payne at the point could limit the number of ridiculous shots that Russell Westbrook takes, freeing up Kevin Durant to win another MVP trophy.
15. Atlanta Hawks — Kelly Oubre, Kansas (6’7, 205)
Oubre definitely underachieved at his only season under Bill Self, a mass producer of NBA talent, and Ourbre’s draft stock has been fluid as of late, but that isn’t scaring away NBA GMs who see him as a first-round risk. Oubre is arguably the most athletic wing in the first round but lacks offensive prowess. The Hawks may just be looking for best available talent at No. 15. Oubre could be their option.
16. Boston Celtics — R.J. Hunter, Georgia State (6’6, 185)
Hunter has impressed execs in his recent draft workouts with his sweet shooting and could go as high as No. 10 to Miami. The Celtics need perimeter spacing, and Hunter could be the gunner that allows for Marcus Smart to be a more free-flowing point guard. Trade rumors have the Celtics using their two first-round picks and trading up into the lottery. No one on the C’s roster could be safe.
17. Milwaukee Bucks — Bobby Portis, Arkansas (6’11, 245)
Portis could be one of the safer picks in the draft, as his game is as well rounded as other big men that will be selected ahead of him. Portis is a true rim protector but also has a balanced offensive game that includes a decent jumper. Portis is gritty and physical, just what the Bucks need as they continue to develop.
18. Houston Rockets — Tyus Jones, Duke (6’1, 185)
Jones proved to the basketball world time and time again last season that he has the ability to hit big shots and run a high-scoring offense. Jones may not be a lock as a franchise point guard but he will certainly be an upgrade over Father Time (Jason Terry) and Pablo Prigioni, who can contribute offensively from behind the arc. Tyus Jones is a no-brainer for Houston.
19. Washington Wizards — Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Arizona (6’6, 220)
Hollis-Jefferson would be joining an already set core of John Wall, Otto Porter and Bradley Beal. But the Arizona product would bring his NBA-ready defensive game to a team that lacks it on the perimeter. RHJ has developing to do offensively but could prove to be a nice piece off the bench in the Playoffs for the Wizards, who are so close to being the class of the East.
20. Toronto Raptors — Sam Dekker, Wisconsin (6’9, 220)
Dekker will be the player to watch on Thursday night. Dekker could be drafted anywhere from No. 10 to Miami to the last pick in the round to Golden State. Toronto could also use this pick to go big (if any are available) and upgrade over Tyler Hansborough. Dekker is ready to contribute to an NBA offense immediately and could be a fantastic piece for the Raptors as they continue their rise.
21. Dallas Mavericks — Jerian Grant, Notre Dame (6'5, 200)
Grant might be the most NBA ready wing in this class, as he can score any way that he wants to. Grant also has great size for his position that will allow him to be a combo guard that has become so popular in recent seasons. With Rajon Rondo more than likely on his way out of Dallas, Grant would be a fine replacement weapon in Rick Carlisle’s offense.
22. Chicago Bulls — Justin Anderson, Virginia (6’6, 225)
The Bulls can go many different directions with this pick. Hollis-Jefferson, Dekker, and Grant are all options for Chicago if available. Anderson will provide great athleticism and game intuition on the perimeter that will allow for parting with the aging Mike Dunleavy and Kirk Hinrich much easier.
23. Portland Trailblazers — Montrezl Harrell, Louisville (6’8, 253)
Harrell might struggle finding a permanent position in the NBA. At Louisville, he was the Cards defensive anchor and secondary scoring option, but his game translates awkwardly to the next level. Too small for a full-time power forward and not offensively polished enough for a full-time small forward, Harrell is going to have to use his excellent rebounding ability to make a name for himself and secure major minutes.
24. Cleveland Cavaliers — Rashad Vaughan, UNLV (6’6, 210)
This pick is all about depth for the Cavs. They were greatly exposed in the NBA Finals and are desperately seeking second unit scoring. Vaughan could be their answer at No. 24. If Cleveland is able to bring back their high-priced free agents, Vaughan could be a very serviceable role player with tons of long-term upside being only 18 years old.
25. Memphis Grizzlies — Kevon Looney, UCLA (6’9, 222)
Looney’s stock has fallen since the beginning of the college basketball season. Once thought of as a lottery pick, questions about his oft-injured hips and unusual frame for a big man have raised questions for NBA execs. The Griz are looking for more front court depth to back up an aging Zach Randolph. Bobby Portis could also be in play for this pick.
26. San Antonio Spurs — Delon Wright, Utah (6’6, 181)
Delon Wright might be the perfect player for Gregg Popovich and the Spurs. Wright is a multifaceted offensive weapon who is extremely intelligent and efficient on both ends of the floor. Wright could serve as a combo guard off the bench while learning how to be an NBA point guard under future Hall of Famer Tony Parker.
27. Los Angeles Lakers — Terry Rozier, Louisville (6’2, 190)
The Lakers need a lot, and they need it in a hurry if they hope to contend in the near future. This pick is likely to be gone via trade by the time its due. But if the Lakers hold the pick, Rozier should be available and Kupchak should pull the trigger. Rozier is very talented offensively in spurts but is also very sporadic at times. Some time on the bench learning the position could do Rozier worlds of good.
28. Boston Celtics — Jonathan Holmes, Texas (6’9, 242)
If the Celtics keep this pick, which is unlikely, Holmes would be a nice choice of GM Danny Ainge and head coach Brad Stevens and their analytically driven model. Holmes has the experience and wherewithal to be a good role player for a long time. The Celtics lack depth and Holmes could serve as a remedy to that problem.
29. Brooklyn Nets — Jarell Martin, LSU (6’9, 239)
The Nets are in dire need talent on their roster. Home-run talent is going to be sparse at No. 29 and making a trade with little to nothing to bargain with is going to be hard to do. Martin could very well slip to the second round as he is a second-tier talent in terms of big men in this draft. Most execs see Martin as a versatile stretch-four who can run the floor well for his size. Chris McCullough from Syracuse could also be in play here.
30. Golden State Warriors— Cliff Alexander, Kansas (6’8, 240)
Alexander is a bit of a wild card who used to be considered a lottery pick However, a shaky career at Kansas has sent his stock sliding to the point of being a second-round pick. Alexander is very talented and plays his best when off the ball offensively. Alexander is probably most noted for his defensive ability who could be worth the risk at No. 30.
The Athlon Sports editorial staff agonized, argued and then settled on a number.
It happens every year with certain predictions for the preseason magazines and the Top 25. In 2015, Baylor or TCU in the Big 12 was a huge debate. USC or Oregon in the Pac-12 was a heated discussion. Which team is the best in the ACC and will it be good enough to make the second annual College Football Playoff?
After hours of debate, it appears that the more things change, the more they stay the same in the ACC.
There is plenty of grey area about whether or not the ACC champ will be good enough to get in the Playoff but there was no debate about who the class of the ACC is going to be in 2015.
It's Clemson and Florida State.
Either the Tigers or Seminoles have won the Atlantic Division in six consecutive seasons and the ACC championship four straight years. NC State appears to be improving rapidly under third-year coach Dave Doeren. Boston College always looks like a tough out under Steve Addazio. And Louisville is going to be a consistent player in the division race for decades to come.
The ACC is clearly getting better and slowly earning back its national respect, particularly at the quarterback position. But can the league be all the way "back" if the best team in the league finishes No. 9 in the nation?
Florida State enters the preseason ranked ninth in the nation while Clemson ranks 14th. The only other team in the ACC to land inside of the top 35 is Georgia Tech at No. 18.
It doesn't take a calculus professor to realize that's well outside of the top four.
There's a lot to like about the Yellow Jackets. And Miami, Virginia Tech, Pitt, Louisville, NC State, Duke and North Carolina. These are solid teams and they've bolstered the depth in the ACC. And both Florida State and Clemson have a lot great pieces under two coaches surging through the prime of their careers.
But it looks like the ACC will be the league left out in the cold in '15.
Florida State and Clemson are clearly the best collections of talent in the ACC, boasting the No. 2 and No. 11-ranked rosters in the nation entering the season.
But Clemson returns just two starters on offense, loses offensive wizard Chad Morris and has a superstar quarterback who needs to prove he can stay healthy.
Florida State has just three starters back on offense after losing four offensive lineman, the program's all-time leading receiver, a John Mackey award-winning tight end and fourth-quarter savior Jameis Winston.
Add to it tougher schedules because of the developing underbelly of the ACC (and Notre Dame) and it's hard to see either of these teams winning the league with fewer than two losses. Ironically, the Fighting Irish could be a main culprit in eliminating the league from the Playoff with games against both Clemson and Georgia Tech.
Not to mention, a one-loss Irish squad would certainly be ranked at season's end ahead of a two-loss ACC champ.
Barring some unforeseen circumstances at places like Georgia Tech or Virginia Tech, the final standings in the ACC will look exactly like they've looked for the past six seasons with the Noles and Tigers on a tier by themselves. And just like the last 15 years — with the obviously exception in 2013 — the ACC's title winner is likely to be the lowest ranked of the Power 5 champions.
Then it would be John Swofford's turn to spend an offseason complaining about the Playoff Committee.
Most sports fans would agree that overtime is the most dramatic and exciting part of any game, should it come down to that. Hockey is unique in that if a game remains tied after overtime, it moves onto a shootout. However, there will soon be a change to limit shootouts per a vote by general managers in the NHL. They just recently passed a referendum to make overtime a 3 on 3 period, as opposed to the 4 on 4 now.
The move is being made in order to remove dependence on a shootout, and it also should help make the overtime even more thrilling. The shootout has been seen by many as too important for such a small event, and that games should really be decided in another way. This new rule will go to the Board of Governors for the NHL, who is expected to pass it through sometime today.
With the potential rule change, enjoy a couple of T.J. Oshie's shootout goals against Russia in the Winter Olympics last year:
The terms “on the hot seat” or “under pressure” usually apply to quarterbacks and head coaches. After all, there’s an enormous amount of pressure on quarterbacks and coaches for any college football team. And needless to say, it’s difficult to challenge for a conference championship or national title if the quarterback play is an issue all year or if the coaching staff’s status is uncertain after a slow start.
Despite most of the preseason focus on other positions, the battles in the trenches, at linebacker, cornerback or in the receiving corps are just as important to any team’s success in 2015.
Related: Big Ten Football 2015 Predictions
With that in mind, let’s set aside the quarterbacks and head coaches for a moment and examine some of the other positions that must produce in 2015.
14 Big Ten Position Groups Under Pressure in 2015
Illinois Offensive Line
Keeping quarterback Wes Lunt healthy is priority No. 1 for Illinois in 2015. With Lunt in the lineup, the Fighting Illini can push for a bowl appearance. Without Lunt, Illinois could struggle just to reach two wins in Big Ten play. The offensive line had its share of issues last year, giving up 37 sacks and only clearing the way for rushers to average 3.6 yards per carry (Big Ten-only games). Three starters are back in 2015, including standout senior Ted Karras. Will all of the pieces mesh up front for Illinois this year?
Indiana Defensive Backs
Scoring points shouldn’t be a problem for coach Kevin Wilson’s team in 2015. Even though running back Tevin Coleman left for the NFL, the Hoosiers landed UAB transfer Jordan Howard, and quarterback Nate Sudfeld is back from a season-ending shoulder injury. Defense has been an issue for Indiana in recent years, ranking near the bottom of the Big Ten in points allowed in each of the last seven seasons. The Hoosiers gave up 18 passing plays of 30 yards or more in 2014 and will have four new starters in the secondary with the dismissal of safety Antonio Allen.
Related: Big Ten 2015 All-Conference Team
Reloading at linebacker usually doesn’t present much trouble for coach Kirk Ferentz. But the Hawkeyes head into 2015 with uncertainty at this position, as Iowa needs to replace Quinton Alston and Reggie Spearman. The projected starting trio at the end of spring featured all sophomores, including Josey Jewell (51 stops in 2014) and Bo Bower (38 tackles, two sacks last year). With two defensive tackles stepping into the lineup, the linebackers will have to take on a bigger role in stopping the run and an overall presence in the front seven.
Maryland Wide Receivers
A couple of positions – defensive line, linebacker or offensive line – are worth a mention for Maryland here. But the receiving corps is the pick, as the Terrapins have been hit hard by player departures since 2014. Stefon Diggs left for the NFL, Deon Long expired his eligibility, while Marcus Leak and Juwann Winfree departed the team over the summer. The Terrapins need big contributions from senior Levern Jacobs, junior Amba Etta-Tawo and sophomore Taivon Jacobs.
Michigan Offensive Line
In addition to quarterback play, this unit is the biggest concern for new coach Jim Harbaugh. The Wolverines have struggled to get steady play from this group over the last two years and allowed 17 sacks in Big Ten play last season. Not only are tweaks and improvements coming to the offense under Harbaugh, the offensive line also has a new coach in Tim Drevno. With four starters back, Harbaugh and Drevno should be able to squeeze some improvement out of this group. Left tackle Mason Cole is a name to watch in 2015.
Michigan State Defensive Backs
Michigan State’s “No Fly Zone” is looking a little vulnerable headed into fall camp. The Spartans lost safety Kurtis Drummond and cornerback Trae Waynes from a unit that allowed only six passing scores in Big Ten play in 2014. Junior Darian Hicks is a returning starter in the secondary, but both cornerback spots are up for grabs. Senior Arjen Colquhoun and freshman Vayante Copeland will compete with Hicks, one starting job at safety is in good hands with senior RJ Williamson, while sophomore Montae Nicholson is a breakout candidate in the secondary. The Spartans have one of the best defensive fronts in college football. Will the secondary quickly reload under new co-defensive coordinators Harlon Barnett and Mike Tressel?
Minnesota Wide Receivers
Quarterback Mitch Leidner has to play better, but the Golden Gophers also have to get more production out of their receiving corps to upgrade the passing attack. Minnesota’s receiving corps featured only one player with more than 18 catches last year (tight end Maxx Williams). With Williams off to the NFL, which receivers will step up to give Leidner a big-play threat or consistent possession option? Senior KJ Maye is the veteran of the receiving corps, while freshmen Isaiah Gentry, Desmond Gant, Melvin Holland and Jeff Jones are expected to play a large role.
New coordinator Mark Banker will spend a lot of time watching over this group in the fall. The Cornhuskers are thin on depth and proven options, and the overall outlook for the linebacking corps changed even more when David Santos left the team in June. Junior Michael Rose-Ivey is projected to start but is also coming off a knee injury that forced him to miss all of 2014. Josh Banderas has to be the anchor for this unit in 2015, and the junior is back after recording 50 tackles in 12 games last year. This fall will be a critical one for sophomore Marcus Newby and freshmen Dedrick Young and Luke Gifford.
Northwestern Wide Receivers
Northwestern is looking to generate more production out of its passing attack after connecting only six plays of 30 yards or more. Quarterback play is still a concern after three players were locked into a tight battle at the end of spring practice. But who steps up as big-play targets for the quarterbacks? Christian Jones is back after missing 2014 due to a knee injury, and fellow seniors Miles Shuler and Cameron Dickerson combined for 47 catches last year. The senior trio needs to step up in 2015, while getting help from the next group of receivers to help the passing game grow behind the new starting quarterback.
Ohio State Defensive Line
As the defending national champs, combined with 14 returning starters, there’s very little in the way of personnel concerns that should concern coach Urban Meyer. Considering the overall depth and roster talent, it seems odd to even list a position here. However, the Buckeyes lost a couple of key contributors up front, including standout tackle Michael Bennett. While Joey Bosa (DE) and Adolphus Washington (DT) are All-Americans, who will step up at the other spots and develop as key contributors for depth?
Related: 2015 All-America Team
Penn State Offensive Line
Much has been made of the performance of Penn State’s offensive line last year. The Nittany Lions couldn’t generate much of a push in the rushing attack and allowed 44 sacks. And headed into the 2015 season, this unit is still the team’s biggest question mark. Line coach Herb Hand is one of the best in the nation, and there’s reason to believe improvement will be noticeable with four starters back. Junior college recruit Paris Palmer could be a huge addition on the left side of the line, as this group has to do a better job of giving quarterback Christian Hackenberg time to throw.
Purdue Running Backs
The Boilermakers head into coach Darrell Hazell’s third season looking to take a significant step forward after a 4-20 record over the last two years. Improving the quarterback play is a priority for Hazell, but the rushing attack is also under the spotlight after the departures of Akeem Hunt and Raheem Mostert. That duo rushed for 1,478 yards of Purdue’s 1,886 yards on the ground last season, leaving sophomore Keyante Green and freshman Markell Jones as the top options for Hazell. Will this duo match or exceed the production from Mostert and Hunt?
Rutgers Offensive Line
The Scarlet Knights have more concerns than just the offensive line, but this unit is replacing three starters off a group that allowed only 19 sacks in 2014. Senior left tackle Keith Lumpkin and junior guard Chris Muller are two solid building blocks for new coordinator Ben McDaniels and line coach Mitch Browning. But filling the other three spots up front will be critical with a new quarterback stepping in, as well as the talent returning at running back.
Wisconsin Wide Receivers
New coach Paul Chryst has to get better play from his quarterback Joel Stave, but the supporting cast at receiver also has to provide more help. Last year, no Badger receiver with at least 10 catches averaged more than 14 yards per reception. More big plays are needed from this group, along with a second option to help Alex Erickson (55 catches in 2014).
Drake. No matter how you slice it, he's had his hand on almost every big part of the NBA season.
The Toronto rapper made the phrase "Steph Curry with the shot boy" famous, little Riley Curry sang his part in Big Sean's "Blessed, and now his lyrics are being read by NBA prospects.
Frank Kaminsky, Willie Cauley-Stein, and more give a very passionate reading of Drake's iconic words.
Drake doesn't even have to die to be a legend.
(H/t Bleacher Report)
The overall unpredictability of a college football season is one of the main reasons to tune in each Saturday during the fall. While preseason predictions and rankings are often accurate and correctly project the amount of wins for specific teams, each season always brings a surprise or two in the top 25.
2015 will be no different, as there will be a handful of teams that jump into the top 25 that weren’t ranked there in the preseason. And who knows, maybe there is a program poised to emerge as a national title contender.
So whether it’s a team finishing in the top 10 that no one expected in the preseason or another program struggling to reach .500 after a successful stretch, each year presents many different case studies when trying to project teams for the upcoming season. And some teams quickly rebound after a disappointing year to contend for a conference title or crack the top 25 once again.
When it comes to judging improvement in college football, it doesn’t always come in the form of wins and losses. Improvement can simply come as a result of a team being more competitive within its conference and reducing the margin of defeat.
Kickoff for college football’s 2015 season is just over 70 days away, but it’s never too early to start thinking about which teams will be some of the most improved in the nation.
College Football's Most Improved Teams for 2015
Power 5 Teams
Auburn could go from a .500 team in SEC play to a playoff contender. The Tigers are explosive on offense and feature rising star Jeremy Johnson at quarterback to replace Nick Marshall. The defense has to improve after giving up 6.4 yards per play in SEC games last season. With six starters back, Will Muschamp calling the signals and end Carl Lawson back from injury, this group should show marked improvement. And it certainly doesn’t hurt Auburn’s national title hopes that Georgia and Alabama must visit Jordan-Hare Stadium in 2015.
Related: SEC 2015 All-Conference Team
Thanks to a brutal schedule, major improvement in the win column seems unlikely for California. However, a one or two-game jump in victories is certainly within reach. The Golden Bears improved from 1-11 in 2013 to 5-7 last year and return 13 starters for 2015. The offense averaged 38.3 points per game last season, and there’s little reason to expect this unit to slow its performance. Quarterback Jared Goff continues to develop entering his junior campaign, running back Daniel Lasco quietly rushed for 1,115 yards last year, and the receiving corps is deep with proven options. The defense was the biggest concern for coach Sonny Dykes last year and is an issue once again. But with Washington taking a step back and question marks at Stanford and Oregon, California could pull an upset (or two) and should reach the postseason for the first time since 2011.
Related: Pac-12 2015 All-Conference Team
Indiana’s bowl hopes ended shortly after quarterback Nate Sudfeld suffered a season-ending shoulder injury last year. The Hoosiers were never able to find consistent production at quarterback the rest of the year, as the offense never eclipsed more than 179 passing yards over the final seven games. With Sudfeld back in the mix, Indiana has a good shot at getting to a bowl in 2015. Of course, replacing running back Tevin Coleman and finding receivers for Sudfeld are two key question marks to address, but the Hoosiers have a favorable non-conference slate and play three key swing games at home. UAB transfer Jordan Howard should be a capable replacement for Coleman, and talented sophomore J-Shun Harris is a breakout candidates at receiver. Improving the defense is another priority for coach Kevin Wilson, as this unit gave up 32.8 points per game and allowed too many big plays. Making matters worse, star safety Antonio Allen was dismissed after an offseason arrest.
Jim Harbaugh is one of the nation’s top coaches, and it won’t be long before Michigan is back in contention for the Big Ten title. The Wolverines may not have elite talent right now, but there’s more in place than the recent on-field performance would suggest. Defense is the strength of Harbaugh’s first team, as six starters return from a unit that limited opponents to 4.8 yards per play in 2014. Offense is Harbaugh’s specialty, and this unit needs a lot of attention after averaging 20.9 points per game last year. Iowa transfer Jake Rudock could start at quarterback but expect to see plenty of running backs Derrick Green and Ty Isaac in the gameplan.
The Fighting Irish’s 2014 season took a huge hit before the first game was played. Defensive standouts in cornerback KeiVarae Russell and defensive end Ishaq Williams were suspended for the entire year, leaving a massive void on a defense breaking in a new scheme under coordinator Brian VanGorder. Russell is slated to return in 2015, and Williams appears to be on track as well. In addition to suspensions, Notre Dame was hit hard by the injury bug and struggled on defense in the second half of 2014. With Everett Golson transferring to Florida State, the starting quarterback job clearly belongs to Malik Zaire. The sophomore showcased his talents in the Music City Bowl win over LSU and will have plenty of help from a standout receiving corps and offensive line. The schedule isn’t easy, but Notre Dame also has enough talent to push for a 10-2 record.
Related: All-America Team for 2015
A projected one-game jump in the win column isn’t necessarily the best indicator of how Oklahoma State should improve in 2015. The Cowboys were headed to a 5-7 finish last year, until a late punt return by Tyreek Hill against Oklahoma gave Oklahoma State an opportunity to score a win over its in-state rival in overtime. Hill’s punt return propelled the Cowboys to a bowl game, which coach Mike Gundy’s team responded with a solid 30-22 win over Washington in the Cactus Bowl. Oklahoma State should go from a fringe bowl team to a contender for a spot in the top 25 in 2015. Quarterback Mason Rudolph is a rising star, and the sophomore is anchored by an improving offensive line and deep receiving corps. The defense is also expected to improve with seven starters returning. And how’s this for scheduling: Oklahoma State plays three home games in November – TCU, Baylor and Oklahoma. That’s a good recipe for a team on the rebound as the Cowboys will be peaking in the second half of 2015.
There’s not much separating the teams in the Coastal Division. While Georgia Tech is the favorite, the Panthers could surprise in coach Pat Narduzzi’s first year. The offense scored at least 30 points in each of the last five games of 2014, and eight starters are back for 2015. Running back James Conner and receiver Tyler Boyd are two of the top skill players in the nation, and the offensive line could be the best in the ACC. Narduzzi and new coordinator Josh Conklin should make a big impact on defense, as this unit has to play better after giving up 26.3 points per game in 2014. With a favorable schedule – no Florida State, Clemson or NC State in crossover play – Pittsburgh could push for a finish among the top three in the Coastal.
The SEC East is Georgia’s division to lose in 2015. But what happens if the Bulldogs struggle to find a quarterback? Tennessee is positioned for a run at the division title if that happens, and the Volunteers should post their best record under coach Butch Jones. Tennessee returns 17 starters and additional help is on the way in the form of another stellar recruiting class. Quarterback Joshua Dobbs is poised to push for All-SEC honors after an impressive second half of 2014. The junior has help in the form of a talented duo at running back, an experienced receiving corps and four returning starters on the offensive line. Tennessee should take a big step forward in Jones’ third year on Rocky Top.
Related: SEC 2015 All-Conference Team
Kliff Kingsbury’s tenure at Texas Tech started fast. The Red Raiders opened 7-0 in 2013 but lost their final five regular season games. However, since the 7-0 start in 2013, Texas Tech is just 5-13 and is coming off a disappointing 2-7 mark in Big 12 play last year. While this team underachieved in 2014, a rebound is in store for 2015. As usual, the offense will be explosive. Running back DeAndre Washington is an underrated player, and quarterback Patrick Mahomes showed promise in a late-season stint. But for the Red Raiders to get back to the postseason, improving the defense is a must. Hiring David Gibbs as coordinator will pay immediate dividends for this unit, and there’s only one way to go after giving up 41.3 points per game last year. After posting a -13 in the turnover margin in 2014, Texas Tech is due for better luck in this department in 2015.
Virginia Tech recorded eight consecutive seasons with at least 10 wins from 2004-11, but the Hokies have not won more than eight in each of the last three years. Can coach Frank Beamer return this program to national prominence? The pieces are in place for improvement in 2015. The defense is one of the best in college football with the return of eight starters, along with two players – cornerback Brandon Facyson and tackle Luther Maddy – back from injury. While the defense will be salty, the offense has to improve for the Hokies to win the Coastal. There’s optimism on that side of the ball, as quarterback Michael Brewer has a full offseason to work as the No. 1 signal-caller, and there’s good skill talent in place at running back and receiver. The offensive line remains a concern after giving up 34 sacks in 2014. With no Florida State, Clemson or Louisville on the schedule, Virginia Tech has a favorable path to the Coastal title. Is this the year Beamer gets the Hokies back to being a top 25 team?
Related: ACC 2015 Predictions
Others to Watch
Mike MacIntyre has Colorado trending in the right direction. However, it’s going to take some time before the Buffaloes are ready to move up in the South Division.
Since a 10-3 mark in 2012, the Wildcats are just 10-14 in their last two years. This team has experienced some bad luck in close games in that two-year window, but 15 returning starters should give coach Pat Fitzgerald reason to expect improvement. If the Wildcats find a quarterback, a bowl game should be within reach.
The Nittany Lions will be better in coach James Franklin's second season. How much? That depends on an offensive line that struggled last season.
The Cardinal is coming off its first season of fewer than 11 wins under coach David Shaw. The defense loses several key contributors from 2014, but the offense is poised to take a step forward in quarterback Kevin Hogan’s senior year. Can Stanford push Oregon in the North?
Offense certainly isn’t a concern for the Aggies. How much will the defense improve under new coordinator John Chavis?
Group of 5 Teams
Akron is still looking for a breakthrough year under coach Terry Bowden. The Zips have won five games in back-to-back seasons and just missed a .500 mark in league play for the second consecutive year after a three-point loss to Kent State in late November. Akron needs more from Kyle Pohl or Pittsburgh transfer Tra’Von Chapman at quarterback, but the defense should be among the best in the MAC. With no Northern Illinois, Toledo or Western Michigan on the schedule in crossover play, Akron has one of the MAC’s most favorable slates. Getting to six wins is a very reasonable goal for the Zips.
Related: MAC Predictions for 2015
Scott Satterfield’s squad finished 2014 as one of the hottest teams in the Sun Belt. The Mountaineers won six in a row to close out last year, including victories over bowl teams UL Lafayette and Arkansas State. With 20 starters back, Appalachian State should push for the Sun Belt title. Quarterback Taylor Lamb and running back Marcus Cox will be two of the league’s best players, and the defense will show improvement after allowing 27.3 points per game in 2014.
Related: Sun Belt Predictions for 2015
Last season's 5-7 mark was only the second losing record of Pete Lembo’s coaching career. With 17 returning starters, don’t expect a repeat of last year’s record. The Cardinals found their quarterback late last season in Jack Milas, and the sophomore has a solid group of receivers to lean on and all five starters up front. The defense has room to improve after giving up 27.2 points per game in 2014. The front seven is solid, but the secondary will have three new starters. Expect to see Ball State back in the mix for a spot in college football’s postseason in 2015.
Related: MAC Predictions for 2015
New coach Lance Leipold was one of the offseason’s top hires, and the Bulls return nine starters from a team that won five games in 2014. While the defense and offensive line have plenty of holes to plug, the offense should be explosive behind quarterback Joe Licata and running back Anthone Taylor. Buffalo has three winnable games in September, and a 3-1 start would give Leipold’s team a chance to reach bowl eligibility. Leipold went 109-6 in eight years at Wisconsin-Whitewater, and it won’t be long before the Wisconsin native has Buffalo in contention for the MAC East title.
Related: MAC Predictions for 2015
It seems odd to suggest a team that has won eight games in back-to-back years could be on the most-improved list. However, the Cougars are a team on the rise headed into 2015. New coach Tom Herman is a rising star, and the former Ohio State play-caller should transform Greg Ward Jr. into one of the American Athletic’s top quarterbacks. With Cincinnati, Navy and Memphis all visiting TDECU Stadium in 2015, Houston has a chance to push for double-digit wins in 2015.
Related: American Athletic 2015 Predictions
The Lobos have won 11 games in coach Bob Davie’s three years, but progress has been noticeable. New Mexico won two games in Mountain West play last season and was competitive in losses against Boise State (11 points) and Utah State (seven). With 11 starters back, combined with a favorable schedule, the Lobos may have enough to push for bowl eligibility. Getting to six wins will largely depend on the development of Lamar Jordan or Austin Apodaca at quarterback, along with a defense that has struggled mightily in recent years.
Related: Mountain West Predictions for 2015
The Mustangs made one of the offseason’s top hires by bringing in Chad Morris as the program’s new head coach. Morris has strong recruiting ties to the state of Texas from his experience as a high school coach, and his offense should have no trouble attracting talent to Dallas. Junior quarterback Matt Davis is a breakout candidate and a good fit for Morris’ spread attack. Despite last year’s 1-11 record, SMU has talent in the program. An immediate boost in the win column is coming for the Mustangs in 2015.
Related: American Athletic 2015 Predictions
Cincinnati is the heavy favorite to win the American Athletic’s East Division in 2015, but keep a close watch on the development of Temple. The Owls return 17 starters from a team that made a four-game improvement in the win column last year. Quarterback P.J. Walker needs more help from the supporting cast for the offense to improve off last year’s totals. The good news for Walker: Running back Zaire Williams is healthy, and receiver Robby Anderson (17.9 ypc average in 2013) are expected to return to the team. The defense could be the best in the American Athletic this season, as linebacker Tyler Matakevich anchors a unit that held opponents to 17.5 points per game last year.
Related: American Athletic 2015 Predictions
The Minutemen showed significant progress in Mark Whipple’s return to Amherst. UMass won three games, which was more than it won in two years (2012-13) under Charley Molnar. But the Minutemen were much closer to .500 than some may realize, as this team lost by three points to Colorado and Vanderbilt and fell by a touchdown or less in MAC games against Bowling Green, Miami (Ohio) and Toledo. With 18 starters back, Whipple should have UMass in the mix to play in a bowl in 2015. Quarterback Blake Frohnapfel is one of the best in the Group of 5 ranks, and receiver Tajae Sharpe (85 catches) is back as his top target.
Related: MAC Predictions for 2015
Just like last year, Athlon Sports' 2015 NFL Preview magazine includes NFL player rankings at every position. The rankings in the magazine are provided by Dan Shonka of Ourlads' NFL Scouting Services, a company that's been in the football talent evaluation business for more than three decades.
While the Rob Gronkowski vs. Jimmy Graham debate is sure to pick back up this season, there was no doubt that Gronk was the best tight end in the league last season. Following his injury-plagued 2013 in which he played in just seven games, Gronkowski made it through the 2014 campaign injury free and posted some mighty impressive numbers along the way. Graham was no slouch himself, catching 10 touchdown passes, but some nagging injuries limited his big plays, as he averaged a career-low 10.5 yards per catch. This season, while Gronk will team up with Tom Brady once again to wreak havoc, Graham will be catching passes from Russell Wilson instead of Drew Brees, as the big target looks to add a new element to Seattle's offense in its quest for a third straight trip to the Super Bowl.
Rankings courtesy of Ourlads' NFL Scouting Services
2015 NFL Player Rankings: Tight Ends
1. Rob Gronkowski, New England
The huge red-zone target with long arms made it through the 2014 season injury-free. He corralled 82 passes for 1,124 yards, averaging 13.7 yards per catch, and scored 12 times.
2. Jimmy Graham, Seattle
Fought through a shoulder injury in 2014 but still came up with 85 catches good for 889 yards and 10 touchdowns. He will have a new role in Seattle as a blocker, as well as a featured receiver.
3. Jason Witten, Dallas
Has caught 943 passes in his 12-year career, good for 10,502 yards and 57 touchdowns. He also has played in 187 straight games.
4. Greg Olsen, Carolina
Was second only to Gronkowski in tight end receiving yards with 1,008. Has played in 126 consecutive games, the second-longest streak in the NFL among active tight ends.
5. Martellus Bennett, Chicago
Led all tight ends with 90 catches, averaging just over a first down per reception at 10.2 yards. He broke Hall of Famer Mike Ditka’s single-season record for most catches by a Bears tight end.
6. Travis Kelce, Kansas City
Showed good run-after-catch ability, gaining 20 yards or more on 15 of his 67 catches. For a big man, he has the speed to get vertical down the field.
7. Dwayne Allen, Indianapolis
Allen and teammate Coby Fleener became the first tight end duo on the same team to each record eight touchdowns in a season. He’s a versatile athlete who can play fullback, wide receiver and in the slot.
8. Zach Ertz, Philadelphia
A dependable pass catcher who is smart and athletic. Effective blocker when on the move. Productive with 58 catches for 702 yards.
9. Virgil Green, Denver
A natural hand catcher with speed. Demonstrated good-enough ball skills and athletic ability that the Broncos decided to let Julius Thomas go in free agency.
10. Julius Thomas, Jacksonville
Signed with Jacksonville as an unrestricted free agent. Became the first tight end in NFL history to catch at least 12 touchdown passes in consecutive seasons.
11. Antonio Gates, San Diego
12. Delanie Walker, Tennessee
13. Heath Miller, Pittsburgh
14. Charles Clay, Buffalo
15. Jared Cook, St. Louis
16. Owen Daniels, Denver
17. Coby Fleener, Indianapolis
18. Jermaine Gresham, Free Agent
19. Vernon Davis, San Francisco
20. Larry Donnell, N.Y. Giants
The AFC South was the weakest division in the AFC because of the horrendous seasons by the Jaguars and Titans, who both saw major setbacks last year. The Colts remained very consistent and dangerous, while the Texans moved from last place in 2013 to a very respectable 9-7 second-place finish.
Look below for players from each AFC South team who will be vital to their team’s success in 2015:
Arthur Jones, Defensive End, Indianapolis Colts (1st place, 11-5)
After signing a large contract, Jones was very disappointing in his first year with the team, after he played well with the Ravens. An ankle injury limited him to only nine games, starting in only three of those. He recorded just one sack, while he recorded more than four in each of the two years prior. The talent and upside are there for Jones, as he has proven it in the past. Remaining healthy will be key because the Colts really need his ability to pressure opposing quarterbacks.
Other players to watch: centers Khaled Holmes/Jonotthan Harrison
Jadeveon Clowney, Linebacker, Houston Texans (2nd place, 9-7)
Another player to watch: quarterback Brian Hoyer
Luke Joeckel, Left Tackle, Jacksonville Jaguars (3rd place, 3-13)
The Jaguars have been one of the league’s worst teams for several years now, as they haven't even finished .500 since 2010. Thus, most of their players will really need to step up if 2015 is going to bring any improvement in the win column. However, Joeckel, the No. 2 overall pick of the 2013 draft, has really not played up to his draft status. He was a part of an offensive line that gave up the most sacks in the league last year, which contributed to quarterback Blake Bortles' struggles and growing pains as a rookie. Bortles needs the support of his line if he's going to continue to develop, which is where the onus falls on Joeckel as he enters his third season in the league.
Another player to watch: quarterback Blake Bortles
Marcus Mariota, Quarterback, Tennessee Titans (4th place, 2-14)
With all the speculation surrounding what the Titans would do with the second pick, they ultimately took Mariota because they want him to be their franchise quarterback. It may be unfair to name him as a player who needs to step up because he is a rookie, but Tennessee needs some hope. He doesn’t even have to be great right away, but he’ll need to show growth and consistency so hopeful fans don’t become quickly disappointed. It’s hard to expect so much from one player, but he is a huge investment with great upside.
Another player to watch: running back Bishop Sankey
When the Clemson offensive coaches meet, Robbie Caldwell has to feel a little bit out of place, even if he has been coaching the Tiger offensive line for four seasons.
Leading the meeting is likely to be Jeff Scott or Tony Elliott, the program’s new co-coordinators and each a former Clemson wide receiver. Tight ends coach Danny Pearman played the position for the Tigers. Graduate assistants Tyler Grisham and Thomas Austin wore the Orange.
Caldwell went to Furman. It’s in South Carolina, but that’s not the same.
So, what happens during the meetings? Perhaps the other coaches make Caldwell bring coffee and donuts every day. They could force him to sing “Hail the Purple and White,” the Furman fight song. Or maybe “Tiger Rag,” the Clemson battle hymn, would be more appropriate. Do they speak in code around him? Grill him about school traditions, like the $2 bill?
“He’s been here longer than a lot of the other coaches have,” Elliott says about Caldwell. “Plus he has a daughter at Clemson. He belongs.”
It’s unlikely any program in the country has so many of its alumni coaching on one side of the ball. And while Caldwell no doubt feels comfortable amidst all of those Tigers, it will be interesting to see how he and the others handle the departure of former coordinator Chad Morris — now the boss at SMU — and the dual ascensions of Elliott and Scott to the vacant spot. Clemson’s attacks under Morris were extremely potent, and one of the more interesting stories heading into the 2015 season is how well Scott and Elliott, in their new co-coordinator roles, will be able to replicate Morris’ success.
In 2012, the Tiger offense was ninth nationally in total yards (512.7 ypg) and sixth in scoring (41.0 ppg). The following season, Clemson was again ninth in total offense (508.5 ypg) and tied for eighth in scoring (40.2 ppg). That performance earned Morris AFCA National Assistant Coach of the Year honors. Although the losses of weapons such as wideout Sammy Watkins and quarterback Tajh Boyd caused a drop in the Tigers’ 2014 production, Morris remained a man in demand, and the Mustangs hired him last Dec. 1, leaving Clemson coach Dabo Swinney with a decision to make. He stayed in-house, elevating Scott, who had been the Tigers’ receivers coach, and Elliott, who handled the running backs.
Related: Buy the 2015 ACC Preview Magazine
“This has been my plan for a while,” Swinney says. “It’s one of the easiest decisions I have had to make. The last four years, we have had a lot of success, and Tony Elliott and Jeff Scott are huge reasons why. They are incredibly bright young coaches who know what we do and love Clemson. It’s an easy fit.”
But that doesn’t mean it’s an easy job. No coach in Clemson history has won more games during a four-year period than has Swinney. But there is a sense that his strong assistant coaching staff, led by Morris and defensive coordinator Brent Venables, has been largely responsible for his success. Losing Morris, who had been one of the hottest assistants in the country, could interrupt that success.
No pressure, Jeff and Tony. Just keep cranking out units that score 40 points per game, and everything will be all right.
“Every coach knows they are judged by wins and losses and how the offense does,” Scott says. “When you move up the ladder and get coordinator titles, the expectations go up.
“We want to perform better than any Clemson offense has performed.”
• • •
Morris gets the awards, the attention, the opportunity to resurrect SMU’s flagging fortunes — and a fat contract to do. But during any given week over the past four seasons, he had a lot of help. Scott, Elliott and the rest of the Clemson offensive staff didn’t just focus on their positions. They had significant roles in developing gameplans.
For instance, Scott, the wideouts coach at Clemson for four of his seven years on the staff, was involved in deciding which passing plays the Tigers would use on first and second downs. He also decided which deep throws would work best against specific opponents and helped put together the offensive options on third-and-long situations. During games, Scott would make suggestions to Morris about when to try long shots.
“Coach Morris did a good job of delegating gameplan responsibilities among the other four coaches in the (offensive) room,” says Scott, the son of former South Carolina head coach and Clemson assistant Brad Scott. “This isn’t a huge transition.”
Elliott was in charge of studying opponents’ blitz packages and devising pickup strategies for the running backs, whom he coached for the past four seasons at Clemson. He also decided which plays would comprise the first- and second-down ground package. During games, he would recommend running plays to Morris.
Both coaches expect to have a similarly collaborative effort in the coming seasons. The process worked well in the Tigers’ 40–6 rout of Oklahoma in the Russell Athletic Bowl that gave Swinney his fourth straight season with at least 10 wins. Although Clemson managed a modest 387 total yards, much of the second half was spent protecting the giant lead it had amassed in the first 30 minutes. Elliot and Scott, who were teammates and stretching partners during their time at CU, worked well together during the month leading up to the game and expect similar harmony moving forward.
Related: Clemson 2015 Preview and Prediction
“We complement each other well,” says Elliott, who has a degree in industrial engineering. “There are no egos involved. We want to put young men into position to succeed. It’s not going to be about me or Jeff.
“We are battle tested together. When you play with someone, you develop a bond that’s deep. When we get put into tough situations that we have to get through, the foundation of our friendship will help.”
Elliott will spend game days in the booth, where he is most comfortable, and will make the final decision on playcalling. Scott is more comfortable on the field, especially since he will continue to coach the receivers and needs to be close to the action to manage substitutions. The concept of co-coordinators has been gaining some steam in college football of late. TCU went to that model last season, and Ed Warinner and Tim Beck are splitting the position at Ohio State. Florida State, Mississippi State and Michigan State were among 2014’s top teams that employed the concept, so it’s not like Swinney was doing something outrageous when he elevated Elliott and Scott.
Since the two spent the past four years working under Morris and learning how he implemented the system, there is limited risk. Granted, it’s impossible to tell how their playcalling will work out and if they can maintain production with an offense that will include plenty of new faces. But Swinney hasn’t done this hastily.
“Four years ago, it wasn’t the right time for (Elliott and Scott) to be coordinators,” he says. “But I knew it was coming. Those guys are more than ready now.”
Scott and Elliott will direct an offense that hopes to have DeShaun Watson back as its primary triggerman. Watson underwent surgery for a partially torn ACL in December but expects to be ready for fall practice. In eight games last year (Watson missed three due to a broken bone in his throwing hand), the true freshman completed 67.9 percent of his passes for 1,466 yards and 14 TDs with only two interceptions. He also ran for 200 yards and five scores. He is perfect for the Tigers system and will have a bunch of talented skill players around him. Wayne Gallman (769 rushing yards, four TDs) leads a deep stable of backs, and Artavis Scott (76 catches, eight TDs) and Mike Williams (57 catches, six TDs) are back on the outside.
“I feel the same way I felt last year under Coach Morris,” Watson says. “I’m comfortable with the offense. I want to go out each game and get a W, get a lot of points, score touchdowns and play with a fast tempo. I want to spread the ball around so everybody gets the chance to make plays.”
Sounds like the Clemson way. Elliott and Scott are ready to keep the good times going, and they have plenty of Orange support in the meeting room — even from Caldwell.