NEW YORK – The 2017 Built Ford Tough Series kicks off Friday night at Madison Square Garden, meaning the race for the 2017 World Championship will officially be underway in full force.
PBR.com takes a look at eight storylines to watch for in 2017:
Will Cooper Davis repeat?
Only once in the PBR’s previous 23 seasons has there been a back-to-back World Champion (Silvano Alves – 2011 & ‘12).
The majority of PBR insiders have placed 2016 World Champion Cooper Davis with two-time World Champion J.B. Mauney and 2015 Rookie of the Year Kaique Pacheco as the early-season favorites to win the 2017 world title.
So how will Davis handle his first-ever run as reigning World Champion?
Davis will have heightened media responsibilities, interview requests and a whole locker room chasing the gold buckle he has on his waist.
“He will handle it well,” two-time World Champion Justin McBride said. “I don’t think he will get caught up in talking about last year. It will be interesting to see.”
Following a grueling physical and mental grind for the 2016 title, does he have it in him for another?
“When they want it so bad, and they finally get it, sometimes it is a sigh of relief and they slack off on how hard they worked to get it,” PBR Director of Livestock Cody Lambert said. “Cooper had to work just as hard as anybody. I don’t know how he will respond.”
Nine-time World Champion Ty Murray added, “I don’t know why not. He will have a couple of guys breathing down his neck. At this point, I don’t have a reason to say why not. It seems like Cooper is really making strides. It will be interesting to see if he keeps it rolling.”
Does J.B. Mauney make more history in 2017?
Mauney nearly won a record-tying third gold buckle last season before slapping Stone Sober in the Built Ford Tough Championship Round at the 2016 Built Ford Tough World Finals.
The soon-to-be 30-year-old begins 2017 as the richest bull rider in PBR history and is 23 rides away from becoming the third rider to record 500 rides on the illustrious Built Ford Tough Series.
Not only will Mauney, who is averaging just under 40 rides (39.75) per season, likely reach the mark this year, but he also may pass two-time World Champion Justin McBride for second on the all-time 90-point rides list.
If Mauney has a monster season like he is capable of, the Mooresville, North Carolina, cowboy also could potentially break McBride’s all-time win record. Mauney has 30 wins compared to McBride’s 32.
McBride said it is amazing that in Mauney’s 12th season he is still likely the best rank bull rider in the business.
“At this point, I am curious to see how long he can be the best rank bull rider that there is because he has been the best for a long time,” McBride said. “He is still the best. When you are talking about the Top 10 bulls in the world, who do you give the best chance to ride them? The answer is still J.B. Mauney, which is still pretty amazing. I always put him in (the title race) because of that.”
Lambert said Mauney will be the guy to beat in 2017.
“I think he is definitely the guy to beat, still,” Lambert said. “But there will be a time when he won’t be. It could be this year or it could be three or four years down the road. There is a time in every athlete’s career that his skill set diminishes. His skills go away and they don’t come back for anyone.”
J.W. Hart added, “The pink elephant in the room has to be J.B. He is the one that tangles everybody. If J.B. comes with gritted teeth, and is relatively healthy through the year, and he wants another world title, he would probably have to be the favorite.”
Can SweetPro’s Bruiser repeat? World Champion Bull race changes
The PBR Executive Competition Committee made changes to the World Champion Bull race last month.
The World Champion will be determined based on the Top 8 outs during PBR Built Ford Tough Series regular-season events plus two outs at the PBR World Finals. The bull with the highest average bull score across those 10 outs will be crowned the PBR WCBB and earn the $100,000 WCBB bonus."
The World Champion Bull title will now mathematically count regular-season performance across the Built Ford Tough Series.
Regardless of the changes, Lambert said SweetPro’s Bruiser begins the season as a top favorite.
Bruiser could become the fourth back-to-back World Champion Bull.
“He is going for another PBR title,” Lambert said. “He can wind up as one of the most decorated bulls in PBR history with all of the money he has won in the ABBI. He was the top bull at the NFR last year and he crossed over into rodeo and should have been the PRCA champion.”
A lot of eyes will also be on Jared Allen’s Air Time in 2017. How does the bull respond after back-to-back collapses at the World Finals? Will 2017 be the year he finally wins the title? Will this year be the end of his streak of 24 consecutive buckoffs?
“Air Time should be considered,” Lambert said. “He is on the backside of his career. I think he will be rode again. It will be by J.B. Mauney because he is the most likely to pick him.”
Can Pacheco be more than a bridesmaid?
Pacheco led the PBR with 52 qualified rides and 98 attempts. He became just the fourth rider to surpass the 50-ride mark in the last six years and his 53.06 riding percentage was the second-best in the organization and a career-high.
However, for the second year in a row Pacheco finished second in the world standings.
“He may be the new Guilherme (Marchi),” Hart said. “Bridesmaid two years in a row. Will he cement himself this year?”
Marchi finished second in the world standings three consecutive years before winning the 2008 title.
“I don’t know if this is much of a secret, but I am still very interested to see what Kaique does,” Murray said.
McBride called Pacheco the favorite.
“Pacheco is probably the front runner,” McBride said. “I would put the target on his back. He is going to come out of the gate just like he left – riding awesome. He is going to be the guy to beat.”
Marchi’s pursuit of 600 & and a second gold buckle
2008 World Champion Guilherme Marchi capped off 2016 with a ferocious finish, riding 12 of his final 13 bulls in route to a sixth-place finish in the world standings.
Marchi, who concluded 2016 with 33 qualified rides, begins 2017 19 rides away from becoming the first rider to record 600 rides on the BFTS, but that is second on his list of New Year’s resolutions.
RELATED: Marchi ready for 2017
The 34-year-old desperately wants to win a second gold buckle. Only five riders have won multiple PBR world titles in the PBR’s 24-year history.
Marchi has finished in the Top 10 of the world standings in 11 of his 13 seasons.
Three-time World Champion Adriano Moraes won his third gold buckle at 36 years old.
Murray joked that he would have bet his left leg that Moraes would have not have won that third gold buckle back in 2006.
So will Marchi win his second at 35 years old and in his 14th season?
“When you talk about a long career, that dude has done it at the highest level on the rankest bulls,” Murray said. “His entire career has taken place at that level. It is going to get harder and harder for Guilherme. Like I always say, Father Time is undefeated. That is not a knock on Guilherme. That is just a fact of the world. Every year it is going to be harder for him. I don’t look for him to be a contender, but I look for him to still have great moments in him.”
Will Jess Lockwood become the second rider in PBR history to follow Rookie of the Year with a world title?
2016 Rookie of the Year Jess Lockwood got on a practice bull this week at Lambert’s ranch in Bowie, Texas, in preparation for 2017.
Lockwood is looking to erase a terrible World Finals where he went 0-for-5 and struggled with an injury to his riding hand.
“He didn’t look good last couple of events of the year and the Finals,” J.W. Hart said. “We have seen guys come in and look good and we see them on a hot streak and they never find that hot streak again. I don’t think this is that, but we have seen it.”
Silvano Alves is the only Rookie of the Year to win the world title in his second season.
Lockwood said he is feeling better and is excited for his first full season on the BFTS a year after finishing eighth in the world standings.
The practice bull Lockwood got on was Hart’s.
“He rode him, but he didn’t just chew him up. He didn’t get off on his will. The bull bucked him off, but it was after 8 seconds. So the bull that he rode yesterday won’t see a BFTS this year. Lockwood has to straighten out and do some thinking to get back into winning shape.”
Dark horse World Champion contenders?
Hart and McBride believe Lockwood is a dark horse world title contender.
“Lockwood is my sleeper,” McBride said. “I think we have seen a little bit of what he is capable of, but we also saw the struggles of a rookie. I think he has some hurdles to overcome. I think he will be a Top-8 guy regardless. He is good enough. To see him get past some of those rookie mistakes and really be a world contender. To be in there with Pacheco and Mauney and stuff, that has yet to be seen.”
Outside of Lockwood, another name that kept coming up in pre-season conversations was 2016 World Finals event winner Ryan Dirteater, who finished a career-best fourth in the world standings.
Dirteater is one of the biggest unknowns heading into 2017. Most experts believe Dirteater may be able to evolve into a world title contender this year if the same Ryan Dirteater that won the World Finals shows up.
RELATED: Dirteater cherishes record year
“Dirteater has seemed to turn a corner to me," Hart said. "He is my dark horse. When he come on tour he was one of the special ones. You could just see he was that good. Then he spent a couple of years getting hurt. I think his heart and his effort took a bad turn and I don’t think he had that second and third effort. If he got ito a bind he would take the easy way out. This year has kind of been a turning point. He has made the whistle a few times on some good bulls and won a few events.”
Dark horse World Champion Bull Contenders?
In terms of the World Champion Bull race, Hart and McBride offered up two sleepers in Hey Jack and Seven Dust.
Seven Dust was 16-1 with an average bull score of 43.94 points.
“Seven Dust is going to be the bull,” McBride said. “He is the whole package. He is starting to get some respect. I thought he was the best bull at the Finals. It is good for the contractor though because he scares some of them riders. A lot of them don’t want no part of him.”
Hey Jack went 9-0 with an average bull score of 44.5 points last season. The riders voted him into the Finals as a World Champion Bull Contender.
“For some reason, he would be my dark horse to get in there,” Hart said. “That son of a gun bucks. We have to see if he can stay consistent. This will be his first full year on tour.”
Follow Justin Felisko on Twitter @jfelisko
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