Stats & Info: ESPN Stats & Info
Here are the projections for Sunday’s Sprint Cup race at Martinsville. Our projection system takes into account, among other factors, drivers’ past performances at the current track, pre-race on-track activity (practices and qualifying) and probability of finishing the race. All of the data is then adjusted for the track type (in this case, a .526-mile oval short track) and time of year.
Kevin Harvick improved his streak to eight consecutive top-two finishes after passing teammate Kurt Busch for second place last week at California. Harvick has tied the fifth-longest such streak in NASCAR Cup Series history. Only Richard Petty has had a longer streak, the most recent of which came in 1975 (a record 11 straight). In NASCAR’s modern era (since 1972), there has been only two streaks of at least eight straight top-two finishes: Harvick’s current run and Richard Petty’s record 11 straight in 1975. Harvick has actually led a higher percentage of laps during his current run than Petty did during his. However, Harvick has traditionally struggled at Martinsville. In 27 starts, he has just three top-five finishes with an average finish of 16.4.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the most recent Cup race at Martinsville, but it’s Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson who are among the best all-time at the track, with each winning there eight times. Gordon has never won nine races at a single track, and Johnson is looking to become the sixth driver to win at least nine times at multiple tracks (he has also done so at Dover).
A fifth Hendrick Motorsports driver will be on the track Sunday, as Chase Elliott will make his Sprint Cup Series debut. Elliott is the defending NASCAR XFINITY Series champion and the only teenager to win a title in NASCAR National Touring Series history. If Elliott finishes poorly, it’s not a big cause for concern. Both Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon wrecked in their Cup Series debuts driving for Hendrick Motorsports and finished outside the top 30.
Three drivers have started this season with five straight top 10s. From 2011-14, no driver started a season with six straight top 10s, and it has happened only twice in the past 22 seasons. Most notably, Martin Truex Jr. has started with five top-10s in a row. He has already equaled his last season totals of one top-five and five top-10s.
Below is a short preview of each of Friday’s Sweet 16 matchups. Included in the preview is a “factor to watch” based on Dean Oliver’s Four Factors of basketball success, which have been shown to correlate with winning: shooting, turnovers, rebounding and free throws.
11 UCLA vs. 2 Gonzaga
BPI Edge: Gonzaga 85 percent
This matchup might come down to ... if UCLA can contain Kyle Wiltjer. The transfer from Kentucky shoots 48 percent on 3-pointers, a shot that UCLA has struggled to defend. In the previous meeting between the two teams this season, Wiltjer made three 3-pointers and scored a game-high 24 points. Wiltjer has the ninth-highest player efficiency rating in the nation.
(Four) Factor to watch: Shooting: Gonzaga has the highest offensive effective field goal percentage in the nation (58.8 percent), and UCLA ranks 124th (49.9 percent). The Bruins are 17-0, including both of their tournament wins, when they have an effective field goal percentage of at least 50. They are 5-13 when their effective field goal percentage is below 50.
8 NC State vs. 4 Louisville
BPI Edge: Louisville 65 percent
This matchup might come down to ... if NC State can limit Terry Rozier ... again. Rozier has been responsible for more than 55 percent of Louisville’s points in the NCAA tournament, the highest percentage of any player remaining. In the teams' previous meeting, an NC State win, Rozier was held to seven points on 3-of-11 shooting before he fouled out with five minutes remaining.
(Four) Factor to watch: Turnovers: Louisville forces a turnover on 22 percent of its opponents' possessions this season, sixth-best among major conference teams. In NCAA tournament games, only West Virginia had a higher defensive turnover rate than the Cardinals among Sweet 16 participants. NC State is generally good at avoiding turnovers, but in a few losses this season (such as against West Virginia), the Wolfpack struggled to protect the ball.
5 Utah vs. 1 Duke
BPI Edge: Duke 62 percent
This matchup might come down to ... freshman centers Jahlil Okafor and Jakob Poeltl. Okafor is averaging 23.5 points per game in the NCAA tournament, including a tournament-high 38 points in the paint. Poeltl is 12-of-13 from the floor in the tournament and ranked tied for fourth in paint points entering Thursday's games. On the season, Duke leads major-conference teams in points per game in the paint, and Utah ranks sixth in paint points allowed.
(Four) Factor to watch: Shooting: Duke ranks third in the nation with a 57.4 effective field goal percentage. The Blue Devils are 28-1 when they post an effective field goal percentage of 50 or higher and 3-3 when they do not. Utah ranks fifth in the nation in effective field goal percentage defense and has 27 games in which its opponent shot less than 50 percent, tied for eighth most in the nation.
7 Michigan State vs. 3 Oklahoma
BPI Edge: Oklahoma 55 percent
This matchup might come down to ... which team can get out and run. Oklahoma averages 19.7 transition points per game, most among major-conference teams. Michigan State is not far behind at 16.5 transition points per game, including 18.0 in its two NCAA tournament games. Both teams score more than 23 percent of their points in transition, so it is important for each to get out and run.
(Four) Factor to watch: Free throws: Michigan State has an above-average propensity to foul, and offensively, the Spartans rarely get to the line. They score 16 percent of their points from the free throw line, the fifth-lowest percentage in the nation, and are one of the worst free throw shooting teams (63 percent). Oklahoma also rarely gets to the line, but when the Sooners get there, they are able to knock down their free throws (74 percent).
Below is a short preview of each of Thursday’s Sweet 16 matchups. Included in the preview is a “factor to watch” based on Dean Oliver’s Four Factors of basketball success, which have been shown to correlate with winning: shooting, turnovers, rebounding and free throws.
7 Wichita State vs. 3 Notre Dame
BPI Edge: Wichita State 50.1 percent -- projected to be the closest game of the Sweet 16.
This matchup might come down to ... the backcourts. Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker of Wichita State and Jerian Grant and Demetrius Jackson of Notre Dame are two of the best backcourts in the nation. Each duo has combined for more than 12 win shares, an estimate of the wins a player produces for his team.
Most win shares among guard duos, 2014-15 seasons
Fred VanVleet-Ron Baker, Wichita State, 13.3
Delon Wright-Brandon Taylor, Utah, 13.3
Jerian Grant-Demetrius Jackson, Notre Dame 12.8
Source: CBB Reference
(Four) Factor to watch: Shooting: Notre Dame ranks second in the nation in effective field goal percentage, behind Gonzaga. Because Notre Dame ranks outside of the top 100 defensively, it is reliant on its efficient offense; the Irish’s three worst shooting performances resulted in losses. Meanwhile, Wichita State has allowed the second-lowest effective field goal percentage in the nation since the start of February.
4 North Carolina vs. 1 Wisconsin
BPI Edge: Wisconsin 76 percent
This matchup might come down to ... which team can control the tempo. Wisconsin averages 59.8 possessions per game, seventh fewest in the nation and 10 fewer than UNC, the fastest-paced team in the ACC. The Tar Heels have never been held to a pace as slow as Wisconsin’s season average for possessions this season, but of their seven lowest-possession games of the season, they lost five.
(Four) Factor to watch: Rebounding: UNC rebounds more than 40 percent of its missed shots, the fifth-highest offensive rebound percentage in the country. This leads to 14.2 second-chance points per game. Wisconsin rebounds 76 percent of its opponents’ missed shots, fourth-best in the nation.
5 West Virginia vs. 1 Kentucky
BPI Edge: Kentucky 92 percent -- projected to be the most lopsided game.
This matchup might come down to ... whether West Virginia can create offense from its turnovers. The Mountaineers force a turnover on 28 percent of their opponents’ possessions, best in the nation, which leads to a Division I-high 20.7 points per game off turnovers. In the half court, Kentucky is allowing a Division I-best 0.68 points per possession, and West Virginia ranks 258th in the nation in half-court efficiency, so the Mountaineers will have to get out and run to score with the Wildcats.
(Four) Factor to watch: Rebounding: West Virginia and Kentucky are two of seven teams that rebound at least 40 percent of their own missed shots. Each team scores about 13 points per game off offensive rebounds. One weakness for Kentucky is defensive rebounding (ranking 196th), so West Virginia might be able to score some easy points on putbacks.
6 Xavier vs. 2 Arizona
BPI Edge: Arizona 84 percent
This matchup might come down to ... which point guard can make plays. T.J. McConnell and Dee Davis have the highest and third-highest assist rates among players remaining in the NCAA tournament, according to KenPom.com. Each player has been responsible for more than a third of his team’s points in the tournament.
(Four) Factor to watch: Rebounding: Xavier rebounded 33 percent of its missed shots in each of its first two NCAA tournament games, resulting in 25 second-chance points and contributing to its off-the-charts 63.9 effective field goal percentage. Arizona is the best defensive rebounding team in the nation, grabbing 78 percent of its opponents’ missed shots.
The PGA Tour is about to start its “Texas Two-Step” this week, but plenty of minds will be on Augusta.
This week’s Valero Texas Open is the final chance for players to qualify for the Masters by getting into the top 50 in the Official World Golf Ranking, and next week brings the Shell Houston Open. So what can we expect from the annual swing through the Lone Star State?
Surprise winners and drama
In 2010, Adam Scott made the Valero Texas Open his seventh career PGA Tour victory and rose to No. 36 in the world. Since then, the world rankings of the winners in San Antonio have been the following: 231st (Brendan Steele), 285th (Ben Curtis), 117th (Martin Laird) and 339th (Steven Bowditch).
Not only have recent winners been obscure, but they’ve also had to sweat to the finish. Beginning in 2009, these events have been decided by playoffs four times, by one shot five times and by more than one shot just three times.
Of the three who won by more than a stroke, two (Phil Mickelson and Laird) shot 65 or better on the final day to close the deal.
Hall of Fame tradition
This week’s Texas Open field features 13 of the top 30 players in the Official World Golf Ranking, but none of the world’s top five will tee it up. The most recent top-10 player to win this event was Nick Price, in 1992.
That was nine months before Jordan Spieth -- the highest-ranked player in this week’s field -- was born.
This background obscures one of the most venerable histories of any event on the tour. Not only is this the third-oldest non-major on the PGA Tour schedule (dating to 1922), but it also has hosted some of the greatest winners in golf history.
The second edition, held in 1923, was won in a playoff by Walter Hagen, who overcame a six-shot deficit on the final day. Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson dueled in a playoff in 1940 (Nelson won), and Hogan finished second three times before winning in 1946.
From 1960 to 1962, Arnold Palmer won five major championships, including three legs of the career grand slam. In each of those years, Palmer also won the Texas Open - still the only man to win it three years in a row.
Grayson was one of four college quarterbacks to throw for 4,000 yards last season, and his Total QBR (69.6) ranked sixth among quarterbacks in the 2015 draft class.
“Monday Night Football” analyst Jon Gruden will meet with Grayson and four other quarterbacks during the sixth season of “Gruden’s QB Camp,” which debuts Tuesday, April 7, at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN2.
Ahead of the show, we take a look at Grayson’s greatest strength, his main area in need of improvement in his final season and a cause for concern.
Greatest strength: Stretching the field
Grayson excelled in the vertical passing game last season, averaging 9.5 yards per pass and earning a first down on 40 percent of his throws. Only Marcus Mariota (10 yards per attempt and first downs on 42 percent of passes) stretched the field at a higher rate last season.
In 2014, 57 percent of Grayson’s completions gained 10 yards or more, the highest percentage of any quarterback in this draft class.
Not only did Grayson find success downfield, but he also converted third downs. Grayson converted on 47 percent of third-down passing plays, ranking fourth in the nation behind Blake Sims, Jameis Winston and Cody Kessler.
Biggest improvement: Mobility
Grayson took 74 sacks during his four-year career at Colorado State, including 26 in his final season. Although that total is not exceptionally high, Grayson fumbled 16 times in his two full seasons as starter (but was fortunate to have the Rams recover all but three of those fumbles).
A hamstring injury kept Grayson from the combine, but he returned in time to throw at Colorado State’s pro day on Monday.
Grayson posted an unofficial 40-yard time of 4.72 seconds, which would have ranked seventh among quarterbacks at the combine. Mariota led all quarterbacks with a 4.52 40-yard time.
Cause for concern: No more Rashard Higgins
A lot of Grayson’s production last year came throwing to consensus first-team All-American wide receiver Rashard Higgins.
Higgins was a finalist for the Biletnikoff Award as well as on the watch list for the Walter Camp Award after leading the nation in receiving yards last season.
Grayson’s passing numbers dropped significantly last year when targeting receivers not named Higgins. When targeting Higgins, Grayson had a 16-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio and a Total QBR of 96. Throwing to all others, Grayson had a 16-6 ratio and an 83 Total QBR.
Kevin Harvick finished second Sunday at Fontana, California, extending his run of top-two finishes to eight consecutive NASCAR Sprint Cup races. Only one other driver in Cup Series history has a longer streak: Richard Petty.
Petty’s series record is 11 consecutive top-two finishes in 1975. He also has several others longer than Harvick's, whose streak dates to the 2014 season. David Pearson (1968) also has a streak of eight top-two finishes.
Comparing Harvick’s streak to Petty’s run of 11
Depending on one’s viewpoint, Harvick’s streak could be considered more impressive than Petty’s 11 in a row.
Petty paced the field for 33 percent of his laps during that streak, whereas Harvick has been leading for more than 37 percent of the laps during his past eight starts.
Moreover, the competition at the top of the field is possibly tighter. During Petty’s run, an average of 2.3 cars finished on the lead lap each start. During Harvick’s streak, that average is 25.5 cars on the lead lap.
In Petty’s streak he had six victories. Harvick has four among his last eight races.
Why Harvick might stretch it to nine
Harvick’s statistics in the past eight races make a convincing case. He has four wins (second-best is two wins). He has led 836 laps (second-best is 367 laps led). The next-most consistent finisher in these eight races has an average finish of 6.8 compared with Harvick’s average finish of 1.5.
Harvick has accomplished this on a variety of tracks, ranging from intermediates (from 1 to 2 miles) to Daytona (2½ miles).
Harvick has run 301 fastest laps in five starts this season, 201 more than anyone else. That’s good for 27.7 percent of the laps run under green this year.
Why the streak might end
The next stop on the NASCAR Sprint Cup tour is Sunday in Martinsville. Harvick was involved in a wreck there in the fall and finished 33rd – the race preceding the start of his streak.
Last fall’s Martinsville race was the most recent event Harvick has run on a short track. He has won at the track once, but he has finished out of the top five in 24 of 27 starts there.
His average finish in at Martinsville is 16.4. He has paced the field for one lap in his past five starts there.
Bryce Petty spent two seasons at the helm of one of the most efficient offenses in college football. The Baylor Bears finished the 2013 and 2014 seasons in the top two in offensive efficiency, according to ESPN’s rankings.
With Petty as the starting quarterback, Baylor had 49 touchdown drives of one minute or less -- 13 more than any other FBS team.
"Monday Night Football" analyst Jon Gruden will meet with Petty and four other quarterbacks during the sixth season of "Gruden's QB Camp," which debuts April 7 at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN2.
To prepare you for the show, we break down Petty's greatest strength, his main area of improvement in his final season and a cause for concern.
Greatest strength: Arm strength
Petty led the FBS last season with 20 touchdowns on passes thrown 20 or more yards downfield, including 13 thrown at least 30 yards downfield. Only four other FBS quarterbacks had more than 13 completions -- much less touchdown completions -- at least 30 yards downfield all season.
Since the 2011 season, Petty is the only Power 5 quarterback to have a career completion percentage of at least 60 percent while having an average throw distance of at least 10 yards downfield in multiple seasons (minimum 100 passes per season).
He leads Power 5 quarterbacks in touchdowns on throws at least 20 yards downfield since 2011 with 39, two more than Tajh Boyd.
Biggest improvement: Accuracy downfield
Unlike Marcus Mariota and Brett Hundley, other QB Camp stars and members of the 2015 NFL draft class, Petty has two years (instead of three) as a starting college quarterback.
In his first season as a starter, Petty completed 62 percent of his passes, and his average throw downfield was a Big 12-high 10.9 yards. Petty continued to impress in 2014, increasing his average air yards and his completion percentage.
He was one of three quarterbacks to average at least four passes of 30 or more yards downfield per game (along with Trevone Boykin and Daxx Garman), and Petty was the only one to complete more than 30 percent of them.
Petty missed (meaning he overthrew or underthrew) on 45 percent of his throws at least 30 yards downfield in 2013, but he reduced that number to 34 percent in 2014 -- and he completed a higher percentage of his deep attempts. Petty had 13 touchdowns and no interceptions on passes 30 or more yards downfield last season.
Cause for concern: System quarterback
Petty played 48 snaps (five of which resulted in him throwing a pass) from under center last season. The fewest passes from under center by an NFL quarterback in one season in the past five years (minimum 12 games played) is 24 (Nick Foles, 2013).
NFL quarterbacks drafted since 2010 average 374 snaps and 92 passes from under center in a season. It may not be a staple of Petty’s offense, but he'll likely need to show he can perform from under center to compete for a starting position in the NFL.
The Chargers (27) threw the fewest passes last season from under center, and the Eagles were next with 35.
Kentucky started the NCAA Tournament with a 49 percent chance of winning, according to ESPN’s Basketball Power Index, and, after the Wildcats won their first two games, BPI projects their chances of finishing 40-0 and winning the title at … 49 percent.
Kentucky’s chances of winning remained the same in part because the Wildcats were expected to win their first two games. Also, for the most part, the higher seeds on their side of bracket advanced.
Gonzaga, because of its favorable Sweet 16 matchup against UCLA (the lowest-rated team remaining), now has the second-best chance to make the Final Four. BPI gives the Bulldogs an 85 percent chance to beat the Bruins, making it the second-most lopsided projected Sweet 16 game, behind Kentucky-West Virginia (93 percent).
The closest region is the West, where Arizona and Wisconsin are in a dead heat for the Final Four. Despite Wisconsin ranking higher in BPI, the Badgers have a tougher Sweet 16 matchup (against North Carolina, 12th in BPI) than Arizona (Xavier, 26th in BPI).
The most open region is the East, where Oklahoma and Louisville are co-favorites to reach the Final Four at 32 percent each, with Michigan State (24 percent) not far behind.
Virginia and Villanova entered the tournament with the fourth- and fifth-best chances to reach the Final Four, so after they were knocked out, Oklahoma and Louisville were the biggest movers the last few days.
Teams most helped by opening weekend
The four teams advancing in the East region – Oklahoma, Louisville, Michigan State and North Carolina State – were the biggest beneficiaries of the opening weekend.
Not only did they all advance, but they also knocked off the two favorites in the region, resulting in their chances of making the Final Four skyrocketing.
NC State: Defying the odds
UCLA is the lowest-seeded team in the Sweet 16, but the most unlikely participant is North Carolina State. At the start of the tournament, BPI gave the Wolfpack an 8.4 percent chance to reach the Sweet 16 because of their low chance to beat Villanova in the Round of 32.
Among teams still alive, the next-lowest pre-tournament chances to make the Sweet 16 belonged to UCLA (12.8 percent), Michigan State (13.8 percent) and Xavier (25.3 percent).
In the last four NCAA Tournaments, NC State is the third-most unlikely Sweet 16 participant, based on BPI’s pre-tournament projections. The previous three teams to make the Sweet 16 with less than a 10 percent pre-tournament chance did not advance further.
BPI chance by conference
The ACC has five teams in the Sweet 16, tying the record for most by a conference (Big East in 2009). There is about a 67 percent chance that the ACC will have at least one of those five teams make the Final Four, with Louisville (32 percent) the most likely participant.
Sweet 16 projections
Most lopsided game: Kentucky vs. West Virginia, Kentucky 93 percent chance to win
Closest game: Notre Dame vs. Wichita State, Notre Dame 50.3 percent chance to win
Most unlikely game (based on pre-tournament projections): NC State vs. Louisville, 4 percent chance of occurring
Here are the projections for Sunday’s Sprint Cup race at California. Our projection system takes into account, among other factors, drivers’ past performances at the current track, prerace on-track activity (practices and qualifying) and probability of finishing the race. All of the data is then adjusted for the track type (in this case, a 2-mile D-shaped oval) and time of year.
Kevin Harvick is on a run like NASCAR hasn’t seen since 1975, with seven straight top-two finishes dating to last year. In NASCAR Cup Series history, two other drivers - Hall of Famers Richard Petty and David Pearson - have had at least seven straight top-two finishes (Petty and Pearson rank 1-2 in series history in wins).
The only other time in NASCAR’s modern era we have seen a streak such as this was during Petty’s 1975 season, when he won 13 of 30 races and posted an average finish of 6.6. Harvick has led a higher percentage of laps during his run than Petty did.
Jimmie Johnson entered the season as the Westgate Las Vegas Superbook’s favorite to win the Sprint Cup Series Championship (5-1 odds) but has since been passed by Harvick (9-2). Johnson, however, has been a force at Auto Club Speedway as he ranks first all-time in wins (five), top-fives (12), laps led (955), average start (9.2) and average finish (6.6)
Johnson is projected to win Sunday's race, with Harvick projected to finish second. The rest of the top five are Kyle Larson, Kurt Busch and Matt Kenseth.
SOUTH CAROLINA GAMECOCKS (7-6, 3-5 SEC last season)
2014 postseason: Defeated Miami (FL) in Duck Commander Independence Bowl
Final AP rank: NR
Returning starters: 4 offense, 8 defense, 1 specialist (via Phil Steele)
2015 ESPN FPI rank: 40th
Spring game: April 11
• Will the experience gained in 2014 help the defense in 2015?
South Carolina started seven underclassmen on defense in 2014, and the Gamecocks had their worst season defensively in 10 years under coach Steve Spurrier.
The Gamecocks’ defense finished last in the conference in yards per play (6.2) and expected points added (-6.1 per game). Both marks were the worst by a South Carolina defense under Spurrier, and the defensive EPA figure was eight points worse than in any other season under Spurrier.
• What will Pharoh Cooper do for an encore?
First-team All-SEC wide receiver Pharoh Cooper returns for his junior season after turning in the third-best receiving season in South Carolina history. Cooper finished second in the conference with 1,136 receiving yards in 2014, more than twice that of the second-leading receiver on the team. Cooper caught 67 percent of the passes thrown his way, second-most in the conference for players targeted 75 times or more.
• How will they replace their offensive backfield?
South Carolina and Florida have the fewest offensive starters in the SEC East returning in 2015 (four). The Gamecocks took the biggest hit in the backfield, though, losing every starter on an offense that averaged 12.7 expected points added per game, which was sixth in the SEC and the second-most in a season under Spurrier.
The top candidates to replace quarterback Dylan Thompson are Connor Mitch, a redshirt freshman last season, and rising junior Perry Orth. Mike Davis was not only the team’s leading rusher, but he also finished third on the team in receiving yards. Rising senior Brandon Wilds (570 rush yards in 2014) is expected to take Davis’ spot.
MISSISSIPPI STATE BULLDOGS (10-3, 6-2 SEC last season)
2014 postseason: Lost to Georgia Tech in Capital One Orange Bowl
Final AP rank: 11th
Returning starters: 5 offense, 4 defense, 2 specialists (via Phil Steele)
2015 ESPN FPI rank: 22nd
Spring game: April 18
• What to expect from Dak Prescott?
Dak Prescott last season became the fourth SEC player since 2000 to pass for 25 touchdowns and rush for 10 touchdowns in one season. Should he reach those thresholds again, he will join Tim Tebow as the only SEC quarterbacks to do so twice.
Prescott ranked 16th in the FBS in Total QBR, sixth in the SEC. His QBR of 74.1 represented a more than 11-point drop from 2013. He took 21 sacks last season (compared with eight in 2013) and threw an interception on 2.8 percent of his passes (up from 2.6 percent the season before).
• What will the loss of Josh Robinson mean?
Josh Robinson finished third in the SEC in rushing last season, totaling 1,203 yards on the ground, and earned the nickname “The Human Bowling Ball.”
The Bulldogs rushed for 1,971 yards and averaged 5.9 yards on runs between the tackles, second-most in the conference. Robinson averaged 3.3 yards after contact between the tackles, third-most among SEC running backs (minimum 100 carries). Mississippi State will look to rising juniors Ashton Shumpert or Brandon Holloway to take over for Robinson this year.
• Can the defense be more than middle tier?
Mississippi State’s defense contributed 8.2 expected points added in the Bulldogs’ 10 wins, eighth in the SEC. The Bulldogs were seventh in the conference in defensive EPA in all games.
Mississippi State missed 105 tackles in 2014, most in the SEC, and is losing seven starters from last year, including second-team All-SEC selections Preston Smith and Bednarick McKinney.
Mississippi State finished second in the conference with 37 sacks a year ago, but all but two starters from last year’s front seven are gone. Defensive tackle Chris Jones is the most experienced player returning among the group. Leo Lewis, the No. 2 inside linebacker in the ESPN 300 recruiting rankings for 2015, could make an immediate impact.
GEORGIA BULLDOGS (10-3, 6-2 SEC last season)
2014 postseason: Defeated Louisville in Belk Bowl
Final AP rank: 9th
Returning starters: 7 offense, 5 defense, 2 specialists (via Phil Steele)
2015 ESPN FPI rank: 9th
Spring game: April 11
• Mark Richt: Quarterback competition is open
Brian Schottenheimer succeeded Mike Bobo as offensive coordinator, and he will have to teach his offense to a new starting quarterback. Last season, Georgia led the SEC in offensive efficiency (barely ahead of Alabama in offensive expected points added per game).
Coach Mark Richt has said he doesn't expect to designate a starter after spring practice. Brice Ramsey was the primary backup to Hutson Mason (third in the SEC in Total QBR in 2014) last season but was 4-of-9 passing with an interception in the Belk Bowl win against Louisville.
• Nick Chubb takes over at running back full time
Nick Chubb was the SEC offensive freshman of the year in 2014 and rushed for 1,547 yards, 69 yards shy of Herschel Walker's SEC freshman record. Over the final eight games of 2014, Chubb averaged 165 rush yards and more than seven yards per carry.
Expect Schottenheimer to become familiar with his running backs. Over the last two seasons, the St. Louis Rams ran the ball 41 percent of the time (10th-highest rate in the NFL) with Schottenheimer as offensive coordinator.
• Youth movement on defense
Thirteen true freshmen played last year for the Bulldogs, and expect that number to go up in 2015. Georgia returns five primary starters on defense, second-fewest among SEC teams. Georgia will need to replace the production of Amarlo Herrera, who exceeded 110 tackles in each of the last two seasons.
Georgia signed the No. 8 recruiting class this year. The Bulldogs’ top seven recruits from 2015 could end up on defense, headlined by defensive tackle Trenton Thompson, the No. 3 recruit in the country. Look for early enrollees Jonathan Ledbetter (No. 11 defensive tackle in ESPN 300) and Natrez Patrick (No. 12 defensive end in ESPN 300) to see time this spring.
FLORIDA GATORS (7-5, 4-4 SEC last season)
2014 postseason: defeated East Carolina in Birmingham Bowl
Final AP rank: NR
Returning starters: 4 offense, 6 defense, 0 specialists (via Phil Steele)
2015 ESPN FPI rank: 22nd
Spring game: April 11
• Can new coach Jim McElwain fix the Gators’ offense?
Defense was not a problem under former coach Will Muschamp. The Gators’ SEC ranks in defensive expected points added in his four seasons were sixth, second, second and second. Offense was another story. Florida never ranked better than fourth-worst in the conference in offensive expected points added under Muschamp.
McElwain took Colorado State from 115th in the FBS offensive expected points in his first season as coach in 2012 to 22nd in FBS in his final season.
• Who will emerge at quarterback?
In the five seasons since Tim Tebow left, Florida ranks 60th out of 65 Power 5 teams in Total QBR. Only Georgia Tech and Kansas have fewer touchdown passes than Florida (67) in the past five years among Power 5 teams. (Tebow himself threw 83 touchdown passes in his three seasons as Florida’s full-time starter.)
Treon Harris played in nine games last seasons and ranked 14th in the SEC in Total QBR out of 16 quarterbacks with at least 200 action plays. Look for redshirt freshman Will Grier to compete with Harris for the starting spot. Grier was the No. 44 player in the 2014 ESPN 300.
• Which true freshmen will have an impact?
Florida returns 10 starters, ahead of only Mississippi State (nine) in the SEC, according to Phil Steele. After a rough run for much of the recruiting season, Florida added a couple of ESPN top-10 players on National Signing Day.
No. 1-ranked offensive tackle Martez Ivey might start early on an offensive line that returns one starter from a crew that ranked fourth in the SEC in sack rate (5 percent) last season. No. 2 defensive end CeCe Jefferson should add pass-rush ability to a defensive line that returns two starters, who combined for 6.5 sacks.
It will be the first ever regular-season meeting between Mike Trout and Clayton Kershaw.
Here are a few of the top stats to know for Tuesday night's marquee matchup.
Best of the best
Trout debuted for the Angels in 2011 (the season Kershaw won his first Cy Young award), but made a name for himself in 2012.
Since then, Trout has been arguably the best hitter in baseball, while Kershaw could be considered the game's best pitcher.
Trout leads all position players in WAR since the start of 2012 and Kershaw leads all pitchers in WAR over the same stretch.
Not only are they both at the top of their games in 2014, but each has started his career in historically impressive fashion.
Trout has produced more WAR through age 22 than any position player in MLB since 1900. His 26.1 WAR from 2011 on is ahead of Ty Cobb's 25.5 and Ted Williams' 23.6 through their seasons at age 22.
Meanwhile, Kershaw has produced more WAR through his age 26 season (this season) than any pitcher to debut in the last 40 years. His 37.4 WAR since 2008 is ahead of Dwight Gooden's 36.5 and Bret Saberhagen's and Roger Clemens' third-place tie at 35.7 through their seasons at age 26.
Strength vs. strength
One thing to keep an eye on will be how Trout handles Kershaw’s pitches in the lower third of the strike zone and below.
Kershaw ranks at or near the top in baseball in effectiveness with pitches down in the zone.
It's also worth noting that Kershaw has thrown an increasingly high percentage (46.0) of his pitches down, a jump from 37.3 percent a season ago and 36.5 percent in 2012.
Meanwhile, Trout has crushed pitches down in the zone, leading MLB with a .382 batting average, .763 slugging percentage and 17 home runs this season on pitches in that location.
Fastballs early, curveballs late
When thinking about how Kershaw might pitch to Trout, consider how Trout has fared against each of the types of pitches Kershaw throws.
Eighty-five percent of Kershaw's first pitches this season have been fastballs, while Trout ranks in the bottom third of the league in batting average against fastballs. Against first-pitch fastballs, Trout is hitting .250 this season, which ranks in the 13th percentile across MLB.
Trout has also struggled to hit pitches thrown up in the zone.
If Kershaw can survive deep in the count, he has thrown the curveball on 36 percent of his two-strike pitches up in the zone this season, the highest rate of any starter in MLB. Trout has seen 131 curveballs up in the zone in his career and has produced zero hits on just seven swings.
In preparation for the 2014 season and in conjunction with interviews conducted by ESPN CFB analyst Kirk Herbstreit, ESPN Stats & Info will take a deeper look at the top QBs entering the fall. Today, we take a look at Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller.
A look back at 2013
Braxton Miller had an outstanding junior season, becoming the first player in Big Ten history (since 1990 when the award was first given) to win the Offensive Player of the Year award in consecutive seasons. He was the only Power Five conference quarterback to throw for at least 2,000 yards and rush for 1,000 yards last year. If Miller can accomplish that feat again, he will join Colin Kaepernick and become the second FBS quarterback in the past 10 years to reach those thresholds in three seasons.
Miller has rushed for at least 100 yards in 14 games since the start of 2011, second most among FBS quarterbacks. He had five such games last season, which tied for fourth among FBS quarterbacks. Miller has always been a prolific rusher, but he’s also improved as a passer every year at Ohio State. Miller’s completion percentage, passing yards and touchdowns have increased every season.
He was more willing to operate from the pocket last year. He attempted 85 percent of his passes from the pocket, nearly 20 percentage points higher than in 2012. His 19 touchdown passes from inside the pocket were tied for the most in the Big Ten with Indiana’s Nate Sudfeld and Penn State’s Christian Hackenberg.
A look ahead to 2014
With another 11-win season, Miller will pass Art Schlichter for the most wins (36) on record at Ohio State (the school first kept such records in 1960). Assuming Miller stays healthy, he has a good chance of passing Schlichter.
According to the ESPN Football Power Index, Ohio State has the best chance (41 percent) of winning the Big Ten, nearly 20 percentage points better than Wisconsin, and is projected for between 10 and 11 wins heading into bowl season. The Buckeyes have won 24 consecutive regular-season games, four shy of tying the Big Ten conference record.
The Buckeyes have big shoes to fill. They must replace six of 11 starters on offense, including league-leading rusher Carlos Hyde and four starters from an offensive line that combined for 135 starts.
Miller might have to shoulder more of the load. In the past, he has stepped up when his team needed him. Miller enters 2014 with six career game-winning drives in the fourth quarter or overtime, including three last season. The six career game-winning drives are the most among returning FBS quarterbacks and five more than any other returning quarterback in the Big Ten.
One area in which Miller needs to get better is on third down. He ranked in the bottom third of the FBS in Total QBR (47.1) and completion percentage (50.9) on third down. Only Michigan’s Devin Gardner and Purdue’s Danny Etling were sacked more on third down than Miller (12) among Big Ten quarterbacks. Only two of the past 10 national championship quarterbacks have had a third-down QBR less than 70 in the season they won the title.
Mike Trout and the Angels face the Orioles on "Wednesday Night Baseball"
While the Angels have the better record at 63-42, the 59-46 Orioles are the ones atop their division. The Angels have the Oakland Athletics, with the best record in baseball, ahead of them in the AL West.
Last night the Orioles secured another walk-off win on Manny Machado's 12th-inning home run. That ties the O's with none other than the Angels at eight walk-off wins apiece this season, good for second in the majors.
Both Teams are Hot
From June 9 on, these are two of baseball's three hottest teams. The Angels are tied with the Tampa Bay Rays for the MLB lead at 29 wins during that span. The Orioles are third during that stretch with 28 wins.
The Angels have taken care of business when it counts, posting a 37-11 record against teams that are .500 or worse, the best such record in the majors. They also lead the league with 33 comeback wins.
After another late victory last night, the Orioles are now 12-3 in extra-inning games this season, the best record in baseball.
Garrett Richards will toe the mound for the Halos. Only one starting pitcher has a higher average fastball velocity than Richards this season.
Richards has allowed only one home run to a right-handed batter in 2014, the fewest of any qualified starter in the majors.
Orioles starter Kevin Gausman is no slouch in the velocity department, either. His fastball is averaging 95 mph this season, which would rank fifth among starting pitchers if he’d thrown enough innings to qualify.
Gausman (in his second season) has never faced an Angels hitter in his MLB career.
Stats About the Bats
Already off to a great start in his career, Mike Trout's next home run will be his 87th. That would tie him with Ken Griffey Jr. and Johnny Bench for seventh most before age 23 in MLB history.
Albert Pujols has had 208 plate appearances in which he put the ball in play against the shift this season, the most of any right-handed hitter in the bigs.
For the Orioles, Chris Davis has struggled with off-speed pitches this season. A year ago he had a .310 batting average and 25 home runs against off-speed pitches. This season he is hitting .131 and has managed only five home runs against those same pitches.
Meanwhile J.J. Hardy has been big at short stop with 81 home runs the past four seasons. That's second in MLB among shortstops behind only Troy Tulowitzki, who has 84.
AP Photo/Alex BrandonRyan Howard has struggled to find a consistent role in the Phillies' starting lineup.
Howard is having the worst full season of his career including a career-low .380 slugging percentage. He turns 36-years-old in November, he’s still owed $60 million after this season and he can block trades to 21 teams.
Could this be the end of the line for the former National League MVP?
Howard Can't Hit Righties
The biggest reason behind Howard’s disappointing season is his performance against right-handed pitchers, which has always been better than his performance against lefties.
In 2009, Howard hit .320 and slugged .693 against righties. This season he's hitting .221 and slugging .356 against them.
In 2011, his last full season, he hit 30 HR in 387 AB against righties. In the past 3 seasons combined, he's hit 26 HR in 656 AB against righties.
He Can't Handle Fastballs
The book on Howard used to be a steady diet of offspeed pitches that he would chase, especially if he was behind in the count.
In 2011, Howard saw 41% fastballs, the lowest figure of any qualified hitter in baseball. But after he tore his Achilles in that year’s playoffs, pitchers haven’t been afraid to throw him heaters or pitches in the strike zone anymore.
From 2009-2011 Howard ranked 11th in MLB in slugging percentage against fastballs and 10th against pitches in the strike zone. From 2012 on he ranks 130th in slugging percentage against fastballs and 110th against pitches in the strike zone.
He’s not even punishing the slower fastballs that he used to crush. In 2010, he slugged .851 and only missed 16% of his swings against fastballs from righties that were 91 MPH or slower. This season, he’s slugging .405 and missing 22% of his swings against those fastballs.
No Power at a Power Position
Howard is giving the Phillies almost nothing at a power position. The list of first basemen with similar slugging percentages this season have never been in Howard’s class as a slugger. He currently ranks 22nd in slugging percentage among 25 players with 100 plate appearances at first base.
He’s had plenty of opportunities to produce, tied with Albert Pujols and Casey McGehee for the MLB lead at 234 plate appearances with runners on base, but his .255 batting average with runners on has him in a tie for 107th in MLB this season.