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College Football Playoff projection: Alabama, Ohio State and some goodbyes to others

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(PhatzRadio Sports / USA TODAY SPORTS)    —    Ah, Week 3. Contenders are emerging (Is that you, LSU?), pretenders are falling away (what happened, Badgers?) and some positions are crystalizing (‘Bama. ‘Nuff said.). At least, for the moment.

As always, remember we pick the Football Four Playoff bracket as if the season was over.* It could all change next week. Or not.

The Four

1. Alabama – Remember all that talk about how Ole Miss might score actual points on Alabama? It happened. On the very first play. Uh oh! … Alabama won 62-7.

2. Ohio State – The Buckeyes got pushed by TCU, but turned it on late to pull away. Dwayne Haskins has transformed the Ohio State offense. The head coach returns to the sideline this week.

3. Oklahoma – Warning sign: For the first time this season the pass defense was, uh, leaky. But Kyler Murray was superb passing and running and the Sooners managed the road win at Iowa State.

4. Georgia – We’re not completely sure about Georgia, because the schedule looks pillowy soft other than LSU and Auburn. Middle Tennessee didn’t show us much. But the ol’ eyeballs say Georgia is really good.

Four More: **

5. Clemson – The Tigers rolled right over Georgia Southern, as expected. Next up, Georgia Tech. Keep watch on Kelly Bryant, who didn’t play in the second half because of a chest bruise.

6. LSU – Coach O and the Tigers nipped Auburn to move to 3-0; their second win against an opponent ranked in the Top 10. LSU has a good defense and a functional quarterback and just maybe, this thing is going to work.

7. Penn State – It was Kent State, so let’s not get too excited. But Penn State is getting untracked. In two weeks, the Nittany Lions host Ohio State.

8. Mississippi State – A fast, physical bunch of Bulldogs blew out Louisiana. Could they make waves in the SEC West?

A Few More After That: ***

Oklahoma State – Walloping Boise State is a huge statement for Mike Gundy’s bunch – especially defensively.

TCU – Mistakes finally felled the Frogs in a loss to Ohio State, but TCU showed off the speed and grit of a Big 12 contender.

Stanford – Without Bryce Love, it was a struggle against UC Davis.

Auburn – The Tigers’ defense is good. Its offense is surprisingly iffy. No margin for error after the loss to LSU which means they have to beat both Georgia and Alabama away from home.

Washington – In a very physical road game, the Huskies were better than Utah.

Nowhere Close: ****

UCLA – It was a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.

Rutgers – When Kansas roughs you up, you’ve also had a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.

Southern California – Minus-5 yards rushing. Five fewer than zero.

Florida State – Starting Gofundme accounts to buy out Willie Taggart after his third game? Uh oh.

Nebraska – Tough start for Scott Frost’s Huskers.

Arkansas – Fake fair catch, but no faking the rest of a beatdown by North Texas.

* The season is not over.

** Don’t be worried that your team sits just outside the cut. This is a weekly snapshot. And what do we know, anyway?

*** See the previous note, but it’s OK to be slightly concerned or very angry. But what do we know, anyway?

**** No note necessary

___

LSU surged to No. 6 in The Associated Press college football poll after its second victory of September against a highly ranked team, and Wisconsin tumbled to No. 18 after becoming the first top-10 team to be upset by an unranked team.

Top-ranked Alabama strengthened its hold on No. 1 on Sunday , receiving a season-high 58 first-place votes from the media panel. Clemson slipped out of the No. 2 spot for the first time this season. Georgia moved up a spot to second behind the Crimson Tide, giving the Southeastern Conference the top two teams in the ranking. Clemson is third with three first-place votes, followed by No. 4 Ohio State and No. 5 Oklahoma.

LSU has now gone from No. 25 to start the season to No. 6 in three weeks.

The Tigers beat Miami, the preseason No. 8, in Week 1 in Arlington, Texas, and then knocked off Auburn on Saturday at Jordan-Hare Stadium. Auburn slipped from No. 7 to No. 9.

Wisconsin’s loss to BYU was Saturday’s most surprising result. The Badgers were three-touchdown favorites but missed a last-second field goal to tie and lost 24-21 in Madison. The Big Ten had five teams in the top 14 to begin the seasons and three (Michigan, Michigan State, Wisconsin) have already lost.

BYU’s reward was being ranked No. 25.

___

PAC-12 SLOP

The Big Ten drew a lot of attention for having a rough Saturday, with half the league losing nonconference games. The Pac-12, more specifically the Pac-12 South, also had a rough one — though much of the damage was done after a lot of East of the Mississippi bedtimes.

Southern California fell out of the ranking after its second straight loss, a thumping at Texas. The Trojans have now been outscored 54-17 the last two weeks. Arizona State also fell from the ranking when it could not back up its nice home win against Michigan State, losing at San Diego State.

Within the conference, Utah was beaten at home by Pac-12 North power No. 10 Washington, thwarting the Utes’ chances of being ranked. UCLA dropped to 0-3 under Chip Kelly and Arizona finally managed to get coach Kevin Sumlin a victory — by beating Southern Utah of the FCS.

Colorado is the lone unbeaten Pac-12 South team. Looks bleak, but just two seasons ago the landscape was similar for the division. After opening-week losses by USC and UCLA to start 2016, the Pac-12 South had no ranked teams. Ultimately, Colorado, the eventual Pac-12 South champ, and Utah moved into the ranking and finished in the Top 25. USC made a late-season surge behind Sam Darnold, too.

UP

The other big mover in the right direction this week was Oklahoma State. The Cowboys jumped nine spots to No. 15 after an impressive 44-21 victory against Boise State, which tumbled out of the rankings after being No. 17.

Oklahoma State began the season unranked after being ranked at the end of the last three seasons.

IN

Three teams moved into the ranking for the first time this season, with Boston College making its return to the Top 25 for the first time since 2008.

The Eagles beat Wake Forest on Thursday night to improve to 3-0 behind a dynamic offense led by running back A.J. Dillon and blossoming quarterback Anthony Brown. BC has not won more than seven games since 2009. The 2008 team won nine and the ACC Atlantic Division but was last ranked on Nov. 30 of that year.

— No. 22 Texas A&M is ranked for the first time since November 2016.

— No. 25 BYU is ranked for the first time since September 2015.

CONFERENCE CALL

The SEC has the top two teams in the AP poll for the 23rd time since 2006. Alabama was either No. 1 or 2 in all of those. The conference with the next most 1-2 appearances in the poll since 2006 is the Big Ten with eight.

SEC — 6.

Big Ten — 5.

Big 12 — 4.

ACC — 4.

Pac-12 — 3.

Independent — 2.

American — 1.

RANKED vs. RANKED

No. 22 Texas A&M at No. 1 Alabama. First ranked opponent for the Crimson Tide.

No. 7 Stanford at No. 20 Oregon. First Power Five opponent for the Ducks.

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(###) Number of first place votes
 
1
Alabama (58)
Record: 3-0
PV Rank

1

Points

1,521

2
Record: 3-0
3
1,416
3
Record: 3-0
2
1,405
4
Record: 3-0
4
1,357
5
Record: 3-0
5
1,283
6
Record: 3-0
12
1,241
7
Record: 3-0
9
1,055
8
8
1,034
9
Record: 2-1
7
958
10
Record: 2-1
10
947
10
Record: 3-0
11
947
12
Record: 2-0
14
841
13
Record: 2-0
13
816
14
Record: 3-0
16
790
15
Record: 3-0
24
587
16
Record: 2-0
18
556
17
Record: 2-1
15
502
18
Record: 2-1
6
486
19
Record: 2-1
19
448
20
Record: 3-0
20
399
21
Record: 2-1
21
362
22
Record: 2-1
193
23
Record: 3-0
130
24
Record: 1-1
25
86
25
75

College Football Playoff games of impact for Week 3 of the season

(PhatzRadio Sports / USA TODAY SPORTS)   —   The Week 3 slate in college football has been truncated somewhat as Hurricane Florence threatens to wash over much of the southeast. There will still be a number of meaningful games, though some of them might be played in soggy conditions.

Here are the five most impactful contests this weekend in the race for the College Football Playoff.

No. 13 LSU at No. 7 Auburn

Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET, CBS

The battle for supremacy in the hyper-competitive SEC West begins with this all-Tiger affair. A loss isn’t a playoff killer, but clearly the winner will be in a much better position to challenge odds-on favorite Alabama down the road.

Like some past meetings in this series, this year’s version has the makings of a classic defensive struggle that could turn on a single big play. After a low-scoring escape against Washington, Auburn was able to work out some offensive kinks against Alabama State last week. Even so, QB Jarrett Stidham isn’t likely to get much ground support against LB Devin White and the stout LSU front.

The Bayou Bengals haven’t needed to use much of their offensive playbook thus far, but QB Joe Burrow will have to take more chances this week. Protecting him has been an issue, even against FCS member Southeastern Louisiana, and Auburn DT Dontavius Russell is more than capable of collapsing the pocket.

No. 4 Ohio State vs. No. 14 TCU 

Saturday, 8 p.m. ET, ABC

As far as the playoff picture is concerned, the Big 12 right now looks like a one-Sooner pony. That perception will change in a heartbeat if the Horned Frogs can pull off a stunner in their own backyard. The Buckeyes, however, remember how last season’s bid was in part derailed by a loss to a Big 12 opponent. They’ll be determined not to let that bit of history repeat itself.

This de facto road game in Arlington, Texas, loomed as the most significant of the three contests for which Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer would be suspended. But other than a few late points surrendered to Oregon State with the outcome long since determined, it’s hard to see how Ohio State’s first two outings without him on the sideline could have gone much better. The Horned Frogs haven’t looked quite as polished in their warmup games, and they’ll have to be nearly flawless here. Similar to Alabama, the added dimension of a deep passing game brought by QB Dwayne Haskins has made an already strong Ohio State squad even more dangerous. TCU will have to hope its swarming defense, featuring senior LBs Arico Evans and Alec Dunham, can limit big plays. Horned Frogs QB Shawn Robinson will need all his mobility to stay clear of Buckeyes DE Nick Bosa. Senior WR KaVontae Turpin is TCU’s most dangerous breakaway threat who can also do damage in the return game, but the Buckeyes haven’t punted often.

No. 12 Washington at Utah

Saturday, 10 p.m. ET, ESPN

The Huskies must hope their Week 1 setback against Auburn was indeed not an insurmountable obstacle to their playoff pursuit. With the margin for error gone, they now begin their quest for the Pac-12 crown with what figures to be a challenging cross-divisional tilt. The Utes for their part hope to be in the mix in the South.

Utah hasn’t been flashy during its 2-0 start, but the defense has allowed a total of 16 points. LB Chase Hansen and Co. probably won’t quite maintain that level of stinginess against Washington’s veteran backfield duo of QB Jake Browning and RB Myles Gaskin, so the Utes are going to need QB Tyler Huntley to provide some fireworks in the downfield game. Huskies DT Shane Bowman will lead the effort to prevent him from doing so.

Vanderbilt at No. 8 Notre Dame

Saturday, 2:30 p.m. ET, NBC

Following their triumph over Michigan in Week 1, this would appear to be the type of game the Fighting Irish should handle with relative ease if they are in fact a top 10 team. But is it? The Commodores aren’t expected to contend for the SEC title, but they handled a pair of overmatched opponents with little drama to build some momentum.

Though Notre Dame struggled to put away Ball State last week, its defense, paced by LB Te’von Coney and S Alohi Gilman, will still pose the biggest test Vandy senior QB Kyle Shurmur has faced this season. TE Jared Pinkney could figure prominently in the Commodores ball-control plan. The Vandy defense, anchored by LB Josh Smith, has been stout as well, and Notre Dame QB Brandon Wimbush has a troubling ratio of one TD pass to four picks through two games. He’s going to need some long gainers from RB Jafar Armstrong.

No. 17 Boise State at No. 19 Oklahoma State

Saturday 3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN

Round’em up for an entertaining rodeo as the Cowboys and Broncos try to lasso a quality victory. On the surface, this is the first true measuring-stick game for a pair of top 20 teams. But there’s a bit more to it. Oklahoma State will have more opportunities for meaningful wins on its Big 12 schedule, but this contest will show the young Cowboys if they’re ready for those future tests. For the Broncos, the Mountain West favorites who are competing with every other Group of Five league contender for a spot in the big-money bowl rotation, this is their one and only shot at a power-five opponent.

Thus far against overmatched opposition, both offensive units have done as they’ve pleased. The only cause for concern for Cowboys QB Taylor Cornelius might be his three interceptions. Broncos DE Durrant Miles will lead the effort to bother him, but RB Justice Hill will be there to help. Veteran Boise State signal caller Brett Rypien has been pick-free in his two outings this season, and he’ll need all his game experience in the hostile environs in Stillwater. His main targets are WRs Sean Modster and John Hightower, but he’ll have to avoid Cowboys DE Jordan Brailford.

AP Top 25 Heat Check: Up with UGA; Down on Notre Dame

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(PhatzRadio Sports / AP)   —   Fooled you.

There is a lot of that at the beginning of the college football season as teams shuffle in and out of the AP Top 25 . Good win? Bad loss? Hard to tell.

South Carolina and Florida popped up in the poll last week and, poof, now they are gone. Maybe they’ll be back. Of course, Heat Check can’t call out the voters without acknowledging its own mistakes. Last week’s endorsement of Northwestern and BYU look a little silly now that both have lost and the teams they beat in Week 1 are a combined 0-4.

This is all trial and error.

Week 2 of the regular season was mostly status quo in the Top 25, with top teams romping. Two teams jumped on board for the first time this season at the bottom. Let’s see if they can hang around longer than the Gamecocks and Gators.

No. 1 Alabama (2-0)

Next: at Mississippi.

A developing Crimson Tide defense should be tested by Ole Miss, but the Rebels gave up 629 yards and 41 points to FCS Southern Illinois last week. It’s a 6 p.m. local kickoff so Grove-gaters in Oxford might want to pace themselves for a long night.

Heat check: Just right

No. 2 Clemson (2-0)

Next: vs. Georgia Southern

The Tigers are 9-2 in their last 11 against the Southeastern Conference, including victories against Georgia, Alabama and Auburn (twice).

Heat check: Too hot.

No. 3 Georgia (2-0)

Next: vs. Middle Tennessee

The Bulldogs looked terrifying in toying with South Carolina.

Heat check: Little too cold. Just like last season, Alabama and Georgia look like the best two teams in the country.

No. 4 Ohio State (2-0)

Next: vs. No. 15 TCU at Arlington, Texas

It seems weird to say the Buckeyes have upgraded at quarterback after J.T. Barrett left with just about every school record, but they probably have with Dwayne Haskins.

Heat check: A tad too hot, but that could change this weekend.

No. 5 Oklahoma (2-0)

Next: at Iowa State

The Sooners had six sacks and 12 tackles for loss against UCLA. Listen, OU is not going to play defense like the other top teams, but if it can do that type of work against Big 12 competition, the offense makes the Sooners a legit national title threat.

Heat check: Touch too hot.

No. 6 Wisconsin (2-0)

Next: vs. BYU.

The fumbling thing with Jonathan Taylor is becoming worrisome. But he is so good.

Heat check: Also, a touch too hot.

No. 7 Auburn (2-0)

Next: vs. No. 12 LSU

There is this thing that happens a lot in college football where we have very short memories and, oh yeah, Auburn beat Washington in Week 1. Voters are still selling that short.

Heat check: Too cold.

No. 8 Notre Dame (2-0)

Next: vs. Vanderbilt

QB Brandon Wimbush went from game ball against Michigan to three picks against Ball State and frankly Heat Check is a concerned. The Irish can’t mash opponents with the running game like they did last year.

Heat check: Too hot.

No. 9 Stanford (2-0)

Next: vs. UC Davis.

That supposedly suspect Cardinal defense has allowed 13 points in two games against legitimate opponents. Promising.

Heat check: Too cold.

No. 10 Washington (1-1)

Next: at Utah.

The Pac-12 North powers need to dominate the suspect South for the good of the conference.

Heat check: Too hot.

No. 11 Penn State (2-0)

Next: vs. Kent State.

Penn State is approaching the point in its development as a program where it can occasionally hide some issues behind freak athletes making game-changing plays. This is what elite programs do.

Heat check: Too cold.

No. 12 LSU (2-0)

Next: at No. 7 Auburn.

LSU won’t be able to hide an iffy offense on the Plains.

Heat check: Too cold.

No. 13 Virginia Tech (2-0)

Next: vs. East Carolina.

Beating Florida State in Tallahassee isn’t worth what it used to be — a week ago.

Heat check: Just right.

No. 14 West Virginia (2-0)

Next: at NC State.

A second Power Five nonconference opponent — and a better one than the first — could give the Mountaineers a nice bump.

Heat check: Too hot.

No. 15 TCU (2-0)

Next: vs. No. 4 Ohio State in Arlington, Texas.

Led by Kavontae Turpin, the Horned Frogs have some serious speed at receiver.

Heat check: Too hot.

No. 16 Mississippi State (2-0)

Next: vs. Louisiana-Lafayette.

That victory at Kansas State was impressively easy, but if the Bulldogs are going to be more than a fringe threat in the SEC West QB Nick Fitzgerald has to develop into a consistently accurate passer.

Heat check: Too cold.

No. 17 Boise State (2-0)

Next: at No. 24 Oklahoma State.

After gaining 816 yards against UConn, the Broncos get their chance for a victory that could make them relevant in the playoff conversation all season.

Heat check: Too cold.

No. 18 UCF (2-0)

Next: at North Carolina

The Knights are getting no help from their Power Five nonconference opponents, North Carolina and Pitt.

Heat check: Too cold.

No. 19 Michigan (1-1)

Next: vs. SMU

Avoid overreacting to the Western Michigan rout, while still acknowledging QB Shea Patterson could make this a team capable of winning some big games.

Heat check: Just right

No. 20 Oregon (2-0)

Next: vs. San Jose State.

Ducks fans will remind you as you’re looking at Oregon’s hideous nonconference schedule that Texas A&M backed out of a series this year (and next) to add Clemson.

Heat check: Too hot.

No. 21 Miami (1-1)

Next: at Toledo

The Rockets have legitimate NFL talent at receiver and are well coached. Decent test for the Hurricanes.

Heat check: Too hot.

No. 22 Southern California (1-1)

Next: at Texas.

New quarterback aside, when USC manages only three points in a game — fewest in 21 years — it is cause for concern.

Heat check Too hot.

No. 23 Arizona State (2-0)

Next: at San Diego State

The Sun Devils took a ton of grief for hiring coach Herm Edwards so allow them a moment to gloat after a nice start.

Heat check: Too cold.

No. 24 Oklahoma State (2-0)

Next: vs. No. 18 Boise State.

Few coaches are better at plugging in a new quarterback than Mike Gundy. Senior QB Taylor Cornelius, averaging 364 yards in the first two games, gets his first big test.

Heat check: Too cold.

No. 25 Michigan State (1-1)

Next: at Indiana, Sept. 22.

One game with no defense but good offense. Another with no offense but solid defense. The Spartans have a week off to get things lined up.

Heat check: Just right.

___

Should be out: Miami, USC. Should be in: Texas A&M, Utah.

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Follow Ralph D. Russo at www.Twitter.com/ralphDrussoAP and listen at https://www.podcastone.com/AP-Top-25-College-Football-Podcast

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More AP college football: https://apnews.com/tag/Collegefootball and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25

College Football Playoff projection: Alabama in front, with Ohio State, Georgia and Oklahoma

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(PhatzRadio Sports / USA TODAY SPORTS)    —   While there weren’t any huge upsets to roil the Football Four Playoff projection in Week 2, there were some thrilling — and maybe telling — developments. There were also plenty of mismatches, to which we applied the ol’ eye test (meaning: hey, this team looks really good).

The result, a slight reshuffling from the initial Football Four. As always, remember we pick the playoff bracket as if the season was over.* It could all change next week. (Well, except for Alabama. Possible, but seems unlikely.)

The Four

1. Alabama – The more things change, the more …  but Bama’s doing it differently: The first six offensive touchdowns in a rout of Arkansas State came through the air. And it wasn’t just Tua Tagovailoa; Jalen Hurts had a couple of touchdown passes.

2. Ohio State – Game 2 for the Buckeyes during Urban Meyer’s suspension went a lot like the first one: an easy blowout. Dwayne Haskins threw four more TD passes. It could get more difficult this week, with TCU in Arlington, Texas.

3. Georgia – The talk about South Carolina pulling an upset was manufactured and then greatly overcooked last week – the Gamecocks, quite simply, aren’t ready to challenge the SEC’s upper-tier teams  – but Georgia was very, very impressive in a road victory.

4. Oklahoma – Kyler Murray continued to show the Sooners might not skip a beat on offense, but as important a revelation in the first two games is an apparently improved defense. Rodney Anderson’s knee injury could be a big blow, but there’s depth at the position.

Four More: **

5. Clemson – Nothing came easy, but the Tigers escaped a revved-up bunch of Aggies in the super-heated cauldron of Kyle Field. The veteran Kelly Bryant got the bulk of the work down the stretch, but Clemson wasn’t able to put together a clinching drive. The QB competition will continue.

6. Auburn – After notching the most impressive win of Week 1, the Tigers easily dispatched FCS Alabama State. Up this week, an SEC West showdown when LSU visits town.

7. Wisconsin – No issues with New Mexico. Give the ball to Jonathan Taylor – 33 times, for 253 yards and three touchdowns – and let him do the rest.

8. Penn State – After the scare vs. Appalachian State, the Nittany Lions took care of business at Pittsburgh. An improved defensive showing was encouraging.

A Few More After That: ***

Stanford – The Cardinal were clearly superior to Southern California. Not sure what that means, but they were.

Mississippi State – The Bulldogs can get lost in the crowd in the SEC West, but they dominated Kansas State in Manhattan. That defensive front is stout.

LSU –The offense continues to sputter. But after whipping FCS-level Southeastern Louisiana, Ed Orgeron’s Tigers are 2-0 heading into Auburn.

Washington – Huskies bounced back from the loss to Auburn with an easy win over FCS opponent North Dakota.

West Virginia – Another FCS opponent, another lopsided win.

Nowhere Close: ****

Florida – 31 years later, another loss to Kentucky.

USC – Three points?

Arkansas – At altitude, a 18-point lead evaporates.

Arizona – Could be worse, but it’s hard to see how.

Purdue — Just … sigh.

Florida State – Yeah, we know, the Seminoles beat Samford – somehow.

Special Recognition

Kansas — And on the 47th try, a road win!

* The season is not over.

** Don’t be worried that your team sits just outside the cut. This is a weekly snapshot. And what do we know, anyway?

*** See the previous note, but it’s OK to be slightly concerned or very angry. But what do we know, anyway?

**** No note necessary

___

Maybe Larry Fedora was onto something earlier this summer when he said football was under attack. At the very least, the ineptitude of his North Carolina team sure makes it look that way in Chapel Hill.

Prior to Saturday, the worst loss any FBS team had suffered early in this college football season was East Carolina opening up with a putrid 28-23 loss to North Carolina A&T. So what, then, does that make North Carolina’s subsequent face plant against that same ECU team, losing 41-19? 

Here’s what that makes it: The moment Fedora probably can’t come back from.

His tenure already teetering after going 3-9 last year, Fedora has compounded his verbal missteps in 2018 with results that will probably lead to his exit sooner rather than later.

Remarkably, it could get worse before it gets better. At 0-2 already, the Tar Heels next face UCF, Pittsburgh, Miami and Virginia Tech in succession, which means 0-6 isn’t just on the table but is the most likely outcome of the next month.

And even though North Carolina fans may not care about football as much as basketball, that doesn’t mean they will accept it — particularly when Fedora’s undeserved arrogance too often leads him to stick his foot in his mouth.

Just this week, for instance, Fedora drew unnecessary attention to his troubles when he said he didn’t remember anything about the 70-41 loss he suffered to ECU back in 2014. It started Wednesday on the Raleigh-based David Glenn Show when he said “I don’t remember a thing about it,” which he repeated when pressed by Glenn and then again by UNC beat reporters after practice.

First off, Fedora’s stubborn insistence that he didn’t remember is patently ridiculous because it’s certainly false. Second, it’s just not very savvy to create a storyline when it would be much easier to say something like, “Man, we got it handed to us that day and weren’t real good but fortunately we battled back that year to get to a bowl game and learned a lot about adversity, which paid off the next year when we won the division.”

Instead, Fedora has another ECU loss to forget, which pushes North Carolina to the top of the Misery Index, a weekly measurement of knee-jerk reactions based on what each fan base just watched.

FOUR MORE IN MISERY

Arizona: If you watched quarterback Khalil Tate last year, it didn’t seem anyone could stop him. Who’d have thought Noel Mazzone would be the one who could finally slow him down? Kevin Sumlin brought Mazzone with him from Texas A&M, but it’s clear his offense just doesn’t utilize Tate’s strengths whatsoever. The Wildcats are 0-2 after an embarrassing 45-18 loss at Houston, and while many of the problems may fall on how poorly Rich Rodriguez recruited the last couple years, there’s no excuse for trying to turn Tate into a guy who hands off and throws a bunch of screen passes. Though he finished with 341 yards, a quarterback who had 1,411 rushing yards last season shouldn’t ever be throwing 45 times while clocking just seven rushing attempts.

Georgia Tech: Paul Johnson has had a very good tenure at Georgia Tech. It’s not an easy place to win; yet, the highs have been incredibly high including four ACC title game appearances. But the lows are getting low lately. A losing season in 2015, a losing season in 2017 and a penchant for coming up short in close games. Saturday’s 49-38 loss to South Florida continues a recent trend in which the Yellow Jackets could have landed a knockout punch but instead let self-inflicted wounds lead to defeat. Just like the season opener against Tennessee in 2017, Georgia Tech was on the doorstep Saturday of a fourth quarter touchdown to effectively put the game out of reach. Instead, Qua Searcy fumbled at the 12-yard line with 7:47 to go, dooming a game in which Georgia Tech had 602 yards of offense. Johnson is 2-6 in his last eight against FBS opponents.

Kansas State: For a team that was hyped in the preseason as a potential Big 12 darkhorse, the Wildcats have instead looked like a team that really misses longtime offensive coordinator Dana Dimel, who became the head coach at UTEP last winter. A 31-10 loss at home to Mississippi State was the opposite kind of performance from what Bill Snyder’s teams have become known for over the years. Instead of finding a way to ugly up the game and give themselves a chance, the Wildcats got flat-out dominated, getting out-gained 538-213 and completing just nine passes. The mystique around K-State is now gone, and with Snyder turning 79 next month, you wonder if it’s coming back.

Florida State: The only way you could have a worse high-profile coaching debut than Willie Taggart would be if the Seminoles had actually lost to Samford. Instead, they had to pull a 36-26 victory out of their rear ends, only taking the lead with 4:04 remaining. Indeed, after getting embarrassed at home by Virginia Tech in the opener, Florida State was very much in danger of losing this game. Even at the end, they had to stop yet another Samford drive with a fourth interception of Devlin Hodges, who had torched them for 475 passing yards. As if that wasn’t bad enough, the Seminoles couldn’t even celebrate those interceptions properly because they unveiled their turnover gimmick and it, uh, wasn’t impressive. Whereas Miami has a diamond-crusted turnover chain, Florida State has… a red backpack. No, Willie. Just no. Not since last season when Tennessee held up a trash can on the sideline has a team been made fun of this relentlessly. Get rid of it. Now.

TRENDING TOWARD MISERY 

Florida: The Gators’ fan base is arguably the most effete in college football. There’s just no passion for anything other than greatness, and hiring Dan Mullen didn’t exactly set them on fire. Mullen may be great in the long run, but the full extent of the damage sustained from the Jim McElwain era was realized Saturday night when the Gators’ 31-game winning streak against Kentucky came to an end in Gainesville. It will be hard for Florida fans to overcome the apathy of knowing in early September that the Gators are going to be bland and below-average yet again.

USC: Athletics director Lynn Swann didn’t hire Clay Helton. He would not have hired Clay Helton. But he kept Helton after last season’s Pac 12 championship because, well, what else was he going to do? Still, that tension is always going to be there. And after a 17-3 loss at Stanford in which the Trojans were minus-3 on turnovers, you have to wonder how patient the notoriously demanding USC fans will be. You’re either elite or you’re not at USC, and nothing says “not elite” like scoring three points (even with a freshman quarterback in J.T. Daniels) in a conference game.

Temple: This has been nothing short of a disastrous start with losses to Villanova and Buffalo. And this is a particularly tenuous time for such a slide. Temple is trying to build momentum behind an on-campus stadium project that has been beset by local opposition. Second-year coach Geoff Collins does all the right things in terms of marketing the program and generating social media excitement, but that’s hard to sustain if you’re losing to FCS and traditionally average Mid-American Conference teams.

Purdue: The Jeff Brohm bandwagon has emptied out a bit lately. He’s still got media darling status for now, but losing 20-19 to Eastern Michigan to start the year 0-2 (both at home) definitely dampens the enthusiasm after a feel-good 7-6 debut. Perhaps it’s not breaking news that despite his coaching talent, it’s hard to win at Purdue.

South Carolina: The Gamecocks spent a good portion of this offseason talking themselves into the idea that they were closing the gap with SEC East rival Georgia and that getting a somewhat new-look Bulldogs team at home in Week 2 would be Will Muschamp’s big breakthrough opportunity. That fantasy was dispelled quickly as Georgia went up 14-0 early and rolled to a 41-17 win that made the talent differential between the two very clear.

TOTALLY REAL AND IRRATIONAL MESSAGE BOARD THREADS 

“Mack Brown as Interim Coach” – InsideCarolina.com

“This is the worst FSU team I’ve ever seen” – warchant.com (Florida State)

“Who are we hiring for HC next year?” – stingtalk.com (Georgia Tech)

“I am not a fire coach guy. But smiling at the presser???” – wearesc.com (USC)

“Too late to call Lane Kiffin?” – hogville.net (Arkansas)

CFB Roundup: No. 2 Clemson escapes with 28-26 win at Texas A&M

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COLLEGE STATION, Texas (AP) — Kelly Bryant threw for 205 yards and a touchdown and ran for another score to help No. 2 Clemson escape with a 28-26 victory over Kellen Mond and Texas A&M on Saturday night.

Mond was spectacular in the second half, throwing for three touchdowns, with a 14-yard pass to Kendrick Rogers cutting the lead to 28-26 with 46 seconds left. But his big performance came up just short when the 2-point conversion attempt was intercepted in the end zone.

Mond finished with a career-high 430 yards passing, and Rogers had 120 yards receiving and two TDs to help Clemson (2-0) edge the Aggies (1-1).

Freshman Trevor Lawrence started the second half, but failed to move the ball effectively and Bryant took over and led the Tigers on two touchdown drives in the last five minutes of the third quarter to extend the lead to 15 points.

Mond cut it to 28-20 when he threw a 14-yard pass to Quartney Davis with about 14 minutes left.

NO. 1 ALABAMA 57, ARKANSAS STATE 7

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (AP) — Tua Tagovailoa passed for three first-quarter touchdowns and Jalen Hurts added two more before halftime for Alabama.

The Crimson Tide (2-0) racked up big plays on the way to a 40-0 halftime lead while rotating the quarterbacks who battled for the job throughout the offseason. Coach Nick Saban officially announced Tagovailoa would remain the starter Monday, but both were big parts of the plan again.

Tagovailoa finished 13 of 19 for 228 yards and four TDs. He led seven drives and tossed in runs of 15 and 12 yards in the second half. Tagovailoa had TD passes of 58 yards to Jerry Jeudy, 31 to Henry Ruggs III and 41 to DeVonta Smith — all in the first quarter — and tacked on a 14-yarder to Derek Kief.

Hurts was 7 of 9 for 93 yards but did fumble at the goal line after taking a hit while airborne. Najee Harris ran for a career-high 135 yards and a touchdown on 13 carries.

Arkansas State is 1-1.

NO. 3 GEORGIA 41, NO. 24 SOUTH CAROLINA 17

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Jake Fromm threw for 194 yards and a touchdown, all three of Georgia’s latest running combo scored touchdowns and the expected Southeastern Conference showdown turned into a blowout.

The Gamecocks (1-1, 0-1) came in ranked for the first time in four years, and some thought they had a chance of upsetting the defending SEC champions early in the season. Instead, the Bulldogs (2-0, 1-0) used dominating offense and suffocating defense to win their fourth straight over South Carolina.

Fromm was 15-of-18 passing, including a 34-yard TD pass to Mecole Hardman. D’Andre Swift, Elijah Holyfield and Brian Herrien looked every bit as effective as NFL runners Nick Chubb and Sony Michel did a year ago in leading Georgia to the College Football Playoff.

NO. 4 OHIO STATE 52, RUTGERS 3

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Dwayne Haskins Jr. threw four touchdown passes and Ohio State rolled to the 900th victory in program history.

Johnnie Dixon grabbed two of Haskins’ scoring strikes, and backup quarterback Tate Martell added another touchdown pass and a 47-yard scoring run on a gray, misty afternoon. The Buckeyes, playing in their second game without suspended coach Urban Meyer, piled up 579 offensive yards.

Meyer was back conducting practices this week but will miss one more game — next week’s prime-time clash with No. 16 TCU — to finish out his three-game suspension for mismanaging fired assistant coach Zach Smith, who was accused to domestic abuse and other misbehavior. Co-offensive coordinator Ryan Day ran the show again and had few reasons to fret, save for the 11 penalties that cost Ohio State 131 yards.

Rutgers is 1-1.

NO. 5 WISCONSIN 45, NEW MEXICO 14

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Jonathan Taylor ran for a career-high 253 yards and three touchdowns, and Wisconsin asserted its dominance after allowing a score on the game-opening drive.

A.J. Taylor had 134 yards receiving and a score to help the Badgers (2-0) win their 41st straight home nonconference game. That’s the longest active streak in the FBS.

With the Lobos (1-1) down to third-string quarterback Sheriron Jones because of injuries, the Badgers converted two turnovers into touchdowns in a 5-minute span in the third quarter.

NO. 6 OKLAHOMA 49, UCLA 21

NORMAN, Okla. (AP) — Kyler Murray threw three touchdown passes and ran for two more scores, and Oklahoma lost star running back Rodney Anderson to a leg injury.

Anderson ran for 10 yards on the final play of the first quarter, and then got up slowly. He limped off on his own, and trainers tended to the preseason All-Big 12 pick before he headed to the locker room. He was back on the bench later, out of uniform.

Murray passed for 306 yards and ran for 69 yards for the Sooners (2-0). Thompson-Robinson completed 16 of 26 passes for 254 yards for UCLA, 0-2 under first-year coach Chip Kelly.

NO. 7 AUBURN 63, ALABAMA STATE 9

AUBURN, Ala. (AP) — JaTarvious Whitlow ran for 122 yards and receiver Anthony Schwartz accounted for 117 total yards and two touchdowns to help Auburn rout Alabama State.

Starting quarterback Jarrett Stidham played only into the second quarter, with the Tigers (2-0) leading 42-0. The redshirt junior finished 6 of 11 for 113 yards with a passing and rushing score.

Stidham’s backup, sophomore Malik Willis, gifted the Hornets (1-1) their first points of the night when he was sacked in the end zone on his first snap for a 4-yard safety in the second quarter. Willis directed the offense until 23-year-old freshman left-hander Cord Sandberg took the on the last play of the third quarter. Sandberg, a former minor league baseball player for the Philadelphia Phillies, completed one pass for 22 yards and ran for 35 yards on three carries.

NO. 8 NOTRE DAME 24, BALL STATE 16

SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) — Jalen Elliott had two interceptions that Notre Dame turned into touchdowns and the Fighting Irish held off stubborn Ball State.

The Irish, coming off an emotional 24-17 season-opening victory over Michigan, looked lackluster against the Mid-American Conference foe. The Cardinals (1-1) also played nothing like the 34½-point underdogs they were labeled in the schools’ first meeting in football.

After going the entire 2017 season and last week without an interception by a safety, Elliott picked off a pair of Riley Neal’s passes that the offense converted into rushing touchdowns of 31 and 1 yards by junior Tony Jones Jr. for a 21-6 lead in the third quarter.

NO. 9 WASHINGTON 45, NORTH DAKOTA 3

SEATTLE (AP) — Jake Browning threw for 313 yards and two touchdowns, Ty Jones had two touchdown receptions, and Washington pulled away in the second half.

The Huskies home opener was a chance to regroup after the letdown of last week’s season opener loss to No. 7 Auburn. Browning was 23 of 37 passing with short TD passes to Jones and Cade Otton. Backup QB Jake Haener added a 12-yard TD pass to Jones in the fourth quarter.

John Santiago had 18 carries for 139 yards for North Dakota (1-1).

NO. 10 STANFORD 17, NO. 17 SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA 3

STANFORD, Calif. (AP) — Bryce Love ran for 136 yards and a touchdown and Stanford made talented Southern California quarterback JT Daniels look like a freshman.

The Cardinal (2-0, 1-0 Pac-12) got an early touchdown run by Love and then tormented Daniels much of the night, holding USC to its fewest points in this series since a shutout in 1941. Stanford took control of the game late in the second quarter with a strip sack on fourth down against Daniels that set up K.J. Costello’s 9-yard touchdown pass to Colby Parkinson that gave Stanford a 14-0 lead.

Daniels made an impressive debut last week for the Trojans (1-1, 0-1) when he threw for 282 yards and a touchdown against UNLV. But duplicating that against Stanford proved far more difficult with the Cardinal using blitzes to pressure and confuse Daniels at times.

Daniels went 16 for 34 for 215 yards with interceptions on his final two passes of the night. He was forced to leave the game for one possession in the first half after a hard hit by Joey Alfieri.

NO. 11 LSU 31, SE LOUISIANA 0

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Joe Burrow passed for two touchdowns and ran for a short score, and LSU rode an opportunistic defensive performance.

Running back Nick Brossette was LSU’s most productive player on offense, rushing for a career-high 137 yards on 19 carries, including a 42-yard scamper.

While the result was never in doubt, LSU’s offense lacked consistency and often struggled to sustain drives. The Tigers managed only one first down during their first three possessions of the second half. That could bode ill as LSU (2-0) heads into Southeastern Conference play against Auburn next week.

Southeastern (0-2), which plays in the second-tier Football Championship Subdivision, had most of the possession of the second half, but turned the ball over twice deep in LSU territory.

NO. 12 VIRGINIA TECH 62, WILLIAM & MARY 17

BLACKSBURG, Va. (AP) — Steven Peoples had two first-half touchdown runs, and Josh Jackson threw for a touchdown and ran for another for Virginia Tech.

Jackson went to the bench before halftime with the Hokies (2-0) up 31-7, and backup Ryan Willis led a touchdown drive on his first college series.

The FCS-level Tribe (1-1) were outgained 401-100 in the opening 30 minutes, and 71 of their yards came on a pass from Shon Mitchell to Nick Muse, setting up their lone points in the half.

NO. 13 PENN STATE 51, PITTSBURGH 6

PITTSBURGH (AP) — Trace McSorley threw for two touchdowns and ran for another and Penn State pulled away against sloppy Pittsburgh.

KJ Hamler ran 32 yards for a score and hauled in a 14-yard touchdown pass from McSorley to help Nittany Lions (2-0) bounced back from an opening-week scare against Appalachian State to beat the Panthers (1-1). McSorley finished 14 of 30 for 145 yards in the rain at soggy Heinz Field.

Penn State running back Miles Sanders ran for 118 yards, and DeAndre Thompson returned a punt 39 yards for a touchdown.

NO. 14 WEST VIRGINIA 52, YOUNGSTOWN STATE 17

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. (AP) — Will Grier threw three of his four touchdown passes to Gary Jennings to lead West Virginia.

The Mountaineers (2-0) piled up 625 total yards in winning their 15th straight home opener.

Jennings had a 33-yard TD catch in the third quarter after scores of 11 and 24 yards in the second. Grier also had a 40-yard scoring toss to Dominique Maiden in the fourth quarter. Grier completed 21 of 26 passes for 332 yards.

FCS Youngstown State (0-2) was limited to 293 total yards.

ARIZONA STATE 16, NO. 15 MICHIGAN STATE 13

TEMPE, Ariz. (AP) — Brandon Ruiz hit a 28-yard field goal as time expired, Manny Wilkins threw for 380 yards and a touchdown, and Arizona State rallied to beat No. 15 Michigan State.

Arizona State (2-0) got the Herm Edwards era off to a rousing start with a 49-7 rout of UTSA in its opener. The Sun Devils scored 13 points in the fourth quarter to knock off the Spartans (1-1).

Wilkins hit N’Keal Harry on a tying 27-yard pass early in the fourth quarter and then orchestrated the last drive to set up Ruiz’s winning kick.

Brian Lewerke, who played at nearby Pinnacle High School, threw for 314 yards and a touchdown for the Spartans, who are 1-13 in regular-season games out West.

The Sun Devils are 10-0 against Big Ten teams in Tempe.

NO. 18 MISSISSIPPI STATE 31, KANSAS STATE 10

MANHATTAN, Kan. (AP) — Nick Fitzgerald returned from a suspension to throw two touchdown passes, Kylin Hill ran for 211 yards and accounted for three scores for Mississippi State.

It was the first road win over a Power Five opponent for the Bulldogs (2-0) since 1995 against Baylor.

Fitzgerald missed the Bulldogs’ bowl game last year with an injury, and then was suspended for last week’s blowout of Stephen F. Austin. But after getting off to a rusty start Saturday, the dual-threat QB threw for 154 yards and ran for 159 yards rushing as the Bulldogs piled up 372 on the ground.

Kansas State dropped to 1-1.

NO. 19 UCF 38, SOUTH CAROLINA STATE 0

ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — Adrian Killins Jr. ran for 89 yards and two touchdowns to help UCF rout South Carolina State for its 15th straight victory.

Killins Jr. scored on runs of 3 and 24 yards in the first quarter. Greg McCrae rushed for 62 yards and a touchdown, and Otis Anderson added 42 yards and a touchdowns as UCF (2-0) racked up 315 rushing yards.

McKenzie Milton struggled and threw three interceptions in the first half. He was 21 of 39 for 243 yards with a touchdown pass to Gabriel Davis in the third quarter.

UCF held South Carolina State (0-2) to 80 yards passing and 257 total yards.

No. 20 BOISE STATE 62, UCONN 7

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Brett Rypien threw for 362 yards and three touchdowns in little more than a half and Boise State set a school record for offensive yards.

The Broncos (2-0) gained 818 yards, including 514 in the first half. The previous record was 742 yards on Oct. 15, 2011 against Colorado State in Boise State’s first Mountain West game.

Rypien had his 16th career 300-yard passing game, tying Kellen Moore for most with the program.

UConn (0-2) struggled to move the ball against Boise State’s first-team defense, mustering just 78 yards and four first downs in the first half. The Huskies finished with 193 yards of offense.

NO. 21 MICHIGAN 49, WESTERN MICHIGAN 3

ANN ARBOR, Mich. (AP) — Shea Patterson threw three touchdown passes, one in each of the first three quarters, to help Michigan beat Western Michigan.

Patterson, the heralded transfer from Mississippi, was 12 of 17 for 125 yards. He connected for two scores to wide receivers after the position group accounted for a total of just three touchdowns last season for the Wolverines (1-1). Karan Higdon ran 140 of his 156 yards and a touchdown in the first quarter against the overmatched Broncos (0-2).

NO. 22 MIAMI 77, SAVANNAH STATE 0

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. (AP) — Malik Rosier threw for two scores and rushed for another, N’Kosi Perry came off the bench to throw the first three touchdown passes of his collegiate career, and Miami set a school record for margin of victory/

Brevin Jordan had two touchdown catches and Lorenzo Lingard ran for two scores for Miami (1-1), which set a school record by winning its 12th consecutive home opener. The previous record for victory margin was 70 — set against Savannah State in 2013. The 77 points scored also tied a school record.

It was Miami’s first shutout since blanking Bethune-Cookman in 2015 and the first shutout for defensive coordinator Manny Diaz in exactly six years. Diaz was at Texas when the Longhorns blanked New Mexico on Sept. 8, 2012. Savannah State (0-2) has played Miami twice, losing those matchups by a combined 154-7 score. The Tigers are dropping from the FCS level to Division II next season.

NO. 23 OREGON 62, PORTLAND STATE 14

EUGENE, Ore. (AP) — Justin Herbert threw for 250 yards and four touchdowns for Oregon before heading to the bench in the third quarter.

Herbert was 20 of 26 passes, and had 10 total touchdowns — nine passing and one on the ground — in the Ducks’ two opening victories. The have won 22nd straight nonconference games.

Portland State (0-2) has lost 15 in a row dating to 2016.

KENTUCKY 27, NO. 25 FLORIDA 16

GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) — Kentucky ended one of college football’s longest losing streaks by upsetting Florida.

Terry Wilson accounted for three touchdowns, Benny Snell ran for 175 yards and the Wildcats (2-0) beat the Gators for the first time since 1986. Kentucky hadn’t won in Gainesville since 1979.

The 31-game streak was the fourth-longest in NCAA history in an uninterrupted series, behind Notre Dame over Navy (43 games, 1964-2006), Nebraska over Kansas (36, 1969-2004) and Oklahoma over Kansas State (32, 1937-68).

For Florida and first-year coach Dan Mullen, it was a reality check after roughing up Charleston Southern 53-6 in the opener.

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More AP college football: https://apnews.com/tag/Collegefootball and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25

College Football Playoff games of impact for Week 2 of the season

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(PhatzRadio Sports / USA TODAY SPORTS)    —   At this early stage of the college football season, many of the top contenders are still in non-conference tune-up mode. There are a few teams, however, who are stepping up a notch in competition level after an easier opener. Then in some cases, there are already meaningful league games on the slate.

Without further ado then, here are the Week 2 match-ups that will have the biggest impact on the playoff hunt.

No. 12 Southern California at No. 9 Stanford

Saturday, 8:30 p.m. ET, Fox

This is quite the start to the Pac-12 campaign, a rematch of last year’s conference championship game and a possible preview of this year’s version. The Cardinal, of course, must still contend with Washington and a revitalized Oregon in the North Division, and the young Trojans might get some unexpected challenges in the South. But regardless of how this one turns out, it could be these two squaring off again in December.

When is having your Heisman Trophy contender bottled up a good thing? Cardinal RB Bryce Love was kept under wraps by a determined San Diego State defense, but QB K.J. Costello and WR JJ Arcega-Whiteside connected on three TD passes. LB Cam Smith and the USC defensive front must nevertheless make containing the Cardinal ground game their top priority. The Trojans had a hard time putting away UNLV in their debut, but freshman QB J.T. Daniels had a pick-free outing and showed enough arm strength to stretch the field. He’ll have to, as not much will get by Stanford’s veteran LB unit featuring seniors Joey Alfieri and Bobby Okereke.

No. 3 Georgia at No. 24 South Carolina

Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET, CBS

The Bulldogs face their first hurdle as they look to defend their SEC crown. How high will this hurdle be? If the Gamecocks are within shouting distance in the fourth quarter, anything can happen.

Georgia did get the easy workout it wanted against Austin Peay, with incumbent QB Jake Fromm taking charge so star recruit Justin Fields could also get his feet wet. South Carolina was equally impressive against FCS competition as QB Jake Bentley did solid work against Coastal Carolina. The defenses, of course, will be much more formidable this time as league play gets underway. The Gamecocks are built around LB T.J. Brunson, who will lead the effort to contain the Bulldogs’ dazzling array of tailbacks. The Georgia defense has some new faces, but LB Monte Rice seems ready to nail down the inside.

No. 2 Clemson at Texas A&M

Saturday, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN

One of the favorites to reach the playoff challenges itself on the road as Clemson heads west into, uh, SEC country? Yeah, just go with it. The Aggies are in the SEC to stay. Their opening act under Jimbo Fisher was impressive enough, but they’re about to get a taste of what life will be like in the extremely loaded division of their own conference.

The Tigers did pretty much everything they wanted to against Furman, as QB Kelly Bryant took charge and touted freshman Trevor Lawrence got in some good minutes as well. Clemson coach Dabo Swinney again plans to use both in the game, but they’ll have to be sharper with their decisions against a much more athletic A&M defense. The Aggies are young in places but have veterans like LB Tyrel Dodson and DE Landis Durham to show the way. A&M got excellent results from QB Kellen Mond and RB Trayveon Williams against Northwestern State, but the Tigers’ defensive front won’t be nearly as permeable. DT Keeping Tigers DT Christian Wilkins out of the backfield is a must if Mond wants to utilize the Aggies’ revamped passing game.

No. 13 Michigan State at Arizona State

Saturday, 10:45 p.m. ET, ESPN

The Spartans weren’t the only Big Ten East contender to survive a major scare on opening day. This lengthy trip to the southwest now appears even trickier. The Sun Devils got the Herm Edwards era off to a good start by rolling past UT-San Antonio, but this one figures to say a lot more about how close ASU is to contending in the Pac-12 South.

In addition to being on the road, the biggest concern for the Spartans is the way their secondary was exploited by Utah State. The worry grows when examining the performance turned in by Sun Devils’ QB Manny Wilkins and primary WR N’Keal Harry. The good news for MSU is QB Brian Lewerke and RB L.J. Scott are still around to steady the ship. In short, we could have our first true #Pac12AfterDark special of the year.

No. 18 Mississippi State at Kansas State

Saturday, noon ET, ESPN

With the SEC West looking stronger from top to bottom, the Bulldogs must keep their non-league slate clean. Though the Wildcats nearly stumbled out of the gate, they still figure to be a tough out at home.

Despite starting QB Nick Fitzgerald serving a one-game suspension, the Joe Moorhead era in Starkville began just fine as the Bulldogs rolled past FCS member Stephen F. Austin. Things weren’t nearly as smooth in Manhattan, where K-State needed a late rally to avoid being an FCS upset victim against South Dakota. WR/PR Isaiah Zuber saved the day for the Wildcats, and he’s certain to receive plenty of attention this time around from CB Jamal Peters and the Miss State secondary. Meantime, K-State will have to settle on either QB Skylar Thompson or Alex Delton to run the show. The Bulldogs will regain the services of Fitzgerald, but he probably could have used the tune-up game since he’ll be taking the field for the first time since his nasty ankle injury sustained in last year’s regular-season finale against Ole Miss. It will help having explosive weapons like WR Osirus Mitchell in his huddle.

CFB – AP Top 25: No. 11 LSU, No. 12 Virginia Tech make big jumps in AP Top 25

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(PhatzRadio Sports / AP)   —   No. 11 LSU and No. 12 Virginia Tech made the biggest jumps in the first Associated Press college football poll of the regular season while No. 4 Ohio State leapfrogged No. 5 Wisconsin after a week in which most off the top teams were unchallenged.

Alabama remained No. 1 with a blowout of Louisville, and No. 2 Clemson and No. 3 Georgia held their spots in the poll released Tuesday. The Crimson Tide received 48 first-place votes, Clemson had 12 and Wisconsin had one. The Buckeyes are just four points ahead of the Badgers and only nine points ahead of No. 6 Oklahoma.

LSU, which was ranked No. 25 in the preseason, moved up 14 spots after beating Miami 33-17 in one of four games that matched ranked teams. The Hurricanes dropped from No. 8 to No. 22. Virginia Tech won 24-3 at Florida State and moved up eight spots.

The Seminoles fell out of the rankings after being 19th. Texas, which was No. 23 in the preseason poll, didn’t receive any votes in the latest poll.

No. 4 Ohio State moved up a spot after scoring 77 points against Oregon State. Auburn jumped two spots to No. 7 after beating Washington.

The ninth-ranked Huskies dropped three places. No. 8 Notre Dame moved up four spots after beating Michigan, which fell from 14 to No. 21.

POLL POINTS

Alabama tied Ohio State for most appearances at No. 1 in the history of the AP college football poll, which started in 1936. Barring an historic upset, Alabama should break the record Sunday after playing Arkansas State on Saturday in Tuscaloosa.

Alabama — 105 weeks at No. 1

Ohio State — 105

Oklahoma — 101

Notre Dame — 98

Southern California — 91

Florida State — 72

Nebraska — 70

CONFERENCE CALL

Week one was good for the Southeastern Conference, which went 13-1 including two victories against ACC opponents, one versus the Pac-12 and one against the Big 12. The SEC has seven teams ranked this week, the most for the conference since Oct. 16, 2016, when eight were ranked.

No. 24 South Carolina and No. 25 Florida entered the rankings this week.

SEC — 7

Big Ten — 5

Pac-12 — 4

ACC — 3

Big 12 — 3

American — 1

Mountain West — 1

Independent — 1

RANKED VS. RANKED

No. 3 Georgia at No. 24 South Carolina this week. Big opportunity for the Gamecocks, who are ranked for the first time since Sept. 21, 2014.

No. 17 Southern California at No. 10 Stanford. The Cardinal have been in control of this rivalry for most of the past decade, but the Trojans swept Stanford last season — including a victory in the Pac-12 championship game.

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(###) Number of first place votes
 
1
Alabama (48)
Record: 1-0
PV Rank

1

Points

1,511

2
Clemson (12)
Record: 1-0
2
1,467
3
Record: 1-0
3
1,350
4
Record: 1-0
5
1,262
5
Record: 1-0
4
1,258
6
Record: 1-0
7
1,251
7
Record: 1-0
9
1,236
8
12
1,080
9
Record: 0-1
6
870
10
Record: 1-0
13
865
11
Record: 1-0
25
801
12
Record: 1-0
20
777
13
Record: 1-0
10
768
14
Record: 1-0
17
762
15
Record: 1-0
11
684
16
Record: 1-0
16
632
17
Record: 1-0
15
628
18
Record: 1-0
18
538
19
Record: 1-0
21
407
20
Record: 1-0
22
391
21
Record: 0-1
14
318
22
Record: 0-1
8
241
23
Record: 1-0
24
217
24
Record: 1-0
125
25
Record: 1-0
89

College Football Playoff projection: Alabama leads way with Auburn, Ohio State and Oklahoma

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(PhatzRadio Sports / USA TODAY SPORTS)   —   Welcome to the first Football Four Projection of 2018. Each week we’ll pick the Playoff bracket as if the season was over.* There’s not much body of work yet – only one data point per team – but some statements were made in Week 1. And there’s always the eye test, which mainly means we think this team is really, really good and so we’re putting them here.

The Four

1. Alabama – In a terrifying development for the rest of college football, the Tide was terrific with Tua Tagovailoa at quarterback, though let’s be honest. Louisville was not going to present much of a challenge. Still, we saw more than enough to know Alabama has a potential difference-maker at quarterback. Nick Saban can tiptoe around the truth and get peeved at the questions all he wants, but we already saw the answer.

2. Auburn – There’s work to do, especially on offense. But Auburn’s win against a very good Washington team was the biggest statement of opening weekend, because the only unit that had more trouble getting from the red zone into the end zone than Auburn? Washington, which got close but kept coming up empty. Auburn’s defense has a chance to be dominant. The schedule is rugged, but Week 1 goes to the Tigers.

3. Ohio State – No Urban Meyer, no issues in the opener against Oregon State. But the bigger revelation was third-year sophomore quarterback Dwayne Haskins, who threw for 313 yards and unveiled the return of the deep passing game that, for all J.T. Barrett’s attributes, was absent during his tenure. Yeah, it was Oregon State. And the Buckeyes gave up some points. But after everything these last few weeks, a 77-31 victory resounds: Is it possible Ohio State can weather all the turmoil and be as good as we’d suspected they could be, anyway?

4. Oklahoma – The questions about how good the Sooners might be after Baker Mayfield’s departure were not answered in a 63-14 rout of Florida Atlantic – it was hard to tell whether OU was terrific or FAU was terrible – but Kyler Murray was very good in his debut, showing off those multi-dimensional tools. The Sooners’ defense seemed improved, too. Next up, UCLA.

Four more:**

5. Clemson – It’s possible the Tigers have two superb quarterbacks in Kelly Bryant and freshman Trevor Lawrence, but sure looks like Lawrence is the future – which might be very soon, though perhaps not this week, given an interesting test: a road game in College Station, where Texas A&M’s Fightin’ Aggies are fired up about Jimbo Fisher’s arrival.

6. Georgia – Another possible two-QB scenario? Probably not; Jake Fromm is the guy. But freshman Justin Fields showed why everyone has been very excited about his promise as the Bulldogs cruised past Austin Peay like they’re supposed to treat an FCS opponent.

7. Notre Dame – Yes, we know. The Fighting Irish must be overrated because Notre Dame. Or because never mind a new quarterback, Michigan seemed like the same, old offensively challenged bunch. Both of those things may be true. But we’ve got one week to go on, and that was a very impressive performance.

8. Wisconsin – In a 34-3 victory over Western Kentucky, the Badgers did what Badgers do: Bash their way to victory. The revamped defense was very good, but tougher tests await.

A Few More After That: ***

Washington – At 0-1, the Huskies’ margin for error may be gone, and the idea they’ll roll unbeaten through a nine-game Pac-12 schedule and then a conference title game? Yeah, it’s difficult. But even in a loss, Washington why it might be good enough to get there.

LSU – Yes, the domination of Miami (Fla.) counted as a Top 10 win … if we’re now suggesting preseason polls are super meaningful. Joe Burrow’s debut was unspectacular but promising, but offensive questions remain. Win at Auburn in two weeks and we’ll believe.

Penn State – Whew. That was close. Penn State teetered oh, so near the edge of an upset by Appalachian State, and then escaped in overtime. That defense that replaced eight starters gave up a ton of yards and points, but Trace McSorley made plays in very critical moments. There’s stuff to clean up, but the win is the thing. And did we say whew?

West Virginia – Quarterback Will Grier was as good as expected, and he’s got an array of playmakers to choose from. The Mountaineers were clearly superior to Tennessee, which was making its first outing under Jeremy Pruitt.

Virginia Tech – Well, that was impressive. A young bunch of Hokies traveled to Tallahassee and spoiled the debut of Willie Taggart at Florida State. Look down the schedule and at least for now circle Notre Dame in Blacksburg on Oct. 6. Could be sorta big.

Nowhere Close: ****

UCLA – Oh my.
Arizona – That was.
Michigan – Not good.
Texas – At all.

* The season is not over. It has only just begun.

** Don’t be worried that your team sits just outside the cut. This is a weekly snapshot. And what do we know, anyway?

*** See the previous note, but it’s OK to be slightly concerned or very angry. But what do we know, anyway?

**** No note necessary

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While the top two of Clemson and Alabama remains unchanged, big moves from Auburn, Notre Dame and LSU are the story in this week’s USA TODAY Sports college football re-rank.

Auburn leaps four spots to No. 3 after its solid win against Washington, which slips four spots to No. 8. Notre Dame moves up nine spots, the second-biggest leap of any team in the top 25, after Saturday’s win against Michigan.

And LSU takes a huge leap, up 25 spots to No. 13, after handling Miami (Fla.) on a neutral site. It might have been a mistake to not have the Tigers ranked higher entering the regular season.

New to the Top 25:  No. 13 LSU, No. 22 Florida State/Virginia Tech.

Out of the Top 25: No. 32 San Diego State, No. 42 Florida Atlantic

Winners and losers of college football’s Week 1 headlined by Maryland

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(PhatzRadio Sports / USA TODAY SPORTS)    —    It’s not just that Saturday’s win came against Texas. For a Maryland team reeling from a dreadful offseason, any win in the season opener is cause for celebration.

It had been one body shot after another for the Terrapins, starting with the death of offensive lineman Jordan McNair this spring during a workout conducted by the Terrapins’ strength and conditioning staff.

In one of the great moments from this Saturday’s action, Maryland honored McNair by lining up with 10 players on the first play of its opening possession. The Terrapins waited for a delay of game to be called before bringing on an 11th offensive player. Credit Tom Herman and Texas for declining the ensuing penalty.

Last month, media reports described a culture of intimidation within Maryland’s football program. Combined with the controversy surrounding McNair’s death, the university decided to place head coach DJ Durkin on leave. Durkin’s future with the program remains in doubt.

His replacement on an interim basis, former LSU assistant Matt Canada, proved himself up to the challenge of weathering the storm and getting the Terrapins ready for a neutral-site rematch against the Longhorns.

This one was closer than last year’s win, which came on the Longhorns’ home field, and demanded a late interception of Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger to seal the win. But the 34-29 victory showed Maryland’s fortitude in the face of a challenge unequaled in the Football Bowl Subdivision – the death of a teammate followed by a shakeup of the coaching staff.

Here are the rest of the winners and losers from the first full Saturday of the college football season:

Winners

Notre Dame

Saturday night’s win against Michigan may end up being one of those games we overvalue in September that’s eventually revealed as meaningless. For all we know, Michigan is terrible. It was still a major moment for Notre Dame, which needed a high-profile win. It’s also the first passed test for a team that shouldn’t face more than four or five ranked teams during the regular season.

Auburn

Any list of the best teams in the Southeastern Conference begins with Alabama and Georgia. In comparison, Auburn spent the offseason largely overlooked. But a hard-fought 21-16 win against Washington paints the Tigers as a very real contender for the national championship. It’s the sort of win that looks outstanding today but will look even stronger come early December, after the Huskies win the Pac-12 title.

Kirk Ferentz

The longtime Iowa coach won his school-record 144th game in the Hawkeyes’ impressive 33-7 victory against Northern Illinois. He passed Hayden Fry, who was his boss when Ferentz was an assistant in Iowa City during the 80s.

Kyler Murray

Oklahoma’s new starting quarterback looked the part in an easy win against Florida Atlantic, with more than 200 passing yards and two touchdowns in less than a half of play. Murray will find himself on most Heisman Trophy lists heading out of the weekend.

Illinois 

It’s hard to call Illinois a winner after needing every ounce of energy to outlast Kent State, one of the weakest teams on the Group of Five level. But such is the state of affairs for Lovie Smith and the Illini that any win, however ugly, is cause for celebration. So congratulations, Illinois, and enjoy the feeling of ending your 10-game losing streak. Wins may be few and far between in 2018.

Ryan Day

Ohio State’s interim replacement for a suspended Urban Meyer had the Buckeyes ready to go against Oregon State, especially on offense. While Oregon State is awful, check out the offensive totals: Ohio State scored 77 points, gained 721 yards and averaged 7.1 yards per rush. Sophomore quarterback Dwayne Haskins looked the part in his first career start.

West Virginia

If you believe in West Virginia as a title contender – and many do – you had to expect the Mountaineers to roll past Tennessee. Maybe the 40-14 win wasn’t as impressive as it seems, considering how the Volunteers hung around in their first game under Jeremy Pruitt. The win was still a good sign for WVU. Those with faith in Dana Holgorsen and the Mountaineers were rewarded.

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Losers

Michigan

This isn’t great. It’s just one game, but looking listless and unprepared on the season’s first game is worrisome, to say the least. Then again, maybe Notre Dame is an amazing team destined for the national championship. Who knows? But if Notre Dame is only average, the Wolverines have a lot of work to do before meeting several of the best teams in the Big Ten.

Texas

Don’t look so surprised. What about the Longhorns’ recent past made you think this year would be any different? Maybe the Longhorns turn it around and become a factor in the Big 12 race. Maybe not. But the idea that Texas warranted a spot in the preseason Amway Coaches Poll was always ridiculous.

Texas Tech

Ole Miss is going to score in bunches on more opponents that not in 2018, so Texas Tech giving up 47 points in another bad loss wasn’t too unexpected. That doesn’t mean this sort of loss won’t raise the temperature under Kliff Kingsbury, who badly needs to indicate some progress to increase his somewhat tenuous job security.

Troy

The Trojans are a program on the rise under coach Neal Brown, who is destined to one day take the controls of a program on the Power Five level. But the Trojans aren’t quite up to the challenge of taking on the best the Group of Five has to offer. A loss at home to Boise State shows how the Broncos are built to reach a New Year’s Six bowl.

Penn State

A win is a win, even against a team from the Sun Belt Conference, and Penn State will happily take Saturday’s overtime win against Appalachian State and move its focus to next week’s matchup with rival Pittsburgh. But that the win demanded every ounce of the Nittany Lions’ strength will undoubtedly raise questions about the team’s ability to win the Big Ten.

UCLA

No one expected anything big from Chip Kelly’s first year with the Bruins. But a loss to Cincinnati? At home? That’s not exactly how UCLA drew it up. On a positive note, Kelly’s first game at Oregon ended with a loss to Boise State and Oregon running back LeGarrette Blount punching a Boise State defender after the final whistle. Things got better from there. Maybe history will repeat itself at UCLA.

The Pac-12

Washington’s far from done in the playoff chase. The Huskies are clearly talented enough and have the leadership necessary to run the table from here and be a factor come December. The loss to Auburn still does a number to the national reputation of the Pac-12, which suffered from last year’s disaster of a showing in bowl play and really needed a win from UW to regain some respect from the other Power Five leagues. And, most of all, from the playoff selection committee.

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For most of the great coaching tenures, Year 2 is when the magic happens.

Nick Saban jumped from eight wins to 10 at LSU in his second year, then from six to 12 at Alabama. Urban Meyer’s Year 2 records were 9-3 (Bowling Green), 12-0 (Utah) and 13-1 (Florida). Bob Stoops won the national title in his second season at Oklahoma, Steve Spurrier went 10-2 at Florida and Pete Carroll went 11-2 at Southern California.

No matter what the roster looked like when those coaches arrived, Year 2 was when the culture took hold, the misfits were weeded out and the ultimate destination came into focus. It’s happened over and over again for a reason: For all the talk about patience, the great coaches typically only need two years to start showing greatness.

That’s a big reason why Tom Herman is going to be under the microscope in a big way at Texas this season, and why the fans’ reaction to a season-opening 34-29 flop at Maryland was so intense.

It may not be time to panic quite yet, but that moment isn’t too far over the horizon.

When he was hired after the 2016 season, Herman was the hottest coaching prospect in America, having knocked off six ranked teams in two seasons at Houston, including Florida State and Oklahoma. After firing Charlie Strong just three years into his tenure, Texas dramatically pulled Herman away from LSU at the last minute, a move that united a dream candidate with his dream job.

But it’s unclear whether Texas is in a better place right now than it was five years ago when Mack Brown was on his final march toward the television booth. Brown, after all, won eight, nine and eight games during his final three turbulent years and actually had a chance to win the Big 12 going into the regular season finale in 2013. Since then, Texas’ win totals are six, five, five and seven, and the pressure to return the Longhorns to something resembling national relevance is growing more desperate with each passing year.

Not only is Herman losing to Maryland for the second year in a row a horrible look and something that should never happen, but it really does call into question whether progress is being made or if Texas is stuck in the land of the mediocre for another season and missing out on the historically significant Year 2 bump.

For that reason, Texas leads the first Misery Index of 2018, a weekly measurement of knee-jerk reactions based on what each fan base just watched.

FIVE MOST MISERABLE

Texas: Maybe we’ve had it wrong the whole time. For all of its supposed advantages and program wealth, perhaps Texas is harder to pull out of mediocrity than anyone realized. The last time the Longhorns were really good, this year’s crop of high school seniors were in third grade. Since then, they’ve only finished a season ranked in the top 25 one time. It takes an incredible coach, a force of nature, to overcome the cumulative effect of that much dysfunction. That’s what Texas thought it was getting in Herman. But now, it’s fair to wonder if his reputation was elevated by a stacked, ready-to-win roster in his two-year stint at Houston and not the other way around.

Michigan: There are going to be a lot of bad Jim Harbaugh takes over the next week following a 24-17 loss at Notre Dame, including from inside the Michigan fan base, that focus on his personality, his recruiting gimmicks and his spring break trips to Paris and Rome. Those things, however, have nothing to do with where the Wolverines are now. What does matter, however, are Harbaugh’s puzzling staff choices on the offensive side of the ball. Michigan’s offense looked outdated, slow and lacked any obvious philosophy or purpose last season. But rather than getting rid of Pep Hamilton, Harbaugh added more cooks to the kitchen in Jim McElwain and Ed Warinner, neither of whom were exactly lighting it up at their last destinations. If you want to blast Harbaugh, that’s totally fair game.

Texas Tech: It only took two plays against Ole Miss to see the Red Raiders’ defense in a familiar position — disorganized, breaking down in the secondary, allowing D.K. Metcalf to catch an easy 58-yard touchdown. Sure, Texas Tech caught a tough draw in the opener against a dangerous Ole Miss offense, but allowing 546 yards in a 47-27 loss isn’t a great way to start for Kliff Kingsbury when he had 10 starters back on defense this year. Two of them were ejected for targeting, by the way, indicating a total breakdown of discipline. Based on the thousands upon thousands of empty seats in Houston for this one, Texas Tech fans may be losing patience with Kingsbury as he starts his sixth season. With Houston, Oklahoma State, West Virginia and TCU coming up in the Red Raiders’ next five games, things could get tense very quickly.

Colorado State: The Rams have already played two games, and they’ve both been lousy. In losses to Hawaii and Colorado, the Rams gave up an average of 44 points, 228.5 rushing yards and 8.8 yards per play. That is a recipe for a very long season and perhaps some trouble for Mike Bobo, who is expected to be better than 21-20 at this point given the level of funding the program has received and a new stadium that opened last year.

North Carolina: The season got off on the wrong foot for Larry Fedora when a handful of players were suspended for selling shoes in violation of NCAA rules and he made his infamous comments at ACC Media Days about football being “under attack.” But that was a tempest in a teapot compared to the real reason he is probably not long for the North Carolina job. Coming off a disastrous 3-9 season, the last thing Tar Heels fans wanted to see was a season-opening loss at California. But that’s exactly what happened as North Carolina fell behind by three touchdowns before ultimately losing 24-17. The entirety of Fedora’s success early in Chapel Hill was based on a dynamic offense and developing quarterbacks, but 137 passing yards with four interceptions against Cal is damning, as is the failure to win when the Tar Heels’ defense gave up just 279 total yards. It could get even worse for Fedora in two weeks when he has to face Central Florida.

TRENDING TOWARDS MISERY

Temple: Some cross-town rivalry losses are worse than others. It’s bad enough for Temple’s collective ego that Villanova has left the Owls in the dust in basketball, winning two of the last three national titles. But losing 19-17 to FCS member Villanova in football is cruel and unusual punishment.

Louisville: Granted, it was Alabama, but a Bobby Petrino offense managing just 268 total yards (only 16 of which came via the run) is not a great start to the post-Lamar Jackson era. Louisville will really need to find a way to run the ball to take the pressure off starting quarterback Jawon Pass.

Penn State: With 1:47 remaining, you could already hear the takes forming. Was it all Saquon Barkley? Are the Nittany Lions doomed now that Joe Moorhead has moved on to Mississippi State? As it turned out, the panic was unnecessary. Penn State came back late to tie Appalachian State with a quick touchdown, then won in overtime, saving James Franklin from a torrent of unnecessary hysteria that was rather common in 2015 before he got the program back on track.

Kansas State: Bill Snyder’s 27th season began with a 27-24 win that was way too close for comfort over South Dakota. While Kansas State fans have seen openers like this before, there’s always a concern in the back of their minds the 78-year old Snyder could hang on too long and oversee a downward spiral at the end of his career.

Arizona: What, exactly, were the Wildcats doing in Kevin Sumlin’s debut? Quarterback Khalil Tate’s Heisman candidacy took a huge hit with a 28-23 loss to BYU in which he passed for 197 yards and ran for just 14 on eight attempts. A player who made his name last season running the speed option seemed intent on being a pass-first quarterback, chucking it up 34 times. That’s not going to be a recipe for success.

TOTALLY REAL AND IRRATIONAL MESSAGE BOARD THREADS

“Apathy has fully set in” — Orangebloods.com (Texas)

“What is wrong with this entire program?” — Mgoblog.com (Michigan)

“Hope we’re better than Kentucky Christian” — RedRaiderSports.com (Texas Tech)

“We have a bunch of homesick boys from the south that want their mama” — RamNation.com (Colorado State)

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Follow Dan Wolken on Twitter @DanWolken.

Top 25 college football: No. 12 Notre Dame beats No. 14 Michigan 24-17

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(PhatzRadio Sports / AP)   —   Brandon Wimbush connected on a long touchdown pass to help No. 12 Notre Dame jump out to a big first-half lead, Te’von Coney and the defense made it stand with a late takeaway, and the Fighting Irish beat No. 14 Michigan 24-17 on Saturday night in South Bend, Indiana, as the rivalry returned after a three-year hiatus.

A Green-out crowd welcomed the Wolverines back to Notre Dame Stadium and the Fighting Irish scored fast on their first two drives against a defense loaded with future NFL draft picks.

(1) Alabama 51, Louisville 14: College Football Playoff hero Tua Tagovailoa threw for two touchdowns and ran for a third in his first college start, helping top-ranked and defending national champion Crimson Tide open its season with a rout of the Cardinals.

Essentially ending the debate – at least for now – about whether he or Jalen Hurts should be the Crimson Tide’s No. 1 quarterback, Tagovailoa scored on a 9-yard run while also completing 12 of 16 passes for 227 yards without an interception.

(2) Clemson 48, Furman 7: Freshman Trevor Lawrence threw three touchdown passes and the Tigers scored on all five of his drives in the season-opening rout of the Paladins in Clemson, South Carolina.

Lawrence was going 9 for 15 for 137 yards and no interceptions, and senior starter Kelly Bryant was 10 for 16 for 127 yards and a touchdown.

(3) Georgia 45, Austin Peay 0: Jake Fromm threw two scoring passes while sharing time with freshman Justin Fields and the Bulldogs showed off some new firepower against the Governors in Athens, Georgia.

Georgia flashed big-play potential, including a 59-yard touchdown pass from Fromm to Mecole Hardman and a 72-yard scoring run by Demetris Robertson, who was making his debut.

(7) Oklahoma 63, Florida Atlantic 14: Kyler Murray, taking over for Heisman Trophy winner Baker Mayfield, passed for 209 yards and two touchdowns to lead the Sooners over the Owls in Norman, Oklahoma.

Murray connected on 9 of 11 passes in just less than one half. It was Murray’s second college start since transferring from Texas A&M after the 2015 season.

(10) Penn State, 45, Appalachian State 38: Amani Oruwariye intercepted Zac Thomas’ pass in the end zone and the Nittany Lions held on in State College, Pennsylvania, exactly 11 years after the Mountaineers stunned Michigan in one of the biggest upsets in college football history.

Miles Sanders ran for 91 yards and two touchdowns, including the go-ahead score in overtime for the Penn State.

(16) TCU 55, Southern 7: Shawn Robinson threw three touchdown passes and ran for two more scores while playing only the first half in the Horned Frogs’ opening blowout of the Jaguars in Fort Worth, Texas.

The Horned Frogs scored on their first six drives to take a 38-7 lead before fellow sophomore Michael Collins, a former transfer from Penn, took over after halftime.

(17) West Virginia 40, Tennessee 14: Will Grier got his Heisman Trophy campaign off to an impressive start, throwing for 429 yards and five touchdowns to help the Mountaineers rout the Volunteers in a game delayed for more than an hour at halftime because of lightning in Charlotte, North Carolina.

(18) Mississippi State 63, Stephen F. Austin 6: Keytaon Thompson threw for 364 yards and five touchdowns, Mississippi State had 17 tackles for a loss and the Bulldogs cruised past the Lumberjacks in Starkville, Mississippi.

Joe Moorhead won his first game as Mississippi State’s head coach, and the playbook showed some of the downfield passing prowess he’s promised over the past months.

(22) Boise State 56, Troy 20: Brett Rypien passed for 305 yards and four touchdowns, and Sean Modster had 167 yards receiving, to lead the Broncos past the Trojans in the opening victory in Troy, Alabama.

The Broncos raced to a 35-7 halftime lead over a Trojans team coming off an 11-win season, largely with the Rypien-to-Modster connection. Tyler Horton and Boise State’s defense mostly took over the scoring for the second half against Troy.

Maryland 34, (23) Texas 29: Maryland emerged from a trying offseason with an emotionally charged upset of the Longhorns in Landover, Maryland, shaking off a lengthy weather delay to provide Matt Canada a satisfying victory in his debut at the Terrapins’ interim coach.

NCAA 1-130 Re-Rank: Clemson is No. 1 ahead of Alabama entering season

(PhatzRadio Sports / USA TODAY SPORTS)     —    National powers Clemson and Alabama lead the way in the USA TODAY Sports preseason rankings for the Football Bowl Subdivision.

No. 1 Clemson and the No. 2 Crimson Tide are followed by No. 3 Wisconsin, No. 4 Washington and No. 5 Ohio State.

The Big Ten Conference is the strongest in the FBS, according to the preseason rankings. No. 8 Penn State, No. 10 Michigan, No. 17 Michigan State and No. 24 Northwestern join the Badgers and Buckeyes in giving the conference six teams in the preseason Top 25.

HOT SEATS: Ranking job security in each college football conference

10 BEST:  QBs | RBs | WRs | TEs |  OL | DL | LBs | DBs

There are familiar names at the top of 130-team rankings and a familiar name at the bottom: Texas-El Paso, the lone winless team in the FBS last season, begins the 2018 season as team No. 130

While the standings include the handful of games already played, the rankings do not reflect the results from this past weekend. The next update will occur after the conclusion of this week’s full slate of games.

Rank   School      
1         Clemson
2         Alabama
3         Wisconsin
4         Washington
5         Ohio State
6         Georgia
7         Auburn
8         Michigan
9         Oklahoma
10         Penn State
11         Miami (Fla.)
12         Stanford
13         West Virginia
14         Boise State
15         TCU
16         Notre Dame
17         Michigan State
18         Mississippi State
19         Central Florida
20         San Diego State
21         South Carolina
22         Utah
23         Florida Atlantic
24         Northwestern
25         Southern California
26         Florida State
27         Oregon
28         Iowa State
29         Oklahoma State
30         Virginia Tech
31         Texas A&M
32         Kansas State
33         Texas
34         Arizona
35         Toledo
36         Northern Illinois
37         Memphis
38         LSU
39         Boston College
40         Nebraska
41         Iowa
42         Marshall
43         Louisville
44         South Florida
45         UCLA
46         Arkansas State
47         Houston
48         Washington State
49         Pittsburgh
50         Texas Tech
51         North Carolina State
52         Florida
53         Troy
54         Army
55         Navy
56         Duke
57         Missouri
58         Kentucky
59         Fresno State
60         Ohio
61         Temple
62         North Texas
63         Wake Forest
64         Appalachian State
65         Louisiana Tech
66         Middle Tennessee
67         Wyoming
68         Ole Miss
69         Tennessee
70         Indiana
71         Southern Mississippi
72         Arkansas
73         California
74         Utah State
75         Georgia Tech
76         Purdue
77         Massachusetts
78         Baylor
79         Syracuse
80         Vanderbilt
81         Arizona State
82         Brigham Young
83         North Carolina
84         Florida International
85         Buffalo
86         Virginia
87         Minnesota
88         SMU
89         Air Force
90         Western Kentucky
91         Tulane
92         Colorado State
93         Old Dominion
94         Rutgers
95         Alabama-Birmingham
96         Tulsa
97         Akron
98         Maryland
99         Colorado
100       Western Michigan
101       Miami (Ohio)
102       Hawaii
103       Texas San-Antonio
104       Coastal Carolina
105       New Mexico State
106       Georgia State
107       UNLV
108       Central Michigan
109       Cincinnati
110        Illinois
111        Eastern Michigan
112        Georgia Southern
113        Nevada
114        South Alabama
115        Louisiana-Monroe
116        Louisiana-Lafayette
117        East Carolina
118        Liberty
119        New Mexico
120        Connecticut
121        Kansas
122        Ball State
123        Charlotte
124        Rice
125        Oregon State
126        Bowling Green
127        Kent State
128        San Jose State
129        Texas State
130        Texas-El Paso

CFB: College football kicks off this weekend with four games to watch

(PhatzRadio Sports / USA TODAY SPORTS)   —  Sports are supposed to provide an escape from the everyday grind. Unfortunately, the real world has been all too prevalent in the issues that have dominated the news cycle in college football of late.

It should come as some relief, then, that there are actual games to watch this weekend. There aren’t any marquee contests on the week 0 slate, but hopefully a couple of the televised offerings can remind us why this game is fun.

Hawaii at Colorado State, 7:30 p.m. ET, CBSSN

The season’s first clash of FBS opponents has the added value of being a conference game. Neither team is expected to claim the Mountain West title, but an opening win could prove extremely important to both teams’ bowl aspirations.

Each programs have dealt with non-football related distractions in the days leading up to kickoff. The visiting Warriors arrived on the mainland with Hurricane Lane bearing down on the islands. The Rams’ concerns were for coach Mike Bobo, who was able to rejoin the team after a hospital stay as he was treated for peripheral neuropathy.

On the field, both squads will be installing a lot of new pieces. Warriors coach Nick Rolovich would like to restore the high-flying attack that gave Hawaii its identity, but he’ll be asking a first-time starter at QB to run it. The choice will most likely be sophomore Cole McDonald, but freshman Chevan Cordeiro could also see the field. The Rams boasted the league’s most productive offense in 2017, but most of its top producers are gone. Washington transfer K.J. Carta-Samuels will take over at QB. He might not be as prolific through the air as predecessor Nick Stevens, but his footwork will make him hard to contain.

Wyoming at New Mexico State, 10 p.m. ET, ESPN2

The Aggies begin life as a football independent upon separation from the geographically inconvenience Sun Belt. On the plus side, NMSU is coming off a bowl appearance, the program’s first since 1960, and hopes to maintain some of that momentum. Now the bad news — the offense that was the key to the team’s success last year must be almost completely rebuilt. The job will be particularly difficult for new starting QB Matt Romero as he faces a Cowboys’ defense that returns eight starters, including potential all-America safety Andrew Wingard. The Wyoming offense in 2017 was something of a puzzle, struggling through the air despite the presence of highly drafted QB Josh Allen. Redshirt freshman Tyler Vander Waal was named the new starter by coach Craig Bohl, and he’ll be backed up by fifth-year senior Nick Smith.

The Week 0 schedule also includes a couple of FBS post-season long shots seeking strong starts against FCS competition.

Rice, with new coach Mike Bloomgren, plays host to Prairie View A&M. The Owls are looking to change the program’s fortunes after just nine wins in three seasons that were preceded by three consecutive bowl berths under David Bailiff. Rice won a 65-44 shootout two years ago in the only prior meeting between these teams, so there’s definitely some fun potential.

Massachusetts hosts Duquesne in what would be a conference clash if indoors and on hardwood. The two Atlantic-10 basketball members will meet on the gridiron for the first time. The Minutemen have steadily improvement since joining the Bowl Subdivision in 2012. Last year, they posted a program-best four wins since the move. All  of them came in the last half of the season, including defeats of Appalachian State and Brigham Young. There were also close losses at Tennessee and Mississippi State that demonstrated their competitiveness. QB Andrew Ford is poised for a big year and has the potential to be drafted by the NFL.

Amway Coaches Poll: Alabama in familiar spot at No. 1 in the preseason poll

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(PhatzRadio Sports / USA TODAY SPORTS)    —   Alabama, the premier program in college football over the past decade, will begin the 2018 campaign in a familiar position at the top of the Amway Coaches Poll.

The Crimson Tide, fresh off their fifth national championship of coach Nick Saban’s tenure in Tuscaloosa, were voted No. 1 by 61 of the 65 Football Bowl Subdivision coaches on this season’s panel. Though Alabama didn’t quite go wire-to-wire at No. 1 a year ago, the Tide started at the top and got back to the top spot when it mattered.

This is third consecutive season Alabama has started at No. 1 and fifth time since 2010.

They’ve played in the College Football Playoff final in each of the last three years and are strong candidates to make it four in a row.

Other familiar names are expected to be Crimson Tide’s main challengers this fall. Clemson, the 2016 champion and a participant in the last three playoffs, will open at No. 2 in the poll. The Tigers received three first-place votes.

The final No. 1 nod went to Ohio State, which will open the season in the No. 3 spot. The status of coach Urban Meyer is uncertain as the school placed him on administrative leave while it is investigating his possible knowledge of alleged abuse by a former assistant.

The Buckeyes head a crowded field of Big Ten contenders, as the league placed five teams in the top 14 of the preseason rankings.

The remaining two playoff participants from last year round out the preseason top five. Georgia, which fell to the Tide in the overtime thriller of a title game, opens at No. 4. The Tide and Bulldogs head a group of five SEC squads in the Top 25. The Big 12 also has five ranked members headed by No. 5 Oklahoma, though the next highest one is TCU at No. 16.

The other power conferences are well-represented in the poll as well. The ACC will begin with four members ranked headed by Clemson and No. 8 Miami (Fla.), and the Pac-12 features three top-25 schools led by No. 6 Washington.

That leaves just three spots for independents and Group of Five league members. No. 11 Notre Dame holds one of those positions. Mountain West favorite Boise State checks in at No. 22. No. 23 Central Florida, coming off an undefeated campaign with an American Athletic Conference title and a major bowl win, will have its first preseason ranking in the program’s short history.

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The preseason Amway Coaches Poll, with outlooks for the top 25:

1. Alabama (13-1)

Points: 1,621 (61 first-place votes). Previous ranking: 1. Opens: Sept. 1 vs. Louisville in Orlando (ABC, 8)

Outlook: Coming off their fifth title in nine seasons, the Crimson Tide have more questions than usual with an unsettled quarterback situation, major losses on defense and changes at both coordinator positions. Still, this is a team full of talent, and Nick Saban knows how to navigate this type of challenge.

2. Clemson (12-2)

Points: 1,547 (3). Previous ranking: 4. Opens:  Sept. 1 vs. Furman

Outlook: If defense wins championships, then the Tigers are well-positioned to make their fourth consecutive playoff appearance. Christian Wilkins heads a dominant defensive line. QB Kelly Bryant led Clemson to 12 wins in his first year as a starter, but his job status is tenuous with incoming freshman Trevor Lawrence in the mix.

3. Ohio State (12-2)

Points: 1,458 (1). Previous ranking: 5. This week: Sept. 1 vs. Oregon State (ABC, noon)

Outlook: On the field, the Buckeyes have enough talent to repeat as Big Ten champions with RB J.K. Dobbins and DL Nick Bosa among their standouts. The chief concern is off the field. Head coach Urban Meyer is on leave as the school investigates his possible knowledge of alleged abuse by a former assistant.

4. Georgia (13-2)

Points: 1,452. Previous ranking: 2. Opens: Sept. 1 vs. Austin Peay (ESPN, 3:30)

Outlook: The sting of losing to Alabama in overtime in the championship game will provide motivation. QB Jake Fromm looks to avoid a sophomore slump. The defense should again be one of the top units in the country. Deandre Baker and J.R. Reed lead the secondary.

5. Oklahoma (12-2)

Points: 1,288. Previous ranking: 3. Opens: Sept. 1 vs. Florida Atlantic (Fox, noon)

Outlook: Replacing Heisman winner Baker Mayfield isn’t the team’s biggest concern. Kyler Murray should be fine at QB with RB Rodney Anderson and a talented group of wide receivers as support. The defense, last seen being torched by Georgia in the Rose Bowl, has to improve.

6. Washington (10-3)

Points: 1,245. Previous ranking: 15. Opens: Sept 1 vs. No. 10 Auburn in Atlanta (ABC, 3:30)

Outlook: The Huskies have QB Jake Browning and RB Myles Gaskin returning to its offense as they bid to reach the playoff for the second time in three seasons. The season opener against Auburn should tell a lot about whether they’re a contender or just the best team in the Pac-12.

7. Wisconsin (13-1)

Points: 1,243. Previous ranking: 6. Opens: Aug. 31 vs. Western Kentucky (ESPN, 9)

Outlook: Known more for being vanilla on offense and stingy on defense, the Badgers may flip the script this season. Backed by one of the nation’s top offensive lines and RB Jonathan Taylor, they should be explosive. Another unbeaten regular season is possible if the defense can overcome some key losses.

8. Miami (Fla.) (10-3)

Points: 1,091. Previous ranking: 13. Opens: Sept. 2 vs. No. 24 LSU in Arlington, Texas (ABC, 7:30)

Outlook: The Hurricanes had a dream start last season with 10 consecutive wins before ending with a thud. LB Shaq Quarterman is part of an athletic defense that should be improved. The question is if the offense can do its part.  Better play from QB Malik Rosier is pivotal.

9. Penn State (11-2)

Points: 1,050. Previous ranking: 8. Opens: Sept. 1 vs. Appalachian State (BTN, 3:30)

Outlook: Gone are RB Saquon Barkley and three of the top four receivers. That’s the bad news. QB Trace McSorley and a veteran offensive line provide optimism that the Nittany Lions still will be good enough to make a run at the Big Ten title and possibly a College Football Playoff berth.

10. Auburn (10-4)

Points: 1,004. Previous ranking: 12. Opens: Sept. 1 vs. No. 6 Washington in Atlanta (ABC, 3:30)

Outlook: The only team to beat Alabama last year, the Tigers start this season focused on repeating as SEC West champs. QB Jarrett Stidham looks to be more comfortable in his second season as the starter.  The success of the season likely comes down to November trips to Georgia and Alabama.

11. Notre Dame (10-3)

Points: 892. Previous ranking: 11. Opens: Sept. 1 vs. No. 14 Michigan (NBC, 7:30).

Outlook: With some key losses on the offensive line, the success of the Irish likely will fall to whether QB Brandon Wimbush can be more consistent throwing the ball. The defense will be better, but a tough schedule, starting with Michigan, will be difficult to manage without support from the offense.

12. Michigan State (10-3)

Points: 870. Previous ranking: 16. Opens: Aug. 31 vs. Utah State (BTN, 7)

Outlook: After missing a bowl game in 2016, the Spartans have 19 starters back from last year’s team that won 10 games. QB Brian Lewerke provides a running and passing threat. The defense, led by DL Kenny Willekes, is good enough to have them contend in the Big Ten.

13. Stanford (9-5)

Points: 768. Previous ranking: 19. Opens: Aug. 31 vs. San Diego State (FS1, 9)

Outlook: RB Bryce Love decided to skip the NFL draft, giving the Cardinal one of the top weapons in college football. QB K.J. Costello, who welcomes back his top four receivers, has to do his part to take some pressure off Love. The defense was down a notch last year and is expected to be better.

14. Michigan (8-5)

Points: 752. Previous ranking: not ranked. Opens: Sept. 1 at No. 11 Notre Dame (NBC, 7:30)

Outlook: The pressure is officially on Jim Harbaugh, who is 1-5 against rivals Ohio State and Michigan State in his three seasons. Shea Patterson, a transfer from Mississippi, is expected solve the team’s problems at quarterback. The defense was inexperienced last year and still ranked second in the Big Ten. That’s a good sign for this season.

15. Southern California (11-3)

Points: 691. Previous ranking: 10. Opens: Sept. 1 vs. UNLV (Pac-12, 4)

Outlook: It likely will be the defense, led by DL Christian Rector and LB Cameron Smith, that becomes the strength of the Trojans after the departure of QB Sam Darnold. With no significant experience at the position, true freshman J.T. Daniels could win the starting job which could mean some early growing pains.

16. TCU (11-3)

Points: 530. Previous ranking: 9. Opens: Sept. 1 vs. Southern

Outlook: This should be another overachieving season for the Horned Frogs. Again, defense will be the team’s backbone. DL Ben Banogu is a dominant pass rusher, and LB Ty Summers patrols the middle. QB Shawn Robinson is young, but he will have two outstanding receivers in KaVontae Turpin and Jalen Reagor.

17. Virginia Tech (9-4)

Points: 524. Previous ranking: 25. This week: Sept. 3 at No. 19 Florida State (ESPN, 8)

Outlook: QB Josh Jackson looks to blossom in his second season as the starter, especially if a No. 1 option steps up at wide receiver. The defense, always good under coordinator Bud Foster, will have DL Ricky Walker up front. There are major holes to fill in the secondary with several significant departures.

18. Mississippi State (9-4)

Points: 407. Previous ranking: 20. Opens: Sept. 1 vs. Stephen F. Austin (ESPNU, 7:30)

Outlook: New coach Joe Moorhead is blessed with one of the most-talented rosters in the SEC. QB Nick Fitzgerald appears to be a perfect fit in former Penn State coordinator’s offense. DL Jeffrey Simmons is one of the conference’s top defenders.

19. Florida State (7-6)

Points: 328. Previous ranking: not ranked. Opens: Sept. 3 vs. No. 17 Virginia Tech (ESPN, 8)

Outlook: Willie Taggart’s first big decision as Seminoles coach will picking between Deondre Francois and James Blackman at quarterback. RB Cam Akers is set for a breakout season as a sophomore. The defense is young and talented. It will need to grow up fast.

20. West Virginia (7-6)

Points: 310. Previous ranking: not ranked. Opens: Sept. 1 vs. Tennessee in Charlotte (CBS, 3:30)

Outlook: The Mountaineers should be one of the more entertaining teams in the country with QB Will Grier throwing and wideouts David Sills V and Gary Jennings catching. LB David Long and DB Dravon Askew-Henry provide two leaders in the back seven of the defense.

21. Texas (7-6)

Points: 265. Previous ranking: not ranked. Opens: Sept. 1 at Maryland (FS1, noon)

Outlook: After leading the program to its first winning season since 2013, Tom Herman is looking to make the next step toward having the Longhorns back among the elite. Sam Ehlinger and Shane Buechele likely will share time at quarterback. Improved play at running back and the offensive line is essential.

22. Boise State (11-3)

Points: 261. Previous ranking: 22. Opens: Sept. 1 at Troy (ESPNews, 6)

Outlook: The Broncos are blessed with senior QB Brett Rypien, a deep backfield, options at wide receiver and depth on both lines. They’ll make another run at the Group of Five berth in one of the major bowls.

23. Central Florida (13-0)

Points: 259. Previous ranking: 7. Opens:  Aug. 30 at Connecticut (ESPNU, 7)

Outlook: Under new head coach Josh Heupel, the Knights are primed for another successful season after being the lone unbeaten in FBS in 2017. QB McKenzie Milton will head a prolific offense. How quickly the defense develops will determine if UCF can avoid a loss.

24. LSU (9-4)

Points: 254. Previous ranking: 18. Opens: Sept. 2 vs. No. 8 Miami (Fla.) in Arlington, Texas (ABC, 7:30)

Outlook: Ed Orgeron changed offensive coordinators and brought in Ohio State QB transfer Joe Burrow to help remedy the program’s difficulty throwing the ball. Those changes must to be successful as expectations for the Tigers are to contend in the SEC West, which it has not won since 2011.

25. Oklahoma State (10-3)

Points: 168. Previous ranking: 14. Opens: Aug. 30 vs. Missouri State (FS1, 8)

Outlook: The Cowboys mostly lived on the arm of QB Mason Rudolph last year, but with his departure RB Justice Hill should carry the load of the offense. Most of the key contributors return on defense. DL Jordan Brailford has the potential to break out after six sacks last year.

DL Jordan Brailford has the potential to break out after six sacks last year.

Dropped out: No. 17 Northwestern (10-3), No. 21 South Florida (10-2), No. 23 North Carolina State (9-4), No. 24 Memphis (10-3).

Other receiving votes: South Carolina (9-4) 138; Florida (4-7) 135; Oregon (7-6) 105; Utah (7-6) 81; Northwestern (10-3) 67; Texas A&M (7-6) 67; Kansas State (8-5) 35; Florida Atlantic (11-3) 27; Boston College (7-6) 23; Memphis (10-3) 23; North Carolina State (9-4) 22; Arkansas State (7-5) 19; Troy (11-2) 19; Appalachian State (9-4) 16; San Diego State (10-3) 15; Iowa (8-5) 8; Iowa State (8-5) 8; Kentucky (7-6) 8; Washington State (9-4) 7; South Florida (10-2) 6; Duke (7-6) 5; Fresno State (10-4) 4; Louisville (8-5) 3; Arizona (7-6) 2; Houston (7-5) 2; Army (10-3) 1; Northern Illinois (8-5) 1.

The Amway Board of Coaches is made up of 65 head coaches at Bowl Subdivision schools. All are members of the American Football Coaches Association.

The Amway Board of Coaches is made up of 65 head coaches at Bowl Subdivision schools. All are members of the American Football Coaches Association. The board for the 2018 season: Blake Anderson, Arkansas State; Major Applewhite, Houston; Dino Babers, Syracuse; Mike Bloomgren, Rice; John Bonamego, Central Michigan; Terry Bowden, Akron; Jeff Brohm, Purdue; Neal Brown, Troy; Troy Calhoun, Air Force; Rod Carey, Northern Illinois; Bill Clark, Alabama-Birmingham; Dave Clawson, Wake Forest; Geoff Collins, Temple; David Cutcliffe, Duke; Mark Dantonio, Michigan State; Bob Davie, New Mexico; Butch Davis, Florida International; Dana Dimel, Texas-El Paso; DJ Durkin, Maryland; Herm Edwards, Arizona State; Luke Fickell, Cincinnati; Jimbo Fisher, Texas A&M; P.J. Fleck, Minnesota; James Franklin, Penn State; Willie Fritz, Tulane; Scott Frost, Nebraska; Justin Fuente, Virginia Tech; Turner Gill, Liberty; Mike Gundy, Oklahoma State; Bryan Harsin, Boise State; Clay Helton, Southern California; Tom Herman, Texas; Dana Holgorsen, West Virginia; Mike Jinks, Bowling Green; Kliff Kingsbury, Texas Tech; Brad Lambert, Charlotte; Mike Leach, Washington State; Lance Leipold, Buffalo; Tim Lester, Western Michigan; Seth Littrell, North Texas; Rocky Long, San Diego State; Chad Lunsford, Georgia Southern; Mike MacIntyre, Colorado; Gus Malzahn, Auburn; Doug Martin, New Mexico State; Urban Meyer, Ohio State; Jeff Monken, Army; Dan Mullen, Florida; Pat Narduzzi, Pittsburgh; Ken Niumatalolo, Navy; Jay Norvell, Nevada; Barry Odom, Missouri; Ed Orgeron, LSU; Gary Patterson, TCU; Chris Petersen, Washington; Bobby Petrino, Louisville; Nick Saban, Alabama; Scott Satterfield, Appalachian State; Kirby Smart, Georgia; Rick Stockstill, Middle Tennessee; Charlie Strong, South Florida; Dabo Swinney, Clemson; Jeff Tedford, Fresno State; Kyle Whittingham, Utah; Everett Withers, Texas State.

NBA Trades and Free Agency: Thunder agree to trade Carmelo Anthony, protected first-round pick to Hawks

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(PhatzRadio Sports / USA TODAY SPORTS)    —-    As part of a three-team deal, the Oklahoma City Thunder have reached an agreement to trade forward Carmelo Anthony and a top-14 protected 2022 first-round draft pick to the Atlanta Hawks for guard Dennis Schroder, two people with knowledge of the situation told USA TODAY Sports. If the pick doesn’t convey, it will become two second-round picks.

The people requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly until the deal is official.

The Hawks will send forward Mike Muscala to the Philadelphia 76ers, and the 76ers will trade Justin Anderson to the Hawks and Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot to the Thunder.

The Hawks plan to waive Anthony, who will then become a free agent after he clears waivers. Atlanta has the ability to absorb Anthony’s contract, but the price for taking him off Oklahoma City’s roster was a first-round draft pick – a good move for Hawks general manager Travis Schlenk who is rebuilding the roster.

By shedding Anthony’s salary in the trade, the Thunder will save nearly $73 million in payroll and luxury taxes, according to ESPN front-office insider and former Brooklyn Nets assistant general manager Bobby Marks.

The Thunder had been exploring options for Anthony, including waiving him and stretching the $27.9 million left on the final year of contract over multiple seasons. However, that still would’ve resulted in money counting against Oklahoma City’s salary cap.

This deal gets the Thunder out of the contract, reducing their total team salary and luxury tax bill.

Houston has been considered the strong favorite to land Anthony once he’s waived.

The Hawks recently acquired Jeremy Lin and drafted Trae Young, both moves which likely expedited Schroder’s exit in Atlanta.

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*1. LeBron James – Agreed to four-year, $154 million deal with Los Angeles Lakers. The Lakers have missed the playoffs the previous five seasons, the longest such streak in franchise history. James, no doubt, will help shift the balance of power back to one of the league’s most illustrious franchises.

*2. Kevin Durant – Agreed to two-year, $61.5 million deal to stay with Golden State. Durant had said many times that he planned to re-sign with the defending champs, and that’s exactly what he did. And so the dynasty continues …

*3. Paul George – Agreed to four-year, $137 million deal to stay with Oklahoma City. George, who was widely believed to be destined for Laker Land, is sticking it out with Russell Westbrook and the Thunder after his first season with the franchise ended in the first round of the playoffs. Kudos to Thunder general manager Sam Presti for this one.

*4. Chris Paul – Agreed to four-year, $160 million deal to stay with Houston. Paul, who forced his way out of Los Angeles last summer after six seasons with the Clippers, is coming off a disappointing finish to a phenomenal season. As elite as Paul is, will the Rockets regret giving the 33-year-old a long-term deal?

*5. DeMarcus Cousins – Agreed to one-year, $5.3 million deal with Golden State. In the biggest stunner of the summer, Cousins will become the fifth All-Star on the Warriors. He suffered a season-ending Achilles injury in January, but, contingent on his health, he offers a dominant, low-post presence that the Warriors haven’t had – though have rarely needed.

*6. Nikola Jokic – Reportedly agreed to five-year, $146.5 million deal to stay with Denver. This was a done deal before free agency began. Jokic is one of the most talented young big men in the league and the Nuggets’ franchise centerpiece. He wasn’t going anywhere.

7. Clint Capela, Houston (Restricted)

*8. DeAndre Jordan – Reportedly agreed to one-year, approximately $24 million deal with Dallas. Jordan is headed to Dallas — again. We have a feeling this will be different than the summer of 2015, when Jordan changed his mind after agreeing to a deal with the Mavericks and returned to L.A.

*9. Julius Randle – Agreed to two-year, $18 million deal with New Orleans. The fourth-year big man is coming off a career year (16.1 points, eight rebounds per game) and will be a welcome addition in New Orleans alongside Anthony Davis.

*10. Aaron Gordon – Agreed to four-year, $82 million deal to stay with Orlando. Injuries limited Gordon to 58 games last season, but the 22-year-old still took a significant step forward in his development. He’s one of the most promising young power forwards in the league.

*11. Zach LaVine – Agreed to four-year, $80 million deal to stay with Chicago. The former lottery pick is just 23, and, when healthy, is one of the league’s most explosive guards.

*12. Tyreke Evans – Agreed to one-year, $12 million deal with Indiana. Evans had his best all-around season in 2017-18, averaging 19.4 points and shooting a career-best 39.9 percent on 3-pointers. He also averaged 5.2 assists and 5.1 rebounds. He’s a nice addition to a Pacers backcourt with Most Improved Player Victor Oladipo.

*13. Marcus Smart – Agreed to a four-year, $52 million deal with Boston. The Celtics are bringing back their gritty, two-way guard who Boston fans have come to love. He infuses their defense with energy and typically puts clamps on opponents’ best backcourt playmaker.

*14. JJ Redick – Agreed to one-year deal to stay with Philadelphia. Keeping Redick is big for the Sixers, who again expect to be one of the top teams in the East. The 34-year-old sharpshooter averaged a career-high 17.1 points per game last season, his first in Philadelphia.

*15. Jusuf Nurkic – Reportedly agreed to four-year, $48 million deal to stay with Portland. He’s solid on both ends of the floor and is only 23 years old, but as a 7-footer who doesn’t stretch the floor, what’s Nurkic’s ceiling?

*16. Derrick Favors – Agreed to two-year, $36 million deal to stay with Utah. Favors fits at power forward in a big lineup and center in a small lineup and, though he’s more of a traditional big man, he began to extend his range a bit last season, hitting 14 3-pointers.

*17. Trevor Ariza – Agreed to one-year, $15 million deal with Phoenix. This is an interesting move for Ariza, who will go from key cog on a 65-win Houston team to a veteran presence on a rebuilding Suns squad.

18. Jabari Parker – Agreed to a two-year, $40 million deal with Chicago. The Bucks rescinded Parker’s qualifying offer, allowing him to negotiate as an unrestricted free agent.

*19. Avery Bradley – Reportedly agreed to two-year, $25 million deal to stay with Los Angeles Clippers. Bradley, who’s coming off season-ending abdominal surgery, struggled to find the right role after being traded from Boston, but he provides value as a defender and improved scorer.

*20. Isaiah Thomas – Agreed to one-year minimum deal with Denver. The Nuggets were already an explosive offensive team, but adding Thomas — assuming he can stay healthy — on such a small deal is a win for Denver.

*21. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope – Agreed to one-year, $12 million deal to stay with Los Angeles Lakers. Caldwell-Pope, who averaged 13.4 points per game last season and shot a career-high 38.3 percent on 3-pointers, will be a nice fit alongside James.

*22. Will Barton – Reportedly agreed to four-year, $54 million deal to stay with Denver. Barton has developed into one of the top sixth men in the league, and the Nuggets weren’t ready to let him walk. Of players who came off the bench in more than 40 games last season, Barton was tied for third with 13.7 points per game.

*23. Fred VanVleet – Agreed to two-year, $18 million deal to stay with Toronto. The Sixth Man of the Year finalist shot 41.4 percent from 3-point last year, his second NBA season.

*24. Luc Mbah a Moute – Reportedly agreed to one-year, $4.3 million deal with Los Angeles Clippers. Many of his contributions don’t show up in the box score, but make no mistake: Mbah a Moute was a big part of what made Houston so dangerous last season. The Rockets’ defensive rating was 101.2 with him on the court, 105.4 with him off.

*25. Rajon Rondo – Agreed to one-year, $9 million deal with Los Angeles Lakers. Another interesting addition for the Lakers, Rondo, 32, reinvigorated his career during his lone season in New Orleans. An interesting move for the Lakers and a big loss for the Pelicans.

*26. Rudy Gay – Reportedly agreed to one-year, $10 million deal to stay with San Antonio. Gay, who signed with the Spurs last summer after suffering a ruptured Achilles in January 2017, opted out of the final year of his contract last week, turning down $8.8 million. He’s not the 20 point per game scorer he once was, but he can still contribute.

*27. Kyle Anderson – Agreed to four-year, $37.2 million deal with Memphis. Anderson took a significant step forward in his fourth NBA season, taking advantage of additional minutes due to Kawhi Leonard’s absence.

*28. Lance Stephenson – Agreed to one-year, $4.5 million deal with Los Angeles Lakers. Lance and LeBron in L.A.? This is just too good.

29. Brook Lopez – Agreed to one-year, $3.3 million deal with Milwaukee. Lopez is headed to Milwaukee on the Bucks’ bi-annual exception. He should solidify the frontcourt and help stretch the floor for new coach Mike Budenholzer.

30. Wayne Ellington – Reportedly agreed to one-year, $6.3 million deal to stay with Miami. Ellington, who finished last season ranked sixth in the NBA with 227 3-pointers made, is the type of veteran floor spacer any team can benefit from having.

31. Rodney Hood, Cleveland (Restricted) 

*32. Nerlens Noel – Agreed to two-year deal with Oklahoma City. Noel, the No. 6 overall pick in 2013, is coming off the worst season of his career, but this is a great opportunity for him to get back on track.

*33. Seth Curry – Reportedly agreed to two-year deal with Portland. Curry didn’t play last season as a result of a stress fracture in his leg, but Steph’s younger brother had a stellar 2016-17 campaign with Dallas, especially after the All-Star break (averaged 16.2 points and made 45.3 percent of his 3-pointers).

34. Joe Harris – Agreed to two-year, $16 million deal to stay with Brooklyn. The Nets clearly saw the value in the 26-year-old forward, who shot a career-high 49.1 percent from the field and 41.9 percent from beyond the arc last season.

35. Greg Monroe, Boston (Unrestricted)

36. Dwyane Wade, Miami (Unrestricted)

*37. Dante Exum – Agreed to three-year, $33 million deal to stay with Utah. Injuries robbed Exum of much of his first four seasons, but he did have a promising end to his 2017-18 campaign. Exum was drafted fifth overall in 2014, and the Jazz still clearly have faith in his talent.

38. Michael Beasley, New York (Unrestricted)

39. Montrezl Harrell, Los Angeles Clippers (Restricted)

*40. Elfrid Payton – Reportedly agreed to one-year deal with New Orleans. Payton, the No. 10 overall pick in 2014, averaged 12.7 points, 6.2 assists and 4.3 rebounds with Orlando and Phoenix last season.

Other notable free agent deals

*Dwight Howard –Expected to join Washington on two-year, $11 million deal after clearing waivers. This will be Howard’s fifth team since being traded by Orlando in 2012. The eight-time All-Star averaged 16.6 points and 12.5 rebounds last season in Charlotte.

*JaVale McGee – Agreed to one-year, $2.4 million deal with Los Angeles Lakers. A surprising addition to the LeBron-led Lakers, McGee is coming off two solid years with Golden State, where he provided the Warriors with some much-needed rim protection.

*Jonas Jerebko – Plans to sign with Golden State. The stretch-4 shot 41 percent from 3-point range with Utah last season.

*Doug McDermott – Agreed to three-year, $22 million deal with Indiana. The Pacers were one of the NBA’s biggest surprises last season, and adding McDermott will only make them better. He’s a career 40.3 percent shooter from beyond the arc.

Ersan Ilyasova – Agreed to three-year, $21 million deal with Milwaukee. The 31-year-old journeyman will be a solid addition to Milwaukee, where he spent the first seven seasons of his career. He averaged 10.8 points and 6.7 rebounds after signing with Philadelphia in February.

Ed Davis – Reportedly agreed to one-year, $4.4 million deal with Brooklyn. Damian Lillard wasn’t a fan of this, and we don’t blame him. At this price, this is a steal for the Nets.

*Aron Baynes – Agreed to two-year, $10.6 million deal to stay with Boston. Baynes may not be as high profile as the Celtics’ stars or the members of their young core, but he still provides the team with some valuable energy and physicality.

*Jerami Grant – Agreed to three-year, $27 million deal to stay with Oklahoma City. Athletic and young, Grant is coming off a solid season with the Thunder, who clearly view him as a part of their future.

Marco Belinelli – Agreed to two-year, $12 million deal with San Antonio. Belinelli, who won a championship with the Spurs in 2014, shot 37.7 percent from 3-point territory last season with Atlanta and Philadelphia.

*Raul Neto – Agreed to two-year, $4.4 million deal to stay with Utah. The 26-year-old floor general only played 12.1 minutes per game last season, but he made 40.4 percent of his 3-pointers.

Derrick Rose – Agreed to one-year, $2.4 million deal to stay with Minnesota. He’s not the player he once was, but Rose showed some promise with the T-Wolves in their first-round playoff loss to Houston, averaging 14.2 points in five games.

*Jeff Green – Reportedly agreed to one-year minimum deal with Washington. Green had his moments for Cleveland in the playoffs (19 points and eight rebounds in Game 7 vs. Boston on the road), and he should be a nice complementary piece for a Wizards team in need of some frontcourt help.

*Michael Carter-Williams – Reportedly agreed to one-year minimum deal with Houston. The 2014 Rookie of the Year will join his fifth NBA team. He spent last season in Charlotte, where he averaged a career-low 4.6 points per game.

*Raymond Felton – Reportedly agreed to one-year, $2.4 million deal to stay with Oklahoma City. Felton’s return pushes the Thunder into uncharted territory: They are currently projected to pay $150 million in luxury tax, according to ESPN, pushing total team spending to $300 million.

CFB: The 10 best quarterbacks in college football

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(PhatzRadio Sports / USA TODAY SPORTS)   —   College football is almost here. USA TODAY Sports is getting you ready for the 2018 season by breaking down the best players at each position in the Football Bowl Subdivision.

First up: the quarterbacks. There’s a power vacuum atop the list after five of college football’s biggest stars went in the first round of the recent NFL draft. But there’s talent waiting in the wings, including several starters who will enter this season at or near the top of most Heisman Trophy lists.

From the Atlantic Coast Conference to the Pac-12 Conference and all points in between, here are the best quarterbacks in college football for 2018.

1. Trace McSorley, Penn State

McSorley will get his chance to shine as a solo artist without Saquon Barkley owning the spotlight in Penn State’s quarterback-friendly scheme. He’ll respond well to the challenge. Much like Baker Mayfield, McSorley combines top-level awareness, underrated athleticism and an impeccable grasp of his team’s offense in an undersized package. But also like Mayfield, he possesses a drive you can’t measure in yards, touchdowns or inches.

2. McKenzie Milton, Central Florida

How UCF fares as a team in the transition from Scott Frost to Josh Heupel is one of college football’s most intriguing story lines heading into September. One thing is sure, however: Milton’s going to put up numbers. The best quarterback on the Group of Five level and an outstanding fit for the Knights’ system — which will look slightly different under Heupel — Milton is a true Heisman contender coming out of the American Athletic Conference.

3. Ryan Finley, North Carolina State

Finley has what the NFL is looking for: intelligence, experience, a strong arm and familiarity with a pro-tempo system. That he protects the football as well as any quarterback in the country is a plus. He could stand to add some weight, but Finley has the ability and the accompanying skill talent to play his way into an All-America selection.

4. Will Grier, West Virginia

What’s most intriguing about Grier is his clear room for improvement. Not that he’s not already among the elite at his position: Grier threw for 3,490 yards and 34 scores in 2017, his first as the Mountaineers’ starter. It’s more about the idea that he’s only now scratching the surface of his potential. Remember that he played in just six games at Florida before stepping into Dana Holgorsen’s offense a year ago. He could explode as a senior.

5. Jarrett Stidham, Auburn

It’s no coincidence that Auburn is nearly unbeatable when Stidham has room to operate. As he goes, so go the Tigers. Like Grier, there’s enormous reason for optimism: Stidham got his feet wet as a freshman at Baylor in 2015 and had his down moments for Auburn in 2017, with the byproduct of this experience almost inevitably a push for all-conference and national recognition.

6. Justin Herbert, Oregon

It would be great to see Herbert for one full and healthy season before he shuttles off to the NFL. What we’ve seen so far are spurts of genius mitigated by the not-unexpected brushes with inefficiency and ineffectiveness. But this is also true: Oregon is garbage without Herbert and a potential top-25 team with the junior in the lineup. If healthy, Herbert will prove in 2018 why NFL scouts are already enamored with the local product’s arm, touch and smarts.

7. Drew Lock, Missouri

On one hand, Lock led the nation with 44 touchdowns a year ago. On the other, 18 of those scores came in games against the powerhouse defenses at Southwest Missouri State, Idaho and Connecticut. He completed 52 percent of his attempts with 11 touchdowns and seven interceptions against winning FBS competition. He hit on 63 percent of his throws on 10.7 yards per attempt with 26 scores against losing teams. So what’s the story? That Lock can pitch it as well as anyone but must also show up and perform at a higher level against the elite opponents on the Tigers’ schedule. The same can be said of Missouri as a whole, obviously.

8. Khalil Tate, Arizona

Tate took college football by storm after moving into the starting lineup one month into last season. His October — a stretch that began with an all-timer performance against Colorado — cemented his place in the Heisman conversation, and also overshadowed a significant decline in production during Arizona’s 1-4 close to the Rich Rodriguez era. The Wildcats’ new coach, Kevin Sumlin, brings along an offense suited to Tate’s skill set; Sumlin’s scheme will play to his dual-threat gifts, a thought that should wobble the knees of opposing Pac-12 defensive coordinators. The strides Tate has made as a passer this offseason will determine whether or not he factors into the end-of-year award mix.

9. Jake Fromm, Georgia

The best is still to come for Fromm, though it’s hard to overestimate the importance of his spending an entire offseason as the Bulldogs’ unquestioned starter. He’ll be better in 2018: more confident, more under control, savvier in the face of SEC defenses. Then again, he’ll have more on his plate as Georgia breaks in a new backfield and a new starter at left tackle. Fromm seems up to the challenge of becoming the face of the Bulldogs’ offense.

10. Jake Browning, Washington

It was just two seasons ago that Browning tossed 43 touchdowns and finished sixth in the Heisman voting. In comparison, that made his 2017 season a disappointment — even as Browning significantly increased his completion percentage and maintained a healthy per-attempt average. He could use some help from a receivers corps that must develop at least one additional deep threat. But the advantage of spending the past three seasons as Chris Petersen’s starter can’t be overlooked.

FIVE JUST OFF THE LIST

Jake Bentley, South Carolina

Alex Hornibrook, Wisconsin

Kyler Murray, Oklahoma

Tua Tagovailoa, Alabama

Clayton Thorson, Northwestern

Horse Racing Roundup: Triple Crown winner Justify to resume training in California

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ARCADIA, Calif. (AP) — Triple Crown champion Justify has returned to his base at Santa Anita accompanied by a police escort and was greeted by trainer Bob Baffert and jockey Mike Smith.

The winner of the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont flew from Louisville, Kentucky, to Ontario, California, on Sunday. After landing, four Arcadia Police Department units traveled with the 13th Triple Crown winner to the racetrack.

After winning the Belmont in New York on June 9, Justify returned to Churchill Downs, where he and his human connections were honored on Saturday night.

Justify will resume training this week and be paraded between races this weekend.

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The $1 million betfair.com Haskell Invitational is now the “first option” for Triple Crown winner Justify.

Trainer Bob Baffert, who has won the Haskell a record eight times, indicated that the Grade I fixture, set for July 29, is where he prefers to have the 12th Triple Crown winner’s return to the races, seven weeks after his historic victory in the Belmont Stakes.

Justify flew back to California on Sunday from Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky, where he had been since shortly after his Belmont win.

“The Haskell is the first option, and the Travers,” Baffert told the Daily Racing Form’s Steve Andersen at Santa Anita on Monday morning.”In a couple of weeks, we’ll breeze him back, and we’ll have an idea.

“We’ll sit down and figure it out. We’ll let the horse tell us.”

The final decision on whether he runs in the Haskell or the Travers Stakes, to be run on August 25 at Saratoga, will be determined when he returns to training.

If Justify is ready to run in the Haskell, it would mark the second time in three years that a Triple Crown winner has run at Monmouth Park. American Pharoah won the 2015 Haskell, with a record crowd of 60,983 packing the facility.

Justify is the second unbeaten Triple Crown winner, joining Seattle Slew in 1977. He also became the first Triple Crown winner not to race as a 2-year-old.

Baffert, who also trained American Pharoah, won his first Haskell in 2001 with Point Given, and followed a year later with War Emblem. After winning with Roman Ruler in 2005, Baffert won the Haskell three streaight years, beginning in 2010, with Lookin At Lucky, Coil and Paynter, before returning to the winners’ circle in 2014 with Bayern.

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Soccer Roundup – 2018 World Cup: Sweden’s height advantage gets to South Korea in World Cup

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NIZHNY NOVGOROD, Russia (AP) — Sweden’s height advantage got to South Korea.

In an effort to compensate for the disparity, South Korea coach Shin Tae-yong decided to use a backup player in goal because he is the tallest of the team’s three keepers.

The gamble worked, but a penalty still gave the Swedes a 1-0 victory on Monday at the World Cup.

“We evaluated all of our goalkeepers and we felt like with the very tall Swedish players, we thought Jo Hyeon-woo would be the best and we thought he’d be a little bit quicker,” Shin said. “So we chose him.”

At 1.89 meters (6-foot-3), Jo is tallest of the South Korean goalkeepers. But he is normally No. 3 on the list when it comes to playing time.

Shin is well-known for pulling surprises.

In World Cup warm-up matches, he switched the numbers of his players around, arguing Swedish scouts would be confused because he says “it’s very difficult for westerners to distinguish between Asians.”

Shin mentioned Sweden’s height advantage about a dozen times after the match. He even acknowledged his players “were a little bit psychologically concerned about the height of the Swedish players.”

Sweden’s starting players averaged about 1.90 meters (6-3), while South Korea’s starters averaged about 1.83 meters (6 feet).

Shin also started with Kim Shin-wook as his primary striker. He is the tallest player on South Korea’s team at 1.97 meters (6-5 1/2).

Jo did his job in goal, making a half-dozen sprawling saves until he was beaten on a second-half penalty by Sweden captain Andreas Granqvist.

Asked to name South Korea’s most important player, Sweden coach Janne Andersson didn’t hesitate.

“I think definitely,” Andersson said, “the goalie was their best.”

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The 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia is upon us, so it’s time to start thinking about the future before the end of the group stage on June 28. Who has the easiest path to the knockout stage? Is it Lionel Messi and Argentina, with Iceland, Croatia and Nigeria in their group? What about Neymar and Brazil, paired with Serbia, Poland and Costa Rica? Nobody knows for sure, but that’s why it is always fun to guess.

So who makes a deep run at the 2018 World Cup? And which nation lifts the trophy? Visit SportsLine now to get the complete optimal bracket for the World Cup, and see which favorites fail to advance past the quarterfinals, all from the model that’s returned an 1800 percent profit on bookmakers’ closing odds.

Below you’ll find the standings and schedule broken down by each group:

Group A

Thursday, June 14: Russia 5, Saudi Arabia 0
Friday, June 15: Uruguay 1, Egypt 0


Tuesday, June 19: Russia vs. Egypt, 2 p.m. ET, Fox
Wednesday, June 20: Uruguay vs. Saudi Arabia, 11 a.m. ET, Fox


Monday, June 25: Saudi Arabia vs. Egypt, 10 a.m. ET, FS1
Monday, June 25: Uruguay vs. Russia, 10 a.m. ET, Fox


Group B

Friday, June 15: Iran 1, Morocco 0
Friday, June 15: Portugal 3, Spain 3


Wednesday, June 20: Portugal vs. Morocco, 8 a.m. ET, FS1
Wednesday, June 20: Iran vs. Spain, 2 p.m. ET, Fox


Monday, June 25: Iran vs. Portugal, 2 p.m. ET, Fox
Monday, June 25: Spain vs. Morocco, 2 p.m. ET, FS1


Group C

Saturday, June 16: France 2, Australia 1
Saturday, June 16: Denmark 1, Peru 0


Thursday, June 21: Denmark vs. Australia, 8 a.m. ET, FS1
Thursday, June 21: France vs. Peru, 11 a.m. ET, Fox


Tuesday, June 26: Australia vs. Peru, 10 a.m. ET, FS1
Tuesday, June 26: Denmark vs. France, 10 a.m. ET, Fox

Group D

Saturday, June 16: Argentina 1, Iceland 1
Saturday, June 16: Croatia 2, Nigeria 0


Thursday, June 21: Argentina vs. Croatia, 2 p.m. ET, Fox
Friday, June 22: Nigeria vs. Iceland, 11 a.m. ET, Fox


Tuesday, June 26: Iceland vs. Croatia, 2 p.m. ET, FS1
Tuesday, June 26: Nigeria vs. Argentina, 2 p.m. ET, Fox

Group E

Sunday, June 17: Serbia 1, Costa Rica 0
Sunday, June 17: Brazil 1, Switzerland 1


Friday, June 22: Brazil vs. Costa Rica, 8 a.m. ET, FS1
Friday, June 22: Serbia vs. Switzerland, 2 p.m. ET, Fox


Wednesday, June 27: Serbia vs. Brazil, 2 p.m. ET, Fox
Wednesday, June 27: Switzerland vs. Costa Rica, 2 p.m. ET, FS1

Group F

Sunday, June 17: Mexico 1, Germany 0
Monday, June 18: Sweden 1, South Korea 0


Saturday, June 23: Germany vs. Sweden, 11 a.m. ET, Fox
Saturday, June 23: South Korea vs. Mexico, 2 p.m. ET, Fox


Wednesday, June 27: South Korea vs. Germany, 10 a.m. ET, FS1
Wednesday, June 27: Mexico vs. Sweden, 10 a.m. ET, Fox

Group G

Monday, June 18: Belgium vs. Panama, 11 a.m. ET, FS1
Monday, June 18: Tunisia vs. England, 2 p.m. ET, FS1


Saturday, June 23: Belgium vs. Tunisia, 8 a.m. ET, Fox
Sunday, June 24: England vs. Panama, 8 a.m. ET, FS1


Thursday, June 28: England vs. Belgium, 2 p.m. ET, Fox
Thursday, June 28: Panama vs. Tunisia, 2 p.m. ET, FS1

Group H

Tuesday, June 19: Colombia vs. Japan, 8 a.m. ET, FS1
Tuesday, June 19: Poland vs. Senegal, 11 a.m. ET, Fox


Sunday, June 24: Japan vs. Senegal, 11 a.m. ET, Fox
Sunday, June 24: Poland vs. Colombia, 2 p.m. ET, Fox


Thursday, June 28: Japan vs. Poland, 10 a.m. ET, FS1
Thursday, June 28: Senegal vs. Colombia, 10 a.m. ET, Fox


Round of 16

Saturday, June 30
Match 50: Group C winner vs. Group D runner-up 10 a.m. ET Kazan Fox
Match 49: Group A winner vs. Group B runner-up 2 p.m. ET Sochi Fox
Sunday, July 1
Match 51: Group B winner vs. Group A runner-up 10 a.m. ET Moscow Fox
Match 52: Group D winner vs. Group C runner-up 2 p.m. ET Nizhny Novgorod Fox
Monday, July 2
Match 53: Group E winner vs. Group F runner-up 10 a.m. ET Samara FS1
Match 54: Group G winner vs. Group H runner-up 2 p.m. ET Rostov Fox
Tuesday, July 3
Match 55: Group F winner vs. Group E runner-up 10 a.m. ET Saint Petersburg FS1
Match 56: Group H winner vs. Group G runner-up 2 p.m. ET Rostov Fox

Quarterfinals

Friday, July 6
Match 57: Match 49 winner vs. Match 50 winner 9 a.m. ET Nizhny Novgorod FS1
Match 58: Match 53 winner vs. Match 54 winner 1 p.m. ET Kazan FS1
Saturday, July 7
Match 60: Match 55 winner vs. Match 66 winner 9 a.m. ET Samara Fox
Match 59: Match 51 winner vs. Match 52 winner 1 p.m. ET Sochi Fox

Semifinals

Tuesday, July 10
Match 61: Match 57 winner vs. Match 58 winner 1 p.m. ET Saint Petersburg Fox
Wednesday, July 11
Match 62: Match 59 winner vs. Match 60 winner 1 p.m. ET Moscow Fox

Third-place match

Saturday, July 14
Match 63: Match 61 loser vs. Match 62 loser 9 a.m. ET Saint Petersburg Fox

World Cup final

Sunday, July 15
Match 64: Match 61 winner vs. Match 62 winner 10 a.m. ET Moscow Fox

2018 NBA mock draft 3.0: Michael Porter Jr. vaults up board; Cavs nab Trae Young

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(PhatzRadio Sports / USA TODAY SPORTS)   —   A week away from the draft, while it looks like the No. 1 pick is set, teams are still gathering information and having players in for workouts.

Big men Marvin Bagley and Mo Bamba recently worked out for the Atlanta Hawks, and Jaren Jackson Jr. had a stellar workout for the Phoenix Suns. Many lottery teams are still gathering information on Michael Porter Jr., whose medical history is integral to this process.

At this point it’s important to be wary of smokescreens, and remember, trades are still possible.

USA TODAY Sports canvassed multiple league executives in shaping its latest mock draft. The actual NBA draft will be held next Thursday in New York.

1. Phoenix Suns – Deandre Ayton

Arizona • Center • Freshman

Height: 7-1 • Weight: 250

The Suns worked out several of the top prospects likely as due diligence, but it’s going to be Arizona center Deandre Ayton. Suns GM Ryan McDonough called Ayton’s workout “phenomenal,” and it would be a shock if they went another route.

2. Sacramento Kings – Michael Porter Jr.

Missouri • Forward • Freshman 

Height: 6-11 • Weight: 211

The Kings are known to be enamored with Porter but are still trying to gather the latest medical information. If they’re convinced that he’s fully healthy, he could be the combo-forward they’ve been searching for. A trade down could also be possible if they believe they could get him lower, as the Kings have no first rounders in 2019.

3. Atlanta Hawks – Marvin Bagley III

Duke • Forward • Freshman

Height: 6-11 • Weight: 234

If Bagley learns to rely on his three-pointer a bit more, he’ll be a matchup nightmare for opposing big men. The Hawks would get immediate offensive help with this pick, and Bagley would be afforded time to improve his defense.

4. Memphis Grizzlies – Luka Doncic

Real Madrid • Guard

Height: 6-8 • Weight: 220

The Grizzlies are several pieces away from contending for the postseason, but Doncic, the EuroLeague MVP, is the most polished and accomplished prospect among the elites. He immediately gives Memphis another primary ballhandler and someone capable of stretching the floor.

5. Dallas Mavericks – Jaren Jackson Jr.

Michigan State • Forward • Freshman

Height: 6-11 • Weight: 236

Viewed as perhaps the prospect with the most room to grow both physically and offensively, Jackson Jr. is an immediate asset on the defensive end. His length and timing are outstanding, and given his comfort from the perimeter, he could be the prototypical NBA big man in a few years.

6. Orlando Magic – Mo Bamba

Texas • Center • Freshman

Height: 7-1 • Weight: 225

Similar to Jackson, Bamba is already NBA-ready on the defensive end, and there’s a question as to how far he’ll be able to stretch the floor when he’s not demoralizing defenses with his patented alley-oop finishes. Bamba, who will have the longest wingspan in the NBA at 7-10, is the kind of physical freak teams may regret passing on.

7. Chicago Bulls – Wendell Carter Jr.

Duke • Forward • Freshman

Height: 6-10 • Weight: 251

Carter Jr. represents a safe, solid pick with low risk. He’s a polished, but not plodding, big man with great footwork and high basketball IQ.

8. Cleveland Cavaliers – Trae Young

Oklahoma • Guard • Freshman

Height: 6-2 • Weight: 177

Is anyone surprised that Young wasn’t able to maintain his furious scoring pace for an entire season? The Cavs may benefit because other teams tried to poke holes in his obvious talent.

9. New York Knicks – Collin Sexton

Alabama • Guard • Freshman

Height: 6-2 • Weight: 183

Sexton is an aggressive, confident scorer who could thrive as the lead guard. The guard-depleted Cavs are known to be interested in Sexton as well.

10. Philadelphia 76ers – Mikal Bridges

Villanova • Guard • Junior 

Height: 6-7 • Weight: 210

Given Bridges’ experience and strengths, he’s likely an immediate contributor at the next level, filling a wing position that nearly every team covets.

11. Charlotte Hornets – Miles Bridges

Michigan State • Forward • Sophomore 

Height: 6-7 • Weight: 220

The Hornets need help all over, and Bridges is a position-less wing who could play small forward and power forward in smaller lineups. He’s a bit of a tweener in terms of ideal fit, but his raw athleticism and stature make him lottery worthy.

12. Los Angeles Clippers – Lonnie Walker

Miami • Guard • Freshman

Height: 6-5 • Weight: 196

The Clippers are in a unique position to draft back-to-back lottery players, affording them a chance to make a riskier move with one of their picks. Walker, a raw, physical guard, offers them a scoring mindset combined with a versatile profile on the defensive end.

13. Los Angeles Clippers – Robert Williams

Texas A&M • Center • Sophomore 

Height: 6-10 • Weight: 241

As for that risk, it comes in the form of Williams. Athletic and rim-running, Williams has tantalizing tools at center for the modern NBA. He also doesn’t have much of an offensive arsenal anywhere outside of the paint, and the 47% free throw percentage is scary.

14. Denver Nuggets – Kevin Knox

Kentucky • Forward • Freshman 

Height: 6-9 • Weight: 215

Not many forwards can create offense off the bounce like Knox, and it’s impossible to ignore his versatility. He’s needs to add muscle to his frame and any team must be patient with him, but there’s significant upside as he continues to develop.

15. Washington Wizards – Shai Gilgeous-Alexander

Kentucky • Guard • Freshman

Height: 6-6 • Weight: 180

Give him a few years to develop more of an offensive repertoire, and Gilgeous-Alexander is an ideal NBA point guard. His length, passing and defense are all intriguing, but don’t expect him to orchestrate an NBA offense as a rookie.

16. Phoenix Suns – Zhaire Smith

Texas Tech • Guard • Freshman 

Height: 6-4 • Weight: 198

Smith is a freak athlete without much more that teams can bank on. He’s stunning in transition and finishes dunks that hardly look feasible. His defensive instincts are there, too, but teams will have to grapple with what else he’s able to create on offense.

17. Milwaukee Bucks – Aaron Holiday

UCLA • Guard • Junior 

Height: 6-1 • Weight: 185

Holiday would be less of a risk than the Bucks are typically accustomed to drafting. He’s a poised, crafty ballhandler, and with two brothers already in the league, he’s got an obvious NBA pedigree.

18. San Antonio Spurs – Troy Brown

Oregon • Forward • Freshman 

Height: 6-7 • Weight: 208

There’s potentially a lot of value in Brown, who does a lot of things well but nothing great. His defensive instincts are probably his best asset, and with the right coaching and system, he could develop a more enhanced offensive game.

19. Atlanta Hawks – Elie Okobo

Pau-Orthez (France) • Guard

Height: 6-3 • Weight: 180

The lefty guard has good outside touch, a quick first step and a deft midrange game. There usually aren’t many potentially starting-caliber guards left this late in the draft.

20. Minnesota Timberwolves – Dzanan Musa

Cedevita (Croatia) • Forward

Height: 6-9 • Weight: 195

Musa needs to add significant bulk to his frame, not necessarily to compete offensively but because he could be a liability on defense. He’s a rangy shooter and a creative finisher with good vision; offenses won’t stall with him in the rotation.

21. Utah Jazz – Kevin Huerter

Maryland • Forward • Sophomore

Height: 6-7 • Weight: 190

No one helped themselves more at the NBA draft combine than smooth-shooting forward Kevin Huerter, who excelled in the scrimmage portion. There is a belief that Huerter may have secured a promise, which could have swayed his decision to stay in the draft.

22. Chicago Bulls – Chandler Hutchison

Boise State • Guard • Senior 

Height: 6-7 • Weight: 197

There’s also a belief that Hutchison, who pulled out of the NBA draft combine, may have a first-round promise from Chicago. If that’s the case, the athletic, four-year wing would fit the bill of prospects the Bulls have drafted in the past.

23. Indiana Pacers – Donte DiVincenzo

Villanova • Guard • Sophomore

Height: 6-5 • Weight: 200

DiVincenzo parlayed his strong Final Four and draft combine showing into a likely first-round pick. He’s a downhill scorer, crafty finisher from multiple angles and someone who makes his teammates better.

24. Portland Trail Blazers – Keita Bates-Diop

Ohio State • Forward • Junior

Height: 6-8 • Weight: 223

Bates-Diop has good mobility, anticipation and athleticism, and his face-up game was an asset in college. As a redshirt player, there are legitimate questions as to how much he’ll improve.

25. Los Angeles Lakers – De’Anthony Melton

Southern California • Guard • Sophomore 

Height: 6-3 • Weight: 193

Despite withdrawing from USC earlier this season, Melton remains an intriguing prospect thanks to his defensive intensity and transition ability. At the draft combine he also mentioned how special it would be for him to play for his hometown Lakers.

26. Philadelphia 76ers – Jerome Robinson

Boston College • Guard • Junior

Height: 6-5 • Weight: 188

It’s not hard to see what scouts like about Robinson. He’s a poised, steady guard with good size who can occasionally explode to the rim. He’s a comfortable scorer who could easily command a second unit off the bench.

27. Boston Celtics – Josh Okogie

Georgia Tech • Guard • Sophomore

Height: 6-4 • Weight: 213

Okogie has good size and a great motor, but his offensive instincts can feel a little hectic at times. He should immediately be able to hold his own on the defensive end.

28. Golden State Warriors – Khyri Thomas

Creighton • Guard • Junior 

Height: 6-4 • Weight: 200

Steady and with great length, Thomas is a low-risk, heady guard who won’t make unforced mistakes and can immediately stretch the floor with his offense.

29. Brooklyn Nets – Jacob Evans

Cincinnati • Guard • Junior 

Height: 6-6 • Weight: 210

With good size and strength for his position, Evans can be an immediate contributor on the defensive end and should have no trouble in a switch-heavy defense. His three-point shooting ability could be a bonus.

30. Atlanta Hawks – Mitchell Robinson

Chalmette High School • Center

Height: 7-0 • Weight: 233

Robinson might be the most enigmatic prospect in the draft, with a range as high as just outside the lottery all the way until the second round. The size and talent are there, but teams could have questions about his drive and commitment after skipping his lone year in college basketball.

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Follow USA TODAY Sports’ NBA insiders Jeff Zillgitt, Sam Amick and Michael Singer on Twitter. 

CFB: The biggest game of 2018 for college football’s top 10

(PhatzRadio Sports / USA TODAY SPORTS)   —   Naming the biggest game on Alabama’s 2018 schedule is easy: It’s Auburn, since the biggest game of the Tide’s season is annually the Iron Bowl.

Figuring out the same for the rest of college football’s strongest title contenders isn’t as simple. This week’s Top 10 list tries to tackle the topic by asking: Which regular-season game looms largest for the 10 teams atop the USA TODAY Sports’ post-spring Top 25 for 2018?

1. Clemson

at Florida State, Oct. 27

FSU still looks like the Tigers’ biggest threat in the Atlantic Division, even if the Seminoles finished last season below .500 in Atlantic Coast Conference play. Clemson has won three in a row in the series, with last fall’s 17-point win the program’s largest margin of victory against FSU since a 35-14 victory in 2005.

2. Alabama

vs. Auburn, Nov. 24

You might be able to make the case that Alabama’s biggest game is actually one of LSU, Mississippi State or Texas A&M and not the Iron Bowl. Why? Because recent history has shown that Alabama can lose to Auburn and still win the national title — as in 2017, for example. But the Tide’s biggest game is nonetheless against the Tigers.

3. Wisconsin

at Michigan, Oct. 13

The road to the College Football Playoff isn’t complicated: Wisconsin needs to win the West Division and reach the Big Ten Conference title game with no more than one loss. Then the Badgers need to beat Ohio State, of course. The team’s biggest game could be a few in-division matchups — maybe Iowa, Purdue or Nebraska — but beating Michigan on the road in October would be a tone-setter for Wisconsin entering the second half of the regular season.

4. Washington

vs. Auburn (in Atlanta), Sept. 1

Not often does a team’s opener double as its biggest game. But that’s the case for Washington, which needs a jolt of national recognition to fuel its push for the Playoff. You won’t get a much better chance than by beating Auburn in Atlanta on the first Saturday of September. A win there would solidify the Huskies’ place as one the elite teams in the country and the team to beat in the Pac-12.

5. Ohio State

vs. Michigan, Nov. 24

Don’t forget that this game has been close in recent years despite Michigan’s inability to get over the hump. Though Ohio State has won all six tries under Urban Meyer, only one came by more than two scores; four of the six were decided by a single possession, including an overtime thriller in 2016. So is the Wolverines’ year? If could be, but only if Shea Patterson is as good as advertised.

6. Georgia

vs. Auburn, Nov. 10

There’s a case to be made for South Carolina and Florida, the two perceived rivals to Georgia’s ownership of the East Division, and maybe even a case for LSU, should the Tigers be better than expected. But the only game on Georgia’s regular-season schedule against a fellow team with title aspirations comes in the annual tilt against Auburn in November.

7. Oklahoma

at TCU, Oct. 20

Oklahoma’s year starts with a bang: Lane Kiffin and Florida Atlantic first and then Chip Kelly and UCLA, with both games coming at home. We’ll know by the end of September whether Kyler Murray is up to the task at quarterback. The Sooners’ most important game might be Texas, since the Longhorns should be better in Tom Herman’s second season. But it’s TCU that figures to be OU’s biggest threat in the Big 12 Conference.

8. TCU

vs. Oklahoma, Oct. 20

And vice versa for TCU. The Sooners have fewer holes to fill than do the Horned Frogs, who have questions to address on the offensive line and a new starting quarterback on their own under center. But TCU resembles one of those all-too-common Gary Patterson teams with talent to spare on defense and young skill players set to blossom in 2018. Despite the result of this October matchup, these two could meet again in the conference championship game.

9. Penn State

vs. Ohio State, Sept. 29

On paper, Penn State’s schedule is a monster. Rival Pittsburgh in September. Michigan State and Iowa in October. Michigan and Wisconsin in back-to-back weeks to open November. But those second-half games will have far less meaning should the Nittany Lions stumble at home against Ohio State, which would give the Buckeyes a huge head-to-head tiebreaker in the East Division race.

10. Miami (Fla.)

vs. LSU (at AT&T Stadium), Sept. 2

Much like Washington against Auburn, Miami’s date with LSU presents an opportunity to make a statement. A neutral-site win would put wind in the Hurricanes’ sails, even if the rest of the regular season might reveal LSU to be a national pretender. And knocking off the Tigers would vault Miami through a schedule that isn’t too difficult, all things considered. Though Virginia Tech comes on the road — and we don’t know yet about the Hokies’ quarterback situation — the Hurricanes get Florida State at home to open October.

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Killing time until the return college football is as easy as counting to 10, and then continuing to count out the rest of the roughly 7,500,000 seconds until the first Saturday of the 2018 season. It’s that easy!

From there, it’s another countdown of about 100 days until the real action begins: College Football Playoff national semifinals – held in the Cotton Bowl and Orange Bowl – will be held on Dec. 29, with the title game coming on Jan. 7 at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif.

This week’s Top 10 list takes the long view to ask: Which teams will populate the biggest bowl games of the 2018 season? Listed chronologically, the group includes the two semifinals, the championship game, the four remaining New Year’s Six bowls, the Citrus Bowl, the Alamo Bowl and the Outback Bowl.

1. Alamo Bowl (Dec. 28)

Southern California vs. West Virginia

I’ve got Washington in a semifinal and Stanford then slotting into the Rose Bowl, meaning the third-place team from the Pac-12 would land in the Alamo Bowl. That’d be USC, which would take on the third-place team from the Big 12, West Virginia, after both Oklahoma and TCU make the New Year’s Six.

2. Peach Bowl (Dec. 29)

Miami (Fla.) vs. Penn State

The first New Year’s Six game pits two at-large bids. This projection picks Miami as the second-place team from the ACC, meaning the Hurricanes put together a great regular season but fall to Clemson in the conference title game. Penn State would be the third Big Ten team in a high-profile bowl, following Wisconsin and Ohio State.

3. Cotton Bowl (Dec. 29)

Alabama vs. Wisconsin

It might not be the Orange Bowl, but Alabama has made AT&T Stadium its home away from home in non-conference play. I’ve got Wisconsin winning the Big Ten and landing here, but it could very well be Ohio State. Or Penn State. Or Michigan State. Or Michigan.

4. Orange Bowl (Dec. 29)

Clemson vs. Washington

Clemson would be the beneficiary of playing its semifinal with a relative home-field advantage as the top seed in the Playoff field. Washington would need to travel across the country to meet the Tigers, but at least the Huskies are back in the final four.

5. Outback Bowl (Jan. 1)

Michigan State vs. Mississippi State

On paper, Michigan is a very strong contender for one of the top bowl games given to the best team from the Big Ten not in a New Year’s Six or a national semifinal. But because the Wolverines just played in this past January’s Outback Bowl essentially eliminates them from contention; likewise with South Carolina from the SEC. So let’s settle instead for Michigan State’s defense against Mississippi State’s new offense.

6. Citrus Bowl (Jan. 1)

Auburn vs. Michigan

Here’s a good spot for Michigan, which last played in the Citrus following the 2015 regular season. Notre Dame may have the record needed to be in contention for this spot, but the Irish just topped LSU in the Citrus this past January. In this projection, Auburn is just on the outside of a New Year’s Six berth.

7. Fiesta Bowl (Jan. 1)

Boise State vs. TCU

These two programs haven’t met in the postseason since the 2010 Fiesta Bowl, when the powers that be decided to pit the two unbeaten programs – both then in non-major conferences – against one another rather than opponents from the Power Five.

8. Rose Bowl (Jan. 1)

Ohio State vs. Stanford

Ohio State’s easily in play for the Orange or Cotton. Better yet, the Buckeyes may end up being the best team in all of college football should Dwayne Haskins get the job done at quarterback, to name one position that will carry a question mark heading into September. But a spot in the Rose Bowl seems almost like the worst-case scenario for Urban Meyer and OSU, which says something about the team’s potential.

9. Sugar Bowl (Jan. 1)

Georgia vs. Oklahoma

This wouldn’t be the preferred destination for either program – both the Bulldogs and Sooners have eyes on a return to the Playoff – but the idea of these two powers holding a rematch of last year’s Rose Bowl should be intoxicating for college football fans.

10. College Football Playoff championship game (Jan. 7)

Alabama vs. Clemson

A fourth postseason matchup in as many years might be overkill. But the Tigers and Crimson Tide top the USA TODAY Sports post-spring Top 25 rankings – so another meeting doesn’t seem too hard to imagine in a postseason format that conceivably recognizes the top teams in the country.

BREAKING NEWS: Justify goes wire to wire in Belmont Stakes to win Triple Crown

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(PHATZRADIO SPORTS / USA TODAY SPORTS)   —-   ELMONT, N.Y. — Following every step of his short career, the people involved with Justify believed more and more they had a special colt in their barn. From his first race on Feb. 18 and continuing on his unconventional path to the Kentucky Derby, he had done things so brilliantly, so easily, that no dream seemed too big.

But even the most optimistic projections of Justify’s potential could not have accounted for what he accomplished on Saturday, becoming horse racing’s 13th Triple Crown winner a mere 111 days after making his racing debut.

Justify won the Belmont wire-to-wire, demolishing all expectations and precedent. And in the process, he gave horse racing a most unexpected surprise: A second Triple Crown winner in the last four years.

Until American Pharoah broke through in 2015, hope that a horse in the modern era could withstand the grueling test of three races in five weeks was beginning to fade. As 13 unlucky Kentucky Derby and Preakness winners since 1978 came and went from Belmont Park without completing the Triple Crown, the drought morphed from historical quirk to an existential struggle. Even some legendary voices in the game like trainer D. Wayne Lukas called for the races to be further spaced out or even shortened, citing an evolution of thoroughbred breeding that has made these animals more fragile and less capable of racing as often as their ancestors.

But the enduring allure of the Triple Crown is, and always has been, the difficulty of winning it. Perhaps unintentionally, it has given us a dividing line between horse racing’s immortals and those that were merely great.

Justify earned his own way to the other side, and he had to do it with few advantages other than his massive size and unique talent.

He didn’t even arrive in trainer Bob Baffert’s barn until last November, long after most of the top 2-year olds had already begun sorting themselves out into Derby contenders and those who would ultimately aim lower. Once he began training seriously for his debut at Santa Anita, he had no margin for error if Baffert’s plan to make a Triple Crown push was going to be realized. And once he accomplished the first step, becoming the first horse since 1882 to win the Kentucky Derby without racing at age 2, he got pushed to the limit in the Preakness, holding off Bravazo by a half-length in a race where it looked like a tough spring campaign might finally be taking its toll.

But in the Belmont, contested on a lightning-fast track that stood in stark contrast to the sloppy surface Justify overcame in the Derby and Preakness, he ran his competition into the ground. Breaking from the No. 1 post position, jockey Mike Smith sent Justify right to the lead, where he fended off challenges from Restoring Hope on the backstretch, Hofburg, who launched a rally around the far turn and then Gronkowski, who made a run at him in deep stretch. But it was Justify hanging on and drawing out in the final 1/16th of a mile, winning in a time of 2:28.18 by 1 3/4 lengths.

Despite being the first undefeated Triple Crown winner since Seattle Slew in 1977, there’s little expectation that Justify’s victory will resonate the same way American Pharoah’s did three years ago.

Whereas that triumph was met with a sustained roar of relief at Belmont, the Justify story simply came too soon and with far less human charm to build the same kind of anticipation.

His trainer, Baffert, has been a regular in these moments, losing his first three Triple Crown attempts before American Pharoah made him a winner. His ownership group was an amalgamation of the high-powered WinStar breeding farm, hedge fund executive Sol Kumin and a group of largely secretive Chinese businessmen. Only his 52-year old jockey, who has reached the peak of his powers in the twilight of his career, added much sentimental value to the story.

Thus, the crowd at Belmont Park on Saturday wasn’t as big, and the feeling when Justify crossed the wire wasn’t the same. But still, those who came and watched saw history made again.

No matter how it compares to the Triple Crown won three years ago by American Pharoah, it remains one of the most difficult feats in sports. And with every stride over the last 111 days, Justify proved he was worthy of the accomplishment.

2018 THE BELMONT STAKES: Justify bidding for rare Triple Crown sweep in Belmont

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NEW YORK (AP) — Three races at various distances on three different tracks over a span of five weeks.

Just 12 horses have swept the Triple Crown, one of the rarest feats in sports.

Justify will try to immortalize his name and join such horses as Whirlaway, Count Fleet, Citation and Secretariat when he runs in the Belmont Stakes on Saturday.

The Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner has been guided to this point by a couple of veterans: trainer Bob Baffert and jockey Mike Smith. Baffert oversaw American Pharoah’s Triple Crown success in 2015 and has used the same methods with Justify. Smith has never been aboard a Triple Crown winner, but at 52 he has the shrewdness and knowledge from regularly riding at Belmont Park years ago to rely on.

The forecast calls for a slight chance of late-day rain with a high near 80 at the scheduled post of 6:46 p.m. ET. A crowd capped at 90,000 is expected for a chance to witness history.

Justify opened his bid with a 2 ½-length victory on a sloppy track in the 1 1/4-mile Kentucky Derby on May 5. He followed it up with a half-length win in the slop in the 1 3/16-mile Preakness on May 19.

Here are some things to know for the 150th Belmont Stakes:

THE DISTANCE

The Belmont is known as the “Test of the Champion” for good reason: it’s the first and likely last time these 3-year-old colts will be running 1 ½ miles. That distance isn’t widely raced in North America and it calls for a combination of stamina and speed. For horses used to training and running at shorter distances it can be like asking them to start over doing something completely different. Often it’s the final quarter-mile that does in a contender. Once the horses come out of the final turn, they’ve still got a 1,097-yard (1,003 meters) run through the stretch, exhausting for a horse with little or no gas left in the tank. Belmont Park’s deep, sandy surface can prove tiring, too. If rain falls and turns it sloppy, Justify should feel right at home. Justify might not need to run his absolute best if his rivals struggle to cope with the longer trip. Horses whose pedigrees are based on speed rather than stamina are unlikely to run their best, never mind improve, going 1 ½ miles.

FRESH HORSES

No Triple Crown winner has faced more than seven rivals in the Belmont, so Justify could be the first. He’ll have nine horses to contend with. Justify and Bravazo will be the only horses to run in the Derby, Preakness and Belmont. Bravazo finished sixth in the Derby and closed with a rush to take second in the Preakness. Four of Justify’s rivals have been resting since the Kentucky Derby a month ago: Free Drop Billy (16th), Hofburg (seventh), Noble Indy (17th) and Vino Rosso (ninth). Coming off a three-week break is Blended Citizen. He’s the only horse with experience racing at Belmont Park, having won the Peter Pan there on May 12. The most rested entry is Gronkowski, having last run on March 30 in England. The colt named for New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski brings a four-race winning streak into his U.S. debut. Besides Bravazo, the only other Preakness horse to take on Justify again is Tenfold. He also made a late charge to grab third in that race. Restoring Hope, who like Justify is trained by Baffert, last ran May 5 but not in the Derby. He finished 12th that day in the Pat Day Mile on the undercard at Churchill Downs. Restoring Hope will have a new jockey Saturday since Smith will be busy riding Justify.

POST POSITION

Justify will break from the No. 1 post in the starting gate. A leading 23 Belmont winners have come out of there, including Secretariat. His performance in the 1973 race set a standard that has yet to be matched. Secretariat won by 31 lengths in a record time of 2:24. Saturday’s race will be run 45 years to the day that Secretariat ended a 25-year Triple Crown drought.

BUNCHES OF TRIPLES

If Justify succeeds in sweeping the Triple Crown just three years after American Pharoah, it wouldn’t be the first time it has happened close together. Gallant Fox, Omaha and War Admiral accomplished the feat in the 1930s. The 1940s saw Whirlaway, Count Fleet, Assault and Citation achieve racing immortality. Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed added their names to the list in the 1970s.

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Post time for the 150th Belmont Stakes is 6:37 p.m. ET Saturday TV: 4 ET, NBC (earlier races on NBCSN at 2 ET)

Here’s a look at the field:

1. Justify (4-5 odds)

Owners: China Horse Club International, Head of Plains Partners, Starlight Racing and WinStar Farm

Trainer: Bob Baffert

Jockey: Mike Smith

Record: 5-0-0 in five starts

Notable: Attempting to become horse racing’s 13th Triple Crown winner, Justify has yet to take a backward step in his career. He didn’t produce a scintillating performance in the Preakness Stakes, but he has held his weight and trained well in the three weeks since. The biggest question might be if he’s suited to the 11/2-mile distance and whether Smith can relax him early in the race, particularly from the No. 1 post position.

2. Free Drop Billy (30-1)

Owner: Albaugh Family Stables

Trainer: Dale Romans

Jockey: Robby Albarado

Record: 2-3-2 in nine starts

Notable: Considered one of the top 2-year-olds last fall when he won the Grade 1 Breeders’ Futurity, he’s yet to run back to that form at 3. Though his 16th-place finish in the Kentucky Derby inspires no confidence in his ability to compete at this level, he’s back in the Belmont largely due to his stamina-heavy bloodlines as the son of 2012 winner Union Rags.

3. Bravazo (8-1)

Owner: Calumet Farm

Trainer: D. Wayne Lukas

Jockey: Luis Saez

Record: 3-2-1 in 10 starts

Notable: Had the Preakness been 50 yards longer, he’d likely have won the race. That second-place performance gave Lukas enough encouragement to bring Bravazo back for the Belmont, where his closing kick could be effective in the long stretch run. This seems to be an improving horse, who also ran a good sixth in the Derby despite a rough trip.

4. Hofburg (9-2)

Owner: Juddmonte Farms

Trainer: Bill Mott

Jockey: Irad Ortiz Jr.

Record: 1-1-0 in four starts

Notable: A number of sharp handicappers jumped on his bandwagon at the Derby, but he lost all chance when he was bumped at the start and shuffled to the back of the pack, encountering more traffic trouble before rallying to a seventh-place finish. He has just one win in four starts, but he’s a talented colt whose sire, Tapit, has produced three of the last four Belmont Stakes winners.

5. Restoring Hope (30-1)

Owners: Gary and Mary West

Trainer: Bob Baffert

Jockey: Florent Geroux

Record: 1-1-2 in five starts

Notable: Baffert’s second trainee is a significant long shot with one win in five starts, but his owners wanted to take a shot in the Belmont. His last start, a 12th-place finish in the Pat Day Mile on the Kentucky Derby undercard, is a complete throwout as he didn’t handle the sloppy track at Churchill Downs.

6. Gronkowski (12-1)

Owner: Phoenix Thoroughbreds

Trainer: Chad Brown

Jockey: Jose Ortiz

Record: 4-1-0 in six starts

Notable: He won four in a row in Britain, all at the 1-mile distance, before being transferred to New York-based trainer Brown to prepare for the Belmont. Because of his namesake’s popularity, Gronkowski is almost assuredly going to be overbet. But it would be an interesting story if Rob Gronkowski, who now owns a small piece of the horse, gets to fiesta in the winner’s circle.

7. Tenfold (12-1)

Owner: Winchell Thoroughbreds

Trainer: Steve Asmussen

Jockey: Ricardo Santana Jr.

Record: 2-0-1 in four starts

Notable: The Belmont is one of the few races where pedigree still matters, and his bloodlines strongly suggest he’ll get the distance with former Horse of the Year Curlin on the top side and Tapit in his mother’s family. Given his inexperience with just four starts, he ran an impressive, closing third in the Preakness and should move forward off that race. Asmussen won the Belmont in 2016 with Creator.

8. Vino Rosso (8-1)

Owners: Repole Stable and St. Elias Stable

Trainer: Todd Pletcher

Jockey: John Velazquez

Record: 3-0-1 in six starts

Notable: Didn’t really make an impact in the Derby, finishing ninth, but has followed the Pletcher model of skipping the Preakness and returning to his home track to prepare for this race. If he runs back to his Wood Memorial win in April, he’ll have a chance. But that race, so far, stands out as the anomaly in a mediocre career thus far against stakes competition.

9. Noble Indy (30-1)

Owners: WinStar Farm and Repole Stable

Trainer: Todd Pletcher

Jockey: Javier Castellano

Record: 3-0-1 in five starts

Notable: Co-owner Mike Repole, a New Yorker who is also partners in Vino Rosso, wants to win the Belmont more than any other race. Typically a horse with early speed, he didn’t seem to like the track in the Derby, as he ended up settling in about 5 lengths off the lead before fading to 17th. He’ll be a likely candidate to set the pace this time.

10. Blended Citizen (15-1)

Owners: Sayjay Racing, Greg Hall, Brooke Hubbard

Trainer: Doug O’Neill

Jockey: Kyle Frey

Record: 3-0-2 in 10 starts

Notable: Had he qualified for the Kentucky Derby (he was 21st on the points list), he might have been an interesting long shot. But the colt instead won the Grade 3 Peter Pan with a stout stretch rally May 12 as a prep for the Belmont. O’Neill won the Kentucky Derby with I’ll Have Another and Nyquist.

 

2018 BELMONT STAKES: Four things to know about the Belmont as Justify tries for Triple Crown

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(PhatzRadio Sports / USA TODAY SPORTS)   —   ELMONT, N.Y. — Here are four things to know about the Belmont Stakes on Saturday as Justify attempts to become the 13th Triple Crown winner.

1. New silks for Justify

Fans who got used to seeing Justify jockey Mike Smith win the Kentucky Derby and Preakness in the predominantly white WinStar Farm silks will have to look for new colors in the Belmont. As part of a co-ownership agreement that was established before the Triple Crown, Justify will carry the silks of the China Horse Club, which bought a piece of the horse last year. A somewhat mysterious organization backed by mostly unknown Chinese businessmen, the China Horse Club has made a splash in racing over the past couple years with a handful of notable runners, including last year’s Kentucky Oaks winner Abel Tasman. The red silks with yellow stars evoke an image of the Chinese flag, which is intentional — part of the group’s goal is to popularize the sport in China, where gambling is illegal. Though trainer Bob Baffert has some notable superstitions (he hates black cats and told his wife Jill that wearing a green dress at this year’s Kentucky Derby was unlucky), he said this wasn’t a big deal. “I’m superstitious about little things, but not really about the silks,” he said. “I’m sure it’s probably the first time this has ever happened.”

2. Gronkowski in attendance

Phoenix Thoroughbreds, which formed last year as an “investment fund” in horse racing and has spent more than $25 million at sales already, is making its first Triple Crown appearance with Gronkowski, named for Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski. While preparing for the Kentucky Derby, the real Gronkowski bought an undisclosed percentage of the horse, only to suffer his first disappointment as an owner: An injury knocked him out of the race. But Amer Abdulaziz, the Dubai-based businessman who founded the organization, said he’d like to name more horses after celebrities and get them out to the track. “He’s the first, and let’s say we go and win that will open up a lot of doors,” Abdulaziz said. “I’m trying to promote the industry among celebrities. We don’t expect a lot from them, but were trying to promote it and bring more people to the races and attract a new generation.” The human Gronkowski is expected to attend the Belmont.

3. Wet track possible

Can we get just one nice day this year for a Triple Crown race? After miserable, sustained rains preceding both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, it appears weather is once again threatening to give us a sloppy track for the Belmont. Though the Weather Channel’s forecast earlier in the week almost guaranteed rain Saturday, it has since improved to a 40% chance of showers in the early evening. Even though Justify has proven he can handle a wet surface, Baffert said he’d prefer the race to be run on a nice, fast track in cool conditions.

4. Audible is silent

If Florida Derby winner Audible had run in the Belmont, he might very well have been the second betting choice in the race. But there’s an obvious reason why he’s skipping this one: He’s also owned by a partnership that primarily includes WinStar Farm and the China Horse Club, which would have put them in the awkward position of possibly ruining their own Triple Crown bid. Trainer Todd Pletcher officially attributed the decision to a minor physical setback that took Audible out of training for a few days, making it easier to point him toward the big races this summer. But it seems unlikely Audible, who finished third in the Derby, was ever going to run in the Belmont once Justify won the Preakness.

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If undefeated Justify is going to become horse racing’s 13th Triple Crown winner, he’ll have to do it from trainer Bob Baffert’s least favorite post position.

The Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner drew the No. 1 gate for Saturday’s Belmont Stakes, a spot Baffert typically enjoys as much as rancid milk. Though Justify has plenty of natural speed, drawing inside means jockey Mike Smith is pretty much locked in to putting his horse on the lead to avoid getting pinned in down on the rail heading into the first turn.

That possibility is why Baffert typically prefers a post position further outside, especially with a smart jockey like Smith who can use the first 200 yards of the race to find a comfortable spot in the clear, allowing his horse to run free. And with Justify now likely committed to the early lead, you can bet the other jockeys will attempt to gang up on Smith, trying to press him into a fast pace.

“I never do like the rail,” Baffert told reporters at the Belmont draw Tuesday. “We have it. We can’t change it. We’ll just deal with it.”

Justify, who won the Preakness by a diminishing half-length over Bravazo, will have nine challengers in the Belmont, signifying that rival trainers believe he can be beaten at 1½ miles following a grueling schedule this spring to get him ready to the Triple Crown.

The Belmont will be Justify’s sixth race since his debut Feb. 18, which would make him the first horse to win the Triple Crown without a race as a 2-year-old.

And while Justify has purportedly showed positive physical signs during his training at Churchill Downs — he’ll ship into New York on Wednesday — there’s plenty of reason to believe the Belmont will be his biggest challenge yet.

Some of that is the field. Bravazo, who closed fast and just missed in the Preakness, is back for another try under the tutelage of legendary trainer D. Wayne Lukas. Tenfold, a lightly raced colt who was third in the Preakness, is fresh and improving. Hofburg finished seventh in the Kentucky Derby after a rough trip but is a son of Tapit, who sired three of the last four Belmont winners. Wood Memorial Stakes winner Vino Rosso, who finished ninth in the Derby, stands to put in an improved performance after a five-week rest. And Blended Citizen, a newcomer to the Triple Crown, won the Peter Pan Stakes over the Belmont track recently.

But many of the questions around Justify come down to whether he’s really as good as American Pharoah, who roared out of his Preakness win and dominated the Belmont in 2015. Baffert hasn’t been shy about comparing the two horses, but he also knows how hard it is to win the Triple Crown, having fallen short with Silver Charm (1997), Real Quiet (1998) and War Emblem (2001) after winning the first two legs.

“You have to prepare yourself for disappointment,” Baffert said last week. “We were quietly confident (with American Pharoah), but you still have to do it. You don’t know how the race is going to play out, but I just think he still looks like he’s strong and he came out of the work really well. A mile and a half is going to be tough, but he’s doing really well.”

Having the rail is likely only going to increase Baffert’s anxiety. On one hand, it makes the game plan pretty straightforward. On the other, having the lead will put a lot of pressure on Smith to judge how fast his horse is going early.

In 2015, American Pharoah was able to settle in on a relaxed lead, running moderate fractions for the first half-mile (48.83 seconds) and 6 furlongs (1:13.41) that left him plenty in reserve for Belmont’s long stretch run. But if Smith senses the pace is too fast, he’ll have to make a choice: Let Justify run or try to restrain him, which horses with natural speed typically don’t like.

We won’t know the answer to that until they’re halfway down the backstretch on Saturday afternoon. But if nothing else, drawing the No. 1 post adds to the drama as Justify tries to make history.

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Here is the draw for Saturday’s $1.5 million, Grade 1 Belmont Stakes at Belmont Park in Elmont, New York.

Post time is set for 6:46 p.m., and the race will be televised by NBC.

Kentucky Derby winner Justify is the 4-5 morning-line favorite. He drew the No. 1 post position in the field of 10.

Hofburg is the second choice in the morning line at 9-2 odds.

Post position, horse, trainer, jockey, morning-line odds

1. Justify, Bob Baffert, Mike Smith, 4-5

Last race: Won Preakness on May 19 at Pimlico

2. Free Drop Billy, Dale Romans, Robby Albarado, 30-1

Last race: 16th in Kentucky Derby on May 5 at Churchill Downs

3. Bravazo, D. Wayne Lukas, Luis Saez, 8-1

Last race: Second in Preakness on May 19 at Pimlico

4. Hofburg, Bill Mott, Irad Ortiz Jr., 9-2

Last race: Seventh in Kentucky Derby on May 5 at Churchill Downs

5. Restoring Hope, Bob Baffert, Florent Geroux, 30-1

Last race: 12th in Pat Day Mile on May 5 at Churchill Downs

6. Gronkowski, Chad Brown, Jose Ortiz, 12-1

Last race: Won 32nd Burradon Stakes on March 30 at Newcastle 

7. Tenfold, Steve Asmussen, Ricardo Santana Jr., 12-1

Last race: Third in Preakness on May 19 at Pimlico

8. Vino Rosso, Todd Pletcher, John Velazquez, 8-1

Last race: Ninth in Kentucky Derby on May 5 at Churchill Downs

9. Noble Indy, Todd Pletcher, Javier Castellano, 30-1

Last race: 17th in Kentucky Derby on May 5 at Churchill Downs

10. Blended Citizen, Doug O’Neill, Kyle Frey, 15-1

Last race: Won Peter Pan Stakes on May 12 at Belmont

Jason Frakes: 502-582-4046; jfrakes@courier-journal.com; Twitter: @kyhighs. Support strong local journalism by subscribing today: www.courier-journal.com/jasonf

2018 BELMONT STAKES: Justify arrives in New York for Triple Crown bid

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NEW YORK (AP) — Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Justify arrived in New York on Wednesday ahead of this weekend’s Belmont Stakes, in which the colt will try to sweep the Triple Crown.

Justify traveled smoothly to Belmont Park via a flight from Louisville, Kentucky, and a van ride from an airport on Long Island. He was greeted by a throng of media recording every step as he walked into Barn 1, the same place American Pharoah stayed before ending the sport’s 37-year drought with a Triple Crown sweep in 2015 and becoming the 12th horse to achieve the feat.

“It’s just a different vibe,” said Bob Baffert, who also trained Pharoah. “It’s like we know it can be done.”

Justify will face nine rivals on Saturday in the 1 ½-mile Belmont, the longest and most grueling of the three-race series. He brings a 5-0 career record to the race in which the colt is the morning-line favorite at 4-5 odds.

“Now he has to just close the deal,” Baffert said. “It’s a lot of pressure, too. You’re in New York. The place is going to be rocking. You want to see superstars.”

Justify was greeted with squeals from horses already in the barn of trainer John Terranova, who hosts Baffert’s out-of-town runners.

“He got their attention somehow. He must give off something,” Baffert said. “When he got off the van, he was just dragging me around there.”

Baffert was the victim of a bite on his hand from Justify the other day while walking the horse.

“He’s a tough horse,” the trainer said. “For about four seconds, you can love on him, but that’s it.”

Justify will step onto Belmont Park’s deep, sandy surface for the first time on Thursday. Baffert had yet to decide exactly what the colt will do the next two days, although it won’t be anything of consequence; his major training has been completed.

Justify won the Derby and Preakness on sloppy tracks.

Baffert’s 13-year-old son, Bode, already texted his race-day forecast to his father, who read it out loud off his phone. Bode wants to be a meteorologist.

“Tell dad that we are having half an inch of rain on Belmont day. Cold front pushing through Elmont day of race. Showers and thunderstorms likely, with isolated downpours at times,” Baffert said, chuckling. “That’s my weatherman. He’s always right.”

Truth be told, Baffert prefers a dry, fast track.

Some of Justify’s rivals have already tested the track after arriving earlier in the week.

Hofburg, the early 9-2 second choice, galloped on Wednesday and visited the paddock where he will be saddled on race day. Bravazo, the Preakness runner-up, also galloped.

Justify and Bravazo are the only horses that will compete in the Derby, Preakness and Belmont. Justify’s half-length victory in the Preakness allowed Baffert to tie D. Wayne Lukas with his 14th victory in a Triple Crown race, the most by any trainer.

Now, Bravazo and Lukas will try to upend history.

“I think it’ll get down to which horses have the pedigree and the stamina to finish,” Lukas said.

That won’t be known until Saturday because none of the horses has ever run 1 ½ miles in a race, and likely won’t be asked to again in their careers.

“We’ve seen so many good horses come in here and get beat,” Baffert said. “Is he good enough? He’s good enough, but he needs to run his race. He’s going to be a target now and you don’t know what’s going to happen.”

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The 2018 Belmont Stakes will take place Saturday at Belmont Park in Elmont, New York.

The third of the Triple Crown’s three legs is scheduled for a 6:46 p.m. ET post time.

We’ll keep this page updated as Saturday’s post time approaches.

Odds are courtesy of the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook and current as of June 6.

2018 Triple Crown: Justify draws No. 1 post for Triple try in Belmont Stakes

NEW YORK (AP) — Something Bob Baffert always dreads has come true ahead of the Belmont Stakes: Justify drew the No. 1 post for the colt’s bid to sweep the Triple Crown.

The Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner was made the early 4-5 favorite in the 10-horse field for Saturday’s race.

Baffert is not a fan of the inside post for his horses, no matter what the race.

“I never do like to draw the rail, but my horses seem to live in it,” he said Tuesday. “We have it, we can’t change it. We’ll deal with it.”

And history may be on Justify’s side.

Since 1905, a leading 23 horses have won from the No. 1 post. The last to win from there was Empire Maker in 2003 when he spoiled Funny Cide’s Triple Crown bid.

“He is so talented, I think he can dictate the race,” Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas said of Justify. “That is the thing that makes him very tough to beat. He can pick his spots. He is the key to how all of us run.”

Justify won the first two legs of the series from the No. 7 post. He ran on sloppy tracks both times and the forecast for Saturday calls for a 60 percent chance of rain.

This time the No. 7 hole went to Tenfold. The colt was a fast-closing third in the Preakness and is 12-1 for the Belmont.

Hofburg was made the 9-2 second choice. Trained by Hall of Famer Bill Mott, the colt finished seventh in the Kentucky Derby and skipped the Preakness.

The only other horses with single-digit odds are Preakness runner-up Bravazo and Vino Rosso, both at 8-1. Vino Rosso finished ninth in the Derby and didn’t run in the Preakness.

Baffert is seeking a second Triple Crown victory in four years. American Pharoah ended a 37-year drought when he completed the sweep in 2015. He broke from the No. 1 post in the Preakness.

In the 2010 Kentucky Derby, Baffert had the favorite with Lookin At Lucky, who broke from the No. 1 hole. The colt was pinned to the rail and had nowhere to go until a late run helped him finish sixth. He won the Preakness.

“Everybody is always joking in my family, (wife) Jill is always saying, ‘They should just put you in the one hole and just draw the rest of the race,'” Baffert said. “I had a feeling I was due for the one.”

Jockey Mike Smith will need to use Justify’s speed to get him away from the starting gate before the rest of the field comes over on him along the rail.

“It’s all you can hope for,” Baffert said. “He is on the inside, so he can sort of dictate what’s going to go, what’s happening.”

Wearing a Mets jersey with his name on the back, Baffert tossed out a ceremonial first pitch at Citi Field before the Mets hosted the Orioles. His throw from in front of the mound was high to infielder Luis Guillorme, who rose up to catch it.

Justify and Bravazo, trained by Lukas, are the only two horses that will have run in all three Triple Crown races. Bravazo was sixth in the Derby and came running late to finish a half-length behind Justify in the Preakness.

“One of these horses or two maybe has to run a little bit better than you would expect them to, mine included (to win),” Lukas said.

Baffert has another horse in the race: Restoring Hope, the third-place finisher in the Wood Memorial. Smith rode him in his last race on the Derby undercard, but will be replaced by Florent Geroux on Saturday.

Gronkowski is a 12-1 long shot, no doubt attractive odds for his part-owner Rob Gronkowski, the New England Patriots tight end. He and teammate Tom Brady have wagered together at the Derby in past years.

The Britain-based colt is a newcomer to the Triple Crown trail. He got sick and missed the Derby and has been waiting to make his U.S. debut in the grueling Belmont.

The field for the 150th Belmont in post position order with jockeys and odds: Justify, Smith, 4-5; Free Drop Billy, Robby Albarado, 30-1; Bravazo, Luis Saez, 8-1; Hofburg, Irad Ortiz Jr., 9-2; Restoring Hope, Geroux, 30-1; Gronkowski, Jose Ortiz, 12-1; Tenfold, Ricardo Santana Jr., 12-1; Vino Rosso, John Velazquez, 8-1; Noble Indy, Javier Castellano, 30-1; Blended Citizen, Kyle Frey, 15-1.

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For more Belmont coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/Horseracing

2018 Belmont Stakes: Belmont distance, fatigue test Justify in Triple Crown bid

BALTIMORE (AP) — Justify keeps showing something new each time he races.

In the Kentucky Derby, he showed he could run in the mud in a crowded, 20-horse field. In the Preakness, he showed he could withstand the challenge of a top rival pressing him early and hold off others before the finish line — also in the mud.

For his next trick, he’ll need to show he can endure the grueling 1½-mile Belmont in New York on June 9. And it he does that, Justify will become horse racing the second Triple Crown winner in four years.

“If you’re a superior horse, you can do it,” trainer Bob Baffert said Sunday. “I’ve seen horses go a mile and a half and they never won again. It’s a weird, quirky race, but I don’t see why though he wouldn’t handle it.”

Had the Preakness been another tenth of a mile, a hard-charging Bravazo might’ve passed Justify and ended the Triple Crown bid on Saturday. Bravazo will go to the Belmont where Justify will have plenty of familiar challenges — and a fresh ones — standing in the way of becoming the 13th horse to win the Triple Crown.

In addition to Bravazo, Kentucky Derby horses Hofburg, Vino Rosso and Free Drop Billy and Preakness horse Tenfold are among those likely to challenge Justify in what’s considered the most difficult race on the Triple Crown trail.

Bravazo is “a tough little horse, and I think his pedigree will let him run that far,” trainer D. Wayne Lukas said. “So, we’ll take him on and see what happens.”

Justify’s run in the Kentucky Derby was convincing enough to scare off a few opposing owners and trainers from the Preakness. Given the fatigue of difficult races two weeks apart, they could see Justify as beatable at the Belmont.

Baffert, who had three near-misses with Silver Charm, Real Quiet and War Emblem before American Pharoah broke the 37-year Triple Crown drought in 2015, said Justify is built to power through the fatigue caused by running on the slop twice against high-caliber competition.

“You do hate to keep running on these wet tracks because it does take a little bit out of them,” Baffert said before Justify flew back to Louisville, Kentucky, for some rest and more training. “It can be tough. It’s not as tough on him because he’s a big horse. He can handle it. He was blowing pretty good, he got a good blow out of (the Preakness), but he wasn’t as tired as we thought he was.”

As gassed as Justify looked at the wire in the Preakness , jockey Mike Smith is convinced the undefeated colt could have run longer and picked up the pace if asked. Finishing a half-length ahead of Bravazo made it by far Justify’s closest victory of his five, but it counts just the same.

“Although he got tired (Saturday), he was also looking around a bit at the end,” Smith said. “I certainly could have got after him a whole lot more a lot earlier and made him do a little more, as well.”

Justify has already done more than expected, a bit of a late bloomer who doesn’t have the pedigree of someone like American Pharoah. Baffert went into the year thinking McKinzie gave him a better chance and on Friday recalled thinking of Justify, “The backup horse is pretty good, too.”

Now all eyes are on Justify, who might have one major factor in his favor. His owners and Baffert have connections to Audible, My Boy Jack and Solomini, who ultimately might not be entered in the Belmont because they could threaten Justify’s chances of finishing off the Triple Crown.

Baffert is unsure whether to bring Solomini back from the Derby, though it wouldn’t make much sense to put him in Justify’s way. Baffert is sure about Justify, who looked healthy and that a bruised heel was not an issue in an impressive showing in the mud and fog at the Preakness.

“I’m feeling pretty in awe of the horse,” Baffert said. “I don’t see why not go to the Belmont, as long as he stays like this. He looks good.”

Twelve out of the last 13 times the horse who won the Derby and Preakness lost the Belmont. It’s certainly the test of a champion for a reason, and co-owner Elliott Walden is hoping for the best with three weeks of hype ahead.

“Those things tend to happen the way they’re supposed to happen,” Walden said. “If Justify is meant to do it, it’ll happen. And if not, it just won’t.”

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