Most of my thoughts concern sports; I'll try to put them in words here.

Here's my second blog's web address that I will now be solely focusing on:

Much will be riding on Andy Dalton in 2013. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Along with falling from its glorious heights of recent years, the AFC North will endure even more change in this upcoming. The division's fate will not rest on the likes of a certain franchise quarterback from Pittsburgh, or a stalwart Baltimore defense. It's all about the "Red Rifle"–Cincinnati signal-caller Andy Dalton–and it could be like that for years to come.

But before fulfilling any lofty expectations, the third-year pro out of TCU must learn to utilize the best the Bengals' offense has to offer: superstar wideout A.J. Green. Despite posting mesmerizing numbers in his first two years in Cincinnati, Green's production was still hindered by his quarterback's lack of an efficient and consistent deep ball. Dalton does nearly everything else at a satisfactory rate, with an accurate touch, a proven ability to move down field, and good leadership at the quarterback position. All he has left is to refine his mechanics on deep throws, a facet he's been heavily focused on this past offseason, and if improved, could result in positive effects beyond just that on Green.

The Bengals also may now possess the most potent tight end tandem. After a falling-out in New England, the Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert duo could prove the best in the NFL. Add those towering targets to an augmented rushing attack–drafting Giovanni Bernard in the second-round was one of the best steals of the draft–and the Bengals look to have a top AFC offense.

And now, believe it or not, the strong point of this team. The Bengals D has never looked better than in 2012, ranking 6th in total defense, anchored by franchise player Geno Atkins on the defensive line. Re-signings and new additions bolster the linebacker crew, that found its leader last year in undrafted headcase Vontaze Burfict.

Cincinnati's main competitor in the AFC North is the reigning Super Bowl winners, the Baltimore Ravens. Here's my mindset going into evaluating NFL teams coming off championship years: success in general will be hard to come by, and certainly will not be repeated, as the "Super Bowl hangover" can cause the team to even miss the playoffs. I may not have the statistical reasoning to support a bold assumption like that, but I do have historical patterns and trends from the past 6 years (previous year's Super Bowl winners in bold).

2007 season: Colts lose first playoff game in the divisional round

2008 season: Giants lose first playoff game in the divisional round

2009 season: Steelers miss playoffs entirely

2010 season: Saints lose first playoff game in wild card round

2011 season: Packers lose first playoff game in the divisional round

2012 season: Giants miss playoffs entirely

Now I'm not saying we should judge future results completely based on what history has conveyed to us. It should pertain more to what will occur on the field of play–and that's where the concern arises for the Ravens (though I'm still drawing my conclusion that Baltimore fails to win its division or a playoff game from the historical effect).

Flacco will be hard-pressed to repeat his postseason magic. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

Though the Ravens continue to reiterate that there was never "one guy" that served as the true heart-and-soul of the team, it's naive to think that Ray Lewis' retirement can be easily overcome by replacements; even more importantly, sustaining such a grave loss in leadership will prove even more difficult.

Beyond simply this irreplaceable linebacker position, the Ravens have seemed like a revolving door of players. Several other key linebackers have departed, as well as center Matt Birk, receiver Anquan Boldin, and safety Ed Reed. An influx of rookies and new signees must now attempt to mitigate the damages done by so many departures. So much change can never result in good for a team coming off a magical Super Bowl run, as both the coaching staff and returning players will now embark on a potentially lengthy acclimation process.

And on that subject of returning Ravens: how can Joe Flacco live up to a contract that makes him the highest-paid player in NFL history, if for nearly every non-January/February week of the last season he appeared as an average quarterback? The point is that Flacco was grossly overpaid, and with practically no chance of truly earning his money's worth, this only adds Baltimore's looming mess of problems.

Some other notes on the rest of the division's competitors:

Pittsburgh Steelers

  • injuries continue to plague "Big Ben" Roethlisberger, and his offensive surroundings won't help: the Steelers are thin at wideout and at the running back position (again), and the linemen have not proven to give adequate pass protection
  • a once-vaunted defense put less pressure than ever on opposing quarterbacks, contributing to the overall decrease in forced turnovers
  • bottom line: the Steelers can still be a formidable squad at times, but with Roethlisberger's tentative health, a shot at the division seems out of reach

Cleveland Browns

  • the Browns' front office and coaching staff experienced a culture change this offseason; hiring coordinators like Norv Turner and especially Ray Horton, the Browns will likely improve
  • the offense largely remains unaltered, and with Trent Richardson already having proven himself, quarterback Brandon Weeden will be expected to make a leap
  • the Browns augmented their defense through the draft as well as in free agency, and have potential for an effective pass rush
  • bottom line: the changes are nice sign to a grief-stricken franchise like the Browns, but it will take a few more years before they assert themselves in the AFC north
  • Playoff Outlook

    Cincinnati Bengals: 3rd seed

    Baltimore Ravens: 5th seed


( Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times / August 29, 2013 ) The insertion of Wittek at quarterback benefited Marqise Lee tremendously.

-USC comes out in the 2nd half with the clear intention to throw the ball– the opening tactic proves inefficient, after 3 passing plays, the Trojans have to punt after a three-and-out

-Kris Albarado kicks a perfect punt that lands on Hawaii's 1-yard line; the Trojan defense remains unflappable, and forces a Warrior three-and-out–the pressure from the front 7 keys the short series for Hawaii once again

-Max Wittek finally gets a shot on the Trojans' 2nd offensive series of the 2nd half; after a couple of runs by freshman Justin Davis for 5 yards, Wittek gets pulled down in the backfield on 3rd down–the passing game wasn't really given a true chance, with Wittek throwing only on a 3rd-down play, so getting sacked seems understandable for now

-the absence of cornerback Anthony Brown starts to show, as Hawaii grabs 24 yards downfield on a vertical pass; the drive ends for the Warriors soon, though–freshman Jabari Ruffin lines up on the D-line, and then pressures and knocks down Hawaii's quarterback, having a clear path into the backfield

-the offensive line continues to have its struggles, as Wittek gets sacked once again, this time on first down; while Tre Madden eclipsing the 80-yard rushing mark is promising (which he accomplishes on this drive), it proves not enough, as the Trojans fail to move the chains

-the Warriors add 2 more first downs to their total, as they begin to develop a fluency in the passing game–this comes as a result of the depleted Trojans secondary, which misses Kevin Seymour and now Anthony Brown, who left during the game

-Devon Kennard continues his fantastic game with another sack, but later commits a holding penalty that essentially nullifies his previous contribution

-after a face mask penalty on George Uko places Hawaii at the Trojans' 25 yard line, Dion Bailey snags an interception, USC's 4th for the night

-Kevin Graf started off USC's possession poorly with a false start penalty, but Max Wittek, along with the help of Justin Davis, then orchestrated the Trojans' most fluent and effective drive of the game: after consecutive 18 and 14-yard runs by the freshman Davis, Wittek completed his first pass to Marqise Lee for 16 yards, followed by a few more runs by Davis and a 17-yard throw by Wittek to Lee again

-Wittek then starts the 4th quarter–on the same drive–with another completion to Lee for 13 yards to situate the Trojans at Hawaii's 5-yard line

-although the auspicious drive down the field concludes with a Heidari field goal after Max Wittek fails to find an open Randall Telfer in the back of the end zone on 2nd down, we may have an early favorite for USC's starting quarterback job heading into the team's next game: not only did Wittek seem very comfortable throwing the ball, but he also involved USC's star threat–Marqise Lee (46 yards)–and meshed well with the running game (Davis recorded 42 yards)

-the defensive unit gets a lucky break with a no-call on clear passing interference on a downfield Hawaiian pass; the Trojan defense yields just 1 first down en route to another Warrior punt

-Wittek continues to lead the USC offense efficiently, and further develops his brewing chemistry with Marqise Lee (with another 12-yard connection to his star receiver); Davis adds another rushing explosion of 21 yards to his resume, but a costly fumble–that moves USC back 10 yards–gets him pulled from the game

-the drive ended with a punt, and while Wittek displayed less proficiency than in the Trojans' previous possession, he did supplement the offense with flashes of a potent, downfield threat–Wittek nearly converted 2 deep balls to Nelson Agholor (with one of these chances resulting in a passing interference call), an offensive facet that Kessler could not replicate earlier in the contest

-the staunch USC defense records yet another sack (7 for the game now), and after a couple of Hawaii first downs, the defense forces a punt

-the rushing attack for the Trojans has so far fulfilled their desperate need for offensive efficiency on the ground, which has become even more evident by Madden's 25-yard burst to start off what looks like USC's last series; Wittek launches another sublime deep throw, but Lee–his target–loses concentration and cannot real in the catch; one can only think that with more reps for Wittek in practice as starter, a fluency with Lee will be better cultivated

-the bruising runner Javorius Allen enters the game for SC, compiling 18 yards along with a key 1st-down conversion run; and who could be more deserving to punch it in for a touchdown than Justin Davis?–the freshman plowed in with less than one minute in the game, adding a TD score to his superb performance in this game (74 yards on 14 attempts); Davis, along with Tre Madden (109 yards on 18 carries), have made Trojan fans and even coaching staff forget about the absence of Silas Redd and D.J. Morgan

-what could have easily occurred much earlier in the game, happened in the waning seconds: the Hawaiian air attack burns the USC secondary–in this case, cornerback Devian Shelton–for a 60-yard touchdown strike


( Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times / August 29, 2013 ) Josh Shaw returns an interception for a touchdown.

-defense looks fantastic to start, doesn't allow a single play for positive yards; Dion Bailey gets the sack, aided by Devon Kennard, who makes an impact in his first game in 2 years (missing the 2012 season with a torn pectoral muscle)

-Tre Madden impresses in the Trojans' first offensive series, with 2 carries for 8 yards; Cody Kessler's first pass comes after a false start on third down, converting a short pass to Nelson Agholor for 16 yards to move the chains–in comparison to Max Wittek, Kessler has the weaker arm strength, so these types of throws are essential if Kessler intends to hold on to the starting job

-these are the kinds of incomprehensible play-calls that have Lane Kiffin on the hot seat: it's 4th and 4 on Hawaii's 26-yard line, and the Trojans elect to pass–is Andre Heidari playing with a broken leg, and Kiffin's just not telling us?; there's no reason not to attempt the 43-yard field goal at this point

-the defense does it again on the first play of Hawaii's drive, this time producing an even more enticing result: an interception by touted, true freshman Su'a Cravens

-once again, Kessler displays the efficiency the SC offense is capable of through stringing together short passes, this time to tight end Xavier Grimble out of the backfield; he later continues his high-percentage passes by slinging it to fullback Jahleel Pinner

-Tre Madden has showed why he's starting this game, totaling 25 yards in the Trojans' first two offensive series; unfortunately, he hits a standstill at the goal line, resulting in a Heidari field goal–a play call that is comforting considering Kiffin's delusional tendencies near the goal line

-the Warriors finally convert a first down on their 3rd drive of the game; Kennard gets a tackle for loss, further exemplifying the potential he has as leader of this defense

-although Hawaii gets another first down through the air, the Trojan defense holds them off on the next set of downs; I initially disapproved of moving once-linebacker Dion Bailey to safety, but after only 2 sacks in the 1st quarter and explosive rushes from strong safety blitzes, it looks like the move will pay off for SC; of course, Bailey does this all while playing through a hip injury that made him a gametime decision

-Kessler seems restrained by Kiffin's play-calling, and after getting one of his passes batted down at the line of scrimmage, Max Wittek–who's three inches taller than Kessler–might see his first opportunity soon; penalty woes are starting to build on the Trojan offense

-Hawaii luckily gets a 19-yard gain on a reverse run, but the tide turns SC's way once again as Trojan pass rushers swarm the Hawaii backfield, quickly culminating in a Leonard Williams sack for an 8-yard loss; the Warriors get 15 yards back on a passing screen play, but can't convert for a first down on a 3rd-and-2 play

-an Australian punter pins USC on its own 1 yard line, and one play later, the Hawaiian pass rushers plow past the Trojan offensive line for a safety; Kessler was not exactly too aware of his situation, freely taking up time while standing in his own end zone–it's a baseball score, with USC leading  3-2, and Wittek should get his chance next series

-the kickoff punt is returned to USC's 41 yard line; the Warriors face a 4th-and-1, but with clearly possessing the momentum at this point, they convert on a running play between the tackles

-the Trojan defense does enough to only hold Hawaii to a field goal, meaning USC experiences its first deficit of the year, now trailing 5-3; considering all 5 of Hawaii's point have essentially come off the offense's blunder, the defense has unmistakably asserted itself as the strong point of this USC team

-whatever happened to testing out both quarterbacks on offense?–at this point, Kiffin seems set on keeping Kessler in, and so far, that has been to the offense's detriment: the offense has not converted a first down in 13:05, and Kessler has had three of his passes batted down; furthermore, All-American Marqise Lee has not caught a pass thus far

-the USC defense quickly gets its struggling offensive teammates back on the field after forcing a three-and-out by Hawaii

-the big play comes at last for USC, in the form of Tre Madden's 34-yard burst downfield; yet it's quickly negated by a Kessler pass, going to no one in particular, that results in an interception–Kiffin's mistake of leaving Kessler in the game too long is finally vividly established

-Lamar Dawson continues his excellent performance today, catching a Warrior runner in the backfield for a loss; and out of nowhere, USC suffers its first loss–cornerback Anthony Brown needs to be helped off the field (a position where there's poor depth)

-Kennard supplies the pressure on Hawaii's quarterback, fighting through the Warrior offensive line, and linebacking leader Hayes Pullard gets an interception, the Trojans' second of the game

-on the following USC offensive series, the Trojans need a 4th-down QB sneak by Kessler to move the chains, after Madden gets 9 and a half yards

-looks like Kiffin has been vindicated in his decision to not shift quarterbacks, as Kessler lofts a beautiful pass to the left-side of the end zone, reeled in by Nelson Agholor; this is a great sign for Kessler's progression through this game, as he seeks to establish a better rhythm and more comfort; also note that while Lee attracts all the attention for the wideout corps, Agholor is very talented as well

-USC's front 7 stuffs the Hawaiian offense until the Warriors convert on a 3rd-and-7 through the air–an established weak point in the Trojan defense

-and just like that, the Trojans grab a 17-5 lead after cornerback Josh Shaw snatches a pick that he returns back for the touchdown; the momentum has violently shifted USC's way, far cry from the game's feel earlier in the 2nd quarter

-the next series for Hawaii results in a three-and-out, after George Uko–who has converted from defense tackle to defensive end this year–smacks Hawaii's quarterback for a sack

-Marqise Lee appears ready to spring out of his first-half slump (that included a fourth-down drop) on a punt return, but it ends tragically: Lee fails to hold the football well, which is poked out and then recovered by the Warriors' special teams

-the Trojan defensive line maintains its overpowering influence, as Uko notches another sack for a loss of 8 yards; the drive later ends for Hawaii, as freshman Jabari Ruffin disrupts the opposing quarterback into an incomplete pass

-Kiffin chooses to try and get some more points on the board before the half; Kessler completes consecutive passes to Lee for a combined 22 yards, in addition to a 3-yard dump-off to tight end Xavier Grimble–this proves a shrewd move on the part of Kiffin, who would not have been blamed if he elected to just go into the half with a 12-point lead, and instead gives USC an extra 3 points off of Andre Heidari's 52-yard field goal (a career-long)


Ash and company gave a preview of their offense during Texas spring game.

There's no question that the Big 12 has moved on from its glory days. After losing some of its prominent members in the past few years due to conference restructuring, few teams can truly call themselves "powerhouses", or even favorites for this upcoming season. Yet that doesn't necessarily signify a decline in quality. Entering the 2013 campaign, the Big 12 teams lie on more even grounds, with schools neither beginning with a leg up nor playing catch-up. It's a free-for-all, whether the college football world likes it or not–the conference's appeal has significantly faded with no major attraction of a team in the BCS mix. But with evenness in control comes plenty more competition. Shaky defenses could be shamefully exposed, unsettled offensive issues could make quarterbacks and their coaches out to be inept, and whether their BCS participant is worthy or not, the Big 12 will nevertheless prove intriguing.


1) Texas

It's as simple as that the Longhorns will go as David Ash goes. Now a junior, Ash's path to firmly securing the starting quarterback job has been arduous and and filled with scrutiny. As a freshman, he struggled mightily. And although Texas reached the 9-win mark last year for the first time since 2009, Ash endured a rib injury and posted hideous showings in games against Oklahoma, TCU, and Kansas, which made backup Case McCoy the more favorable option at times. Thankfully for Ash, though, the quarterback dilemma seems resolved for now–with a strong performance in spring, Ash has asserted hismelf as a confident leader of his football team.

The change in offensive style for the Longhorns should benefit Ash's development and production this season as well. New offensive coordinator Major Applewhite implements a new up-tempo offense–proven effective in the Alamo Bowl last season–and better suits his starting quarterback's tendencies. The reformed passing attack will also receive significant help from the running back tandem of Malcolm Brown and Johnathan Gray, who seek to continue their upward trend of growth.

The defensive unit, though constantly ripped apart by opponents in the past years, is aided by their experienced. Eight starters return from last year, and while the team waits on a few key players to heal from injuries, the defense as a whole can only improve.

Seastrunk is one of the best at his position.

2) Baylor

Apparently for the Bears, losing important quarterbacks is not as detrimental as for other teams. When Robert Griffin III left for the NFL draft, Nick Florence took over and sustained the prolific offense last year. Now, with junior Bryce Petty at the helm, a successful offense transition seems more than possible–and you can thank the system head coach Art Briles utilizes for that. As long as the quarterback that Briles plugs in to the starting job can be efficient and consistent, the offense will not lose a beat.

The acclimation process for Petty will take some time, but the myriad of options that will surround him should account for early-season difficulties. The rushing attack features an enticing, complementary duo in All-American speedster Lache Seastrunk and power-runner Glasco Martin, which will be given plenty of room to run by an offensive line that includes another All-American. The receiver corps is fairly talented as well, led by Tevin Reese.

The deciding factor in how Baylor's Big 12 season will play out rests on their defense. Though notoriously regarded as the perennial weak point for the Bears–and a huge contributor to the offensive shootouts they play in–8 starters from the year before return for the 13′ campaign. This experience, along with a semblance of depth and a few alterations made by Briles, should produce a more sturdier defense and give the offense some support as well.

3) Oklahoma

The Sooners made a bold, but shrewd, decision in naming Trevor Knight the starting quarterback over the experienced Blake Bell, giving the team more offensive flexibility. Knight is a more proven passer than Bell, while showing more mobility that could coincide well with a top-tier rushing attack. Damien Williams heads this backfield full of options, and will need to become very reliable in this upcoming season–the passing game can't be counted on too much, as there's still uncertainty regarding the receiver position.

For the defense, Bob Stoops has tinkered with his formations in an effort to improve upon last year. Though the Sooners will need to overcome the departures of key players, the changes enforced by the coaching staff should result in a more consistent defense.

4) Oklahoma State

After a quarterback controversy that extended into the regular season, the Cowboys have their signal-caller in Clint Chelf. The senior looks to lead what should be another proficient OSU offense, as he has several capable receivers at his disposal. The offense will once again heavily revolve around the passing game, as without Joseph Randle (who bypassed his senior year for the NFL draft), the running back situation is unstable.

The Cowboys returned to their lowly levels on defense last year, after leading the nation in takeaways in previous seasons. But with new changes in coaching staff, the defense appears equipped to return to its efficiency. One thing to keep in mind with respect to these new coordinators–which appear in the offense as well–is that revamping the coaching staff does not always create new, positive energy.

5) TCU

If quarterback Casey Pachall–an established winner in college football–can put his drug issues and suspensions behind him, the Horned Frogs can immediately count themselves in for the Big 12 race. After leading TCU to four straight wins to begin the 13′ season, Pachall entered substance abuse rehab–leaving his team without their starting quarterback, going 3-6 in the remaining games. But Pachall says he's been humbled by the experience, and there's no reason to believe he can't continue his efficient play as a senior. The return of running back Waymon James from injury will aid Pachall and the offense as well.

The defense is most likely the best in the Big 12, and one of the top in the country. Nearly every starter from last year returns, and with All-American talent, the defense forms the case for TCU as a Top 25 team.

Key mathcups:

  • Texas vs. Oklahoma, October 12th
  • Oklahoma at Baylor, November 7th
  • Oklahoma State at Texas, November 16th
  • Oklahoma at Oklahoma State, December 7th
  • Texas at Baylor, December 7th

Gardner (left) and Miller in their respective spring games.

Emerging from the year-long cloud of bowl probation, the Ohio State Buckeyes are not only the definite favorites to win the Big 10, but are in the mix for a spot in the national championship. But repeating last year's unexpected success won't come as easy this time around. Noticeable increases in national attention and pressure from the college football world essentially destroyed the last team in a similar situation as Ohio State's: USC. The Big 10 has become much more consistent from top to bottom, despite the departure of key program figures across the conference landscape. The rest of the Big 10 will certainly present a greater challenge in repeating a 12-win season (and then a conference championship) for the Buckeyes, but if any team is equipped to handle one of the deepest conferences in the country, it's the squad from Columbus.


1) Ohio State

As long as not major catastrophes occur, Ohio State seems destined to cruise to the Big 10 title. Braxton Miller has continued his growth as a quarterback, developing his passing skills while sustaining his classification as "dual-threat". Only in his junior year, Miller's progression and clutch play make him a Heisman Trophy favorite, as well as the unquestioned leader of his team.

Coach Urban Meyer suspended running back star Carlos Hyde for 3 games (the police dropped the case of alleged assault), but even that shouldn't derail Ohio State during Hyde's absence. The Buckeyes have several viable, running options–a fifth-year senior and two sophomores–that foster a sense of balance in the backfield with or without Hyde in it.

While not exactly deep at the wide receiver position, Ohio State should have enough to suffice Miller's need for targets. Corey Brown has proved to be a dependable player for reeling in receptions, while Devin Smith is the downfield threat every national contender possesses.

The defense has lost many starters from last year, but should maintain good shape under the leadership of Ryan Shazier–a tackling machine and one of the best linebackers in the nation.

2) Michigan 

Public perception, as well as that of the Michigan coaching staff, is very favorable of quarterback Devin Gardner. After filling in at sporadic periods during former starter Denard Robinson's injuries, Gardner looks to firmly take hold of the reins at quarterback. He institutes a pro-style offense, and with his fluidity and comfort in the pocket, most signs point to him flourishing for the maize-and-blue. Yet we really don't know all too much–or as much as we'd like to know–about Gardner. The pressure will be at an all-time high on him this upcoming season, and his durability will be put to the test as he finally starts the entire season.

Protecting Gardner, and getting him help from others, should not come as a difficulty. Taylor Lewan, one of the best offensive linemen in the country, will protect Gardner's blind side. Fitzgerald Toussaint will be tremendously useful out of the backfield if he stays healthy. Gardner will also have lengthy receivers at his disposal, who fit in well with the pro-style offense.

The Wolverines lost many pieces in their defensive unit from last year, as well as one important one in spring ball. A leading tackler at linebacker, Jake Ryan tore his ACL during the spring. Until his potential return in mid-October, Michigan will have to make up for the void in their defense.

3) Nebraska 

The key components for the offense are set in place for the Cornhuskers: quarterback Taylor Martinez has nice chemistry with experienced teammates at the running back and wide receiver positions. This will make for a proficient offense both on the ground and in the air.

While spring practices have raised the hopes of Husker fans regarding their defense, that side of the ball remains a major concern. The front seven is entirely new from last year, and will look to contribute to the effort of improving last year's run-defense rank of 90th in the country.

Here's the bottom line for Nebraska: the development of Martinez is of utmost necessity. Until he learns to efficiently throw a football–whether its attaining consistency or once more altering mechanics altogether–Martinez cannot adequately serve as the true leader of this team in his senior year.

Colter will look to replicate last season's success.

4) Northwestern

Under the leadership of head coach Pat Fitzgerald, its seems as though the Wildcats will always prove to be competitive. The offense returns most of its major components, as well as its unique style of rotating quarterbacks. While Trevor Siemian works as the established thrower in the offense, dual-threat option Kain Colter meshes better with Northwestern's efficient running game. Yet it's reasonable for Fitzgerald to not completely shift to a run-central gameplan, as allowing Siemian opportunities creates an intriguing–and unpredictable–versatility essential to the offense.

The defense keeps several starters from last year, and fields an impressive array of depth. It remains on a path of improvement, though, and is still too shaky to be heavily relied on.

5) Michigan State

The Spartans are in a similar predicament as last season: the defense is rock-solid for yet another year, but questions surround the offense. And unfortunately for MSU, the uncertainty has only mounted concerning the offensive unit. The quarterback situation remains undecided, and whoever grabs the job will hope for better play from the Spartan receivers–an estimated 66 passes were dropped last year. A group of freshman and a converted linebacker will look to establish any semblance of a rushing attack.

The defense, on the other hand, constitutes a polar opposite of Michigan State's offense. Once again, many regard the unit as one of the best across the nation, as most of the linebacker and secondary crew return from a season filled with all-conference honors. The defensive line is not exactly proven, but everything else Sparty offers on defense should make it up for any losses on the front line.

6) Wisconsin 

The quarterback and offensive line situation is currently in limbo for the Badgers, as injuries and no clear-cut starters at these positions could prove damaging as these uncertainties carry over into the regular season. The rushing attack is as good as ever, though, as James White will carry the load for the entire offense in his senior campaign.

Wisconsin has a few strong points in their defense well, which could be enough to make the group consistent throughout the regular season. As an air of change enters Madison after Bret Bielema's departure, the different culture and style affects all facets in the football program, including the defense.

Key matchups

  • Wisconsin at Ohio State, September 28th
  • Ohio State at Northwestern, October 5th
  • Michigan at Michigan State, November 2nd
  • Michigan at Northwestern, November 16th
  • Ohio State at Michigan, November 30th

Top (Boyd) leads the group of ACC quarterbacks (left: Morris, right: Winston).

The Atlantic Coast Conference lacks depth across the board once again, and frankly it comes as no surprise: after reaching the pinnacle of college football a few decades ago, the conference has sharply declined as of late, relying on its "automatic bid" to send schools to BCS bowls.

Yet a few teams appear destined for success, starting with the Clemson Tigers who start in the AP Top 25 and highlight what the ACC has to offer.

Clemson Tigers

Clemson's dynamic quarterback Tajh Boyd returns for his senior year, and will vie for a Heisman trophy. Yet as one of the top 5 quarterbacks in the country, and destined as a high pick in next year's draft (thought his play is more tuned for Saturday's), Boyd will not stand alone in the Tiger offense. Standout wide receiver Sammy Watkins looks to bounce back from an suspension-filled and injury-riddled 12′ campaign, as he tries to return to the football heights experienced in his freshman year. This quarterback-receiver combination will undoubtedly make for a prolific offensive unit, along with two other junior wideouts who will chip in.

Another key facet of the Clemson offense is their experience on the offensive line. Four of five starters return from last year up front, all upperclassmen, which not only comforts their starting quarterback, but also aids an unproven running game in a transitional year. After losing senior Andre Ellington to the NFL, the Tigers won't be able to rely on their rushing attack as much as last year. The deep offensive line will make the transition slightly easier for the new running back group, but a shortcoming in this area of the offensive will come to the forefront if Clemson does in fact struggle this year.

The defense has improved under new coaching leadership, and while still susceptible–particularly in the secondary and in the aspect of pass defense–should perform will enough to not hinder Clemson's drive to the ACC title.

Atlantic Division Challenger- Florida State

The Seminoles, while uncertain at quarterback, seem like the most formidable threat to Clemson's hopes of winning the ACC Atlantic. As a former 5-star recruit and redshirt freshman, starter Jameis Winston may not make up FSU's strong suit in the offense, but nearly all other points are consistent and veteran-led. The rushing game features a two-headed attack, the wideouts have turned heads this spring, and above all, the offensive line only loses one starting member from last year.

The Seminole defense is chock-full of talent on a yearly basis, which should aid the rebuilding of the front seven. And with an experienced secondary that is at the center of one of the best overall defensive units in the country, Florida State will make a run at their Clemson counterparts.

Miami Hurricanes

In the much less competitive ACC Coastal division, Miami sees almost no threats to their preseason expectations of cruising to the conference title game. One of the most unheralded offenses in the country leads the way for the Canes. Stephen Morris, now a senior year, has come a long way since his first year, and appears as the best quarterback in the ACC outside of Tajh Boyd. Freshman All-American Duke Johnson will provide a balanced attack out of the backfield, as well as serving as a passing option for Morris. Across the entire offense, there will be no lack of experience, as Miami returns starters at every position but tight end.

The Canes will hope for an offensive shootout every game, as a porous defense remains surrounded by questions. The inability of the defense line to force pressure on opposing quarterbacks severely reduced chances for turnovers last year. Now all upperclassmen, the projected starters up front must increase their impact on the football game.

The rest of the Coastal Division has little to offer, but the puzzle of deciphering Virginia Tech does raise an eyebrow. Just don't get duped. Again.

After years of prominence under head coach Frank Beamer, living up to expectations is just not in the Hokies' DNA. Seasons that included debacles during bowl games are somewhat acceptable, as it would be foolish to discount the path take to BCS appearances. But starting in the Top 15, with one of the best quarterbacks in the nation in Logan Thomas, only to barely make it to the lowly Russell Athletic Bowl? To put it nicely, that just doesn't cut it.

So although the offense introduces new changes this year, the schedule seems softer, Thomas has supposedly improved his mechanics, and the defense retains its elite status, Virginia Tech has proved a letdown too often to warrant any praise.

Key matchups

  • Florida State at Clemson, October 19th
  • Miami at Florida State, November 2nd

Bridgewater during spring practice this year.

As the newest conference in college football, the American Athletic Conference (AAC) features an influx of new teams, as well as some of its more prominent members on the way out after this season. Although it remains one of the weakest conferences, there does arise one fundamental difference between its current state and its old title as the "Big East": the AAC has a definite BCS contender in the Louisville Cardinals

Louisville Cardinals

Bursting onto the national scene with a Sugar Bowl upset over Florida earlier this year, Louisville seems poised to build on their success. For starters, coach Charlie Strong is one of the best at his job, and perhaps the most passionate and effective leaders in college football. Much to Louisville's relief, Strong declined enticing offers from other big-names schools, eventually settling on a lucrative extension. All what's left is to watch Strong and his team in one of the most promising seasons in Louisville's recent history.

Heisman hopeful Teddy Bridgewater, who appears as the most compelte quarterback heading into next year's NFL Draft, leads the Cardinals on the field. Yet for the benefit of Bridgewater and the football program, it might be best to mostly put aside a race for an individual award like the Heisman Trophy: the exorbitant amount of publicity surrounding the "campaign" for the award will take focus away from happenings on the football field, and overall, only prove detrimental.

Nevertheless, Bridgewater is the unquestionable leader of a Louisville team looking to preserve their position among football's elite. With a fantastic blend of arm strength and precision, Bridgewater also capitalized on a chance to legitimize his status as one of the best at his position in the country--in spite of Louisville schedule shortcomings. With his resolute showing against one of the best teams in the country last season in Florida--and on a BCS stage that earned him Sugar Bowl MVP--the Cardinal quarterback sent an impactful message to the rest of the college football world.

Yet as if there wasn't anything else to offer in Louisville's passing attack, the team returns its top three receivers for the 13' season. Furthermore, the effect of transferring players does not just aid the Bridgewater and his receiving corps. While the Cardinals welcome a pair of SEC wideout transfers from Florida and Tennessee, and a tight end transferring from Florida as well, Michael Dyer arrives in the backfield. An offensive MVP in a national championship game that seemed ages ago, Dyer had entertained two 1,000-yard seasons at Auburn. And while he's not immediately entitled to the starting running back job, he certainly adds a dimension to an already balanced Louisville offense.

The rest of the pack

The Cardinals will be counting the days until they move to the ACC, where will not be slighted--as they are this year--for their poor strength of schedule that does not include any Top 25 teams.  But until then, the rest of the American Athletic Conference will seek to make a run at Louisville's supremacy.

Rutgers- Gary Nova must become more consistent if he is to lead the Scarlet Knights in challenging Louisville. For now, he remains the best AAC quarterback not named Teddy Bridgewater. But as much as Nova's performance will factor into Rutgers' results, a dearth of rushing options will further mount the pressure on the quarterback's shoulders. The defense may have its strong suits (the NFL draft caused the depletion in the secondary), but this is by no means a complete football team.

Cincinnati- Much like the case with Rutgers, trusted running back options are not at a premium here--and unfortunately, this deficiency can translate over and damage the efficiency of the passing game. While the quarterback situation is not entirely solved, first-year head coach Tommy Tuberville has two adequate options for the position. An unbalanced defense may hurt at times, but with a fairly easy schedule, the Bearcats could reach double-digit wins--and come closest to giving Louisville a scare.

UCF- Despite one of the newcomers in the conference, Central Florida will not hold anything back--especially not with its explosive offense. Averaging more than 35 points per game last year, the majority of the Knights offensive weapons are back. The questions lie in how well the mediocre defense will play, as well as how the team will react to one of the toughest schedules they have ever faced. UCF might have the capacity to make a mark on the AAC, but not one strong enough to threaten Louisville's authority.

Questions for thought

If Louisville goes undefeated--which seems possible against a feeble set of opponents--is it enough to land a spot in the national title game?

Can the Rutgers', Cincinnati's, and UCF's of the AAC count on Louisville to lose a few games to keep pace, or is a 10+ win season necessary?

How will the new level of pressure and higher bar of expectations affect Louisville?

Key matchup

Louisville at Cincinnati, December 5th


Ichiro stole the night on Wednesday.
  • in light of Ichiro Suzuki's 4,000th hit today, starting his total in Japan only slightly diminishes this unique feat; more than two-thirds came in the US, and aside from the MLB, Nippon Professional Baseball (Japanese) is one of the most competitive leagues in the world

  • the Red Sox reacted to previous disappointment as their starting pitcher did: after blowing a late-inning lead last night at AT&T Park, Boston bounced back to crush the Giants, while starter Felix Doubront, clobbered by the Yankees in his last outing, turned in a stellar performance–over 8 innings, he yielded just 6 baserunners and allowed only 1 run
  • in 8 innings of 1-run ball as well as striking out 7 Marlins, Zach Greinke further validated the Dodgers' possession of two aces in their rotation; Los Angeles' offseason free-spending is finally paying its dividends, as Greinke has won all 4 of his last starts, with a sparkling 0.96 ERA in that span
  • as the Cleveland Indians begin their charge into October (2.5 GB of the wild card), the emergence of Justin Masterson this season as a viable rotation leader is very encouraging even if a playoff spot becomes out of reach–with another victory against the Angels today (6.2 innings with 1 ER), Masterson improves his record to 14-9, enough to tie him for second most wins in the American League
  • the Atlanta Braves added to their MLB-leading win total, but they sustained yet another loss as well (coincidentally at Citi Field); with the timetable for Jason Heyward (fractured jaw) being four-to-six weeks, the ramifications of his injury could be severe, as the Braves will miss his offensive and defensive presence, or limited, as Atlanta's 2013 success has not hinged so much on Heyward

Tebow could find his niche in the Patriots offense.

Before the Patriots faithful starts to push Tim Tebow out of Foxboro, it's worth considering what the most polarizing quarterback brings to the table–and perhaps not at his natural position.

It's hard to blame the bleak outlook on Tebow during his stint with the Patriots thus far: through two preseason games, the third-stringer has only connected on 5 of 19 passes for a total of 54 yards, and according to Pro Football Focus's assessment, owns the lowest QB rating. While he's shown flashes of the creativity he utilized to revive the Denver Broncos' season two years ago, he's appeared disoriented and helpless at other times as well.

Yet the idea that Tebow must stick to signal-calling in order to succeed would not only have given him a ticket out of Foxboro long ago, but it is also erroneous. Despite his displays of ineptitude throwing from the pocket, Tebow works best at creating chances–particularly on the ground–which was evident during the games against Philadelphia and Tampa Bay: in total, he run for 61 yards on 10 attempts in those contests.

And if Tebow presumably relinquishes his resolute desire to play at the quarterback position for the time being, he has potential to supply a valuable contribution to a Patriots offense in need of an extra lift. There's no question that the absence of so many prominent offensive fixtures heading into the 2013 season creates a dire need for new options on offense. And with Tebow, occasional appearances would fill the void for creativeness. Whether it's lining up in the backfield in the role of a fullback, or taking charge and implementing a wildcat formation, Tebow has the ability to serve as a unique and beneficial asset, perhaps becoming an offensive hybrid for the Patriots. The emphasis will surely remain on Tom Brady and his new corps of receivers, but adding a crafty playmaker like Tebow to a rushing attack already on the rise adds a useful wrinkle on the offensive of the ball.

And if added versatility to an offense looking to reinforce itself isn't enough of an incentive to give Tebow a chance, take into consideration the popular New Englander motto of "In Belichick We Trust". The longest-tenured mastermind has proved correct in judgement a countless number of times, earning a special trust in the hearts of the Patriots organization and fanbase. And with Belichick's fondness for backup quarterbacks, and recent remark about Tebow's improvement, what's the harm in entering the season with a chance to reap only the best of "Tebowmania"?