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What is the worst trade in NBA history?
The Kings shocked the NBA by trading All-Star big man DeMarcus Cousins in a deal centered around a 2017 first-round pick and Buddy Hield, a rookie who Kings owner Vivek Ranadive reportedly believes has “Steph Curry potential.” Kings GM Vlade Divac — who, as a player, was traded from the Lakers to the Hornets for Kobe Bryant in a regrettable 1996 deal — admitted to having a better offer “two days” before making the deal.
The Kings are a rudderless ship, but there have been many terrible trades in NBA history. The Celtics traded draft picks to the Warriors for Kevin McHale and Robert Parrish in a 1980 deal. Former Cavaliers owner Ted Stepien traded away first-round picks in five consecutive years — one of which turned into 1982 No. 1 overall pick James Worthy — inspiring the “Stepien Rule,” which prohibits teams from trading first-round picks in successive seasons.
But even that rule hasn’t been able to protect teams from themselves. In 2013, the Brooklyn Nets traded a handful of draft picks to acquire veterans Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce from the Celtics. As a result, Boston has the No. 1 overall pick this year (through an option to swap picks with Brooklyn) and could again in 2018 (with Brooklyn’s unprotected pick outright).
Will there ever be another two-way baseball player, like Babe Ruth?
There may never be another Ruthian two-way MLB player, but Shohei Otani is currently the “Babe Ruth of Japan,” earning Pacific League “Best Nine” honors as both a starting pitcher and designated hitter in 2016. Otani, 22, was named Pacific League MVP for the Japanese Series champion Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters after posting a 10–4 record with a 1.86 ERA and recording the fastest pitch (102.5 mph) in Nippon Professional Baseball history as a right-handed ace, while hitting .322 with 22 HR as a left-handed-hitting slugger. Nearly 100 years prior, a 24-year-old Ruth went 9–5 with a 2.97 ERA and hit .322 with 29 HR in his last season with the Boston Red Sox in 1919. Unfortunately, for baseball fans stateside, the 6’4”, 200-pound Otani will have to wait to be posted by his Japanese club before arriving in MLB.
You're probably aware that Kobe Bryant once scored 81 points in a game.
It was an unforgettable game that Jalen Rose and the Raptors still can't live down. Rose even blocks people on Twitter for mentioning 81. Trust me, I know from personal experience.
The 81 joke will never get old.
Football is a team sport, but when it comes to the NFL the most important individual on a team is the starting quarterback. Nine of the past 10 MVPs have been quarterbacks with five different signal-callers winning the award since 2007.
So it should come as no surprise that in Athlon Sports’ rankings of quarterbacks entering the 2017 season starts with three former MVPs – Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady and Matt Ryan – with a fourth (Cam Newton) rounding out the top 10. In fact, only three of the quarterbacks in the top 10 have never even appeared in the Super Bowl, while the other seven have started 16 times on Super Sunday. It appears that more than ever success in the NFL starts with who is under center.
Athlon’s player rankings are just one of the features that appear in the 2017 NFL Preview magazine.
2017 NFL Quarterback Rankings
1. Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay
The passer with the top quarterback rating in NFL history (104.1) remained dominant. Led NFL with 40 touchdown passes and guided Packers to eight straight wins before NFC title game loss.
2. Tom Brady, New England
A season that opened with a four-game Deflategate suspension couldn’t have ended any sweeter — with Super Bowl LI MVP honors. Shows no signs of slowing down as he reaches age 40.
3. Matt Ryan, Atlanta
An MVP season was ruined by Atlanta’s collapse in Super Bowl LI. However, the loss shouldn’t diminish a brilliant 2016 campaign highlighted by a career-high 38 touchdown passes and 117.1 quarterback rating.
4. Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh
Overcame an early season knee injury to lead Pittsburgh to eight straight wins and AFC title game berth. Now ranks in top 10 all-time for touchdown passes (301) and passing yards (46,814).
5. Russell Wilson, Seattle
Carried Seattle’s offense while playing through a knee injury suffered in Week 3. Posted career highs in completions (353), attempts (546) and passing yards (4,219).
6. Drew Brees, New Orleans
Keeps rolling even at age 38. Amassed highest yardage and touchdown totals (5,208 and 37, respectively) since 2013.
7. Derek Carr, Oakland
Value to the Raiders was further reinforced when Oakland collapsed following his season-ending leg injury in Week 15. Expected to sign a monster contract extension before start of 2017 campaign.
8. Andrew Luck, Indianapolis
The Colts have failed to make the playoffs in two straight seasons for the first time since 1997-98. But 8–8 records the past two years would be far worse if Luck weren’t there.
9. Matthew Stafford, Detroit
Part of 2016 MVP conversation until finger injury triggered a late-season slump. No quarterback has ever passed for 30,000 yards in fewer games (109).
10. Cam Newton, Carolina
11. Kirk Cousins, Washington
12. Eli Manning, New York Giants
13. Dak Prescott, Dallas
14. Philip Rivers, Los Angeles Chargers
15. Joe Flacco, Baltimore
16. Andy Dalton, Cincinnati
17. Marcus Mariota, Tennessee
18. Carson Palmer, Arizona
19. Jameis Winston, Tampa Bay
20. Alex Smith, Kansas City
21. Ryan Tannehill, Miami
22. Sam Bradford, Minnesota
23. Carson Wentz, Philadelphia
24. Tyrod Taylor, Buffalo
25. Blake Bortles, Jacksonville
26. Trevor Siemian, Denver
27. Jared Goff, Los Angeles Rams
28. Jimmy Garoppolo, New England
29. Mike Glennon, Chicago
30. Colin Kaepernick, UFA
The deadline for college basketball underclassmen considering entry into the NBA draft passed last month. Barring a handful of transfers – like Pittsburgh guard Cameron Johnson – and straggling 2017 recruits, rosters for the 2017-18 season are set.
Thanks to the revised draft deadline, in its second year, college basketball is awash in returning talent. The bevy of veteran leadership returning to the NCAA hardwood promises for a competitive and wildly entertaining season to come.
Some honorable mentions that did not make the Top 25:
- Virginia Tech
- Texas A&M
- South Carolina
As we journey into the summer, the following is your updated college basketball Top 25 for 2017-18:
1. Arizona Wildcats
Key Returners: Allonzo Trier, Rawle Alkins, Dusan Ristic, Parker Jackson-Cartwright, Keanu Pinder
Departures: Kadeem Allen, Lauri Markkanen, Kobi Simmons, Chance Comanche
New Arrivals: DeAndre Ayton, Emannuel Akot, Ira Lee, Brandon Randolph, Alex Barcello
Buzz: Rarely does a team lose four prominent players, including its defensive stopper (Kadeem Allen) and a rare offensive talent (Lauri Markkanen), yet seemingly improve the next season. Such is the case for Arizona.
Arizona scored big this spring, with both Allonzo Trier and Rawle Alkins opting to return for at least one more season. The Wildcats got further good, unexpected news in May when 5-star prospect Emmanuel Akot reclassified into the class of 2017. He joins DeAndre Ayton to headline a stellar crop of recruits joining a veteran roster. Among the returners with breakout potential are Dusan Ristic and Parker Jackson-Cartwright, and reserve Keanu Pinder has high upside.
The Wildcats have not been to the Final Four since losing the 2001 national championship game. Four Pac-12 championships and three Elite Eight trips under head coach Sean Miller have fans and pundits alike antsy for Arizona to get back to the Final Four. The pressure is on, as UA will likely enter this comings season as the No. 1 team in the nation.
2. Kansas Jayhawks
Key Returners: Devonte' Graham, Svi Mykhailiuk, Lagerald Vick
Departures: Frank Mason III, Josh Jackson, Carlton Bragg, Landen Lucas
New Arrivals: Billy Preston, Marcus Garrett, Charlie Moore, Sam Cuncliffe, Dedric Lawson, K.J. Lawson
Buzz: Despite losing some playmakers critical to Kansas' success last sesason — namely Oscar Robertson Player of the Year Frank Mason III and freshman phenom Josh Jackson — the Jayhawks have reloaded nicely.
Transfers play a key role in Bill Self's new-look roster. Charlie Moore (Cal) joined Memphis transfers Dedric and K.J. Lawson in April, while former Arizona State guard Sam Cuncliffe pledged his commitment to the Jayhawks in the winter. All four can make an instant impact alongside returning leaders Devonte' Graham and Svi Mykhailiuk. Add talented freshmen Billy Preston and Marcus Garrett, and Kansas has all the makings of a Final Four team.
3. Michigan State Spartans
Key Returners: Miles Bridges, Nick Ward, Tum Tum Narin, Cassius Winston
Departures: Eron Harris, Alvin Ellis
New Arrivals: Jaren Jackson, Xavier Tillman
Buzz: Michigan State took its share of lumps in the 2016-17 season. However, the hard knocks Tom Izzo's squad endured as part of relying on a three-man freshman corps bolster the Spartans for a potential national title run.
Miles Bridges spurned the NBA draft, giving the Spartans a potential All-American around which to build. Bridges averaged 16.9 points and 8.6 rebounds in his impressive debut campaign. Fellow first-year star Nick Ward and Cassius are also back, giving Michigan State its own Big Three. Freshman Jaren Jackson makes it a Big 4.
Jackson's one of the most highly touted recruits ever to sign with Izzo's Spartans. Along with Ward and Bridges, he gives Michigan State arguably the best frontcourt in college basketball.
4. Duke Blue Devils
Key Returners: Grayson Allen, Marques Bolden
Departures: Amile Jefferson, Luke Kennard, Jayson Tatum, Harry Giles III, Frank Jackson
New Arrivals: Trevon Duval, Gary Trent Jr., Wendell Carter, Alex O'Connell
Buzz: Despite the exodus out of Durham this offseason, Mike Krzyzewski positions Duke in familiar territory as a Final Four contender. The incoming recruiting class is on par with the 2014 bunch that won a national championship, and perhaps the most impressive all-around since Coach K landed Elton Brand, Shane Battier and William Avery two decades ago.
Trevon Duval signed late in the spring to cap a recruiting class already featuring 5-stars Gary Trent Jr. and Wendell Carter. With veteran Grayson Allen opting to return for his senior season, Duke has an experienced presence to complement the youthful talent up and down the roster.
5. Kentucky Wildcats
Departures: Malik Monk, De'Aaron Fox, Isaiah Briscoe, Derek Willis, Dominique Hawkins, Mychael Mulder, Bam Adebayo
New Arrivals: Hamidou Diallo, P.J. Washington, Nick Richards, Quade Green, Jemarl Baker, Jarred Vanderbilt, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander
Buzz: John Calipari loses great players. John Calipari adds great players. The circle of college basketball continues. Despite freshmen phenoms De'Aaron Fox and Malik Monk leaving as expected, and big man Bam Adebayo opting for the pros, Kentucky replenishes its ranks with a stellar signing class.
Hamidou Diallo's flirtation with the NBA — he met the age requirement despite having not played in college — came to an end at the deadline. He'll wear Kentucky blue, and figures to be an immediate star for a Wildcat team with a much different, but ultimately still Final Four-quality look.
6. Wichita State Shockers
Key Returners: Darral Willis, Shaquille Morris, Markis McDuffie, Landry Shamet, Zach Brown
Buzz: Any threat of taking a step back from last season's 31-win finish at Wichita State was diminished when both Shaq Morris and Markis McDuffie opted to return for another campaign. The duo leads one of the most veteran squads in college basketball, and the immediate favorite to win the American Athletic Conference in the Shockers' first season as a member.
Gregg Marshall's team ranked No. 8 in the nation per KenPom.com metrics last season, and boasted a No. 13 ranking in both defensive and offensive efficiency. With so much veteran presence back, Wichita States will make a serious run for No. 1 — both analytically, and by more traditional metrics.
7. Louisville Cardinals
Key Returners: Deng Adel, Quentin Snider, Ray Spalding, Anas Mahmoud
Departures: Mangok Mathiang, Tony Hicks, Jaylen Johnson, Donovan Mitchell
New Arrivals: Brian Bowen, Malik Williams, Darius Perry, Jordan Nwora, Lance Thomas
Buzz: Even with Donovan Mitchell and Jaylen Johnson opting to say in the NBA draft, the Cardinals are in good shape entering this season after picking up two big pieces in the spring.
One is Deng Adel, the Australian forward who made big strides last season and chose to return to school. Should he continue his upward trajectory, he'll be a breakout star in the coming season. Louisville also appears virtually guaranteed to add 5-star prospect Brian Bowen, who enrolled for classes (though has not signed a letter of intent as of this writing).
Bowen would join a class featuring potential instant-impact player Malik Williams.
8. Florida Gators
Key Returners: KeVaughn Allen, Chris Chiozza, Keith Stone, John Egbunu
Departures: Kasey Hill, Canyon Barry, Devin Robinson
New Arrivals: DeAundrae Bullard, Chase Johnson, Isaiah Stokes, Mike Okauru
Buzz: Florida came a few minutes away from reaching the 2017 Final Four. With the corps Mike White returns, and an impressive crop of newcomers, the Gators may well finish the job in 2018.
The Gators' foundation starts with veterans KeVaughn Allen and Chris Chiozza. Both impressed in the NCAA Tournament, with Allen in particular showing superstar potential. He'll land on some preseason All-America teams. John Egbunu returns from a knee injury to solidify the Gators' interior.
9. North Carolina Tar Heels
Key Returners: Joel Berry II, Theo Pinson, Luke Maye, Kenny Williams, Brandon Robinson
Departures: Kennedy Meeks, Isaiah Hicks, Nate Britt, Justin Jackson, Tony Bradley
New Arrivals: Jalek Felton, Garrison Brooks, Sterling Manley, Andrew Platek, Brandon Huffman
Buzz: Early departures and graduations hit defending national champion North Carolina hard, though not as dramatically as they could have. While Justin Jackson opted to remain in the NBA draft pool, and Kennedy Meeks' would-be post successor Tony Bradley also exited UNC, the Tar Heels return guards Joel Berry II and Theo Pinson.
Berry and Pinson will lead an impressive kiddie corps. Guard Jalek Felton and Berry should complement each other nicely, with either able to produce points. Power forward Garrison Brooks signed in May. He'll fill the void Meeks left in the middle, which Bradley originally appeared positioned to step into.
10. Xavier Musketeers
Key Returners: Trevon Bluiett, J.P. Macura, Sean O'Mara, Kaiser Gates
Departures: Edmond Sumner, RaShid Gaston, Malcolm Bernard
New Arrivals: Paul Scruggs, Naji Marshall, Elias Harden, Jared Ridder, Brady Ernst, Kentrevious Jones
Buzz: Trevon Bluiett is back, solidifying an impressive starting lineup for possible Big East Conference Xavier. The Musketeers regrouped from a midseason stumble in 2017 to reach the Elite Eight, and have the core pieces back to build off that run.
The addition of 4-star recruits Paul Scruggs and Naji Marshall further stocks what could be Chris Mack's most talented team in his time as Xavier head coach.
11. West Virginia Mountaineers
Key Returners: Esa Ahmad, James Bolden, Jevon Carter, Daxter Miles
Departures: Tarik Phillip, Teyvon Myers, Nathan Adrian
New Arrivals: Derek Culver, De'Angelo Hunter, Teddy Allen, Brandon Knapper, Wesley Harris
Buzz: Bob Huggins returns a veteran roster to employ his physical, defensive-minded approach. Jevon Carter's decision to return to Morgantown sets the stage for a teamt that was a 2017 Sweet 16 participant and the nation's No. 4 defense per KenPom.com adjusted efficiency metrics.
Carter and fellow returner Daxter Miles were West Virginia's only double-digit scorers last season. However, James Bolden could be a potential breakthrough performer. He connected on 45 percent of his 50 3-point attempts.
12. Cincinnati Bearcats
Key Returners: Jacob Evans, Kyle Washington, Quadri Moore, Jarron Cumberland, Gary Clark, Tre Scott
Departures: Troy Caupain
New Arrivals: Keith Williams, Trevor Moore, Eliel Nsoseme
Buzz: Jacob Evans' decision to put off the NBA fortifies Cincinnati as Wichita State's primary challenger in the suddenly top-heavy American Athletic Conference. The Bearcats also have the makings of a possible Final Four team.
Evans rejoins Kyle Washington and Jarron Cumberland from a 30-win lineup a season ago. An effective 3-point shooter (42 percent on 165 attempts), Evans provides an offensive spark to complement the Bearcats' tenacious D. UC ranked No. 5 nationally in opponent field-goal percentage a season ago, and the big man Washington rated as one of the nation's best defenders per KenPom.com.
13. USC Trojans
Key Returners: Elijah Stewart, Jordan McLaughlin, Nick Rakocevic
Departures: Charles Buggs
Wild Cards: Bennie Boatwright, De'Anthony Melton, Chimezie Metu, Shaqquan Aaron
New Arrivals: Charles O'Bannon Jr., Jordan Usher, Victor Uyaelunmo
Buzz: Andy Enfield may have benefited more from the extended NBA draft deadline than any other head coach in the nation. USC is loaded with key returners from a team that came just a few possessions shy of advancing to the Sweet 16. Bennie Boatwright, Chimezie Metu, Shaqquan Aaron and De'Anthony Melton all return to the fold, joining Jordan McLaughlin and Elijah Stewart to form one of the most veteran lineups in the nation.
The addition of highly touted freshman Charles O'Bannon solidifies the Trojans' depth, and reserve Nick Rakocevic showed breakout potential in an NCAA Tournament win over Providence.
Initial expectations for Enfield's crew are high — some outlets rank USC has high as No. 5 heading into the summer. That may be a bit optimistic, though it points to the very real sky-high ceiling of the 2017-18 Trojans.
14. UCLA Bruins
Key Returners: Thomas Welsh, Aaron Holiday, G.G. Goloman
Departures: Lonzo Ball, T.J. Leaf, Isaac Hamilton, Bryce Alford, Ike Anibogu
New Arrivals: Jaylen Hands, Kris Wilkes, Jalen Hill, LiAngelo Ball, Cody Riley, Chris Smith
Buzz: UCLA blended one-and-done talent with established playmakers nicely last season, seemingly giving Steve Alford a recipe for success. So long as the veterans who should return do, UCLA has the makings of a similar roster in 2017-18. Thomas Welsh and Aaron Holiday were key role players last season, poised to become leaders in the next campaign.
They join the nation's No. 2-ranked recruiting class, headlined by 5-star prospects Kris Wilkes and Jaylen Hands. Wilkes and Hands should transition into the roles T.J. Leaf and Lonzo Ball occupied a season ago, and local prospect Cody Riley could be a significant force on the interior at 6-foot-7 and about 240 pounds.
15. Miami Hurricanes
Key Returners: Bruce Brown, Ja'Quan Newton, Dewan Huell, Dejan Vasiljevic
Departures: Davon Reed
New Arrivals: Lonnie Walker, Chris Lykes, Deng Gak, Sam Waardenburg
Buzz: A top 10-ranked recruiting class joins an established corps of veterans at Miami, making for an intriguing dark-horse contender in next season's loaded ACC race. Jim Larranaga scored his first major win of the offseason early, when Bruce Brown declared he would return.
Incoming freshman Lonnie Walker could be an instant force for the Hurricanes. The McDonald's All-American guard is an athletic slasher — just the kind of playmaker who thrives in Larranaga's system. He'll also adds versatility to an already-impressive defense, which ranked No. 25 nationally for adjusted efficiency in 2016-17.
16. Villanova Wildcats
Key Returners: Mikal Bridges, Jalen Brunson, Donte DiVincenzo, Eric Paschall, Phil Booth
Departures: Josh Hart, Kris Jenkins
New Arrivals: Dhamir Crosby-Roundtree, Jermaine Samuels, Collin Gillespie
Buzz: Josh Hart and Kris Jenkins were the heart and soul of the last two, outstanding Villanova teams. Their departures leave a considerable void, but talented duo Mikal Bridges and Jalen Brunson stand ready to fill that void.
Both opted to return after testing the NBA draft process. Brunson evolved into arguably the most dangerous player on Villanova's roster a season ago, and Bridges has the tools to be a breakout star.
Jay Wright adds a potential future star in Dhamir Crosby-Roundtree, an elite-level local prospect with the ability to make an immediate splash. Villanova also gets back Phil Booth, who missed all but three games in 2016-17 due to injury. Booth was a surprise star of the Wildcats' national title win over North Carolina two seasons ago.
17. Minnesota Golden Gophers
Key Returners: Jordan Murphy, Nate Mason, Amir Coffey, Eric Curry, Dupree McBrayer
Departures: Akeem Springs
New Arrivals: Isaiah Washington, Jamir Harris
Buzz: Minnesota's surprising season came a year ahead of schedule. The overachieving Golden Gophers of a season ago look like potential Big Ten contenders in 2017-18, bringing back just about every key component from the previous campaign's run.
Jordan Murphy and Nate Mason are both early challengers for Big Ten Player of the Year as the established leaders for Richard Pitino's squad. Highly regarded 4-star freshman Isaiah Washington could provide additional firepower.
18. Notre Dame Fighting Irish
Key Returners: Bonzie Colson, Matt Farrell, Temple Gibbs, Rex Pflueger
Departures: V.J. Beachem, Steve Vasturia, Matt Ryan
New Arrivals: D.J. Harvey
Buzz: Mike Brey scored a major victory when talented Bonzie Colson announced his intention to return to Notre Dame for another season. Colson will contend for ACC Player of the Year as the centerpiece of a veteran team.
Notre Dame currently has just one recruit coming in, but he's a good one: 4-star D.J. Harvey. Don't be surprised to see the Fighting Irish add another to fill the void left by Matt Ryan, who is transferring.
19. Seton Hall Pirates
Key Returners: Angel Delgado, Khadeen Carrington, Desi Rodriguez, Myles Powell
Departures: Madison Jones
New Arrivals: Myles Cale, Jordan Walker, Sandro Mamukelashvili, Darnell Brodie
Buzz: Big man Angel Delgado returns for his senior season, giving Seton Hall a potential Big East Player of the Year candidate, and making the Pirates challengers for the conference title.
Delgado led the nation in rebounds a season ago, while also showing off an improved offensive repertoire. He'll be the centerpiece of the Pirates' attack, but don't sleep on Khadeen Carrington. The fellow senior is a reliable 3-point shooter. Should top-100 recruit Myles Cale add additional scoring pop, look out. He would give the Pirates a dangerous three-man rotation on the perimeter, along with senior forward Desi Rodriguez.
20. Purdue Boilermakers
Key Returners: Vince Edwards, Isaac Haas, Carsen Edwards, P.J. Thompson, Dakota Mathias
Departures: Caleb Swanigan
New Arrivals: Nojel Eastern, Eden Ewing, Matt Haarms, Aaron Wheeler, Sasha Stefanovic
Buzz: Had All-American forward Caleb Swanigan opted to return, Purdue would have had a very strong case for No. 1. As it stands, though, head coach Matt Painter still has a team capable of making a run at top honors in the Big Ten.
Purdue gets back both Vince Edwards and Isaac Haas, who tested the NBA draft waters. Edwards has continuously improved in his Boilermaker career, and is on the precipice of being a star performer. Haas is a reliable post presence. Joined by promising newcomers Nojel Eastern and Eden Ewin, Haas could be the centerpiece of one of the better frontcourts in college basketball.
Carsen Edwards provided a huge boost in his freshman season. If veterans P.J. Thompson and Dakota Mathias make strides as key contributors, Purdue will be a dangerous team to watch this season.
21. Saint Mary's Gaels
Key Returners: Jock Landale, Emmett Naar, Calvin Hermanson, Jordan Ford, Stefan Gonzalez
Departures: Joe Rahon
New Arrivals: Kristers Zoriks
Buzz: A Top 25 team for most of the 2016-17 season, Saint Mary's retains all but one key piece to last season's success. West Coast Conference Defensive Player of the Year Joe Rahon is difficult to replace, but big man Jock Landale — arguably the most improved player in the nation a season ago — and guard Emmett Naar give Saint Mary's plenty of experience to build around.
The veteran core might make Saint Mary's the favorite in the West Coast Conference, and arguably the best mid-major conference team in all of college basketball next season.
22. SMU Mustangs
Key Returners: Shake Milton, Jarrey Foster
Departures: Semi Ojeleye, Sterling Brown, Ben Moore
New Arrivals: Akoy Agau William Douglas, Ethan Chargois
Buzz: SMU won 30 games and the American Athletic Conference championship in Tim Jankovich's first season. Replicating those feats makes for a difficult encore, but SMU could be in a more favorable position come 2018 NCAA Tournament time, nonetheless.
SMU was a victim of the selection committee's evaluation of the AAC. The arrival of Wichita State and Cincinnati reloading gives the league three Top 25-caliber teams entering 2017-18 — and SMU will indeed keep pace with those other two. The foundation was set in May with Shake Milton opting to return for another season, and Georgetown transfer Akoy Agau landing at SMU.
23. Gonzaga Bulldogs
Key Returners: Johnathan Williams, Josh Perkins, Silas Melson
Departures: Nigel Williams-Goss, Zach Collins, Przemek Karnowski, Jordan Mathews
Buzz: Departures hit 2017 national runner-up Gonzaga hard. Jordan Mathews and Przemek Karnowski graduate, while All-American Nigel Williams-Goss and supremely talented Zach Collins opted for early entry into the NBA draft. As it stands, the Zags may not even be the preseason favorite to win the West Coast Conference.
Nevertheless, Johnathan Williams — who enjoyed a star turn in the NCAA Tournament — provides a talented cornerstone around which to rebuild. Underrated wings Josh Perkins and Silas Melson also are back in the fold.
24. Northwestern Wildcats
Key Returners: Bryant McIntosh, Dererk Padron, Isiah Brown, Vic Law, Scottie Lindsey
Departures: Nathan Taphorn, Sanjay Lumpkin
New Arrivals: Anthony Gaines
Buzz: Reaching the first NCAA Tournament in program history wasn't the culmination of head coach Chris Collins' efforts. Northwestern is primed for big things, beginning with a Top 25-caliber team this season.
Guard Bryant McIntosh headlines the veteran roster, which also returns promising post player Dererk Padron, and athletic swing man Scottie Lindsey.
25. Michigan Wolverines
Key Returners: Moritz Wagner, Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, Duncan Robinson
Departures: Zak Irvin, Derrick Walton Jr., D.J. Wilson
New Arrivals: Jordan Poole, Isaiah Livers, Eli Brooks
Buzz: Michigan's run through the Big Ten Tournament and subsequent dash to the Sweet 16 — which came one basket shy of extending into the Elite Eight — earned the Wolverines a spot in the top 20 of the final KenPom.com rankings. Not bad for a team that began March very much on the bubble.
The question looming for Michigan ahead of 2017-18: Was the Michigan team that nearly reached the Elite Eight the real Wolverines? Or was the squad that was on the outside looking in ahead of the Big Ten Tournament a more accurate representation? The answer likely lies somewhere in the middle.
Moritz Wagner showed superstar potential late in the season, particularly in a Round of 32 upset of Louisville. He's back, joined by defensive stopper Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman.
— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.
Texas’ schedule does new head coach Tom Herman no favors in his first season with the Longhorns. In addition to the Big 12’s round-robin slate, his team has a road date with USC and a home game against an improving Maryland program.
It sounds like a can’t-lose scenario from a perception standpoint for Herman. Unfortunately for his team, there are plenty of can-lose games on the docket this year. Here are the Longhorns’ 12 regular season contests ranked from easiest to most challenging.
12. Sept. 9 vs. San Jose State
UT needs to make the most of this home date with the Spartans, the only non-conference reprieve on the schedule this year. SJSU will actually have an extra game under its belt at this point thanks to an Aug. 26 tilt with South Florida. That shouldn’t stop Texas from making quick work of new head coach Brent Brennan’s team.
11. Nov. 11 vs. Kansas
Insert joke here about not getting distracted by the fact that Texas lost to the Jayhawks last year. If anything, that should actually help the ‘Horns stay focused for this visit from KU, a perennial cellar dweller in the Big 12.
10. Nov. 24 vs. Texas Tech
Kliff Kingsbury could use a turnaround this fall to solidify his hold on his job. Texas, however, could put a nail in his coffin in the season finale at Darrell K. Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium.
9. Sept. 2 vs. Maryland
Herman would surely prefer a gimme in his debut game, but taking on a solid Maryland squad to start the season does have some advantages. Primarily, it forces the ‘Horns to stay focused in preseason practice. It also provides a decent barometer to help Herman and his staff see what they’re really working with.
8. Oct. 28 at Baylor
You’ll find more than a few fans from around the American Athletic Conference who will tell you that Baylor actually hired the better coach from their ranks this offseason. Herman holds a 1-0 head-to-head advantage over Matt Rhule from their days at Houston and Temple, but Rhule managed to win 20 games at Temple in the last two seasons. Anyone familiar with the Owls’ history knows that’s a huge accomplishment.
The Bears are going through their own rebuild, but Waco has become one of the most inhospitable environments in the Big 12.
7. Sept. 28 at Iowa State
A Thursday night game in Ames – hard to imagine anything weird happening, right? The last time Texas traveled to Jack Trice Stadium, the Longhorns came away 24-0 losers. It was one of only three wins for Paul Rhoads in what turned out to be his final season as the Cyclones’ head coach.
ISU started a new era last year under Matt Campbell. His team played hard, even if it didn’t have many wins to show for it. This season, the ‘Clones will almost assuredly sneak up and bite someone in the Big 12. Texas seems as likely of a candidate as any.
6. Nov. 18 at West Virginia
The Mountaineers enjoy a formidable home-field advantage in the remote confines of Milan Puskar Stadium in Morgantown. They also appear to have the Longhorns’ number, winning three of five matchups since WVU joined the Big 12. Notably, the ‘Eers throttled UT the last time the two teams met on WVU’s turf, 38-20.
Texas also has to guard against the letdown factor playing a week after the revenge game versus Kansas.
5. Oct. 7 vs. Kansas State
Speaking of having Texas’ number...
The Wildcats have beaten the Longhorns in five of their last seven meetings, and each win has come by an average of nearly 14 points. A year ago, UT enjoyed a turnover margin of plus-three against KSU - and still lost.
K-State comes to Austin a week before the Oklahoma game, which sounds like a perfect opportunity for Bill Snyder to spring a trap on the ‘Horns. On the other hand, if Texas gets a W, that may give the team a little extra confidence heading into the grudge match in Dallas.
4. Nov. 4 at TCU
TCU head coach Gary Patterson seems to take a special measure of satisfaction in whooping the Lone Star State’s 800-pound gorilla. The Horned Frogs have won their last three matchups against Texas by 22, 43 and 38 points. Two of those games took place at DKR.
This game comes on the back half of consecutive road games, which ups the degree of difficulty a smidge for UT, and Patterson will have his team way up emotionally for this one.
3. Oct. 21 vs. Oklahoma State
Even though OSU has to come to Austin, that hasn’t fazed the Cowboys lately. Mike Gundy’s team has won four consecutive times at Texas.
If the Longhorns want to end that streak, they will need to do better than allowing the Pokes to gain nearly eight yards per play, as was the case a season ago. OSU isn’t losing much in the way of firepower from last year’s squad.
As an added bonus, UT gets this game the week after OU.
2. Oct. 14 vs. Oklahoma (Cotton Bowl)
Talk about a segue. The Red River Revolving Name isn’t necessarily Texas’ toughest game every year. But it’s still the most important.
Despite their overall putridity in the last four years, the Longhorns are in the middle of strong run of games against their blood rivals. In addition to upsetting OU in 2013 and ‘15, they played to the wire in ‘14 and ‘16.
Herman had his Houston team psyched to play the Sooners last season. If he can coax the same kind of effort out of his new outfit, UT has a good chance to knock off the consensus Big 12 favorite again.
1. Sept. 16 at USC
The first road game of Herman’s tenure will find his team at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum for a date against ballyhooed USC. The ‘Horns will almost certainly be kicking off in prime time so keeping players’ emotions in check could be tough.
For the Longhorns to pull off this upset, Texas needs to figure out how to slow down USC quarterback Sam Darnold and his array of weapons. That’s a tall order for a team that is adjusting to a new coaching staff.
— 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 American Athletic Conference leads the way among Group of 5 leagues, with USF entering 2017 as the clear favorite. The Bulls are the predicted champion by Athlon Sports, and coach Charlie Strong’s team has a good shot at an undefeated record. Defending AAC champion Temple and UCF are the top challengers to USF in the East Division. The race to win the West Division is crowded at the top. Houston, Navy and Memphis each have a strong argument for the No. 1 spot, while Tulsa and SMU aren’t far behind.
Here are five key storylines or discussions that shaped Athlon’s American Athletic Conference predictions for 2017:
1. USF’s Run to an Undefeated Regular Season
Selecting USF as the American Athletic champion for 2017 was one of the easier picks during Athlon’s prediction meetings. The Bulls won 18 games over the last two seasons and returns much of that core this fall. Leading the way is senior quarterback Quinton Flowers, who should be a dark horse Heisman contender after accounting for 42 total scores in 2016. Flowers will have a new backfield mate after running back Marlon Mack left for the NFL, but the Bulls have a couple of talented options, including redshirt freshman Elijah Mack and senior D’Ernest Johnson. New coach Charlie Strong should help a defense that surrendered 31.6 points a game last fall. USF returns nine starters on this side of the ball, including standout tackles Deadrin Senat and Bruce Hector, along with linebacker Auggie Sanchez. The Bulls are loaded with talent on both sides of the ball and could be favored in all 12 regular season games. Even if this team stumbles once in conference play, USF should be the top Group of 5 program in 2017.
2. Temple vs. UCF
Deciding between Temple and UCF for the No. 2 spot was the toughest prediction in Athlon’s AAC projections. The Owls are the defending back-to-back champs of the division, but this team has a new coach (Geoff Collins) and returns eight overall starters. Quarterback Philip Walker and defensive end Haason Reddick leave big shoes to fill on both sides of the ball. While the losses are heavy, Collins isn’t inheriting an empty cupboard. Running back Ryquell Armstead is a rising star, the receiving corps is one of the best in the conference, and the defense has plenty of young talent to prevent much of a drop in production. Behind first-year coach Scott Frost, UCF was one of the nation’s most-improved teams last fall. The Knights went from 0-12 in 2015 to 6-7 in 2016, and Frost should be able to build on his debut thanks to nine returning starters on offense. Sophomore quarterback McKenzie Milton needs to take the next step in his development, but UCF is loaded at the skill positions, and the line should improve with three returning starters. Just like Temple, UCF’s defense is also in rebuild mode. The Knights return only four starters – all in the front seven. Alabama transfer Shawn Burgess-Becker is a name to watch in the secondary. The winner of the Nov. 18 game between these two teams in Philadelphia is likely to decide second place in the division.
3. Analyzing the West Division Favorites
It’s a three-team debate at the top of the West Division. Houston, Navy and Memphis each received consideration for the projected division champion in Athlon’s prediction meeting. The Tigers eventually emerged as the pick, but only one game separates the Midshipmen and Cougars in the projected standings. Memphis should be explosive on offense thanks to the return of quarterback Riley Ferguson and one of the league’s top receiving corps. The biggest concern for the Tigers is on defense, especially in a secondary that returns only one starter. Coach Mike Norvell’s team won’t have to play USF in crossover play but does have road trips to Tulsa and Houston. Navy’s 10 returning starters are the fewest of any team in the West Division. However, coach Ken Niumatalolo will ensure little drop off. Quarterback Zach Abey gained valuable experience late last season and now steps into the full-time role. Abey can lean on a strong backfield tandem of fullback Chris High and running back Darryl Bonner, along with one of the league’s top offensive lines. The Midshipmen do have a few holes to fill on defense with just five returning starters. Despite coach Tom Herman leaving for Texas, Houston is still equipped to win the league title. Texas A&M transfer Kyle Allen is eligible at quarterback, and tackle Ed Oliver is among the nation’s best defensive players. Assuming new coach Major Applewhite has a smooth transition into the full-time job, a schedule that features home games against Memphis and Navy could be the difference in a tight division.
4. Tulsa and SMU
The tough debates in the American Athletic Conference’s West Division extend outside of the top three. Tulsa checks in fourth in the projected standings, while SMU is one spot behind in fifth. If one of the top three teams stumbles more than expected, don’t be surprised if the Mustangs or Golden Hurricane jump into the mix. SMU is loaded with potential on offense in coach Chad Morris’ third year on campus. The Mustangs are led by All-America candidate Courtland Sutton at receiver, while 1,000-yard rusher Braeden West leads the way on the ground. In order for SMU to challenge the top teams in the West, improving the defense is a priority. The Mustangs gave up 36.3 points per game last fall. The schedule isn’t too daunting, as UConn, Cincinnati and UCF are the three crossover games with the East, and Tulsa visits Dallas in late October. The Golden Hurricane have thrived under coach Philip Montgomery, but this team has a few significant personnel concerns to address. Quarterback Dane Evans expired his eligibility, and redshirt freshman Luke Skipper and sophomore Chad President finished spring locked into a tight battle for the No. 1 spot. Additionally, top receivers Keevan Lucas and Josh Atkinson must be replaced, and the defense suffered a few key losses in the front seven. SMU and Tulsa could be two of the league’s more entertaining teams to watch in 2017 – and both are potential sleepers to watch in the division title picture.
5. Cincinnati and Tulane
Looking for two teams that could exceed preseason expectations? Take a look at Tulane and Cincinnati. The Green Wave finished 4-8 in coach Willie Fritz’s debut last year but lost four games by 10 points or less. Tulane should feature one of the league’s top defenses, and the offense will take a step forward behind new quarterback Jonathan Banks. The former Kansas State signal-caller is a perfect fit for Fritz’s offense, and this unit will benefit from another offseason to work in this scheme. Cincinnati has missed out on a winning record just twice since 2006, with one of those coming last season (4-8). New coach Luke Fickell certainly knows the terrain thanks to extensive ties to the state of Ohio as an assistant with the Buckeyes. A fresh start under Fickell should provide a spark for this team, and Cincinnati still has a solid core of talent. With Ohio State transfer Torrance Gibson likely to redshirt, Hayden Moore and Ross Trail will battle for the starting quarterback job. In addition to finding a quarterback, the defense needs to take a step forward after giving up over 400 yards per game in 2016. Also in the East Division, East Carolina is relying on three graduate transfer – quarterback Thomas Sirk, running back Tyshon Dye and end Gaelin Elmore – for improvement after finishing 3-9 in coach Scottie Montgomery’s debut in 2016. UConn hired a familiar face (Randy Edsall) to lead the program after dismissing Bob Diaco last season. Edsall won 74 games from 1999-10 and inherits a program with 13 returning starters for 2017. The hire of Rhett Lashlee to call plays should provide some immediate help for an offense that averaged just 14.8 points per game in 2016. While the offense may struggle, the defense should be a strength.
AAC 2017 Unit Rankings
American Athletic Conference 2017 Football Predictions
|Rank||Team||Projected AAC Record||Projected Overall Record|
|Rank||Team||Projected AAC Record||Projected Overall Record|
American Athletic Conference Championship Game
|USF over Memphis|
AAC 2017 Superlatives and Season Predictions
|Coach of the Year||
|Coach on Hot Seat||None||None||None|
|Memphis DB||Houston OL||USF RB|
|Best Coordinator Hire||
|Coach on the Rise||
Ranking the American Athletic Conference Coaches for 2017
1. Ken Niumatalolo, Navy
2. Philip Montgomery, Tulsa
3. Charlie Strong, USF
Ranking the American Athletic Conference Quarterbacks for 2017
1. Quinton Flowers, USF
2. Riley Ferguson, Memphis
3. Kyle Allen, Houston
Grading the American Athletic Conference New Coach Hires for 2017
1. Randy Edsall, UConn (B)
2. Geoff Collins, Temple (B-)
3. Luke Fickell, Cincinnati (B-)
4. Major Applewhite, Houston (C+)
The ACC stuffed the trophy case last season and claimed the top spot among college football’s conferences. Clemson defeated Alabama for the national title, Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson won the Heisman Trophy, Florida State defeated Michigan in the Orange Bowl, and 11 teams finished with a winning record. Additionally, the ACC capped a strong regular season by claiming nine bowl victories
There’s little reason to doubt this league will be back near the top of the pecking order once again in 2017. Athlon’s predictions place Florida State and Miami as the favorites to win the divisions and rematch in Charlotte in early December to decide the conference title. However, Clemson is once again a playoff contender, Virginia Tech is a close No. 2 behind Miami in the Coastal, and with Jackson leading the way, Louisville is a top 25 team.
Here are five key storylines or discussions that shaped Athlon’s ACC predictions for 2017:
1. Clemson vs. Florida State
With Deshaun Watson taking snaps in the NFL, the balance of power in the ACC is likely to swing back to Florida State. The Seminoles return one of the league’s top quarterbacks in Deondre Francois, along with a defense that should be among the nation’s best with nine returning starters. Additionally, this unit will get a boost with safety Derwin James – arguably the top defensive player in college football – back from a knee injury. The biggest question marks surrounding coach Jimbo Fisher’s team remain in the trenches and depth at receiver. The schedule also works against Florida State. The Seminoles play Alabama to open the year, along with road trips to Clemson (Nov. 11) and Florida (Nov. 25). The Tigers also have their share of obstacles in the schedule, as a non-conference date against Auburn and a road trip to Blacksburg to play Virginia Tech won’t be easy. But Clemson’s hopes of a repeat bid to the CFB Playoff rest with the development of the quarterbacks. Kelly Bryant closed spring as the No. 1 option, but true freshman Hunter Johnson will make a push in the fall. The offense is likely to take a small step back without Watson, but the Tigers are loaded once again on defense. Even if Clemson regresses in the win column, don’t expect too big of a drop. Despite the Clemson-Florida State matchup in Death Valley this year, Athlon likes the Seminoles to regain control of the Atlantic Division.
2. Miami vs. Virginia Tech
Deciding between Miami or Virginia Tech for the top spot in the Coastal Division was the toughest debate of Athlon’s ACC predictions. Both teams bring similar strengths to the table this fall. The Hokies and Hurricanes should rank near the top of the conference in defense, but both could start a freshman quarterback in the opener. Miami is in slightly better shape in terms of skill talent, and these two teams are relatively even up front on the offensive line. Whichever team finds the right mix on offense early in the 2017 season is likely to hold a slight edge for the top spot. Both teams have difficult crossover matchups. The Hurricanes have to play Florida State, and the Hokies host Clemson in late September. However, the defacto Coastal title game between Miami and Virginia Tech is at Hard Rock Stadium on Nov. 4. That could be the difference in the Coastal Division race.
3. North Carolina’s Rebuilding Effort
As evidenced by our staff picks below, North Carolina was one of the toughest teams to get a read on this offseason. The Tar Heels suffered some significant personnel losses. On offense, quarterback Mitch Trubisky, running backs T.J. Logan and Elijah Hood, receivers Ryan Switzer and Bug Howard, along with three key linemen have all departed Chapel Hill. The rebuilding effort starts with LSU transfer Brandon Harris under center, while Auburn transfer Stanton Truitt could provide some punch at running back or receiver. Two graduate transfers – Cam Dillard (Florida) and Khaliel Rodgers (USC) – should help in the trenches. That’s a lot of new faces to blend on offense in just one offseason. The defense returns six starters and could be the strength of this team. New coordinator John Papuchis inherits some solid pieces in the front seven, while cornerback M.J. Stewart should push for All-ACC honors. This unit has to get better against the run after giving up 227.3 yards per game in 2016. In addition to all of the roster turnover, North Carolina plays at NC State and catches Louisville in crossover play. The Tar Heels also have road trips to Georgia Tech and Pitt – two key swing games. That’s a lot of question marks for Larry Fedora’s team, pushing North Carolina to fifth in our Coastal picks.
4. Can Louisville Challenge Clemson or Florida State?
While Florida State and Clemson enter 2017 with better overall rosters than Louisville, Bobby Petrino’s team has the ultimate equalizer: Lamar Jackson. The dynamic junior helped the Cardinals outgain ACC opponents by 255.3 yards per game last season and is capable of another monster statistical season. But in order for the Cardinals to catch the top teams in the Atlantic Division, Jackson needs more help from his supporting cast. Louisville’s offensive line surrendered 47 sacks last year and remains a concern. Last season’s leading rusher (Brandon Radcliff) and key receiving targets James Quick, Cole Hikutini and Jamari Staples departed Louisville. The skill players will be missed, but the Cardinals have a collection of promising options ready to step up. But the play of the offensive line – especially against the Seminoles and Tigers – is crucial to cutting the gap in the Atlantic. Peter Sirmon replaced Todd Grantham as the program’s defensive coordinator, and he’s tasked with simplifying things for a unit that ranked 31st nationally in scoring defense last fall. Seven starters return on defense, and linebacker Trevon Young is slated to return after missing 2016 due to injury. Another key component to Louisville’s hopes of winning the Atlantic: Turnover margin. The Cardinals ranked 107th nationally by posting a minus-seven margin in 2016.
Related: ACC 2017 All-Conference Team
5. Dark Horse Teams to Watch
While Virginia Tech and Miami earned the top spots in Athlon’s Coastal Division predictions, keep an eye on Georgia Tech and Pitt. The Yellow Jackets showed marked improvement after a 3-9 record in 2015, defeating eventual Coastal champ Virginia Tech 30-20 and finishing with a 9-4 overall record. Coach Paul Johnson’s team returns 17 starters, including breakout star Dedrick Mills at running back. Can the Yellow Jackets find the right answer under center and improve a defense that ranked 10th in the ACC against the run? Considering how tight the Coastal Division usually is, Pitt’s schedule should allow for coach Pat Narduzzi’s team to hang around in the title picture. The Panthers don’t have to play Louisville, Clemson or Florida State – the top three teams from the Atlantic. But Narduzzi’s team isn’t without question marks. Pitt has a new play-caller (Shawn Watson) on offense, a transfer (Max Browne) stepping in at quarterback, and the defense surrendered 35.2 points per game last fall. In the Atlantic Division, NC State is the dark horse team to watch. The Wolfpack are strong on the line of scrimmage, feature a returning starter (Ryan Finley) at quarterback, and feature one of the nation’s most underrated players in all-purpose threat Jaylen Samuels. NC State has to play at Florida State, but Louisville and Clemson come to Raleigh.
ACC 2017 Unit Rankings
ACC Football 2017 Predictions
|Rank||Team||Projected ACC Record||Projected Overall Record|
|Rank||Team||Projected ACC Record||Projected Overall Record|
ACC Championship Game
|Florida State over Miami|
ACC 2017 Superlatives and Season Predictions
|Coach of the Year||
|Coach on Hot Seat||
|Sleeper Team||NC State||NC State||NC State|
|Florida State OL||Florida State OL||Florida State OL|
|Best Coordinator Hire||
DC, Wake Forest
DC, Wake Forest
|North Carolina||North Carolina||North Carolina|
|Coach on the Rise||
Florida State at
Florida State at
Florida State at
Ranking the ACC Quarterbacks for 2017
1. Lamar Jackson, Louisville
2. Deondre Francois, Florida State
3. Eric Dungey, Syracuse
Ranking the ACC Coaches for 2017
1. Jimbo Fisher, Florida State
2. Dabo Swinney, Clemson
3. Bobby Petrino, Louisville
Kentucky finally ended an extended postseason drought and a second straight bowl invite could be in the offering this fall. Head coach Mark Stoops has the bulk of his offense returning and with improved quarterback play and a more reliable passing game, the Wildcats could be quite dangerous on that side of the ball. The defense is in pretty good shape at linebacker and in the secondary, but question marks abound up front.
Previewing Kentucky Football’s Offense for 2017
A year after Kentucky amassed the second-most rushing yards in program history (3,044), the offense figures to be run-heavy once again in 2017 with 2016 Freshman All-American Benny Snell taking over the starting job. With Boom Williams having entered the NFL Draft, it seems unlikely the Wildcats will boast two 1,000-yard rushers again, but junior Sihiem King and redshirt freshman A.J. Rose offer the speed needed to complement Snell’s power running style.
Quarterback Stephen Johnson took complete ownership of the team during spring practice after leading the Wildcats to seven wins in 11 games as the No. 1 quarterback. Former starter Drew Barker is expected to be healthy again by the fall, but it would be a surprise to see anyone other than Johnson start the season opener. Johnson’s ability to improve his ball security (he lost six fumbles in 2016) and intermediate passing game will go a long way to determining if the offense can be more balanced moving forward.
The offensive line could be among the best in the league even after replacing four-year starting center Jon Toth. Several veteran wide receivers return, led by seniors Garrett Johnson and Dorian Baker, but someone will need to step up to replace the big-play threat of Jeff Badet, who transferred to Oklahoma after ranking sixth in the country in yards per catch. The receivers as a whole need more consistency.
Previewing Kentucky Football’s Defense for 2017
The secondary leads the way with All-SEC contender Mike Edwards at safety and two-year starters Chris Westry and Derrick Baity at cornerback. Junior weak-side linebacker Jordan Jones was among the most productive defensive players in the league last season with 109 tackles (15.5 tackles for a loss) in his first year as a starter, and coaches believe he has the potential for even more.
Junior outside linebackers Denzil Ware and Josh Allen should account for much of Kentucky’s pass rush, but if the defense is going to take a significant step forward in 2017 it will need major improvements from the defensive line. After Jimmy Brumbaugh left for Maryland, Stoops turned to former North Texas assistant Derrick LeBlanc to coach the line in hopes a new voice would spark players such as former five-star recruit Matt Elam to better performances this fall. If those veterans don’t step up, several 2017 signees may be asked to contribute immediately.
Previewing Kentucky Football’s Specialists for 2017
After battling injuries as a sophomore, former All-SEC kicker Austin MacGinnis returned to form in 2016 and should be among the best in the country as a senior. Kentucky hopes the addition of Columbia University graduate transfer Matthew Panton will push sophomore punter Grant McKinnis, who ranked last in the SEC in yards per punt in 2016. The return game could be more aggressive under new special teams coordinator Dean Hood.
Kentucky ended its six-year bowl drought last season with a bid to the TaxSlayer Bowl, and with the bulk of its offense and defense returning the Wildcats seem poised for a special season by the program’s middling historic standards. If Stephen Johnson can build on the momentum of his outstanding performance in the upset of Louisville in the 2016 regular-season finale, there’s plenty of talent around him for the offense to make up for some of the defense’s deficiencies. If the defense improves as well, the Wildcats could be a dark horse candidate in the SEC East race.
National Ranking: 45
SEC East Prediction: 5
Everyone in Nashville is in hockey mode right now. That includes the fights.
Rex and Rob Ryan were seen eating shortly before a scuffle occurred. The cause of the fight is not yet known.
Video from a bar scuffle in Nashville involving Rex and Rob Ryan... pic.twitter.com/DXtVNkiPxo— Tom Martin (@4TomMartin) June 5, 2017
Hopefully this won't impact the city's perception of the brothers.
Iowa won eight games last season, but got blown out by Florida in the Outback Bowl and struggled in general to move the ball and put points on the scoreboard. Head coach Kirk Ferentz overhauled his coaching staff in the offseason, turning the offense over to his son, Brian, who has a 1,000-yard rusher returning and a veteran offensive line, but will be breaking in a new starting quarterback. The defense is anchored by one of the nation’s best linebackers, but will need new playmakers to emerge up front and in the secondary. Between the coaching changes and unknowns throughout the roster, the Hawkeyes probably won’t be much of a threat in the Big Ten West this season.
Previewing Iowa Football’s Offense for 2017
Change was the theme on offense during the offseason. Iowa has a new offensive coordinator with Brian Ferentz replacing Greg Davis, who retired from coaching shortly after last season. Brian Ferentz is the 34-year-old son of Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz and a former Hawkeye offensive lineman.
There is hope that Brian Ferentz will install an offense that tries to attack more downfield compared to Davis’ preference to use shorter routes.
Iowa also has a new quarterbacks coach in Ken O’Keefe and will have a new starting quarterback with the C.J. Beathard era now over. The competition between sophomore Nathan Stanley and junior Tyler Wiegers was unsettled after spring practice.
Receiver is a major concern. Senior receiver Matt VandeBerg missed all of spring practice after reinjuring the same foot that caused him to miss the final nine games last season. His availability will be crucial as Iowa breaks in a new quarterback. The team’s second-most experienced receiver, junior Jerminic Smith, was suspended from spring practice because of academic shortcomings and left the team in early May.
What hasn’t changed much is the strength up front. Iowa returns five starters from a unit that won the Joe Moore Award as the nation’s top offensive line last season.
Senior running back Akrum Wadley also returns after rushing for 1,081 yards (on a 6.4-yard average) last season.
Previewing Iowa Football’s Defense for 2017
But on the flipside, Iowa has to replace three starters in the secondary, including 2015 Jim Thorpe Award winner Desmond King, and All-Big Ten defensive tackle Jaleel Johnson, who was a disruptive force last season.
Sophomore cornerback Manny Rugamba showed star potential while starting three games last season. He had an interception in the second half against Michigan that helped to secure the 14–13 upset.
Senior Nathan Bazata also returns at defensive tackle, where he has started in each of the past two seasons. Bazata isn’t quite as dynamic as Johnson, but he’s effective when healthy, especially against the run.
Previewing Iowa Football’s Specialists for 2017
Keith Duncan will forever hold a special place in the history of Iowa football thanks to his game-winning field as time expired against Michigan. The biggest concern with Duncan at this stage is his range. He made his only field goal attempt from beyond 40 yards last season as Iowa usually opted to punt or use backup kicker Miguel Recinos on long field goals. Sophomore Colten Rastetter is the leading candidate to take over at punter.
There is lot to be encouraged about on both offense and defense, but for every strength, there seems to be a matching weakness. Iowa is loaded on the offensive line and also has a star running back in Wadley. But there is little proven depth at receiver, and none of the quarterbacks has started a game. Combine that with having to replace three starters in the secondary, along with the starting punter, and much of the team is unproven at this point.
The schedule also could be tricky as Iowa hosts a respectable Wyoming team in the season opener before facing Iowa State in Ames. Ohio State also returns to the schedule for the first time since 2013.
A winning record coupled with yet another bowl game appearance seems within reach. But Iowa has too many uncertainties at this stage to be considered a contender in the Big Ten West Division.
National Ranking: 44
Big Ten West Prediction: 4
Nebraska improved its win total by three games in head coach Mike Riley’s second season, but the Cornhuskers stumbled towards the end, losing four of their final six contests. This season is shaping up to be somewhat of a transitional one with a new quarterback and defensive coordinator taking over and a total of 12 starters returning. Nebraska should be able to stay in the hunt in the Big Ten West Division, but winning it may be too much to expect with all of the turnover.
Previewing Nebraska Football’s Offense for 2017
With the departure of Tommy Armstrong Jr., who started more games than any quarterback in Husker history, the offense will be different — more like what coach Mike Riley ran at Oregon State, with fewer designed quarterback runs. “We want a passer,” Riley says. “If that guy can run, too, that’s really good.” But passing is the priority. Tulane transfer Tanner Lee provides that, as does redshirt freshman Patrick O’Brien. Lee has starting experience, however, which gives him the advantage. Don’t expect 35 drop-back passes per game. Riley’s system is controlled passing.
Nebraska must run the ball better, which might be accomplished by committee, at least early on. The three returning running backs had fewer carries combined than last year’s starter, Terrell Newby. Devine Ozigbo got far and away the most of that group. Tre Bryant is the best blocker, which is an important consideration, while Mikale Wilbon might be the most elusive runner.
The receiving corps was depleted by graduation, but Stanley Morgan Jr. and De’Mornay Pierson-El are proven playmakers. Four of five offensive linemen who started the Music City Bowl return.
Previewing Nebraska Football’s Defense for 2017
Mick Stoltenberg is 20 to 25 pounds heavier than a year ago and has the strength to play nose tackle. Carlos Davis, another 300-pounder who saw significant playing time with four starts at tackle as a redshirt freshman, is alongside Stoltenberg.
Diaco is working with the linebackers, along with Trent Bray, and is counting on Dedrick Young II and Marcus Newby to provide leadership at a position with talented but inexperienced youngsters and players adjusting to new roles in the 3-4.
The Huskers are deepest on defense in the secondary, with Joshua Kalu, Chris Jones, Aaron Williams and Kieron Williams leading the way. Kieron Williams, the top returning tackler and leading interceptor last season, has been pushed by talented young safeties.
Previewing Nebraska Football’s Specialists for 2017
Riley also fired special teams coordinator Bruce Read, with whom he had worked for 16 years, and now handles special teams by committee. Placekicker Drew Brown is a rather ordinary 17-of-24 from 40 to 49 yards in his career. Punter Caleb Lightbourn expected to redshirt as a freshman but stepped in following the death of Sam Foltz just before the start of fall camp in 2106. Lightbourn, who averaged 39.7 yards, needs to be more consistent.
The Huskers improved from 6–7 to 9–4 in Riley’s second season, although the improvement could be partially attributed to better breaks. Plus, the four losses came in the final six games. After battling Wisconsin to overtime, they lost at Ohio State 62–3, at Iowa 40–10 and to Tennessee in the Music City Bowl 38–24, allowing a combined 1,519 yards of offense in those games, leading to Banker’s firing. A year ago, Riley fired defensive line coach Hank Hughes. Despite his nice-guy personality, Riley has shown a hard edge in trying to get this team to where he wants it.
Nebraska hasn’t won a conference championship since 1999 and has played in only one Big Ten Championship Game — a 70–31 loss to Wisconsin in 2012. With so many changes on offense, defense and special teams, the Huskers would seem to be long shots to play in a second this season.
National Ranking: 43
Big Ten West Prediction: 3
How fast did Deion Sanders really run the 40-yard dash at the 1989 NFL Combine?
The tall tale of Deion Sanders’ 40-yard dash raced back into the news this year when Washington receiver John Ross broke the official NFL Combine record, with a blazing 4.22 in the 40-yard dash — besting the previous record of 4.24, held by Chris Johnson since 2006. Yet some people insist that Deion is the “unofficial” record-holder.
“In 1989, the Combine was nothing like it is today,” Sanders told NFL Network. “I wanted to go to the Combine to prove everything you heard was true. It was no doubt that I was going to run the 40, and I was going to break the 40 record. That’s all I came for. I don’t even believe I stretched. You know why? Because I’ve never seen a cheetah stretch before he go get his prey.”
No one doubts Deion’s speed, but according to Charley Casserly — who was at the 1989 Combine as the Redskins’ GM — Sanders’ official times (from his only run, hand-timed on four different stop watches) were 4.27, 4.27, 4.29 and 4.33.
Has there ever been a No. 1 overall NBA Draft pick whose college team had a losing record in his final season?
Anything can happen on draft night (June 22), but Washington combo guard Markelle Fultz has been viewed as the consensus top prospect for much of the scouting process, despite leading the Huskies to a 9–22 record in his lone season in Seattle — UW’s fewest wins since 1994-95. Fultz would become the first No. 1 overall pick coming off a losing season since LaRue Martin led the Loyola (Ill.) Ramblers to an 8–14 mark before becoming the top pick of the Portland Trail Blazers in 1972.
In fact, since the NCAA Tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985, only two collegiate No. 1 picks failed to lead their teams to the Big Dance, Pacific’s Michael Olowokandi (Clippers, 1998) and LSU’s Ben Simmons (76ers, 2016). In contrast, 10 of 27 top picks from the Field-of-64 (and Field-of-68) era led their teams to the NCAA title game at some point during their collegiate career.
Of the five non-college players selected No. 1 during that time, only Georgia high schooler Kwame Brown (Wizards, 2001) failed to win a championship in his respective league the season before being drafted. Historically, the No. 1 overall pick has a winning, if not championship, track record before arriving on the NBA scene. Fultz is a definite statistical outlier.
A giant statue of Miles the Monster adorns the outside of Dover International Speedway. It’s a tribute to a nickname for this NASCAR racetrack that once treated half the field like lunch meat due to its tricky concrete surface.
Ten years from now, don’t be surprised if there’s a second statue getting erected next to Miles. That’s because of all NASCAR’s top drivers, only one has been able to stand up to him a record 10 times – Jimmie Johnson.
As the influence of Miles has waned – last year’s 18-car accident has been an anomaly at Dover as of late – the strength of Johnson at this track has remained legendary. He’s got a 33.3 percent win rate (or one out of every three starts) and has earned a top-10 finish 70 percent of the time.
The last two seasons, though have been a challenge for a team that’s been dominant here. Mechanical failures and wrecks not of their making have led to just one win and 117 laps led in the four most recent races. In some organizations, they’d beg to have those types of numbers.
For Johnson and Co.? It’s a borderline failure.
All these trends point in the direction of a rebound this weekend at Dover. After a near-miss in the Coca-Cola 600, Johnson showed the team’s capable of championship-level speed and has already won twice this season. Dover also is an important early test, a look at a playoff track where the No. 48 team will have to be on top of their game in a few short months.
Hall of Fame-level drivers are experts at turning disappointments into dominating victories the next weekend. Don’t expect Johnson to start up front but you’re a fool if you think he won’t be a factor by the time these 400 laps are up.
AAA 400 Drive for Autism
Time: 1 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Track: Dover International Speedway (Dover, Del.)
TV: FOX Sports 1
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who’s at the Front: Austin Dillon
Dillon’s surprise victory has been swept under the radar this week due to other off-track storylines. It shouldn’t be. The victory was momentous for a fourth-year Cup driver who finally got over the Earnhardt hump driving the legendary No. 3 car. Leading the last two laps due to pit strategy, Dillon had just enough extra fuel to outlast the rest of the pack.
The win wiped out a sorry start for a team that is already on its third crew chief through 12 races. (Full-timer Slugger Labbe, after a one-race internal suspension for a post-race inspection failure, left RCR last month). Middle-class RCR is now overachieving, locking two of their three cars in the playoffs at a time other, bigger organizations (see: Joe Gibbs Racing) have no wins yet this season.
Who’s at the Back: Chase Elliott
Ruh-roh. Is one of the sport’s super sophomores, oh-so-close to his first victory this season headed towards a slump instead? Elliott’s pretty much already there, earning four straight finishes outside the top 20 and cratering with Sunday’s ugly wreck after sliding through debris in the Coca-Cola 600.
Last summer, he went through a similar funk as a rookie but had enough cushion to make the playoffs. Wins like Dillon’s, though mean a little less postseason protection in 2017 should Elliott shovel deeper into this hole.
Jeffrey Earnhardt surprised observers Friday morning with an unexpected sponsorship announcement with Hulu. The streaming company is going to back his small-time No. 33 Chevrolet for 19 of 24 regular-season races the rest of the year. Will this be the funding needed to boost the next-generation Earnhardt into contention?
On the other side of the coin, Kasey Kahne found out this week he’s losing Great Clips as a sponsor at the end of the season. The news means at least 22 races of inventory need to be sold for Hendrick Motorsports’ No. 5 car next season. The veteran is signed through 2018 but the contract could get bought out if financial backing becomes an issue.
Overnight ratings for both the Indy 500 and Coca-Cola 600 were down 13 percent. It was a disappointing result to swallow after Memorial Day Sunday, always one of the biggest racing weekends of the year.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Laps led by Kyle Busch, the second most of any driver in Cup this season aside from Martin Truex Jr. Busch, though has yet to win a points-paying Cup event in 2017.
Laps led by Kasey Kahne since the 2016 Daytona 500. The Hendrick Motorsports driver went through the entire 2016 season without leading a lap.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
Johnson. Johnson. Johnson. Need we say more?
If, for some reason you’re unable to go with the No. 48 team, hometown boy Martin Truex Jr. would run a close second. He’s got two wins at the track, including last season and hasn’t run lower than 11th with his current No. 78 program at FRR.
Kyle Larson, still in the middle tier for some fantasy programs, was fastest in practice Friday and is entering the weekend a bit of a favorite. Considering what happened last spring, when he led 85 laps and nearly ran down winner Matt Kenseth, it’s a smart move to put Larson on the roster. Charlotte’s struggles last week should be an anomaly.
I’d also throw some momentum behind the Austin Dillon camp. He earned his first-ever top-10 finish at Dover (seventh) in a Cup race last fall. The average finish is not so attractive but we’ve seen a win do wonderful things for drivers in the series. Look at Ricky Stenhouse Jr., riding a top-15 finish streak after his surprise spring win at Talladega.
Chris Buescher ran 18th and 23rd last year for an underfunded program in Front Row Motorsports. This year, the money and equipment is slightly better so you might be able to squeeze out a better result. He’s the best in a field of shoddy candidates unless you want to take a flier on the rookies: Ty Dillon, Daniel Suarez, or Erik Jones.
What Vegas Thinks
Kyle Larson and Martin Truex Jr. lead the way amongst oddsmakers with 5/1 bets according to Vegas Insider. Jimmie Johnson runs close behind at 11/2.
What I Think
How many times have we seen Johnson dominate here? It may take awhile for the No. 48 team to get up front but I’m not going to bet against them.
(Photo by ASP Inc.)
College football’s 2017 season starts on Aug. 26 and concludes with the national championship on Jan. 8 in Atlanta. The season is still a few months away, but it's never too early to project and rank college football's top 25 teams.
Each season brings plenty of surprises, disappointments and unexpected teams emerging in the national title picture, but a familiar program tops Athlon's rankings. Alabama is the projected national champion, while two other teams - Washington and Ohio State - join Florida State to round out the CFB Playoff picks.
The Athlon Sports 2017 preview magazines are slated to arrive on newsstands on Tuesday, May 23 and feature in-depth predictions, previews, rankings and insightful stories to prepare for the upcoming year. All five regional - ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC - and national preview editions can be ordered from Athlon Sports' online store.
Here's Athlon’s projected top 25 teams in college football. This ranking takes into account where we think teams will finish after the national championship in January.
College Football Top 25 for 2017
25. Virginia Tech
After an appearance in the ACC Championship Game and a 10-win 2016 season, coach Justin Fuente will once again have the Hokies in the mix to win the Coastal Division. The second-year coach is regarded for his work on offense, especially at the quarterback position. Fuente will be tested once again this season, as Jerod Evans left early for the NFL, and standout receiver Isaiah Ford and tight end Bucky Hodges are also at the next level. Redshirt freshman Josh Jackson closed spring ball with an edge at quarterback, with junior college recruit A.J. Bush and true freshman Hendon Hookier fighting for snaps. The battle will resume in the fall, but the Hokies have to find playmakers around receiver Cam Phillips, along with generating more production from the ground game. A defense that returns seven starters should be among the best in the ACC. Cornerback Greg Stroman and linebacker Tremaine Edmunds should challenge for All-America honors on a unit that allowed only 22.8 points per game last year. The opener against West Virginia at FedEx Field should give some early insight into the quarterback situation. However, it’s likely Virginia Tech’s hopes of another division title rest with the Nov. 4 trip to Miami.
The Bulls are not only Athlon's pick to win the American Athletic Conference, but this team is also the projected top Group of 5 program for 2017. New coach Charlie Strong inherits a strong foundation from former coach Willie Taggart, starting with dynamic quarterback Quinton Flowers. As a junior in 2016, Flowers threw for 2,812 yards and 24 scores and accounted for 1,530 yards and 18 touchdowns on the ground. Standout running back Marlon Mack departed early for the NFL and will be missed. However, D’Ernest Johnson, Darius Tice and redshirt freshman Elijah Mack should be a capable trio to handle the carries. The Bulls also must replace left tackle Kofi Amichia and leading receiver Rodney Adams. The defense gave up 31.6 points per game last season but should improve with nine returning starters, including standouts Auggie Sanchez (LB), Deadrin Senat and Bruce Hector (DL) and Deatrick Nichols (CB). Strong’s arrival and background on this side of the ball should also help USF’s defense take a step forward. The schedule for USF is favorable. The Bulls could be favored in all 12 regular season games and host Temple, Houston and Tulsa.
It’s a close call for the top spot in the ACC’s Coastal Division, but Athlon gives the nod to Miami. The biggest offseason question mark for coach Mark Richt remains at quarterback. Brad Kaaya departed early for the NFL, leaving junior Malik Rosier, true freshmen N’Kosi Perry and Cade Weldon and sophomore Evan Shirreffs as the top contenders for the No. 1 spot. Rosier has one career start, but he may not hold onto the job for long if Perry shows a good grasp of the offense in fall workouts. Regardless of which quarterback starts, expect to see plenty of running back Mark Walton, along with emerging star Ahmmon Richards at receiver. Until the pieces fall into place on offense, the Hurricanes can lean on a defense that returns seven starters from a group that limited opponents to just 18.5 points per game in 2016. The line has a chance to be among the best in the nation, and the starting trio of linebackers will be better in 2017 after getting significant playing time as true freshmen. The secondary is the biggest concern for defensive coordinator Manny Diaz. Road trips to Florida State, Pitt and North Carolina will be challenging in conference play. However, Miami hosts Virginia Tech on Nov. 4 – a game that could decide the Coastal Division winner.
22. Kansas State
Bill Snyder’s team is always dangerous in the Big 12 and could be a dark horse to contend for the conference title in 2017. Kansas State returns a good chunk of its core from a team that won nine games last season. Quarterback Jesse Ertz headlines the offense, and he’s surrounded by breakout candidates in receiver Byron Pringle and running back Alex Barnes. The Wildcats also return three starters from an offensive line that should be one of the best in the Big 12. Replacing standout linebacker Elijah Lee and end Jordan Willis are the biggest concerns on defense. This unit led the Big 12 in scoring defense last year (22.3 ppg) but shouldn’t slip too far despite losing Lee and Willis. End Reggie Walker anchors the line after recording 6.5 sacks as a freshman last season, while cornerback D.J. Reed – the Big 12’s Defensive Newcomer of the Year in 2016 – leads the way in the secondary. The Wildcats have to play at Oklahoma State and Texas, but Oklahoma visits Manhattan on Oct. 21.
New coach Willie Taggart inherits a promising core of young talent for his first season in Eugene. Although the Ducks are coming off their first losing record since 2004, a quick rebound should be in order. Quarterback Justin Herbert threw for 1,936 yards and 19 touchdowns as a true freshman last fall and is surrounded by a strong supporting cast that features running back Royce Freeman and receivers Darren Carrington and Charles Nelson. The Ducks also went with a youth movement in the trenches last season and this unit is slated to return four starters from the final two-deep. Additionally, left tackle Tyrell Crosby returns after missing nearly all of 2016 due to injury. Scoring points won’t be a problem for Taggart’s team, but the defense needs to take a step forward if Oregon wants to challenge Stanford or Washington in the Pac-12 North. The good news? Taggart hired standout coordinator Jim Leavitt away from Colorado and has plenty of experience at all three levels of the defense returning for 2017. Sophomore linebacker Troy Dye is one of the Pac-12's rising stars on defense, and the addition of Clemson graduate transfer Scott Pagano provides a boost up front. The Ducks also catch a break in scheduling by missing USC in crossover play, while Washington State and Utah visit Eugene.
20. Notre Dame
Yes, Notre Dame finished 4-8 in 2016. However, the Fighting Irish lost seven of those games by eight points or less and finished No. 29 in the F/+ ratings. While there is certainly cause for concern in South Bend, coach Brian Kelly hired two standout coordinators this offseason (Chip Long on offense and Mike Elko on defense), and there’s a good core of talent in place. A quick rebound back to a winning record should be in order for 2017. New quarterback Brandon Wimbush ranked as the No. 45 overall recruit in the 247Sports Composite and is a breakout candidate this fall. Running back Josh Adams (933 yards) just missed on a 1,000-yard season last year and will be joined by Dexter Williams to form an effective one-two punch in the backfield. Torii Hunter Jr. elected to skip his final year of eligibility for baseball, but the Fighting Irish have a capable group of targets. Equanimeous St. Brown (58 catches) is back as the team’s leading receiver, with Kevin Stepherson (18.5 ypc) and C.J. Sanders (24) headlining the secondary targets. Tight end Alize Mack (formely Jones) is back after a one-year suspension and could be a difference-maker. Mike McGlinchey and Quenton Nelson are All-America candidates up front and anchor a line that returns four starters. Improving the defense was Kelly’s top priority this offseason and the arrival of Elko should help this unit take a step forward. Most of last year’s depth chart returns intact, but linemen Isaac Rochell and Jarron Jones, linebacker James Onwualu and cornerback Cole Luke depart South Bend. The strength of this group is at linebacker, largely due to the play of senior Nyles Morgan. Cornerback Shaun Crawford and safety Nick Watkins are back from injury to bolster a secondary that allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete 61.7 percent of their throws last season. The schedule features 11 bowl teams (and Michigan State). However, games against Georgia, USC, Navy and NC State are in South Bend next season.
The Volunteers fell short of most preseason expectations of a SEC East title in 2016, but coach Butch Jones has still pieced together back-to-back nine-win seasons. In order for Tennessee to edge Florida and Georgia in the East this fall, this team has to navigate a schedule that features games at Alabama and Florida, while LSU and Georgia visit Neyland Stadium. The SEC slate presents its share of challenges, but the Volunteers also have some significant personnel concerns on both sides of the ball. There’s also a new play-caller on offense with Larry Scott taking over for Mike DeBord. Scott has two talented quarterbacks – Quinten Dormady and Jarrett Guarantano – at his disposal, with the battle for the starting job expected to continue into the fall. Junior John Kelly is due for a breakout year at running back, but depth is an issue at the position. Junior Jauan Jennings leads the way at receiver, but similar to the running back spot, the overall depth is a concern for Jones. The Volunteers also need more consistent play from their offensive line, with true freshman Trey Smith expected to play a key role this year. Injuries hit Tennessee’s defense hard in 2016, and this unit loses two standouts in end Derek Barnett and cornerback Cam Sutton. Considering all of the injuries this team dealt with on defense, the playing time by backups and new starters should improve the overall depth for this unit in 2017. Linebacker Darrin Kirkland should be the leader of the front seven for coordinator Bob Shoop. The success of the defense will largely hinge on the development of the line. Former top recruits Jonathan Kongbo, Shy Tuttle, Kahlil McKenzie and Kyle Phillips need to deliver on their potential.
After a dynamic sophomore campaign, quarterback Lamar Jackson hopes to take Louisville into contention for the CFB Playoff once again. He’s also back for another run at the Heisman after accounting for 3,543 yards and 30 touchdowns through the air and adding 1,571 yards and 21 scores on the ground last season. Jackson set the bar high last year and matching those totals in 2017 could be difficult. However, he’s the nation’s best playmaker and is only going to get better as a passer this fall. Jackson’s supporting cast features some new faces after the departure of running back Brandon Radcliff, receivers James Quick (45 catches), Jamari Staples (36) and tight end Cole Hikutini (50 catches). While those are big losses, the cupboard isn’t bare for coach Bobby Petrino. Jeremy Smith should be a capable fill-in at running back, with Reggie Bonnafon chipping in as an all-purpose threat, and Seth Dawkins, Jaylen Smith and Dez Fitzpatrick filling out the receiving corps. The biggest concern for Petrino’s offense remains up front. Left tackle Geron Christian is one of the ACC’s top linemen, but this unit surrendered 47 sacks in 13 games last fall. New coordinator Peter Sirmon inherits a defense that allowed only 23.8 points per game last season and returns a solid foundation with seven starters back. Senior linebacker Stacy Thomas and cornerback Jaire Alexander are two of the ACC’s top returning defenders. This unit could get a huge boost if senior Trevon Young returns to 100 percent after missing all of 2016 due to injury. A Week 3 showdown against Clemson is an early barometer test for Jackson and Louisville’s ACC title hopes.
Stanford has been a model of consistency under coach David Shaw. The Cardinal have won at least 10 games in five out of the last six seasons. Reaching that total in 2017 is within reach, as Stanford is the biggest threat to Washington in the Pac-12 North. Some mystery surrounds the quarterback position. Quarterback Keller Chryst suffered a knee injury in the Sun Bowl win over North Carolina and is on track to return by fall practice. If Chryst suffers any setbacks, Ryan Burns has starting experience, and redshirt freshman K.J. Costello was one of the top quarterbacks in the 2016 signing class. In addition to the quarterback uncertainty, the Cardinal have to replace running back Christian McCaffrey. While McCaffrey’s all-around versatility is unlikely to be matched by one player, the running back duo of Bryce Love and Cameron Scarlett should be a capable one-two punch on the ground. Trenton Irwin (37 catches) and JJ Arcega-Whiteside (15.8 ypc) are back to lead the receiving corps, while the offensive line returns four starters, including Nate Herbig and center Jesse Burkett. Solomon Thomas is a big loss for Shaw’s defense, but the secondary should be among the best in the nation with the return of cornerback Quenton Meeks and safety Justin Reid. Road trips to Washington State, Utah and USC are on tap, while Stanford hosts Oregon, UCLA and Washington next season.
The Gators have claimed back-to-back SEC East titles under coach Jim McElwain, and a third one is within reach. In order to edge Georgia for the division crown, improvement on offense is a must. Florida finished 100th nationally in scoring in 2015 and 107th in 2016. Luke Del Rio is the team’s most experienced quarterback and missed spring ball due to a shoulder injury. However, Del Rio was facing an uphill battle to hold onto the starting job, as redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks is the team’s most talented option under center and worked all spring as the No. 1 quarterback. He won’t have much time to grow into the job, as Florida takes on Michigan in its season opener, followed by a matchup against Tennessee in Week 3. Until the passing game develops, the Gators could lean heavily on running back Jordan Scarlett. Antonio Callaway anchors the SEC’s top receiving corps and should ease Franks’ transition into the No. 1 role. The offensive line should improve even though tackle David Sharpe left early for the NFL. McElwain has holes to fill on defense at each level and a new coordinator (Randy Shannon) calling the plays in 2017. Linebacker Jarrad Davis, safety Marcus Maye, lineman Caleb Brantley and cornerbacks Jalen Tabor and Quincy Wilson headline the key departures on defense. Despite losing a wealth of talent, this unit may not slip too far on the stat sheet. Cornerback Duke Dawson is an All-America candidate, and there’s plenty of promise in the front seven.
Related: Ranking the SEC Coaches for 2017
Kirby Smart’s debut (8-5) was a mild disappointment. But after losing three games by three points or less last season, the Bulldogs aren’t far from the top of the SEC East. With 11 returning starters on defense, and the continued development of Jacob Eason at quarterback, Georgia is Athlon’s pick to win the SEC East in 2017. Eason should benefit from a full offseason to work as the starter, and the backfield tandem of Nick Chubb and Sony Michel should ensure the ground game is among the best in the nation. The question marks on offense remain up front and outside with the receiving corps. Former No. 1 recruit Trenton Thompson had a breakout performance in the Liberty Bowl but was away from the team in the spring. The junior lineman is expected to return, providing Smart with a talented anchor to build around in the trenches. The linebacking corps is among the nation’s best, and three seniors lead the way in the secondary. The annual showdown against Florida in Jacksonville is likely to decide whether or not the Bulldogs win the SEC East.
14. Oklahoma State
The big-play connection of quarterback Mason Rudolph to wide receiver James Washington is more than enough to keep Oklahoma State in the hunt for the Big 12 title next year. The Cowboys also return promising running back Justice Hill (1,142 yards), and there’s optimism the offensive line will continue to improve behind guard Marcus Keyes and tackle Zach Crabtree. The post-spring addition of Cal graduate transfer Aaron Cochran was a huge boost for coach Mike Gundy’s offensive line. Washington has plenty of support at receiver. Jalen McCleskey returns after leading the team with 73 catches, Marcell Ateman returns from injury, and LSU transfer Tyron Johnson is eligible in 2017. This is the nation’s No. 1 receiving corps. The early departure of tackle Vincent Taylor was a setback for a unit already losing cornerback Ashton Lampkin, linebacker Jordan Burton and safety Jordan Sterns. Gundy also dipped into the graduate transfer ranks on defense, landing former Clemson cornerback Adrian Baker after spring ball. After finishing second in the conference in back-to-back years, the mission for 2017 is pretty simple: Win the Big 12. To do that, the Cowboys have to navigate road trips to Texas and West Virginia but host rival Oklahoma on Nov. 4.
The Longhorns won the offseason coaching carousel by bringing Tom Herman to Austin after a successful two-year run at Houston. The former graduate assistant under Mack Brown inherits a team that finished 5-7 last year but features plenty of promising pieces to build around on both sides of the ball. Shane Buechele returns as the team’s quarterback after throwing for 2,958 yards and 21 scores as a true freshman in 2016. Freshman Sam Ehlinger could push Buechele for the starting job in the fall, but the sophomore is expected to hold onto the top spot. Buechele will be throwing behind an offensive line that features four returning starters, including standout left tackle Connor Williams. Running back D’Onta Foreman (2,028 yards) is the biggest loss on offense. However, Chris Warren returns after missing most of 2016 due to injury. Sophomore Collin Johnson is expected to be the go-to target, with sophomore Devin Duvernay seeing an increased role. Improving the defense is a must for Herman, and the addition of coordinator Todd Orlando will pay dividends right away. This unit returns largely intact, but depth on the line is an issue after two players transferred in May. Linebacker Malik Jefferson seems primed to deliver a huge junior year. The schedule sets up favorably with Kansas State and Oklahoma State visiting Austin.
After facing one of the nation’s most difficult schedules in 2016, the 2017 slate for coach Paul Chryst and the Badgers is considerably easier. A crossover game against Michigan and a road trip to Nebraska are challenging, but Wisconsin won’t have to play Ohio State or Penn State from the East. And after coming up just short in the Big Ten title game last year, can Chryst’s team take the next step this fall? In order to knock off the East champion in Indianapolis, the Badgers need more consistency out of the passing game. The good news? Sophomore quarterback Alex Hornibrook is promising, and the receiving corps features All-America tight end Troy Fumagalli. Standout left tackle Ryan Ramczyk will be missed, but there’s plenty of experience and talent returning to keep the offensive line among the best in the Big Ten. The trio of Bradrick Shaw, Chris James and Taiwan Deal should be enough to compensate for the loss of running back Corey Clement. New defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard inherits a unit that allowed only 15.6 points per game last season. The Badgers don’t have many glaring weaknesses on this group, but linebackers T.J. Watt and Vince Biegel leave big shoes to fill. The return of Chris Orr and Jack Cichy from injury should alleviate some of the concern at linebacker. Hornibrook’s development is crucial for Wisconsin to climb higher in the top 25 this season.
Ed Orgeron’s first full season at the helm in Baton Rouge begins with a familiar question: What will LSU get out of its offense? It’s no secret the Tigers have one of the nation’s top running backs in Derrius Guice and a strong foundation to build around on the offensive line. New coordinator Matt Canada was one of the SEC’s top assistant hires for 2017, but this offense needs more from its passing attack. Danny Etling had offseason back surgery but will return in time for fall practice and is expected to hold onto the starting job. Etling’s performance is critical to LSU’s hopes of pushing Alabama in the SEC West. In addition to the concerns about quarterback production, there’s also uncertainty at receiver, as just one player (D.J. Chark) returns with more than 10 catches. LSU’s defense returns only four starters, but under coordinator Dave Aranda, this unit will be one of the best in the nation next fall. End/linebacker Arden Key could lead the SEC in sacks in 2017. Cornerback Donte Jackson should push for All-SEC honors, and true freshman JaCoby Stevens could see significant playing time at safety. Linebacker is Aranda’s biggest concern. Talent certainly isn’t an issue in Baton Rouge. However, the Tigers will only go as far as the quarterback play allows it to.
Jim Harbaugh has a major rebuilding project on his hands for 2017. However, thanks to back-to-back top-five recruiting classes, the Wolverines won’t be down for long. Quarterback Wilton Speight is back after a promising first year as the team’s starter. The receiving corps must be revamped, with incoming freshmen Donovan Peoples-Jones and Tarik Black likely to play a huge role in the passing game this season. The strength of the offense should be the ground game. Sophomore Chris Evans leads a talented group of running backs, with Ty Isaac, Kareem Walker and Karan Higdon providing support. The left side of the line should be anchored by Mason Cole and Ben Bredeson, but this unit did not perform well late in the 2016 campaign and remained a concern exiting spring ball. The Wolverines return only one starter – linebacker Mike McCray – on defense. But don’t expect this unit to slip on the stat sheet. Sophomore lineman Rashan Gary is a rising star, senior tackle Maurice Hurst is a candidate for All-America honors and the recent recruiting efforts should produce starting talent in the back seven. Matchups against Wisconsin and Penn State come on the road this year, but rival Ohio State visits Ann Arbor on Nov. 25.
The Tigers are the biggest threat to Alabama in the SEC. With the addition of former Baylor quarterback Jarrett Stidham, the offense now has a difference-maker under center to go with one of the conference’s top ground attacks. Stidham impressed this spring and possesses the arm strength and accuracy to open up the passing game downfield. He’s also surrounded by a cast of promising playmakers on the outside, including sophomore Nate Craig-Myers. Kamryn Pettway emerged as one of the SEC’s top running backs after posting 1,224 yards in 2016. He’s joined by Kerryon Johnson to form one of the league’s top tandems, while the offensive line is once again a strength with the return of three starters. Kevin Steele’s defense also is in good shape for 2017. Sophomore Marlon Davidson should fill the void left behind by Carl Lawson in the trenches, while the linebacker unit is anchored by Deshaun Davis and Tre Williams. Depth is an issue at safety, but cornerback Carlton Davis is one of the best in the SEC. A Week 2 road trip to Clemson is a huge opportunity to make an early statement, while contending in the West is likely to come down to an Oct. 14 road date at LSU and the Nov. 25 Iron Bowl.
The Sooners are aiming for a third consecutive Big 12 title and a berth in the CFB Playoff in 2017. But this task got a little harder in June, as coach Bob Stoops retired and handed over the keys to the program to offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley. He's one of the rising stars in the coaching ranks, but this will be Riley's first chance to be a head coach - at the age of 33. Quarterback Baker Mayfield leads the way for Oklahoma's high-powered offense. The senior has tossed 76 touchdown passes under Riley the last two years and returns as one of the front-runners to win the Heisman Trophy. Mayfield is supported by one of the nation’s top offensive lines, but question marks surround the receiving corps after losing Dede Westbrook. Who steps up to be the No. 1 receiver? Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon leave big shoes to fill at running back, but Rodney Anderson and Abdul Adams should be an effective one-two punch. The defense surrendered 28.8 points a game in 2016 but should improve on that total in 2017. Linebacker Jordan Evans was a big loss, and lineman Jordan Wade and Austin Roberts also expired their eligibility. However, standout pass rusher Ogbonnia Okoronkwo returns, and coordinator Mike Stoops has an emerging star in Caleb Kelly at linebacker. Steven Parker and Jordan Thomas return to anchor a secondary that showed improvement late in the 2016 season. Spring star Parnell Motley and the development of sophomore Jordan Parker adds to the talent on the back end. The path to a second playoff bid runs through road trips at Ohio State, Kansas State and Oklahoma State next season.
The defending national champs are due for a small step back in the rankings in 2017. However, as the No. 7 ranking indicates, Clemson is still one of the top contenders to earn a spot in the CFB Playoff. Considering the amount of talent leaving Death Valley – quarterback Deshaun Watson, receiver Mike Williams, linebacker Ben Boulware, cornerback Cordrea Tankersley and running back Wayne Gallman – it’s a testament to the job coach Dabo Swinney has done on the recruiting trail and in overall program development. A three-man competition to replace Watson is expected to extend deep into fall workouts. Junior Kelly Bryant is the front-runner, but true freshman Hunter Johnson is the name to remember. Left tackle Mitch Hyatt anchors a line that could be the best in the ACC this fall. While Williams and Artavis Scott will be missed on the outside, the receiving corps is still one of the deepest in the nation, headlined by Deon Cain and Hunter Renfrow. Similar to the offense, the defense has a couple of voids to fill this offseason. However, coordinator Brent Venables should quickly find the right answers to keep this unit performing at a high level. Ends Christian Wilkins and Clelin Ferrell, tackle Dexter Lawrence and linebacker Kendall Joseph are the anchors on defense next year. If Bryant, Johnson or Zerrick Cooper settles into the starting job, the Nov. 11 home game against Florida State could decide the ACC Atlantic title.
6. Penn State
The Nittany Lions were one of the nation’s most improved teams over the second half of 2016 and that momentum should carry into the '17 campaign. After just missing on a CFB Playoff berth last year, coach James Franklin’s team won’t have to go far in order to crack the top four. The defending Big Ten champions are loaded on offense with the return of quarterback Trace McSorley and running back Saquon Barkley. Wide receiver Chris Godwin left for the NFL draft, but tight end Mike Gesicki is a go-to target for McSorley and an All-America candidate for 2017. Even though Godwin is a big loss, Penn State should be fine at receiver with DaeSean Hamilton (34 catches), DeAndre Thompkins (27) and Saeed Blacknall (15). Additionally, sophomore Juwan Johnson had a breakout spring and is poised to take on a bigger role in 2017. An improving offensive line loses only one starter (Brian Gaia), and there’s plenty of depth with the return of Andrew Nelson and Brendan Mahon after both players missed significant time in 2016. The defense gave up 5.04 yards per play under first-year coordinator Brent Pry and returns a good chunk of talent. However, top cornerback John Reid was lost for the year due to a spring knee injury. One of Pry’s top offseason concerns is at defensive end following the departures of Garrett Sickels and Evan Schwan. Penn State’s toughest game is at Ohio State (Oct. 28), but Michigan (Oct. 21), Nebraska (Oct. 18) and Pitt (Sept. 9) all visit Happy Valley.
Related: Ranking the Big Ten Coaches for 2017
Thanks to the emergence of quarterback Sam Darnold, USC should be a playoff contender in 2017. Darnold’s play was a big reason why the Trojans showed marked improvement after starting 1-3 last season. As a redshirt freshman last year, he threw for 3,086 yards and 31 scores and added 250 yards and two touchdowns on the ground. Darnold is good enough to carry this team to a Pac-12 title on his own, but the supporting cast features a likely All-Pac-12 running back in Ronald Jones, as well as a solid group of receivers. The biggest concern on offense remains up front. Standout tackles Chad Wheeler and Zach Banner expired their eligibility, and guard Damien Mama left early for the next level. Projected starters Toa Lobendahn and Viane Talamaivao are recovering from injuries but will return for the start of the season. Coordinator Clancy Pendergast proved to be one of the top assistant hires of last offseason, as USC’s defense limited opponents to 24.2 points per game despite major question marks in the front seven. Pendergast will have a solid core in place for 2017, but tackle Stevie Tu’ikolovatu must be replaced, and cornerback Adoree’ Jackson decided to leave early for the NFL. This unit features an All-America candidate at linebacker in junior Cameron Smith, along with rising stars Rasheem Green (DL) and Iman Marshall (CB). The schedule features its share of challenges, starting with games against Stanford and Texas in September, along with road trips to Washington State, Notre Dame and Colorado.
Even though Chris Petersen has to replace a few key cogs from last season’s playoff team, Washington is primed for another run at the Pac-12 title and spot among the nation’s top four teams. Quarterback Jake Browning is back after throwing for 3,430 yards and 43 scores last season, but the junior has to find a new go-to target after the departure of receiver John Ross to the NFL. Dante Pettis (53 catches) moves into the No. 1 role, while the Huskies will be counting on bigger contributions from Chico McClatcher, Ty Jones, Aaron Fuller and Quentin Pounds in the receiving corps. The one-two punch of Myles Gaskin and Lavon Coleman provides plenty of balance and support on offense out of the backfield, while three starters are back on a standout line. The biggest concerns for a repeat trip to the CFB Playoff rest with a defense that loses standout safety Budda Baker, cornerbacks Kevin King and Sidney Jones and lineman Elijah Qualls. However, coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski is one of the best in the nation, and this unit is anchored by standout senior linebacker Azeem Victor. Junior Vita Vea leads the way up front, while the rebuilding effort in the secondary should be minimized thanks to the emergence of cornerbacks Jordan Miller and Byron Murphy in the spring, along with the return of rising star Taylor Rapp at safety. The schedule also sets up for anotherplayoff berth. Washington does not play USC in the regular season and hosts Oregon and Washington State. A trip to Stanford on Nov. 10 is the team’s toughest road test.
Related: Ranking the Pac-12 Coaches for 2017
3. Florida State
The balance of power in the ACC should shift back to Tallahassee in 2017. The Seminoles return nine starters from a defense that showed marked improvement over the second half of last year, and safety Derwin James is back after missing nearly all of 2016 due to a knee injury. James is arguably the best defender in college football. The line is overflowing with talent, as ends Josh Sweat and Brian Burns anchor a standout pass rush, and tackles Derrick Nnadi and Demarcus Christmas plug the interior. Cornerback Tarvarus McFadden is a lockdown cover man on the outside. Quarterback Deondre Francois threw for 3,350 yards and 20 touchdowns in an impressive freshman debut in 2016. Now as a sophomore, Francois is expected to take his game to the next level and help carry this team to a CFB Playoff berth. That’s certainly within reach for the sophomore, but he also needs more help from the offensive line and receiving corps. Receivers Nyqwan Murray and Auden Tate are primed for breakout seasons as the top targets for Francois. The big-play ability and production of running back Dalvin Cook will be missed. However, junior Jacques Patrick and five-star recruit Cam Akers are a capable tandem and should prevent any drop-off in ground game. Florida State will be tested right away with a matchup against Alabama in Atlanta to open the season. The Seminoles host Miami, NC State and Louisville in key conference games, but a matchup at Clemson and a road date at Florida will determine whether or not Fisher’s team can finish in the top four.
2. Ohio State
Considering Ohio State returned only six starters headed into 2016, a trip to the College Football Playoff was probably a year ahead of schedule for coach Urban Meyer’s team. Despite losing a few key pieces from last season’s team, the Buckeyes are primed for another run at the national title. In an effort to jumpstart the offense, coach Urban Meyer hired former Indiana coach Kevin Wilson to take over the play-calling duties. Wilson’s arrival is good news for quarterback J.T. Barrett, as the senior begins 2017 as one of the leading Heisman candidates. A big concern is finding playmakers at receiver, especially after Noah Brown and Curtis Samuel declared for the NFL draft. Junior Parris Campbell and sophomore Demario McCall are two players to watch in the passing game this fall. The offensive line loses standout center Pat Elflein, but guard Billy Price is expected to slide to the middle to fill the void. The strength of the defense will be in the trenches. This unit is headlined by All-America candidates Sam Hubbard, Tyquan Lewis and Nick Bosa, and rivals Clemson as the best in college football. Raekwon McMillan will be missed at linebacker, but Jerome Baker, Chris Worley and Dante Booker form a solid trio. For the second preseason in a row, uncertainty surrounds the Ohio State secondary. This unit lost cornerbacks Gareon Conley and Marshon Lattimore and safety Malik Hooker to the NFL. However, thanks to elite recruiting classes, the drop-off should be minimal. Junior college recruit Kendall Sheffield and incoming freshmen Jeffrey Okudah and Shaun Wade should make an instant impact, with junior Denzel Ward and safety Damon Webb back as the unit’s top veterans. Ohio State has to head to Michigan next year, but Penn State and Oklahoma visit Columbus.
Nick Saban’s team must replace a few key players from last season, but the Crimson Tide are once again the pick to win it all in 2017. The defense suffered key losses at each level, yet still figures to rank as the nation’s top unit. Nose guard Da’Ron Payne and end Da’Shawn Hand are the new leaders up front after Jonathan Allen expired his eligibility. The linebacker unit features three new starters, but the next wave of standouts is ready to emerge for the Crimson Tide. Seniors Shaun Dion Hamilton and Rashaan Evans lead this group for Saban, with Christian Miller and Anfernee Jennings slated to pick up the slack left behind by edge rushers Ryan Anderson and Tim Williams. True freshman Dylan Moses is another name to watch in this unit. The secondary is the strength of the defense. Marlon Humphrey departed early to the NFL, but seniors Anthony Averett and Tony Brown return at cornerback. The safety pairing of Minkah Fitzpatrick and Ronnie Harrison is the best in college football. Fitzpatrick’s versatility to play cornerback or safety is a huge asset for this defense. New play-caller Brian Daboll isn’t expected to make too many changes on offense, but he is tasked with helping quarterback Jalen Hurts develop more as a passer. Hurts’ dual-threat ability is no secret after rushing for just under 1,000 yards last fall. But the sophomore must become more consistent as a passer for this offense to improve in 2017. Hurts will be throwing to one of the nation’s best receiving corps. Junior Calvin Ridley will challenge for All-America honors, with seniors Cam Sims and Robert Foster and freshman Jerry Jeudy rounding out the key targets. Left tackle Jonah Williams anchors one of the nation’s best offensive lines, and the running back position is the deepest in college football. Bo Scarbrough came on strong at the end of 2016, and he’s joined by Damien Harris, Joshua Jacobs and five-star freshman Najee Harris as the key backfield pieces. Making it through the regular season undefeated won’t be easy, but Alabama is Athlon’s pick to hoist the national championship trophy in Atlanta on Jan. 8.
Who started the NHL’s playoff beard tradition?
According to hockey historians, the unofficial tradition of not shaving from the beginning of the NHL’s Stanley Cup Playoffs until your team is eliminated from the tournament was started by the New York Islanders around 1980. Members of the Islanders’ dynasty have pointed to four-time Stanley Cup champion Butch Goring as originator of a tradition that has since taken over all levels of hockey and spread across several other sports’ respective postseasons. Some players, like Penguins’ superstar center Sidney Crosby, struggle to grow a playoff beard. But others, like Predators’ thick-ginger-beard-sporting defenseman Ryan Ellis (pictured above), make the tradition a thing of beauty.
The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series heads to Dover International Speedway for the AAA 400 Drive for Autism Sunday at 1 p.m. ET. Cars will be on the track Friday morning for practice; Coors Light Pole Qualifying follows that afternoon.
ELITE TIER: $10,000 and up
Jimmie Johnson ($10,600)
Dover: 30 starts, 10 wins, 15 top fives (50 percent), 21 top 10s (70 percent)
Average finish at Dover: 9.5
Johnson has won four of the last 10 races held at Dover, his best track. He has 10 total wins, an all-time record along with 3,093 laps led. In three of those victories, he led over 240 laps.
In this race last year, Johnson was running inside the top 10 when he was involved in an 18-car wreck before the No. 48 could make a push to the front. He still managed to finish 25th. In the fall Dover race, he led 90 laps and wound up seventh.
Johnson has led laps in 27 out of his 30 starts at Dover, earning an average finish of 9.5. His starting position has not played a factor in how well the No. 48 runs on race day, so focus more on practice times than qualifying.
Kyle Larson ($10,300)
Dover: six starts, two top fives (33.3 percent), four top 10s (66.7 percent)
Average finish at Dover: 9.3
Last week was a disappointment for Larson. First, he failed to pass pre-qualifying inspection at Charlotte and had to start the race from 39th. Then, he clipped the wall not once, but twice on Sunday. That second hit ended his day. After all was said and done, Larson lost his points lead and dropped to second in the standings.
But Dover offers a chance for redemption. Larson was the runner-up in this race last season, leading 85 laps. He was running down Matt Kenseth for the win, but simply ran out of laps. With four top-10 finishes in six Dover starts, he remains one of the favorites to pick up the win on Sunday.
Brad Keselowski ($10,000)
Dover: 14 starts, one win, five top fives (35.7 percent), six top 10s (42.9 percent)
Average finish at Dover: 12.1
Keselowski has an average finish of 9.7 in the last 10 Dover races. He finished sixth in this race last season while leading 49 laps, and then ran fourth after starting from the pole last fall.
Keselowski will be looking to bounce back after his race ended prematurely last weekend in a bizarre wreck with Chase Elliott. Elliott’s car caught fire on the track after being damaged by debris, and as he was slowing down, Keselowski drove into the back of him at near full speed. He finished 39th, his worst result of the season.
ALL-STAR TIER: $8,000 – $9,900
Martin Truex Jr. ($9,900)
Dover: 22 starts, two wins, two top fives (9.1 pecent), 11 top 10s (50 percent)
Average finish at Dover: 14.2
Dover is Truex’s hometown track, a place where he has two career wins. One of those came in the fall race last season. He started on the outside of row one and led 187 laps.
Truex has five top-10 finishes in the last six Dover races and is the hottest driver on the circuit. He snagged the points lead with a third-place finish last weekend at Charlotte, leading 233 laps in yet another dominant Charlotte performance. If he can duplicate that success for another week, he'll wind up in Victory Lane and can extend his lead over Larson.
Chase Elliott ($9,600)
Dover: two starts, two third place finishes
Average finish at Dover: 3.0
In both of Elliott's third-place finishes, he finished ahead of his starting position. He started 13th in the spring race, and started ninth in the fall race.
He is currently on a three-race skid. His best finish within the past four races is 24th back at Richmond in week nine. On the bright side, his poor finishes at Talladega and Charlotte were a result of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Elliott has done well on short tracks this season with finishes of third at Martinsville, seventh at Bristol. Even though his Dover resume is small, it is impressive, and should give hope for Chase to recover from his recent struggles.
Joey Logano ($9,200)
Dover: 16 starts, three top fives (18.8 percent), 10 top 10s (62.5 percent)
Average finish at Dover: 13.4
Logano struggled at Dover over the first three years of his career, but has come around over the past 10 races. He has eight top-10 finishes over that span, and his worst performance is 22nd in the spring Dover race last season.
Since winning at Richmond, Logano has wrecked out of two of the last three races. Luckily for DraftKings players, Logano is the most consistent driver in recent Dover history. After some tough luck during the month of May, he is arguably the best bet at a top-10 finish this week.
BARGAIN TIER: $4,500 – $7,900
Dale Earnhardt Jr. ($7,800)
Dover: 33 starts, one win, seven top fives (21.2 percent), 12 top 10s (36.4 percent)
Average finish at Dover: 16.2
Earnhardt was another driver caught in the big wreck last spring at Dover. He finished 32nd. Before that race, his worst result in the past 10 Dover races was a 17th-place finish in 2014. He ended up third here in 2015, the closest he's come to Victory Lane.
Junior kept it clean and finished 10th at Charlotte last weekend. His 2017 season has been all about getting comfortable again in a race car, and at Charlotte he looked to be back in form.
Earnhardt’s DraftKings salary has reached bargain tier levels, which has high upside potential at a track where he is averaging just shy of a top 15. If Earnhardt can continue to build upon his solid finish, he could be a big value play.
Kasey Kahne ($7,700)
Dover: 26 starts, three top fives (11.5 percent), eight top 10s (30.8 percent)
Average finish at Dover: 18.7
Kahne has not had the best week. He crashed out of last week’s Charlotte race, and then it was revealed that he will be losing a second primary sponsor following this season. Kahne’s Hendrick Motorsports career has had its ups and downs, but it seems like it has been more on the downside the past couple seasons.
There's one statistic, though which doesn’t show on that box score: motivation. Kahne has a chip on his shoulder to prove that he belongs at Hendrick and Dover has been kind to him over the past 10 races. The No. 5 team has an average finish of 12.5 and earned three top-10 finishes in the past four races. Events like these could be key moments going forward, playing a major role in how his career path goes after this season. Kahne has to capitalize on his best tracks.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. ($7,600)
Dover: nine starts, one top 10 (11 percent), five top 15s (55 percent)
Average finish at Dover: 19.1
Stenhouse is having by far his best season to date. He is on a seven race top-15 streak, which of course includes his win at Talladega. Also included is a fourth-place performance at Richmond. Ricky has become a near lock for a top-half finish as a result.
Speaking of top 15s, Ricky has three straight at Dover. He notched a career best eighth in 2015 and then followed up with runs of 14th and 11th a season ago.
Stenhouse has locked himself into the playoffs, which allows the veteran to drive more aggressively with less consequence. He is already an incredibly aggressive driver, and 2017 has found him more ways to impress both on the track and on DraftKings.
(Photo by ASP Inc.)
Northwestern finished tied for fourth in the Big Ten West last season, but the Wildcats could challenge for the top spot thanks to a mix of experience and depth. The offense will be led by one of the conference’s better backfields and a veteran offensive line, but some reliable targets will need to emerge. The defense has the potential to open some eyes, but that’s only if some dependable linebackers emerge to support a deep front and back end. Northwestern’s schedule isn’t that daunting, so this could be the season Pat Fitzgerald’s team takes a step or two forward in the division standings.
Previewing Northwestern Football’s Offense for 2017
Northwestern’s coaches are both bullish on why the offense can become more dynamic and blunt about why the unit could struggle. The skill position pieces appear to be in place, especially at running back, but if things don’t improve up front, it will be a slog. “We’ve got to be more consistent,” coach Pat Fitzgerald says. “We have to have competitive depth. Two years ago, we had that and we won 10 games. Last year, we didn’t have that, and it was painfully obvious at times.”
Guard Tommy Doles will lead the group, and Fitzgerald is hoping for steadier play from left tackle Blake Hance and center Brad North. The line can create rushing lanes — Northwestern rushed for 526 yards and eight touchdowns in its final two games of 2016 — but must improve substantially in protection after allowing 39 sacks last season and 102 over the past three seasons.
Northwestern features one of the nation’s more underrated backfields in Justin Jackson, who soon will become the school’s all-time leading rusher, and Clayton Thorson, 17–9 as the team’s starting quarterback. Wide receiver once again is a question after the departure of Biletnikoff Award finalist Austin Carr, but superback (Northwestern’s version of tight end) Garrett Dickerson should contend for All-Big Ten honors. Oregon transfer Jalen Brown could spark an offense that has produced only 85 completions of 20 yards or longer since 2014, third fewest among Power 5 teams.
Previewing Northwestern Football’s Defense for 2017
“We’ve got a lot coming back,” Fitzgerald says. “We’ve got to identify our best 11 and then some.”
The line goes two and often three deep at every position. Veterans Tyler Lancaster and Jordan Thompson lead arguably the best group of tackles in Fitzgerald’s tenure. The coaches like the edge-rushing speed of Xavier Washington, Joe Gaziano and redshirt freshman Mark Gooden, who stood out in the spring.
Northwestern doesn’t lack playmakers in the back end. Cornerback Montre Hartage returns after recording five interceptions in 2016, and veteran safeties Godwin Igwebuike, Kyle Queiro and Jared McGee combined for seven interceptions last fall. The Wildcats also regain cornerback Keith Watkins II from injury. “He’s an All-Big Ten-level player,” Fitzgerald says.
Previewing Northwestern Football’s Specialists for 2017
Veteran punter Hunter Niswander returns after averaging 41.3 yards per punt last season. Dynamic kickoff returner Solomon Vault suffered a lower-body injury and was ruled out for the year in May. Fitzgerald lost confidence in the team’s placekicking last season — a league-low 12 field goal attempts — and needs new blood there, likely Mason Weissenhofer or incoming freshman Charlie Kuhbander.
After recording multiple 10-win seasons and multiple bowl wins since 2012, Northwestern now hopes to contend in the Big Ten West. The return of 15 starters and a fairly favorable schedule (no Ohio State nor Michigan) suggests that this is the season to make a move. But a larger indicator, according to Fitzgerald, is how many starters will be pushed or displaced by others. Northwestern must show it can handle inevitable injuries as well as underperforming play better than it did early last season.
Consecutive games against West Division winner Wisconsin (road) and league champion Penn State (home) on Sept. 30 and Oct. 7 should show whether Northwestern is for real or not.
National Ranking: 41
Big Ten West Prediction: 2
South Carolina won six games and went bowling in head coach Will Muschamp’s first season despite having an offense that was among the least productive in the nation. Quarterback Jake Bentley is back to lead the Gamecocks’ attack and is one of 10 returning starters on that side of the ball. The defense also gets a big boost with the return of linebacker Skai Moore, who missed all of 2016 because of a neck injury. Moore’s presence will certainly help a unit that desperately needs to find a pass rush and features a secondary that has experience but must become more reliable. South Carolina should at least be competitive in every game with the exception of the finale against Clemson. How many games the Gamecocks win and where they fall in the SEC East standings will likely depend on whether or not the offense takes a small or significant step forward.
Previewing South Carolina Football’s Offense for 2017
For the first time in his five-year head-coaching career, Will Muschamp seems to have found the answer at quarterback. Sophomore Jake Bentley started seven games last year after skipping his senior season at Opelika (Ala.) High School to join the Gamecocks. Bentley threw for 1,420 yards, nine touchdowns and four interceptions and led South Carolina to an upset of Tennessee.
Bentley will be surrounded by plenty of offensive talent. Junior wide receiver Deebo Samuel is one of the most dynamic athletes in the SEC. He had 783 receiving yards, 98 rushing yards and seven combined touchdowns last year despite being limited throughout the first half of the season due to injury.
The running game will be paced by returning sophomores Rico Dowdle and A.J. Turner and North Carolina transfer Ty’Son Williams, but the most intriguing offensive prospect might be tight end Hayden Hurst, a former walk-on who spent two years in the Pittsburgh Pirates organization before trying college football.
Previewing South Carolina Football’s Defense for 2017
“We have to get more guys we can count on up front,” Muschamp says. “We are very thin from the standpoint of experience and guys we feel like we can win the SEC East with. I’m just being honest. We have to get faster twitch and we have to get better rushers.” One name to watch is sophomore end Dennis Wonnum.
The good news is that linebacker Skai Moore, the team’s leading tackler in 2013, ’14 and ’15, is back after missing the 2016 season due to a herniated disc in his neck that required surgery. Moore brings more speed than the team had at the position last year, which should help in Muschamp’s system, and he’ll join Bryson Allen-Williams and T.J. Brunson to form a talented but thin linebacking corps.
The secondary brings back every starter but still is a work in progress. South Carolina spent spring practice trying to figure out who among Rashad Fenton, Jamarcus King and Chris Lammons would play the nickel and which two would get the starting cornerback jobs. Incoming four-star recruit Jamyest Williams will get a chance to play right away. At safety, D.J. Smith and Steven Montac return but need to improve their level of play.
Previewing South Carolina Football’s Specialists for 2017
Placekicker Elliott Fry, the school’s all-time leading scorer, is gone. The Gamecocks are expected to turn to a homegrown product, Alex Woznick, to replace him. South Carolina also must find replacements for punter Sean Kelly and longtime long snapper Drew Williams. The inconsistency of the competitors at all three specialist positions was a concern for Muschamp in the spring.
Muschamp and his coaching staff took over a roster so depleted that some of the struggles of the 2016 season — such as an offense that finished last in the SEC in scoring with 20.8 points per game — can hardly be held against them. It’s a different story in Year 2. The Gamecocks should build on the offensive momentum established with Bentley at the helm in the last half of 2016, but Muschamp’s defensive acumen will be tested by this year’s thin group.
The schedule starts out with a toss-up game against NC State that could set the tone, and there are another half-dozen games on the schedule that could go either way. How South Carolina fares in those will determine whether the Gamecocks are able to make a move in the SEC East standings.
National Ranking: 40
SEC East Prediction: 4
After taking a back seat to Taysom Hill last season, Tanner Mangum is back as BYU’s starting quarterback. His experience should help the Cougars’ offense stay productive, although replacing the program’s all-time leading rusher won’t be easy. On defense, BYU is strongest in the back seven thanks to the return of its top three tacklers, all linebackers. Once again the Cougars are facing a challenging schedule that features teams from the Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC but another eight- or nine-win season should be the expectation.
Previewing BYU Football’s Offense for 2017
In ordinary circumstances, BYU quarterback Tanner Mangum’s 2015 and 2016 seasons would have been reversed. He logically would have played behind Taysom Hill as a freshman, then taken over the starting job as a sophomore. Instead, Mangum started 12 games as a freshman after Hill was lost for the season with an injury in the opening game, and then Hill returned last season. Mangum’s only start came in the Poinsettia Bowl after Hill was injured again.
The positive aspect of his career arc is that Mangum was able to watch and learn for a year in offensive coordinator Ty Detmer’s system, and he will be protected by a more experienced line in 2017. Mangum passed for 3,377 yards and 23 touchdowns as a freshman and is a classic drop-back passer in the BYU tradition.
With the loss of career rushing leader Jamaal Williams, the Cougars will rely on several running backs. Squally Canada should get his shot after running for 315 yards in relief of Williams. KJ Hall showed some flashes of speed late in the season as a runner and receiver.
The Cougars must replace their top three receivers, so the re-stocking of the passing game features the tight end, a key element of Detmer’s own quarterbacking era. To accelerate the process, Detmer moved Moroni Laulu-Pututau, who had 27 receptions last season, from receiver to tight end. Jonah Trinnaman is the top returning receiver, having caught 28 passes as a junior college transfer.
Four offensive line starters return, with Thomas Shoaf moving from right tackle to left tackle.
Previewing BYU Football’s Defense for 2017
Tuiaki must replace three starters on the line, and he likes Trajan Pili’s development. At linebacker, Fred Warner, Butch Pau’u and Francis Bernard produced nearly identical statistics last season as the team’s top three tacklers.
The Cougars will miss safety Kai Nacua, who led the team with six interceptions last season and picked off 14 passes in three years. Aside from games against Toledo and Boise State, BYU played consistently in the secondary and should improve in 2017. Dayan Ghanwoloku and Troy Warner, Fred’s younger brother, are capable cornerbacks, and Micah Hannemann is a solid safety.
Previewing BYU Football’s Specialists for 2017
In the first half of the season, BYU won two games with field goals on the final play — by two different kickers. Rhett Almond delivered the game-winner vs. Toledo and finished with 17 field goals in 21 attempts. Jonny Linehan’s 2016 season is best remembered for his failed effort on a fake punt, when the Cougars faced fourth-and-19 from their 5-yard line at Boise State and he barely made it out of the end zone. As a rugby-style punter, though, Linehan was effective. He averaged 42.5 yards, and the longest return for any opponent was nine yards.
BYU coach Kalani Sitake’s first season was an adventure. In addition to those two last-play wins, BYU lost four games by a total of eight points.
The Cougars should have more close games in 2017 as they tackle another ambitious, front-loaded schedule in the program’s seventh season of independence. BYU will meet LSU, Utah, Wisconsin, Boise State and Mississippi State by mid-October, so Mangum and his offense will have to be sharp from the start. The season likely will play out much like 2016, when the Cougars won their last five games to finish 9–4.
National Ranking: 39
After a three-year run which saw North Carolina win the ACC Coastal in 2015 and finish no worse than a tie for third the other two seasons, the Tar Heels are practically starting over. Six starters return on each side, but the offense is looking to replace a most, if not all, of its production. The defense will have a new coordinator running things and hopefully will hold up better against the run than it did in 2016. Even though the Coastal seems wide open once again, it would be somewhat of a surprise to see this Tar Heels team among the contenders.
Previewing North Carolina Football’s Offense for 2017
If North Carolina again fields a high-powered offense that has become its trademark, it will do so despite major personnel changes. The Tar Heels lost 99.0 percent of their rushing yards, 98.3 percent of their passing yards, 70.5 percent of their receiving yards and 85.7 percent of their scoring from a year ago.
The identity of the starting quarterback will be decided in training camp, but LSU graduate transfer Brandon Harris is the favorite. Harris is the only quarterback on the roster with starting experience, and his dual-threat ability is ideal for UNC’s spread attack. The receivers have plenty to prove, regardless of who is delivering the passes. Senior Austin Proehl is the only player on the roster with more than 275 career receiving yards.
Harris isn’t the only graduate transfer who figures to have a significant role. Stanton Truitt from Auburn will get reps in a backfield that features just one player (sophomore Jordon Brown) who had carries for UNC a year ago. Freshman Michael Carter also will get significant playing time.
Up front, grad transfers Cam Dillard from Florida and Khaliel Rodgers from USC will add needed depth to the offensive line. The group returns three-year starter Bentley Spain at left tackle and promising sophomore Tommy Hatton at guard, but creating cohesion during training camp will be key.
Previewing North Carolina Football’s Defense for 2017
The defensive line returns 11 of its top 13 contributors, including team sack leader Malik Carney, from a year ago. But improvement against the run, where the Tar Heels allowed an ACC-worst 227.3 yards per game, is paramount. UNC returns its top five linebackers, which should help improve the run defense now that they have a year of experience. Andre Smith is the headliner of the group, providing a hard-hitting presence in the middle of the field.
The secondary, which was the strength of last year’s defense despite totaling an NCAA-worst one interception, has a nice mixture of proven talent and potential. M.J. Stewart is one of the ACC’s top cornerbacks, and Donnie Miles is a sure-tackling safety. A large group of young players — including four who played last year as true freshmen — will rotate in and gain experience.
Previewing North Carolina Football’s Specialists for 2017
The loss of kicker Nick Weiler and returners Ryan Switzer and T.J. Logan, who were multi-year stars in their respective roles, leaves the Tar Heels vulnerable in the kicking game. On the positive side, punter Tom Sheldon is back after allowing opponents a total of two yards on punt returns (best in the nation) last season. Freeman Jones could be a capable replacement for Weiler, but he has yet to be tested in game situations.
Hopes were high a year ago, but the Tar Heels fell short in their quest to reach the ACC Championship Game for the second year in a row. While the Coastal Division race remains as unpredictable as ever, UNC probably has too much uncertainty to be considered a legitimate threat. Are there enough playmakers on offense? Can the graduate transfers provide a big lift immediately? Can the defense become an asset instead of a liability? Can the team hold its own on special teams? The Tar Heels have enough talent to earn a fifth consecutive postseason berth, but doing so probably won’t be easy.
National Ranking: 42
ACC Coastal Prediction: 5
Over the last three seasons, Utah has won at least nine games and been a tough out in the Pac-12 South Division. However, the Utes are still looking for their first division title since joining the conference in 2011. Head coach Kyle Whittingham is hoping a change at offensive coordinator will jumpstart a unit that had its share of struggles in 2016. Having an experienced quarterback should help but otherwise, Utah is dealing with a lot of turnover on both sides of the ball. The Utes should reach bowl eligibility with little difficulty, but how competitive they’ll be in the Pac-12 South will depend largely on how quickly all of the new pieces come together.
Previewing Utah Football’s Offense for 2017
Utah coach Kyle Whittingham blames an inadequate offense for making the Utes the only Pac-12 South program that has not won a division title since the conference’s expansion six years ago. That’s why he hired Troy Taylor as his eighth play caller in nine seasons.
Taylor’s charge is to energize an offense led by quarterback Troy Williams, who started all 13 games in 2016 as a junior college transfer, passing for 2,757 yards and 15 touchdowns. He led the Utes to a victory over USC by directing three consecutive touchdown drives in the second half. Williams played inconsistently in losses to Washington, Oregon and Colorado late in the season, but he expects to be sharper as a senior in what he says is a “quarterback-friendly” system.
The story of Utah’s 2016 season at running back may never be duplicated. Joe Williams retired from football after two games only to return a month later and produce a 1,407-yard season. Williams’ comeback became necessary because of injuries to his top replacements. Those players, Armand Shyne and Zack Moss, will be the Utes’ primary rushers. Devonta’e Henry-Cole, who carried the ball only once as a freshman, was a star of the spring.
Raelon Singleton, Siaosi Wilson and Demari Simpkins are among the receivers who hope to thrive in a more dynamic offense. The Utes are replacing four starters, notably left tackle Garett Bolles, from one of the Pac-12’s best offensive lines. Bolles’ departure to the NFL after one season as a junior college transfer is a big loss, but the Utes have the makings of another solid group.
Previewing Utah Football’s Defense for 2017
After being considered the defense’s weakest area in 2016, the linebacking is “one of our stronger positions,” defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley says. “They’re the same guys, they’re just older now.”
Sunia Tauteoli and Kavika Luafatasaga should be more productive in a scheme that primarily uses only two linebackers, with five defensive backs being needed against the passing offenses of the Pac-12.
The Utes are in the midst of a “complete rebuild” in the secondary, Whittingham says. The exception is strong safety Chase Hansen, a converted quarterback who has become a defensive star. Hansen had four fumble recoveries, three interceptions and 7.5 tackles for a loss in 2016.
Previewing Utah Football’s Specialists for 2017
The Utes have made punting and placekicking fun to watch in recent years, although Whittingham would rather have drives finish with extra points than punts and field goals. Mitch Wishnowsky won the program’s third consecutive Ray Guy Award as the nation’s top punter, averaging 47.7 yards. He rarely sacrificed hang time for distance, although Utah allowed a punt return for Washington’s winning score. Utah must replace kicker Andy Phillips, who concluded his record-setting career with the winning field goal in the bowl game.
Utah has established itself as one of the Pac-12’s most consistent programs, but there’s more to do. Whittingham is driven to make his team the South’s sixth winner in seven seasons.
“We’re not going to apologize for winning nine-plus games the last three years, but we want to win a championship,” Whittingham says. “We’ve got to find a way to break through.”
The Utes’ Oct. 14 visit to USC will be pivotal. Utah has beaten the Trojans two of the past three seasons.
National Ranking: 38
PAC-12 South Prediction: 4
Georgia is looking for a breakthrough in Kirby Smart’s second season in Athens. Such are expectations at a historical power that returns its starting quarterback, two talented running backs and 11 starters on defense.
The non-conference slate presents some challenges for the Bulldogs, with an opener against always-dangerous Appalachian State, a finale at rival Georgia Tech and a tough road matchup with Notre Dame in between (plus Samford). And the SEC West crossovers are never easy when Auburn is an annual matchup, and Mississippi State comes to town this year as well.
Here is how the entire Georgia schedule stacks up, ranked from easiest game to most difficult.
12. Sept. 16 vs. Samford
Samford went 7-4 last season and made the FCS playoffs. That said, these Bulldogs shouldn’t be much of a test for Georgia, even if the game is sandwiched between a trip to Notre Dame and a home game against Mississippi State.
11. Oct. 14 vs. Missouri
It’s Barry Odom’s second year at Mizzou, but it remains to be seen what he has to work with. The offense looks like it has some playmakers, but the defense has some holes to fill. Could this game end up being much tougher for Georgia than No. 11? Sure. But at a crowded bottom of the SEC East, the Tigers might be the least sure thing.
10. Nov. 4 vs. South Carolina
The Gamecocks were among the league’s biggest surprises last season, going 6-7 in Will Muschamp’s debut campaign. Muschamp appears to have a strong quarterback to work with, too, in Jake Bentley. You could easily flip-flop South Carolina with Kentucky in this spot, but Kentucky comes in the SEC finale, before rival Georgia Tech — an option team that can give even the best defenses fits on short notice.
9. Nov. 18 vs. Kentucky
Are the Wildcats on the rise? Perhaps. Kentucky won seven games last season, nearly beat the Bulldogs and got head coach Mark Stoops a two-year extension this offseason. The ground game should be good, but the defense has to get better, which is possible given the amount of experience returning on that side of the ball.
8. Sept. 2 vs. Appalachian State
The Mountaineers have gone 21-5 over the past two seasons, and they darn near ruined Tennessee’s Thursday night opener last season, so this isn’t a game Georgia can overlook by any means, especially with a road trip to Notre Dame looming a week later.
7. Oct. 7 at Vanderbilt
The Commodores ruined Georgia’s homecoming last season, beating the Bulldogs 17-16 en route to a six-win season and Independence Bowl berth in Derek Mason’s third campaign. Vanderbilt did go 4-2 at home last year, too, and returns 1,000-yard running back Ralph Webb and several other key pieces on offense.
6. Sept. 23 vs. Mississippi State
This is a tough crossover test for Georgia, especially early in the season. (Although it does help to have a tune-up against Samford the week before.) Mississippi State returns Nick Fitzgerald under center after a breakout campaign and now has Todd Grantham running the defense, which struggled at times getting to the passer last season. We’ll see how quickly Grantham can get the unit up to speed after churning out some terrific units at Louisville.
5. Sept. 30 at Tennessee
Georgia lost a home heartbreaker to the Volunteers last season on a Hail Mary, but there is enough turnover, especially on offense, for UT to potentially be more vulnerable this season — despite back-to-back nine-win seasons and this game coming at home.
4. Nov. 25 at Georgia Tech
This game is never easy, as evidenced by the Yellow Jackets’ two wins over Georgia in the past three years. Georgia Tech is coming off a nine-win season and Paul Johnson would love nothing more than to beat an SEC team once again, after going 3-0 against the league last year. There could be plenty on the line during rivalry week for both teams.
3. Sept. 9 at Notre Dame
Perhaps this game is a bit too high, but there’s always so much intrigue around high-profile non-conference matchups, especially involving the Fighting Irish and the SEC, two entities that haven’t met in the regular season since 2005. The Irish went 4-8 last season and the pressure is on in South Bend, making this primetime Week 2 matchup all the more intriguing, considering the Dawgs are looking for a breakthrough this season.
2. Oct. 28 vs. Florida (in Jacksonville, Fla.)
The Gators have won the past two meetings, after Georgia won three in a row… after Florida won three in a row. Unpredictability is the theme when these two rivals clash in Jacksonville, Fla., and it’s anyone’s guess what will happen when the two-time defending division champs meet with the presumed division favorite this fall.
1. Nov. 11 at Auburn
Another rivalry, another bout of unpredictability. Georgia has won three straight against Auburn but three of the past four games have been decided by seven points or fewer. The Tigers are widely predicted to be among the SEC’s top teams this season after making the Sugar Bowl last year, so if they live up to the hype, Georgia will have its work cut out for it on the road.
— 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.
For the third straight year, a strong finish by Texas A&M gave way to a late-season fade as the Aggies lost four of their final five games, including the Texas Bowl to Kansas State. Kevin Sumlin enters 2017 needing to break out of this 8-5 rut but he will have to do so with a new starting quarterback and the guy who was the No. 1 overall pick in the April’s NFL draft. The Aggies have a few playmakers and a veteran interior offensive line, but wide receivers not named Christian Kirk need to emerge and new tackles need to be identified. The defense lost its top pass rusher and continues to have issues stopping the run. Recruiting hasn’t necessarily been an issue for Texas A&M, but several players will need to step up or Sumlin’s job security could become the storyline in College Station this fall.
Previewing Texas A&M Football’s Offense for 2017
Junior receiver Christian Kirk and sophomore running back Trayveon Williams are big-time playmakers. Kirk has accumulated nearly 2,000 receiving yards in two seasons, while Williams rushed for 1,057 yards as a freshman. The Aggies are facing major questions almost everywhere else, though. Again, they will start the season with a new starting quarterback.
Whether that’s senior Jake Hubenak, the backup to Trevor Knight a year ago, redshirt freshman Nick Starkel or highly acclaimed true freshman prospect Kellen Mond likely won’t be determined until late August.
Kirk has caught 163 passes in his brief career, but the other receivers on the roster combined for just eight receptions a year ago. However, there is great optimism surrounding freshmen Quartney Davis, Jhamon Ausbon and Hezekiah Jones.
Interior linemen Connor Lanfear, Colton Prater and Erik McCoy anchor an offensive line that enabled A&M to average 211.8 rushing yards per game and allowed just 21 sacks in 2016. New starters are needed at tackle. Promising junior Koda Martin is expected to step in at left tackle, where the Aggies have excelled the last five years.
Previewing Texas A&M Football’s Defense for 2017
However, the Aggies’ primary worry continues to be its porous run defense and lackluster linebacker play. Fingers are crossed both will be much improved. That could happen if they get better in the middle. Junior Otaro Alaka may get the call there, although he’s performed better on the weak side. Sophomore Tyrel Dodson is another possibility to fill that void. Heralded true freshman Anthony Hines could also make an immediate impact.
A&M projects to be very good in the interior line. Defensive tackle Kingsley Keke looks to take the step from effective starter to genuine star. Senior Zaycoven Henderson is also coming off his best year. The ends are much more uncertain with Qualen Cunningham and Jarrett Johnson, who have been moderately productive in backup roles. Junior college transfer Micheal Clemons also was brought in to boost the pass rush.
Safety Armani Watts will contend for All-SEC recognition, but much better play is needed from the cornerbacks.
Previewing Texas A&M Football’s Specialists for 2017
As his All-America credentials suggest, Kirk is among the elite in the country at returning punts. He just needs more chances. In 26 career games, he’s returned only 27 punts, yet he’s averaged 23.0 yards per return and has scored five touchdowns. Punter Shane Tripucka is almost as good but needs to be more consistent. Last season he averaged 42.9 yards per attempt with 27 kicks downed inside the 20-yard line. More consistency is also needed from kicker Daniel LaCamera. He converted 17-of-24 field goal attempts, but four misses came inside 40 yards. A reliable kickoff returner is needed.
The Aggies are trying to end a trend of three consecutive 8–5 seasons that have featured late-season collapses. Also, they haven’t finished higher than fourth in the SEC West since 2012. Inexperience at quarterback, issues in run defense and dependency on unproven players render the season outlook quite suspect. The schedule won’t do them many favors, either, with road trips to UCLA, Florida, LSU and Ole Miss, where they typically struggle.
Coach Kevin Sumlin’s job could be in jeopardy if the Aggies cannot break out of their 8–5 rut. Ironically one of Sumlin’s best coaching efforts may be required this season for A&M to post eight victories.