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Updated: Thu, 17 Oct 2013 04:16:56 EST

FALCONS-SMITH'S CHALLENGE Ryan says Falcons leaning on even-keeled Smith FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. (AP) — Mike Smith is facing the biggest challenge of his six seasons as the Falcons' coach. Smith lost back-to-back regular-season games in only one of his first five seasons — in 2009 — and never lost more than two straight. Now the Falcons, who play Tampa Bay on Sunday, have lost three straight for the first time with Smith. The Falcons are 1-4 one year after playing in the NFC championship game. Injuries to key players have added significant difficulty to Smith's efforts to save the season. Wide receiver Julio Jones had surgery on Monday for his season-ending foot injury. Running back Steven Jackson, receiver Roddy White and left tackle Sam Baker did not participate in Wednesday's practice. Linebacker Akeem Dent and tight end Chase Coffman also were held out. Matt Ryan and other players say it has been important to see Smith's demeanor remain steady during the crisis. NASCAR-FRONT ROW-2014 Ragan and Gilliland returning to Front Row in 2014 CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Front Row Motorsports will bring back drivers David Gilliland and David Ragan in 2014. Gilliland will be back for a fifth season with Front Row, and Ragan will be returning for his third year with the team. Ragan earned Front Row its first victory in May at Talladega, where he and Gilliland used a dramatic last-lap dash to the checkered flag to sweep the front row. Ragan is currently ranked 26th in the Sprint Cup standings and Gilliland is 29th, and it's the highest in the championship standings Front Row has been in its five years of full-time competition. Ragan will again drive the No. 34 next season and Gilliland will drive the No. 38. ACC MEDIA DAY Duke named preseason favorite in new-look ACC CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Duke is the favorite to win the expanded Atlantic Coast Conference, though new member Syracuse has the preseason player of the year in C.J. Fair. The Blue Devils earned 50 of 54 first-place votes from media members at the league's "ACC Operation Basketball media day Wednesday. Syracuse — which joins the ACC along with Pittsburgh and Notre Dame from the reconfigured Big East — was picked second, while North Carolina was picked third. Virginia was picked fourth, followed by Notre Dame, Pittsburgh, Maryland, Boston College, Florida State, North Carolina State, Georgia Tech, reigning champion Miami, Wake Forest, Clemson and Virginia Tech. In addition, Duke freshman Jabari Parker was picked as preseason rookie of the year. This will be Maryland's final year in the league before leaving for the Big Ten. ACC-OPPORTUNITY KNOCKING ACC on the big stage, hopes to build on spotlight CLEMSON, S.C. (AP) — This is a big week for Atlantic Coast Conference football and league members from top to bottom hope to benefit. The league that's taken its share of shots for playing shoddy football has three undefeated top-team teams being showcased: No. 10 Miami (6-0) plays at North Carolina on national television Thursday night; No. 5 Florida State (5-0) is at No. 3 Clemson (6-0) in Saturday night's prime-time matchup. The ACC hasn't had three programs ranked in the top-10 since October 2005. Throw in No. 19 Virginia Tech and it's the third straight week four ACC teams are in the Top 25. The benefits for those schools are obvious. Other members fighting to get to the top believe they also can take advantage of the bright lights shining on the league. SEC-MEDIA DAY SEC trying to rebound from poor NCAA showing BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) — The football powerhouse Southeastern Conference is trying to reclaim that status in hoops. A year after the SEC had only three NCAA tournament teams, Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings says "don"t be surprised if this year is dramatically, dramatically different." Stallings said at media days Wednesday he believes six or seven teams could make the NCAA field. Missouri's Frank Haith expects at least five SEC teams to get into the NCAA. Regaining that kind of March presence has been the focal point league-wide since only Florida survived the tournament's first weekend. That includes strengthening nonconference schedules. Even perennial power Kentucky had to settle for the NIT, and was one and done there. Wildcats coach John Calipari has his team again the preseason SEC favorite with a prized recruiting class. SEC PREDICTIONS Kentucky media's pick to win SEC hoops title BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) — Kentucky is picked to win the Southeastern Conference men's basketball title. The Wildcats received 21 first-place votes while Florida got five and Tennessee one in balloting released Wednesday at SEC media days. SEC and national media members voted. Kentucky is the preseason favorite for the ninth time since the 1998-99 season. Wildcats freshman Julius Randle was chosen preseason player of the year with 11 votes. Six other players received at least one vote, led by Tennessee's Jordan McRae with five. Randle and McRae are joined on the All-SEC first team by LSU's Johnny O'Bryant III, Mississippi's Marshall Henderson and Alabama's Trevor Releford. Randle headlines coach John Calipari's eight-member signing class. The Wildcats return 7-footer Willie Cauley-Stein and forward Alex Poythress.

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