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All taxonomy terms: Alabama Crimson Tide, College Football, SEC
Path: /college-football/why-alabama-will-wont-make-college-football-playoff-2015
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Heading into the 2014 season, speculation about what life after AJ McCarron would bring for Alabama lingered around Tuscaloosa and the SEC like early-morning humidity in the South.

 

While All-American wide receiver Amari Cooper and other notable players returned, McCarron’s likely successor, Florida State quarterback transfer Jake Coker didn’t appear to be the lock for the starting job that many expected him to win. The addition of controversial offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin to the coaching staff added yet another questionable element.

 

Those questions were quelled by mid-October and the Crimson Tide rode an eight-game winning streak — and win over rival Auburn — to capture the SEC West crown and play in the inaugural College Football Playoff. Eventual national champion Ohio State defeated Alabama 42-35 in the Sugar Bowl semifinal, but the team’s 2014 season was considered to be a success – even by Tide fans’ lofty standards.

 

Fast forward a year and fans find themselves pondering the same questions as a mass exodus of talent leaves question marks on both sides of the football.

 

Related: Alabama Crimson Tide 2015 Preview and Prediction

 

Three Reasons Why Alabama Will Make the College Football Playoff in 2015

 

1. Strong Recruiting Classes

Although Cooper, Landon Collins, Trey DePriest and T.J. Yeldon have departed for professional careers, head coach Nick Saban has made claim to having the nation’s top-ranked recruiting class at the end of National Signing Day something of a rite of passage each year. A bevy of talented players are ready to make their names household ones in 2015.

 

Former class of 2013, five-star wide receiver Robert Foster dominated Alabama’s spring game behind a six-catch, 125-yard performance that earned him co-MVP honors along with fellow wideout ArDarius Stewart (two touchdowns on eight catches for 118 yards). Foster redshirted in 2013 but played in nine games last season and registered 44 yards on six catches. No longer playing in the shadows of Cooper and DeAndrew White, Foster has the size (6-2) and speed to emerge as a deep threat for Coker and the Alabama passing game.

 

Blue-chip defensive lineman Da’Shawn Hand will look for a larger a role on ‘Bama’s defensive line. The crown jewel of Alabama’s 2013 recruiting class, Hand saw limited action on Alabama’s talented defensive line as a true freshman last year but managed to register two sacks. Crimson Tide coaches and his teammates will count on him to build off of last season’s experience and evolve into the menacing pass rusher many expect him to be. Hand played in nine games in 2014 and showed flashes of what made him the nation’s top defensive prospect out of Woodbridge (Va.) High School two seasons ago. He ended the season on a high note, as he collected two tackles in Alabama’s SEC Championship Game win over Missouri. 

 

Talented but lesser known players Tony Brown (defensive back), Reuben Foster (linebacker), O.J. Howard (tight end) and Stewart are poised for breakout seasons, as well.

 

2. Derrick Henry

Henry was unstoppable in the team’s Playoff semifinal Sugar Bowl battle against the Buckeyes. But for some peculiar reason, Kiffin jettisoned the team’s running plays from the playbook in favor of the pass. The decision left many in Tuscaloosa and the college football world perplexed and elicited heavy criticism when the game clock wound down in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans as Ohio State secured its spot in the CFP National Championship Game. Henry ended the contest with 95 yards rushing and a touchdown on 13 carries in a losing effort.

 

Henry led the Crimson Tide in rushing in 2014 with 990 yards and 11 touchdowns while splitting carries with Yeldon. And despite his hulking size (6-3, 242) he has shown himself to be a more-than-capable pass catcher out of the backfield, hauling in five grabs for 133 yards last season. The departure of Yeldon and the uncertainty surrounding Alabama’s quarterback position will ensure that Henry gets his fair share of opportunities to lead the team and the SEC in rushing this year.

 

Henry, high school football’s all-time leading rusher, won’t disappoint and should sit atop the SEC rushing leaderboard at season’s end.   

 

3. Nick Saban and Co.

History is on Alabama’s side. The Crimson Tide have experienced success under Saban that has only been shared with ‘Bama coaching legend Paul Bear Bryant. Saban enters his ninth year at the helm with an 86-17 record and a plethora of team and personal postseason awards and trophies. Under Saban, Alabama has won the SEC three times in the last six years and three national titles during that span as well.

 

As cliché as it sounds, in a conference as talent-laden and competitive as the SEC, coaching is more times than not the equalizer – and Alabama boasts arguably the nation’s most-talented coaching staff. In his first season, Kiffin turned relatively unknown Blake Sims into a school-record-setting quarterback, and defensive coordinator Kirby Smart once again established himself as college football’s resident defensive guru, as his unit finished 12th in the nation in total defense.

 

The Saban-Kiffin-Smart trio turned a season that began with many question marks into a 12-win, conference-winning campaign. There’s no reason to believe the Tide won’t do it again in 2015.

 

Alabama's 2015 Schedule

DateOpponent 

Athlon Projected Rank

for 2015

Projected

Record

Sept. 5vs. Wisconsin*199-4
Sept. 12MTSU887-5
Sept. 19Ole Miss119-3
Sept. 26UL Monroe1155-8
Oct. 8at Georgia1010-3
Oct. 17Arkansas168-4
Oct. 24at Texas A&M207-5
Oct. 31Tennessee228-4
Nov. 7LSU158-4
Nov. 13at Mississippi State217-5
Nov. 21Charleston Southern
Nov. 28at Auburn410-2

*Game played at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, TX

 

Three Reasons Why Alabama Won’t Make the College Football Playoff in 2015

 

1. Uncertainty at Quarterback

When Jameis Winston won the quarterback battle at Florida State in 2013 and the BCS National Championship Game several months later, then-FSU backup QB Jacob Coker began to file a flight plan out of Tallahassee. The Mobile, Ala., native returned home to become the successor to NFL-bound McCarron. But things didn’t go as planned. Coker found himself in a platoon with Sims in the team’s first two games of the season, before Sims seized the starting job. Coker ended the year throwing for 403 yards and four touchdowns on just 59 attempts.

 

The only other quarterback on Alabama’s roster with collegiate playing experience is redshirt junior Alec Morris. Morris saw action in four games last year but didn’t attempt a single pass. Following Coker and Morris are redshirt sophomore Cooper Bateman, redshirt freshman David Cornwell and true freshman Blake Barnett. While Bateman, Cornwell and Barnett are Elite 11 products with undeniable talent, they also are young, and the last thing Kiffin and Saban will want to do is prematurely subject them to SEC defenses. If Coker struggles early, Alabama may be forced to do just that. Kiffin is one of the best in his craft and Alabama pays him handsomely because of it. The Crimson Tide will expect a big return on their Kiffin investment this season.

 

Related: 10 First-Year Starting QBs Who Could Win College Football's National Title in 2015

 

2. Less-than-forgiving Schedule

While some SEC teams take a lot of flak for scheduling what some perceive to be underwhelming out-of-conference opponents, Alabama has never shied away from adding formidable Power Five teams to its schedule. This year is no exception. The Tide open the 2015 season on Sept. 5 in Dallas where they will play defending Big Ten West Division champion Wisconsin.

 

After a couple early-season tune-ups against Middle Tennessee and Louisiana-Monroe  – with an intriguing home matchup against Ole Miss sandwiched between – Alabama heads into an SEC gauntlet with games at Georgia, against Arkansas and at Texas A&M.

 

The Crimson Tide host what many figure to be a formidable Tennessee team on Oct. 24 before a much-needed bye week prior to a home date with the LSU Tigers. The Dak Prescott-led Mississippi State Bulldogs welcome the Tide to Starkville one week later. Alabama’s reward for such a daunting task, you ask? An annual Iron Bowl date at Auburn to close the regular season.

 

SEC schedules are never easy to navigate unscathed, but Alabama has drawn an exceptionally difficult one in 2015.

 

3. Wide-open SEC West

There was once a time not too long ago when the SEC West belt was usually shared between Tuscaloosa and Baton Rouge. While Alabama and LSU have proven to be the class of the West in recent history, the balance of power has started to shift to other programs.

 

The coaching hires of Auburn’s Will Muschamp (defensive coordinator) and Texas A&M’s John Chavis (defensive coordinator) immediately shake the landscape in the division.  

Auburn is just two seasons removed from a national championship appearance, and with Chavis – whose defenses at Tennessee and LSU frequently ranked among the nation’s best – the Aggies will finally address their inability to field a defense to complement its fast-paced offense.

 

Arkansas and its league-best running back duo of Jonathan Williams (1,190) and Alex Collins (1,100) snatched defeat from the jaws of victory last season when Alabama narrowly escaped an upset on a late-game interception.  Arkansas has been waiting a year to exact its revenge. The Razorbacks will be much improved in 2015 as head coach Bret Bielema is aiming for big things in his fourth year in Fayetteville.  Ole Miss, coming off of nine wins in 2014, is no easy out either.

 

The SEC West is open for the taking, which not only bodes well for Alabama, but other teams looking to capitalize on the opportunity.

 

Related: Stop Arguing: SEC West is College Football's Best Division

 

Final Verdict

 

There were many rumblings about the status of Alabama’s football dynasty following the team’s Sugar Bowl loss to Oklahoma to end its 2013 season. Those rumblings only grew louder at the end of last season when Alabama lost on the same field to current defending national champion Ohio State. Alabama can ill afford to suffer another quality, postseason bowl defeat.

 

Part of Saban’s success at Alabama can be attributed to his refusal to remain stagnant, as seen by his moves such as bringing in Kiffin in 2014 to replace current Florida offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier, who left that year for Michigan. The move proved to be genius as Bama’s Kiffin-led offense produced a school-record 3,487 passing yards and finished in the top 20 in the nation in total offense.

 

Alabama fans hope first-year secondary coach and former Chicago Bears defensive coordinator Mel Tucker will enjoy the same success as Kiffin last season. The Tide return a talented, future NFL defensive back in Cyrus Jones, but the unit enters the season lacking the experience of secondary units of the past. Alabama’s secondary over the past two years has struggled to contain the passing game, finishing 11th in the SEC in passing defense last season. Tucker will be tasked with turning those numbers around.

 

At the end of the day, it’s hard to count Alabama out – regardless of the personnel losses. Saban and the Crimson Tide coaching staff faced many of the same questions as they entered last season, and turned in a conference-winning campaign. Expect Alabama to return to its second consecutive College Football Playoff in 2015.

 

— Written by Elton Hayes, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. A Washington, D.C.-based sports writer, Hayes is a member of the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA) and he also has been an invited guest on “The Paul Finebaum Show.”  Follow him on Twitter @EHDC12.

Teaser:
Why Alabama Will or Won’t Make the College Football Playoff in 2015
Post date: Friday, July 31, 2015 - 11:30
Path: /college-football/5-areas-concern-miami-hurricanes-2015
Body:

With a 6-7 record last season, the Miami Hurricanes have more than a few things to work on during fall camp in August. Here is a look at five of the biggest and how Al Golden's team can potentially improve on each of them.

 

Related: Miami Hurricanes 2015 Preview and Prediction

 

1) Rushing Defense

If an outsider looks at the Hurricanes' rushing defense from last season, they wouldn’t understand how bad that side of the ball was. Miami finished 28th in the nation against the run in 2014 but were historically bad in four of the team’s losses.

 

Miami gave up 343 rushing yards to Nebraska, 318 to Georgia Tech, 195 to Virginia and 226 to Pittsburgh. If the Hurricanes want to get back to contending for conference championships, those numbers are unacceptable.

 

The Hurricanes also finished 97th in the country in tackles for a loss. The team will need players like Chad Thomas, Al-Quadin Muhammad and Ufomba Kamalu to penetrate the offensive line and make plays in the backfield.

 

While Miami’s defense made strides and improved from the 2013 season, the 2015 unit will need to become more consistent stopping the run.

 

2) Third-down Conversions

Miami’s offense ranked 95th in the country in third-down conversations last season, with a rate of 36.8 percent. The Canes' offense often relied on big plays to score points.

 

Miami also had trouble sustaining drives in a number of their games and would repeatedly put their defense back on the field, only for them to wear down in the latter stages in the game.

 

Duke Johnson, Phillip Dorsett and Clive Walford are all gone, so the Hurricanes will have to gradually get first downs this season. Quarterback Brad Kaaya will need receivers Stacy Coley, Braxton Berrios, Rashawn Scott and Herb Waters to become reliable targets in third-down situations.

 

Play-calling on first and second down also is important if Miami wants to improve its success on third down. If the Hurricanes fail to gain yardage on first or second down, that also will decrease their chances of converting on third down.

 

3) Red Zone Offense

Too many times, mediocre teams rely on field goal attempts, rather than touchdowns. That was certainly the case with the Hurricanes in 2014.

 

Last season, Miami finished tied for 87th in the nation in red zone offense with a .787 percentage. That number has to improve if Miami wants to defeat teams like Florida State, Clemson and Georgia Tech this season.

 

4) Offensive Time of Possession

The Hurricanes ranked 78th in the country in time of possession last season with an average duration of 29.23 minutes per game. The team that holds the ball the longest usually wins the game, so this is a big deal. 

 

In 2014, Miami’s defense wore down often in the fourth quarter and the team failed to play with the same type of energy as it did earlier in the contest. If the offense can run the ball efficiently, focus on short to intermediate passes and stop relying on the home-run plays, all phases of the team will improve. 

 

5) Avoid the Florida State Hangover

Miami has just as much talent as any team in the ACC outside of Florida State and Clemson, but that has yet to translate into victories or division titles. The seven Canes selected in the 2015 NFL Draft last May is an indication of the talent on their roster.

 

Golden has to take a lot of responsibility in not maximizing the Hurricanes' full potential. In 2013, Miami started the season 7-0 before facing Florida State on Nov. 2. The Canes lost the game 41-14 and went on to lose four out of their last six games to end the season.

 

Last season, the Canes were 6-3 heading into the Florida State game on Nov. 15. Miami lost a heartbreaker 30-26 and then proceeded to lose four straight games to end the 2014 season.

 

Golden can’t continue to have hangovers after the Canes play Florida State, especially not this year. This year’s matchup against the Seminoles (Oct. 10) will be the team’s ACC opener. With games against Virginia Tech, Clemson and Georgia Tech down the road, Miami can’t let the game against Florida State make or break its 2015 season.

 

The time for giving Golden and the Hurricanes the benefit of the doubt is now over. Miami has a lot of talent on its roster and a favorable schedule outside of playing Florida State in Tallahassee. If 2015 isn’t the year the Hurricanes win the ACC Coastal, then there could be some changes coming in Coral Gables.

 

— Written by Antwan Staley, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and has extensive experience covering Florida sports teams. Staley has written for Bleacher Report, Pro Player Insiders and is a reporter for Sports Talk Florida. Follow him on Twitter @antwanstaley.

Teaser:
5 Areas of Concern for the Miami Hurricanes in 2015
Post date: Friday, July 31, 2015 - 10:30
All taxonomy terms: NFL
Path: /nfl/russell-wilson-reportedly-agrees-seahawks-four-year-extension-87-million
Body:

The Seahawks have their man.

 

According to SI's Peter King, the team has come to an agreement with Russell Wilson on a four-year, $87 million contact extension.

 

 

 

 

Wilson tweeted in excitment, and it sounds like he's ready to start the season.

 

 

Now the Seahawks just need to turn their attention to Kam Chancellor.

Teaser:
Post date: Friday, July 31, 2015 - 10:11
Path: /college-football/accs-top-15-heisman-candidates-2015
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There have been 78 Heisman Trophies given out to 77 different players and only three times has the award gone to an ACC representative. On each of those occasions, a Florida State quarterback was the recipient — Charlie Ward in 1993, Chris Weinke in 2000, and Jameis Winston in 2013.

 

As a result, many analysts may be looking elsewhere for 2015 Heisman contenders. But for quite some time, quarterbacks have been the featured guests at the Downtown Athletic Club in New York City on the second Saturday in December and the ACC is deep in returning talent at that position.

 

Here are the ACC products with Heisman aspirations this fall.

 

1. Deshaun Watson, QB, Clemson

Unquestionably, Watson is the ACC Heisman front-runner heading into the season. He seemed to have total command of the offense as a true freshman and he should only improve in year two. With targets like Mike Williams and Artavis Scott, and running back Wayne Gallman keeping defenses honest, the Gainesville, Ga., native should put up huge numbers in 2015. His style of play should produce some memorable moments and he has marquee games against Notre Dame and Florida State where he can grab the nation’s attention. Staying healthy after an ACL tear is Watson’s biggest concern.

 

Related: 10 First-Year Starting QBs Who Could Win College Football's National Title in 2015

 

2. James Conner, RB, Pittsburgh

The junior from Erie, Pa., was nowhere to be found in the 2014 Heisman balloting, but he had a monster season. Conner was seventh in the nation with 1,765 yards and his 26 rushing touchdowns broke the Pittsburgh record previously held by Tony Dorsett. He was named ACC Player of the Year and was selected as a first-team All-American by the American Football Coaches Association. His stats did dip a bit in the final three games and new coach Pat Narduzzi must attempt to keep him fresh for Pitt’s tough November stretch.

 

3. Brad Kaaya, QB, Miami

All of the other quarterbacks on this list won more games than the sophomore from West Hills, Ca. But Kaaya is the quarterback at Miami. If he can improve on his record-setting freshman season and bring the Hurricanes back into the national spotlight, he will garner publicity that players at most other schools won’t. Miami has very little coming back on offense besides Kaaya and that certainly will not help his chances.

 

4. Justin Thomas, QB, Georgia Tech

Paul Johnson needs a special type of quarterback to operate his offense. That player needs to be able to run and make quick decisions. Take a quarterback that can do both of those things and throw a little bit too, and you have Thomas. During his sophomore season, Thomas threw for 1,719 yards and 18 scores while running for 1,086 yards and eight more touchdowns, leading the Yellow Jackets to the Orange Bowl. Like Kaaya, Thomas may be asked to do even more this season because Georgia Tech loses all of its offensive skill position starters from 2014.

 

5. Dalvin Cook, RB, Florida State

Based entirely on what players can do on the field, Cook would probably rank second or third on this list. The Miami product was huge down the stretch, rushing for 592 yards in the Seminoles’ last five games including his 177-yard, MVP performance in the conference championship game against Georgia Tech. But the well-documented assault charge hovers over Cook and the Noles. At the moment, it is impossible to know Cook’s status with Florida State. When a ruling is made he may jump up on this list…..or be off of it completely.

 

6. Marquise Williams, QB, North Carolina

Last fall, Williams was one of only three Power 5 quarterbacks to pass for more than 3,000 yards and rush for north of 750 yards. He is also one of four returning FBS quarterbacks that threw for at least 20 touchdowns and ran for 10 or more. He has most all of his friends back on offense as well.

 

7. Jacoby Brissett, QB, NC State

About 30 miles east of the UNC campus resides another dangerous dual-threat quarterback. Last year the Florida transfer had his best performances in two of the biggest games, passing for 359 yards and three TDs in the loss to Florida State and throwing for three scores and rushing for 167 yards against the Tar Heels.

 

8. Everett Golson, QB, Florida State

According to Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher, Golson is currently third on the FSU depth chart. That won’t last. Yes, he turned the ball over again and again and again at Notre Dame last fall. But halfway through the year he was getting mentioned as a possible Heisman ceremony invitee. And he most likely will be the quarterback at FSU, the school and position that has produced all three ACC Heisman winners.

 

9. Tyler Boyd, WR, Pittsburgh

As James Conner’s rushing numbers slipped late in the 2014 season, Boyd’s production spiked. The league’s top returning pass catcher eclipsed 100 yards receiving in five of the Panthers’ final six games. Boyd, Conner and the rest of the Panthers will accomplish their goals only if quarterback Chad Voytik can take his game to another level.

 

10. Jalen Ramsey, DB, Florida State

An offensive skill position player is going to win the Heisman. But Ramsey is a special defender that deserves mention. Last season, Ramsey was an All-American as a big, physical, rangy safety. This year, he will be an All-American as a cornerback. He’s as complete a defender as you will find in the college game.

 

11. Mike Williams, WR, Clemson

The Tiger receiver is a dynamic playmaker. But if he puts up numbers worthy of Heisman consideration, so will Dashaun Watson.

 

12. Artavis Scott, WR, Clemson

See above.

 

13. Jon Hilliman, RB, Boston College

Hilliman was very productive as a freshman and had a knack for finding the end zone.

 

14. Shadrach Thornton, RB, NC State

The back from Hinesville, Ga., had 907 yards rushing, with 367 of those coming in the final three games.

 

15. Quin Blanding, S, Virginia

Blanding was 21st in the country with 123 tackles. Looking at the Cavaliers’ offense, Blanding will be on the field a lot. Looking at the Cavaliers’ front seven on defense, Blanding will be making even more tackles this year.

 

— Written by Jon Kinne, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a college football fanatic. Kinne has been writing about recruiting for the Irish Sports Daily for 10 years. Follow him on Twitter @JonRKinne.

Teaser:
The ACC’s Top 15 Heisman Candidates for 2015
Post date: Friday, July 31, 2015 - 10:00
Path: /nfl/answering-afc-souths-biggest-questions-2015
Body:

NFL training camps are opening up all across the nation, signaling the official return of pro football.

 

Athlon Sports is going division by division, asking and (trying to) answering the biggest question for every team in the league entering the 2015 season.

 

AFC's Biggest Questions: EastNorthSouth | West
NFC's Biggest Questions: East | North | South | West

 

AFC South

 

Houston: Can Bill O’Brien find stability under center?

This team jumped from two wins in 2013 to nine a year ago with three different players taking snaps under center. Imagine how good the Texans could be with some stability under center? Ryan Mallet was one of those starters and appears to have the perfect skill set for what O’Brien wants from his quarterback. But, he is recovering from a torn pectoral muscle. Brian Hoyer is more mobile, has more experience and is more familiar with O'Brien since both were in New England together. This team is built to succeed quickly on defense and has plenty of talent around the signal-caller but to reach the postseason, O’Brien must get consistent play from his quarterback. Look for a healthy Mallett to win the job because of his big arm and down-the-field ability.

 

Indianapolis: Can the Colts stop the run in January?

The Colts have dominated their division and are loaded on offense for a Super Bowl run. But that run likely goes through New England, a team that has scored 47.3 points per game in the last four meetings against the Colts. Enter Trent Cole, Nate Irving, Kendall Langford and three rookie front seven prospects to help the Colts stop the run. The Patriots rushed for 177 yards and 234 yards in two playoff wins over Indy and improving this part of the team is imperative if the Colts want to go further than the AFC title game. Look for the new 3-4 scheme to show improvement and help this team go further in the postseason.

 

Jacksonville: Are the issues along the line fixed?

Both the offensive and defensive lines in Jacksonville have undergone complete overhauls in the last two seasons. The offense allowed a league-worst 71 sacks, scored a league-low 15.6 points per game and couldn’t run the ball whatsoever. The Jags also finished 27th in the NFL in rushing defense and allowed the fourth-worst QB rating (99.1) to opposing signal-callers. This unit did create pressure but needs to show marked improvement across the board. New offensive line coach Doug Marrone should fix a young but very talented unit, while losing first-round pick Dante Fowler (torn ACL) was a crushing blow to the reworked D-line. Either way, both units should be better in 2015 and that could be the first sign of growth under Gus Bradley.

 

Tennessee: Will the Titans' O-line play up to potential?

There are simply too many questions with this team to answer them all in one paragraph. But the crux of the offensive issues start up front. This team must protect first-round investment Marcus Mariota and must run the football better. This group has two first-round picks in Taylor Lewan and Chance Warmack and another in Andy Levitre, who is paid like a top draft pick. Who plays center and right tackle is still up in the air and should this group play up to its potential, Tennessee should be dramatically more entertaining and competitive right away. If not, Mariota could be flat on his back most of ’15.

 

Teaser:
Answering the AFC South's Biggest Questions in 2015
Post date: Friday, July 31, 2015 - 09:30
All taxonomy terms: College Football, News, Magazines
Path: /magazines/four-step-guide-almost-perfect-college-football-predictions
Body:

We think we know. We act like we know. But we do really know what makes a team good?

 

In 2014, Florida State lost four starters from its defensive front seven and regressed dramatically in run defense. Oklahoma State returned just eight total starters and went from the top 20 to barely bowl eligible.

 

Ohio State went from very good to great in recruiting and did the same on the field. Texas’ recruiting regressed, and the Longhorns obtained just middling success under a new coach.

 

Alabama was awesome in 2013 and remained awesome in 2014.

 

We think we know how to figure out who’s going to be good or bad from year to year, who’s going to surge or collapse — and we’re mostly correct. You start with how good a team was last year, then you look at returning starters (and stars), then you look at recruiting, and voila! We love that you’re an Athlon Sports reader, but virtually any preview of any kind is going to take that approximate approach.

 

But how much of a difference do these factors make? Are we ignoring other key indicators when we look at whether a team will improve or regress? Are we overvaluing the starters who left or those who return? And are we interpreting recruiting rankings the right way?

 

To begin to answer these questions, we’re going run some correlations. Remember those from math class? How a correlation of zero means there’s no relationship between variables, but a correlation approaching 1 or negative-1 means the relationship is strong?

 

Let’s look at the strength of the correlations between a given indicator — returning starters, last year’s output, et cetera — and two numbers: A team’s percentage of points scored in a given year (it’s more detailed and descriptive than simple win-loss record) and a team’s advanced stats.

 

We’ll look at percentage of points scored instead of win percentage because it is a more accurate descriptor. Florida State finished both 2013 and 2014 with a 13–0 regular-season record, but the Seminoles entered the 2013 postseason having scored 83.2 percent of the points in their games. In 2014, they had scored only 60.2 percent. One FSU team was demonstrably better than the other despite identical records.

 

Meanwhile, for advanced stats, we’re going to lean on the work of Football Outsiders (a site for which I have played a role since 2008), namely the F/+ ratings, the official FO college football rating. F/+ compares a team’s per-play and per-drive output to a baseline expectation (based on the opponent) and tells you how far above or below average that team performed. For instance, Ohio State finished 2014 ranked first in the F/+ ratings at plus-69.6 percent, Eastern Michigan finished 128th at minus-65.9 percent, and 87 of 128 teams finished between plus- and minus-30 percent.

 

F/+ is a healthy, robust, and (most important) opponent-adjusted number, and it is good for these purposes. But you can use your computer rating of choice, and it is likely to tell you a similar story as the one you find here.

 

This feature from Bill Connelly of SB Nation can be found in ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC issues of the Athlon Sports college football preview annual.

 

Recent Performance

 

It is an undying, somewhat boring truth in college football: How you played last year is the best indicator of how you will play this year. Some teams change, but only so many do, and it is difficult to find a sport as rigid as college football, despite parity measures like the current 85-man scholarship limit.

 

Correlation between your F/+ rating from last year and your F/+ rating from this year: 0.742. Correlation between last year’s percentage of points scored and this year’s: 0.466.

 

In a given season, about 54 percent of FBS teams’ F/+ ratings are within 15 percent of what they were the year before. Things change, and things stay the same.

 

But in some cases, using just last year’s data can give us a blurry picture if a team suffered from injuries, suspensions, drastic turnover or any other maladies that affect teams. If we use a weighted five-year history, in which seasons from two to five years ago are given about eight to 10 percent weight each, we can raise the above F/+ correlation to about 0.747. That’s not much of an improvement, but it’s something.

 

So what does this mean for 2015? The chart below shows last year’s top 15 teams according to F/+. A good portion of them will be in or near the top 15 again this fall.

 

Final 2014 F/+ Rankings
1.Ohio State+69.6%
2.Alabama+66.6%
3.Oregon+58.9%
4.Georgia+55.0%
5.Ole Miss+50.1%
6.TCU+49.3%
7.Auburn+49.1%
8.Georgia Tech+48.6%
9.Arkansas+44.9%
10.Baylor+42.2%
11.Michigan State+42.1%
12.UCLA+41.2%
13.Mississippi State+40.6%
14.Clemson+36.4%
15.Florida State+35.2%

 

A good system of opponent-adjusted ratings can start the conversation in the right place. When thinking about how good a team was or wasn’t the year before — the starting point of any sort of projection or prediction — something like this gives you a clearer picture than “they went 11–2.”

 

One thing to keep in mind regarding advanced stats: Wins and losses don’t mean a lot. The numbers are designed to look at every non-garbage time play and drive and project how teams may have performed over a much longer period of time, not just 12 games. Yes, Ole Miss finished ahead of TCU; that’s because Ole Miss was much better than TCU for the first two months of the year before fading rather dramatically.

 

Returning Starters

 

You work with the tools you’ve got. Most of us understand that boiling an offense’s or defense’s turnover into a number between 0 and 11 is over-simplification. The quality of the backups matters, and besides, if two players start six games each at a given position, and one was a senior, is the other a “returning starter”?

 

There are flaws, but in a “perfect vs. good” kind of way. In the absence of perfect tools, we use decent, readily available ones. If it were possible to standardize a higher level of data — percentage of rushing yards returning, percentage of career starts on the offensive line, etc. — that would be fantastic, but even that tells us only so much about quality. We can apply extra weight to the quarterback position or to lost starters who were drafted or given All-America or all-conference honors, too, if we want to.

 

For now, though, we’ll stick to the basics. While the standard returning starter data is flawed, it’s still pretty useful:

 

Correlation between returning offensive starters and your advanced offensive ratings: 0.290. Correlation between returning offensive starters and your percentage of points scored: 0.254.

 

Correlation between returning defensive starters and your advanced defensive ratings: 0.271. Correlation between returning defensive starters and your percentage of points scored: 0.215.

 

These aren’t significant correlations, but they’re solid. And looking at year-to-year averages, you can see a pretty clear trend. If we convert a team’s FO efficiency ratings (offensive and defensive) into a per-game point total, you can start to see the impact starter experience can have on average.

 

Effect of the number of offensive returning starters on a team's offensive production
Off. returning starters% of all teamsAvg. change in adjustment points per gameAvg change in percentage of points scored
1-31.9%-4.0-4.9%
45.4%-5.0-5.1%
510.9%-1.4-2.1%
621.2%-0.9-1.7%
723.6%+0.8+0.9%
820.3%+2.0+3.6%
911.2%+3.0+3.6%
10-115.3%+1.4+2.8%

 

There is some blurriness on the edges — teams with four returning starters regressing more than teams with one to three, teams with 10-11 returning starters improving only a marginal amount — but that’s a sample size issue. There’s a potential range of six to 10 points per game between those returning almost no starters and those returning almost everybody. And if you return six or seven starters, you’re basically breaking even.

 

The lines are similar on the defensive side of the ball.

 

Effect of the number of defensive returning starters on a team's defensive production
Def. returning starters% of all teamsAvg. change in adjustment points per gameAvg change in percentage of points scored
1-33.7%+4.8-3.9%
48.0%+2.2-2.5%
514.7%+1.4-1.4%
619.7%+0.7-0.6%
723.6%-0.6+0.6%
816.2%-0.4+1.0%
910.6%-2.1+2.5%
10-113.5%-2.5+6.8%

 

There will always be plenty of exceptions. Just last year, Wisconsin returned three defensive starters and still fielded a high-caliber unit, while TCU returned three offensive starters and improved dramatically. Those exceptions are why the correlations exist but aren’t incredibly significant. But these starter figures still tell us quite a bit about where to set the bar. If the above averages held true, the chart to the right shows what kind of shifts we might see from last year’s top-ranked teams.

 

Red alert, Mississippi State and Clemson fans. You better hope Dak Prescott and Deshaun Watson are even better (and healthier) than they were last year.

 

Returning starters for last year's final AP top 20 teams
Rk.TeamReturning starters (O, D)Last year's scoring margin per gameProjected scoring margin in 2015
1.Ohio State14 (7, 7)+22.8+1.4
2.Oregon12 (7, 5)+21.8-0.6
3.TCU15 (10, 5)+27.5Even
4.Alabama9 (2, 7)+18.5-3.4
5.Michigan State13 (6, 7)+21.5-0.3
6.Florida State10 (3, 7)+8.1-3.4
7.Baylor17 (8, 9)+22.7+4.1
8.Georgia Tech14 (7, 7)+12.1+1.4
9.Georgia12 (6, 6)+20.6-1.6
10.UCLA18 (10, 8)+5.4+1.8
11.Mississippi State7 (4, 3)+15.2-9.8
12.Arizona State13 (6, 7)+9.0-0.3
13.Wisconsin12 (5, 7)+13.8-0.8
14.Missouri12 (6, 6)+6.7-1.6
15.Clemson6 (4, 2)+14.2-9.8
16.Boise State17 (9, 8)+12.9+3.4
17.Ole Miss16 (9, 7)+12.3+3.6
18.Kansas State11 (6, 5)+12.6-2.3
19.Arizona11 (6, 5)+6.3-2.3
20.USC14 (7,7)+10.7+1.4

 

Recruiting

 

Recruiting rankings are worthless! Recruiting rankings are everything! Arguing about the potential and usefulness of the work Rivals, 247Sports, ESPN, Scout and others do has become a permanent part of the college football calendar each January and early February. And to be sure, these assessments are tricky.

 

If you’re a brand-new recruiting service, and you’re looking to use every piece of information available to you to craft the strongest possible prospect ratings, what’s one piece of information you’d be incredibly smart to use? Offer lists. If Alabama (or Ohio State, or USC, or Florida State, or any other national power) offers a player, there are strong odds that this player is pretty good. To say the least, the Tide and others like them have track records.

 

One problem with this: If you use offer lists to make your ratings more accurate, you’re also introducing a bit of circularity. If an Alabama offer gets a player ranked more highly, then Alabama is always assured of a high team ranking. Successful teams will then always end up with good recruiting rankings, both because they’re landing the best prospects (and they are) and because prospects they land get a boost, or as angry fans have long called it, a Bama Bump.

 

Recruiting services certainly don’t admit to changing or rethinking ratings based on offers, but if such circularity does exist, it doesn’t change one simple fact: Recruiting rankings are awfully predictive.

 

Correlation between your five-year recruiting averages and your F/+ rating: 0.666. Correlation between your five-year recruiting averages and your percentage of points scored: 0.428.

 

If you want to be suspicious about recruiting rankings, know this: Correlations with two-year rankings are even higher.

 

Correlation between your two-year recruiting averages and your F/+ rating: 0.680. Correlation between your two-year recruiting averages and your percentage of points scored: 0.454.

 

Since most of your two-deep is going to consist of players who were signed more than two years ago, that suggests that there is a relationship between recruiting rankings and performance that ties mostly to recent performance, not the actual ratings of your players on the field.

 

Either success leads to better recruiting, which leads to more success, or success leads to more benefit of the doubt in recruiting, which leads to better ratings.

 

Regardless, here’s a look at Athlon’s preseason top 20 teams and their recent recruiting averages:

 

Recruiting Rankings for Athlon's 2015 Top 20
Team2-year recruiting rank5-year recruiting rank
1. Ohio State94
2. Alabama11
3. Baylor3239
4. Auburn57
5. TCU4938
6. USC22
7. Michigan State2224
8. Oregon2317
9. Florida State33
10. Georgia106
11. Ole Miss2121
12. Notre Dame1110
13. Arizona State2435
14. Clemson1214
15. LSU75
16. Arkansas2833
17. Oklahoma1612
18. Georgia Tech3742
19. Wisconsin3536
20. Texas A&M818

 

Luck and randomness

 

The game of football, played with a pointy ball, brings to the table quite a bit of randomness. There’s no way around it. But we don’t necessarily take that into account when we set expectations for a given team, and we probably should.

 

In 2013, Oklahoma and Houston were insanely lucky teams. The Sooners recovered all nine fumbles that occurred in late-season wins against Kansas State, Oklahoma State and Alabama, and turnovers played heavy roles, especially in each of the last two wins. Recover only five of those nine, and the Sooners probably don’t beat either Oklahoma State or (if they still made the Sugar Bowl) Alabama. And if they don’t beat those teams, they don’t head into 2014 with what turned out to be unreasonably high expectations.

 

Houston, meanwhile, nearly broke the turnovers luck scale in 2013. The Cougars seemingly overachieved, improving from 5–7 to 8–5 and threatening for a while to steal the AAC title from UCF and Louisville despite playing a freshman quarterback. Their turnover margin was a nearly incomprehensible plus-25, but according to national averages for fumble recovery rates (which always trend toward 50 percent over time) and the ratio of interceptions to passes broken up (on average, a team intercepts one pass for every three to four breakups), it should have been closer to about plus-4. They recovered more than 60 percent of all fumbles, they intercepted an unsustainably high number of passes, and their opponents dropped an unsustainably high number of potential interceptions.

 

On paper, Houston improved in 2014, but the Cougars’ luck regressed drastically toward the mean (expected turnover margin: plus-6; actual: plus-8), they lost badly to UTSA, finished 7–5 (before a miraculous bowl win), and saw their head coach fired.

 

Is there a correlation between your turnovers luck (i.e. the difference between your expected and actual turnover margins) and your year-to-year improvement or regression? A bit.

 

Correlation between your turnovers luck and next year’s F/+ rating: 0.130. Correlation between your turnovers luck and next year’s percentage of points scored: 0.186.

 

Since ratings systems like F/+ are normalized to ignore a lot of luck factors, you would assume it would be less affected by luck than actual points scored. Turnovers bite randomly, and the effects will be pretty selective. Still, it’s a factor with correlations only slightly weaker than returning starters. That makes it worth noting.

 

And as you would expect, the correlations get stronger for those who were particularly lucky or unlucky. Much stronger.

 

Correlation between your turnovers luck and next year’s percentage of points scored (for only teams in the top and bottom 10 percent of turnovers luck): 0.357.

 

So if you were particularly lucky or unlucky last season, that luck is probably going to change this fall, and it could make a pretty significant difference in the amount of points you score and allow. Who needs to be on the lookout in this regard?

 

2014's Most Fortunate Teams According to Turnovers Luck
TeamExpected TO MarginActual TO MarginDifference
TCU+1.5+18+16.5
FIU-1.4+11+12.4
Arizona State+1.8+14+12.2
Louisiana Tech+4.2+16+11.8
Washington+0.4+12+11.6
Michigan State+8.7+19+10.3
Louisville-5.6+4+9.6
Georgia+6.9+16+9.1
Ole Miss-1.8+7+8.8
Ball State+0.6+9+8.4
Kentucky-0.3+8+8.3
Oregon+15.3+23+7.7
Miami (Ohio)-4.9+2+6.9
Duke-0.8+6+6.8
Northern Illinois+5.4+12+6.6

 

Luck is part of the game of football, so it probably isn’t a surprise that two of last year’s top six teams in the pre-bowl College Football Playoff rankings (No. 2 Oregon and No. 6 TCU) are on this list. No. 5 Baylor (plus-6.4) barely missed inclusion, too. Still, it might be difficult for those teams (not to mention other poll darlings like Michigan State) to repeat last year’s success. The inclusion of Georgia and Ole Miss is also noteworthy.

 

Meanwhile, some pretty interesting names appear on the unlucky list, too.

 

After the luck of late-2013, Oklahoma’s karma was pretty awful in 2014, and this doesn’t even include “good kickers missing untimely kicks” luck like what hurt the Sooners against Oklahoma State and, particularly, Kansas State.

 

2014's Least Fortunate Teams According to Turnovers Luck
TeamExpected TO MarginActual TO MarginDifference
Georgia State-8.1-22-13.9
UConn-0.5-13-12.5
South Alabama+5.3-7-12.3
Oklahoma+6.8-5-11.8
Vanderbilt-4.3-16-11.7
Eastern Michigan-7.3-18-10.7
Oklahoma State+2.5-8-10.5
Alabama+7.1-2-9.1
Middle Tennessee+5.1-4-9.1
Texas Tech-4.2-13-8.8
Marshall+6.7-2-8.7
Miami+7.7-1-8.7
Colorado-1.4-10-8.6
San Jose State-3.5-12-8.5
Washington State-8.6-17-8.4

 

Some other teams that fared far worse than expectations show up here: Oklahoma State, Texas Tech, Miami. Colorado and Washington State were also expected to do better than they did, and luck played a role in that disappointment.

 

But the two most interesting names on this list are two teams that enjoyed plenty of success: Alabama and Marshall. These teams went a combined 25–3 in 2014, with 16 wins coming by a margin of at least 19 points. But they were probably even more dominant than the scores would attest, and in their three losses, these teams had a minus-four turnover margin.

 

How good will your team be this year? Ask yourself these questions in this order: How good were we last year? And how good have we been for the last five years? How are our recruiting rankings — getting better or worse? Are we returning more or fewer than about 6-7 starters on offense and defense? And how lucky were we last year?

 

Not everybody actually wants to set realistic expectations for their team, but asking those five questions is the best roadmap for doing just that.

Teaser:
The Four-Step Guide to (Almost) Perfect College Football Predictions
Post date: Friday, July 31, 2015 - 09:00
All taxonomy terms: AFC, AFC North, Pittsburgh Steelers, NFL, News
Path: /nfl/5-questions-concerning-pittsburgh-steelers-entering-2015-season
Body:

The Pittsburgh Steelers are an enigma entering the 2015 NFL season. They would appear to be a team on the rise after an 11-5 regular season record and winning the toughest division in the league.

 

Yet questions on defense prevent them from being regarded as a primary contender in the AFC. Las Vegas puts Pittsburgh’s odds at winning the Super Bowl at 30-1, only the ninth-best odds among the 32 teams.

 

Related: Pittsburgh Steelers 2015 Team Preview and Prediction

 

Here are five of the most pressing questions facing the Steelers as their 50th training camp at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, Pa., is now in session.

 

Will Cortez Allen start or even make the team?

Will the real Cortez Allen please stand up? Whereas Allen only allowed one touchdown pass in his first two seasons with the Steelers, thus resulting in a lucrative contract and starting position, he all but disappeared in the second half of the 2014 season. Not only did he not make a tackle in Weeks 9-11, those also were the last games he played, as he missed Pittsburgh’s final six contests due to injury.

 

In the last game he DID make a tackle, Oct. 26 against Indianapolis, the Washington Post highlighted Allen's duel with Colts wide receiver T.Y. Hilton as the "NFL Matchup of the Week." Hilton torched Allen for 155 yards on six catches and a touchdown.

 

The Steelers were built last season to win 31-28 games. That isn't likely to change unless Allen lives up to the potential Pittsburgh saw in him when the team signed him last year to a four-year contract worth more than $31 million.

 

With Allen due to make $13 million over the next there seasons, it’s possible that he could find himself on the roster bubble. That is especially the case if he falters during training camp or Senquez Golson, the Steelers’ second-round draft pick, shows why he was a first-team All-American after collecting 10 interceptions for Ole Miss. In fact, if Golson shows he’s ready to be thrown into the fray right away, it could mean the end of Allen’s tenure in Pittsburgh.

 

What’s up with the front seven?

For the past several years, the Steelers have made a concentrated effort to rebuild their front seven.

 

The last three first-round draft choices have been either defensive linemen or linebackers. This trend extends to four of the last five first-round selections, five of the last seven, and six of the nine such picks the Steelers have had under head coach Mike Tomlin.

 

Unfortunately the results have been mixed. True, linebacker Lawrence Timmons, the Steelers' very first draft choice under Tomlin's tenure, made the Pro Bowl last season. It was perhaps the only highlight coming from the box last season though. Pittsburgh’s 4.4 yards allowed per rush and 33 sacks ranked just 25th and 26th in the NFL.

 

Linebacker Jarvis Jones, 2013's first-round pick, failed to make a tackle after Week 3 in 2014 and he has only three sacks in his first two injury-plagued seasons. Last year's first-rounder, Ryan Shazier, lost his starting position in Week 10. Free agent Arthur Moats also suffered through an injury-plagued campaign.

 

Pittsburgh was forced to ask James Harrison and Brett Keisel to turn back the clock, as both become starters. Keisel was released in March, but Harrison returns and will battle Jones for the right outside linebacker spot. Rookie first-round pick Bud Dupree is set to challenge Moats for the other starting outside linebacker job.

 

Cameron Heyward, the team’s first-round pick in 2011, may not be a Pro Bowler yet, but he is a serviceable player, as evidenced by his 7.5 sacks. He's flanked by Stephon Tuitt, a 2014 second-round choice, who also showed signs of impact and became a starter at the end of the season at left defensive tackle.

 

With the question marks in the secondary, the front seven must improve. There are enough options at outside linebacker and enough progression at the defensive tackle spots that productivity should go up this season. The biggest question comes in the middle, where Shazier is slated to start alongside Timmon, while journeymen Steve McClendon and Clifton Geathers man the nose tackle position. Keisel has become the new Charlie Batch; a popular veteran player whose skids have been greased by Tomlin to make way for a younger player, only to see the younger players aren't as good as the veteran.

 

What will be the impact of new defensive coordinator Keith Butler?

During the Tomlin era the Steelers have not been prone to sentiment when making a roster. In fact, Tomlin may have prematurely tried to grease the skids for some veteran players, such as the aforementioned Harrison, Keisel and Batch.

 

Such was the case with 77-year-old defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. Though in recent seasons many in the media urged for LeBeau to retire so as not to prevent then-linebackers coach Butler from advancing, it was difficult to endorse such a dismissal when the Steelers produced the NFL’s top-ranked defense four times during LeBeau’s tenure. Besides, LeBeau was so popular at least one fan at Heinz Field would wear his old No. 44 jersey, from when LeBeau played for the Detroit Lions, to games.

 

But LeBeau's zone blitz could only merit a No. 14 ranking in 2013 and a No. 18 showing last season. Even though the Steelers won their division, Tomlin decided it was time for a change.

 

Now it is Butler's turn, with LeBeau joining former Steelers assistant Ken Whisenhunt in Nashville as the Titans’ assistant head coach/defense. While defensive line coach John Mitchell and defensive backs coach Carnell Lake, both return, Pittsburgh hired two new coaches to tutor the linebackers, former stars Jerry Olsavsky (inside) and Joey Porter (outside).

 

The Steelers will not play up to their fans’ standards if their defense does not improve in 2015. If Butler’s tenure overseeing the defense how long will it be until he receives the scorn previously held for offensive coordinators in Pittsburgh?

 

How will DeAngelo Williams spell Le’Veon Bell in the first two games?

Bell’s Aug. 20 arrest for marijuana possession has netted him a two-game suspension to open the 2015 season. As a result, Williams, a former Carolina Panther, is in line to serve as the No. 1 back for Weeks 1 and 2 against the Patriots and 49ers, respectively.

 

Williams is not the player he once was. Carolina's all-time leading rusher, Williams has not rushed for 1,000 yards since 2009, nor is he the pass-catcher that Bell is out of the backfield. Williams appears to have a lost a step or two and injuries limited him to just six games last season. His longest rush of the year was just 17 yards and he failed to crack double digits on a single carry in six of the eight total games he played.

 

But Williams, 32, has dropped 13 pounds from last season and did come back rather nicely from an injury-plagued 2010 season to rush for 836 yards on 155 attempts in ‘11.

 

Historically the Panthers have signed many of the Steelers' stars at the end of their careers. This is a rare occurrence of Pittsburgh signing a former Carolina star for his swansong, and concerning the unusual kinship these two franchises have it's a bit surprising it hasn't happened sooner.

 

The fear is Williams with Pittsburgh will be like Franco Harris with Seattle. But Harris was 34 when he finished his career with the Seahawks, two years older than Williams. Jerome Bettis established a career high for touchdowns and O.J. Anderson rushed for more than 1,000 yards at the age of 32.

 

But the question that remains is can Williams be a legitimate option in the passing game? While Ben Tate didn't impress in the playoff loss to Baltimore, he has been a better receiver in his career and his statistics were no worse than Williams' last year.

 

It’s entirely too early to dismiss a Pro Bowl-caliber player like Williams, but is he even the style of back that fits the Steelers' offense? It’s possible that Dri Archer will see his role expanded in the games Bell misses, which isn't necessarily a bad thing.

 

Still, Steelers fans must hope Tom Brady's suspension for the opener remains in place and that they are catching San Francisco and St. Louis at the right time.

 

Who will be the No. 2 wide receiver behind Antonio Brown

It isn't often Pittsburgh sports fans extend thanks to Cleveland, but it happened this weekend when CBS Sports Radio/92.3 The Fan host Adam "The Bull" Gerstenhaber called Brown the NFL's top receiver on his national radio show on July 25. Such is the case when a receiver catches 239 passes for 21 touchdowns over the course of two seasons. But who will complement Brown in 2015?

 

Martavis Bryant didn't even play until Oct. 20 and then proceeded to catch eight touchdown passes in the final 10 games. Included in his late surge was the second-longest scoring strike in team history and touchdown grab in the postseason. But Bryant managed just 26 receptions in the regular season, which translates to 42 over a 16 games.

 

Markus Wheaton was the team's second-leading wide receiver last year, but his numbers (53 rec., 12.2 ypc), seem unimpressive considering his quarterback threw for nearly 5,000 yards.

 

Rookie Sammie Coates was Auburn's big-play threat when the Tigers played for the national title two seasons ago, catching 14 passes that went for 30 or more yards. His 4.43 speed is comparable to Brown's 4.47.

 

As long as Brown maintains his production and given Bell’s big-play capability as a pass catcher, Ben Roethlisberger shouldn’t lack for options to throw to this season. The Steelers would be in much better shape if Bryant or Wheaton or even Coates were to emerge as a reliable complementary target. Based on last season’s results, Bryant seems the safest bet, but Coates could be the sleeper of this trio.

 

— Written by Marky Billson, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. An experienced beat reporter and sports writer, Billson has been a contributor to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for 15 years. He has covered the Steelers, Panthers, MLB and more during his career. Follow him on Twitter @MarkyBillson.

Teaser:
5 Questions Concerning the Pittsburgh Steelers Entering the 2015 Season
Post date: Thursday, July 30, 2015 - 23:00
All taxonomy terms: Overtime
Path: /overtime/jj-watt-homers-astros-batting-practice-houston-texans
Body:

J.J. Watt is taking his talents to the baseball diamond. 

 

The Texans star took in a little batting practice with the astros and we learned that if the football thing doesn't work out, there's a future for him in baseball. Watt enjoyed himself, but there was one critique of the sport.

 

"I like hitting people better," Watt said.

 

Can't argue with that logic.

 

 

Teaser:
Post date: Thursday, July 30, 2015 - 16:53
All taxonomy terms: Overtime
Path: /overtime/iowa-dl-drew-ott-eats-raw-egg-big-ten-media-days
Body:

You know how Rocky drinks raw eggs? Well Drew Ott eats them, shell and all.

 

While at Big Ten media day, the Iowa defensive lineman shoved a raw egg in his mouth and you can literally hear the crunching.

 

 

People are already saying the guy's a beast, but Urban Meyer had one simple question upon seeing the video.

 

Teaser:
Post date: Thursday, July 30, 2015 - 16:32
Path: /college-football/ohio-states-suspensions-put-braxton-millers-position-change-spotlight
Body:

The one-game suspension of four potential starters for Ohio State has slightly altered the outlook for the opener against Virginia Tech. The Buckeyes won’t need any reminder about how difficult of a matchup this is, as Virginia Tech won in Columbus 35-21 last season.

 

Joey Bosa’s name was by far the biggest in Ohio State’s release of the suspensions for the opener against Virginia Tech. Bosa is considered one of the top players in college football and is a huge loss for defense. While it’s easy to overlook the three other players involved, receivers Dontre Wilson, Corey Smith and Jalin Marshall accounted for 79 catches last season.

 

Needless to say, that’s a lot of receptions to replace in one game, especially against a secondary pegged by most to be among the best in the nation.

 

With Wilson, Smith and Marshall all sidelined, Ohio State will have to turn to a familiar face as an impact player: Braxton Miller.

 

Junior Michael Thomas (54 catches) will be the most-established target for J.T. Barrett and Cardale Jones, but Miller has a chance to make an immediate impact in his first game as a receiver.

 

While Miller is still recovering from a shoulder injury and is just beginning his transition to receiver, Ohio State needs the senior to be ready for a full workload against the Hokies.

 

Miller is expected to play in the H-back role and could see 10-15 touches in the opener in a variety of ways. Throwing a pass? A rushing attempt? Both should be on the table.

 

The timetable for Miller’s transition has been altered with the news of the suspensions. Ideally, Ohio State would like to ease Miller into the gameplan and not ask too much in Week 1 – especially for a player that missed all of 2014 due to a shoulder injury.

 

While the Buckeyes aren’t solely relying on Miller to anchor their receiving corps in the opener, Miller’s position move is under the spotlight against a tough Virginia Tech defense. Without three key playmakers, the importance of Miller's transition and Thomas' development are critical to Ohio State's hopes of starting 1-0.

 

How quick can Miller go from quarterback to dynamic playmaker? The guess here is right away. But Miller is just starting to learn and develop as a receiver and it may take a full year for the senior to learn all of the nuances of the position.

 

Against Virginia Tech - a team with a good secondary and defensive line - Miller's first opportunity to be a dynamic playmaker at receiver is going to get tested right away in a tough environment. The opener already had plenty of intrigue for the Buckeyes, but there's added pressure and interest in how Miller performs with the news of three receiver suspensions. 

Teaser:
Ohio State's Suspensions Put Braxton Miller's Position Change in Spotlight Against Virginia Tech
Post date: Thursday, July 30, 2015 - 16:20
All taxonomy terms: NFL, News
Path: /nfl/devon-still-has-emotional-goodbye-leah-training-camp
Body:

Devon Still knew that this day was coming for some time now. But that didn't make it any easier for him. As training camp for the Bengals starts tomorrow morning, Still had to head out to Cincinnati, leaving his daughter, Leah, to remain with family near Philadelphia. Leah continues to battle cancer that has been in remission for some time now.


Still posted a video of their goodbye to Instagram, in which the two orchestrated a set of kisses and handshake. As Still heads to practice, he will be competing for a defensive tackle spot on the team. He is no lock for a spot, so he will have to prove that he is worthy for a position on the team. However, many will certainly be rooting for him to succeed.

Watch the emotional goodbye below:
 

Teaser:
Post date: Thursday, July 30, 2015 - 16:19
Path: /college-football/arizona-state-qb-mike-bercovici-finally-spotlight
Body:

BURBANK, California – The current “dynamic” of college football, according to Arizona State quarterback Mike Bercovici, is one in which “people leave, transfer.”

 

Bercovici is an exception: a quarterback who bides his time as a reserve without transferring. He’s set to earn the bounty for his patience in 2015 as the Sun Devils' starting quarterback.

 

Related: Arizona State Sun Devils 2015 Preview and Prediction

 

Bercovici was in the spotlight at Thursday’s session of Pac-12 media days at Warner Bros. Studios after four years of playing understudy to Brock Osweiler and Taylor Kelly.

 

“Little things like, ‘I’m going to be a redshirt senior and go to Pac-12 media day,’” Bercovici said was his motivation for remaining in Tempe as Kelly’s reserve for three years.

 

Alright, so maybe chatting with reporters wasn’t the sole motivation keeping Bercovici a Sun Devil.

 

“I used to think, when [head] coach [Todd Graham] first got here [in 2012] and changing up offense, it’d be normal for a kid like to me leave,” he explained.

 

Indeed, Bercovici faced two quandaries. He was a recruit of Dennis Erickson’s staff, which, in Bercovici’s redshirt season, featured Noel Mazzone at offensive coordinator.

 

Bercovici introduced spread and zone-read elements to the Sun Devil offense, but his NFL background worked with a traditional pocket-passer of Bercovici’s mold.

 

Graham’s arrival brought offensive coordinator Mike Norvell, whose “high octane” take on the spread flourishes with a mobile quarterback. Kelly offered that.

 

Still, Bercovici remained.

 

“When I really thought about going to a different school, wearing a different helmet, putting on different colors, nothing felt right about it,” he said.

 

As he stayed, fellow reserve quarterback Michael Eubank departed. Eubank was used occasionally in goal-line and short-yardage packages. He transferred to FCS program Samford after the 2013 season.

 

Eubank’s departure made Graham’s decision a whole lot easier last September when Kelly suffered a foot injury at Colorado.

 

His absence from the lineup gave Bercovici two starts against UCLA and USC.

 

Graham said those glimpses at Bercovici’s talent helped prompt interest from the NFL, and one of the elements of the quarterback pro scouts like is his loyalty.

 

“It means a lot to [scouts] that when they talk about the character that that takes to do that, because most people thought he would not stay,” Graham said, adding one important deviation: “Except him.”  

 

If it seems like Bercovici is comfortable with his new-found spotlight, it’s because his stint as starter thrust him front-and-center.

 

The “Jael Mary” — named for wide receiver Jaelen Strong, who came down with Bercovici’s Hail Mary toss to beat USC on Oct. 4 — endures as one of the quintessential highlights of the 2014 season.

 

“If Mike Bercovici had taken his toys and went somewhere else, he’d have missed on making the greatest play in Arizona State history,” Graham said.

 

Strong is gone, which leaves a sizable hole in the Sun Devil offense. But Bercovici will have plenty more opportunities to make more Arizona State history with explosive D.J. Foster moving from running back to wide receiver.

 

Safety Jordan Simone compared Foster to Heisman Trophy finalist and new Oakland Raider Amari Cooper, capable of breaking big plays on a single move. But the receiver Foster likes is Golden Tate (h/t Thomas Lenneberg of the Arizona State sports information department).

 

Bercovici may have opted for patience over instant gratification, but he’s relishing his time on center stage.

 

In addition to appearing before reporters at media days, Bercovici was a viral video sensation, throwing passes to his girlfriend and Arizona State dance team member, Jaylee Merrill.

 

Consider it Bercovici paying his celebrity forward.

 

“Coach Graham loved her,” Bercovici said. “And anytime she can get that cheerleading team out in the forefront of the media, she loves it.”

 

He may have had to wait for it, but Bercovici’s time has come. He’s making the most of it.

 

Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Kensing is publisher of CFBHuddle.com. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.

Teaser:
Arizona State QB Mike Bercovici Finally in the Spotlight
Post date: Thursday, July 30, 2015 - 16:00
Path: /college-football/why-ohio-state-suspensions-will-or-wont-matter-against-virginia-tech
Body:

Ohio State announced today that four key players would miss the Sept. 7 season opener against Virginia Tech. While it’s a big enough news story in and of itself, especially since one of the players suspended is All-American defensive end Joey Bosa, what about the impact on the field?

 

Urban Meyer’s Buckeyes are the defending national champions and the overwhelming favorite to defend their title. However, the team will now be without Bosa and wide receivers Corey Smith, Dontre Wilson and Jalin Marshall when Ohio State travels to Blacksburg, Va., to play Virginia Tech, which also happens to be the last team to defeat the Buckeyes.

 

So will these suspensions matter against the Hokies or do Ohio State fans have nothing to worry about come Labor Day night? AthlonSports.com contributors Chip Minnich and J.P. Scott offer their two cents.

 

Why the Ohio State suspensions matter against Virginia Tech

The news that Ohio State would be without four players for the opening game at Virginia Tech arrived on the first day of The B1G Media Day like a ton of bricks. Rumors had been percolating that there would be suspensions of some manner or variety, but when the news was released that the players involved were Joey Bosa, Correy Smith, Dontre Wilson and Jalin Marshall, it would be fair to say that the strong confidence Ohio State fans may have had going into the season opener had been dramatically diminished.

 

Offensively, Ohio State has enough players to compensate for the losses of players such as Marshall, Smith and Wilson. However, I would like to raise the following concerns that Ohio State fans may need to contemplate.

 

With the suspensions of Marshall, Smith and Wilson, Ohio State is now down to only Michael Thomas from their top receivers of a year ago. Remember that Devin Smith and Evan Spencer have moved on. With the suspensions, Thomas is the lone experienced receiver that either J.T. Barrett or Cardale Jones will have played with from last season from the wide receiver corps.

 

At H-Back, both Wilson and Marshall were experienced at the position. Those individuals citing the move of Braxton Miller need to remember that a) Miller has never played the position before in a game-time situation b) Miller is coming off two labrum surgeries. Ohio State may be looking at a truly inexperienced H-Back, such as Parris Campbell Jr. for the opening game. Not impossible, just inexperienced.

 

Defensively, Ohio State has plenty of talent returning across the board. Of these returnees, none were or are held in such high esteem as Bosa.

 

Ohio State was already projecting TyQuan Lewis at the opposite defensive end from Bosa. Sam Hubbard, Darius Slade, and Jalyn Holmes are possible contributors who may rotate at Bosa's position throughout the Virginia Tech game. Similarly to what I have written regarding the offensive positions, these are talented players, but very inexperienced, and not as reputable as Bosa.

 

Compounding the loss of Bosa is the fact that Ohio State is still trying to adequately replace the departed Michael Bennett along the interior. Without Bosa at one end continually being accounted for, the Virginia Tech offensive game plan may be to attack the interior of the Ohio State defense, as Adolphus Washington is the only established player along the entire Ohio State defensive line.

 

Can Ohio State win the game at Virginia Tech, even without the four suspended players? Certainly. Needless to say, the road to repeating as national champions was just made that much more difficult with the announcement of these suspensions.

— Chip Minnich, diehard Ohio State fan/writer and podcaster for menofthescarletandgray.com

 

Related: Why Ohio State Will or Won't Make the College Football Playoff in 2015

 

Why the Ohio State suspensions won’t matter against Virginia Tech

Unlike 2014, the 2015 matchup between Ohio State and Virginia Tech is a high-profile one. The Hokies are not about sneak up on the Buckeyes again, as Urban Meyer is going to have his squad prepared, both mentally and physically, for their trip to Blacksburg.

 

Although Joey Bosa could very well be the best player in the nation, his suspension is the least of Ohio State’s worries. He’s still just one player on a defense with six legit Bronco Nagurski Award candidates. It’ll be an excellent opportunity for one or more of Ohio State’s talented underclassmen to step into the defensive line rotation in place of Bosa. In short, Ohio State’s defense is going to be good enough to dominate their side of the ball in most games with or without Bosa. He simply raises them to another level.

 

The offensive side of the ball could be a different story, but again, there is still enough talent on the Ohio State depth chart to get the job done. Whether the quarterback is Cardale Jones, J.T. Barrett or both, they’ll still have the luxury of Ezekiel Elliott behind them and one of the best offensive lines in the country in front of them.

 

In terms of other weapons, Michael Thomas, Braxton Miller, Curtis Samuel and Nick Vannett are all more than capable of producing enough big plays and posing consistent threats to keep the Hokie defense on its heels.

 

As good as Ohio State is and despite being the No. 1 ranked team in the nation by basically everyone, people still continue to doubt or just flat out not understand just how talented this team is. Suspensions or not, I’d be shocked if the Buckeyes didn’t win the game by two touchdowns.

— J.P. Scott, editor-in-chief of KnowItAllFootball.com, a Big Ten site for Big Ten fans

 

Related: Ranking the Toughest Games in Ohio State's Quest to Repeat in 2015

Teaser:
Why the Ohio State Suspensions Will or Won't Matter Against Virginia Tech
Post date: Thursday, July 30, 2015 - 15:30
All taxonomy terms: AFC, NFL, News
Path: /nfl/jimmy-garopollo-mystery-some-steelers
Body:

Even though training camp is just starting now, the NFL season begins in just over a month. But some Steelers certainly haven’t been look that far ahead. In an interview with a couple defensive players, a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reporter received blank stares when asking about Jimmy Garoppolo. The Steelers face the Patriots in the season opener, where Garoppolo will be the presumed starter after Tom Brady’s suspension was upheld.

 

When asked about how they were going to prepare for the new quarterback, linebackers Jarvis Jones and Bud Dupree both couldn’t come up with an answer. They didn’t seem to even know who he was. Dupree had to be told that he was Brady’s backup, but he couldn’t add too much insight. Surely as the season gets closer, the Steelers will have to look more into this mysterious quarterback.

Teaser:
Post date: Thursday, July 30, 2015 - 14:50
All taxonomy terms: MLB, News
Path: /mlb/toronto-blue-jays-trade-david-price
Body:

The Detroit Tigers recently opened up definitively to selling their impending free agents, and the Toronto Blue Jays made use of that. The teams swapped pitchers, as the Blue Jays received David Price for three pitching prospects. The move provides the Blue Jays a much-needed starting pitching ace, as their offense is best in the MLB in terms of runs scored.

 

Toronto has not made the playoffs since they won the World Series in 1993, making this year seem more urgent than ever before. They recently upgraded at shortstop by trading for Troy Tulowitzki. Just a few games out of the Wild Card and not too far out of the AL East division race, the Blue Jays look poised to make a legitimate postseason run. David Price will presumably start his first game for his new team on Sunday.

Teaser:
Post date: Thursday, July 30, 2015 - 13:30
Path: /college-football/tennessee-adds-4-star-florida-rb-carlin-fils-aime-2016-recruiting-class
Body:

On Thursday the Tennessee Volunteers landed running back Carlin Fils-Aime in a big head-to-head recruiting battle that included North Carolina, Miami, Auburn, and Georgia down the stretch. The commitment was somewhat of a surprise after a reported announcement date set for Saturday, Aug. 1.

 

The Naples High School star has captured the imagination of college recruiters despite limited touches at the high school level. The 5-foot-11, 180-pound back had 92 carries for 873 yards with 15 touchdowns as a sophomore but only had 26 carries for 232 yards and three scores as a junior.

 

Stats did not diminish Fils-Aime’s standing pulling in offers from South Carolina, Duke, Florida, Michigan, N.C. State, Boston College, Indiana and Louisville. On Wednesday Fils-Aime announced that Tennessee was the front-runner ahead of Auburn after visiting Miami, Auburn, Georgia,and North Carolina over the summer. The 4-star recruit visited Tennessee last week, which helped seal the deal.

 

Tennessee won the recruiting battle in-part upon its promise to only take one running back in the 2016 class.  

 

The Volunteers now have 14 verbal commitments to their 2016 recruiting class pulling recruits from nine different areas including Washington D.C., Florida, Kansas, Louisiana, Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, New Jersey and Tennessee.

 

— Written by Ryan Wright, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and an established media professional with more than two decades' worth of experience. Over the years, Wright has written for numerous sites and publications and he recently started his own recruiting site, www.recruitingnewsguru.com. Follow him on Twitter @HogManinLA.

Teaser:
Tennessee adds 4-Star Florida RB Carlin Fils-Aime to 2016 Recruiting Class
Post date: Thursday, July 30, 2015 - 13:15
Path: /college-football/nebraska-scores-big-pickup-jordan-stevenson-recruiting
Body:

The Jordan Stevenson sweepstakes ended on Thursday when the former South Oak Cliff (Texas) High School running back was academically cleared to enroll at Nebraska.

 

The recruiting win for first-year Nebraska head coach Mike Riley over Big Ten foe Wisconsin could speak volumes about the direction of the two programs going forward.

 

The Badgers, like Nebraska, are breaking in a new head coach, Paul Chryst (Pitt). When the coaching musical chairs began at the end of the 2014 season Gary Andersen, who recruited Stevenson, left the Badgers for Oregon State replacing Riley. Chryst was able to keep Stevenson in the recruiting class but lost him last week due to Wisconsin’s academic standards.

 

When Stevenson announced he was back on the recruiting market via Twitter posting, “#Badgernation Thanks for all the love also all the support through all I have been through. Much love.” A mad recruiting rush to land the 5-foot-8, 210-pound back began. Reports circled that Alabama, Tennessee, Florida, Texas Tech, Pitt, Indiana, Oregon State, Louisville and Nebraska had each signaled interest in Stevenson.

 

Alabama head coach Nick Saban even directly courted Stevenson, but Riley’s pitch on Stevenson becoming the Cornhuskers’ next Ameer Abdullah was the game-changer.

 

Stevenson earned a 4-star ranking after filling the stat sheet for Dallas-area South Oak Cliff for three straight years. As a sophomore he rushed for 853 yards with 11 touchdowns. In 2013 he showed off his all-purpose skills, rushing for 1,994 yards with 18 touchdowns, while catching 18 passes for another 348 yards with two more scores.

 

The big season came as senior, when Stevenson piled up more than 2,500 yards on the ground with 31 touchdowns, while adding 134 yards receiving and two scores on 13 receptions. He also showed off his 4.44 40-yard dash speed in the open field.


Stevenson had originally committed to in-state power Texas, but opened his recruiting back up, earning offers from Oklahoma State, Arkansas, Texas A&M, Louisville, Ohio State, UCLA, SMU and Utah State among others before settling with Wisconsin.

 

The impact Stevenson could have on Nebraska’s roster might not be immediate with the kind of talent Riley already has at his disposal.

 

Senior Imani Cross rushed for 384 yards with five touchdowns last season playing behind Abdullah. Cross is a big back (6-1, 240) and is well suited to run between the tackles ,dragging defenders with him. After taking 75 handoffs, he averaged 5.1 yards per carry in 2014.  

 

Behind Cross is Terrell Newby. Newby is more of a speed guy (listed at 5-10, 200), who also is a threat in the passing attack.

 

Last season at Oregon State, Riley used a two-back system splitting carries between Storm Woods (766 yards, 5 TDs) and Terron Ward (696, 10). Former head coach Bo Pelini fed Abdullah the ball 264 times last season, which generated 1,611 yards rushing and 19 touchdowns. Stevenson has the potential to take away carries from Cross or Newby if he picks up the offense quickly. A safe bet on short-yardage and goal-line carries, opposing defenses will get a heavy dose of Cross. 

 

Per reports, Stevenson will officially enroll at Nebraska on Friday.

 

— Written by Ryan Wright, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and an established media professional with more than two decades' worth of experience. Over the years, Wright has written for numerous sites and publications and he recently started his own recruiting site, www.recruitingnewsguru.com. Follow him on Twitter @HogManinLA.

Teaser:
Nebraska Scores a Big-Time Pickup on the Recruiting Trail with RB Jordan Stevenson
Post date: Thursday, July 30, 2015 - 13:00
Path: /nfl/examining-overunder-2015-win-totals-nfc-west
Body:

One of the best races in the NFL will occur in the NFC West. The defending NFC champs are there in Seattle with Arizona and St. Louis nipping at their heels. San Francisco is a bit of an enigma especially after their odd offseason which saw several players retire out of the blue.

 

Much like I did with the college football win totals, I will break down the schedules in terms of home and road opponents outside the division. In most situations, I'll give a split to each team in divisional play with them winning at home and losing on the road. Vegas is much more on the ball in the NFL compared to college football so the numbers are a lot sharper.
 

Note: Over/under odds courtesy of 5Dimes Sportsbook

 

NFC West

 

Arizona Cardinals

(Over 8.5 wins -105, Under 8.5 wins -115)

 

Record Last Year: 11-5

 

Offense: Carson Palmer's health will be paramount for Arizona in 2015. As last season (especially in the playoffs) showed, the Cardinals can't survive with Drew Stanton, Ryan Lindley and Logan Thomas at quarterback. The Cards added Mike Iupati to the offensive line and the Pro Bowler will be an instant improvement. The WR corps will be fine with Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd and John Brown. They also have several options at running back.

 

Defense: Arizona's defense won't be as good as it was last year. Antonio Cromartie, Darnell Dockett and Larry Foote are all gone. The Cardinals still have Patrick Peterson to shut down one side of the field along with Tyrann Mathieu at safety. The team also has to hope that kicker Chandler Catanzaro's rookie season wasn't a fluke and that he can lock down field goals once again.

 

Schedule: Arizona begins and ends its season with a stretch of three home games in its last four. The Cardinals close out the year with a road game at Philly followed by home contests against the Packers and Seahawks.

 

Prediction: The under is the play here. There are a lot of question marks with the 2015 Cardinals. Can Palmer make it all 16 games and what will happen at RB? The defense was ranked 24th in 2014 and lost several key pieces. Will this unit be better or take a step back this season?

 

 

St. Louis Rams

(Over 8 wins +120, Under 8 wins -140)

 

Record Last Year: 6-10

 

Offense: Sam Bradford's out and Nick Foles takes over at quarterback. Foles had an uneven 2014 for the Eagles and moves to a team with fewer weapons on the outside. The Rams hope their running game can take some pressure off of the passing game with Tre Mason leading the way. They also hope that first-round pick Todd Gurley is healthy at some point to give Mason a break.

 

Defense: One of the best defensive lines in the league got better with the addition of Nick Fairley. Robert Quinn and Chris Long are great bookends with Aaron Donald pushing up the middle. The team also has solid safeties in T.J. McDonald and Rodney McLeod, who had to clean up the mistakes the mediocre corners made.

 

Schedule: Three times this season the Rams have back-to-back road games. They also have a three game homestand from Weeks 13-15 when they host Arizona, Detroit and Tampa Bay. St. Louis has an early bye in Week 6.

 

Prediction: The Rams are building a nice nucleus, but it won't pay off this year. Foles is probably not the long-term answer at quarterback. The defense will keep them in games, but if the run game can't get going, it'll be a long season.

 

 

San Francisco 49ers

(Over 7.5 wins +173, Under 7.5 wins -205)

 

Record Last Year: 8-8

 

Offense: Colin Kaepernick is back and he looks to try and improve from last year when he took a step back. Kap lead the 30th-ranked passing offense in the NFL in 2014. This year he'll try to improve with Torrey Smith at WR, who replaces Michael Crabtree (Oakland). This side of the ball also lost Frank Gore, Mike Iupati and Jonathan Martin. Carlos Hyde, Reggie Bush and Kendall Hunter form a nice group of RBs.

 

Defense: The 2015 49ers defense will not be as strong as it has been in the past. One can point to the departures of Chris Borland, Chris Culliver, Ray McDonald, Patrick Willis and Perrish Cox. Darnell Dockett came over from Arizona and will help get pressure on the quarterback.

 

Schedule: San Francisco hosts Green Bay, Baltimore and Seattle in an 18-day stretch in October. The 49ers play three of their first five on the road and don't have too many friendly stretches.

 

Prediction: I don't have to tell you what the selection is here. The only chance for this team is if Kaepernick takes a leap forward in his game. New head coach Jim Tomsula's got his work cut out for him.

 

 

Seattle Seahawks

(Over 11 wins -125, Under 11 wins +105)

 

Record Last Year: 12-4

 

Offense: The rich got richer this offseason as the Seahawks picked up Jimmy Graham via trade. He will represent a nice go-to target for Russell Wilson in the clutch and in the red zone. Marshawn Lynch is back and he continues to be spectacular. The loss of center Max Unger is big, but the rest of the offensive line is going to be fine.

 

Defense: Seattle experienced some personnel losses here, but the biggest departure was coordinator Dan Quinn to Atlanta. He was the architect of this unit. Byron Maxwell, Malcolm Smith and Jeron Johnson also left. Ironically, Maxwell went to Philadelphia and his replacement is Cary Williams, who was terrible for the Eagles himself. Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas are the best safety duo in the league.

 

Schedule: Seattle has five of its first eight on the road including trips to the Rams and Packers in to open the season. After the Week 9 bye, the Seahawks host Arizona, San Francisco and Pittsburgh. Revenge will be on their mind Nov. 1 when they travel to Dallas after the Cowboys beat them in Seattle in 2014.

 

Prediction: The over is right. Eventually this ride has to end, but the addition of Graham makes Wilson that much better. Seattle haters will have to hope that the Seahawks experience injuries, which they seemingly haven't had the past few years.

 

— 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.

Teaser:
Examining the Over/Under 2015 Win Totals for the NFC West
Post date: Thursday, July 30, 2015 - 12:30
Path: /college-football/ohio-state-suspends-four-key-players-opener-against-virginia-tech
Body:

Ohio State will begin its national title defense without a couple of key players. According to a release from the school, defensive end Joey Bosa and receivers Corey Smith, Dontre Wilson and Jalin Marshall will be suspended for the opener against Virginia Tech.

 

Bosa is the biggest loss for the Buckeyes, as the junior is one of college football’s top players and a first-team All-American for 2015. In 15 games last season, Bosa recorded 55 tackles (21 for a loss) and 13.5 sacks. Bosa’s absence is an even bigger concern with the departure of last year's other starter at end (Michael Bennett) off to the NFL. Without Bosa, Ohio State is thin on proven experience at defensive end.

 

The quarterback battle is going to dominate the offseason headlines in Columbus, but the receiving corps is a concern for the opener with Marshall, Smith and Wilson suspended. The Buckeyes still have Michael Thomas (54 receptions in 2014), but Marshall, Smith and Wilson accounted for 79 catches last year.

 

With three key targets sidelined for the opener, Ohio State needs Braxton Miller to make a quick transition to receiver. The converted quarterback is now one of the Buckeyes’ top options in the passing attack (at least for the opener).

 

Before the suspensions were announced, Ohio State was considered a 13 or 14-point favorite in Vegas. Expect that line between the Buckeyes and Hokies to drop over the next month. 

 

Repeating as a college football national champion isn’t easy. And Ohio State’s road to another title just got a little tougher. Virginia Tech’s defense is good enough to pull off another upset over the Buckeyes. And without Bosa, Ohio State’s defense needs sophomore end Tyquan Lewis and senior tackle Adolphus Washington to elevate their performance.

 

One loss won't end Ohio State's national championship bid. After all, the Buckeyes lost to the Hokies in 2014 and still reached the playoffs and won the title game. 

 

There’s still a month to dissect the on-field matchup between Virginia Tech and Ohio State. However, it’s safe to say this game now has some added intrigue and upset potential.

Teaser:
Ohio State Suspends 5 Key Players for Opener Against Virginia Tech
Post date: Thursday, July 30, 2015 - 12:23
All taxonomy terms: College Football, Iowa Hawkeyes, Big Ten
Path: /college-football/iowas-coaching-history-repeating-itself-kirk-ferentz
Body:

Hawkeye faithful everywhere still beam with pride when the name Hayden Fry is uttered. After all, it was Fry who provided Hawkeyes a new sense of identity, not just for the football program he inherited which had gone a dismal 17 years without a winning season prior to his 1979 arrival, but also all other sports at the University of Iowa, which now universally use his personally-designed Tiger Hawk logo to instill awe in friend and foe alike.

 

Less known to the younger Hawkeye Nation, however, is the place current head coach Kirk Ferentz played in that 1979 revival and the lessons he learned in the process which contributed, ironically enough, to his own ‘99 renaissance of a program which had once again become mired in mediocrity under the last few years of Fry's 18-year tenure.

 

Entering the 2015 season, however, Ferentz’ one-time untouchable status after a series of 10-win seasons in the early 2000s has been rocked by a four-year run in which the Hawkeyes saw their team go a pre-Fry-style 26-25. Even more shocking, Kinnick Stadium, named for legend Nile Kinnick, Iowa’s lone Heisman Trophy winner, saw the Hawkeyes’ once-unbeatable home dominance dwindling fast. And the losses in Kinnick weren't to perennial powers like Michigan and Ohio State. They were coming at the hands of unlikely foes like Northern Illinois and Central Michigan.

 

Which brings this program into the 2015 season riding a mediocre 34-30 record over the last five years, and Ferentz is no longer a man with whom Hawkeye faithful feel is best suited to remain at the helm once his larger-than-life (and 10th largest in FBS) $4 million annual contract expires in ‘19. As a matter of fact, Hawkeye Nation now questions whether he should even be there after this season. He's no longer getting the results he once obtained, and the faithful 70,000-plus fans in Kinnick every fall Saturday have lost patience with the teams’ subpar performances. Meaning there is likely no hotter seat in the Big Ten in 2015 than the one currently occupied by Ferentz.

 

When discussing the issue of success at the collegiate level it's often tempting to look at only the wins and losses. But there's more to the story of Iowa's slide from its dominant years of the early 2000s and Ferentz’ rebuilding job. And it starts with public perception.

 

For more than five years, from 2007-12, Ferentz stubbornly stood by his then-offensive coordinator Ken O'Keefe even as the offense repeatedly failed to perform and became a potent symbol of the lack of entertainment the Hawkeyes were providing on the field. It seemed that in the battle of public perception, the Hawkeyes had grown much more entertaining off of the field, where player arrests and controversy reigned. Yet Ferentz refused to budge in making changes to his staff, which could have eliminated both of those problems at least until the Hawkeyes’ dismal 4-8 showing in 2012.

 

Then there's the issue of how assistant coaches and coordinators perform their jobs, which can be measured in large part by the revolving door that first showed up in Fry's program, as his staff members were regularly vetted for movement up the ladder by other programs. This season will see five former Fry assistants, including Ferentz, leading their own highly successful FBS programs in some capacity, including Oklahoma's Bob Stoops, Kansas State's Bill Snyder, Arkansas' Bret Bielema, and Wisconsin's former coach and now athletics director Barry Alvarez. In all, only one former Fry assistant from his 1983 coaching staff, Dan McCarney, has not gone to post a career winning record as a head coach.

 

And what of Ferentz’ former staff? Only a select few have moved up the coaching ladder after departing Iowa. A clear sign that the once vaunted Iowa coaching tree has indeed seen its own drought.

 

Which brings us to the players themselves. What's become of some of the most talented recruits Ferentz has coached at Iowa? To his credit, this is where Ferentz shines, having moved more college players to the NFL than any other Big Ten coach during his tenure. Which begs the question, if the talent was that good why was Iowa still enduring the continuing long slow slog through slightly better than .500 seasons?

 

The answer, while complicated in many ways, most likely comes down to one inevitable issue. Kirk Ferentz himself.

 

When he arrived at Iowa, Ferentz’ bravado off the field was muted, with most considering him a humble type who shunned the spotlight in favor of a modest approach that focused on slow growth and teaching. And while he was successful in initially recapturing the glory days of Fry's success, that humble approach ultimately meant his program was left to fight over players that the Oklahomas and Ohio States of the college football landscape didn't want. In most respects that seemed a good fit for Iowa. Except for where low-key intersected with the fanbase’s long and storied history of demanding overachiever-style success, a history former Iowa basketball coaches Lute Olsen and C. Vivian Stringer both publicly cited as creating unrealistic standards.

 

So what of these under-performing Hawkeyes entering this season?

 

One look at the schedule shows a luxury not often seen by the Hawkeyes recently, playing seven of their 12 games in the once-comfy confines of Kinnick Stadium. But oh those five games played on the road —  a slate that includes Wisconsin, Nebraska, as well as the often Ferentz-vexing Northwestern and Iowa State.

 

Run the slate in the non-conference and win Big Ten games against lesser opponents like Indiana, Purdue and Illinois, while pulling off at least one upset on the road and Ferentz will likely have successfully silenced his critics for one more year. Lose even one of those games, however, and he may very well have cemented his legacy in the same category as Fry, who in spite of his success was thought to have stayed five years too long.

 

— Written by Robert A. Boleyn, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and is a native Iowan currently living in Los Angeles. A University of Iowa graduate, Boleyn is a Hawkeye fanatic and former contributing writing for The Daily Iowan. Follow him on Twitter @BoleynRobert.

Teaser:
Is Iowa’s Coaching History Repeating Itself with Kirk Ferentz?
Post date: Thursday, July 30, 2015 - 12:00
All taxonomy terms: College Football, Overtime
Path: /overtime/ohio-state-band-songbook-features-holocaust-song-mocking-victims
Body:

Ohio State's band is hot water following a report of a songbook making fun of Holocaust victims.

 

According to a report by the Wall Street Journal, a book by the famous band includes a sendup of the Holocaust with many joking references to Nazi concentration camps, train cars, and furnaces. "Goodbye Kramer" features lines about Nazi soldiers "searching for people livin' in their neighbor's attic," and other horrible references. It was written to the tune of Journey's "Don't Stop Believin.'"

Band members are urged to keep the book a secret, and there's no word on how it leaked. Ohio State released a statement saying it is "committed to eradicating [this behavior] from its marching band program."

 

In 2014, the updated songbook contained another offensive tune targeted at Jewish people. The language used is much too offensive. The list goes on and on as there is a song referring to Nebraska, Michigan, and homosexuals in a negative light.

 

Ohio State has said the school is now trying to reform the ugly things about the band's culture. A band that was once the baddest band in all of college football is now overshadowed by off-the-field antics.

Teaser:
Post date: Thursday, July 30, 2015 - 11:48
Path: /college-football/why-florida-state-will-or-wont-make-college-football-playoff-2015
Body:

Florida State is coming off one of the best two-year runs by a program in recent memory. The Seminoles won 27 games from 2013-14, claimed the 2013 national championship and reached the playoffs last season. Additionally, Florida State has claimed three consecutive ACC titles and has four double-digit win seasons over the last five years.

 

Even though the Seminoles lost a handful of key players from last season, another run at the playoffs isn’t unrealistic. Of course, Florida State needs to answer several personnel questions and navigate a few tricky road tests, but coach Jimbo Fisher is one of the best in the nation and is primed for a quick reload in 2015.

 

The first season of the college football playoff was a huge success. With less than 50 days until kickoff, it’s time to evaluate some of the top contenders for the 2015 playoffs.

 

Related: College Football's Top 50 Players for 2015

 

Here’s a look at three reasons why Florida State will make the playoff, followed by its schedule and three reasons the Seminoles won’t finish in the top four.

 

Three Reasons Why Florida State Will Make the CFB Playoff in 2015

 

1. Talent

Recruiting rankings aren’t 100 percent accurate, but there is plenty of value in the data. Using the 247Sports team rankings from 2011-15, Florida State’s five-year recruiting average (4.4) ranks No. 2 behind Alabama (1.0). There’s more to a roster and judging teams in the preseason than just pure talent from a recruiting perspective. However, there’s no shortage of potential and talent for the Seminoles. How quickly will coach Jimbo Fisher and his staff develop the young talent on the roster into key contributors? On paper, most of Florida State’s talent is in the freshmen and sophomore ranks for 2015.

 

2. Jimbo Fisher Will Find a Quarterback

The last three full-time starters at quarterback for Florida State under Fisher have been selected in the first round of the NFL Draft. Extending that streak to four seems unlikely, but it’s safe to assume Fisher will find the right answer at quarterback. Sean Maguire finished spring at the top of the depth chart, and the junior has three seasons of experience within Fisher’s system. He also started the Sept. 20 showdown against Clemson – arguably the best defense in the nation – last year, completing 21 of 39 passes for 304 yards. However, Maguire isn’t guaranteed the starting job after former Notre Dame signal-caller Everett Golson announced he would transfer to Florida State in May. Golson is clearly more established as a quarterback on the FBS level, but he also faces a tough transition to a new offense. Regardless of whether Golson or Maguire takes the first snap, Fisher deserves the benefit of the doubt in finding the next quarterback.

 

Related: Ranking College Football's Top 50 Players for 2015

 

3. Jalen Ramsey + Playmakers on Offense

While one player isn’t able to transform a defense into a shutdown group, defensive back Jalen Ramsey can make up for a lot of deficiencies for the Seminoles. The junior is arguably the best player in college football and is shifting from safety to cornerback in 2015. Ramsey’s all-around versatility on defense is a huge asset for second-year coordinator Charles Kelly. On the other side of the ball, the Seminoles have a core of young playmakers ready to emerge in 2015. The status of Dalvin Cook is uncertain after an off-field incident, but Jacques Patrick and Mario Pender should prevent a drop in the rushing performance. At receiver, sophomores Travis Rudolph and Ermon Lane are rising stars. True freshmen George Campbell and Da’Vante Phillips are also worth watching as key contributors this season.

 

Florida State's 2015 Schedule
DateOpponentLogoAthlon Projected Rank for 2015Projected Record
Sept. 5Texas State937-5
Sept. 12USF994-8
Sept. 18at Boston College566-6
Oct. 3at Wake Forest824-8
Oct. 10Miami437-5
Oct. 17Louisville387-5
Oct. 24at Georgia Tech188-5
Oct. 31Syracuse853-9
Nov. 7at Clemson149-3
Nov. 14NC State399-3
Nov. 21Chattanooga--
Nov. 28at Florida268-4
Three Reasons Why Florida State Won't Make the College Football Playoff in 2015

 

1. Too Many Holes to Fill

Even though the rankings indicate just how well Fisher and this staff have performed on the recruiting trail, this team is losing a ton of key players from last season. Offensively, quarterback Jameis Winston is the biggest loss, but receiver Rashad Greene and tight end Nick O’Leary must be replaced, along with four starters on the offensive line. The defense ranked ninth in the ACC in points allowed last year and lost both starting cornerbacks, end Mario Edwards Jr. and tackle Eddie Goldman to the NFL. The linebacking corps is also thin on depth.

 

Related: ACC Predictions for 2015

 

2. Road Schedule

If Florida State is going to return to the playoffs in 2015, it will have to win a handful of critical games on the road. Trips to Georgia Tech, Clemson and Florida are key swing games for the Seminoles this season, and there’s an intriguing mid-September trip to Boston College – a team that has played Florida State tough over the last two years. Catching Miami, Louisville and NC State at home softens the road schedule a bit, but this is not an easy path for a rebuilding team in 2015.

 

3. Defensive Concerns

Charles Kelly’s first season as the defensive signal-caller had its share of ups and downs. The Seminoles finished ninth in the ACC in scoring defense and allowed 5.5 yards per play. However, Kelly’s halftime adjustments were a key cog in some of Florida State’s close victories. But this unit still has a ways to go in 2015, and a handful of key players left for the NFL. The defensive line may not have a dominant, first-team All-ACC performer this year, but there is depth and some promising young talent. The linebacking corps is arguably Kelly’s biggest concern with Reggie Northrup and Matthew Thomas recovering from offseason surgeries. Even though this unit has promising talent in spots and one of the nation’s top players in Ramsey, the Seminoles need another year of seasoning on defense.

 

Final Verdict

 

Florida State is a team built to win in 2016 or 2017. Sure, there’s a lot of promising talent in place and a standout freshman class will add to the depth for Fisher. However, the Seminoles must replace four starters on the offensive line, break in a new quarterback and improve a defense ranked near the bottom of the ACC in the four main statistical categories. And there’s a schedule featuring road trips to Clemson, Georgia Tech and Florida. That's a lot to overcome. Finishing with 11 wins in the regular season isn’t out of the question. However, a 10-2 campaign is more realistic considering all of the personnel question marks and roster turnover this year.

 

Athlon’s Projected Final Ranking: 9

Athlon’s Projected Final Record: 11-2 (6-2 ACC)

Bovada Projected Over/Under Odds: 9.5

CG Technology Over/Under Odds: 9.5

5 Dimes Over/Under Odds: 9.5

Teaser:
Why Florida State Will or Won't Make the College Football Playoff in 2015
Post date: Thursday, July 30, 2015 - 11:30
Path: /college-football/ranking-secs-top-10-heisman-candidates-2015
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The SEC is in a two-year drought without a Heisman winner. After winning three trophies from 2007-10, the SEC has just one winner from 2011-14.

 

Can the SEC claim a Heisman winner in 2015? The conference has a few options among the nation’s leading candidates, especially at the running back position with Georgia’s Nick Chubb, LSU’s Leonard Fournette and Alabama’s Derrick Henry.

 

Quarterbacks Dak Prescott (Mississippi State) and Jeremy Johnson (Auburn) are also squarely in the mix. 

 

Here's a look at the top Heisman candidates from the SEC for 2015.

 

The Five Clear Favorites

 

1. Nick Chubb, RB, Georgia

Chubb was slated to spend 2014 as a backup to Todd Gurley, but an early-season suspension and torn ACL to Gurley elevated Chubb into the starting lineup. The No. 33 recruit in the 2014 247Sports Composite ensured Georgia’s rushing attack didn’t miss a beat, recording 1,547 yards and 14 scores on 219 attempts. Chubb averaged 165.4 rushing yards over the last eight games of 2014.

 

Related: SEC Breakout Players for 2015

 

2. Leonard Fournette, RB, LSU

A strong case could be made for Fournette as college football’s most talented running back. As a true freshman in 2014, Fournette rushed for 1,034 yards and 10 scores on 187 attempts. The former five-star recruit should see even more carries as LSU’s No. 1 back in 2015.

 

Related: College Football's Top 50 Players for 2015

 

3. Derrick Henry, RB, Alabama

Henry led Alabama with 990 rushing yards and tied for the team lead with 11 touchdowns on the ground. With T.J. Yeldon off to the NFL, Henry will anchor the rushing attack for coordinator Lane Kiffin. The 6-foot-3, 242-pound running back is a handful for opposing defenses to tackle, and he’s due for his first 1,000-yard campaign in Tuscaloosa.

 

4. Dak Prescott, QB, Mississippi State

Quarterbacks are always going to have an advantage in the Heisman race, and Prescott is one of the leading candidates under center in 2015. Mississippi State is losing a handful of key players from 2014, but the Bulldogs will be a factor in the SEC West title picture. Prescott guided Mississippi State to just its third double-digit win campaign in school history last year and passed for 3,449 yards and 27 scores, while adding 986 yards and 14 touchdowns on the ground.

 

Related: SEC Predictions for 2015

 

5. Jeremy Johnson, QB, Auburn

Johnson has only two career starts, but the junior should be among the top 10-15 favorites to win the Heisman in 2015. The Montgomery native is a different quarterback than Auburn’s last starter (Nick Marshall), as the junior is more of a drop-back passer and is poised to keep Gus Malzahn’s high-powered attack among the best in the nation. No. 5 might be too low for Johnson.

 

The Next Five Candidates

 

6. Laquon Treadwell, WR, Ole Miss

All signs point to Treadwell returning to full strength from a serious leg injury suffered in 2014. In nine games last season, Treadwell caught 48 passes for 632 yards and five scores. Quarterback play is under the spotlight for the Rebels in 2015 and will determine just how high Treadwell climbs in the Heisman discussion. He could be the best receiver in the nation in 2015.

 

Related: Ranking College Football's Top 50 Players for 2015

 

7. Kyle Allen, QB, Texas A&M

Allen is the favorite to start for the Aggies in 2015, but touted freshman Kyler Murray will push for snaps. Allen threw for 1,322 yards and 16 touchdowns in limited action last year, with his best performance (294 yards) coming against West Virginia in the Liberty Bowl. The sophomore should have a breakout year at the controls of a high-powered offense in College Station.

 

Related: SEC Breakout Players for 2015

 

8. Alex Collins/Jonathan Williams, RB, Arkansas

Splitting carries hurts the Heisman outlook for Williams and Collins, but both players should push for 1,000 yards in 2015. If Arkansas continues to improve in coach Bret Bielema’s third year, the stock of Williams and Collins will continue to rise.

 

9. Duke Williams, WR, Auburn

Expect to see Williams’ numbers increase in 2015 with the departure of Sammie Coates, along with the addition of quarterback Jeremy Johnson into the starting lineup. In his first year from the junior college ranks, Williams averaged 16.2 yards per catch on 45 receptions.

 

11. Pharoh Cooper, WR, South Carolina

Cooper is among the nation’s top all-purpose players, averaging 108.5 total yards per game in 2014. The junior needs more help in the win column to jump into the Heisman race.

 

Related: SEC Predictions for 2015

 

12. Joshua Dobbs, QB, Tennessee

Pencil in a Tennessee candidate here. Dobbs gets a slight nod over running back Jalen Hurd as the favorite on Rocky Top to contend for the Heisman. Dobbs threw for 1,206 yards and nine scores over the final six games of 2014.

 

Three Darkhorses to Watch

 

Jalen Hurd, RB, Tennessee

Hurd led the team with 899 rushing yards last season but will face increased competition for carries from junior college recruit Alvin Kamara.

 

Related: College Football's Top Coordinator Hires for 2015

 

Maty Mauk, QB, Missouri

Mauk has a revamped receiving corps but should be more comfortable in his second year as the starter. He threw for 2,648 yards and 25 scores in 14 games last season.

 

Boom Williams, RB, Kentucky

Rising star for the Wildcats should be in for a bigger workload after averaging 6.6 yards per attempt on 74 carries last season.

 

Defensive Players to Watch

 

(A defensive player winning the Heisman is unlikely. But here’s a look at the best candidates if a defensive player will get into the Heisman discussion).
 

1. Vernon Hargreaves III, CB, Florida

Hargreaves III is arguably the top cover cornerback in the nation. The junior has earned back-to-back All-SEC honors.

 

2. Derek Barnett, DE, Tennessee

Barnett was outstanding as a true freshman, ranking second among defenders in SEC games with 10 sacks. 

 

3. Robert Nkemdiche, DT, Ole Miss

Don’t expect huge stats from Nkemdiche as the anchor of Ole Miss’ defensive line, but the junior is a force on the interior and a handful for opposing offensive linemen.

 

4. Myles Garrett, DE, Texas A&M

Garrett ranked as one of the top prospects in the 2014 signing class and didn’t disappoint in his first year with the Aggies. Garrett recorded 11.5 sacks in 12 games last season.

 

5. Reggie Ragland, LB, Alabama

Either Ragland or teammate A’Shawn Robinson deserves a mention here. The Crimson Tide should have one of the best defenses in college football.

Teaser:
Ranking the SEC's Top 10 Heisman Candidates for 2015
Post date: Thursday, July 30, 2015 - 11:00
All taxonomy terms: New York Giants, NFC, NFC East, NFL, News
Path: /nfl/burning-questions-new-york-giants-enter-training-camp
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After finishing far behind in the NFC East last year, the Giants will look to compete for the title against the Cowboys and Eagles. There’s little doubt the Giants have some great talent on their team, but their rush offense and defense ranked towards the bottom of the league. Tom Coughlin's team needs to get better in those areas specifically if they want to make a run for the playoffs.

 

5 Burning Questions for the NY Giants in Training Camp


Can Eli Manning be just as good as last year?

After a disastrous 2013 NFL season that ended with an ankle injury, Eli Manning’s success last year had to be somewhat unexpected. Despite Manning's big statistical campaign, the Giants won only six games. Once again, their season may ride on him, and there obviously has to be questions of whether or not he can match those numbers. There should be hope for that though, as he’ll have Victor Cruz back and Odell Beckham Jr. will be in his second season. It doesn’t look like he’s going to get much help in the running game, but his track record points in a positive direction for another great season.

 

Will the running game improve?

The Giants struggled mightily in the running game in 2014, ranking 23rd in total rushing yards and 30th in yards per attempt. Bringing in Rashad Jennings last year didn’t do much, especially considering he continued to be plagued by injuries. Drafting Andre Williams seemed to be more of a project for the future, but he led the team in yards and carries because he had to start in place of an injured Jennings. This offseason, the front office brought in Shane Vereen, but there still is no standout, premier back on this team. Without any upgrades, the rushing game once again appears doomed. Vereen should add some good depth, but Jennings hasn’t proved to be a valuable starter yet.

 

How will Jason Pierre-Paul, Victor Cruz be in their return from injury?

The biggest (and worst) news of the offseason for the Giants came when they learned about Jason Pierre-Paul’s injury from a fireworks incident. After a revival season where he notched 12.5 sacks, the Giants were hoping this high production would continue. However, now there are plenty of questions, including if he’ll be ready to play at the start of the season and how much the injury will actually affect his play. Meanwhile on the other side of the ball, Victor Cruz is returning from a torn patellar tendon that ended his season early last year. Training camp will be important to see how much he has recovered. However, if he continues to recover to full strength, then Cruz and Beckham Jr. could create one of the league’s top combos.

 

Can Steve Spagnuolo help fix the Giants’ defense?

A few years removed from being the team’s defensive coordinator, Spagnuolo is back this year in the same position. Last time with the Giants, he succeeded with a 4-3 defense that focuses on blitzes and being extremely aggressive. The Giants need to do things much differently than last season, when they ranked 29th in yards allowed and 22nd in points against. Many of the issues came against the run, but by incorporating more blitzes, the Giants hope to quell this problem. The secondary also has some concerns, with two very young safeties and injury-plagued cornerbacks. There’s a lot of potential in the secondary, so Spagnuolo will need to learn how to mold them and keep them healthy.

 

Can Tom Coughlin turn around this team in a tough division?

Tom Coughlin has been the head coach for the Giants for 11 seasons, and 2013-14 was the only time where he had back-to-back losing records. He is just one of two coaches (Bill Belichick) with two or more Super Bowls on their current team. As one of the longest-tenured coaches, there is no doubt to the success he has had. But if the Giants can’t turn it around, what’s next for the team? Coughlin doesn’t plan on retiring any time soon, so it puts the Giants in an interesting predicament. Many head coaches lose their position after several consecutive bad seasons, so would it be different for him? They play in one of the toughest divisions, and it’s a long way to the top.

Teaser:
Post date: Thursday, July 30, 2015 - 10:30
Path: /nfl/answering-nfc-norths-biggest-questions-2015
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NFL training camps are opening up all across the nation, signaling the official return of pro football.

 

Athlon Sports is going division by division, asking and (trying to) answering the biggest question for every team in the league entering the 2015 season.

 

AFC's Biggest Questions: EastNorth | South | West
NFC's Biggest Questions: East | North | South | West

 

NFC North

 

Chicago: Is Jay Cutler your starting quarterback?

There are a lot of unknowns about the Bears with John Fox now running things in the Windy City. But it's hard to address any of the other issues while ignoring the flashing neon sign under center. Chicago can't rid itself of Jay Cutler (not for lack of trying), and, despite his much-deserved criticisms, the veteran is still a better option than a dozen other NFL starters. Fox and offensive coordinator Adam Gase certainly won't be married to the incumbent so the leash will be short. How a run-first, disciplinarian head coach meshes with a lackadaisical and frustrating quarterback will be fascinating. If Cutler and Gase can get on the same page, the Bears have a lot of weaponry to utilize.

 

Detroit: Can the defensive line be rebuilt?

The Lions' offense underachieved last fall but is loaded for bear in 2015. It's the NFL's No. 2-ranked defense that has major holes to fill. Ndamukong Suh, Nick Fairley and C.J. Mosley are gone off the defensive line. Haloti Ngata fills one role immediately but is turning 31 and posted the second fewest tackles in his career last season. Ziggy Ansah is a special talent but is still very young while free agents and rookies will be asked to step in and fill other voids. The linebackers are among the NFL's best and the secondary is finally rounding into form. But to stay elite, the Lions' defensive line has to prove it can reload after some major departures.

 

Green Bay: Organize the new faces on defense?

The Packers are loaded and picked by many to win the division, but there are holes on the defense. Longtime veteran starters A.J. Hawk and Tramon Williams are gone along with role players Davon House and Jamari Lattimore. B.J. Raji returns but the Packers need strides from first-round picks Datone Jones, Nick Perry, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Damarious Randall. The Packers used their first two picks this year on corners and selected Jake Ryan in the fourth round. Clay Matthews has excelled inside and out but his supporting cast — which is loaded with early draft picks — needs to step into more prominent roles.

 

Minnesota: Can the young talent develop quickly?

There is a lot of young talent on this team. In fact, the Vikings have made eight first=round picks in the last four drafts and all eight have Pro Bowl potential. This group doesn't include rookie starting middle linebacker Eric Kendricks or other young starters like Everson Griffen, Kyle Rudolph or Antone Exum. This team is poised for big things in the near future, but the question is can the future be 2015? Despite the new contract, Adrian Peterson may not be long for the Twin Cities but he has an extremely experienced offensive line and fresh legs. If Teddy Bridgewater and the other young talent develops quickly, this is a sneaky good playoff team. If not, All-Day could be in Dallas this time next year.

Teaser:
Answering the NFC North's Biggest Questions in 2015
Post date: Thursday, July 30, 2015 - 10:30

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