Ah yes, college football fans, it’s that time of year again. The Southeastern Conference continues its domination over the land as Alabama won the conference’s 6th straight BCS national championship last year. Will the SEC rule again? We'll see. Let’s get right to it and look at Week One Inside The SEC…
BUFFALO at GEORGIA
There is simply very little comparison between these two programs, which are meeting for the 1st time. Buffalo is breaking in a new quarterback, and its defense looks to be ripped by Georgia's Aaron Murray-led offense.
Look for this to be a cake-walk for the Bulldogs.
BOWLING GREEN at FLORDIA
Head coach Dave Clawson has rebuilt Bowling Green into a legitimate conference challenger. Last year's squad fell just short of a bowl game, and that doesn't seem to be likely this season. Experience and offense will vault the Falcons into MAC relevancy.
With that said, the Gators, by definition, will rarely meet a team with talent supremacy. Though Florida won just a single game against a winning FBS program a year ago, things are looking up in Gainesville.
Ultimately, this much talent and a home field advantage should win the game for Muschamp's Gators.
JACKSONVILLE STATE at ARKANSAS
Experienced talent at skill positions makes Jacksonville State a squad that shouldn't be overlooked.
Picked to finish second in the Ohio Valley Conference, the Gamecocks return two semi-starters at quarterback and Georgia transfer Washaun Ealey, who rushed for 1,082 yards a year ago. This from a squad who took a victory on an SEC field two seasons ago and enters the season ranked 13th among FCS foes.
Arkansas is more talented at every position and should walk away with the win, but if the offseason troubles linger and the Hogs forget to show up, it could be a game.
AUBURN at CLEMSON
Competing with Alabama/Michigan for my choice of Game of the Week, this battle of Tigers will be a tone-setter for both squads heading into the season.
Clemson returns an enormous amount of talent, especially offensively, and looks to rank among the most elite offenses in the country. Their offensive and defensive lines, however, will be a weakness.
With Aubruns’ running game and a weak Clemson defensive line, points should be available.
This should be a high-scoring, exciting shootout that will eventually come down to Clemson's offensive prowess.
CENTRAL ARKANSAS at OLE MISS
You will most likely never see me, or anyone for that matter, pick an FCS team to win a game on an SEC field.
With that said, the Rebels have a knack for losing recently, including a loss to Jacksonville State two seasons ago.
The Bears of Central Arkansas enter their season ranked just outside the Top 25 on the FCS level, and aren't without talent. Meanwhile, the Rebels are seeking mere respectability.
If head coach Hugh Freeze drops his first game to an FCS team, it could very well mean that fans and players alike could lose hope for the season by Ole Miss.
JACKSON STATE at MISSISSIPPI STATE
In a pass-happy offense, Jackson State lost its starting quarterback and two hot wide receivers.
Mississippi State will use this game to help quarterback Tyler Russell warm up, as his performance will prove crucial to the remainder of the season.
SOUTHEASTERN LOUISANA at MISSOURI
Though experienced, Southeastern Louisiana, coming off a 3-8 season against FCS competition, won't be providing any competition for Missouri.
The Tigers will cruise in this one.
ALABAMA vs. MICHIGAN (at Cowboys Stadium: Arlington, Texas)
Nick Saban has proven he knows how to shut down just about anyone.
Last year’s Bama squad easily ranked as the top defense in the country, and as one of the best in all of college football history.
I mention this because it may take that kind of performance to hold back first-team All-American Denard Robinson. He is perhaps the most mobile quarterback in collegiate football at the moment, and you can bet your houndstooth cap that Saban is creating his game plan around him.
The Tide prides itself on physical lines on both sides of the ball, and Robinson will need to find some holes in it. The Wolverines' talent at wide receiver is unimpressive and there are holes in the defensive line.
Saban's team is more talented, more well-rounded and playing closer to home. Advantage Tide.
The New Orleans Hornets acquired Robin Lopez in a sign & trade with the Phoenix Suns at the end of July. On Thursday, the local media finally got a chance to talk to the Hornets' new center.
"I’m excited to be here, we’ve got a young energetic group," Lopez said. "The great thing is we’ve got some youth with that has a little bit of experience as well. If you look at their age, you wouldn’t necessarily assume that t but it’s true. Hopefully we can parlay that into something special."
The Hornets get some much-needed size from the 7-foot-tall big man, and at just 24 years old, he has a ton of room to grow under head coach Monty Williams.
But what about the huge change in basketball philosophy he’s going to find in New Orleans? The Suns' up-tempo game was all about offense, while Hornets coach Williams preaches defense first.
"Actually, with the exception of Phoenix, in college and high school I always played with low-scoring, successful teams," Lopez said. "I was always a more defensive, grind it out type player, and I think that’s something I can defiantly get accustomed to here.
Ro-Lo has been an off-and-on starter since being drafted 15th overall in 2008. He played in a reserve role for the 64 games he was in last year, averaging 5.4 points, 3.3 rebounds, 0.7 blocks, and 14 minutes a game.
With Lopez being the only "true" center on the Hornets, he could very well see his minutes climb in New Orleans. He has no problem with how many minutes he does get, but just hopes it doesn’t fluctuate too much.
"I find it’s a little rough to play maybe 30 minutes one game and then 12 minutes another game," he told us. "As long as they are good constituent minutes, I know what I’m supposed to do out there and I’m going to try and go out and do the same things. As long as they are consistent minutes for me, I’m good, I’m ok, whatever my role is that’s fine."
Earlier this month, after the sign & trade was complete, the Hornets' new center did go under the knife to correct a tear of his medial meniscus in his left knee. The surgery was deemed a success (Really...has there ever been an unsuccessful surgery announced?) Lopez commented on how rehab is going.
"Right now I’m feeling great, honestly. I think I’m going to play it safe obviously. We still have a bit to go before the season, so I’m not going to rush into anything. But that said I’m feeling good."
Lopez has had a rash of injuries in his young career, which is not a good sign, but is expected to recover fully and be ready for the start of training camp this fall.
"I've always prided myself on catching everything. Ever since I was in high school I told myself, if it's going to touch your hands... you better catch it."
And that's exactly what Andy Tanner has done. The Saints wide receiver has managed to haul in 8 passes for 120 yards this preseason and seemed to make a big play or two at every training camp practice. Could he REALLY be this team's 4th wide receiver?
Tanner's college career shows that he is capable of success. As a receiver for Midwestern State he played his way into the school's record book in several categories playing 2006-2009. Among his school records are his 75 catches and 1,186 yards in a season, and his 20 career touchdowns. Tanner's 120 career receptions rank third in school history. His best game with the Mustangs came in the 2009 season, when he caught an 80-yard pass along with scoring three touchdowns.
Tanner then became part of the Saints system in 2010 as an undrafted free agent. He spent part of that year on the practice squad and would do the same in 2011, while also working with the scout team and seeing action in the preseason. What is he looking to accomplish this year?
"My mindset is just making the plays whenever given the chance, special teams or receiver, and get on the roster," Tanner said.
We already know the top three receiver positions are locked up by Marques Colston, Lance Moore and Devery Henderson. With the departure of Robert Meachem via free agency, there are a number of players vying for that vacant 4th WR spot. Special teams captain Courtney Roby seems to have the 5th receiver position locked up, and its highly unlikely the Saints would carry a 6th on the roster.
Tanner is familiar with the offense, he's been running crisp routes and more importantly he is catching the ball. How about the whole trust factor with the quarterback? Well this is what the $100 million dollar man had to say about him:
"Tanner's another one of those guys, that with any opportunity, he shows up everywhere," quarterback Drew Brees said. "He shows up on the practice field, he shows up on game day. Whenever he's in there, it seems that he's making plays. And there's not a guy that works harder. If you want to throw routes after practice you just say, 'Hey Tanner, will you come over and run some routes for me?' and he's going to be running routes for you. He's just one of those guys who's going to be there for you. He's a smart player, he never fools you, and he's always doing the right thing. He's always where you need him, when you need him there, so he's dependable."
Those are some very strong words from the leader of this team, but that was before Tanner got hurt. He was carted to the locker room after suffering a left ankle injury against the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Assistant coach Joe Vitt has acknowledged that Tanner might not play again this preseason. Will not being on the field the last two weeks hurt his chance of making the final 53-man roster?
"It certainly could," Vitt said. "When you get down to the final 53, we've had to make tough decisions around here. That stuff has always worked itself out, and there's options that you can go to and are available to players, whether it's the practice squad or the 53. Those things have always worked themselves out. We're going to go through this process for another week and a half. We have the Texans Saturday night, then the Titans Thursday. We're going to go through this process and see who can most help us."
In other words, Tanner looks to be practice squad bound again this season. He already had the odds stacked against him due to his size and strength... combined with the fact that he is pretty much the same type of receiver as Lance Moore. Add to all that his injury, and I would say it's a long shot for Andy Tanner to make this year's 53-man Saints roster.
Last year was a disappointment in many areas for the Saints defense, one of which included defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis.
A lot was expected of him after an impressive 2010 season in which he racked up 44 tackles and 6 sacks. Instead, 2011 turned out to be a big let down. Ellis finished the year with just 29 tackles and only a half of a sack; definitely not acceptable for a man of his talent and ability.
So was there something going on last season that caused such a dip in Ellis' numbers?
"I think there are a lot of things that go into that," Ellis says. "One of the things is I don't believe that the scheme that we were running last year was exactly fitting to the players that we had, but it's what we needed to do to win games at the time. When you play a team sport, that's how it is. Sometimes you have to sacrifice the good of yourself for the better of your team. We were winning games in the scheme we were playing, so sometimes you keep your mouth shut and you play football. That's part of being on a team. ."
Ellis explained that selfish people should not play football, but he noted he expects things to be better suited for him this year.
"If you want it to be all about you, you can play a single person sport. That's what needed to be done. That's also why I am so happy to be in the scheme that we're in now. I think it is made for defensive linemen to cause havoc and make it easier on the back end guys, and I'm very happy about that. It's very similar to the scheme that I grew up in college. It's kind of like going back home in a way."
Like going back home huh? What does that tell you? It means he's extremely comfortable in new defensive coordinators Steve Spagnulo's scheme, and this could be the year Sed-El finally lives up to being the 7th overall pick in 2008.
Does Ellis feel the defense as a whole is catching on to Coach Spags' scheme quicker than anticipated?
"There's a lot of communication in this defense that we haven't had in prior years," Sed-El said. "It takes a second to get out there and get a hold of it and learn what the guy next to you is doing. Everybody has to work together in this defense. It's not an option. For it to work, everyone has to work together. I am happy about how fast we're picking it up, and I'm also happy about how the guys are working together. We have a lot of guys that have been together prior to this, but the new guys that have come in are doing a great job also. I'm excited about our progress. You never really know. The preseason is one thing, and real games are another. It will be interesting to get into that first game and see what it's like to go in there with these guys, with the new guys and old guys alike, with this new scheme when it really counts and everything is on the line."
What about the fact that this is a contract year for the defensive tackle? When asked about how important this year is considering this is the final season of his current deal, Ellis has this to say:
"I think that's important to any player who's in the last season of their contract, not only for themselves but for their team to be able to evaluate what exactly it is they want to do with that player. Going forward, this is huge. It will be a pivotal point in my career and a pivotal point in my relationship with the Saints. I love this team. I've been here since the start of it all, and I would love to stay here and be with these guys until I finish. In order to do that, I have to have a pretty good season."
Maybe Coach Spagnuolo will be able to get the production from Ellis that Gregg Williams failed to do during his coaching tenure with the Saints. If what we've seen early on carries over into the regular season, a Pro Bowl berth for Sed-El along with a big pay day would not be out of the question.
Before we get into looking at the players on this list, let us get one thing straight... I'm not telling you not to draft these players. Most of these guys will live up to expectations this season. However, occasionally players don't perform up to expectations. If you can find these guys before the draft and avoid taking them too early, it can mean the difference in making your fantasy league playoffs and winning it all. While I can't predict who will come back to play this season (nor can I predict injuries), it is sometimes better to play it safe. I'd much rather pass over a player who is likely to get injured - because he has had a tendency to do so in the past - for a player who may score a point or two less on average. Then I don't have to worry about who I have as a backup and whether or not my starter will actually play or not when he is listed as "questionable."
I'm also more inclined to select a player who has proven himself throughout the years than someone who played a few good games one season and is now in a new role. When players change position on the depth chart, they don't always perform up to expectations. So keep in mind while reading through this list, I don't believe you should avoid these players at all costs. I'm simply saying, 'Think about some of the obstacles these guys have to overcome this season before drafting them.'
QB Peyton Manning, DEN
I want nothing more than to see Peyton back in top form this season. I just wonder if a full year off the field will be too much for him to come back from. He has already admitted his arm strength just isn't there yet, plus he can't throw the deep ball like he used to... and there's no telling when he'll be back in form. In addition to his arm just not being what is used to, we have to wonder just how many hits Peyton can take before he's knocked out of the game or out for the season. Manning is returning from neck surgery, and we all know that one big hit could send him off the field forever. Add to all the physical questions a new team, new offense, new receivers, new everything; and one has to wonder just how well Peyton Manning will play this season. As I said, I'd like nothing more than to see him return to his old form. I just don't know if I'd be willing to risk my fantasy season on when or if that ever happens.
QB Cam Newton, CAR
Newton is a primary example of a player that I'm betting his 2011 performance is going to cause owners to jump on him early in the draft. I believe Newton should be a starter, but I'm not sold on him being an elite fantasy quarterback. Cam's legs carried him to 706 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns in 2011. While a repeat of his 2011 performance is possible, I wouldn't feel comfortable resting my fantasy season on it. Another reason fantasy owners need to take a second look at Newton is that his 2011 passing yards look better than they really were. In three of the first four games he threw for 400+ yards twice and 374 yards once. Aside from these performances, he didn't break 300 yards again all season. There is a ton of upside with Newton, but with that risk comes a ton of downside. If he doesn't run for 700 yards and 14 touchdowns this season, does that cause your fantasy team to miss the playoffs?
RB Jamaal Charles, KC
Charles missed 14 games last season after suffering a season ending ACL injury in the Chiefs' second game. The one piece of good news here is that Charles has had nearly a year to recover and rehab his knee. The bad news is that the Chiefs have some major concerns about his ability to return to his pre-injury form, and they addressed these concerns by signing free agent Peyton Hillis. This means Charles will be sharing carries with Hillis, and it's likely we'll see Hillis receiving the bulk of the carries inside the 10 yard line. Running backs returning to action after suffering this type of injury the previous season tend not to have great seasons their first year back.
RB Fred Jackson, BUF
Jackson's performance last season was a bit of a surprise. I don't know many people who thought he would be a top 5 back last year. That was up until he broke his fibula in week 11, ending what was Fred's best season of his career. This year Jackson is 31, and while you could argue he hasn't had a lot of touches and hasn't taken the abuse many 31-year-old backs have, it doesn't change the fact that he is getting up there in age. Couple this with the emergence of CJ Spiller at the end of last year, and one has to wonder just how much action Jackson will see this season. Sure we'll see Jackson getting a majority of the carries early in the year, but will that continue all season? If you're banking on Jackson's '12 campaign looking like his 2011 numbers, you may want to think again.
RB Doug Martin, TB
There is plenty of upside with the rookie, however with all the upside there is some downside fantasy owners need to consider before drafting him. First, Martin is a rookie. While rookie running backs tend to have the best chance to perform well their first season, it doesn't mean he will. Second, Martin is not used to playing a 16 week season. It wouldn't surprise me to see him begin to fade around week 12. That means right when you need him most, his performance may begin to fall. You could trade him before that time comes, but that is always a gamble. To top it all off, Martin will most likely be splitting carries with LeGarrette Blount. While Martin may get the majority of the touches this year, it doesn't mean he'll get the rock on the goal line.
WR Victor Cruz, NYG
When the 2011 season began, Victor Cruz was a virtual unknown. In most leagues he went undrafted, and in leagues where he was drafted he was probably picked up by a Giants fan who just wanted one of their own on their fantasy team. Victor then goes from being a virtual nobody to the 4th best receiver in the NFL. He finished off the 2011 season with 1,536 yards and 9 touchdowns. Because of these numbers fantasy owners are drafting him in the third round this season. I don't want to say Cruz can't post numbers like that again, but the chances of a repeat performance are highly unlikely. If you recall, Brandon Lloyd had a similar sudden career year in 2010. That was promptly followed up with a 966 yard, 5 touchdown season a year later. Another thing to consider before drafting Cruz this year is that his role in the offense this season has changed. He will now be playing opposite Nicks every down, unlike last year. Cruz had just 16 receptions last year when just he and Nicks were both on the field. It should be interesting to see just how well Victor plays this season.
WR A.J. Green, CIN
Don't get me wrong here, I like A.J. Green, but I don't know if I like him enough to be a top 10 receiver at year's end. I believe he was lucky and found himself in the right place at the right time. The Bengals needed a number one receiver and there wasn't anyone else, so Green was the recipient. Not to say he isn't loaded with talent, but I just don't know if we'll see the 1,300 yards and 10 touchdowns again. My main concern is really that I have my doubts QB Andy Dalton will perform this year as well as he did in 2011.
WR Steve Smith, CAR
Steve Smith's season will be as good as Cam Newton's. If Newton is having a great year, then so will Smith. The thing is, I'm not sold on Newton having a great year. I didn't like what I saw in the final 6 games of the season last year, and if that carries into this season, then fantasy owners could have a long year. Couple this with Smith turning 33 this year, and things don't look so great. I'm not going to sit here and tell you Smith won't hit 1,000 yards this year, but it wouldn't surprise me if he didn't.
The Saints finally get their first look of this training camp at defensive tackle Akiem Hicks at the Friday practice. Hicks said after Thursday’s workout that he expects to take part in the padded practice.
Hicks has been sidelined due to a fractured hand and was asked if he’s coming back in enough time to be able to play in Sunday’s Hall of Fame Game against the Arizona Cardinals.
“Definitely,” Hicks said as he smiled. “I’m for sure going to play on Sunday, at least that’s what I’ve been told coming in, so I’m going to be ready to play.”
The 6 foot 5, 324-ponder finished his collegiate career at the University of Regina in Canada. Hicks was an LSU signee in Les Miles' 2009 recruiting class before the NCAA ruled he had received improper benefits during an unofficial visit and would never play for the Tigers.
He says that his time on the sidelines healing hasn’t been a complete waste of time though, because he made sure to study all the on the field action.
“I’ve taken more mental reps than I’ve taken my whole life,’’ the Saints 3rd-round draft pick said. “Every play I’m into it, I’m waiting for the next call, I’m ready, I’m doing my own moves on the side and trying to figure out what I need to be ready for when I come back to full contact. So…a lot of mental reps.”
The Saints will most likely go with Sedrick Ellis and Brodrick Bunkley as their starting defensive tackles this year, but Hicks will be given a chance to earn a spot in the rotation. It has been an area where the team has really struggled to find some consistent play from and the Saints used their first pick in this year’s draft on Hicks hoping he will be part of the solution.
"Height, weight, speed, he's the kind of guy we are looking at for our defensive system," assistant coach Joe Vitt said after the team drafted Hicks. "We love his tenacity. We know he is raw. He's got to be coached, but that's the fun part. He fits the character of our football team. He has good work habits. We love his resiliency."
In his senior year at Regina, Akiem Hicks made 42 tackles with 6.5 sacks and was a first-team All-Conference selection.
One Saints player I am really excited to see in action this season is Martez Wilson. He has ENORMOUS potential. "Tez" played linebacker in college and as a rookie, but now he is making the move to defensive end under new defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo.
Why the move?
Well I think footballoutsiders.com described Wilson best when they said he is a player with a Jevon Kearse-meets-Jason Pierre-Paul body type. Impressive, I know, and that's exactly why Coach Spags has moved him to DE.
"It's working out good," Wilson said. "Defensive end actually feels more natural, and with me dropping... some of the concepts are the same in terms of passing routes. So all the time I've played at linebacker has allowed me to understand the defense a little faster. I'm loving the change."
It's far from a secret that the Saints need to bolster their rush. Will Smith is really the only proven pass rusher on the front four, and he has to serve a four-game suspension to open the season. If the Saints can make Wilson into a Kearse/Pierre-Paul type player, the defense will be upgraded immensely.
What was Wilson's story last season?
He played sparingly, but Wilson did produce a major highlight. He sacked Panthers rookie phenom QB Cam Newton on a blitz up the middle for a 16-yard loss. Former D-coordinator Gregg Williams used him just as a situational blitz-package player in his rookie season, but Spagnuolo sees a player who can do and be so much more.
In his tenure with the Giants, Spags masterminded a shocking Super Bowl victory over the unbeaten Patriots by utilizing the pass-rushing talents of Michael Strahan, Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora. One of his key packages consisted of four athletic defensive ends, rather than bulky 300-pound tackles, on the front line. It was designed to pressure the quarterback with quick, powerful rushes while still providing capable zone coverage if anyone needed to drop back. It is a risky strategy, but it did help earn a Super Bowl XLII ring for the G-Men.
Martez Wilson definitely has the speed. His 40-yard dash time of 4.49 seconds made him the fastest linebacker in the 2011 class. To put that time into context, Cam Newton and Robert Griffin III, clocked in at 4.58 and 4.38 respectively. Jaw dropping I know. Having a defender on your roster strong enough to stop Tebow and quick enough to catch Newton is a major advantage for any team.
So his speed can translate to defensive end, but how about Wilson's size? At 6 foot 4 and 255 pounds, he is perhaps 15 to 20 pounds lighter than most NFL DE's. However, Wilson's measurements are identical to those of Osi Umenyiora, who is a future Hall-of-Famer that was key to Spag's success in the Big Apple.
I know... I'm jumping way ahead of myself. The team hasn't even hit the field for preseason game #1 yet, but that's how amped I am about this kid. If things play out the way Coach Spagnuolo envisions for #95, Wilson could be the missing piece to the Fleur-Di-Lis D that helps this team play in the "Big Game" that their home turf is hosting.