NCF Nation: Cincinnati Bearcats

ACC viewer's guide: Week 7

October, 10, 2014
Oct 10
10:00
AM ET
We're almost at the halfway point of the season. Here is your viewing guide for all of Saturday's ACC action.

Noon

No. 1 Florida State at Syracuse, ESPN, #FSUvsCUSE: This matchup is ... shall we say, not favorable for Syracuse? The Orange fell in Tallahassee, Florida, last year, 59-3, and they enter this game without quarterback Terrel Hunt, who is out 4-6 weeks with a broken fibula. They also enter the contest with a new offensive coordinator in Tim Lester, as head coach Scott Shafer stripped George McDonald of his duties this week, creating another series of drama. The Seminoles could be without several key pieces, and they could get caught looking ahead to next week's showdown with Notre Dame, but it probably won't matter.

Cincinnati at Miami, ESPN3, #CINvsMIA: Tommy Tuberville returns to the place where he won three national titles as an assistant, but he needs his defense to get up to speed after consecutive poor showings. He might also need to call upon familiar face Munchie Legaux, too, as Gunner Kiel is nursing a chest injury. The Hurricanes' offense should have a big game here, but the real question is if its defense can forget about last week's performance against Georgia Tech and look more like the unit that held Duke to 10 points two weeks ago.

12:30 p.m.

[+] EnlargePaul Johnson
Joshua S. Kelly/USA TODAY SportsPaul Johnson and Duke coach David Cutcliffe have been sniping at each other in the media in the lead-up to Saturday's Coastal Division matchup.
Duke at No. 22 Georgia Tech, #DUKEvsGT: Duke coach David Cutcliffe doesn't understand why a talented receiver would look at Georgia Tech. Paul Johnson thinks Cutcliffe should worry about his own team, which is coming off a bye, has dropped 10 straight to the Yellow Jackets, and has not won in Atlanta in 20 years. Sure, the talk leading up to this one has been fun, but the on-field implications are big: The Blue Devils are the reigning Coastal champions and looking for their first league win of the season; the Yellow Jackets are in the driver's seat in the division after a 5-0 start.

3:30 p.m.

Louisville at Clemson, ESPNU, #LOUvsCLEM: Honesty week has sure been fun in this league, huh? There was the Cutcliffe-Johnson back and forth that we mentioned above, and there was Cardinals coach Bobby Petrino comparing the noise of Death Valley to that of the Carrier Dome, where Louisville won last week by 22. Clemson fans did not take kindly to this, however unintentional the comments might have been. If the Tigers fans deliver on their "Silent Out," well, Petrino would technically be right, no? In any event, the defensive matchup should be fun to watch in this one, as both units have been flat-out salty in recent weeks. Louisville could get a much-needed boost offensively as well if DeVante Parker returns.

Boston College at NC State, ESPN3, #BCvsNCSU: Somewhere, Will Muschamp and Gators fans everywhere weep. As Florida goes through even more quarterback turmoil this week, a pair of former Gainesville signal-callers meet up in Raleigh, as the Eagles' Tyler Murphy takes on the Wolfpack's Jacoby Brissett. Murphy orchestrated a huge upset of USC last month but is coming off a loss to Colorado State and a bye, while Brissett got his name on the national radar with a strong performance against FSU before getting shut out at Clemson last week. We won't exactly call this a "must-win" for either team, but a loss will not bode well -- especially for NC State, which, for all of its early-season excitement, has yet to win an ACC game in the two-year Dave Doeren era.

North Carolina at No. 6 Notre Dame, NBC: Everett Golson might find just the perfect opponent to help rid himself of a recent two-game rut and gain some momentum heading into next week's game at FSU. The fringe Heisman candidate is facing a UNC defense that has given up 51.3 points per game over its past three contests and is desperate for answers. Golson, remember, almost went to UNC, where he would've tried to play football and basketball. The Tar Heels boast plenty of athleticism, especially on offense, and it will be interesting to see if they can crack the code of one of the country's more surprising units of the first half: the Fighting Irish defense, which has overcome massive turnover and a coordinator change to tie for third nationally in scoring average (12 PPG).
Setting up the spring in the American Athletic Conference:

CINCINNATI

Spring start: Feb. 27

Spring game: April 5

What to watch:
  • Gunner Kiel: Attention has followed the former high school sensation for years, from Indiana to LSU to Notre Dame and now to Cincinnati. He enters his redshirt sophomore season having never taken a college snap. With sixth-year senior Munchie Legaux still recovering from last year's leg injury, the show is Kiel's to run this spring.
  • Hank Hughes' defense: The former Cincinnati defensive coordinator returns after coaching last season at UConn. There, he orchestrated a rushing defense that finished 23rd nationally despite a 3-9 campaign. He will keep a 4-3 base but loses three all-conference performers from last season: Greg Blair, Jordan Stepp and Deven Drane.
  • RDA IV: Ralph David Abernathy IV has been a playmaker out of the backfield for the Bearcats in recent seasons, but he has moved to the slot this spring. He will probably still line up in the backfield at times, but seeing what the 5-foot-7, 161-pounder can do in space is definitely worth keeping an eye on, especially if the man throwing him the ball, Kiel, lives up to the hype at quarterback.
EAST CAROLINA

Spring start: March 21

Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Carden's ascent: Shane Carden could be a dark-horse Heisman Trophy candidate in 2014. He enters his fifth year in the program coming off a season in which he completed better than 70 percent of his throws for more than 4,000 yards, totaling 43 combined touchdowns between passing and rushing. Similar numbers in a new league will get him much more attention.
  • Replacing Jeremy Grove: The redshirt senior linebacker recently announced that he was hanging up his cleats after several shoulder injuries. The former freshman All-American led the Pirates in tackles for two years running before being limited last season. Expect bigger roles for Zeek Bigger and Brandon Williams, who together last season totaled 10 tackles for loss and three forced turnovers.
  • Filling the backfield void: East Carolina says goodbye to Vintavious Cooper, who turned in consecutive 1,000-yard seasons. While signee Anthony Scott looks like a player who could contribute right away upon his summer arrival, the burden for now falls on the shoulders of three backs who totaled 548 yards on the ground last season.
HOUSTON

Spring start: March 3

Spring game: April 11

What to watch:
  • O'Korn looks to take next step: John O'Korn started 11 games last season at quarterback, proving to be efficient through the air and on the ground while taking the Cougars to a bowl game in their first season in the American. Now he's running an offense that, including him, returns eight starters. He set the bar pretty high as league rookie of the year, but incremental improvement could mean big things for Houston in 2014.
  • CB battles: Zach McMillian and Thomas Bates have graduated, taking their combined 10 forced turnovers from last season out the door with them. Two transfers could find themselves in the mix, as Lee Hightower (Boise State) and Tyler White (Utah) look to battle for starting spots on a defense seeking help in the secondary.
  • Trevon Randle: The former LSU linebacker and three-star recruit now finds himself in more of a pass-rushing role after sitting out the 2013 season for undisclosed reasons. The move is interesting for the 6-foot-2, 218-pound Randle, but the talent is certainly there for Randle to become a playmaker, wherever he ends up playing on the field.
MEMPHIS

Spring start: March 2

Spring game: April 11

What to watch:
  • Paxton Lynch's growth: Lynch made a name for himself by unseating Jacob Karam as the starting quarterback during fall camp last season. He followed with an up-and-down season for the 3-9 Tigers, showing flashes of playmaking ability and a penchant for turning it over. He is now the hunted, not the hunter, with redshirt freshman Brayden Scott now in the role Lynch played last season in hoping to steal the No. 1 job.
  • Hayes' return: The biggest coup of the offseason was the NCAA granting Brandon Hayes a sixth year of eligibility. The former walk-on was the team's MVP and leading rusher last season, and he will help take plenty of pressure off of whoever emerges as the starting quarterback.
  • Defensive growth: The Tigers were ranked 39th last season in total defense, and eight starters return. The unit gave the offense chances to win last season against league heavyweights Louisville and UCF before falling by a 24-17 margin in both games, and the Tigers welcome two new coaches in Ricky Hunley (line) and Ryan Walters (corners).
SMU

Spring start: March 4

Spring game: April 5 (no spring game)

What to watch:
  • Replacing Gilbert: SMU opened practice Tuesday with five men in the mix to become its starting quarterback, with Neal Burcham carrying the front-runner status after starting the final two games last season in place of Garrett Gilbert (knee), who totaled nearly 3,800 yards rushing and passing last season, accounting for 27 scores.
  • Receiver depth: The Mustangs are relatively thin at the position following the graduation of two of its top three receivers from last season, as Jeremy Johnson and Keenan Holman each tallied more than 1,000 yards in 2013. Deion Sanders Jr., meanwhile, will miss spring practice because of a shoulder injury.
  • The next Acker: Cornerback Kenneth Acker starred with the Mustangs, earning second-team all-conference distinction after finishing second in the league in passes defended (16) and tallying a team-best three interceptions on the season. Jay Scott, who forced three turnovers himself last season, is also gone. Talented safety Shakiel Randolph could see his role increased after showing plenty of promise in his first two seasons, including a 37-tackle campaign last season.
TEMPLE

Spring start: March 24

Spring game: April 26

What to watch:
  • Receiver help: Temple will open spring practice without Robbie Anderson, the Owls' top receiver from last season, who is no longer with the team. Both Anderson and the graduated Ryan Alderman combined for more than 1,300 yards last season, so the pressure will be on Jalen Fitzpatrick and John Christopher to carry bigger workloads going into 2014. They'll have a familiar Philly face coaching them, with former QB Adam DiMichele now the Owls' receivers coach.
  • Aerial attack: One silver lining from a 2-10 campaign last season? P.J. Walker, who rebounded after losing the preseason quarterback battle and ended up starting the season's final seven games, threw for 2,084 yards. He was part of a group that passed for the most yards ever (2,996) by a Temple team, a promising sign moving forward for the second-year player (and his second-year coach, Matt Rhule).
  • Tyler Matakevich: The kid just keeps on getting better, as the linebacker followed up his impressive rookie season by tallying 137 total tackles — including 11.5 for loss — picking off one pass, recovering two fumbles and forcing three more. He wears a single-digit jersey, No. 8, to signify his toughness, and he is a great central piece for the defense to build around. Temple was ranked 109th overall in yards allowed last season.
TULANE

Spring start: Feb. 7

Spring game: Feb. 26 (no spring game)

What to watch:
  • Injuries: The situation is a little different here with Tulane, which is already finished with its spring season, allowing us to instead look back. And the Green Wave even ended up finishing earlier than anticipated, as coach Curtis Johnson ended it after Feb. 26, cutting the final two practices because of injuries. Among the walking wounded throughout last month: Linebacker Nico Marley, running back Sherman Badie and linebackers Sergio Medina and Edward Williams, who both missed all of spring because of pre-existing injuries.
  • QB battle: Tanner Lee is seemingly the front-runner to start in 2014 after redshirting as a freshman this past fall. A local prospect from Jesuit High, he passed for nearly 4,000 yards in high school while tallying 39 touchdowns and just nine interceptions, and he received a much heavier workload this spring after the Green Wave struggled with consistency in the passing game in 2013.
  • Filling the backfield void: Orleans Darkwa is gone after totaling 920 yards and 12 touchdowns last season. Tulane might be turning to another redshirt freshman, with Badie getting plenty of attention this spring before suffering a concussion down the stretch. Senior Rob Kelley (420 yards in 2013) and three other backfield contributors from last season return to give this unit a bit of depth.
TULSA

Spring start: March 11

Spring game: April 19

What to watch:
  • Defensive stability: No one in the program is happy following a 3-9 campaign last fall, but the Golden Hurricane bring back plenty of experience from last season as they move into Year 1 in the American. Ten starters are back on defense. Despite finishing just 102nd in yards allowed last season, that gives the program a nice foundation as it welcomes in a tougher slate of opponents.
  • Josh Blankenship and the offense: Head coach Bill Blankenship's newest hire is his son, Josh, who was brought in to coach quarterbacks and rework an offense that finished 100th overall last season. The former Muskogee High head coach is part of a restructured offensive staff after coordinator Greg Peterson left the program and Bill Blankenship gave up coaching the QBs.
  • Backfield holes: Trey Watts and Ja'Terian Douglas are gone after totaling nearly 1,700 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns last season. Reinforcements are on the way in three running back signees from this recruiting cycle, with one of them, juco transfer Tavarreon Dickerson, enrolling early and looking to make an impact after averaging 8.5 yards per carry last season at Trinity Valley.
UCF

Spring start: March 12

Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Like after Bortles: Blake Bortles will be examined and re-examined in the public eye daily before the NFL draft, and his replacement back at UCF has some major shoes to fill. His backup last season, Justin Holman, is the most experienced of a three-man group that includes early enrollee and former SMU commit Tyler Harris.
  • Replacing Storm Johnson: Johnson is gone after rushing for 1,139 yards and 14 touchdowns last season, and Will Stanback will likely have to prepare for a much bigger role in his sophomore year after getting 105 carries in his rookie campaign of 2013. There are plenty of other bodies back there, but none managed the workload Stanback carried last season as a freshman.
  • Offensive line depth: Brent Key is now the assistant head coach of the offense, and he will serve as offensive line coach as well. The spring will be very important in helping to sort out the chaos up front, and one player worth keeping an eye will be Chester Brown, who saw limited action last season after switching from the defensive line in fall camp.
UCONN

Spring start: March 10

Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • New leader: Bob Diaco had an introductory news conference like few others. The former Notre Dame defensive coordinator is filled with energy, and he certainly brings a new approach atop the program following the Paul Pasqualoni and Randy Edsall eras. He already has made some cosmetic changes in the training facility, but bringing immediate change on the field is a bigger challenge in 2014.
  • Casey Cochran. The Huskies won their final three games last season, putting up 28 or more points in all three contests. Cochran passed for a school-record 461 yards in the finale, and seeing how he and the rest of the quarterbacks develop under this new staff will go a long way toward determining what UConn can do next season.
  • Defensive replenishments. For all of their struggles in recent years, the Huskies haven't lacked for talent or effort on the defensive side of the ball. That shouldn't change under Diaco, who won the Broyles Award as the nation's top assistant coach as Notre Dame's defensive coordinator in 2012. But replacing standouts such as Shamar Stephen and Yawin Smallwood won't be easy.
USF

Spring start: Feb. 26

Spring game: March 29

What to watch:
  • QB battle: Penn State transfer Steven Bench was named the starter at midseason in 2013, but he found himself behind freshman Mike White after an injury. Both quarterbacks turned the ball over way too much last season, and increased production from that position is crucial if Willie Taggart wants to get this program turned around in his second season as head coach.
  • Running backs: The battle to replace Marcus Shaw is on after his 765-yard season in 2013. Mike Pierre, Willie Davis and Darius Tice are the men being counted on now in the backfield, but no player from that trio carried the ball more than 41 times or topped 141 rushing yards for the season.
  • Jamie Byrd: Byrd enrolled at USF this January following a stint at Iowa Western Community College, and he has two years of eligibility remaining. He had 53 tackles, two interceptions, seven passes defended and a fumble recovery last season, and the hard-hitting speedster could make an early impact with the Bulls in the secondary.

American spring preview

March, 5, 2014
Mar 5
9:00
AM ET
Another year, another set of fresh faces.

And, of course, new challenges, as well.

This is life now in the American Athletic Conference, which won’t complete its makeover complete until next season, when Navy joins the fold as a football-only member.

For now, it watches two others walk out the door while welcoming three new programs into the fold.

Goodbye, Louisville and Rutgers. Hello, East Carolina, Tulane and Tulsa.

And, if last season is any indication, the newcomers may not be second-class citizens upon their arrivals.

"There's enough talent around the country that creates a little bit more parity than people are talking about now," said East Carolina coach Ruffin McNeil. "I know they're trying to talk about these conferences and those conferences. Well, I've been to those conferences, and there's good football players in each league. And I feel we're ready to compete with anyone. I'm not afraid to say that, and I know other coaches in the league are not, either."

That became evident through UCF's historic campaign in the remodeled league's debut last season, with the Knights going 12-1 and topping Baylor in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl. These, of course, were the same Knights that lost twice to Tulsa a year earlier, and the Golden Hurricane now enter the American coming off a disappointing 3-9 season last fall.

That is all encouraging from one perspective. But the optimist's approach shows a similar surprising run could be on the horizon in 2014.

"East Carolina is going to have a huge advantage in our conference. I think they're going to be the next guys, to be honest, similar to UCF," said conference commissioner Mike Aresco.

"Everything's in place: They've got a Heisman candidate, they've got just some tremendous players and I think they're going to make a mark quickly because they've never had this kind of TV exposure. They've got a 50,000-seat stadium and they fill it up all the time. Their quarterback Shane Carden I think will be a Heisman candidate. I think they're the kind of team that will really benefit."

Among the old guard, UConn made a major move by hiring prized Notre Dame defensive coordinator Bob Diaco to head its program. Cincinnati has another year under Tommy Tuberville and could possibly start the most talked about quarterback to never take a college snap in Gunner Kiel.

The American begins life in the post-BCS era with no automatic entry to access bowls. It is a member of a group of five conferences from within which the top overall team will be granted a berth at the adults' postseason table.

It's not exactly ideal, but after enduring a year of turmoil and coming out on the other end with a BCS win and several probable high draft picks to its name, the league enters its next phase with a much more positive outlook.

Belk Bowl preview

December, 28, 2013
12/28/13
10:00
AM ET
New coach. Same result. Cincinnati hired Tommy Tuberville in the offseason to replace former coach Butch Jones, but the Bearcats are headed back to the Belk Bowl, where they will face North Carolina on Saturday (3:20 p.m. ET, ESPN).

Here’s a quick preview:

Who to watch: The best player on the field likely will be North Carolina tight end Eric Ebron. The Mackey Award finalist led the team with 55 catches for 895 yards. He already has announced that he will forgo his senior season and enter the 2014 NFL draft, where he’s projected to go in the first round. However, the most intriguing matchup is between the two “replacement” quarterbacks. Each took over at some point this season and led his team to a bowl game. For Cincinnati, Brendon Kay replaced injured Munchie Legaux in Week 2 and became only the fourth quarterback in program history to throw for more than 3,000 yards. The Tar Heels turned to Marquise Williams in early November when starter Bryn Renner suffered a season-ending shoulder injury. The dual-threat quarterback won four straight games under center before losing the regular-season finale to Duke.

What to watch: For the second straight year, Cincinnati will essentially play a road game when the team travels to Charlotte for the Belk Bowl. Last year, the Bearcats handled Duke, 48-34, but this year they will face a North Carolina team playing as well as anybody in the country right now. The Tar Heels have won five of their past six games and are just the sixth team since the regular season expanded to 12 games in 2006 to start 1-5 and still reach a bowl game. The question is how North Carolina’s up-tempo, spread-oriented offense will fare against a Cincinnati defense that comes in ninth in the nation in total defense, giving up 313.2 yards per game, and fifth against the run. For the Tar Heels, it should help that offensive coordinator Blake Anderson will still be on the sideline. The second-year assistant coach accepted a head-coaching position with Arkansas State earlier this month but will stay and coach the bowl game.

Why to watch: Although it’s a similar matchup to last year’s Belk Bowl and one that might not grab your attention, it should be an entertaining game. Both offenses have thrived with their new quarterbacks, and both are capable of making explosive plays at any time. It could very well turn into a shootout. There is also motivation on both sides. Cincinnati (9-3) is looking to win its third consecutive bowl game and reach 10 wins for the sixth time in the past seven seasons. Meanwhile, North Carolina is seeking its first bowl victory in its home state. The Tar Heels have lost three previous bowls played in Charlotte.

Prediction: North Carolina 31, Cincinnati 28

Belk Bowl

December, 8, 2013
12/08/13
9:45
PM ET

Cincinnati Bearcats (9-3) versus North Carolina Tar Heels (6-6)

Dec. 28, 3:20 p.m. ET, Charlotte, N.C. (ESPN)

CINCINNATI BEARCATS BREAKDOWN
Tommy Tuberville’s tenure as Cincinnati coach got off to a perplexing start. A season-opening 35-point rout of Big Ten bottom-feeder Purdue was followed by a 28-point loss at underwhelming Illinois. Even worse, the Bearcats lost their starting quarterback for the season that day, as Munchie Legaux suffered a gruesome knee injury.

[+] EnlargeBrendon Kay
AP Photo/Al BehrmanSixth-year senior quarterback Brendon Kay filled in again in 2013 and helped Cincinnati win six games in a row in the American.
A four-turnover performance at then-winless USF resulted in another surprising loss, leaving Cincinnati at 3-2 in early October. But the Bearcats hit a groove shortly thereafter, winning six in a row before an overtime home loss to rival Louisville in the regular-season finale.

The Bearcats once again were led down the stretch by quarterback Brendon Kay, just as they were late last season. A sixth-year senior, Kay replaced an ineffective Legaux late in the 2012 season and filled in for an injured Legaux this year. He threw for at least 299 yards in each of Cincinnati's final six games, including consecutive 400-yard performances heading into the Louisville game.

Cincinnati is 9-3, and a second consecutive berth in the Belk Bowl will give it a chance to clinch a double-digit win season under Tuberville. That would give the Bearcats their sixth 10-win season in the past seven. To put that into perspective, the program had never done that until 2007, under Brian Kelly. Tuberville would be the third coach to take Cincinnati to that plateau. -- Matt Fortuna

vs.
NORTH CAROLINA TAR HEELS BREAKDOWN
The Tar Heels had one of the most impressive turnarounds in college football, as they started out 1-5 then reeled off five straight wins to become bowl eligible. UNC became just the sixth team since the regular season expanded to 12 games in 2006 to start 1-5 and still make it to a bowl game.

[+] EnlargeEric Ebron
Bob Donnan/USA TODAY SportsCarolina likely would have to trade up in the first round of the NFL draft to have a shot at selecting Eric Ebron.
It was even more impressive considering starting quarterback Bryn Renner suffered a season-ending shoulder injury and had surgery Nov. 6. Despite the injury to Renner, backup Marquise Williams has proved to be a dependable option who is more than capable of winning, especially when he has an NFL-bound tight end to throw to in Eric Ebron, who has announced he will forgo his senior season to enter the draft.

Ebron finished the regular season with 55 catches for 895 yards, an ACC single-season record for receiving yards by a tight end. Williams has 1,058 total offense yards in the past three games, the most in any three-game stretch in school history.

UNC has also gotten a boost from its return game this year, as freshman Ryan Switzer tied the single-season ACC record with four punt return touchdowns. The Tar Heels couldn’t get it done against rival Duke, though, and lost to the Blue Devils for the second straight season. With 13 seconds left in the game, Williams was intercepted.

Fortunately for UNC, though, its bowl bid was secured a week earlier with an 80-20 win over Old Dominion. After missing the postseason in 2012 because the program was ineligible, North Carolina will embrace its return to a bowl game. -- Heather Dinich
Whenever Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater takes the field, it is tempting to say he is the player to watch -- -- almost by default.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Smith
Jim Owens/Icon SMILouisville's Marcus Smith leads the nation with 12.5 sacks.
But that may not be the case Thursday night in Cincinnati, when the No. 19 Cardinals take on the cross-state rival Bearcats in the final scheduled meeting between the two. The game could very well rest on both defenses, the top two groups in the American Athletic Conference and among the best units in the entire nation.

Louisville and Cincinnati rank in the top 10 in the nation in rush defense, total defense and scoring defense. The Cards lead the nation with 38 sacks, six more than Cincinnati (which ranks No. 16). Their ability to get after the quarterback starts with defensive end Marcus Smith, who is putting up an All-America-type season.

Smith leads the nation in sacks with 12.5, the most at the school since Elvis Dumervil had 20 in 2005. Teammate Lorenzo Mauldin has 9.5 sacks, making them the top sack duo in the entire nation. To understand how far both have come, just take a look back at where they were when they arrived at Louisville.

Mauldin was a project, a player who had severe trust issues after spending his childhood in and out of foster homes. At first, he was only used in obvious passing downs. But now, he has developed into a dependable every down player.

Smith entered as a 217-pound quarterback before moving to linebacker and then defensive end. But the transition was not easy for him to make.

“I had a confidence issue,” Smith said in a recent phone interview. “Even though the coaches told me, ‘You can be this; you can be that,’ I didn’t believe it within myself. It took maybe a year into it for me to realize how good I could be so I just took the coaching and I got my craft together.”

Smith has gained 40 pounds since he arrived at Louisville and spent this past spring working on his speed. The results have followed. Before the season started, he made a goal to get to 10 sacks. Now that he has pushed past that, and with one game left in the regular season, he wants 15.

All this brings up an interesting question. How he transform himself from a quarterback to a punishing defensive end?

“It’s hard to explain,” Smith said. “All you can do is listen to your coaches. I never would have thought I’d be playing defensive end. I asked my dad what should I do because I wasn’t getting any action at quarterback, and they asked me to play on defense because they felt I could help the team out. I wanted to help the team.

“I love going against the quarterback now. I know quarterback tendencies, so I help out our defensive linemen who haven’t been on that side of the ball and let them know what’s going on. I have a better feel for it.”


He’s grown up, and up he understands the type of football team and players around him. He’s fun to watch on film, but I’m not going to have fun watching him Thursday. He’s a complete player, and he’s going to make a name for himself one day.


--Cincinnati coach Tommy Tuberville, on Louisville QB Teddy Bridgewater

Cincinnati, meanwhile, went through some growing pains early in the season as the Bearcats made the transition to a new scheme under coach Tommy Tuberville. But Tuberville says his group has played much more consistently in the second half of the season as his players have gotten more comfortable with what they are being asked to do. More importantly, the Bearcats have been able to build depth.

They can go two-deep on the defensive line, linebacker and in the secondary, relying on younger players who have improved with each passing week.

Still, the challenge Thursday may be bigger for the Cincinnati defense, which has to try and shut down Bridgewater, who is putting up another terrific season outside the national spotlight.

“He’s grown up, and up he understands the type of football team and players around him,” Tuberville said in a recent phone interview. “He’s fun to watch on film, but I’m not going to have fun watching him Thursday. He’s a complete player, and he’s going to make a name for himself one day.”

The stakes are high in this game, the battle for the Keg of Nails. Cincinnati will hand out replicas of the trophy to the first 5,000 fans coming to the game at sold out Nippert Stadium, where the Bearcats are undefeated this season.

They also hold out slim hope for a BCS berth. The Bearcats would need to win, have UCF lose to SMU on Saturday and then finished as the highest ranked BCS team when the final standings are released on Sunday.

“We know we’ve dug ourselves a hole, but this is a rivalry game. You want to have bragging rights,” Tuberville said. “This I about the Keg of Nails.”

Future American Power Rankings

June, 21, 2013
6/21/13
9:39
AM ET
You've seen the college football future power rankings. Let's take that to another level here, using the eye test to look at how this conference is set up in the years to come.

1) Cincinnati. With at least a share of four of the past five conference titles, and with a proven coach in Tommy Tuberville aboard, the Bearcats are the class of the conference.

2) UCF. The most ready-made of the conference newcomers this fall, the Knights have the ideal talent, recruiting tools and coaching to compete for the conference crown year-in and year-out moving forward.

3) USF. Like rival UCF, USF is ideally located to land top talent. The Bulls have had that talent in recent years, but the hope is that new coach Willie Taggart can make the most of it and thrive back on the recruiting trail in Tampa, Fla.

4) Tulsa. Three straight eight-plus win seasons show that this program is on the rise, as the Golden Hurricane, much like UCF, look ready to compete with the league's elite upon their arrival.

5) UConn. The last of the "old guard" of the old Big East is in need of a turnaround following consecutive 5-7 seasons under Paul Pasqualoni. A Fiesta Bowl appearance in 2010 and five draft picks this past April show that there is potential here.

6) SMU. June Jones and Hal Mumme together will be a fascinating experiment to watch this year. But with their history and an always-strong nonconference slate, the Mustangs can put themselves in position to be a conference contender only if the breaks fall their way.

7) Navy. The Midshipmen won't be aboard until 2015. But eight-plus wins in nine of the past 10 seasons against a solid independent schedule suggests the triple-option can give its new conference brethren problems upon its arrival in two years.

8) Houston. Kevin Sumlin had a great run in 2011. Tony Levine still has some work to do, especially on the defensive side of the ball, after a down season in 2012. But landing big-name receivers like Deontay Greenberry and Markeith Ambles shows that there is promise for the Cougars moving forward.

9) Temple. The Owls started off 2-0 in the Big East last season, but then received a rude awakening. New coach Matt Rhule seems perfect for the role, but the cupboard is bare as he tries to turn things around in Year 1.

10) East Carolina. The Pirates always face their share of tough nonconference opponents, but Ruffin McNeill seems to have the program trending upward after going bowling in two of his first three seasons.

11) Memphis. Justin Fuente won't let the Tigers get too high on themselves after a three-game winning streak to end last season. By opening up key spots -- including quarterback, where Jacob Karam returns -- he has shown that he is set on taking this program to another level as it enters a new conference and tries to put the Conference-USA era behind it. Still, Fuente faces an uphill battle.

12) Tulane. The Green Wave haven't won five games in a season since 2004. They have their work cut out for them, as they move up to a better version of the C-USA they have struggled in.
Three first-year coaches will open the season in the future American Athletic Conference. What are the biggest challenges they face?

Tommy Tuberville, Cincinnati. The Bearcats have had more consistent success in this league over the past five seasons than any other program. So challenge No. 1 is maintaining their standing at the top of the league in Year 1. Many coaches have said maintaining a program is much more challenging than rebuilding a program. Tuberville certainly has the coaching background to ensure the Bearcats continue winning championships, but once again Cincinnati goes into the season without much national love. That brings us to challenge No. 2 -- taking down Louisville, its cross-state rival and the favorite to win the Big East. As for some of the on-field challenges, Cincinnati has to get adjusted to a slightly different offensive scheme while finding some playmakers at the skill positions. Figuring out a running back rotation is a top priority, along with developing a deep threat at receiver. Defensively, Cincinnati has to answer some questions up front and in the secondary.

Matt Rhule, Temple. Several challenges await Rhule. First and foremost, getting the Owls back to a bowl game after slipping to a losing record last season in Year 1 in the Big East. He may not have all of the pieces in place to get there in 2013, but Rhule has been a part of a winning Temple program and knows exactly what it takes to get things going in the right direction. There are some pieces in place but this is a young team without a lot of depth, particularly at the skill positions. The entire offensive scheme has been changed. Temple will now play more of a pro-style spread offense, so the Owls have made a change at quarterback. They have nobody proven at running back or receiver, so that is a major challenge heading into fall camp. Defensively, there are question marks in the secondary and depth has to be built up front. Temple also lost terrific punter/kicker Brandon McManus and special teams player of the year Matt Brown, so there are challenges all over the field for this team.

Willie Taggart, USF. Like Rhule, Taggart has to find a way to get the Bulls back into a bowl game. But the hard times have lasted a smidge longer in Tampa, where USF has now gone two straight seasons without making the postseason. There will be pressure on Taggart to deliver a long-anticipated league championship based on his track record and all the resources USF has to be able to bring in quality talent in the area. But there are challenges everywhere in Year 1. Right at the top of the list is the offense, which has major questions at every single position. There is no starting quarterback right now; the running backs did not show much in the spring and there is not much depth at the position. The offensive line had its share of problems last year and the receivers are unproven behind Andre Davis. Defensively, the secondary was abysmal last year and depth has to be built at linebacker. The nonconference schedule has two big challenges, too, in games at Michigan State and home to Miami. In addition, Taggart is working to change the culture around the program. He is trying to instill a different mindset and different demeanor, and to get players to believe in themselves again. That could be the biggest challenge of all.

Hope springs in the Big East

May, 22, 2013
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This fall will mark the final college football season that concludes with a BCS title game. The era has had its ups and downs for all, so here we will take a look at the best and worst of the past 15 years in the Big East:

BEST
1. BCS bowl performances: For all of the heat that this conference gets, it will likely exit the BCS era with no worse than a .500 record in BCS bowls. The Big East is 8-7 in BCS bowls during the past 15 years, winning its past two (Louisville over Florida in the 2013 Sugar, West Virginia over Clemson in the 2012 Orange.) The ACC, by comparison, has a 3-13 record in BCS bowls.

2. National title game appearances: Miami and Virginia Tech might both be ACC members right now, but the schools had combined for three national title game appearances as members of the Big East. Virginia Tech lost to Florida State in the Sugar Bowl following the 1999 season and Miami fell to Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl following the 2002 season, while the Hurricanes defeated Nebraska in the Rose Bowl following the 2001 season. The Big Ten has three title game appearances, the ACC has three and the Pac-12 has three only if you count USC's appearances following the 2004 and 2005 seasons, both of which were vacated by the NCAA.

3. Realignment replacements (the first time around): After losing Boston College, Miami and Virginia Tech to the ACC, the Big East was able to scoop up Cincinnati, Louisville and USF from Conference USA as football members (and Marquette and DePaul as non-football members). Cincinnati has won a share of four of the past five league titles and Louisville has won a share of the past two, in addition to appearing in a pair of BCS bowl games.

[+] EnlargeGreg Schiano
Bob Donnan/USA TODAY SportsGreg Schiano scooped up the accolades by leading Rutgers to an 11-2 mark in 2006.
4. Coaches: Virginia Tech's Frank Beamer won five different coach-of-the-year awards (Bear Bryant, Eddie Robinson, AP, Walter Camp and Maxwell) in 1999. Miami's Larry Coker won the Bryant award in 2001. Rutgers' Greg Schiano won five different coach-of-the-year awards (Liberty Mutual, Robinson, Home Depot, Walter Camp and Maxwell) in 2006. Cincinnati's Brian Kelly won the Home Depot award in 2009, giving the conference 12 coach of the year awards from four different coaches during the BCS era.

5. Bowl record: Matchups can often get more and more uneven as we look at the landscape of bowl games, but the Big East has certainly taken care of business when it comes to the postseason, going 46-29 in bowl games since the 1998 season.

WORST
1. Realignment losses (the next time around): This almost goes without saying, as no conference has suffered from realignment more than the Big East. Gone or soon-to-be gone are Boston College, Miami, Virginia Tech, Pitt, Syracuse, West Virginia, Rutgers and Louisville in football. (TCU, Boise State and San Diego State all left before playing a down as football-only members.) Notre Dame and the Catholic 7 (DePaul, Georgetown, Marquette, Providence, Seton Hall, St. John's and Villanova) all left in other sports.

2. Status/money: As a result of realignment, the Big East no longer has a guaranteed tie-in to an elite bowl game. And it is not sharing in the same revenue split from the future playoff as the ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC. Simply put, there will be one less major conference starting in the 2014 season, as the Big East simply is not in the same place that it was as recently as two years ago.

3. BCS bowl appearances: The Big East's 15 BCS-bowl appearances are the lowest among any AQ school, as the conference has never received more than one bid in a year. The ACC received two following the 2011 season, with conference champion Clemson going to the Orange Bowl (and getting crushed by Big East champion West Virginia) and Virginia Tech going to the Sugar Bowl (and losing in overtime to Michigan).

4. QBs in draft: Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater may change things with another strong performance in 2013, and there have been other notable performances in recent years (WVU's Pat White, for one), but outside of Virginia Tech's Michael Vick (No. 1 overall, 2001) and Syracuse's Donovan McNabb (No. 2, 1999), the Big East has not had a quarterback drafted in the first round in the BCS era.

5. Conflicting interests: The divide between basketball and football schools played a large part in the split-up of the Big East. So, too, did the trust and double-speak. Look no further than departing member Pitt and its chancellor, Mark Nordenberg, who led a five-school contingent that sued Boston College in 2003 following the Eagles' departure for the ACC, saying at the time: "This is a case that involves broken commitments, secret dealings, breaches of fiduciary responsibility, the misappropriations of conference opportunities and predatory attempts to eliminate competition."

100-day checklist: Big East

May, 21, 2013
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We have officially reached the 100-day mark until the college football regular season kicks off. There is still plenty of business to tend to until then -- much of which is being discussed this week at the Big East's spring meetings in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. -- so here is a checklist of five things that the conference needs to accomplish between now and Aug. 29, when three league teams (UConn, Rutgers and UCF) will be among the 34 to start their 2013 campaigns before everyone else.

1. Release a new logo: The league will officially become known as the American Athletic Conference at the conclusion of the 2012-13 college sports season. A new logo is on the way, but is not expected to be revealed during this week's conference meetings, though we could see it in the next couple of weeks.

2. Get QB answers: Cincinnati, Houston, Memphis, USF and Temple all exited the spring with open competition under center, though some seem to have a lot more clarity (Cincinnati, Houston, Temple) than others (Memphis, USF). For the other five teams, the summer is about continuing the growth of returning starters, all of whom took big steps this spring to build off their 2012 campaigns (particularly Rutgers' Gary Nova and UCF's Blake Bortles).

3. Find a true No. 2 to Louisville: No, the Cardinals have not already won the AAC in their final year in the conference before moving to the ACC. But the early Heisman Trophy and NFL draft hype surrounding quarterback Teddy Bridgewater -- coupled with preseason top-10 appearances in every major forecast, a favorable schedule and the overall brilliance of its athletic department this academic year -- has the hype at previously unforeseen levels on campus. Louisville still has 12 games to deal with once the first ball is kicked this fall, but it is the only team in the conference that, this far out, seems to have most of the answers it needs heading into the season. Who will make the biggest strides in the next 100 days to close that gap and emerge from the pack of relative unknowns in the league? This is, after all, the conference's last year with a guaranteed BCS bowl berth.

4. Make the rounds: Matt Rhule does not need to meet and greet all that many new people in the Philadelphia area since he was a longtime Temple assistant, but he is stepping into his first career head-coaching job. Willie Taggart has been a hit back in his home area of Tampa, Fla., but he is taking over a roster that has vastly underachieved the past two years, and he is entering recruiting battles with local rival and Big East newcomer UCF. Tommy Tuberville has had great success on the recruiting circuit so far at Cincinnati, but he has a big standard to live up to in following the footsteps of the school's past three head coaches. How will each new head coach in the conference further establish himself in the dog days of summer?

5. Houston must figure out several game locations: One of the more overlooked aspects of one of the conference newcomers this season is the Cougars' need to determine where they will play all of their home games. Four of them have been slated for Reliant Stadium, but the school's Oct. 12 game against Memphis and Nov. 23 tilt with Cincinnati still need locations. Rice Stadium and BBVA Compass Stadium are the options, according to the Houston Chronicle.
AMELIA ISLAND, Fla. -- Long-time rivals Louisville and Cincinnati are scheduled to play for the last time in December.

The future of their Keg of Nails series remains on hold, while Louisville works to figure out how joining the ACC impacts its nonconference schedule. Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich said during the ACC spring meetings that he still does not have an answer on the future of the rivalry.

Complicating matters is another rivalry game the Cardinals have against Kentucky, which runs through 2016. Jurich said he expects that series to be renewed. "We’ll roll another one out. I don’t suspect there’d be any problems," he said.

With an eight-game league schedule, the chances that Louisville plays both Kentucky and Cincinnati annually remain slim now that the Cards and Bearcats are set to go their separate conference ways.

It could happen, but it would not be an every year scenario.

"If we’re going to keep one, we’re going to keep Kentucky," Jurich said. "That’s something that’s so important in our state, and the commonwealth of Kentucky relies on that game, so it’s something I want to make sure we keep. We might be able to play both in the same year once in a while, because Cincinnati has been a great rivalry, too."

Cincinnati athletic director Whit Babcock knows he is in a holding pattern, telling ESPN.com, "Tom and I have a good relationship, and it’s something we talked about a while back and it’s something we’ll address in the coming months. Obviously at Cincinnati, we’d love to maintain that rivalry for our fan base in any and all sports but I know it will take some time for the transition of Louisville to the ACC before Tom and I can answer all those questions. We’d love to do it and we wish those guys the best."

The two schools first played in 1929 and have played annually since 1996. Cincinnati and Louisville have actually played more football games than Louisville and Kentucky.
Tonight kicks off a weekend-long celebration of college players turning into professionals, as the NFL draft kicks off at Radio City Music Hall in New York.

There is a solid chance for several former Big East players to hear their names called in Round 1, but for now, we'll look back at how this conference has fared in the past 10 drafts, and especially in the first round.

Obviously, the conference has gone through change after change in the past two years alone, so to limit any confusion, we narrowed the pool of players to those whose college experience came on any of the 10 teams that will make up the American Athletic Conference in the 2013-14 season.

Some noteworthy items?
  • Four teams have not had a player taken in the first round in the last 10 years.
  • Rutgers leads the way in first-round picks during the past 10 years, with three, while Louisville leads in total picks, with 29. Again, given those teams' futures, you can look at that as a positive or a negative as a Big East fan, depending on your mood or point of view.
  • In total, current conference schools have had a total of 11 first-round picks in the past 10 years, and 150 players from these 10 schools have been drafted during that time.
  • Defensive back has been the strongest position among these schools, with 30 cornerbacks and safeties in total selected during this stretch.
FIRST-ROUND PICKS SINCE 2003:
Rutgers: 3
Louisville: 2
USF: 2
Memphis: 2
UConn: 1
Temple: 1
Cincinnati: 0
UCF: 0
SMU: 0
Houston: 0

TOTAL PICKS SINCE 2003:
Louisville: 29
Cincinnati: 24
Rutgers: 17
USF: 16
UConn: 16
UCF: 15
Temple: 9
SMU: 9
Memphis: 8
Houston: 7

Breakdown of Big East draft picks over the last 10 years by position:

Defensive backs: 30
Defensive linemen: 23
Offensive linemen: 19
Running backs: 16
Wide receivers: 15
Linebackers: 14
Tight ends: 8
Quarterbacks: 8
Punter: 2
Kicker: 1
Fullback: 1

Scouts Inc.'s Steve Muench and Kevin Weidl, meanwhile, have a complete, seven-round mock draft here.
Cincinnati has sent the ACC a holiday card and updates on Nippert Stadium upgrades, hoping to keep the league continually aware of its program.

UConn has tried to sell itself to the ACC going on two years now.

But news Monday that the ACC has agreed to a grant of rights signals both schools could very well be members of the American Athletic Conference well into the future. Not exactly what either school wants to hear today.

The grant of rights means the ACC has essentially blocked potential suitors from poaching league schools. The penalties for leaving are simply too high, when you factor in this agreement and the $50 million exit fee.

So as the ACC sits at 14 members, plus Notre Dame in all sports but football, there is little reason to believe the league would expand to 16 schools without prompting. In other words, it would take departures or expansion at other conferences to force the ACC to add new member schools.

Neither one seems imminent. Not with the ACC joining the Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-12 with a grant of rights. While it is true that these conferences could go after programs in conferences like the AAC should they decide to expand, that idea is unrealistic. That seems obvious for the ACC. Take the Big Ten as another example.

Cincinnati and UConn are not members of the Association of American Universities, and they bring no real monetary value from a television rights perspective. The Big Ten already has Ohio State and Rutgers, so adding two schools in similar regions is not going to bring in more money to the league.

The truth is, the ACC is the only league that makes sense for both schools. That is why both made furious sales pitches for membership after Maryland departed for the Big Ten. Both lost out to Louisville, growing as a huge realignment winner with each passing day.

Without the ACC as a viable option, it appears both Cincinnati and UConn may be in the AAC for quite a bit longer.
Tommy Tuberville closed out his first spring with Cincinnati on Wednesday morning. Shortly afterward, he made his biggest move as the Bearcats' new head coach.

Tuberville landed former Notre Dame star quarterback Gunner Kiel, a former four-star prospect who, yes, has raised several red flags despite never stepping foot in a college game yet.

He has gone from the Big Ten (Indiana) to the SEC (LSU) to Notre Dame, drawing the public ire of Les Miles and three different fan bases along the way.

But getting past the (hopefully) subsided drama, there is a reason Kiel drew so much attention in the first place.

He is good. At 6-foot-4, 210 pounds, Kiel was ESPN's No. 3 quarterback and No. 52 overall player out of the recruiting class of 2012.

That is quality. And not simply American Athletic Conference quality.

No player ranked higher than him committed to a school currently in the conference. In fact, outside of Rutgers' Darius Hamilton (No. 69 overall in 2012) and Louisville's James Quick (No. 79 overall in 2013), no one in the top-100 from either the 2012 or 2013 class committed to a current conference school. And Hamilton and Quick will be in the Big Ten and ACC, respectively, by the time Kiel is finally eligible to take the field for the Bearcats, in 2014.

"Cincinnati was the best fit for me because the relationship I have with [quarterbacks] coach [Darin] Hinshaw is like nothing else. He is a great overall person and is someone I know I can get coached by," Kiel told ESPN's Joe Schad on Wednesday. "The group of guys I'm going to be around is second to none. I love where they are heading and the future is bright."

The Columbus, Ind., native will be roughly 90 minutes from home at his new destination. And though Brendon Kay and Munchie Legaux are slugging it out for the right to start this coming season, both will be gone by the time Kiel is eligible.

Cincinnati welcomed in three quarterback commits during this recruiting cycle, but it is unlikely that Tuberville would pursue such a high-profile transfer had he not envisioned big plans for him.

The coach's pro-style offense seemingly suits Kiel perfectly, and the success of recent Tuberville signal callers -- Texas Tech quarterbacks finished in the top-10 nationally in passing yards per game in each of Tuberville's three seasons there -- should serve as validation.

When Louisville and Rutgers announced that they were departing next year, Cincinnati looked like the class of remaining conference schools. Landing a high-profile prospect like Kiel only re-affirms that moving forward.
Former Notre Dame quarterback Gunner Kiel will transfer to a new school at the end of the spring semester, and he has been making the most of the past several weekends.

Kiel visited Mid-American Conference schools Ball State and Miami (Ohio), our Joe Schad reports, and he also visited Cincinnati during Easter weekend for the Bearcats' scrimmage inside Paul Brown Stadium, according to the Cincinnati Enquirer.

Kiel's father, Kip, spoke highly of his visit with the Bearcats, telling the Enquirer's Tom Groeschen that it went well.
“The visit to Cincinnati went really well,” Kiel’s father, Kip Kiel, told The Enquirer via telephone.

Kip Kiel said his son especially wants good chemistry with his position coaches. In UC’s case, that is quarterbacks coach/passing game coordinator Darin Hinshaw and offensive coordinator Eddie Gran.

“He thinks the world of coach Hinshaw and coach Gran,” Kip Kiel said.

Schad says that Kiel may visit Ole Miss in the near future as well.

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