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There is no easy way around this, so let's address it up front: The Pac-12 Conference's collective non-conference schedule in 2017 isn't exactly awe-inspiring.
The conference's nine-game league schedule has been a repeated point of contention in recent years among fans, media and even coaches. Because the Pac-12 is guaranteed more Power Five games up front than counterparts from the ACC and SEC, there's some debate as to whether the league's teams should seek out additional Power Five matchups in the non-conference.
To the conference's credit, eight members play at least one Power Five opponent in the non-conference. Some scheduled high-quality Group of Five opponents with Boise State, Houston, San Diego State and Western Michigan among the dates on Pac-12 calendars. Still, the debate lives on. Just two years ago, Stanford missed the College Football Playoff as a result of playing 11 Power Five games, including taking a Week 1 trip to Northwestern. The next season, Washington faced a notoriously weak non-conference schedule and landed in the final four.
Of course, the Huskies also played a 10th Power Five game. Can a team be faulted for a Power Five opponent like Rutgers not living up to a higher standard?
That's just one of the many questions college football has yet to clearly answer in the Playoff era. The uncertainty of this brave, new world is reflected in the vastly different scheduling philosophies evident across the Pac-12 in 2017.
Sept. 2 vs. Western Michigan
Sept. 16 vs. Texas
Oct. 21 at Notre Dame
USC's non-conference schedule features a 2016 New Year's bowl game participant — and it's neither of the two blue-blood programs on the Trojans' docket.
For a second consecutive season, USC opens with a team that played in the previous year's Cotton Bowl. There's considerable difference in facing the well-oiled machine that is Nick Saban's Alabama, and taking on a Western Michigan squad that Cinderella'd its way to Arlington (and lost its head coach as a result, with P.J. Fleck heading to Minnesota). Nevertheless, the Trojans once again set the tone for the most difficult non-conference schedule in the conference with a New Year's Six opponent.
Both Texas and Notre Dame sputtered through disappointing 2016 campaigns. Charlie Strong was dismissed following the Longhorns' 5-7 finish. Brian Kelly was given another season, but the Fighting Irish need to turn it around this fall. While questions loom for both programs — how will Texas take to Tom Herman, and will Notre Dame rally around Kelly? — these are two of the biggest brand names in college football. Put them together with USC, and there's no shortage of talent on either sideline.
Sept. 2 at North Carolina
Sept. 9 vs. Weber State
Sept. 16 vs. Ole Miss
Chapel Hill, North Carolina, is a shorter trek from Berkeley than Sydney, Australia, where Cal football opened its 2016 season. Otherwise, though, this is one of the longest trips any team in college football will take. The Golden Bears' visit to face Larry Fedora's tough Tar Heels serves as one book-end of an impressive non-conference slate.
The other book-end in head coach Justin Wilcox's debut campaign is a home date with the SEC's Ole Miss Rebels. While Ole Miss suffered through a disappointing 2016, and now faces the looming uncertainty of NCAA sanctions, Hugh Freeze has had a consistent winner in his time in Oxford. It's a rare occasion when an SEC program ventures to California, making this one of the nation's marquee dates on the non-conference docket.
Sept. 3 (Sunday) vs. Texas A&M
Sept. 9 vs. Hawaii
Sept. 16 at Memphis
Last season's overtime loss at Texas A&M proved what college football fans across the country have been saying for years: The SEC and Pac-12 need to play more home-and-home contests. The Aggies return the favor to kick off 2017, visiting Pasadena and Rose Bowl Stadium for an intriguing matchup. Both programs have fallen shy of expectations in the last few seasons. A win over a marquee opponent in Week 1 sets the tone for the entire season.
UCLA's 2017 season — unofficially the Revenge of Josh Rosen — won't hit the road until Week 3. After Hawaii comes to town Week 2 for what should be a tune-up, the Bruins travel to Memphis for one of the most low-key difficult road trips any Pac-12 team faces. Virginia Tech head coach Justin Fuente built a winner at Memphis, and Mike Norvell kept the Tigers going in his first season as head coach. Memphis first made noise on the national scene in 2014, when it nearly upset a ranked UCLA team at the Rose Bowl.
Aug. 26 vs. Rice (Sydney, Australia)*
Sept. 16 at San Diego State
Nov. 25 vs. Notre Dame
Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott has been open about his ambitions to take the conference global. Various Pac-12 basketball teams have opened the season in China over the last few years. A team of conference basketball all-stars toured Australia in the summer of 2016. And last season, the Conference of Champions went Down Under when Cal opened 2016 against Hawaii.
This year, Stanford gets the honors of visiting Australia in Week 0 with a game against Rice. The travel required to get from the Bay Area to Sydney will be the most grueling part of a likely Cardinal romp. A road trip three weeks later against San Diego State is the much tougher matchup. Rocky Long consistently produces outstanding defenses, and running back Rashaad Penny is a star in the making.
The traditional visit from Notre Dame to caps the season. The Fighting Irish and Cardinal have played several classics in recent years, no matter if one team was up and the other down. When Notre Dame last visited The Farm in 2015, Stanford denied the Irish a College Football Playoff berth on a last-second field goal.
5. Arizona State
Aug. 31 (Thursday) vs. New Mexico State
Sept. 9 vs. San Diego State
Sept. 16 at Texas Tech
Head coach Todd Graham has found a consistent blueprint for tailoring his non-conference schedule. The Sun Devils will often open with an FCS or lower Group of Five opponent — in this case, New Mexico State — then amp up the intensity in the subsequent weeks.
That's the case in 2017, with Arizona State welcoming San Diego State to renovated Sun Devil Stadium. The Aztecs finished 2016 ranked in the Top 25 with 11 wins -- one of which came against Cal. San Diego State's 2017 team returns several key veterans, and should have an experience edge over the Sun Devils. Before Pac-12 play begins, Arizona State tests itself with a trip to Lubbock for a return match with Texas Tech.
The Red Raiders' visit to Tempe in 2016 produced fireworks in the form of Kalen Ballage's eight touchdowns.
Sept. 2 vs. Southern Utah
Sept. 9 vs. Nebraska
Sept. 16 at Wyoming
Last season's visit to Lincoln, Nebraska, for a date with the Cornhuskers effectively derailed Oregon's season. Injuries and penalties piled up, and missed opportunities on two-point conversions proved costly, beginning the Ducks' season-long slide. Nebraska's receipt for the 2016 contest highlights an interesting Oregon non-conference schedule.
Longtime Oregon State head coach Mike Riley knows Autzen Stadium well, but a matchup with Willie Taggart is new for the Husker head coach. A week after this potentially emotional showdown looms a possible trap game. Oregon goes to college football's highest elevation, over 7,000 feet in Laramie, Wyoming. The Cowboys are coming off a surprising, breakthrough season under Craig Bohl. The multiple-time FCS national championship head coach employs a physically hard-nosed style — a style that gave Oregon problems a season ago.
7. Oregon State
Aug. 26 at Colorado State
Sept. 2 vs. Portland State
Sept. 9 vs. Minnesota
Oregon State opens the 2017 season on Week 0, helping Colorado State christen its new stadium. Emotions will be running high for the Rams faithful, reveling in both the opening of a new venue, and the opportunity to host a Pac-12 opponent. With one less week of preparation and the external hoopla, an Oregon State team that closed 2016 with tons of momentum faces a potential trap.
After a date with local FCS counterpart Portland State, Minnesota returns its half of the home-and-home in a visit to Reser Stadium. The Beavers and Golden Gophers went to the wire in last season's Week 1 showdown of tenacious rodents. Minnesota has a new look this season under former Western Michigan head coach, P.J. Fleck.
8. Washington State
Yes, Washington State opens the 2017 season with an opponent out of the Big Sky. No, the Cougars are not going to extend their current losing streak against the FCS conference to three games. However, defeats against Portland State and Eastern Washington to kick off the previous two seasons should have Mike Leach's bunch on alert.
Montana State is the first of three teams to visit the Palouse on Washington State's non-conference docket. An all-home game schedule devoid of Power Five competition does dock Washington State some points, but Mountain West foe Boise State is hardly a slouch. The Broncos beat Washington State a season ago in Boise. Nevada also presents a likely challenge under first-year head coach, the Pac-12-experienced Jay Norvell.
Every other year, one of either Arizona or Arizona State plays in-state FCS counterpart Northern Arizona. This year is Arizona's turn, two seasons after the Wildcats hung 77 points on the Lumberjacks. NAU often serves as an opportunity for Arizona to fine-tune. After a dismal 2016 campaign, the Wildcats will need it with Houston visiting Tucson the following week.
The Cougars' trip to Arizona Stadium marks the highest-profile non-conference game in Tucson since the 2012 season, when head coach Rich Rodriguez scored his first signature win with the Wildcats, beating Oklahoma State. Similarly, Houston head coach Major Applewhite will be after his first marquee victory against a Power Five opponent.
Arizona's final date before Pac-12 play takes it four hours east to El Paso to face former Western Athletic Conference rival UTEP. While the Miners have been middling in recent years, UTEP has nearly sprung some upsets over Power Five opponents during late-game affairs in the Sun Bowl.
Aug. 31 (Thursday) vs. North Dakota
Sept. 9 at BYU
Sept. 16 vs. San Jose State
Thank goodness for the Holy War. Not only is the Utah-BYU rivalry much too heated and entertaining to let die a conference realignment-forced death, but without the Utes' visit to Provo in Week 2, the football program would have a non-conference schedule weak enough to rival the Utah basketball team this past season.
Utah looks to make it seven straight over BYU, in between likely blowouts over North Dakota and San Jose State.
Sept. 1 (Friday) at Rutgers
Sept. 9 vs. Montana
Sept. 16 vs. Fresno State
When it came time to evaluate resumes for the College Football Playoff, Pac-12 champion Washington drew criticism for its lackluster non-conference schedule. It's not much better in 2017, improved only slightly with last year's home game against Rutgers now serving as a road contest. The Huskies hit the road for Big Ten Country — it still feels weird writing that of New Jersey. Thanks, conference realignment — then get two home dates against FCS member Montana and the Mountain West's Fresno State.
Montana's regularly a title contender in FCS, and head coach Bob Stitt employs an innovative offensive style. Still, the Grizzlies should be no match for Washington — but may be more of a challenge than Fresno State, which is undergoing a facelift under first-year head coach and longtime Pac-12 fixture, Jeff Tedford.
How does Colorado reward itself for reaching its first Pac-12 Championship Game and finishing ranked in the Top 25 for the first time in more than decade? With a thoroughly unimpressive non-conference schedule, apparently.
OK, so most non-conference slates are mapped out years in advance. For a program that just a year ago was hungry just to go bowling, a schedule featuring two pencil-in wins and the local rivalry probably made more sense. While the customary opener with Colorado State could challenge the Buffaloes in the post-Sefo Liufau era, neither Texas State nor Northern Colorado are likely to pose much challenge when they visit Boulder.
After nine years without a bowl game, Colorado should begin Pac-12 play in 2017 already halfway to eligibility for a second straight season.
— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45
What goes up must come down. Conventional wisdom tells us that very few MLB players rise to stardom and stay there over a long period of time. Some put together breakthrough performances one year, possibly good enough to earn All-Star recognition or even a Cy Young Award. Some perform well enough for long enough to earn big contract extension.
Related: 10 MLB Players on the Rise in 2017
Nevertheless, true superstars are rare. Many players that build high expectations unfortunately often fall short, and even those that reach superstar status usually eventually regress. As we take a look at the upcoming 2017 MLB season, we explore 10 players that could be destined for disappointment.
(In alphabetical order)
Ian Desmond, 1B/OF, Colorado Rockies
2016 Key stats: .285/.335/.446, 22 HR, 86 RBI, 107 R, 21 SB
It might seem strange to peg a player that has an opportunity to play half his games at Coors Field for a disappointing season, but Desmond has raised the bar pretty high following an All-Star 2016 campaign.
The top offseason acquisition for the Rockies over the offseason, Desmond is expected to play first base for Colorado in 2017. It’s odd that the Rockies pursued Desmond for the job because has never played a major league game there. Of course, he had never played center field in the big leagues before signing with the Rangers last year, so there’s hope he’ll adjust. Still, the move was a head scratcher, and many fans and analysts chastised the club for signing Desmond to a five-year, $70 million contract.
Also, Desmond is expected to begin the season on the disabled list following a broken hand he suffered during spring training. The injury could cost Desmond the first month of the season, and hand injuries can be a nuisance all year.
Zack Greinke, SP, Arizona Diamondbacks
2016 Key stats: 13-7, 4.37 ERA, 26 GS, 158.2 IP, 134 K, 41 BB
Wait a minute... isn’t Greinke supposed to be a bounce-back candidate in 2017? After all, he's bona fide superstar despite coming off a 2016 campaign in which he posted his highest ERA since '05. He is only one year removed from a career-low 1.66 ERA in 2015.
However, Greinke suffered an oblique injury that cost him more than a month last year, and he was shut down prior to the end of the regular season with shoulder stiffness. There also has been concerns about the former Cy Young Award winner this spring. His velocity was down early in Cactus League games, and his fastball sat in the high 80s through the middle of March (Greinke averaged 90.7 miles per hour last year according to PITCHf/x data). On March 23, Greinke allowed a massive 465-foot home run to Cubs pitcher Jake Arrieta. Though Arrieta is very good hitting pitcher, he’s still a pitcher.
Greinke is a pro’s pro and he has been one of the most dependable starters in the majors over the course of his 13-year big league career. Therefore, it’s important not to get too worked up over a couple of bumps in the road during spring training. Nevertheless, his relatively poor stats from 2016, coupled with the injuries that nagged him, the red flags from his early spring performance, and the fact he is 33 years old combine to make Greinke a pitcher to watch carefully this season.
Matt Harvey, SP, New York Mets
2016 Key stats: 4-10, 4.86 ERA, 17 GS, 92.2 IP, 76 K, 25 BB
Like Zack Greinke, Harvey suffered through an uncharacteristically poor 2016 season. Harvey struck out just 18.9 percent of the hitters he faces – the lowest strikeout rate of his career by at least six percentage points – and posted a 6.2 percent walk rate that was his highest since 2012. He also was downright hittable, and allowed a career-high 10.8 hits per nine innings that was 3.4(!) hits higher than his previous worst season-long performance.
Also like Greinke, Harvey battled injury last season and was shut down prior to the postseason. In Harvey’s case, he didn’t pitch after July 4 due to thoracic outlet syndrome, which caused numbness in his fingers and required surgery. And (this is getting spooky now), like Greinke, Harvey began spring training with a slower than average fastball. Through his first four starts of the spring, during which he posted a 7.30 ERA over 12.1 innings, Harvey’s fastball sat in the low 90s.
The good news is that (unlike Greinke) Harvey hit 97 miles per hour on the gun in his fifth start – a solid five-inning performance – which indicates there isn’t a major concern in regards to his recovery. Nevertheless, Harvey has yet to make 30 starts in a season. His fastball velocity may be back, and his recovery may be coming along, but it’s tough to trust a pitcher that can’t stay healthy.
Jung Ho Kang, 3B, Pittsburgh Pirates
2016 Key stats: .255/.354/.513, 21 HR, 62 RBI, 45 R, 3 SB
The Pittsburgh Pirates are hoping to bounce back from a disappointing 2016 season, but they may have to do it without one of their most productive hitters. Kang, who has hit .273/.355/.483 with 36 home runs combined the last two seasons, was reportedly denied a visa to reenter the United States from his native South Korea in March. The decision is apparently tied to a DUI arrest in December. Kang is currently on the restricted list and it is unknown when (or if) he will be back in Pittsburgh.
If Kang can’t get back to the U.S., it would obviously be a disappointing development for the Bucs. The 29-year-old hit 21 home runs in just 318 at-bats in 2016 and had been projected to be the Opening Day third baseman this season. However, without any preparation during spring training Kang likely won’t be ready to contribute at the big league level immediately after his visa issue is over. Therefore, Kang’s production is likely to suffer whenever he hits the field this season – if he plays at all.
Eduardo Nunez, 3B, San Francisco Giants
2016 Key stats: .288/.325/.432, 16 HR, 67 RBI, 73 R, 40 SB
After spending the first six years of his major league career shuttling between the big leagues and Triple-A, or stuck in a utility role, Nunez finally put together a breakout season in 2016.
In 91 games with the Minnesota Twins to begin the season, Nunez hit .296/.325/.418 and set new career highs with 12 home runs, 47 RBIs and 27 stolen bases. Nunez was traded to San Francisco prior to the deadline, and played 50 games with the Giants, hitting .269/.327/.418 along the way and adding to his stats. Nunez played in 141 games total in 2016, which marked the first time he played more than 112 games in a season and just the second time he topped 90.
After seven years, Nunez finally enters a season with a starting job in hand. One might suspect the 29-year-old to thrive. However, Nunez had been unable to nail down a consistent role until now, and the Giants brought a host of veteran infielders to camp including Jimmy Rollins, Gordon Beckham and Aaron Hill, to compete with Conor Gillaspie and Kelby Tomlinson as backups. Anyone in the group is capable of contributing in the big leagues this season, which could push Nunez for playing time. Also, minor leaguer Christian Arroyo likely to push his way into the Giants' plans soon, which could push second baseman Joe Panik into the mix at third.
Rick Porcello, SP, Boston Red Sox
2016 Key stats: 22-4, 3.15 ERA, 33 GS, 223.0 IP, 189 K, 32 BB
Porcello was one of the top pitching prospects in baseball when he made his major league debut with the Tigers as a 20-year-old in 2009. Porcello pitched well, but not great, throughout his early 20s. Every time it appeared he was destined for stardom (such as when he posted a 3.43 ERA and an MLB-best three shutouts in 2014), he would seemingly take a step back (he followed that with a 4.92 ERA in 2015).
However, Porcello finally broke through last year in his second season with the Red Sox. The 28-year-old led the majors with 22 wins and posted a career-low 3.15 ERA, with a personal-best 21.2 percent strikeout rate and 3.6 percent walk rate, plus a major league-leading 5.91 strikeouts per walk. Porcello pitched in a career-high 223.0 innings, made 33 starts, and surrendered just 7.8 hits per nine innings. The performance earned Porcello the AL Cy Young Award.
And, while it appears Porcello finally turned the corner, there are a few reasons to be wary of expecting a repeat performance in 2017. First of all, Porcello’s 2016 results were dramatically different from what had been a very consistent set of previous performances. From 2009-15, Porcello posted a 4.39 ERA with a 4.04 FIP, 1.359 WHIP, 15.2 percent strikeout rate and 5.7 percent walk rate and he averaged 2.67 strikeouts per walk. He also allowed 10.1 hits per nine innings on average – never once surrendering fewer than 9.4 hits per nine. In those seven seasons, Porcello never had an ERA lower than 3.43 and only twice recorded an ERA under 4.00, and his FIP ranged from 3.53 to 4.77.
Porcello appears to be entering his prime, so there’s obviously reason to be optimistic he can maintain a high level of performance. But because 2016 was such an outlier compared to his previous results, there’s also plenty of reason to be skeptical.
Jose Ramirez, 3B, Cleveland Indians
2016 Key stats: .312/.362/.462, 11 HR, 76 RBI, 84 R, 22 SB
Ramirez broke out in a big way for the Indians in 2016, and in doing so earned himself a five-year, $26 million contract extension this spring. Ramirez posted career highs in every major statistical category last season and finished in top 20 (17th) in the voting for the AL MVP Award.
But, it’s important to note that 2016 was Ramirez’s first full big league season with the Indians. The 24-year-old hit just .219/.291/.340 with six home runs and 27 RBIs in 97 games in 2015, and had hit .239/.298/.346 with eight home runs and 44 RBIs in 180 career games before the 2016 season.
Ramirez hit the ball harder, and he was more aggressive in 2016 than he had been in his three previous major league stints. He has good raw power, good speed, and also has the ability to play multiple positions. In fact, Ramirez is likely to begin the 2017 season at second base while Jason Kipnis is on the shelf due to injury.
But, with all his tools, as well as the big new contract, Ramirez has more responsibility. After hitting towards the end of the lineup during the first two months of the 2016 season, he moved into the No. 5 and No. 6 spots for the majority of the year. With the need for both table-setters and run producers heading into the season, Ramirez has shuffled between the No. 2 and No. 3 spot in the lineup this spring, and has even hit leadoff. That’s quite a shift in expectations for a young player coming off his only good year.
Gary Sanchez, C, New York Yankees
2016 Key stats: .299/.376/.657, 20 HR, 42 RBI, 34 R, 1 SB
Sanchez exploded onto the national scene by hitting 20 home runs in just 53 games as a rookie in 2016. It was such an outstanding performance Sanchez finished as the runner-up in the AL Rookie of the Year voting despite playing two-thirds of the season in the minors. Rightfully encouraged, the Yankees traded Brian McCann to Houston to clear the way for the 24-year-old Sanchez to take over the regular catching duties.
Sanchez has the tools to be a star, and he’s already shown his promise at the major league level, but it would be unreasonable to expect he can keep up such a dramatic home run pace. A regression in 2017 shouldn’t be a shock. After all, Sanchez hit only 10 home runs in 71 games in Triple-A last season and never hit more than 19 long balls in a full minor league season. He also struck out 24.9 percent of the time in the big leagues last season – a higher rate than he posted in any pro season dating back to 2010. That suggests, despite connecting for 20 home runs as a big leaguer, he’s still figuring out major league pitching.
Trevor Story, SS, Colorado Rockies
2016 Key stats: .272/.341/.567, 27 HR, 72 RBI, 67 R, 8 SB
No player in Major League history had hit home runs in each of his first four games before Story did it to open the 2016 season. Story actually hit six in his first four games and had seven in his first six big league contests. It’s difficult for a rookie to make such an impact so early, but Story tallied 27 home runs before a late July thumb injury cut his season short.
As a shortstop for the Colorado Rockies, Story is obviously in an enviable position of playing the majority of his games at Coors Field. While that should be great for his overall production, and Story is talented, an explosive rookie campaign shot his expectations through the roof.
Also, Story was far from perfect. The 24-year-old struck out 31.3 percent of the time, which was the fifth most among major leaguers with at least 400 plate appearances last year. Also, a broken thumb is no joke. Story missed the final two months of the season, and it wouldn’t be a surprise for the injury to impact his preparation for 2017.
Mark Trumbo, DH/OF, Baltimore Orioles
2016 Key stats: .256/.316/.533, 47 HR, 108 RBI, 94 R, 2 SB
Trumbo’s mega 2016 season didn’t necessarily come out of nowhere. The 31-year-old slugger put together a solid three-year stretch with the Angels from 2011-13 in which he hit at least 29 home runs and drove in 87 or more runs. That production caught the attention of the Arizona Diamondbacks, but after he was traded to the desert, Trumbo hit only 36 home runs with 125 RBIs in two seasons split between the D-Backs and Seattle Mariners.
After struggling for two seasons, Trumbo was a bit of an afterthought when he landed with the Orioles prior to the 2016 season. Nevertheless, he promptly led the major leagues with 47 home runs and set a career high with 108 RBIs.
Trumbo obviously has huge power, and has always hit the ball hard throughout his career, but he doesn’t have much else to offer. Trumbo has a .251 career batting average, which included two full seasons in which he hit .235 or worse. He also has a .303 career on-base percentage, and has fallen short of .300 in half his major league seasons to date. Trumbo also was horrible in the outfield last season, and despite his great offensive numbers managed to produce just a 1.6 WAR according to Baseball-Reference.
Given his up-and-down history, and the large jump to 47 home runs from a previous best of 34 in 2013, it’s logical to expect Trumbo to regress a bit in '17.
— Written by Nicholas Ian Allen, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasIAllen.
(Photos courtesy of Getty Images)
The NCAA Tournament has an interesting way of defying expectations. Take the Oregon Ducks, playing in their first Final Four since its inaugural installment in 1939.
Playing without center Chris Boucher, Oregon trailed for significant stretches of its Round of 32 matchup with Rhode Island. The Ducks needed some late-game heroics from Tyler Dorsey to sink the No. 11 Rams. Arriving into the Sweet 16 by the skin of its teeth, Oregon felt like something of an afterthought in the same bracket as two of the hottest teams in college basketball.
Michigan rolled through one of the more remarkable recent Marches up to its Sweet 16 matchup with the Ducks. Kansas destroyed quality opponents Michigan State and Purdue en route to the Elite Eight. Some very foolish people picked Oregon to lose not once but twice in the Midwest Regional. Instead, the Ducks beat the Wolverines on a Tyler Dorsey game-winner, and then dominated the previously dominant Jayhawks in what was ostensibly a road game in Kansas City, Missouri.
While Saturday's semifinal marks Oregon's return to the Final Four after a 78-year layoff, North Carolina returns some 362 days after participating in arguably the greatest game ever played in college basketball's championship round. The Tar Heels lost on a buzzer-beater to Villanova last April, which denied UNC head coach Roy Williams a third national championship in just 11 years.
Luke Maye's game-winner to sink Kentucky in the Elite Eight bore a striking resemblance to Kris Jenkins' title-clinching 3-pointer. Both were set up when the opponent hit a game-tying 3-pointer, but in this case, it was Carolina getting the ensuing possession.
Final Four: No. 3 Oregon Ducks (33-5) vs. No. 1 North Carolina Tar Heels (31-7)
When: 8:49 p.m. ET (Saturday)
Where: University of Phoenix Stadium (Glendale, Ariz.)
Line: North Carolina -5
Keys for Oregon
"North Carolina is probably the best rebounding team that we faced all year," Oregon head coach Dana Altman said. "And their offensive rebounding gives them an opportunity to score. They score pretty good on the first shot, but offensively their offensive rebounding numbers are off the charts."
Altman isn't kidding. Per KenPom.com, North Carolina is the No. 1 team in college basketball for offensive rebounding percentage, cleaning its own misses a whopping 41.9 percent of the time. The Tar Heels enjoyed a plus-10 rebounding advantage over Kentucky in its South Region Elite Eight win, which – as head coach Roy Williams noted – translated to nine more possessions than the Wildcats.
To give more scoring opportunities to a team rated sixth in offensive efficiency, which North Carolina is, can only translate to bad things. The Ducks have been solid when it comes to keeping opponents off the offensive glass this season, but Altman challenged them to rise up with Chris Boucher out of the lineup.
"All the guys have picked it up a little bit, just knowing that Chris isn't there," Altman said. "We've relied so much on Chris and Jordan [Bell] to block shots and rebound."
Bell's stepped up his already-impressive rebounding, hauling in at least 12 boards every game of this NCAA Tournament. He'll counter North Carolina's own rebounding machine, Kennedy Meeks. But in addition to the paint presence of Bell, Altman credited the efforts of guards Dylan Ennis and Tyler Dorsey. It will be an all-hands-on-deck effort to keep the Heels from winning the rebounding battle, which is critical to Carolina's game plan.
Keys for North Carolina
In seven losses this season, North Carolina allowed at least 75 points six times. Stretches of defensive inefficiency can sometimes vex the Heels, particularly with their up-tempo style of play. While Oregon's a team more reliant on its outstanding defense than it is explosive offense, the Ducks have the weapons to score quickly – and from multiple positions.
Dorsey's shooting the 3-pointer at a historic clip this postseason, draining 65 percent of his 26 attempts. He's been able to get free as a result of Dillon Brooks' aggressive slashing to the basket, and Bell's presence in the paint. Williams has a decision to make in handling that. Justin Jackson bodied up Kentucky jump-shooter Malik Monk in the Elite Eight, and Monk finished with 12 points, 35 fewer than when the Wildcats and Tar Heels met in December in Las Vegas.
Carolina could do the same with Jackson denying Dorsey looks, but Brooks' rim attacking becomes a bigger threat. There's also the issue of North Carolina's perimeter lineup, which must still account for Ennis and Payton Pritchard.
Theo Pinson and Stilman White were both thrust into high-profile spots against Kentucky, the result of point guard Joel Berry's ankle injury. Williams said Monday Berry was easing back into practice duties this week, but the guard's tenuous forecast puts the onus of captaining the Carolina offense on Pinson, a natural 2-guard; and White, a veteran backup with limited experience.
Oregon's an underdog for the third consecutive game, but the role has suited the Ducks just fine. Jordan Bell and Tyler Dorsey have performed at levels sure to be remembered for many Marches to come. They have taken some pressure off Dillon Brooks, an All-America-caliber player yet to have his signature performance in this NCAA Tournament. He's due, and it could come against a North Carolina defense with some weaknesses.
Still, the Tar Heels' depth flexed its muscle in the Elite Eight in a way that has to be concerning for Oregon faithful. Luke Maye stepping up and scoring some critical baskets proved just how far on the bench Roy Williams can go for a key performance. Justin Jackson's defensive efforts took away from his normally prolific offense, but Carolina had others ready to step up. That gives the Heels a clear advantage on paper.
Picking against the Ducks based on paper hasn't gone well so far, though.
Prediction: Oregon 76, North Carolina 74
— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.
(Top photo courtesy of Getty Images)
The 2017 Final Four will feature three programs that have, for all practical purposes, never been on college basketball's biggest stage. While North Carolina is set to play in its record 20th Final Four, the other three teams had combined for just one appearance (Oregon, 1939) until now. This leaves us with a matchup of two teams – South Carolina vs. Gonzaga – that have never made it to this point of the NCAA Tournament to tip off Saturday’s Final Four action at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona.
Gonzaga had a tough road as the No. 1 seed in West Region, winning close games against No. 8 Northwestern and No. 4 West Virginia to get to the Elite Eight. But the Bulldogs dominated No. 11 Xavier 83-59 last Saturday in San Jose to advance to the program’s first-ever Final Four.
South Carolina is the team few, if any, expected to be playing at this point. The No. 7 seed in a loaded East Region that featured defending national champion Villanova, the Gamecocks beat No. 10 Marquette (93-73) and then upset No. 2 Duke 88-81 to make it to their first-ever Sweet 16. But South Carolina didn’t stop there, handily defeating No. 3 Baylor (70-50) and then knocking off No. 4 and fellow SEC East rival Florida 77-70 in Madison Square Garden to continue its historic run.
Two teams that have never been on the Final Four stage before are set to meet with the winner earning a shot at a national title.
Final Four: No. 7 South Carolina Gamecocks (26-10) vs. No. 1 Gonzaga Bulldogs (36-1)
When: 6:09 p.m. ET (Saturday)
Where: University of Phoenix Stadium (Glendale, Arizona)
Line: Gonzaga -6.5
Keys for Gonzaga
Gonzaga enters this game shooting 37.8 percent as a team from the three-point line, good 52nd in the nation. South Carolina’s defense, which has been on full display this NCAA Tournament, could make things tough for the Bulldogs’ long-distance shooters.
The Gamecocks are holding opponents to the seventh-lowest success rate from behind the arc in the country, just 29.8 percent. In the Elite Eight, Florida made just seven of its 26 attempts (26.9 percent) against South Carolina, while Baylor fared even worse (3-f0r-13, 23.1 percent) from that range in the Sweet 16. Compare that to Gonzaga, which went a combined 16-for-34 (47.1 percent) from that distance in the wins over West Virginia and Xavier.
Gonzaga has a size advantage over South Carolina in the paint, so expect the Bulldogs to use that matchup to their benefit. Center Przemek Karnowski and forward Zach Collins give Gonzaga a pair of seven-footers with forward Johnathan Williams checking in at 6-foot-9. All three shoot better than 59 percent from the field and average at least 5.7 rebounds per game.
Keys for South Carolina
The success of the Gamecocks on Saturday will likely hinge on the shoulders of Sindarius Thornwell and P.J. Dozier. Thornwell and Dozier are South Carolina’s leading scorers, but complementary options Chris Silva and Maik Kotsar also will need to do their part.
Silva recorded 13 points and nine rebounds against Florida Elite Eight with Kotsar adding 12. Between their contributions, Thornwell’s game-high 26 points and Dozier’s 17 that represented 68 of the Gamecocks’ 77 points in the win over the Gators.
While South Carolina has been getting more recognition, Gonzaga’s defense has been equally impressive during the Tournament. On the season, the Bulldogs are fourth in the country in point allowed per game (60.9). They’ve held three of their four Tournament victims to fewer than that, as neither West Virginia nor Xavier scored more than 59 last week.
Gonzaga also gets the job done on the glass, ranking eighth nationally in rebounding at 40.5 per game while opponents are averaging 33.2. The Gamecocks’ rebounding margin is much smaller (+1.2 rpg on the season), but they have done a better job during the Tournament (combined +17 in four games). Thornwell (7.2 rpg) is South Carolina’s leading rebounder, but he’s a guard, so forwards Silva (5.9) and Kotsar (4.8) will have to do their part against the bigger Bulldogs.
Saturday’s game will pit the country’s top most efficient teams on defense against one another. South Carolina’s defense is largely responsible for getting the Gamecocks to this point, but the Gamecocks will have to find a way to score if they want to beat a team as talented and balanced as Gonzaga.
The Bulldogs are no slouches on defense in their own right, using their size, strength and ability to control the boards to limit teams’ second-chance scoring opportunities. Gonzaga will no doubt focus its defensive attention on South Carolina leading scorer Sindarius Thornwell and try to force him into tough shots or give the ball up to a teammate.
On offense, Gonzaga doesn’t lack for scoring options. Nigel Williams-Gross leads the team at 16.7 points per game, but he’s not the only one that can get the ball in the basket. Przemek Karnowski, Zach Collins and Johnathan Williams bring plenty of size and high-percentage shooting to the table and look for the Bulldogs to take advantage of their inside presence to lead the way to their first national title game appearance in program history.
Prediction: Gonzaga 76, South Carolina 69
— 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, the Miami Herald and the Palm Beach Post and is a reporter for Pro Player Insiders. Follow him on Twitter @antwanstaley.
(Top photo courtesy of www.gamecocksonline.com)
Few sports produce as much drama over a three-week period as March Madness as the last two rounds of the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament bring us four teams that have proven their mettle and are at the top of their game. That’s why anything can happen in the Final Four, and here are the 10 biggest moments for me.
10. The Wizard Goes Out on Top
March 31, 1975 (San Diego)
After UCLA head coach John Wooden announced his retirement following a dramatic come-from-behind win in the national semifinals over Louisville, the Bruin players gave him the best goodbye present possible. UCLA beat Kentucky 92-85 in the title game, giving “The Wizard of Westwood” his 10th national championship in 12 years.
9. The Battle of the Unrankeds
April 7, 2014 (Arlington, Texas)
Both Connecticut and Kentucky had mediocre seasons by their standards and entered the Tournament unranked in the AP poll as respective No. 7 and No. 8 seeds. Both caught fire in the Big Dance and made the final game, where UConn won 60-54.
8. Kansas Rallies
April 7, 2008 (San Antonio)
Memphis led Kansas 60-51 with two minutes remaining in regulation, but the Jayhawks managed to close the gap to 62-60 with 10 seconds left. The Tigers’ Derrick Rose went to the foul line and hit one of two free throws to give his team a 63-60 lead but Kansas’ Mario Chalmers hit a three-pointer to send the game into overtime. Kansas then held Memphis to five points to win its first national championship since 1988.
7. Kevin Ware Inspires Louisville to Victory
April 8, 2013 (Atlanta)
After attempting to block a shot in the regional championship against Duke, Louisville guard Kevin Ware landed awkwardly and suffered a compound fracture in his right leg. Despite the gruesomeness of the injury, which was captured on television and shook up everyone who saw it, Ware said, "I'm fine, just win the game.” Louisville did just that and in the Final Four, Ware joined his teammates in full uniform to cheer them on as the Cardinals won the championship.
6. The Duke Dynasty is Born
March 30, 1991 (Indianapolis)
After coming up short in three consecutive Final Fours, Duke upset undefeated UNLV in the semifinal and then beat Kansas in the national championship game. Since that upset of the Runnin’ Rebels, the Blue Devils have been the most successful program in college basketball, winning five national titles since 1991.
5. Chris Webber Calls Timeout
April 5, 1993 (New Orleans)
The saddest part about this moment is that Webber was the main reason this game was close, scoring 23 points and snagging 11 rebounds. Yet when double-teamed and down 73-71 to North Carolina in the final seconds of the game, the Fab Five sophomore called a timeout that he didn’t have. It gave the Tar Heels a technical foul and the national title and one of the most exciting eras in college basketball history ended with a whimper.
4. Kris Jenkins Wins Title with Buzzer-Beater
April 4, 2016 (Houston)
North Carolina battled back from a 10-point deficit with less than five minutes remaining to tie Villanova 74-74 in the final seconds. With 4.7 seconds left, Wildcat guard Ryan Arcidiacono took the ball down the court and tossed it to Kris Jenkins, who sunk a three-pointer as time expired to win Villanova’s second title. It is perhaps the most exciting finish in national championship game history.
3. Magic and Bird Meet for the First Time
March 26, 1979 (Salt Lake City)
The two best players during the 1978-79 college basketball season were Michigan State’s Magic Johnson and Indiana State’s Larry Bird. Their first meeting in the national championship, in which the Spartans won 75-64, garnered the highest television ratings for any college basketball game. Both players went to the NBA the next season and either Magic’s Los Angeles Lakers or Bird’s Boston Celtics were in the Finals every season of the 1980s.
2. Villanova Upsets Georgetown
April 1, 1985 (Lexington, Ky.)
College basketball has had its fair share of low-seeded Cinderella stories, but the only team whose carriage never turned back into a pumpkin was the 1985 Villanova Wildcats. The No. 8 seed shocked the college basketball world by making the final and then played a game for the ages to upset top seed and defending national champion Georgetown.
1. Don’t You Want Somebody to Hug
April 4, 1983 (Albuquerque, N.M.)
North Carolina State’s championship run was the most dramatic in history and ended with an alley-oop slam dunk by Lorenzo Charles that defeated Houston’s Phi Slamma Jamma attack 54-52. After the win, head coach Jim Valvano ran onto the court looking for a player to hug. No moment in Final Four history has ever been more moving or memorable.
— Written by Aaron Tallent, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Tallent is a writer whose articles have appeared in The Sweet Science, FOX Sports’ Outkick the Coverage, Liberty Island and The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter at @AaronTallent.
(Jim Valvano photo courtesy of Getty Images)
Trying to find your optimal DraftKings lineup picks for this week's NASCAR race on April 2 at 2 pm ET: the STP 500 at Martinsville Speedway? Our fantasy NASCAR experts are ready to help.
Here's what our optimal driver lineup looks like.
Kyle Busch ($10,300)
Busch dominated the spring race at Martinsville last year and followed that up with a fifth place showing in the fall. And in the last two weeks, he's finished eighth and third, respectively. In other words, we like how things are shaping up.
Kyle Larson ($10,000)
Kyle Larson is hotter than Kate Upton right now. In his last four Monster Energy NASCAR Cup series races, Larson has finished second or better, winning last week's Auto Club 400. We're going to ride this streak as long as it lasts. Jump on board.
Jamie McMurray ($8,100)
He's finished 10th or better in three of his last four races and has also seen success at Martinsville's half-mile oval over the years, accumulating two top fives, and 15 top 10s during his career.
Clint Bowyer ($8,000)
We love seeing Bowyer running really well this season (he looked solid at Fontana last week with a third place finish), and has been successful at Martinsville over the years, grabbing four top fives and 12 top 10s.
Ryan Newman ($7,400)
Newman has finished 15th, first and 17th during the past three weeks. At Martinsville he has one win, eight top fives and 14 top 10s. For the money, he's hard to pass up.
Michael McDowell ($5,600)
He was 24th in the spring and 18th in the fall, improving drastically at this short track last year. And, while we don't forsee him grabbing a win, remember this: he's cheap.
The World Baseball Classic is over and spring training is entering the home stretch, which means the 2017 MLB season is just around the corner. Final cuts will soon be made as teams determine their 25-man rosters before breaking camp in Florida and Arizona.
Once again, Athlon Sports’ 2017 Baseball Preview magazine has all 32 teams covered, including some candid analysis from scouts on the teams and specific players. These scouting reports are just part of the content that can be found in this year’s magazine, which is available on newsstands everywhere and online.
“I thought they’d be contenders, but boy, they just didn’t do anything. Big disappointment. The good news is their rotation should be a positive for them. Zack Greinke will be better, Taijuan Walker will help them, and Robbie Ray’s got a great arm. Shelby Miller had one of those years where everything that could go wrong did. He’s got the stuff to bounce back and be a solid starter once again. It’s hard to overstate how big the loss of A.J. Pollock was last year, so getting him back will be huge all the way around. They’ll miss Jean Segura at short, but Nick Ahmed can really catch the ball. The catching position provides little to no offense for them, and I really wonder how many times Paul Goldschmidt will walk. He just does not have a great deal of support. They’re definitely a long shot to make the playoffs.”
“They’re better than they’ve been in a long time. The pitching looks good enough, although it’s on the thin side, so they can’t afford an injury. But Jon Gray’s a horse, Tyler Anderson’s funky enough to be OK, Jeff Hoffman has a high ceiling, and Chad Bettis and Tyler Chatwood are serviceable. They’ve got a lot of good arms in the bullpen, too, and the deals for Mike Dunn and Ian Desmond show that they’re serious about winning now. Desmond’s a top-quality makeup guy, a winner, and he’ll fit wherever he plays. His numbers jumped up in Texas last year, and they’ll go way up at Coors Field. These guys are good enough to hit anywhere, though. Trevor Story knows how to put the ball in the air, and his power stands out at shortstop, even though he looks more like a third baseman. That’s Nolan Arenado’s spot, and he’s just amazing.”
“You’ve got to consider the Dodgers the favorites again, but the division should be better behind them, and you really have no idea what they’ll get after Clayton Kershaw in that rotation. There’s the usual logjam in the outfield corners, but that lineup has three exceptional talents. Adrian Gonzalez has one of the best swings I’ve ever seen, so good that he can compensate for some decline in bat speed by staying inside the ball so well and driving it the other way with power. Corey Seager is a batting champion in waiting; he has very advanced knowledge of the strike zone and tremendous bat speed. Joc Pederson’s got as much power as anybody in baseball, and he knows it. He’s a big swing and miss guy, but it doesn’t seem to bother him. He’s arrogant about his ability to hit, but that actually serves him well. He’s one of the most confident players in the game.”
“They could lose 120 games. Holy cow, that rotation is eye-poppingly bad. It’s a tryout camp over there. I guess if you want to be optimistic, you can look at the ceiling of some of their young prospects, like Hunter Renfroe, Manuel Margot and maybe Austin Hedges or Alex Dickerson. Wil Myers is their best player and maybe their only untouchable. If you can live with all the strikeouts, bad at-bats, and poor defense, Ryan Schimpf can change a few games with his power. Some people see Travis Jankowski as an everyday center fielder, but I can’t go there. He’s a good defender who can steal bases, but he’s a pure singles hitter — there’s no sting there at all. Renfroe’s the most exciting young player they have. He’ll look to launch, then make adjustments with two strikes. He can really throw and can run decent for a physical guy.”
“Age is always going to be a factor for the Giants, because they love to go with veterans, and with that you have health issues. They’re clearly short a run producer. If you’re not gonna hit home runs, you need to have speed. They do have some guys who can run, but they don’t manufacture a lot of runs and still tend to wait for homers. That said, their rotation ranks among the best you’ll find, with Madison Bumgarner, Johnny Cueto and Matt Moore. Jeff Samardzija has his moments, too, but he’s a teaser. He has the stuff to dominate and the athleticism to repeat his delivery, but at times he really struggles to do it. Mark Melancon makes them a lot better by settling the end of the game and allowing a pretty good group of setup guys to slot in behind him. That was their biggest problem last year, and they solved it with the right guy."
The World Baseball Classic is over and spring training is entering the home stretch, which means the 2017 MLB season is just around the corner. Final cuts will soon be made as teams determine their 25-man rosters before breaking camp in Florida and Arizona.
Once again, Athlon Sports’ 2017 Baseball Preview magazine has all 32 teams covered, including some candid analysis from scouts on the teams and specific players. These scouting reports are just part of the content that can be found in this year’s magazine, which is available on newsstands everywhere and online.
“They’re a lot more balanced after acquiring some left-handed hitters. Josh Reddick and Brian McCann will help defensively, too, and Carlos Beltran can’t hurt you too much playing defense in that small left field in Houston. They’ll get a full year from Yulieski Gurriel and Alex Bregman, who can both really hit, but I’d like to see that team use speed more. The bullpen is really strong, but the biggest key to their team is Lance McCullers, because the rotation is still a big question. He has top-of-the-rotation stuff, far better than anybody else on the staff, including Dallas Keuchel. They gave a lot of money to Charlie Morton, and he can be an asset if he can make 25 starts. Chris Devenski was probably the best long reliever in baseball last year, and I’d like to see him get a shot at the rotation as an aggressive control pitcher who throws strikes with all his pitches.”
“Mike Trout has been the best player in the game for four or five years, and there’s nothing he does that surprises you anymore. His arm was just OK when he first came up, but last year he turned it into a real strength. Albert Pujols doesn’t drive the ball like he used to, but he’s still a presence, and he’ll keep getting 25 or 30 homers and driving in 100 for a while. The question with this team is: Will they pitch well enough to move up in the standings? They struggled on the mound last year, and I don’t know how much they’ve improved. The best arm on the staff is Garrett Richards, but I don’t think he can be a No. 1 because he’s been hurt so much. The rest of the rotation is a bunch of 4s and 5s. Their closer, Huston Street, amazes me. He doesn’t have closer stuff, but he might have the best makeup of any player in baseball.”
“Every year they’re rebuilding, and this is just another chapter. Their bullpen is a plus, and they should trade a guy to help the rotation. I liked what I saw from Jharel Cotton, who has excellent arm speed and could be a No. 3. They thought they had a No. 1 in Sonny Gray, who was one of the best pitchers in the league when he broke in. Now you wonder about his stamina. I hate to label a starter as a problem because of his size, but it’s proven time and time again: Little guys usually struggle. Now he’s been injured, and his trade value is way down. Their real issue is lack of offense in the infield, but there’s not a lot of offense in the outfield, either. Khris Davis’ power really played, and Marcus Semien and Ryon Healy have good power, too. But Semien is not a good defender, and there’s just a lot of spare-part kind of guys fighting for spots.”
“They’re good enough on the field to win, but they need to strengthen that rotation*, because Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma are on the decline. Felix is still an ace, but he’s not a top-10 guy anymore, and for years he was top 3. He’s lost some velocity. I’ve always been a believer in James Paxton. He’s never performed for a whole year, but he’s still got all kinds of ceiling. The rotation falls off after that, because they traded Taijuan Walker to buy high on Jean Segura. He had a career year in a hitter’s park in Arizona, and his BABIP was abnormally high, but he reestablished himself last year, and he’ll definitely help them. They really like Dan Vogelbach to platoon with Danny Valencia at first. Vogelbach’s a huge, non-athletic guy, but he’s always hit and drawn walks in the minors, and they’re betting that will translate.”
“Starting pitching is their big question, after Cole Hamels and Yu Darvish. I think Andrew Cashner has a lot to prove, and he was worth the $10 million gamble. They’ve got some great arms in the bullpen, but the best belongs to Matt Bush. You wonder if you can ever trust him, but he should take over the closer job from Sam Dyson because his stuff is better — by a lot. Joey Gallo’s got to learn to lay off the high fastball. That’s where pitchers constantly beat him. Losing Ian Desmond’s a problem, and they’ll miss Mitch Moreland more than you’d think, because he was so good on defense. But having Jonathan Lucroy for a full year is a big plus, and who doesn’t love the left side of that infield, with Adrian Beltre and Elvis Andrus? They’ve got to get Shin-Soo Choo healthy, but Nomar Mazara should be a stable piece here for a long time.”
*Editor's note: This was written prior to the Mariners acquiring starters Drew Smyly and Yovani Gallardo via separate trades.
When it comes to fantasy golf, the punnier the team name, the better. What, was that a bad play on words already? Wait till you read the rest of the list for 2017. In no particular order, here are the golf puns, just in time for your fantasy golf draft.
Nicklaus at Night
A play on the '80s TV show that everyone watched? Can't beat that.
It takes a minute, but then you get the laughs.
Weapons of Grass Destruction
While the term is over a decade old, the name is still solid.
Creating a team name from a drug movie may be the way to go.
Jagged Little Phil
You don't have to admit to knowing it was an Alanis Morrissette album. From the mid '90s.
This Putt's For You
A play on words that references beer and golf? Sold.
Really there are so many names that can use "balls."
Sultans of Swing
We've already referenced the '80s and '90s; now it's time for the '70s.
Fairway to Heaven
Okay, two from the '70s. What can we say? That decade had good music.
The Fore Horsemen
Similar to "balls," feel free to use “fore” in any name possible to some not-so-clean fantasy names.
Dude, Where’s My Par?
It's worth a chuckle.
It's been a few years since those baby commercials aired (that kid must be like 6 now) but the name is still funny.
A Shingo Ate My Baby
Combine a Seinfeld reference with an obscure golfer (Shingo Katayama) and you have a good team name.
Adding to the pop culture references, Caddyshack is always solid.
Another golf movie; enjoy Happy Gilmore fans.
- Angry Birdies
- Back to the Kuchar
- Ball Busters
- Balls Deep
- Billy Ho's Before Bros
- Brandel's Hair
- Brandt Awareness
- Breaking Baddeley
- Bring in Da Fred Funk
- Bring Me the Head of Sergio Garcia
- Bubba's Hovercraft
- Choi Story
- Cink or Swim
- Couples Therapy
- DeLaet Gratification
- Don't Rory Be Happy
- Dirty Janzen
- Dr. Vijay's Antler Spray
- Droppin' A Deuce
- Dufnering Miss Daisy
- Everything but the Stewart Cink
- Fists of Furyk
- Fore Players
- Gretzky's Grandkid
- Grip It and Sip It
- Ground Control to Captain Tom
- Guest Vijays
- Home of the Brandt
- I Like Big Putts and I Cannot Lie
- Janzen in the Streets
- John Daly's Pants
- Jonas Blixt Brothers
- Keegan and Sara
- Lions, Tigers and Bogeys, Oh My
- Long Putters
- May the Schwartzel Be With You
- Mull It Over Again
- Multiple Fore-gasms
- No. 1 Balls in Golf
- Oh Henrik
- Party of Fore
- Puff Caddie
- Putt Pirates
- Return to Senden
- Saint Nicklaus
- Strokes Of Luck
- Tee Party
- Terminator 2: Jason Day
- The Ball Washers
- The Bogey Men
- The Bohn Identity
- The DrawShank Redemptions
- The Grateful Sned
- The Happy Hookers
- The Long Balls
- The Poulter-geists
- The Spieth Who Shagged Me
- The Wedgies
- Thorbjorn Free
- Tiger’s Wood
- Tiagra Woods
- Weir Science
- Where's Faldo
- Who's Your Caddy
- Working on my Putz
— Written by Sarah Lewis, who is part of the Athlon Contributor. Follow her on Twitter @Sarah_Lewis32.
With NFL free agency in full swing, many teams have dropped players and other teams have added them. Sometimes these old faces in new places result in a positive fantasy (and real-life) impact. Other times, this results in a player who struggles.
With the NFL Draft coming at the end of April, fantasy owners are starting to get a little anxious about the upcoming season. While it's too early to really start preparing for the 2017 fantasy season, we can look at the possible fantasy outlook for players that have changed teams. First, the key quarterbacks and tight ends that are on new teams:
Mike Glennon, Chicago Bears
All signs point to Glennon being the starting quarterback for the Chicago Bears. The Bears did also just sign Mark Sanchez, so it’s not out of the realm of possibility that Sanchez gets in a game or two at some point. Glennon hasn't proven himself in the NFL, but the Bears have faith in him. In 2013 for Tampa Bay, he threw for 2,608 yards and 19 touchdowns with nine interceptions.
Since then, however, he hasn't been worthy of fantasy consideration. He completed just 10 passes in 2016, and zero in ’15 as Jameis Winston’s backup. It was a gamble for the Bears and it will be a gamble for fantasy owners to invest in Glennon. As for Sanchez, he'll likely play some, but he’s not fantasy relevant at this point.
Brian Hoyer, San Francisco 49ers
In 2016, Hoyer filled in for an injured Jay Cutler for Chicago for six games. He actually looked pretty decent in a Bears uniform until his season ended with a broken leg. His final stats from 2016 were 1,445 yards, six touchdowns and no interceptions. He's never been a starter for a full season, but it looks like the 49ers will give him that opportunity.
He likely won't end up playing all 16 games for the 49ers either, and his backup is Matt Barkley, another former Bear. The 49ers’ wide receivers leave plenty to be desired with Pierre Garcon taking over as the No. 1 target and Marquise Goodwin and Jeremy Kerley lining up behind him. Hoyer will have low QB2 fantasy value.
Josh McCown, New York Jets
At the start of the season, McCown will be 38 years old. However, he will likely be the starting quarterback for the Jets. He's played on seven different NFL teams, and he hasn't played in 16 games in a season yet. Last year in Cleveland, he had 1,100 passing yards, six interceptions and six touchdowns in five games.
The Jets are going to have to find a better option at QB, but until they do, McCown will be the starter. The offense should get wide receiver Eric Decker back, but it still won't be enough to warrant starting McCown in standard fantasy formats.
Julius Thomas, Miami Dolphins
The biggest issue with Thomas has been staying healthy. He's played in the NFL for six seasons and has yet to log a full one. In 2016, he had 30 receptions for 281 yards and four touchdowns in nine games. In his last two seasons in Denver, Thomas had 12 touchdowns in each season. The potential is there; he just needs to stay on the field.
In 2017, Thomas will be playing for the Dolphins, who could use a tight end in the red zone. The Dolphins will ask Thomas to block but he should be a factor in the passing game. He can excel, but he does need to stay healthy. Expect Thomas to be a TE2 but he should catch touchdowns.
Dwayne Allen, New England Patriots
Allen hasn't had a season where he's been able to break out, and at this point, it may be too late. He had 35 receptions and 406 yards with six touchdowns, in 2016. The most touchdowns he's had in a season is eight (in 2014).
With Rob Gronkowski unable to get through a full season, the Patriots needed another tight end that could be a weapon for Tom Brady. Allen may succeed in New England, but there are so many mouths to feed, it's hard to consider him more than a TE2.
Martellus Bennett, Green Bay Packers
The Packers haven't had a solid tight end since Jermichael Finley, and Aaron Rodgers could certainly use one. Bennett wasn't utilized as a red zone option much prior to going to New England. He had a career-high seven touchdowns in 2016 and also recorded three 100-yard games.
The Packers could use a big tight end in the red zone, and that's the role Bennett will fill. He's 30 years old, but he still can put up enough numbers to have a fantasy impact. He'll be drafted as a low TE1, and he could be a surprise value player this season.
— Written by Sarah Lewis, who is part of the Athlon Contributor network and lives, eats, and breathes fantasy football. She also writes for SoCalledFantasyExperts.com among other sites. Have a fantasy football question? Send it to her on Twitter @Sarah_Lewis32.
As the calendar prepares to turn from March to April, and each of the 30 MLB teams begins to head home to prepare for Opening Day, there’s a great deal of optimism surrounding the season ahead. Every team is in first place, and every player has the potential to be an All-Star. For fans looking for the next thing, we take a look at 10 MLB players on the rise in 2017.
(In alphabetical order)
Albert Almora, OF, Chicago Cubs
2016 Key stats: .277/.308/.455, 3 HR, 14 RBI, 14 R
Dexter Fowler, last year’s leadoff hitter and center fielder for the World Series champion Chicago Cubs is now a St. Louis Cardinal. While he probably won’t wind up hitting at the top of the lineup, Almora could get most of the playing time in center this season thanks to his outstanding defensive play.
A potential Gold Glover, Almora was often used as a defensive replacement and pinch-runner in limited duty last season. He hit .277/.308/.455 with three home runs and 14 RBI in 117 plate appearances across 47 games, and everyday playing time should help improve his patience at the plate. Almora struck out 20 times and drew only five walks last year.
Andrew Benintendi, LF, Boston Red Sox
2016 Key stats: .295/.359/.476, 2 HR, 14 RBI, 16 R, 1 SB
Unlike Byron Buxton, Benintendi showed no issues at the plate in his first big league action. In a 34-game debut last season, the left-handed hitter collected 14 extra-base hits and pushed his way into the lineup for the postseason. Benintendi was 3-for-9 with a home run and two RBIs in the ALDS.
The favorite to win the AL Rookie of the Year Award this season, Benintendi is expected to be a major contributor for the Red Sox in 2017 – especially since Boston must replace recently retired slugger David Ortiz in the middle of the lineup.
Greg Bird, 1B, New York Yankees
Did not play in 2016
2015 Key stats: .261/.343/.529, 11 HR, 31 RBI, 26 R
It’s been quite a while since the Yankees had such a young group of talented players, and there’s renewed optimism in the Bronx with sluggers like Gary Sanchez and Aaron Judge already in the majors, and top prospect Gleyber Torres on the way. Also, after exploding onto the scene in 2015, then missing all of ‘16 due to injury, first baseman Bird is ready to make a big impression this year.
Bird hasn’t shown any signs of rust this spring, and hit .447/.527/1.085 with seven home runs in his first 20 Grapefruit League games. A left-handed hitter with huge power, Bird is an ideal fit in Yankee Stadium. He’ll also get an opportunity to shine with the retirement of veteran first baseman Mark Teixeira.
Dylan Bundy, SP, Baltimore Orioles
2016 Key stats: 10-6, 4.02 ERA, 36 G, 14 GS, 109.2 IP, 104 K, 42 BB
Bundy has spent the last half-decade as one of the top pitching prospects in baseball. He made his big league debut in 2012, but battled injuries that cost him all of ‘13 and most of ‘14 and ‘15. Out of minor league options heading into last season, the Orioles were forced to keep Bundy on the major league roster, and manager Buck Showalter pitched the right-hander in low-leverage relief situations until he was needed in the starting rotation.
Bundy pitched well in the bullpen. In 38 innings across 22 games, he posted a 3.08 ERA. The 24-year-old had a much higher 4.52 ERA as a starter, though he did strike hitters out at a higher rate and allowed a lower batting average when pitching out of the rotation. Most importantly, Bundy pitched a total of 109.2 innings without any major injury scares – a great sign since he’ll begin the 2017 season as a starter.
Byron Buxton, CF, Minnesota Twins
2016 Key stats: .225/.284/.430, 10 HR, 38 RBI, 44 R, 10 SB
If there’s one player in baseball with a toolbox similar to Mike Trout, it’s Buxton. A legitimate five-tool player, Buxton has terrific raw power, is one of the fastest players in baseball and is already one of the top defensive center fielders in the American League. Unfortunately, Buxton has looked much more like Trout did in a 40-game audition as a 19-year-old in 2011 than the reigning AL MVP.
But, the fact that Trout looked lost in his first big league action is a reason not to dismiss Buxton’s performance through his first 138 games. The 23-year-old has struck out way too much in his young career, more than one-third (34.5 percent of AB) of the time. He also has just 29 walks in 469 career plate appearances (6.2 percent) spread across the 2015 and ‘16 seasons. But, Buxton’s September gave fans an indication of the player he can become.
Following a call up from Triple-A on Sept. 1, Buxton hit .287/.357/.653 with nine home runs, six doubles, two triples and 22 RBIs in 29 games. Strikeouts were still an issue (38 in 113 plate appearances), but walks were up (8.8 percent), which is a good sign moving forward. Of course, it was Buxton’s power surge and improved contact rate at the plate that have fans excited he can finally reach his sky-high potential in 2017 and beyond.
Jon Gray, SP, Colorado Rockies
2016 Key stats: 10-10, 4.61 ERA, 29 GS, 168.0 IP, 185 K, 59 BB
Pitching has been an issue for the Colorado Rockies since the franchise’s inception. However, Gray has the stuff to be an ace anywhere – even when pitching in the thin air of Coors Field. That’s good because Gray will need to carry the Colorado pitching staff if Rockies hope to challenge for a wild card spot this year.
Gray posted a 4.61 ERA last season, but had a 3.60 FIP, which indicates he pitched better than his ERA would indicate. Given the tendency for the ball to jump in Denver, missing bats is important. A hard thrower with swing-and-miss stuff, Gray fanned 185 hitters and allowed 153 hits in 168 innings.
James Paxton, SP, Seattle Mariners
2016 Key stats: 6-7, 3.79 ERA, 20 GS, 121.0 IP, 117 K, 24 BB
Paxton is a southpaw who made a big jump last season thanks to his fastball. Paxton also has top-of-the-rotation stuff that should prove valuable as the Mariners take aim at a spot in the postseason.
Paxton rarely walks hitters. He posted a 4.7 percent walk rate in 2016. However, Paxton also doesn’t miss bats as often (he allowed a .275 batting average and recorded 22.3 percent strikeout rate) as others and he has yet to stay healthy enough to complete a full big league season. But Paxton’s breakthrough potential is one of the reasons why many baseball analysts are bullish on Seattle in 2017.
Robbie Ray, SP, Arizona Diamondbacks
2016 Key stats: 8-15, 4.90 ERA, 32 GS, 174.1 IP, 218 K, 71 BB
The Rockies are a trendy pick to be a wild card contender this season, as the Arizona Diamondbacks were a season ago. Of course, the D-Backs fell well short of expectations in large part because of a pitching staff that posted the highest ERA in the majors.
However, if there was a bright spot, it was Ray. Though his ERA (4.90) wasn’t pretty, Ray struck out 28.1 percent of the hitters he faced last season. He is prone to wildness at times, however, and walked 71 hitters in 174.1 innings. If Ray gets his command under control, he could help Arizona become a surprise team in the AL West this season.
Kyle Schwarber, OF/C, Chicago Cubs
Played only two regular season games in 2016
2015 Key stats: .246/.355/.487, 16 HR, 43 RBI, 52 R, 3 SB
Following a solid 69-game rookie campaign in 2015, which included 16 home runs, Schwarber entered ‘16 as one of the top breakout candidates in the game. Unfortunately, an early April knee injury cost him the rest of the regular season.
Impressively, Schwarber rehabbed well enough to play in five games in the World Series, and hit .412/.500/.471 in 20 plate appearances as a DH and pinch-hitter. Now fully healthy, Schwarber is expected to see the majority of his playing time in left field, though he is a third option for the club at catcher. He’s also one of the top leadoff options for manager Joe Maddon – a rare role for someone that can hit with such power and isn’t a burner on the base paths.
Dansby Swanson, SS, Atlanta Braves
2016 Key stats: .302/.361/.442, 3 HR, 17 RBI, 20 R, 3 SB
Though the Arizona Diamondbacks made him the No. 1 overall pick in the 2015 MLB Draft, shortstop Swanson is well on his way to becoming the face of the Atlanta Braves. A Georgia native, Swanson was traded to his hometown team in December 2015 and made his big league debut last season.
The 23-year-old appeared in 38 games, and barely held on to his rookie status, making him one of the favorites for the NL Rookie of the Year Award this season. Though it will be tough to repeat his .302 batting average, Swanson showed he has the skill to become a key piece of the lineup for the rebuilding Braves. He collected 11 extra-base hits in 145 plate appearances, including three home runs, and also stole three bases.
— Written by Nicholas Ian Allen, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasIAllen.
Another year, another winning record and bowl game for the Kansas State Wildcats. Despite lacking the resources to land blue-chip recruits, Kansas State has been a model of consistency under head coach Bill Snyder. The 77-year-old continues to defy the odds, and last season guided the Wildcats to a 9-4 record, including six wins over the final seven games of the season. K-State capped off another successful run with a 33-28 victory over Texas A&M in the Texas Bowl – its seventh consecutive postseason appearance. The Wildcats have finished with a winning record in six of the past seven seasons.
Quarterback Jesse Ertz is one of eight starters returning on offense, and defensive end Reggie Walker and defensive back D.J. Reed headline six returning starters from a unit that was the best in the Big 12 last season. With Snyder at the helm, the momentum of a successful 2016 campaign and an experienced core, hopes are high that K-State can take the next step and contend for a Big 12 title in '17.
5 Storylines to Watch During Kansas State’s Spring Practice
1. High Expectations
Kansas State has a rich history of overachieving under head coach Bill Snyder, and the 2016 season was a great example. Picked by most preseason publications to finish in the bottom half of the Big 12 and struggle to make a bowl game, K-State finished 9-4 overall and 6-3 in conference play. Each of the four teams that beat the Wildcats won at least 10 games and finished in the top 20 of the final AP poll.
As a result, Kansas State enters this spring with unusually high expectations. Optimism is high in Manhattan because quarterback Jesse Ertz returns along with most of his top playmakers and a solid offensive line, and it’s likely the media will put K-State in the preseason Top 25. Expect many to peg the Wildcats as a dark horse candidate to win the Big 12.
While Snyder is one of the most respected head coaches in the game, his teams rarely enter a season with such high praise. Over the past eight years (since Snyder returned from retirement), the Wildcats have been ranked in the preseason AP Top 25 twice – neither time higher than No. 20. That’s likely to change in 2017. How will K-State respond?
2. Efficiency on Offense
Few would describe the 2016 Kansas State offense as explosive. The Wildcats ranked ninth in the Big 12 in total offense (388.8 ypg) and yards per play (5.74). The unit ranked dead last in the league in passing with just 157.0 yards per game – 83.4 fewer yards than the next closest team. However, the Wildcats ranked in the middle of the pack in scoring offense (32.2 ppg) in a conference that featured two of the top five scoring offenses in the nation, plus a third that ranked No. 17.
However, it’s fair to describe the 2016 Kansas State offense as efficient. According to Bill Connelly’s Success Rate efficiency metric, the Wildcats ranked 13th nationally. K-State also ranked No. 28 in the country with 4.91 points per trip inside the 40-yard line, and benefitted from field position on both offense (No. 23) and defense (No. 13), which set the team up to capitalize on its scoring chances.
With a team-leading 1,012 rushing yards and 12 TDs, Ertz guided a strong running game that ranked fourth in the Big 12 with 231.8 rushing yards per contest, but was second in yards per carry (5.27). Top running back Charles Jones graduated, but junior Justin Silmon ran for 210 yards across the final two games of last season, sophomore Alex Barnes tallied back-to-back 100-yard games against Baylor and Kansas, and fullback Winston Dimel matched Ertz’s 12 scores on the ground. That group also will run behind what should be one of the Big 12’s best offensive lines in 2017.
Running the football well also allows the Wildcats to run the clock. K-State led the Big 12 in time of possession (32:35), and while it may not be the sexiest stat in college football these days, this is a big reason why the Wildcats were able to dictate the pace of most of their games. By regulating the tempo, K-State was able to keep things close, especially against more talented teams. As several teams found out during the season, it’s dangerous to let the Wildcats hang around all game.
3. Rebuilding the Linebacker Corps
The offense is in great shape heading into spring practice (though offseason shoulder surgery is likely to limit Ertz), but there are more questions on the defensive side of the football. The linebacker corps, in particular, is the biggest question mark heading into 2017.
Starters Elijah Lee and Charmeachealle Moore combined for 22.8 percent of the Wildcats tackles from last season. Lee, who declared early for the NFL Draft, led the team by a large margin with 91 total tackles, and he also had 6.5 tackles for a loss, 1.5 sacks, two interceptions, three pass breakups and a forced fumble. Moore, who graduated, ranked third on the team with 64.5 tackles, to go along with four TFLs, half a sack and two pass breakups. Will Davis and Colborn Couchman also are gone.
That leaves a group of relatively untested linebackers to compete this spring. Seniors Trent Tanking and Jayd Kirby, juniors Sam Sizelove and Da’Quan Patton (a well-regarded junior college transfer), sophomores Elijah Sullivan and Justin Hughes are all in the mix. Freshmen Daniel Green and Danny Walker will join the competition this summer.
Tanking, Kirby and Sizelove all saw action in every game last year, but combined for just 25.5 total tackles, one interception and zero sacks. With top pass rusher and Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year Jordan Willis (team-high 11.5 sacks, 17.5 TFLs) also out of eligibility, there is concern surrounding a unit that ranked first in the Big 12 in total defense (387.7 ypg) last season.
4. Newcomers to Know
Kansas State has been one of the most consistently successful programs in the nation at tapping into junior colleges to find replacements for departed contributors. The aforementioned Patton has the talent to grab a starting spot in the linebacker corps this spring. Rangy edge rusher Xavier Davis – a 6-foot-6, 235-pound junior college transfer from Pima (Ariz.) Community College – won’t be taking part in spring practice, but he could push for early playing time this fall.
Another intriguing name to watch is wide receiver Carlos Strickland, who arrived in Manhattan as a transfer from Cal and sat out 2016. A 6-foot-4 former four-star recruit, Strickland should fit in nicely with a receiving corps that includes deep threat Byron Pringle (39 receptions, 631 yards, 4 TD) and dependable wideout Dominique Heath (45, 438, 3).
Also, though they aren’t technically newcomers, fans should have an opportunity to see the future of the quarterback position this spring. Alex Delton and Skylar Thompson should get the majority of the snaps this spring because Ertz is questionable to participate in live action as he recovers from offseason shoulder surgery. Delton saw limited action as a freshman in 2016. Thompson, a redshirt freshman, is one of the most highly regarded QB recruits Snyder has landed at K-State.
5. Will Bill Snyder's Health Impact 2017?
To say Snyder is a legend at Kansas State is a massive understatement. After all, the Wildcats play their games in Bill Snyder Family Stadium. Snyder took over a program with the worst overall record in Division I in the midst of a 27-game losing streak, and quietly turned it into a consistent winner. Now, K-State is a national brand with high expectations for the 2017 season.
Unfortunately, Snyder was diagnosed with throat cancer over the offseason. At age 77, Snyder has 25 years on the sidelines with the Wildcats, the last eight following his return from a first retirement. There’s been plenty of chatter in recent years that Snyder’s second tenure as head coach is winding down, and given the cancer diagnosis, it wouldn’t be surprising if the 2017 season were to be Snyder’s last at the helm.
Nevertheless, Snyder has made a Hall of Fame career out of proving prognosticators wrong. He’s not expected to skip a beat this spring, and hasn’t given any hint that he’s ready to retire again. Given the success of the program under his direction, including last year’s strong performance, there’s little reason to believe Snyder will let this limit him this year.
Pre-Spring Outlook for Kansas State in the Big 12
Following a strong end to last season, and the talent that returns, the Wildcats are likely to begin the season in the Top 25. There is legitimate optimism that Kansas State can earn a spot in the new Big 12 Championship Game – and for good reason.
The offense is already solid, and the running game should help the Wildcats control the pace of play again in 2017. With an experienced QB in Jesse Ertz, a talented and improved group of wide receivers, and a strong offensive line, the Wildcats have an opportunity to be more explosive in 2017. K-State must replace some key pieces on defense – especially in the front seven – but the Wildcats have been able to reload on a regular basis under Snyder, and this should be no different.
The schedule includes a tough midseason stretch, but Kansas State gets Baylor, TCU, Oklahoma and West Virginia at home. The Wildcats will travel to Stillwater to play Oklahoma State, but that game is in November, a part of the season when Bill Snyder-coached teams are often at their best. Another bowl game and winning season should be a lock, and there’s an opportunity to make 2017 a special season.
— Written by Nicholas Ian Allen, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasIAllen.
Since the spring of 2012, Arkansas fans, the coaching staff, and players within the program have been on a roller-coaster ride unmatched in college football. After Bobby Petrino took the Razorbacks to the Sugar Bowl in 2011 with an 11-win campaign, the Hogs have gone just 29-34 with current head coach Bret Bielema posting a 25-26 mark during his four seasons in Fayetteville. Bielema has dangled the next corner carrot over Razorback Nation the last two seasons, giving hope to that proverbial turn once again in 2017.
Arkansas notched two big wins in 2015, taking down then-No. 19 Ole Miss 53-52 in overtime and followed that up with a 31-14 road win over No. 9 LSU. After a 45-23 win over Kansas State in the Liberty Bowl, hope for the 2016 season was widespread among Razorback fans. Much like the previous campaign, Arkansas won two big games over ranked teams, Ole Miss and Florida, but suffered through four SEC blowout losses and then seemingly stayed in the locker room at halftime of the Belk Bowl after building a 24-0 lead over Virginia Tech only to go on to lose 35-24. All Arkansas fans now want to know what to expect from Bielema and the Hogs in 2017.
The offense is in good shape entering the spring with starting quarterback Austin Allen and running back Rawleigh Williams leading the way and four starters returning up front. Offensive coordinator Dan Enos will need to find playmakers in the passing game, however, as four of Arkansas’ top five targets from 2016 are gone.
On defense, change will be seen all over the field from personnel to coaches and even scheme. Robb Smith, the Razorbacks’ defensive coordinator the past three seasons, is now at Minnesota in the same role. Taking Smith’s place in Fayetteville is Paul Rhoads, defensive backs coach last season and Iowa State’s head coach from 2009-15. Rhoads is shifting Arkansas from a 4-3 base to a 3-4 in hopes of slowing down the many dual-threat quarterbacks in the SEC. Rhoads also will be replacing six key players from last year’s unit, five of those coming from the front seven.
5 Storylines to Watch During Arkansas’ Spring Practice
1. Implementing the 3-4 Defense
One of the weak points for the Razorbacks’ defense last year was at linebacker. Former coordinator Robb Smith had trouble fielding three and now Paul Rhoads is switching to a 3-4 alignment. A big loss at the position is the graduation of Brooks Ellis, while promising sophomore Dre Greenlaw will miss the spring because of foot surgery. That leaves several underclassmen learning to play the “Razor,” (inside linebacker) and the “Hog” (outside) positions on the go. Keep an eye on Randy Ramsey, Josh Harris, Dwayne Eugene, De’Jon Harris, Alexy-Jean Baptiste and Giovanni LaFrance to see if any of them distinguish themselves during the spring.
The other big deficiency is up front with ends JaMichael Winston, Jeremiah Ledbetter and Deatrich Wise Jr. and defensive tackle Taiwan Johnson each having exhausted their eligibility. Bijhon Jackson and McTelvin Agim will get the early work in at nose guard even though neither has the true heft to fill the middle in a 3-4, but their speed and raw strength should be assets.
2. Finding Playmakers in the Passing Game
Any college football team would be scrambling after losing four of their top five pass catchers. Arkansas said goodbye to team leader Drew Morgan and top tight end Jeremy Sprinkle along with Keon Hatcher and defense stretcher Dominique Reed. Jared Cornelius, a sure-handed receiver, and budding tight end Austin Cantrell will help carry the load until the next wave of reliable receivers can be found.
Arkansas planned ahead, signing a pair of junior college wide receivers in Jonathan Nance and Brandon Martin, a four-star prospect. Another 2017 signee that could make noise in the fall on the outside is Koilan Jackson. La’Michael Pettway and Deon Stewart are among the returnees that will have an opportunity to step up and claim a starting spot.
3. Shoring up the Offensive Line
One of the best surprises during the 2016 season was the play in the pocket by new starting quarterback Austin Allen. Allen led the SEC with 3,430 passing yards and was second in touchdowns with 25. But he also led the conference in interceptions (15) and was sacked the most (34). Some of the blame should fall to the offensive line, which was a work in progress after returning just two starters.
Headed into the 2017 season, the line is in better shape overall, although standout left tackle Dan Skipper is gone. Center Frank Ragnow is back and will anchor the unit, which really started to hit its stride when Johnny Gibson took over at right guard mid-way through the 2016 season. Redshirt sophomore Colton Jackson got a couple of starts at right tackle before giving way to Brian Wallace. If all goes well, expect Jackson to emerge as the starter at left tackle in place of Skipper at the end of spring practices. The rest of the spring will focus on rounding out the depth chart.
4. Fielding a Balanced Defense
During the 2015 season, Arkansas was one of the toughest units in the nation against the run, limiting teams to 116.5 rushing yards per game (12th), but the pass defense was porous (275.2 ypg) and was one of the worst (tied for 117th) in the FBS ranks. Last season, the Razorbacks flipped the script – improving against the pass (221.2 ypg, 58th), but slipping considerably (205.5 ypg, 94th) against the run.
During the spring Rhoads not only has to install a new defense but also has to get his front seven dedicated to stopping the run again. Seven defensive backs were signed in the 2017 recruiting class, including four-star prospects Chevin Calloway and Montaric Brown, to help bolster the secondary but no true defensive tackles were added, unless junior college transfer Melvin Johnson (6-5, 275) adds some weight to his frame.
5. Red Zone Offense
Even though Arkansas had the SEC leader in passing yards and the No. 3 rusher in Williams (1,360 yards, 12 TDs), the offense often stalled out in the red zone. The Razorbacks finished 100th in the nation in red zone efficiency, scoring 46 times (35 TDs, 11 FGs) on 58 attempts (79.3 percent) inside their opponent’s 20-yard line.
With the thought that the offensive line will improve, some of the red zone woes should go away. The Hogs also have recruited really well at the tight end position, providing Allen with larger targets like Cantrell (6-4, 269), Grayson Gunter (6-6, 232), Cheyenne O’Grady (6-4, 251), and Will Gragg (6-4, 254). Junior college transfer Brandon Martin is the tallest wide receiver (6-4, 215), but true freshman Kolian Jackson (6-3, 205) could prove to be a difference-maker when he arrives on campus this fall.
Pre-Spring Outlook for the Arkansas Razorbacks in the SEC
The last three seasons for Arkansas have essentially been the same going 7-6, 8-5, and 7-6 with some big wins, and losses, along the way. What will be different in 2017? For one, hopefully the play of the offensive line. The Razorbacks have a great one-two punch in the running game with Rawleigh Williams and Devwah Whaley. Sophomore all-purpose back T.J. Hammonds also could be an option for offensive coordinator Dan Enos, as he has the potential to break off a big play any time he touches the ball. The Hogs also boast the SEC’s top passer in Austin Allen, so if the line does its job and some new reliable receivers emerge, this offense could be quite dangerous in 2017.
The defense is the biggest question mark going into the 15 scheduled spring practices for the Hogs. The secondary should be an asset in 2017 with three starters back and an influx of talent coming in the fall. How quickly the front seven adapts to the new scheme and how well the defense stops the run are the true unknowns. New coordinator Paul Rhoads will have his hands full needing his unit to go from the basics to reacting instinctively by the Red-White Spring Game. If not, Arkansas certainly will be in for another roller-coaster ride in the fall.
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 runs his own recruiting site, www.recruitingnewsguru.com. Follow him on Twitter @HogManInLA.
Spring practice is a busy time for all 130 college football teams, and it's no secret most of the attention in offseason workouts starts with the quarterback position. The 2017 crop of quarterbacks starts with defending Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson, with Oklahoma's Baker Mayfield and USC's Sam Darnold next in line. Ohio State's J.T. Barrett and Washington's Jake Browning are two names that could push Jackson, Mayfield and Darnold for spots in the top three by the end of 2017.
Considering how critical quarterback play is to the success of any program, it’s never too early to preview the quarterback position. First-year starting quarterbacks have experienced success at a high level recently, and this list provides an early look at how some of the new faces blend in with returning stars.
With spring practice inching closer (or already underway) for all 130 teams, Athlon Sports is taking an early look at the quarterback position by ranking every starter for 2017. This list could look a lot different by August, especially once some of the battles are settled at Power 5 programs. Our rankings are compiled by using many factors including career stats so far, 2016 statistics, pro potential, projection for 2017, value to the team, recruiting background and just overall talent. Think of this list as an early power ranking for 2017, with tweaks expected at the end of spring and prior to Week 1.
College Football's Spring 1-130 Starting QB Rankings for 2017
130. Austin Wilson, Coastal Carolina
Coastal Carolina will begin its first season at the FBS level with uncertainty at quarterback. Injuries wreaked havoc on the Chanticleers’ quarterback depth chart last year, and six players recorded a pass attempt. Wilson – a graduate transfer from Syracuse – is penciled in as the team’s No. 1 quarterback on the spring depth chart.
129. A.J. Erdely, UAB
Erdely originally started his career at MTSU and spent a year at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College before landing at UAB. Redshirt freshman (and three-star recruit) Tyler Johnston is likely to be Erdely’s top competition this offseason.
128. Josh Love, San Jose State
Love worked as the backup to Kenny Potter last season and headlines a group of six quarterbacks on the San Jose State roster for 2017. He completed 31 of 60 passes for 392 yards, two touchdowns and five picks last year.
127. Seth Shuman, Georgia Southern
The Eagles took a step back on offense last season, and head coach Tyson Summers made changes on this side of the ball, including hiring Bryan Cook – a former Georgia Tech assistant versed in the option attack – as coordinator. With Favian Upshaw and Kevin Ellison departing, Shuman (47.2 percent in 2016) is the favorite to take the first snap.
126. Jackson Tyner, Rice
Tyler Stehling departs after accounting for 2,358 total yards last season. Tyner (32 of 67 for 318 yards) is the front-runner, with J.T. Granato also in the mix.
125. Tom Flacco, Western Michigan
Zach Terrell leaves big shoes to fill in Kalamazoo this spring. Flacco – the brother of Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco – is the front-runner over redshirt freshman Jon Wassink for the starting job.
124. Bryant Shirreffs, UConn
Shirreffs is penciled in here, but keep an eye on junior college recruit David Pindell. Sophomore Donovan Williams is another candidate after playing in the final three games of 2016. Shirreffs threw for 2,010 yards and seven scores and rushed for 326 yards and two touchdowns over nine games last season.
123. Logan Marchi, Temple
Replacing Phillip Walker – Temple’s all-time passing leader – won’t be an easy task for new head coach Geoff Collins. Marchi completed two of six throws for 29 yards last season and headlines a quarterback battle featuring redshirt freshman Anthony Russo and junior Frank Nutile.
122. Jonathan Banks, Tulane
Banks is back at the FBS level after spending the 2016 season at Independence (Kan.) Community College. The Texas native spent the 2015 campaign at Kansas State and his dual-threat ability is a good fit for head coach Willie Fritz’s offense.
121. Blake LaRussa, Old Dominion
David Washington’s steady play (31 TD passes) was a big reason why Old Dominion won 10 games and reached the program’s first bowl game last fall. While Washington will be missed, head coach Bobby Wilder is one of Conference USA’s top offensive minds and has some intriguing options. LaRussa worked as Washington’s backup in 2016 and is expected to open spring ball as the No. 1 quarterback. Redshirt freshman Drayton Arnold and junior college recruit Jordan Hoy are also in the mix.
120. Giovanni Rescigno, Rutgers
New coordinator Jerry Kill has a tough assignment trying to upgrade an offense that was shut out four times and averaged only 9.6 points in Big Ten games last year. Rescigno replaced Chris Laviano as the team’s starter in 2016 and threw for 889 yards and five touchdowns. He will face competition from senior Zach Allen, sophomore Tylin Oden and true freshman Johnathan Lewis.
119. Conor Rhoda, Minnesota
P.J. Fleck’s first spring in Minneapolis begins with a wide-open quarterback battle. Rhoda, a former walk-on, has one previous start and finished 2016 with 88 passing yards and one score on eight completions. Junior college transfer Neil McLaurin, sophomore Demry Croft and redshirt freshman Seth Green are also vying for snaps.
118. Keon Howard, Southern Miss
Nick Mullens leaves big shoes to fill in Hattiesburg this spring. Howard was one of Southern Miss’ top recruits in its 2016 signing class and started two games due to an injury to Mullens last year. Howard threw for 365 yards and one score and added 150 yards and two touchdowns in 2016.
117. Jordan Davis, Louisiana
The Ragin’ Cajuns aren’t dipping back into the graduate transfer ranks for 2017, and all signs from head coach Mark Hudspeth indicate Davis is the front-runner to start. The Texas native does not have a start in two seasons of action but he has completed 28 of 44 throws for 263 yards and one touchdown in limited work.
116. Gardner Minshew, East Carolina
Minshew was a post-spring addition for head coach Scottie Montgomery last season and spent 2016 as the backup to Philip Nelson. The Mississippi native filled in as the starter for the final two games after Nelson was sidelined due to injury. Minshew showed promise in his limited stint under center, finishing 2016 with 1,347 passing yards and eight scores. One concern for Minshew: East Carolina has to replace standout receiver Zay Jones.
115. David Cornwell, Nevada
New head coach Jay Norvell got a huge boost in his first season in Reno with the addition of Cornwell. The Oklahoma native was a four-star recruit out of high school and joins the Wolf Pack as a graduate transfer from Alabama.
114. Mason Fine, North Texas
Second-year head coach Seth Littrell has North Texas trending in the right direction, but the Mean Green need more from their quarterbacks in order to reach a bowl for the second consecutive year. Fine threw for 1,572 yards and six scores in 10 games as a true freshman in 2016.
113. Ryan Graham, Northern Illinois
Injuries hit Northern Illinois’ quarterback depth chart hard last season, as four different signal-callers received snaps. Anthony Maddie and Drew Hare have expired their eligibility, leaving Graham and Daniel Santacaterina as the front-runners for the job. Graham passed for 680 yards and eight scores in nine games last year. True freshman Rodney Hall enrolled in time to compete for the job in spring practice.
112. Tyree Jackson, Buffalo
Jackson is an intriguing 6-foot-7 signal-caller for head coach Lance Leipold but had an uneven debut last fall. How far will Jackson progress this offseason?
111. Nick Holley, Kent State
Injuries at the quarterback position forced Kent State to get a little creative last season. Holley – a receiver through the first four games – moved to quarterback in early October. Holley didn’t add a ton of pop to the passing game, but he rushed for 920 yards and 10 scores. Will George Bollas or Mylik Mitchell reclaim the No. 1 job this spring?
110. Johnny Stanton, UNLV
High expectations surrounded Stanton last season, but a knee injury prevented him from making a huge impact in his first season with the Rebels. Stanton will be pushed for time this spring by senior Kurt Palandech and talented redshirt freshman Armani Rogers.
109. Chason Virgil, Fresno State
New head coach Jeff Tedford inherits a Fresno State offense that averaged only 17.7 points a game in 2016. Virgil had his share of ups and downs in his first full year as the starter last year and is expected to be pushed for snaps by junior college recruit Jorge Reyna.
108. Chase Forrest, California
The Golden Bears have four quarterbacks vying to replace Davis Webb this spring. Forrest – 18 career pass attempts – will be pushed by Ross Bowers, Victor Viramontes and Max Gilliam.
107. Chayce Crouch, Illinois
Crouch was pressed into the starting job after an injury to Wes Lunt, but the Ohio native was also sidelined due to injury midway through the 2016 campaign. With Lunt out of eligibility, Crouch and Jeff George Jr. will compete for the starting nod. True freshman Cameron Thomas will join the mix this summer. The Fighting Illini hope junior college recruit Dwayne Lawson joins in time for fall practice.
106. Caleb Henderson, Maryland
Henderson – a transfer from North Carolina – gets the nod here for Maryland, but sophomores Tyrrell Pigrome and Max Bortenschlager are also in the mix. True freshman Kasim Hill is a name to watch this fall.
105. Darius Wade, Boston College
Wade opened the 2015 campaign as Boston College’s No. 1 quarterback but suffered a season-ending injury in Week 3 against Florida State. After working as the backup to Patrick Towles last fall, Wade is ready to assume the controls of the offense once again. However, he will face competition from talented redshirt freshman Anthony Brown.
104. Torrance Gibson, Cincinnati
Hayden Moore and Ross Trail are back after combining for 12 touchdown passes and 13 interceptions last year. However, new head coach Luke Fickell landed Gibson as a transfer from Ohio State (via the junior college ranks) to add to the mix. Gibson’s athletic ability isn’t in question, but can he consistently manage the passing game?
103. Chad President, Tulsa
A three-man battle is underway to replace Dane Evans at Tulsa this spring. President – the No. 358 recruit in the 2015 signing class – is vying with sophomore Will Hefley and redshirt freshman Luke Skipper. President is more mobile than Evans but has attempted only five passes in his career.
102. Shane Morris, Central Michigan
Cooper Rush’s departure leaves a significant void under center at Central Michigan this spring. The Chippewas are leaning on Michigan graduate transfer Shane Morris for the starting spot. He ranked as the No. 72 overall recruit in the 2013 signing class and went 43 of 92 for 437 yards and five interceptions in three years with the Wolverines.
101. Jake Luton, Oregon State
Luton is part of a three-man competition for the starting job in Corvallis. The Washington native began his career at Idaho and played in four games with the Vandals in 2015. Luton spent 2016 at Ventura (Calif.) College and threw for 3,551 yards and 40 scores.
100. Ryan Metz, UTEP
Metz gained the starting job over Zack Greenlee in early October and finished with a solid 2016 season. Metz threw for 1,375 yards and 14 scores, while completing 64.7 percent of his passes. The junior never topped more than 215 yards in a game in 2016.
99. De’Andre Johnson, FAU
Potential. That’s the best word to describe Johnson in FAU’s offense under the watchful eye of new head coach Lane Kiffin. The former Florida State signal-caller lands in Boca Raton after transferring in from East Mississippi Community College.
98. Hasaan Klugh, Charlotte
Charlotte’s offense showed signs of life with Klugh at the controls last season. In his first opportunity for snaps with the 49ers, Klugh threw for 1,356 yards and 10 scores and added 426 yards and eight touchdowns on the ground. The junior needs to improve a completion percentage that dipped to 53.6 after connecting on less than 45 percent of his passes in each of the last three games.
97. Dallas Davis, South Alabama
A shoulder injury limited Davis at times during the 2016 season, and he’s slated to miss all of spring ball as a result of surgery. While Davis was less than full strength for 2016, he showed promise by throwing for 2,706 yards (completed 56.7 percent of passes) and 11 scores in 11 appearances. One concern for 2017: South Alabama loses its top four receivers, including standouts Josh Magee and tight end Gerald Everett.
96. Conner Manning, Georgia State
Georgia State struggled to establish a consistent ground attack last year, so the offense relied heavily on Manning and the passing game. The Utah transfer held his own, throwing for 2,684 yards and 16 touchdowns. The Panthers have a new coaching staff, with former FAU play-caller Travis Trickett taking over the coordinator duties on offense. In addition to the new offense, Manning will have one his top targets back from injury, as Penny Hart returns after missing nearly all of 2016 due to injury.
95. Tyler Rogers, New Mexico State
Since Rogers was limited to just four games due to injury in 2015, he was granted an additional year of eligibility for ‘17. The senior has passed for 6,356 yards during his career with the Aggies but has also tossed 38 interceptions over the last three years.
94. Damian Williams, Texas State
With Nick Fitzgerald entrenched as Mississippi State’s starting quarterback, Williams left Starkville as a graduate transfer in search of playing time. Texas State was a good landing spot for Williams, as his dual-threat ability should be a good fit under play-caller Zak Kuhr. In three seasons with the Bulldogs, Williams completed 68 of 117 passes for 706 yards and five scores and added 274 yards and two touchdowns on the ground.
93. Nathan Stanley, Iowa
Stanley earned the backup role as a true freshman last season and opened spring with an edge over Tyler Wiegers for the No. 1 job. In limited snaps, Stanley completed 5-of-9 throws for 62 yards in 2016. He’s a promising quarterback for new coordinator Brian Ferentz to groom over the next couple of years.
92. Brian Lewerke, Michigan State
The Spartans struggled to find consistency without quarterback Connor Cook guiding the passing game last year. And with Tyler O’Connor departing, Michigan State will start spring ball with uncertainty at quarterback. Lewerke (31-of-57, 381 yards in 2016) is the favorite, but Damion Terry and redshirt freshman Messiah deWeaver could push for snaps.
91. Peyton Bender, Kansas
The Jayhawks have ranked last in the Big 12 in scoring offense for seven consecutive seasons. However, there are reasons for optimism entering 2017. The addition of new play-caller Doug Meacham should pay dividends, while Bender joins the team after a stint at Itawamba (Miss.) Community College. The Florida native started his career at Washington State in 2014 and started one game for the Cougars in ‘15.
90. Tanner Lee, Nebraska
While Tommy Armstrong had a productive career in Lincoln, Lee or redshirt freshman Patrick O’Brien are a better fit for what head coach Mike Riley wants to do on offense. There’s more upside with O’Brien, but Lee has the edge in experience. The Tulane transfer threw for 3,601 yards and 23 touchdowns in two years with the Green Wave.
89. Kendall Hinton, Wake Forest
Hinton was poised to assume the starting role over John Wolford last season but suffered a season-ending injury in Wake Forest’s third game. In limited action, Hinton completed 11 of 19 passes for 174 yards and one score and rushed for 125 yards and two touchdowns.
88. McKenzie Milton, UCF
The Knights made considerable progress in head coach Scott Frost’s first season, but the offense still has room to grow after averaging 28.8 points per game. Finding consistency out of the quarterback spot is essential for the offense this spring, and there’s promise for Milton after 10 appearances as a freshman in 2016. Milton threw for 1,983 yards and 10 scores last year and rushed for 158 yards and three touchdowns.
87. Garrett Smith, ULM
After a promising freshman season, Smith had his 2016 campaign derailed by injury. In six games last year, Smith threw for 1,237 yards and nine scores and rushed for 308 yards and three touchdowns. He should rebound as ULM’s starter in 2017.
86. Ahmad Bradshaw, Army
In Bradshaw’s first full season as the starter, the Black Knights improved their scoring average to 29.9 points per game – up from 22.1 in 2015. He ranked second on the team with 826 rushing yards and nine scores, while connecting on 40 of 91 passes for 703 yards and four scores.
85. Quinton Maxwell, Ohio
Maxwell shared the starting job last season but is slated to take over the No. 1 job with Greg Windham out of eligibility. Maxwell showed promise in 10 appearances, throwing for 1,247 yards and eight scores and rushing for 193 yards and a touchdown on 69 attempts.
84. James Morgan, Bowling Green
Morgan was the top recruit in Bowling Green’s 2015 signing class (under former head coach Dino Babers) and took a redshirt year in his first season campus. The Wisconsin native replaced James Knapke in the fifth game of 2016 and threw for 2,082 yards and 16 scores.
83. Riley Neal, Ball State
Neal’s overall yardage (2,541) and completion percentage (61.4) increased from 2015 in his first full year as Ball State’s starter. However, Neal’s interceptions rose from six (2015) to 12 in 2016. Can second-year head coach Mike Neu help Neal take the next step this offseason?
82. Malik Rosier, Miami
The Hurricanes have a wide-open competition to replace Brad Kaaya this offseason. Rosier is the team’s most experienced option, as he registered one start in 2015 and has completed 31 of 61 passes for 370 yards and two scores over the last two years. Rosier will be pushed for time by Jack Allison, Cade Weldon, N’Kosi Perry, Evan Shirreffs and Vincent Testaverde.
81. Kurt Benkert, Virginia
Benkert was a key pickup to help with stability and depth as a graduate transfer for first-year head coach Bronco Mendenhall last season. The former East Carolina quarterback threw for 2,552 yards and 21 scores but also tossed 11 picks in his debut with the Cavaliers. In ACC contests, Benkert’s completion percentage dipped to 53.2.
80. Lamar Jordan, New Mexico
As evidenced by Jordan’s 681 passing yards last year, New Mexico isn’t going to throw the ball much under offensive coordinator Bob DeBesse. However, the run-first/Pistol option scheme is a good fit for the Lobos. Jordan ranked third on the team with 739 rushing yards and also added three scores in 2016. Backup JaJuan Lawson was one of the top recruits in New Mexico’s 2015 signing class and intriguing junior college recruit Cameron Burston arrives this summer.
79. Justice Hansen, Arkansas State
Arkansas State’s offense got off to a slow start in 2016 but rallied over the second half of the season once Hansen became entrenched as the starting quarterback. In his first year with the Red Wolves, Hansen threw for 2,719 yards and 19 scores and also chipped in 131 yards on the ground. Look for Hansen to have a better grasp of the offense in his second year on campus.
78. Kellen Mond, Texas A&M
The one-year Trevor Knight experiment was a success for the Aggies. However, Knight has expired his eligibility, leaving a three-man battle for the job in spring ball. Mond – a true freshman – is battling redshirt freshman Nick Starkel and senior Jake Hubenak for the top spot on the depth chart. Mond has the most upside, but this battle may not be decided until the fall.
77. Feleipe Franks, Florida
With Luke Del Rio recovering from offseason shoulder surgery, Franks will have an opportunity to stake his claim for the No. 1 job in Gainesville. And expectations are high for the redshirt freshman after ranking as the No. 54 overall recruit in the 2016 signing class. Additionally, Franks will be surrounded by an improving set of receivers and running back Jordan Scarlett (889 yards). There’s plenty of upside for Franks in 2017.
76. Drew Barker, Kentucky
Barker was set to become Kentucky’s full-time starter after Patrick Towles transferred to Boston College last year. However, a back injury limited Barker to just three games, prompting junior college transfer Stephen Johnson to start the rest of the season. Can Barker reclaim the starting job? Or will Johnson hold onto the top spot?
75. Brandon Harris, North Carolina
Replacing Mitch Trubisky won’t be easy. But the Tar Heels landed a potential impact transfer to the mix this spring, as LSU graduate Brandon Harris will join the team for offseason workouts. Harris threw for 2,756 yards and 20 scores during his three years with the Tigers and has one season of eligibility remaining. Nathan Elliott and redshirt freshmen Chazz Surratt and Logan Byrd round out head coach Larry Fedora’s options on the depth chart.
74. Josh Jackson, Virginia Tech
With Jerod Evans off to the NFL, second-year head coach Justin Fuente is starting over at quarterback. While Evans leaves big shoes to fill, the track record of Fuente and coordinator Brad Cornelsen should be able to find the right answer to keep Virginia Tech in the mix to win the Coastal Division. Jackson – the No. 453 recruit in the 2016 247Sports Composite – is the front-runner to start over junior college recruit A.J. Bush and true freshman Hendon Hooker.
73. Alex McGough, FIU
Injuries cut short McGough’s 2016 season, but the Tampa native is expected to return at full strength for 2017. This will be McGough’s fourth consecutive season as FIU’s starter, and he will look to post a season similar to his 2015 totals: 21 TDs, 2,722 yards and 64 percent completion percentage.
72. Dalton Sturm, UTSA
The Roadrunners will miss top running back Jarveon Williams, but the offense should be able to lean a little more on the pass with the return of Sturm and the team’s top four statistical receivers from 2016. The former walk-on threw for 2,170 yards and 20 touchdowns and added 313 yards and four scores on the ground last fall.
71. J’Mar Smith, Louisiana Tech
Louisiana Tech’s high-powered offense loses standout receivers Trent Taylor and Carlos Henderson, but the offense should remain one of the best in Conference USA this year. Smith is a big reason why the Bulldogs should be set on offense once again, as the sophomore is a rising star to watch. In eight appearances (with one start) in 2016, Smith threw for 412 yards and two touchdowns and added 62 yards and two scores on the ground.
70. Zach Abey, Navy
Abey was forced into the starting job late last year after Will Worth suffered a season-ending injury against Temple in the American Athletic Conference Championship Game. Abey rushed for 114 yards and two scores against Louisiana Tech in the Armed Forces Bowl and should thrive as the starter with a full offseason to work with the No. 1 offense.
69. Ben Hicks, SMU
Hicks is penciled in here as the starter, but SMU has assembled a trio of talented quarterbacks. In addition to Hicks, junior college recruit (and former Wisconsin signal-caller) D.J. Gillins and Arkansas transfer Rafe Peavey will push for the starting job. Hicks should have the edge to start after throwing for 2,930 yards and 19 touchdowns after replacing Matt Davis due to injury in 2016.
68. Andrew Ford, UMass
Ford – a former Virginia Tech quarterback – took over as the starter for head coach Mark Whipple in the third game of the season and threw for 2,665 yards and 26 scores. Ford tossed at least three touchdown passes in five out of his final six games.
67. Thomas Woodson, Akron
The quarterback situation is up in the air as spring practice opens for the Zips. Woodson has started 18 games over the last two seasons but is out until June due to offseason surgery. Junior college recruit (and former Virginia signal-caller) Nick Johns is the No. 2 option for head coach Terry Bowden.
66. Richard Lagow, Indiana
In his first season with the Hoosiers, Lagow ranked second among Big Ten quarterbacks by averaging 258.6 passing yards per game. The junior college recruit (and former Oklahoma State signal-caller) threw for 3,362 yards and 19 scores but also tossed 17 picks. Helping Lagow reduce the interceptions will be a key offseason goal for new offensive coordinator Mike DeBord.
65. Chase Litton, Marshall
Litton’s 2016 totals were slightly better than his ‘15 production, but the junior still has room to improve entering ‘17. Litton did not play in two contests last year but ended 2016 with 2,612 yards and 24 scores. If Litton takes the next step in his development this offseason, Marshall should be able to rebound after last year’s surprising 3-9 record.
64. Matthew Jordan, Georgia Tech
Justin Thomas concluded his career at Georgia Tech with a solid senior year, but the Yellow Jackets appear to have a capable replacement in Jordan. The Alabama native has played in 13 games over the last two seasons (with one start) and accumulated 404 rushing yards and eight touchdowns.
63. Danny Etling, LSU
New offensive coordinator Matt Canada is tasked with improving LSU’s passing attack. Etling is expected to hold off a group of young quarterbacks for the starting job, and his overall experience should make a quick transition for the new offense. The Tigers have plenty of room to grow their passing game, but Etling helped this group show some punch late in the 2016 season.
62. Jarrett Guarantano, Tennessee
The starting job in Knoxville is up for grabs this spring. Guarantano is battling junior Quinten Dormady to replace Joshua Dobbs under center. While Dormady has the edge in experience, talent is on Guarantano’s side. The New Jersey native ranked as the No. 77 overall recruit by the 247Sports Composite in the 2016 signing class.
61. Jacob Park, Iowa State
With Joel Lanning expected to move to an all-purpose role, Park is expected to handle the full-time duties under center for the Cyclones. The South Carolina native started his career at Georgia and transferred to Northeastern Oklahoma A&M in 2015. In his first year with Iowa State (and first on-field experience since high school), Park threw for 1,791 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2016.
60. Christian Chapman, San Diego State
Chapman turned in a solid campaign in his first full season as San Diego State’s starter. Over 14 games, Chapman threw for 1,994 yards and 20 touchdowns. The ground game remains the focal point of the Aztecs’ offense. However, Chapman’s development should add opportunities to add more balance for head coach Rocky Long’s attack.
59. Nic Shimonek, Texas Tech
Shimonek is the next quarterback to take the reins of Texas Tech’s high-powered offense. The Iowa transfer played in four games last season and connected on 38 of 58 throws for 464 yards and six touchdowns. While Shimonek has big shoes to fill in replacing Patrick Mahomes, he will also have one of the Big 12’s best receiving corps at his disposal in 2017.
58. Kent Myers, Utah State
A breakout year was expected for Myers in his first full year as Utah State’s No. 1 quarterback. However, the Aggies struggled to find balance after an injury to running back Devante Mays early in the year, and Myers was limited to 199.1 passing yards per game. New offensive coordinator David Yost should help Myers take a step forward in 2017.
57. Arion Worthman, Air Force
It’s a small sample size, but Worthman’s stint as Air Force’s starter at the end of 2016 was impressive. He rushed for 674 yards and six scores over the final six games and added 546 yards and four touchdowns through the air. Worthman is a candidate for a breakout year in 2017.
56. Dru Brown, Hawaii
It didn’t take long for head coach Nick Rolovich to find the right answer at quarterback for the Rainbow Warriors. Brown earned the starting job after a 1-3 start by Hawaii and finished 2016 by tossing nine touchdowns over his final two games. He also ranked fifth among Mountain West quarterbacks by averaging 214.9 total yards per game.
55. Kelly Bryant, Clemson
Bryant worked as the backup to Deshaun Watson over the last two years and will get the first opportunity to claim the starting job in the spring. Can he hold off Zerrick Cooper and five-star freshman Hunter Johnson?
54. Max Browne, Pitt
Browne is one of the nation’s most intriguing quarterbacks for 2017. The Washington native was a five-star recruit out of high school and saw limited work in 2014-15 for USC before taking over the starting job in 2016. However, Browne’s stay at the top of the depth chart was limited to just three games, as Sam Darnold emerged as the Trojans’ No. 1 quarterback. The talent is there for Browne to keep Pitt’s offense performing at a high level, and he enrolled in time to participate in spring ball.
53. Brandon Dawkins, Arizona
As evidenced by his team-leading 944 rushing yards last season, Dawkins is a dynamic athlete with plenty of room to improve as a passer. Dawkins threw for 1,345 yards and eight scores while completing 53.6 percent of his passes last year.
52. Alex Hornibrook, Wisconsin
Wisconsin won’t change its formula for success on offense with a run-first approach, but the growth of Hornibrook should allow head coach Paul Chryst to open up things as needed in 2017. As a freshman last fall, Hornibrook threw for 1,262 yards and nine scores while sharing snaps with Bart Houston. With Houston out of eligibility, Hornibrook will take the full-time job for 2017.
51. Keller Chryst, Stanford
Chryst replaced Ryan Burns as Stanford’s starter in late October and guided the Cardinal to six consecutive victories to close the 2016 campaign. However, Chryst suffered a knee injury in the bowl win over North Carolina and won’t return to action until fall camp. He threw for 905 yards and 10 touchdowns last year. If healthy (and the starter), Chryst should move up a few spots on this list by fall practice.
50. Zach Smith, Baylor
As a true freshman last season, Smith was pressed into action after Seth Russell suffered a season-ending leg injury against Oklahoma in early November. Smith went 1-3 in his four starts as the starting quarterback but ended 2016 with 1,526 passing yards and 13 scores. He will be pushed for time by Arizona graduate transfer Anu Solomon.
49. Blake Barnett, Arizona State
Barnett was a five-star recruit out of high school and started the first game for Alabama in 2016. However, after losing the starting job to Jalen Hurts, Barnett decided to transfer to Arizona State. In three contests with the Crimson Tide last year, Barnett threw for 219 yards and two scores on 11 completions. He will provide some stability to an Arizona State offense that utilized three quarterbacks due to injuries last year.
48. Kyle Shurmur, Vanderbilt
After throwing only three touchdown passes through Vanderbilt’s first seven games, Shurmur tossed six over the final six contests, including four in huge wins against Ole Miss and Tennessee. Entering his junior year, Shurmur is a quarterback on the rise and is a big reason why Vanderbilt should push for a bowl game once again in 2017.
47. Daniel Jones, Duke
Jones was pushed into the starting job last season after a preseason Achilles injury forced Thomas Sirk to miss all of 2016. The redshirt freshman responded with a solid debut for head coach David Cutcliffe, throwing for 2,836 yards and 16 scores. Jones also added 486 yards and seven touchdowns. He should build off that performance in 2017.
46. Brogan Roback, Eastern Michigan
Roback was one of the driving forces behind Eastern Michigan’s first bowl game since 1987 last fall. He did not play through the first three games but finished the year with 2,694 yards and 18 scores, including six performances of 300 or more yards.
45. David Blough, Purdue
Volume and yardage certainly wasn’t a problem for Blough last season. He led all Big Ten quarterbacks with 517 pass attempts and total passing yards per game (279.3) and threw 25 touchdown scores. However, Blough also tossed 21 picks. New head coach Jeff Brohm is one of the nation’s top offensive minds. He should help Blough become a better overall quarterback this fall.
44. Gus Ragland, Miami (Ohio)
An offseason knee injury prevented Ragland from playing in the first half of 2016, but his return was a big reason why Miami finished the season by winning six out of its final seven games. Ragland showed efficiency (64.2) and a willingness to take care of the ball (one interception, while throwing for 1,537 yards and 17 touchdowns. He also added 202 yards and two scores on the ground.
43. Steven Montez, Colorado
Montez is one of the Pac-12’s quarterbacks on the rise for 2017. He started three games due to an injury to Sefo Liufau last year and showed flashes of promise by throwing for 1,078 yards and nine scores. Look for Montez to deliver a breakout year this fall.
42. Troy Williams, Utah
Williams turned in a solid debut in his first season with the Utes. In 13 starts, Williams threw for 2,757 yards and 15 touchdowns and added 235 yards and five scores on the ground. Another step forward is likely in 2017 under new offensive coordinator Troy Taylor, but the Utes lose three out of their top four receivers from last year.
41. Nick Stevens, Colorado State
After throwing for 2,679 yards and 21 scores in 2015, Stevens was projected to rank among the Mountain West’s best quarterbacks for ‘16. The senior took an interesting path to that rank, as he was benched after a slow start in favor of Collin Hill but later regained the job due to injury. Stevens finished the season on a tear by throwing 19 touchdowns and just three interceptions over the final seven contests.
40. Kenny Hill, TCU
Hill sat out 2015 after transferring to TCU from Texas A&M and had his share of ups and downs in ‘16. In 13 games, Hill threw for 3,208 yards and 17 touchdowns and ranked second on the team with 609 rushing yards and 10 scores. Can Hill show more consistency in 2017?
39. Kyle Allen, Houston
After sitting out 2016 due to transfer rules, Allen is poised to take over the starting job in Houston. Greg Ward expired his eligibility after the 2016 campaign, but Allen’s arrival should limit the drop-off for the Cougar attack. In two years at Texas A&M, Allen threw for 3,532 yards and 33 touchdowns. He was a five-star recruit in the 2014 signing class.
38. Ryan Finley, NC State
Finley was an ideal addition for NC State last season, as new play-caller Eliah Drinkwitz arrived in Raleigh to implement an offense similar to the one he utilized at Boise State. Finley had two years (2014-15) of on-field experience with Drinkwitz at Boise State and was slated to be the full-time starter in 2015 before a season-ending injury in Week 3. In his first year with the Wolfpack, Finley completed 60.4 percent of his passed for 3,055 yards and 18 touchdowns.
37. Taylor Lamb, Appalachian State
Despite an increase in pass attempts to 325 (up from 283 in 2015), Lamb’s passing yards and touchdowns decreased from the previous year. The drop in production is largely due to the turnover at receiver, along with reliance on a standout ground game. Lamb has quietly been very efficient, completing at least 60 percent of his passes in all three years on campus.
36. Matt Linehan, Idaho
Linehan was a big reason why the Vandals improved their win total by five games from 2015 to ‘16. And he’s also one of the reasons to believe Idaho can return to the postseason in its final year at the FBS level. En route to earning second-team All-Sun Belt honors last season, Linehan threw for 3,184 yards and 19 touchdowns.
35. Drew Lock, Missouri
Talent certainly isn’t an issue for Lock, as he threw for 3,399 yards and 23 scores in his first full season as Missouri’s starter. Additionally, he ranked second among SEC quarterbacks by averaging 283.3 passing yards per game. However, a deeper look at the numbers shows Lock still has some areas to improve on in 2017. Lock tossed all 10 of his interceptions and completed only 53.3 percent of his passes in SEC play.
34. Shane Buechele, Texas
Buechele posted a solid freshman season in 2016, throwing for 2,958 yards and 21 scores. However, he’s not secure in the top spot, as incoming freshman Sam Ehlinger is expected to push for time under new head coach Tom Herman.
33. Eric Dungey, Syracuse
For the second consecutive year, Dungey’s season was cut short due to injury. However, before missing the last three games of 2016, Dungey showed why many picked him as a breakout quarterback. Under the guidance of head coach Dino Babers, Dungey threw for 2,679 yards and 15 scores and added six rushing touchdowns. Additionally, he ranked second among ACC quarterbacks by averaging 297.7 passing yards per game.
32. Will Grier, West Virginia
Grier is one of the breakout players to watch for 2017. As a freshman at Florida in 2015, Grier threw for 1,204 yards and 10 scores but missed eight games due to a suspension. He has the potential to post huge numbers under head coach Dana Holgorsen.
31. Tanner Mangum, BYU
After starting 12 games after an injury to Taysom Hill in 2015, Mangum returned to the backup role last fall. However, Hill was injured in the regular season finale, forcing Mangum back into the lineup against Wyoming in the Poinsettia Bowl. In 18 career appearances, Mangum has passed for 3,618 yards and 26 scores.
30. Brandon Wimbush, Notre Dame
Wimbush is a breakout candidate in his first year as Notre Dame’s starter. The New Jersey native was one of the top quarterback recruits in the 2015 signing class and played in two games that season before taking a redshirt year in ‘16.
29. Clayton Thorson, Northwestern
Thorson was one of the Big Ten’s most improved players last season. As a freshman in 2015, Thorson threw for 1,522 yards and seven touchdowns but improved those numbers to 3,182 and 22 last year. A new No. 1 target must emerge after the departure of wide receiver Austin Carr. However, Thorson should continue his progression with another solid 2017 season.
28. Brandon Silvers, Troy
Silvers has been a three-year starter for Troy and is primed for a monster 2017 season. The Trojans are overflowing with options at receiver, and Silvers earned first-team All-Sun Belt honors after throwing for 3,180 yards and 23 touchdowns in 2016. He should be able to take those totals even higher this year.
27. Riley Ferguson, Memphis
Paxton Lynch left big shoes to fill in Memphis, but Ferguson ensured there was little drop-off for the offense last year. The former Tennessee quarterback (and junior college recruit) ranked second among American Athletic Conference quarterbacks by throwing for 284.5 yards per game. Ferguson ended 2016 with 3,698 yards and 32 touchdowns.
26. Wilton Speight, Michigan
Michigan entered 2016 with some uncertainty under center, but Speight quickly ended any quarterback concerns by tossing nine touchdowns to zero interceptions through the first four games. A late-season injury forced Speight to miss one game and hindered his late-game performance against Iowa on Nov. 12. Despite those problems, Speight finished 2016 with 2,538 yards and 18 touchdown tosses. He’s one of the Big Ten’s top quarterbacks for 2017, but the team’s top three receiving targets from last year must be replaced.
25. Jesse Ertz, Kansas State
After his 2015 season ended after the opener due to injury, Ertz pieced together a solid all-around debut in ‘16. While guiding the Wildcats to a 9-4 record, Ertz threw for 1,755 yards and nine scores and rushed for 1,012 yards and 12 touchdowns.
24. Jake Bentley, South Carolina
Bentley appeared to be on the path to a redshirt year last season, but head coach Will Muschamp decided to play the true freshman in late October. The move paid dividends for the Gamecocks, as Bentley gained valuable experience and also guided the program to a 4-3 record over the final seven contests. After throwing for 1,420 yards and nine scores as a freshman last season, Bentley is poised for an even bigger (and better) 2017 campaign.
23. Shea Patterson, Ole Miss
Chad Kelly’s late-season knee injury forced head coach Hugh Freeze to remove Patterson’s redshirt for the final three games. In Patterson’s first start, he led the Rebels to a 29-28 victory at Texas A&M by throwing for 338 yards and two scores and adding 64 yards on the ground. Patterson finished 2016 with 880 yards and six passing scores but also posted a completion percentage of 52.2 over his final two games. The sophomore should take a step forward in his first full season under center.
22. Justin Herbert, Oregon
Herbert assumed the starting job in early October last season and impressed in his seven starts under center. The Oregon native showed remarkable poise for a freshman and tossed only four interceptions on 255 attempts, while throwing for 1,936 yards and 19 scores. Additionally, Herbert rushed for 161 yards and two touchdowns. He should thrive under new head coach Willie Taggart.
21. Jacob Eason, Georgia
As expected with any true freshman quarterback, Eason had his share of ups and downs last fall. However, the five-star recruit showed flashes of his potential by throwing for 2,430 yards and 16 scores. Georgia’s supporting cast is a work in progress around Eason, as the offensive line and receiving corps are two preseason question marks. Eason has all of the arm talent to rank among the best in the SEC. Will he take a step forward in 2017?
20. Josh Allen, Wyoming
After his 2015 season was cut short due to injury, Allen emerged as one of the nation’s top Group of 5 quarterbacks and guided Wyoming to a Mountain Division title last fall. In 14 starts, Allen threw for 3,203 yards and 28 scores and rushed for 523 yards and seven touchdowns. Allen won’t have key targets Tanner Gentry, Jake Maulhardt and Jacob Hollister to throw to in 2017, but the junior should be in the mix for first-team All-Mountain West honors.
19. Brett Rypien, Boise State
It’s a close call for the top spot among Mountain West quarterbacks, but let’s give Rypien the nod over Josh Allen. As a sophomore in 2016, Rypien threw for 3,646 yards and 24 touchdowns. He also earned first-team All-Mountain West honors for the second year in a row.
18. Mike White, WKU
White thrived under former head coach Jeff Brohm, as he earned second-team All-Conference USA honors after throwing for 4,363 yards and 37 scores last year. New head coach Mike Sanford should keep WKU’s offense performing at a high level, but top targets Taywan Taylor (98 catches) and Nicholas Norris (76) will be missed.
17. Brent Stockstill, MTSU
A collarbone injury limited Stockstill to just 10 games in 2016, but he still finished the year with 3,233 yards and 31 scores. Over the last two seasons as MTSU’s No. 1 quarterback, Stockstill has passed for 61 touchdowns. His return to full strength should help the Blue Raiders contend for the Conference USA title in 2017.
16. Logan Woodside, Toledo
Woodside headlined Toledo’s explosive offense last season and claimed first-team All-MAC honors last fall after torching opposing defenses for 4,129 yards and 45 scores. He tossed at least two touchdowns in every game and finished fourth nationally by completing 69.1 percent of his throws.
15. Nick Fitzgerald, Mississippi State
Replacing the best player (Dak Prescott) in school history wasn’t going to be easy for Mississippi State last year. However, Fitzgerald ended 2016 as one of the top breakout players in the SEC and is poised to challenge for all-conference honors in 2017. As evidenced by his 1,375 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns, Fitzgerald is a difference-maker on the ground. He also passed for 2,423 yards and 21 scores.
14. Austin Allen, Arkansas
A midseason knee injury seemed to slow Allen in the second half of 2016, but his first year as a starter was a success. Over 13 games, Allen threw for 3,430 yards and 25 touchdowns. He also led all SEC quarterbacks by connecting on 53 passes of 20 or more yards. A rebuilt receiving corps will be an early challenge for Allen in 2017.
13. Deondre Francois, Florida State
The Seminoles will be looking for Francois to take the next step in his development in 2017. As a redshirt freshman last fall, Francois completed 58.8 percent of his throws for 20 scores and added 196 yards and five touchdowns on the ground. After taking several monster hits, there’s no question about Francois’ toughness or willingness to stand in the pocket and deliver a strike. However, head coach Jimbo Fisher would like to see Francois get rid of the ball quicker and improve his accuracy this spring.
12. Jarrett Stidham, Auburn
Stidham ranked as one of the top quarterback recruits in the 2015 signing class and was pressed into action as a true freshman at Baylor following a season-ending injury to Seth Russell. Stidham showcased his talent in the limited stint, throwing for 1,265 yards and 12 touchdowns. He left Waco following the dismissal of Art Briles and spent 2016 at a junior college. Stidham is the missing piece for Auburn’s offense.
11. Jalen Hurts, Alabama
The emergence of Hurts played a key role in Alabama’s run to the College Football Playoff last season. And with 14 starts under his belt as a true freshman last fall, Hurts should be even better in his second year as a starter. The running ability of Hurts (954 yards and 13 scores) brings a different dimension to the Alabama offense. However, Hurts is still developing as a passer.
10. Josh Rosen, UCLA
A shoulder injury ended Rosen’s season prematurely, but the junior is slated to return to full strength for 2017. As Rosen showed in 2015 as a true freshman, he’s one of the nation’s top quarterbacks and could climb by a few spots on this list by the end of ‘17. However, he also needs more help from the ground attack.
9. Trace McSorley, Penn State
The emergence of McSorley and hire of Joe Moorhead as the program’s play-caller provided a needed spark for Penn State’s offense last season. McSorley spent 2015 as Christian Hackenberg’s backup and entered ‘16 with just 40 career pass attempts. But McSorley didn’t take long to grow into the starting job and finished with 3,614 passing yards and 29 scores while also adding 365 yards and seven touchdowns on the ground. He should push Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett for first-team All-Big Ten honors in 2017.
8. Luke Falk, Washington State
Falk is the catalyst for Washington State’s high-powered passing game. He’s eclipsed 4,000 yards and passed for 38 scores in back-to-back years. Falk ranked fourth nationally by averaging 343.7 passing yards per game last season.
7. Mason Rudolph, Oklahoma State
Oklahoma State’s Big 12 title hopes rest on Rudolph’s right arm and the big-play connection with wide receiver James Washington. Rudolph has developed into one of the nation’s best quarterbacks over the last three seasons and should push for All-America honors after throwing for 4,091 yards and 28 touchdowns last year.
6. Quinton Flowers, USF
Flowers is a dynamic dual-threat playmaker and will keep USF in the mix to be the top Group of 5 team in 2017. Flowers had his best season as a passer last year, connecting on 62.5 percent of his throws for 2,812 yards and 24 scores. And after just missing out on a 1,000-yard campaign on the ground in 2015, Flowers led the Bulls with 1,530 rushing yards and 18 scores.
5. Jake Browning, Washington
Browning delivered a breakout season and guided Washington to the College Football Playoff in his second year as the starter. After throwing for 3,430 yards and 43 scores in 2016, the bar will be set high for Browning and the Huskies in 2017.
4. J.T. Barrett, Ohio State
Ohio State’s offense led all Big Ten teams by averaging 38 points per game in league play last season, but head coach Urban Meyer knows this unit has plenty of room to improve. And with that in mind, Meyer wasted no time looking for a new play-caller after the season ended, bringing former Indiana coach Kevin Wilson to Columbus as the team’s new coordinator. After sharing the starting job with Cardale Jones in 2015, Barrett was the full-time starter last year and ended ’16 with 3,400 total yards and 33 overall scores. With Wilson at the controls, another run at the Heisman Trophy isn’t out of the question for Barrett.
3. Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma
Mayfield has one more campaign left in his prolific career for Oklahoma and should be one of the leading contenders to win the Heisman in 2017. The senior set a new FBS single-season pass efficiency rating (196.4) in 2016 and threw for 3,965 yards and 40 touchdowns while leading the Sooners to a Big 12 title. Mayfield won’t have standout wide receiver Dede Westbrook to throw to in 2017, but Oklahoma’s offense is still going to be performing at a high level.
2. Sam Darnold, USC
The outlook on USC’s 2016 season changed dramatically once Darnold assumed the starting job. Max Browne started the first three games for the Trojans, but after a 1-2 start and sluggish performances against Alabama and Stanford, head coach Clay Helton made the switch. Darnold ignited USC’s offense in the second half of the season and guided the Trojans to Rose Bowl win over Penn State. Darnold threw for 3,086 yards and 31 scores and added 250 yards and two touchdowns on the ground.
1. Lamar Jackson, Louisville
The reigning Heisman Trophy winner begins the preseason quarterback rankings where he left off in 2016. Jackson may not match his 2016 totals this fall, but the dynamic junior will keep Louisville in contention for a New Year’s Six bowl and a spot among the ACC’s top teams. In 13 games last season, Jackson threw for 3,543 yards and 30 scores and added 1,571 yards and 21 touchdowns on the ground.
Trying to find your optimal DraftKings lineup for this week's (March 30-April 2) golf tournament: the Shell Houston Open at the Golf Course of Houston in Humble, Texas? Our fantasy golf experts are ready to help.
Here's what our optimal lineup looks like.
Jon Rahm ($10,700)
Dustin Johnson's not playing, so the mantle of hottest player in the field falls to Rahm, whose last five starts look something like this: 1, T16, T5, T3, 2. That's fantasy stud-dom.
Phil Mickelson ($8,900)
Lefty's destined to end a winless drought that extends to the 2013 Open Championship sooner rather than later. He's finished in the top 17 at Houston every year since 2011, the year he won it.
Rafael Cabrera-Bello ($7,900)
Rafa doesn't win very often, but he cashes a lot of big checks. He was fourth at Houston last year and had a T5 in India a couple weeks ago.
Patrick Reed ($7,700)
The Ryder Cup hero has struggled of late, but we're taking a one-week flyer on a guy who can erupt (in more ways than one) at any moment. Hasn't missed a cut since June.
Jhonattan Vegas ($7,300)
He ain't as flashy as his namesake town, but Vegas could be worth a gamble this week. He's made 11 straight cuts.
Jamie Lovemark ($6,800)
Not yet a week-to-week option, but Lovemark is capable of the occasional high finish and has shown signs of life in his last two starts (T27, T23).
After a season of upheaval and embarrassment on and off the field, the Padres begin the first full year of their deep rebuild with no expectations of a winning season. After their win-now experiment of 2015 failed, they floundered around in 2016 before deciding to get significantly younger and focus on building for the future. While their farm system is bursting with prospects, it’s grim at the big-league level. Executive Chairman Ron Fowler said in September that he was looking to get to .500 “hopefully in two years.” That doesn’t bode well for fans who haven’t cheered a winning team since 2010 and haven’t seen playoff ball at Petco Park since 2006. General manager A.J. Preller has a reputation to rebuild after he was suspended without pay for 30 days by MLB for failing to disclose medical information in the trade of All-Star Drew Pomeranz and other players. In another shocker, team president Mike Dee was abruptly fired on Oct. 12. After a particularly bad performance in early June, Fowler labeled the Padres “miserable failures.” This year, it could be worse.
Nowhere is the rebuild more apparent than the rotation. All five starters on the 2016 Opening Day roster are gone. James Shields, Andrew Cashner and Pomeranz were traded. Colin Rea had Tommy John surgery in November. Tyson Ross, who started on Opening Day and then missed the rest of the season with a shoulder injury, was non-tendered. Preller didn’t sign his first big-league free agent of the offseason until Dec. 17, when he added righthander Jhoulys Chacin. Preller also re-signed lefty Clayton Richard, as well as adding Trevor Cahill and Jered Weaver, who at 34 is the oldest on the team. The most promising starter coming back is Luis Perdomo, who made the jump from Single-A to the bigs as a Rule 5 draftee and led the team’s starters with nine victories. Others expected to be in the mix are Jarred Cosart, lefthander Christian Friedrich and Paul Clemens, as the Padres’ rotation could be in a constant state of flux throughout the season.
One of the more intriguing stories of 2016 was second baseman Ryan Schimpf, who made his big-league debut at age 28. He made 66 starts at second base and 12 at third base. Remarkably, of his 60 hits, 42 were for extra bases, with 20 home runs, 17 doubles and five triples. Opening Day second baseman Cory Spangenberg injured his left quad on April 20 and missed the rest of the season. He’ll be back. At shortstop, the Padres gave up on Alexei Ramirez, who was viewed as a one-year stopgap anyway, and turned to Luis Sardinas, who better fits the Padres’ mold since he’s only 23. Sardinas likely is bridging the gap to one of the club’s top prospects, Javier Guerra.
Wil Myers is the lone remaining veteran from Preller’s wild offseason shopping spree prior to the 2015 season. He’s outlasted Matt Kemp, Shields, Justin and Melvin Upton, Derek Norris and Craig Kimbrel. Myers became the full-time first baseman and responded by being named to his first All-Star team. He had a career year with a .259 average, 28 home runs, 94 RBIs and 28 stolen bases. Yangervis Solarte is the incumbent third baseman. Solarte played through a tough season, first dealing with a strained hamstring and then with the death of his wife, Yulliet, due to cancer late in the season. Solarte, the father of three girls, returned to the Padres for the final few games. He hit .286 with 15 homers, career highs
The Padres have five outfielders battling for four spots, including left fielder Alex Dickerson, center fielders Travis Jankowski and rookie Manuel Margot, and rookie right fielder Hunter Renfroe. Jankowski made 82 starts in his first full big-league season, and Dickerson played in 84 games last year. Dickerson made 65 starts in left, taking over on July 24. Renfroe, the Padres’ first-round draft pick in 2013, was named the MVP of the Pacific Coast League. After a late-season call-up, he excited fans by hitting four home runs in 11 games. Margot was one of four prospects acquired from Boston for Kimbrel. Both Margot and Jankowski can play positions other than center, and Jankowski could be the starter in left. The fifth outfielder is Jabari Blash, who made the Opening Day roster as a Rule 5 draftee but didn’t stick the entire year.
Austin Hedges is the heir apparent after Norris was traded to the Nationals. Hedges made his big-league debut with the Padres in 2015 when he played 56 games. He broke a bone in his left hand early last season in Triple-A, preventing the team from bringing him up. While he had a nice offensive year in Triple-A, it’s his defense the Padres will rely on most, with Green praising his game-calling and pitch-framing ability. One of the more intriguing offseason developments was the Padres’ announcement that they were considering turning Christian Bethancourt into a multi-position player.
Having Bethancourt in a projected super-utility role will make it easier for the Padres to carry Luis Torrens as a third catcher. Spangenberg will be back in the mix at second base after missing much of 2016 with a quad injury. Shortstop Allen Cordoba, a Rule 5 pickup, will have a spot here if he sticks on the roster. The Padres will have a mix of four outfielders, allowing Green to give them days off here and there.
The Padres are all-in on their deep rebuild, from lead investor Peter Seidler — a nephew of former Dodgers owner Peter O’Malley — to Fowler to Preller to Green. After the mysterious dismissal of Dee, the team president, in October, Preller will now report directly to ownership. Green has settled nicely into his job. The former big-league infielder and minor-league manager is confident and comfortable in his abilities, although he’s being given precious little to work with.
Petco Park is a great place for fans to enjoy craft beer and good food. Sadly, good baseball doesn’t appear to be on the menu anytime soon as the Padres trot out a young team. Yes, it’ll be great for fans who like to see top prospects. Green suggested late last year that everyone “embrace the process.” That’s not exactly what most fans want to hear after watching too much losing ball over the decades. There will be far more growing pains than big moments.
2017 NL WEST PREDICTION: 5th
The Chicago Cubs had to come back from a 3-to-1 deficit against the Cleveland Indians to prevail as World Series champions, but the Giants understood this painful truth: They had the Cubs right where they wanted them, too. The Giants were three outs away from forcing a decisive Game 5 in their NL Division Series, with Johnny Cueto lined up to start at Wrigley Field and Madison Bumgarner available to reprise his role as a shutdown reliever.
But before the Giants could record those three outs in the ninth inning, manager Bruce Bochy desperately used five relievers without success as the Cubs stormed back from a three-run deficit to clinch the series. It marked a fitting end for a Giants team that boasted one of the league’s best rotations and played nearly flawless defense yet also set a franchise record for blown saves. No great surprise, then: The Giants went all-in on a closer in the offseason, shelling out $60 million to sign All-Star Mark Melancon. They hope the rest of a young and talented relief crew will fall more neatly into line now that there’s no uncertainty about who will get the ball in the ninth.
Only the Cubs received more innings from their rotation than the Giants, whose 10 complete games led the major leagues. Bumgarner and Cueto combined to go the distance nine times, and despite an uneven middle of the season, Jeff Samardzija threw 203.1 innings as the Giants had three pitchers among the NL’s top five in outs recorded. Bumgarner was a paragon of durability yet again, setting regular-season career highs in innings and strikeouts while also leading all major leaguers in pitches thrown. Midseason acquisition Matt Moore came up huge to help the Giants limp into the NL Wild Card Game, and like Bumgarner, he is on a team-friendly contract with options through 2019. Cueto can opt out of his deal after 2017, though. There’s little reason to expect a serviceable season from Matt Cain in the final year of his contract, but he’ll get a chance to reestablish himself in the spring while left-handed rookie Ty Blach pushes him. Prospect Tyler Beede should be ready to make an impact at some point this season.
The Giants are golden up the middle. Second baseman Joe Panik and shortstop Brandon Crawford became the first pair of NL teammates since 2002 (the Cardinals’ Fernando Viña and Edgar Renteria) to win Gold Gloves. Crawford didn’t repeat as a Silver Slugger winner, but he led the Giants with 84 RBIs and led the NL with 11 triples. Panik was the hardest player to strike out in the majors (one per 11.19 plate appearances) but also had some of the worst luck, hitting .245 on balls in play — second lowest in the majors. Panik also struggled against lefties for the first time, leading to a move from the No. 2 spot to lower in the order.
The Giants committed to first baseman Brandon Belt when they signed him to a multiyear contract in April. Then Belt, a longtime lightning rod among fans, finally fulfilled his potential while becoming the final ballot selection for the All-Star Game. Although Belt’s 17 homers were a disappointment, no player gets cheated more by AT&T Park’s spacious right-center death valley. The Giants won’t receive much power at third base, either. Eduardo Núñez brings much-needed speed to the order, though. Like the player he replaced in August, Matt Duffy, Núñez was viewed as a utility player who overachieved into something more. He was a first-time All-Star with Minnesota last year and was leading the AL in steals when the Giants acquired him.
For all their homegrown success, the Giants' farm system hasn’t yielded much in the way of outfielders. And last year’s trio of Denard Span, Hunter Pence and Angel Pagan were no spring chickens. Pagan is gone, Span has lost a step and Pence had major hamstring surgery that forced him to miss chunks of time for the second consecutive season. NL third base coaches turned into windmills on base hits, knowing the Giants had little in the way of outfield arms. The Giants are hoping for health from Pence, whose power still plays in their ballpark, and they’ll plan for a left field platoon between Jarrett Parker and Mac Williamson.
Buster Posey checked off a rare unchecked box in his career when he ended Yadier Molina’s eight-year run and won the Gold Glove Award. Posey’s caught stealing percentage set a career high, and advanced metrics gave him tons of love for his ability to frame pitches. No wonder both he and the Giants refuse to entertain talk of moving him to a less stressful position.
October hero Conor Gillaspie’s three-run homer off Jeurys Familia sent the Giants past the Mets in the NL Wild Card Game, and he also tripled on a 101-mph fastball from Aroldis Chapman in the NLDS. Gillaspie should be the club’s top pinch hitter. Switch-hitter Jimmy Rollins will try to win a backup infield job over Kelby Tomlinson and Ehire Adrianza. With longtime backup outfielder Gregor Blanco gone, Gorkys Hernandez could play a valuable role. The Giants love what catcher Trevor Brown did as a rookie but signed Tim Federowicz to a minor-league contract to push for the backup job this spring.
Bochy lost no respect in the industry, and he’s still headed to the Hall of Fame someday. But for once, a master of bullpen usage found himself totally “buffaloed,” as he’d describe it, by the club’s failures in the ninth inning. More troubling was the heart scare that caused him to miss a game in Miami. But Bochy, who had an unscheduled procedure in February 2015 to treat two arterial blockages, insisted he was fine and retains every bit of vigor to manage at least through the end of his contract in 2019.
The Giants remain one of the league’s most stable and successful franchises. They should receive plenty of quality innings from their rotation along with clean defensive games from a dynamic infield — a great recipe for getting leads, winning series and marching back to October.
2017 NL WEST PREDICTION: 2nd
The World Baseball Classic is over and spring training is entering the home stretch, which means the 2017 MLB season is just around the corner. Final cuts will soon be made as teams determine their 25-man rosters before breaking camp in Florida and Arizona.
Once again, Athlon Sports’ 2017 Baseball Preview magazine has all 32 teams covered, including some candid analysis from scouts on the teams and specific players. These scouting reports are just part of the content that can be found in this year’s magazine, which is available on newsstands everywhere and online.
“Really, there are no weaknesses here. What’s so frustrating is that they’re not only the best team, but they’ve got control of young, productive players for a long time. They’re so deep that you’ll see a starter on the bench every day, and Joe Maddon will find a way to keep everyone happy. They’ll miss David Ross in the clubhouse, but Willson Contreras can really hit. Their rotation last year was probably as good as it can be, and with Jake Arrieta in his walk year, you wonder what happens if he gets off to a slow start and it looks like he’s costing himself money. Wade Davis is a little bit of a question mark because of the forearm problem last summer, but if he’s not healthy, they can always go get what they need at the deadline. There are ninth-inning, high-leverage guys available every July, and we know the Cubs will be aggressive.”
“Joey Votto is a borderline Hall of Famer, a guy who really cares and truly one of the smartest players in baseball. But it’s painful to watch him, too, because he’s so different from the rest of that team, which is very poor. They seem to be making some smarter moves now, but not to the level of some other rebuilding teams. Guys like Dilson Herrera and Jose Peraza have bounced around a little bit, and by no means are they can’t-miss prospects. But they’re young and they have a chance to be above-average major leaguers. Finding out should be the Reds’ priority. Billy Hamilton had a nice second half, and he has two off-the-chart skills — speed, and because of that, defense. If he gets on base enough, he could be part of a blockbuster trade, because there’s no one quite like him.”
“They’re not trying to win this year, and I would expect them to be sellers again at the deadline. Orlando Arcia is going to be their shortstop, and he’ll be part of their next good team. But there aren’t a lot of those players on the big-league team now. Adding guys like Travis Shaw and Eric Thames was the right thing to do; it wouldn’t surprise me if these guys are average or above-average big leaguers. Ryan Braun is still a very good offensive player, of course, and he’s OK in left; I expect he’ll be playing for a big-market team at some point. Jonathan Villar overperformed last year, and I think that’s the best we’ll see of him. Junior Guerra and Zach Davies have a chance to be in a rotation for a while, and if they perform well, they’ll look to shop them. I expect them to make Corey Knebel the closer. He’s got big stuff when he’s healthy.”
“I think they’re primed for a bounce-back season. Their pitching fell apart last year, but they could have a really nasty top three if Gerrit Cole is healthy and Jameson Taillon and Tyler Glasnow click behind him. Glasnow’s command isn’t there yet, and he may never have it, but like Taillon, he has really good stuff. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if Felipe Rivero is their closer. He has command issues, but that changeup is a real weapon with the fastball at 96 and his slider. Andrew McCutchen was completely lost last year; I don’t know if it was the hand injury or what, but he couldn’t catch up to velocity, and they played him too shallow in center, which backfired. But there’s still a superstar in there, and with Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco, they really could have three All-Star outfielders.”
“I’m always a little skeptical of a player you could have gotten for half the price a year ago, but they didn’t overpay by too much for Dexter Fowler. He gets on base, he switch-hits, and if he’s below average in center, it’s only by a little. Moving Matt Carpenter to first base is a surprise to me, but it does help sort out the rest of that roster. I like their rotation a lot, even with Adam Wainwright on the decline. He can still be effective, and Carlos Martinez is the real deal. So is Alex Reyes. He might be the best pitching prospect in baseball. They gave Brett Cecil a lot of money as their main lefty in the bullpen, but he’s very good, and so is Seung-hwan Oh. The Cardinals got Oh from South Korea and Aledmys Diaz from Cuba — without a lot of hype — on multiyear deals that are providing a lot of value. There’s a reason they’re still a model organization.”
“They’re really trying to accelerate their rebuild, and you have to like what they’re doing. Aggressively, the timetable for contending here is two years, but that’s if they hit on everyone right away. And they could: You could imagine a really strong rotation with Michael Kopech, Lucas Giolito, Carlos Rodon, Reynaldo Lopez and Carson Fulmer. They should take their time, though, with those guys and Yoan Moncada. The Red Sox rushed him last year, but he’s got a big, big upside especially at second base — think Robinson Cano, but a switch-hitter. One of the other young guys to watch is Charlie Tilson. He’s got a good leadoff profile, a great combination of getting on base, speed and defense; he should be their center fielder. Tim Anderson will have a big impact at shortstop. They’re definitely a team in transition, but by the time they’re done selling they should have a very strong foundation for a long time.”
“I don’t know if they’ll win the World Series, but they’ve gotten there, so they know they can do it — and that makes them even more dangerous. I worry a little about the extra mileage on the arms for guys like Corey Kluber and Josh Tomlin, but getting Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar back compensates for that. Francisco Lindor’s an MVP-in-waiting, and at that age he’ll only get better. I don’t think they can count on Michael Brantley, unfortunately; that shoulder could still be a big, big problem. Yan Gomes, with the injuries and underperformance, isn’t a safe bet as the starting catcher, either. But as long as he can catch and throw, which he can, the rest of the lineup can carry him. The bullpen will continue to be a real strength, but they were taxed so much in the postseason that you wonder how that’ll play out.”
“They’re a dangerous team, but their age makes them fragile. The offense will always keep them in games, because they’ve got impact bats up and down the lineup. Justin Verlander’s always had the stuff, and he’s showing now how smart he is on the mound; if he doesn’t have power that day, he can pitch backwards with his curveball and changeup. He’s evolved to the point where he can adapt not just from start to start, but at-bat to at-bat — and he’s a leader on that staff. Look at Michael Fulmer: His changeup’s a separator, and his fastball and slider are plus pitches, too. He’s a budding No. 1 for me. The problem is they really need Jordan Zimmermann to be the guy he was early in the season, and I don’t know if he can. They’re in a tough spot; definitely a contender with the Twins and White Sox down, but aging and not especially deep.”
“They’re talented and they’ve done it, so nobody likes facing them. They’re going for it again, but honestly it’s hard to take them seriously as contenders with that rotation. Danny Duffy had a big year, but his track record’s not great, and it’s thin beyond him. I’m eager to see what they have in Jorge Soler. I think he’ll be an average everyday player who may not live up to the tools, but those tools are intriguing. The inconsistencies in his approach may keep him from being the impact guy they’re hoping for, but we’ll see if the Royals, with their contact-oriented approach, can change that. Trading Wade Davis to get him makes them just another bullpen, which is sure not ideal with that rotation. They’ve got Eric Hosmer, Lorenzo Cain, Alcides Escobar and Mike Moustakas in their walk year, but they’re guys who rise to the occasion when facing pressure.”
“I think this is a sleeping giant — fairly soon, but of course not now. There’s not a lot of impact in that rotation, just some stabilizers at best except for Jose Berrios, who had some growing pains last year but still has the most upside. I’m not giving up on their core of position players, either. Byron Buxton did a lot of damage in the last month, and he’s a dynamic athlete with the aptitude to be a star. He’ll play at 23 this year. Miguel Sano was totally miscast in the outfield last year, but he’s still a high-impact guy. Max Kepler’s a real good athlete who’s just scratching the surface, and he makes pretty decent contact for the type of power he has. Overall this is still an extremely talented group, and they’ll realign some things defensively, try to weather that weak bullpen and middling rotation and get back to the process of growing into a contender.”
Optimists might look at the Big 12 teams’ three non-conference games and point out that it means one fewer chance for the programs to pulverize a cupcake directional school. The cynics see fewer opportunities for marquee matchups.
Surprisingly, 2017 is looking like a season in which Big 12 squads decided to fill out their out-of-conference slates with quality opponents. Nine of 10 teams have dates with Power Five teams on the docket, including a few legitimate head-turners. Even Baylor is getting in on the act this year.
Here’s a ranking of all 10 Big 12 programs’ non-conference schedules this season from toughest to easiest.
Sept. 2 vs. Maryland
Sept. 9 vs. San Jose State
Sept. 16 at USC
The schedule won’t do Tom Herman any favors in his first year as the head Longhorn. The headliner is clearly a trip to USC in the third week of the year, but Texas can’t sleep on that opener against an improving Maryland program.
Sept. 2 vs. UTEP
Sept. 9 at Ohio State
Sept. 16 vs. Tulane
You can count on the Sooners for at least one main event every year outside of Big 12 play. This season it’s a rematch on Sept. 9 with Ohio State, which pounded OU in Norman last season. On the other hand, UTEP and Tulane shouldn’t pose much of a threat.
3. Oklahoma State
Sept. 2 vs. Tulsa
Sept. 9 at South Alabama
Sept. 16 at Pittsburgh
OSU’s back-to-back road games stick out. The Cowboys will probably handle South Alabama without much trouble, but they will likely be an underdog a week later in the Steel City. The Golden Hurricane tend to play above their heads against the in-state big boys, too.
Sept. 2 vs. Jackson State
Sept. 9 at Arkansas
Sept. 16 at SMU
Playing the Razorbacks in Fayetteville was tough enough before the state government decided it would be cool to have some Hog fans packing heat in the stands. Gary Patterson’s team has a trap game at SMU a week after Arkansas.
5. West Virginia
Sept. 2 vs. Virginia Tech (Landover, MD)
Sept. 9 East Carolina
Sept. 16 Delaware State
The Mountaineers get regional rival Virginia Tech at FedEx Field to open the year. Given the Hokies’ personnel losses from 2016, that’s a nice break for WVU. ECU loves to slay giants and will have a shot at an upset in a letdown spot the following week in Morgantown.
6. Iowa State
Sept. 2 vs. Northern Iowa
Sept. 9 vs. Iowa
Sept. 16 at Akron
Not losing in the opening game to an FCS team would constitute a step in the right direction for second-year head coach Matt Campbell. So would knocking off the Cyclones’ in-state rivals in week two. ISU will have its hands full in the third game of the year when it visits an experienced outfit in Akron.
Sept. 2 vs. Liberty
Sept. 9 vs. UTSA
Sept. 16 at Duke
Maybe it was fated that Baylor’s traditionally callow stance toward non-conference games would lift in what turned out to be the first year of the Matt Rhule era. Whatever the case may be, prepare for hell to freeze over on Sept. 16 when the Bears take the field against Duke in Durham.
8. Kansas State
Sept. 2 vs. Central Arkansas
Sept. 9 vs. Charlotte
Sept. 16 at Vanderbilt
The Wildcats gear up for a potential dark horse run in the Big 12 this year with two lightweights in Manhattan. The Sept. 16 date between KSU and the Commodores should be fun for the old-school types.
9. Texas Tech
Sept. 2 vs. Eastern Washington
Sept. 16 vs. Arizona State
Sept. 23 at Houston
Tech is another program that has dedicated itself to playing tougher non-conference games in recent years. The Red Raiders will have a chance for some revenge when ASU comes to town in their second game of the year. In light of how Houston has played against power conference teams in the last few seasons, Tech might be an underdog when it takes on the Cougars on Sept. 23.
Sept. 2 vs. Southeast Missouri
Sept. 9 vs. Central Michigan
Sept. 16 at Ohio
The Jayhawks stay loading up on junk. The schedule includes a visit from the Southeast Missouri Redhawks, an FCS team that went 3-8 a year ago. KU needs the Ws, but tickets for these games won’t be tough to find around Lawrence.
— Written by Allen Kenney, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Kenney is founder and editor of BlatantHomerism.com and host of the Blatant Homerism Podcast. Follow him on Twitter @BlatantHomerism.
The Los Angeles Dodgers have pulled off an impressive balancing act over the past four years. While continuing to dominate the National League West (four consecutive division titles) and making the NL Championship Series twice, they have transitioned on the field, in the dugout and in the front office, where the Andrew Friedman-led group has pushed the envelope on sophisticated analytical approaches. The deep pockets of ownership have allowed the Dodgers to swallow millions in dead money to rid themselves of players for whom they had no use (Carl Crawford and Alex Guerrero being the latest) while spending millions more to add prospects to the farm system. That system might be the deepest in baseball, and it produced the franchise’s 17th NL Rookie of the Year in Corey Seager last season — not to mention enough talent to absorb a record 28 players going on the disabled list in 2016. The infusion of young talent is expected to continue in 2017 with precocious pitching talent Julio Urias just the most prominent name.
Most franchises would have to take a step back to pull off such a transition. The Dodgers have done it while remaining one of the reigning powers out West.
Disaster struck the Dodgers’ starting rotation last season — they lost ace Clayton Kershaw for 10 weeks due to a mildly herniated disc in his back. Kershaw returned in time to lead the Dodgers’ playoff run and assured everyone in the offseason that his back issues would not affect him in 2017. He will lead a deep rotation, with fellow lefthander Rich Hill re-signed to provide a legitimate No. 2 starter. Hill’s durability is in question, however, and health issues abound with the other veteran starters — Brandon McCarthy, Scott Kazmir and Hyun-Jin Ryu. Kenta Maeda and Alex Wood provide better options, and a cadre of young starting options led by Urias will push for inclusion. The Dodgers used a major-league-high 16 different starters in 2015 and 15 in 2016 — and they have the depth to do it again.
The Dodgers had high hopes that Corey Seager would some day be their best player. That day arrived by the end of May. The National League Rookie of the Year led NL shortstops in batting average, slugging, OPS, runs, total bases and hits. He is the leading man in the Dodgers’ transition to a team built around younger talent. Veteran second baseman Chase Utley was valuable as a mentor to Seager and in changing the clubhouse culture. He was re-signed, but the Dodgers targeted second as a spot where they could upgrade their hitting against left-handed pitching (a major deficiency in 2016). In late January they made their move, trading prized pitching prospect Jose De Leon to Tampa Bay for Logan Forsythe. The 30-year-old hit a career-high 20 home runs for the Rays last season and, perhaps more importantly, batted .270 against southpaws.
The Dodgers have spent over $750 million on player salaries over the past three seasons. But one of the best investments they made during that time was the $1 million contract they gave to Justin Turner to compete for a bench role in spring 2014. Turner has emerged as one of the most productive hitters in the National League, a Gold Glove finalist at third base and, more recent, a key leadership force in the Dodgers’ clubhouse. He bounced back from knee surgery a year ago to hit .275 with career highs in home runs (27) and RBIs (90) while posting a third consecutive OPS well over .800. Across the diamond, Adrian Gonzalez remains a remarkably consistent piece of the Dodgers’ core — although at age 34 there are signs of a drop-off. His .784 OPS last year was his lowest for a full season.
The Dodgers finally ran out of patience with Yasiel Puig in 2016. They came close to trading him at the midseason deadline then demoted him to Triple-A when they didn’t. Puig returned in September apparently humbled, professing a new commitment to preparation. That new leaf will be tested in 2017 — if Puig is still in Dodger blue come Opening Day. His inability to consistently perform at the All-Star level he flashed in his first two seasons is likely to make him a role player in a deep outfield corps. The Dodgers figure to platoon heavily while choosing from a group that includes right-handed hitters Puig, Trayce Thompson, Darin Ruf, Scott Van Slyke the versatile Enrique Hernandez and lefty-swinging Andre Ethier, Joc Pederson and Andrew Toles.
Yasmani Grandal is the new-age idea of a star catcher. He led all catchers with 27 home runs, had a .827 OPS despite a .230 batting average and was among the top receivers in the emerging area of pitch framing, adding 24 runs in value by one estimate (second only to Buster Posey). Grandal has been prone to injuries, but the Dodgers’ faith in him was evident in their trade of veteran backup A.J. Ellis. Ellis’ departure clears the way for young catcher Austin Barnes to serve as Grandal’s backup. Acquired from the Marlins in December 2014, Barnes served a two-year apprenticeship at Triple-A.
The Dodgers embrace the idea of maximizing production by frequent use of platoons and matchup-driven lineups. They also prefer to shorten the bench in favor of a deeper bullpen. That makes versatility a must among role players, and the makeup of the bench is likely to change frequently over the course of the season — a backup catcher (Barnes), Utley and extra outfielders the only certainties.
Dave Roberts was a bit of a surprise as the Dodgers’ choice to succeed Don Mattingly as manager in 2016. But the choice was a winning one. Roberts guided the Dodgers through a record number of DL moves (including losing Kershaw for 10 weeks in the second half of the season), a major-league high 70 games started by rookie pitchers and an unprecedented 606 pitching changes and still won 91 games and the NL West title. Roberts’ relentless optimism and upbeat energy played well in a clubhouse.
Going into the offseason, the Dodgers’ goal was simple — keep as much of the roster intact as possible. They went 3-for-3 in the most important parts of that process, re-signing Jansen, Turner and Hill. Given the likelihood of better health this year, another year of maturity for the young players like Seager and the fruits of a loaded farm system, the Dodgers appear to be the most obvious threat to the Chicago Cubs’ reign over the National League.
2017 NL WEST PREDICTION: 1st
South Carolina head basketball coach Frank Martin is an outlier among his Final Four counterparts.
In the 1999-2000 season, Gonzaga's Mark Few was in the first year of the position he holds today. North Carolina's Roy Williams celebrated 12 years at Kansas, and Oregon's Dana Altman had settled in at Creighton — his third Div. I program in what was then a decade-long career.
That same year, Martin led the varsity team at Miami's Booker T. Washington High School.
It's not unheard of for a coach to transition from the high school hardwood to the second-highest level of basketball behind only the NBA. Williams — coaching in his ninth Final Four and fifth at North Carolina — first strolled the sidelines at Charles D. Owen High School in Black Mountain, N.C., in the mid-to-late 1970s.
But Martin rose the ranks in remarkable fashion, ascending from high school head coach to Div. I assistant to Div. I head coach in just six years. A decade into the college game and just four years in as a head coach, he reached his first Elite Eight at Kansas State.
Just 17 years after leaving Miami and high school basketball — kids born when he was still in Miami are now his recruits — Martin's coaching in his first Final Four.
Unique as Martin's career trajectory might be, it's a story that began like many in college basketball: With a coach recruiting a player and finding a hidden gem along the way.
"Charlton Young, who was from Miami, was recruiting my point guard," Martin said of the process that led him to the college game.
Young — currently an assistant at Florida State — was then at Northeastern University in Boston. Those initial recruiting feelers brought then-Huskies head coach, the late Rudy Keeling, to Miami.
"That's where the conversation started," Martin said.
The conversation to which Martin refers is vital to the history of college basketball. It led Martin from Miami, his home for more than 30 years, to the Northeast, setting in motion the series of events that would eventually lead to Glendale, Arizona, and the Final Four.
Giving up the high school game for the collegiate grind wasn't exactly a glamorous move. Aside from leaving the warm weather of South Florida for New England's frigid winters, Martin said he made $28,000 a year — hardly enough to afford housing in Boston.
Instead, he shared less-than-luxurious accommodations with a colleague.
"A one-bedroom apartment at the Captain Willett Apartments in East Providence [Rhode Island]," Martin said. "He had a car, I did not. So I would ride in [to Boston] with him sometimes. When he was out recruiting, I'd have to take the bus, downtown Providence and get a commuter rail to downtown Boston.
"You make it work," Martin added. "You figure out a way to make ends meet and that's what I did."
That kind of resourcefulness is reflected in Martin's coaching style. He's had the fortune to coach some uniquely skilled players, dating back to his high school days. At Miami Senior High School, it was former Maryland Terrapins point guard Steve Blake and Florida Gators big man Udonis Haslem, both of whom enjoyed long NBA careers.
Likewise, Martin has a special talent in guard Sindarius Thornwell. The SEC Player of the Year averages 21.6 points and 7.2 rebounds per game, and he's been central to the Gamecocks' historic season.
But Martin's ability to adapt and improvise, making things work on the fly, has led South Carolina to its first Final Four. He's made lineup adjustments to rejuvenate a once-struggling offense. The Gamecocks are now one of the NCAA Tournament's most explosive teams, evident in a 65-point, second half outburst against Duke in the Round of 32.
At the same time, South Carolina's been able to slow the pace when situations called for it. The Gamecocks' stifling defense on Baylor powered them into the Elite Eight, where they picked up the tempo against defensive-minded Florida.
Those salad days at Northeastern helped shape Martin's approach. So, too, did his preceding high school seasons, where he gained unique perspective on recruiting.
"I was fortunate that at our high school, we had some very good players that got recruited at a high level," he said. "Watching people recruit firsthand allowed me to see some of the things I liked and didn't like. So whenever I got the opportunity, I tried to recruit in a way that I thought people would respect."
And respect is a core tenet of Martin's overall coaching approach. His demeanor on the sidelines is fiery and demonstrative, but when the clock strikes zeroes, there's a mutual respect within the South Carolina locker room that resonates through this Final Four run.
"Coach didn't promise us anything," guard P.J. Dozier said following the Elite Eight win, via ASAP Sports transcripts. "But he did promise us that if we had faith in him and we listened to what he had to say, and we did what he had to say, we did what he said to do, that we would be successful here and it shows."
Martin does not stray from the approach he used in the Miami high schools, where he oversaw three state championships. And while he may have left those gyms in Florida for the grandeur of Madison Square Garden and University of Phoenix Stadium, his philosophy remains rooted in the Sunshine State.
"Miami solidified who I am as a human being and instilled the values that I live my life by," he said. "It's the duty that's been instilled in me. That neighborhood, those people in my life, taught me to become a man and they taught me how to do things right and taught me how to make the right decisions and how to respect. And I got into coaching to help young people have a chance to move forward in the same neighborhood that helped me learn how to move forward."
— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.
There were plenty of changes at Notre Dame following a 4-8 campaign in 2016. There are six new assistants, a new strength program and a desire from all to make sure something like last year never happens again.
Of course, that all starts with better play. So here are five Fighting Irish players who need to emerge in 2017 to spark a massive turnaround and get Notre Dame back on its feet and competing for a New Year’s Six bowl game.
1. Brandon Wimbush, QB
Surprise, surprise: The new starting quarterback is pretty important. Wimbush enters his redshirt sophomore year as the unquestioned guy under center, and he is filling some big shoes after the early NFL Draft departure of DeShone Kizer, who could be a first-round pick. New offensive coordinator Chip Long will likely speed things up offensively, and new QBs coach Tommy Rees figures to add a familiar voice to the room and help ease the transition for Wimbush from the background to the spotlight. The former four-star prospect has drawn rave reviews behind closed doors so far, but all eyes will be on him come opening day 2017.
2. Jay Hayes, DL
The redshirt junior defensive lineman saw much more time last season after Greg Hudson took over for Brian VanGorder in-season as defensive coordinator, but now he’ll be tasked with a much bigger role on what is still a pretty green defensive line. The returning Irish players up front return a grand total of zero sacks among them from 2016, and that absolutely has to change. Hayes, a former four-star prospect, will look to take the next step this season under new coordinator Mike Elko.
3. Kevin Stepherson, WR
Irish fans were alarmed to hear that Stepherson was running with the third team during the program’s first padded practice of the spring, but what would spring football be without a little overreaction? Stepherson enrolled early a year ago and made an impact as a true freshman, starting three games and finishing third on the team in catches (25) and receiving yards (462), and second in receiving touchdowns (five). Equanimeous St. Brown is back to lead the receiving corps, but Stepherson will be expected to grow into a bigger role as a sophomore, especially with Torii Hunter Jr. and Corey Holmes both gone.
4. Alize Jones, TE/WR
On the subject of receivers, Jones missed all of last season after being ruled academically ineligible. And while head coach Brian Kelly has expressed cautious optimism publicly when speaking about Jones, the tight end’s potential impact cannot be overlooked, especially with how many bodies the Irish return at the position. Jones is probably better suited as an outside receiver anyway, and if the former four-star prospect’s 13-catch, 190-yard rookie campaign on a loaded 2015 team is any indication, the Las Vegas native could be primed for big things in /17 if he stays on the right path.
5. Offensive line
It would be unfair to single out one person here, but the offensive line returns four starters from a 2016 group that was, well, sub-par. Position coach Harry Hiestand has churned out strong line after strong line, but for whatever reason, last year’s didn’t live up to its standard, which was all the more surprising given the expected NFL talent the Irish started up front. Notre Dame ranked 71st nationally in allowing 28 sacks last season, and 80th in rushing yards per game (163.33). The line needs to get better, especially with a new starting quarterback to protect. Luckily for the Irish, this group is capable of doing it, and it is all too aware of its shortcomings from 2016.
— Written by Matt Fortuna, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and spent six seasons covering college football for ESPN.com. Fortuna’s work has been honored by the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA) and U.S. Basketball Writers Association (USBWA) seven times. Follow him on Twitter @Matt_Fortuna and like his Facebook page.
It was a rough first season in Charlottesville for Virginia head coach Bronco Mendenhall in 2016. The Cavaliers finished 2-10 overall and in last in the ACC Coastal Division with a 1-7 record. To add insult to injury, Virginia suffered a season-opening 37-20 loss to Richmond from the FCS ranks.
Mendenhall knew the Cavaliers job would be a tough rebuild because of the lack of talent former head coach Mike London left, but he might not have envisioned it being this difficult.
With Virginia set to open spring practice, Mendenhall will look to lead the program in a positive direction. To get there, there are several areas that will need to be addressed prior to the spring game on April 29.
5 Storylines to Watch During Virginia’s Spring Practice
1. How much can QB Kurt Benkert improve this spring?
In his first season after transferring from East Carolina, Benkert was inconsistent as Virginia’s starting quarterback. He did throw for 2,552 yards and 21 touchdowns, but he completed just 56.2 percent of his passes and had 11 interceptions. He also was benched and replaced by backup Matt Johns in the Cavaliers’ 31-17 loss to Georgia Tech.
Despite his benching and his play late last season, Mendenhall said on a pre-spring practice conference call last week that Benkert is the leader to start the season under center against William & Mary on Sept. 2. Mendenhall also said Benkert injured his shoulder against UConn in Week 3 and was never the same after that.
The play of Benkert will determine how much improvement the Cavaliers can make in 2017. With questions in the backfield and along the offensive line, Virginia needs Benkert to increase his productivity and limit the mistakes that he made a season ago.
2. Running backs
Virginia will have to replace arguably the best player on their roster in Taquan Mizzell. He is the only player in ACC history to record more than 1,500 career rushing yards and 1,500 career receiving yards. Mizzell was the Cavaliers’ leading rusher and receiver (receptions) in 2016, so he will have large shoes to fill.
Mendenhall said he he likes what he has seen in Daniel Hamm and early enrollee Jamari Peacock. Hamm only had three carries a season ago, but he played a lot as a punt and kick returner. As a senior at Yulee (Fla.) High, Peacock rushed for 1,876 yards and 33 touchdowns.
3. Offensive line
Last season, the Cavaliers’ offensive line was among the worst in the FBS. In 12 games, Virginia’s offensive line gave up 36 sacks. Only two other ACC schools (Syracuse, Louisville) gave up more per game as the Cavaliers ranked 113th in the nation in this category.
Virginia will have 11 scholarship offensive linemen to work with this spring. The rest of the eight linemen on the roster won’t enroll until the summer. Offensive line coach Garrett Tujague will have his hands full in putting this group together.
The Cavaliers will need to replace three starters up front, as center Jackson Matteo, left guard Michael Mooney and right tackle Eric Smith have exhausted their eligibility.
For a head coach that comes from a defensive background such as Mendenhall, watching the Cavaliers’ defense in 2016 had to be tough to stomach. Virginia finished 93rd in the country in total defense (446.6 ypg) and fared even worse in scoring defense (99th, 33.8 ppg). Needless to say one of Mendenhall’s top priorities this spring is to improve on defense.
One positive towards that goal is the unit does have experience with nine starters returning. The Cavaliers also have senior leaders to rely on in linebacker Micah Kiser, who led the ACC and finished third in the FBS in tackles, and safety Quin Blanding.
5. Special teams
Virginia will open spring practice without a kicker on the roster. Incoming freshman Brian Delaney is expected to be the Cavaliers’ kicker this fall, but he won’t enroll until the summer.
One of the few bright spots for Virginia last season was its return game. Joe Reed (25.1 ypr) and the aforementioned Hamm (9.8 ypr) both finished in the top 25 nationally in kickoff and punt returns, respectively.
Pre-Spring Outlook for Virginia in the ACC
The good news for Virginia is there’s nowhere to go but up following a disastrous first season under new head coach Bronco Mendenhall. The 2016 Cavaliers lacked talent and was very young, so some improvement should be expected after experiencing a lot of growing pains.
Having QB Kurt Benkert healthy throughout the season will be key if Virginia wants to have any hopes of sneaking into a bowl game in 2017. The biggest concern on offense will be up front, as three starters along an offensive line that did not perform very well last season have to be replaced.
While Mendenhall says the team has made great strides from last year, it will be hard for the Cavaliers to crack the six-win mark to qualify for a bowl. There’s a possibility Virginia could be 3-0 heading into their game at Boise State on Sept. 22, but the schedule gets with the start of ACC play. Home games with Duke and Boston College present an opportunity to get to five wins, but the Cavaliers will still need an upset or two to reach bowl eligibility and will likely bring up the rear in the Coastal Division once again.
— 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, the Miami Herald and the Palm Beach Post and is a reporter for Pro Player Insiders. Follow him on Twitter @antwanstaley.
Every bit of excitement generated when the University of Washington announced its hire of Chris Petersen in December 2013 was validated last season when the Huskies won their first Pac-12 football championship in 16 years.
Washington won 12 games for the first time since the 1991 national championship season, while earning a spot in the third edition of the College Football Playoff. Preparations for an encore kick off with the beginning of spring practices.
And how exactly do the Dawgs follow up a breakthrough season? Expectations will certainly be high on Montlake with two possible Heisman Trophy contenders back in the fold: quarterback Jake Browning and running back Myles Gaskin.
The terrific twosome have plenty of new faces around them, however.
5 Storylines to Watch During Washington's Spring Practice
1. Replacing Ross
NFL Draft fanatics are learning what Pac-12 football followers have known for quite some time: John Ross is explosive.
As the NFL Scouting Combine show-stopper Ross climbs up mock drafts, he leaves behind some difficult shoes to fill in Seattle. His 2016 running mate, Dante Pettis, proved every bit as valuable to Washington's success as Ross. The tandem proved especially dangerous because both were home-run threats. Having a similar dynamic this season gives Washington a proven formula for success.
Chico McClatcher may be the man to complement Pettis in the manner Pettis functioned with Ross. McClatcher averaged better than 18 yards per reception a season ago. Co-offensive coordinator Matt Lubick also may be able to make more use of speedster Jomon Dotson in the slot. Dotson was Washington's change-of-pace running back behind Myles Gaskin and Lavon Coleman a season ago, though his skill set may be a boon to the Husky receiving corps.
2. More Emphasis on the Blitz?
The Washington defense flourished in the offensively potent Pac-12 by employing a look that produced results with little risk. Coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski rarely called blitzes, yet Washington accumulated the 14th-most sacks in college football. That's an indication of uncanny talent in the front seven – talent the Huskies are largely replacing in 2017.
Gone are dynamic pass rushers Psalm Wooching and Joe Mathis. Vita Vea and Greg Gaines bring plenty of proven experience on the line, but the defensive front moves on without space-eating tackle Elijah Qualls. Qualls' presence up the middle commanded blocking attention, leaving the edges vulnerable to attacks on the backfield without use of blitz packages.
3. Changes in the Secondary
The versatility of the Washington defense a season ago fed largely off the vast skill set of safety Budda Baker. Baker defended ball carriers, would-be pass catchers and broke into the backfield all with equal expertise.
Replacing Baker's difficult enough on its own, but Washington loses plenty more from its secondary with the graduation of cornerback Kevin King; Sidney Jones' early exit for the NFL Draft; and Darren Gardenhire's unexpected transfer.
Freshman phenom Taylor Rapp moves into a role of heightened importance in his sophomore campaign. JoJo McIntosh also is a proven commodity, so the cupboard's far from bare. It will just look a bit different in the 2017 Husky secondary.
4. Double-Dynamite in the Backfield
Washington's ability to roll with two running backs last season and lose nothing made the Huskies' offense particularly dangerous. Both of its primary ball carriers – Gaskin and Coleman – return for another season of dual-threat domination.
With more touches, Gaskin could be a Heisman Trophy contender. He toted the ball 237 times in 2016 as is, but could have scored more than 10 touchdowns. Coleman provided backup to the tune of 114 carries and seven scores.
The distribution of carries between the two in 2017 will be an interesting storyline, but last season seemingly found a sweet spot that showcased both prominently.
5. Jake Browning's Next Step
Browning surprised some by winning the starting quarterback job in 2015 as a true freshman. He performed admirably, too. In 2016, he garnered not-insiginificant Heisman talk for much of the season, but a lackluster final month dinged his chances.
Browning will likely headline most preseason Heisman lists, and deservedly so. He passed for 43 touchdowns and rushed for four more while captaining the Huskies to the Pac-12 championship. But the next phase in his career evolution will be determined by two facets.
One: improved accuracy. Browning completed a little more than 62 percent of his attempts as a sophomore, down from 63.1 percent as a freshman. Two: quick decision-making under pressure. Alabama and USC accounted for Washington's only two losses a season ago, and both defenses effectively pressured Browning into mutiple turnovers. He also struggled in the Pac-12 Championship Game against Colorado under similar circumstances, but the stellar play of Washington's defense compensated for a sub-par offensive night.
Pre-Spring Outlook for Washington in the Pac-12
While Washington certainly faces its question marks heading into the offseason, the Huskies are worthy wearers of the proverbial Pac-12 championship belt. This team returns enough on both sides of the ball to be considered the favorite in the Pac-12 North.
More than just what's on the field for Washington, having head coach Chris Petersen and his staff on the sidelines and in the booth makes a huge difference. Petersen's a proven winner who maximizes the potential of most players. These early steps in the spring are crucial on a much longer road to have Washington back to championship stride once September arrives.