2016 NBA Playoffs First Round Preview

A preview of the first round of the 2016 NBA Playoffs.

Eastern Conference

No. 1 seed Cleveland Cavaliers vs. No. 8 seed Detroit Pistons

Cleveland Cavaliers

If the Cavaliers can stay healthy throughout the postseason, they’ll likely meet the Warriors in the NBA Finals for the second year in a row. James will do everything in his power to win a title for his hometown team, but the x-factor for the Cavaliers is floor-spacing power forward Kevin Love, who has been sporadic at best this season. After the All-Star break, Love shot the ball much better from deep. However, in order for the Cavs to defeat the champions of the Western Conference, if Cleveland makes it that far, Love needs to show the All-Star form he displayed as a member of the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Detroit Pistons

Detroit is in the playoffs for the first time since 2009, but their reintroduction to the postseason won’t be easy. Despite defeating Cleveland 3-1 in the regular season series, the Pistons will have a daunting task in round one of the postseason against LeBron James and company.

Detroit has an abundant amount of young talent on its roster. Former Oklahoma City Thunder facilitator Reggie Jackson has become one of the best all-around point guards in the league. Jackson averaged 18.8 points, 3.2 rebounds and 6.2 assists per game this season. Shooting guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope has blossomed into an elite one-on-one defender. Furthermore, recent acquisition from Orlando, Tobias Harris, adds a much-needed wing scorer to a young Pistons team. Detroit probably won’t win the series, but they’re more than capable of winning a game or two.

Prediction: Cavaliers win series 4-2

No. 2 seed Toronto Raptors vs. No. 7 seed Indiana Pacers

Toronto Raptors

The Raptors could be the second-best team in the Eastern Conference, but they’ll need a spectacular performance from their backcourt to get past Paul George and the experienced Pacers. Toronto point guard Kyle Lowry and shooting guard DeMar DeRozan arguably form the second-best backcourt in the league. To slow down a talented Raptors offense, effectively defending the pick-and-roll will be critical for Indiana.

Indiana Pacers

The x-factor for the Pacers in their series with Toronto is 20-year-old Myles Turner. Indiana may have found one of the more versatile power forwards in the league in Turner, who the Pacers selected No. 11 overall in the 2015 NBA Draft. Turner can score inside and rebound, while his shooting ability extends to near the three-point line. He may not start in the playoffs, but if the Pacers pull off the first round upset, it’ll be because Turner played a prominent role off the bench.

Prediction: Raptors win series 4-3

No. 3 seed Miami Heat vs. No. 6 seed Charlotte Hornets

Miami Heat

Miami probably has the best chance of beating the Cavaliers in the playoffs. The emergence of Hasan Whiteside, who has quickly become an outstanding rim protector (3.7 blocks per game), and Josh Richardson allowed the Heat to overachieve in the regular season. Veteran acquisitions Joe Johnson and Goran Dragic have drastically improved Miami’s offensive efficiency. At 34 years old, Dwyane Wade continues to perform at an elite level. The Heat are one of the favorites to reach the Eastern Conference finals.

Charlotte Hornets

Charlotte has quickly transformed an atrocious team into a franchise that will likely be in the postseason for years to come. Point guard Kemba Walker and center Al Jefferson led Charlotte to a 48-34 record this season. Acquiring former Trail Blazers small forward Nicolas Batum has allowed the Hornets to accelerate the rebuilding process. Charlotte has the talent to beat most teams in the East, but their first round opponent happens to have plenty of playoff experience. Veteran leadership will likely lead Miami to a matchup with Cleveland in the conference finals.

Prediction: Heat win series 4-1

No. 4 seed Atlanta Hawks vs. No. 5 seed Boston Celtics

Atlanta Hawks

Because the team enjoyed so much success last year, Atlanta’s surprisingly effective 2015-16 regular season went widely unnoticed. Point guard Jeff Teague and All-Star power forward Paul Millsap led the way for the Hawks (48-34) this year. Atlanta’s starting five reflects the image of a legitimate title contender, but Dennis Schröder is the only consistent scorer off the bench. Unless the Hawks can draft or acquire talented players to enhance their second unit, they’ll probably never become a title contender.

Boston Celtics

Celtics general manager Danny Ainge has done an outstanding job bringing young talent to Boston, completely rebuilding a historically successful team. Second-year guard Marcus Smart has blossomed into an effective scorer and passer. Celtics point guard Isaiah Thomas has improved drastically throughout his career and his game has reached its pinnacle this season. Thomas was selected to participate in his first All-Star game this season and averaged more than 22 points and six assists per game in the regular season. The Celtics will go as far as Thomas takes them. Regardless of what Boston does in the postseason, the future of the franchise is extremely bright.

Prediction: Celtics win series 4-2

Western Conference

No. 1 seed Golden State Warriors vs. No. 8 seed Houston Rockets

Golden State Warriors

If you’re a fan of the NBA, you could be a fan of the Warriors; unless you’re from Cleveland or San Antonio. Golden State finished the regular season with an NBA record 73 wins, while Stephen Curry knocked down more than 400 threes, a record that will likely stand the test of time. Despite the heroics of Draymond Green, Klay Thompson and the soon to be 2016 MVP (Curry), it’s the Warriors bench that propelled the team to history in the regular season. Andre Iguodala, Marreese Speights and Festus Ezeli could give the Warriors’ starting five the extra lift it needs to make a second straight NBA Finals appearance. Meanwhile, Curry and Thompson should continue to “splash” Golden State to the promise land.

Houston Rockets

The fact that Houston made the 2016 NBA Playoffs is somewhat of a miracle. Aside MVP candidate James Harden, the Rockets are an absolute mess. Dwight Howard has shown flashes of the interior force he can be when he gives 100 percent effort, but the former All-Star center lacks a consistent motor. When Howard demands the ball in the post, he can easily drop 30 points and 10 boards. However, Howard’s inefficient play has forced Harden to carry the discombobulated Rockets on his back throughout the regular season. Houston has yet to acquire its point guard of the future as current member of the Indiana Pacers, Ty Lawson, proved extremely ineffective in Houston after having prior success in Denver. Harden will have to average 45-50 points in the series in order for Houston to have a chance. Unfortunately, even if he does, the Warriors will likely advance anyway.

Prediction: Warriors win series 4-0

No. 2 seed San Antonio Spurs vs. No. 7 seed Memphis Grizzlies

San Antonio Spurs

San Antonio continues to defy Father Time. Kawhi Leonard, LaMarcus Aldridge and Tony Parker lead the experienced Spurs into the postseason (again) under head coach Gregg Popovich. Despite the dramatic decrease in Tim Duncan’s and Manu Ginobili’s roles, San Antonio continues to perform at an elite level season after season. The Spurs’ ball movement and Leonard’s ability to play lockdown defense make them almost impossible to beat in a seven game series.

Memphis Grizzlies

If not for a myriad of detrimental injuries, Memphis would probably be one of the top four seeds in the West and Zach Randolph is left as the only proven scorer in the Grizzlies lineup. With Mike Conley out because of an Achilles injury, other Grizzlies players have played prominent roles in Memphis’ playoff push. Unfortunately, Lance Stephenson is probably the most talented guard available on Memphis’ roster. Stephenson has been the definition of inconsistency throughout his entire career, and that didn’t change this season. Given San Antonio’s desire for a rematch with Golden State, the Grizzlies probably won’t win a game in the series.

Prediction: Spurs win series 4-0

No. 3 seed Oklahoma City Thunder vs. No. 6 seed Dallas Mavericks

Oklahoma City Thunder

The Thunder seem to be in a similar position in terms of their ability to advance in the playoffs. Oklahoma City has the talent to reach the conference finals, but have yet to enter title contender conversation since James Harden’s departure to Houston. Enes Kanter’s acquisition from Utah drastically improved the Thunder’s interior scoring. The sky’s the limit for the Thunder if Oklahoma City’s supporting cast can prove that it can be trusted to consistently score.

Dallas Mavericks

Dallas has reached the playoffs in 15 of the last 16 seasons, but failed to make noise in the postseason since winning it all in 2011. The Mavericks’ recent postseason troubles have stemmed from an inability to acquire their point guard of the future. Deron Williams is slowly declining and Devin Harris is far from an All-Star. Despite the murky point guard play, Dirk Nowitzki has established a high standard for Dallas basketball, but the Mavericks haven’t surrounded him with the necessary talent to contend for a title. Given the Mavericks’ tough first round matchup against Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, don’t expect Dallas to challenge the Thunder.

Predication: Thunder win series 4-1

No. 4 seed Los Angeles Clippers vs. No. 5 Portland Trail Blazers

Los Angeles Clippers

With an abundance of big game experience, Chris Paul and a newly healed Blake Griffin lead Los Angeles into the postseason. Former Duke shooting guard, J.J. Redick is the x-factor for the Clippers’ playoff run. The Clippers have plenty of depth and firepower, especially with Jamal Crawford coming off the bench, but Deandre Jordan’s terrible free throw percentage could prove detrimental for the Clippers late in games. Los Angeles could bench Jordan late in critical fourth quarters, which could open lanes to the rim for the dynamic duo in Portland’s backcourt without Jordan’s shot-blocking presence. Still, with a cast of solid reserves, the Clippers are clearly the more talented team. Bench scoring and big game experience should favor Los Angeles in the series. The Clippers may not make a run to the conference finals, but they should advance past the first round.

Portland Trail Blazers

After LaMarcus Aldridge’s departure to San Antonio, the Trail Blazers weren’t expected to be a playoff team in the Western Conference this season. Halfway through their regular season schedule, the Blazers certainly didn’t look like a playoff contender. Fortunately for Portland, their talented backcourt of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum drastically increased their level of play in the final 41 games of the season. Portland’s lack of front court talent and depth is a major concern in the series as the size of Jordan and Griffin could pose serious matchup problems in the paint. The Trail Blazers back court could win a couple of games, but probably not the series.

Prediction: Clippers win series 4-2

RG3 Isn’t A Long-Term Solution For The Browns

Despite the signing of Robert Griffin III, the Cleveland Browns should still select a quarterback with their top pick in the NFL Draft.

Within the last week, the Cleveland Browns announced that they signed Robert Griffin III to a two-year, $15 million contract with a maximum value of $22 million. Cleveland got exactly what it needed in Griffin, an athletic, dual-threat quarterback with a surprisingly big arm. The only problem with the acquisition is that expectations will be extremely high in Cleveland, which could prove detrimental for the development of such a young team and signal caller.

Hype wouldn’t surround Griffin if he began his career as a mediocre starter, or resigned to spending the duration of his career as a permanent backup. However, because Griffin threw for more than 3,000 yards and 20 touchdowns as a rookie in 2012, the standard has been set for the rest of his career. Due to his success as a rookie, an optimistic fan base would await Griffin wherever he had gone.

As a quarterback at Baylor University, Griffin was virtually unstoppable, especially with current NFL receivers like Kendall Wright on the Bears’ roster. However, the one thing that distinguished and still distinguishes Griffin from other quarterbacks is his extremely aggressive mindset as a runner. Griffin is willing to take hits and do whatever it takes to help his team win. Normally, that’s a great trait to have as an athlete in any sport, but because NFL players’ careers are so short, doing the little things to prolong their careers is vital.

The concept of staying healthy magnifies in the NFL and even more so for quarterbacks. New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady is proof that longevity is the key to a successful career in the league. Not every team needs an extremely athletic and speedy player at the quarterback position. What NFL quarterbacks need is balance and intelligence. Awareness of players around them, both in and outside the pocket, is a product of having intelligence or high football IQ.

North Dakota State quarterback Carson Wentz completed 62-of-65 passes at his pro day last week, including one drop. Wentz won’t wow you with his athleticism or speed, but his arm strength and accuracy compare to NFL elites like Andrew Luck and Cam Newton. The Browns need a permanent quarterback and so far, Griffin has been anything but permanent. Wentz could be the perfect quarterback to rebuild a franchise around, and he should be a Brown on draft day.

Griffin’s talent is unquestionable, but his style of play has many doubting how long his professional career will last.

Michigan Needs Big Man To Compete With Elite Teams

To get back to the Final Four, the Michigan Wolverines need a consistent inside presence.

Michigan basketball is in rare territory as a consistent inside presence is the missing piece to the Wolverines’ postseason success puzzle.

Despite earning a 2016 NCAA Tournament bid, the Wolverines didn’t do enough in postseason play to satisfy the Michigan faithful’s desire to enjoy a deep March run. Michigan fans are well aware of the Wolverines’ wild success in the tournament preceding this year’s first round loss to Notre Dame. Arguably the best backcourt in the nation in 2013, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Trey Burke led Michigan to an appearance in the national championship game against Louisville.

Wolverine fans remember Burke’s overtime-forcing 30-foot three-point shot that ultimately earned Michigan a victory over Kansas in the Sweet Sixteen that year. Both Burke and Hardaway Jr. went on to be first-round picks in the NBA Draft. The following season, sophomore guard Nik Stauskas led the Wolverines to the Elite Eight before Kentucky’s Aaron Harrison nailed a deep three to punch the Wildcats’ ticket to the Final Four.

In spite of miraculous performances by Michigan’s backcourt during their 2013 and 2014 postseason runs, neither Burke, nor Stauskas, were key to the Wolverines’ success in March. Do the names Mitch McGary or Jordan Morgan ring any bells? They should for Michigan fans. McGary rarely played in the Wolverines’ 2012-13 regular season before earning the starting job and averaging 16.0 points and 11.6 rebounds per game during Michigan’s run to the championship game. Morgan started in 2014 and averaged 12.8 points and 7.8 rebounds per game in the postseason. What do McGary and Morgan have in common? They both experienced time at center, a position that has gotten lost of late amid the plethora of talented guards head coach John Beilein and the Wolverines have at their disposal.

To be fair, Beilein has had to deal with more than his fair share of injuries throughout the past two disappointing seasons. A season-ending leg injury to Caris LeVert and nagging foot injuries to Derrick Walton Jr. were detrimental to the Wolverines’ depth, not to mention the numerous early departures of young talent to the NBA.

Early departures aren’t currently an issue, and unless multiple players suffer season-ending injuries at the beginning of the 2016-17 season, Michigan will likely be expected to compete with not only the elite teams the Big Ten but the top programs in college basketball. The expectations probably won’t be met, unless the Wolverines can find their next McGary or Morgan.

Michigan isn’t on the same recruiting level as Kansas or Kentucky. It can’t bring in multiple high-schoolers who will be future NBA lottery picks and send them off to the NBA after just a year in college, while still competing at college basketball’s highest level season after season.

Michigan has a few candidates to fill the void in the middle. Mark Donnal showed flashes of promise this season, and given that he’ll be a senior next season, Donnal could help the Wolverines. Ricky Doyle, a 6-foot-9 sophomore, didn’t exactly scream breakout potential after averaging 3.8 points and two rebounds per game in an expanded role this season.

Moritz Wagner, a freshman from Berlin, Germany, played an extremely limited role during the Wolverines’ regular season. However, in Michigan’s upset win over the Indiana Hoosiers on March 11, Wagner went 2-for-2 from the free throw line and 3-for-3 from the field, including a three. In the Wolverines’ First Four matchup against Tulsa, Wagner again was perfect from the field (2-for-2), while grabbing eight boards and blocking four shots. Wagner showed enthusiasm and fire throughout the season, even from the bench. The team first mentality is something many young players lack, and it will serve Wagner well in the future. Expect to see a major increase in minutes and productivity for the energetic freshman next season.

NHL Rookies Who Will Be Stars By The Year 2020

A look at some of the NHL’s future stars.

Below is a look at three of the NHL’s up-and-coming stars.

Artemi Panarin – Left Wing – Chicago Blackhawks

The Chicago Blackhawks are loaded with talent, and 24-year-old rookie left winger Artemi Panarin has wasted no time solidifying himself as the Blackhawks’ next superstar. Panarin isn’t the only star on Chicago’s roster as studs Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews are only three years Panarin’s elder. The Blackhawks newcomer leads all rookies in points (57), goals (22) and assists (35). The next closest NHL rookie behind Panarin in points is Arizona Coyotes rookie Max Domi, who is a healthy 15 points behind (42 points) the Blackhawks’ Russian rookie. Chicago has a balanced and talented roster with players in their prime, coupled with a solid foundation of youth. Hence, the Blackhawks should be in contention for an NHL title for the next decade.

Dylan Larkin – Center – Detroit Red Wings

If there’s one thing we’ve learned about Detroit Red Wings center Dylan Larkin, it’s that speed leads to efficiency. Larkin leads all NHL rookies in plus-minus at +21, primarily because of his game-breaking speed and constant attacking mindset. Larkin’s tremendous speed allows him to be the catalyst for Red Wings scoring chances. The 19-year-old is also second among NHL rookies in goals with 19.

Since the start of the second half of the NHL season, opposing teams have effectively schemed for Larkin. As a result, the Red Wings have struggled to score of late. However, it’s just a matter of time before Larkin gets back into a groove on offense. Talented Detroit veterans Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk should occupy more defensive attention, giving Larkin the space he needs to create for himself and others. Larkin has quickly become the future of the Red Wings franchise, and if Detroit surrounds him with a skilled supporting cast, the Red Wings should soon be a Stanley Cup contender.

Connor McDavid – Center – Edmonton Oilers

Edmonton Oilers rookie Connor McDavid, who turned 19 years old in January, has only played in 28 of Edmonton’s 65 games this season because of a broken clavicle. However, McDavid has been extremely effective in the short amount of time that he’s been healthy. This season, the 6-foot-1 center has recorded 19 assists and 12 goals, including both goals against second-overall pick in the 2015 NHL Draft Jack Eichel in Edmonton’s 2-1 overtime victory in Buffalo against the Sabres on Tuesday.

Considering the Oilers currently have the second-fewest points in the NHL (55), McDavid, last year’s No. 1 overall pick in the NHL Draft, could find himself playing with a few other first-overall picks before he gets his first taste of playoff hockey. That being said, Edmonton is fortunate to have him. McDavid’s speed and spectacular puck handling make him a lethal offensive threat — One the Oilers can build their franchise around in the foreseeable future.

Why Michigan State Is College Basketball’s Best

The Michigan State Spartans are poised for a return to the Final Four this season.

The Michigan State Spartans always seem poised for a deep run in the NCAA Tournament. Since Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo’s arrival in East Lansing, Mich., the Spartans have appeared in seven Final Fours. In addition to their success in the postseason, the Spartans have had several players find success at the next level. Most recently, Denver Nuggets shooting guard Gary Harris, Minnesota Timberwolves power forward Adreian Payne and All-Star power forward and NBA champion Draymond Green.

Izzo’s sustained success at Michigan State has become so mundane that every one of his seasons seem to get overlooked. In the midst of the Wisconsin Badgers’ run to the championship game and the Kentucky Wildcats’ perfect regular season last year, the Spartans managed to finish the regular season with a 27-12 (12-6 in conference) record and an eventual berth in the Final Four.

This season, Michigan State is led by senior shooting guard Denzel Valentine, who’s a contender for the Player of the Year award. Valentine is college basketball’s version of Oklahoma City Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook. The 6-foot-5 guard averages nearly 20 points and eight rebounds with a little more than seven assists per game with the Spartans. Valentine is extremely accurate from beyond the arc, shooting more than 44 percent from three-point range this year. Valentine’s combination of athleticism and shooting touch makes him the Spartans’ jack-of-all-trades.

As is the case in most seasons, a single player can’t lead a team to the NCAA Tournament. However, Valentine isn’t alone in Michigan State’s push toward the postseason. Spartans guard Bryn Forbes, a transfer from Cleveland State University, is shooting over 48 percent from the three-point line and the field. Forbes has established himself as one of college basketball’s best shooters, and he’s an improved threat shooting off the dribble, something the 6-foot-3 guard did with less success during his career at Cleveland State.

The difference between Michigan State and other Big Ten contenders is a consistent inside presence. Spartans forward Matt Costello is an elite post player, and his relentless energy on both sides of the ball motivates and inspires the rest of the team. Costello and Valentine provide inspiration to their teammates and serve as calming influences when the Spartans are on the big stage. Meanwhile, Izzo has done a tremendous job of bringing in young and athletic guards to support his two veteran leaders.

The Spartans continue to navigate their way through the thick of their Big Ten schedule as the conference’s teams beat each other up. Indiana point guard Yogi Ferrell and the Hoosiers seem to be the team that could challenge Michigan State in the Big Ten Tournament. Despite the Spartans’ 19-point win over the Hoosiers on Valentine’s Day, Indiana continues to improve as the season progresses. Ferrell is surrounded by accurate shooters, including power forward Max Bielfeldt. A transfer from Michigan, Bielfeldt has developed an effective three-point shot, something he never had during his time in Ann Arbor, Mich. Ferrell is shooting nearly 43 percent from beyond the arc this season, in addition to almost 53 percent from the field. The Hoosiers’ interior success gives guards like Ferrell and senior Nick Zeisloft space to shoot, and the ability to penetrate the lane and find open shooters.

The Spartans will be challenged in the Big Ten Tournament, most likely by Indiana head coach Tom Crean and his Hoosiers. However, Indiana isn’t the only NCAA Tournament bound team from the Big Ten. The Maryland Terrapins, led by likely future first-round NBA Draft pick Melo Trimble, are 22-5 this season. Maryland cashed in on college basketball’s “free agency” period as Duke transfer Rasheed Sulaimon has been one of the high-volume scorers for the Terrapins this season with Trimble and stud freshman center Diamond Stone. The Terps have enough talent to reach the Final Four. The question is whether the Terrapins will give all they’ve got in every postseason game.

Michigan State could be the best team in the Big Ten. A combination of senior leadership, multiple high-volume scorers and elite coaching makes the Spartans the best bet right now to cut down the nets in Houston, site of the 2016 Final Four.

Post 2016 National Signing Day College Football Playoff Predictions

Predictions for the next College Football Playoff following National Signing Day.

The Alabama Crimson Tide claimed the recruiting national championship for the sixth straight year, according to 247Sports. The Alabama machine should pump out several first round draft picks in the upcoming NFL Draft with the majority coming from the Crimson Tide defensive front seven. The machine can’t produce talent if it doesn’t bring it in, which is exactly what Alabama head coach Nick Saban and his staff have done year after year. Alabama’s No. 1 2016 recruiting class features three five-star recruits and 14 four-star prospects. Among the five-star players are linebackers Ben Davis and Lyndell Wilson, both of whom could immediately start on the Tide’s defense with the departure of stud linebacker Reggie Ragland. Alabama isn’t the only team that drastically boosted its College Football Playoff chances with a stellar 2016 recruiting class. Below are predictions for the 2016-17 College Football Playoff after an eventful National Signing Day this week.

4. Michigan Wolverines

In only a year at his alma mater, Wolverines head coach Jim Harbaugh has revitalized Michigan football. Harbaugh has not only rejuvenated Michigan on the field, but he’s also invigorated the program on the recruiting trail. In an offseason that featured sleepovers and tree climbing, Harbaugh owned the college football spotlight from the conclusion of bowl season leading up to and during National Signing Day Wednesday. Wednesday, Michigan’s “Signing of the Stars” event featured past Wolverines Tom Brady, Denard Robinson and Devin Gardner, as well as former Wolverine Derek Jeter, wrestling legend Rick Flair and the musical group Migos. Harbaugh was so wrapped up in the Signing Day extravaganza, he found out he had landed No. 1 overall recruit Rashan Gary via ESPN announcer Mike Tirico’s phone while backstage at the event.

A season ago, Michigan struggled to rush the passer and stop the run against the Big Ten’s elite teams. Just ask NFL-bound Ohio State running back Ezekiel Elliott, who rushed for more than 200 yards in Ohio State’s 42-13 blowout of the Wolverines in November. Gary, a 6-foot-5, 293-pound defensive tackle from Paramus Catholic High School in New Jersey, should immediately start on new defensive coordinator Don Brown’s defense after defensive tackle Willie Henry declared for the 2016 NFL Draft. In addition to Gary, four-star linebacker Devin Bush Jr. will likely step into a prominent role in year one to help fill the glaring gap the Wolverines have at linebacker.

On the offensive end, transfer John O’Korn will likely start at quarterback. O’Korn transferred from Houston last year and showed flashes of his potential in limited time with the Cougars. The 6-foot-4 quarterback could have a plethora of help at receiver with leading receivers Jehu Chesson and Amara Darboh returning for their senior seasons. All-American tight end Jake Butt, who probably could have been a high pick in the upcoming NFL Draft, will also return to Ann Arbor, Mich. for his senior season. The Wolverines should come out of the Big Ten East, considering the large amount of talent departing Michigan State and Ohio State for the NFL. Two possible hiccups on Michigan’s 2016 schedule are road games at Iowa and at Ohio State. If Harbaugh’s quarterback development magic works for O’Korn, Michigan will likely be in the 2016-17 College Football Playoff.

3. Florida State Seminoles

The Seminoles always seem to fly under the radar on the recruiting trail. However, Florida State head coach Jimbo Fisher never fails to bring top-tier talent to Tallahassee, Fla. Since former Seminoles quarterback Jameis Winston departed for the NFL last year, Florida State had yet to find its next star at the position. The ‘Noles may have found that star when highly touted quarterback Malik Henry committed to Florida State in 2014. Henry could compete for the starting job in 2016 as a true freshman with redshirt freshman Deondre Francois, sophomore J.J. Cosentino and senior incumbent starter Sean Maguire, who is recovering from surgery to repair a broken ankle. Despite losing stud defensive back Jalen Ramsey to the NFL, the Seminoles brought in cornerback Levonta Taylor, a five-star recruit and the No. 1 ranked prospect at his position. With Heisman candidate Dalvin Cook returning at running back and the signing of four-star wide receiver Keith Gavin, Florida State will look to return to the College Football Playoff to atone for a horrific loss to Houston in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl this past season.

2. Alabama Crimson Tide

As long as Nick Saban is head coach, the Crimson Tide should never be doubted. Alabama makes defense a priority on the recruiting trail, and it shows throughout the regular season and in postseason appearances. The Tide’s 2016 recruiting class was no exception as Alabama brought in another class filled with beasts on the defensive side of the ball, including four-star defensive tackle, Raekwon Davis, who stands 6-feet-7 inches and weighs 327 pounds.

A solid defense with a prolific rushing attack is the formula Saban has used to consistently win in Tuscaloosa, Ala.  If all goes as planned, running back Bo Scarbrough should become the next Derrick Henry. The 6-foot-2, 240-pound tailback is similarly built to Henry and plays with a relentless energy. Saban’s nine-year tenure at Alabama has brought four national titles and a litany of first round draft picks to the university. Although Alabama isn’t known for elite quarterback play, the Tide signed the No. 2 overall quarterback in the 2015 class, Blake Barnett. Barnett could be critical as Saban pursues his sixth national title next season.

1. Clemson Tigers

Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney fell just short of landing No. 1 overall prospect Rashan Gary, but five-star 6-foot-4, 327 pound defensive tackle and No. 2 overall prospect at the position Dexter Lawrence serves as an excellent consolation prize. Clemson has virtually no gaps on the offensive side of the ball with Heisman favorite, quarterback Deshaun Watson, wide receivers Artavis Scott and Mike Williams, and running back Wayne Gallman all staying in school for at least one more year. The Tigers lost some defensive talent to the NFL, including defensive ends Kevin Dodd and Shaq Lawson, and shutdown corner Mackensie Alexander. The Tigers hope to fill those gaps with Lawrence and four-star cornerback Trayvon Mullen. Both players should step into critical starting roles in defensive coordinator Brent Venables’ defense. Clemson’s offense will likely lead the Tigers to another College Football Playoff berth. Whether the Tigers’ talented and somewhat inexperienced defense can rise to the occasion remains to be seen.

2016 NFL Playoffs Conference Championships Recap

Super Bowl 50, scheduled to take place next month, will feature two teams that resemble polar opposites.

Although the Denver Broncos and Carolina Panthers seem like different teams, both utilized solid defensive play to punch their tickets to the Super Bowl in Santa Clara, Calif on Feb. 7. The Broncos took advantage of a New England Patriots offensive line that was decimated by injuries throughout the course of the season. Denver linebacker Von Miller’s speed off the edge, combined with a spectacular performance from Broncos defensive tackle Derek Wolfe, abused quarterback Tom Brady and the Patriots’ offense throughout the game. Against the Broncos’ defense, New England was unable run the ball without injured running back Dion Lewis, who suffered a torn ACL in Week 9 of the regular season, and LeGarrette Blount, who suffered a hip injury in Week 14.

The Broncos repeatedly put New England in third-and-long situations, resulting in sustained relentless pressure on Brady. Conversely, Denver quarterback Peyton Manning showed flashes of the guy we saw in 2013 who threw for an NFL record 55 touchdowns. Despite their early offensive success, the Broncos were never able to establish the same rhythm in the second half of their AFC Championship Game matchup with New England. Denver’s second half struggles could have been a result of Denver’s inability to effectively run the ball with Ronnie Hillman and C.J. Anderson.

Anderson’s third-and-one, 30-yard run early in the fourth quarter was one of the rare occasions the Broncos’ offensive line won the battle at the line of scrimmage in the second half. In the final two quarters, Denver’s elite defense bailed the team out, totaling four sacks while forcing a plethora of knockdowns and rushed throws by Brady. Brady arrived in Denver as a legitimate MVP candidate, and that MVP-caliber ability showed itself late in the fourth quarter when Brady floated a 40-yard pass to tight end Rob Gronkowski on fourth-and-ten that set up a score by the Pro Bowl tight end four plays later. Gronkowski’s four-yard touchdown catch with 12 seconds to play brought the Patriots within two points. Ultimately, the Denver defense bent but did not break, thwarting New England’s two-point conversion attempt to tie the game. As a result, the Broncos will make their eighth Super Bowl appearance in franchise history.

Meanwhile, the Carolina Panthers secured just their second Super Bowl appearance in franchise history with a dominating 49-15 victory over the Arizona Cardinals Sunday. Carolina was aided by an atrocious performance from Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer and seven Arizona turnovers. Behind an opportunistic defense, and former Heisman Trophy winner and MVP candidate Cam Newton, the Panthers advanced to face the Broncos in next month’s Super Bowl.

The Cardinals’ defense was forced to consistently worry about Newton’s proven ability with his legs to take off on read-options and designed runs. However, it was Newton’s ability to effectively throw the ball from the pocket that decided the NFC crown. Panthers receivers Corey Brown and Ted Ginn Jr. each had a huge impact on the NFC Championship Game. Ginn’s 32-yard punt return and 22-yard touchdown run on a misdirection play got Carolina off to a fast start. Then, it was Brown’s turn. The second-year undrafted receiver out of Ohio State ripped off an 86-yard touchdown catch and run to put the Panthers up 17-0 late in the first quarter. Arizona struggled to move the ball for three quarters, and because of the Panthers’ second half debacle in the Divisional Round against the Seattle Seahawks, Newton left no doubt this time, tacking on 10 points in the third quarter to seal the Super Bowl berth for head coach Ron Rivera and the 17-1 Panthers.

Super Bowl 50 will pit the No. 1 ranked Broncos defense against the NFL’s hottest offense and quarterback. In Santa Clara, Calif., the future of the league at the quarterback position, Newton, will meet one of the greatest players of all time, “The Sheriff” Peyton Manning.

Jim Harbaugh The Program Rebuilder

University of Michigan football head coach Jim Harbaugh has the Wolverines on the right path.

The Michigan Wolverines’ first year under new head coach Jim Harbaugh has concluded. With a crushing defeat over the Florida Gators in the Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl, the Wolverines capped an impressive 2015-16 campaign with double-digit victories (10-3). Michigan quarterback Jake Rudock threw for 278 yards and three scores in the 41-7 blowout of Florida, showing his development under Harbaugh. Looking for proof of Harbaugh’s ability to develop quarterbacks? Look no further than the fifth-year Wolverines signal caller this past season.

Rudock began the season with an atrocious road performance against Utes in Utah, throwing three picks, including an interception that was returned for the game-winning touchdown. In the 12 games following the 24-17 loss to Utah, Rudock threw 18 touchdowns and just 6 interceptions. The Wolverines quarterback finished the season with more than 3,000 yards through the air, completing nearly 65 percent of his passes.

Harbaugh’s first year in Ann Arbor, Mich. was nothing short of spectacular, especially considering it followed the Wolverines’ disappointing 5-7 campaign in 2014. However, former Michigan head coach Brady Hoke’s recruiting job shouldn’t be overlooked. Skill position players such as wide receiver Jehu Chesson, All-American tight end Jake Butt and Big Ten Freshman of the Year Jabrill Peppers were all members of the Maize and Blue before Harbaugh’s return to his alma mater. Despite Hoke’s ability to bring in top-tier talent, the former Michigan coach wasn’t able to utilize that talent to its fullest potential. Harbaugh did exactly that in his debut season for the Wolverines.

Michigan’s 10-3 season likely satisfied the Wolverine faithful’s burning desire for the team to return to legitimacy and become the powerhouse program it once was. For Harbaugh, the Wolverines 10-win season serves as a convincing campaign that will give him the credibility needed to rebuild the state of Michigan football. The work Harbaugh has done on the recruiting trail is already beginning to show itself as the Wolverines currently have the third-best incoming 2016 class, just behind the LSU Tigers, according to 247Sports.

Per 247Sports, Michigan has commitments from 14 four-star prospects, most notably the top running back in the class, Kareem Walker. In addition to Walker, the Wolverines will add the 11th-best linebacker in the class, Devin Bush Jr. Bush Jr. could see his fair share of playing time in his first season due to Michigan’s departing talent at linebacker. Seniors Joe Bolden and Desmond Morgan served as the veteran leaders for a resurgent Wolverines defense under former defensive coordinator and current Maryland Terrapins head coach D.J. Durkin. Heading into the offseason, Michigan has a glaring gap at linebacker. However, junior linebacker Ben Gedeon will return for his senior season after recording 34 tackles for the Wolverines last season.

Harbaugh is not one to shy away from publicity. The Wolverines’ head coach maintains a constant, unique voice on social media. After Michigan’s Citrus Bowl victory over Florida, rapper Wale tweeted the following:

Harbaugh’s response did not disappoint as he tweeted:

This is a perfect example of Harbaugh discretely selling Michigan football through social media. While Harbaugh’s commentary on social media can seem somewhat odd at times, his recent actions while recruiting the No. 1 ranked kicker in the 2016 class, Quinn Nordin, showed that Harbaugh will do just about anything to bring talent to the program. The Michigan head coach planned a sleepover with Nordin, a current Penn State Nittany Lions commit.

Currently in a rebuilding process, Harbaugh knows that recruiting is vital. It’s recruiting tactics like the ones Harbaugh uses on Twitter and his actions with Nordin that put the coach, his players and the program in the limelight. The publicity Harbaugh generates will bring top-tier talent to Ann Arbor, Mich., and the Wolverines’ new head coach knows it.

Texans Are Quarterback and Healthy Foster From Playoff Run

With a solid quarterback and a healthy Arian Foster, the Houston Texans can make a playoff run next season.

The Houston Texans performance against the Kansas City Chiefs wasn’t pretty Saturday afternoon. In the Texans 30-0 blowout loss to Kansas City, Houston failed to establish an effective running game behind running back Alfred Blue, and Texans quarterback Hoyer never got in a rhythm throwing the ball.

Hoyer completed less than 50 percent of his passes and threw four interceptions against the Chiefs as Kansas City limited the Texans’ primary source of offense this season, star wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins. While Kansas City mostly contained Hopkins (69 receiving yards), the Texans needed a nearly perfect offensive performance to have a realistic chance of defeating the Chiefs. Kansas City’s trio of pass rushers, Tamba Hali, Justin Houston, and Dee Ford, forced Hoyer to throw the ball into coverage, resulting in critical mistakes that magnified when the Texans entered the red zone.

Although it seems the Chiefs are on a different level in comparison to the defensive-oriented Texans, the gap may not be as wide as many might think. Houston has substantial pieces in place on its defense, including two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt and former No. 1 overall pick Jadeveon Clowney, who both can rush the passer and stop the run. Despite having no big names in their secondary, the Texans finished third in the NFL in passing yards allowed per game.

Solid NFL quarterbacks don’t grow on trees. While Houston seems limited at quarterback, Texans head coach Bill O’Brien could soon reunite with Penn State passer Christian Hackenberg, who O’Brien coached while he was at the university. Hackenberg has been inconsistent throughout his three-year career as a Nittany Lion, but the majority of his struggles were due to a lack of playmakers at the wide receiver position and a terrible offensive line. Penn State’s offensive line was last in the Big Ten in sacks allowed this season, allowing 39 sacks in 13 games, according to BigTen.org.

In his freshman and sophomore seasons, Hackenberg showed great touch on the deep ball and that he can make accurate throws into extremely tight windows. If the Texans can bolster their much-improved offensive line, Hackenberg could be the best quarterback to draft in the “win now” window Houston is in.

The Texans have a plethora of talent at wide receiver. Hopkins became a breakout star this season, thrusting himself into the category of elite NFL receivers. Given the amount of young talent that has burst onto the NFL scene over the last few years, Hopkins’ accomplishments shouldn’t be understated. In addition to Hopkins, the Texans relied on sure-handed veterans Nate Washington and Cecil Shorts III this season. In the 2015 NFL Draft, Houston selected Arizona State stud wideout Jaelen Strong.

The Texans will go as far as a new quarterback, whether it be Hackenberg or someone else, and a healthy Arian Foster takes them. In recent years, Foster’s nagging injuries have plagued Houston’s rushing attack. With subpar signal callers on Houston’s roster, the Texans dearly missed Foster’s elite talent and dynamic ability out of the backfield down the stretch of the season. Given Foster’s inability to finish most seasons, Houston should consider developing a rookie running back to play alongside Foster in case he suffers another injury.

Arkansas Razorbacks running back Alex Collins could be that guy. Collins, a hard-nosed runner with a bruising style, could fit well into the Texans’ system and his skill set could complement Foster’s shiftiness. If Foster continues to show up on the injury report, Houston could begin to transition the talented tailback to more of a third down role.

The void at quarterback is a glaring gap on an extremely well-rounded Texans team. Because of Hackenberg’s previous experience with O’Brien, the Texans could remain a playoff team if they grab the Nittany Lions quarterback in the upcoming draft. If Foster can stay healthy, which he has had trouble doing throughout his career, and if Houston selects Hackenberg, the Texans could be in a position to make some noise in the AFC South next season despite it only being Hackenberg’s rookie year.

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