NCF Nation: Houston Cougars

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.


It was a wild one in Birmingham, Ala., but behind 17 unanswered points in the fourth quarter, Vanderbilt defeated Houston 41-24 in the BBVA Compass Bowl.

The Commodores opened the game with a 24-0 lead at halftime before allowing the Cougars to score 24 straight points of their own in the third quarter.

However, a 21-yard touchdown run and late interceptions by safety Jahmel McIntosh and cornerback Andre Hal helped seal Vandy's win after a valiant Houston comeback.

It was over when: Hal intercepted Houston quarterback John O'Korn and returned it 30 yards to the Houston 2-yard line, setting up Vandy's final touchdown.

Game ball goes to: In his final game in a Vanderbilt uniform, senior receiver Jordan Matthews led the Commodores with five catches for 143 yards and two touchdowns. Surprisingly, this was Matthews' first multi-touchdown game of the season. All of Matthews' stats came in the first half. He caught five of quarterback Patton Robinette's six pass completions. The SEC's all-time leader in receptions and receiving yards enjoyed a nice final game at the college level.

Stat of the game: It truly was a tale of two halves in Birmingham. The Commodores outgained Houston 232-22 in the first half and held the Cougars to just one first down. In the second half, Houston dominated the stat chart with 362 offensive yards to Vandy's 133. Houston outgained Vandy 309-44 in the third quarter alone.

Stat of the game II: Both teams combined to go 3-of-34 on third downs and punted 20 total times.

Unsung hero: Vandy kicker Carey Spear connected on two big field goals and five extra points. He also made a touchdown-saving tackle on a 62-yard kickoff return by Demarcus Ayers. The Cougars failed to score on the drive.

What it means for Vanderbilt: Vandy is now 16-4 in its past 20 games and has now won bowl games in back-to-back seasons for the first time in school history. The Commodores also have back-to-back nine-win seasons for the first time ever. Expect coach James Franklin to hear his named mentioned even more when it comes to head-coaching vacancies at both the college and pro level. It wasn't the prettiest victory after a bit of a second-half lull for the Commodores, but this win should still give the Commodores a ton of momentum going into the offseason. It certainly won't hurt in recruiting either.

What it means for Houston: The Cougars shouldn't hang their heads for too long after this loss. There is still a lot of good, young talent on this team, starting with O'Korn, receiver Deontay Greenberry and running back Ryan Jackson. The offense stalled against Vandy's stout defense early, but showed just how explosive it can be when things started to click in the third quarter. A solid second year under Tony Levine should help create higher expectations for a Houston program that should come back stronger in 2014.

To watch the trophy presentation of the BBVA Compass Bowl, click here.

BBVA Compass Bowl preview

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Vanderbilt is looking to win back-to-back bowl games for the first time, while Houston wants to show that its high-powered offense can send another SEC defense reeling in the postseason.

The Commodores (8-4) and Cougars (8-4) meet in the BBVA Compass Bowl on Saturday (1 p.m. ET, ESPN) at Legion Field in Birmingham, Ala. Here's a quick preview:

Who to watch: Vanderbilt wide receiver Jordan Matthews. The SEC's all-time leader in receptions and yards steps back into his home state to take on a pass defense that is allowing 276 passing yards per game (ranked 116th in the nation). Matthews was one of the SEC's best receivers this season, catching a league-high 107 passes for 1,334 yards and five touchdowns. He's averaging almost nine catches and 111.2 yards per game.

Matthews had eight 100-yard receiving games this season and has caught double-digit receptions in three consecutive games. But it will be interesting to see if he sniffs the end zone -- Houston has given up just 12 touchdown passes and has 23 interceptions.

What to watch: Both secondaries. Houston has given up a lot of yards through the air, but one thing that could work in the Cougars' favor is the fact that Vanderbilt starting quarterback Austyn Carta-Samuels is out (knee surgery). That means backup Patton Robinette will have to lead this offense. Robinette has passed for 488 yards, 2 touchdowns and 3 interceptions this season. If the Cougars can harass him and keep Matthews in check, Vandy will have a long day.

On the other side, Vandy's secondary has been solid all season, allowing just 204 passing yards a game. Leaders Andre Hal and Kenny Ladler had solid seasons, defending 21 passes and snagging seven interceptions. Houston freshman quarterback John O'Korn has thrown for nearly 3,000 yards and 26 touchdowns, while receiver Deontay Greenberry has 76 receptions for 1,106 yards and 10 touchdowns.

Why to watch: The Commodores have been a feel-good story since James Franklin took over as coach three years ago, and this is the last time we'll see Matthews play in a Vandy uniform. He's had a truly special career with the Commodores, and it was only elevated with the arrival of Franklin. Plus, the Commodores have a chip on their shoulders after getting passed by Mississippi State in the bowl pecking order.

With Houston, it's a chance to see a team possibly on the rise behind a pretty fun offense that could give the Commodores fits. Behind a young quarterback and young playmakers such as Greenberry and running back Ryan Jackson, the future could be very bright for the Cougars.

Prediction: Vanderbilt 23, Houston 21. Two fun offenses take the field in Birmingham, but Vandy will be without its starting quarterback. This is a big stage for Robinette, but having Matthews next to him to make plays should take the pressure off him.

BBVA Compass Bowl

December, 8, 2013
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Vanderbilt Commodores (8-4) vs. Houston Cougars (8-4)

Jan. 4, 1 p.m. ET, Birmingham, Ala. (ESPN)


VANDERBILT COMMODORES BREAKDOWN
Coach James Franklin has turned his revival of the Vanderbilt program into a new golden age. These are heady times for the Commodores. Vandy recently completed yet another unbeaten November, giving it a nine-game winning streak in that critical month that dates to 2011.

[+] Enlarge Jordan Matthews
Frederick Breedon/Getty ImagesJordan Matthews, the SEC's all-time leading receiver, has eight 100-yard games this season.
Vanderbilt defeated Georgia and Florida for the first time in the same season, picking up the school's first road win against the Gators since 1945. VU's only SEC East losses were to the top two teams -- South Carolina and Missouri.

Despite a nail-biting loss in the season opener against Ole Miss and a big road loss to Texas A&M, the Dores won eight games and went .500 in the SEC. VU has eight wins in back-to-back regular seasons for the first time since 1927-28 and is making its third straight bowl appearance. Here's some perspective: Before Franklin arrived, Vanderbilt had been to four bowl games in 120 years.

The Commodores have a balanced offense that features the passing combination of quarterback Austyn Carta-Samuels to wide receiver Jordan Matthews. But this year has seen more emphasis on running the ball, as Vandy employs a committee that includes leading rusher Jerron Seymour, Brian Kimbrow, Wesley Tate and lately more designed runs for Carta-Samuels and backup QB Patton Robinette. The biggest star and most dangerous player, however, is the silky-smooth Matthews, who has an SEC-record 18 career 100-yard games and broke his own school record this season with 1,334 yards receiving (fifth most in SEC history).

Perhaps the biggest strides the program has made this season have been on the other side of the ball, where Vanderbilt has allowed 333.9 yards a game to rank No. 19 in the nation in total defense. This is an opportunistic bunch with 26 takeaways. On the whole, Franklin runs a tight ship. His offense doesn't give up the ball very often (20 turnovers on the year) and averages just more than five penalties a game.

In other words, Vanderbilt rarely beats itself. -- Jeff Barlis

vs.

HOUSTON COUGARS BREAKDOWN
The Cougars have quietly had a nice turnaround season, sitting at 8-4 in coach Tony Levine's second season after a 5-7 campaign in 2012.

[+] EnlargeTony Levine
Troy Taormina/USA TODAY SportsTony Levine's Cougars have enjoyed a nice bounce-back season thanks to an opportunistic defense.
Houston has improved in a number of areas, especially on defense. It leads the country in turnover margin (+25) and takeaways (40) under defensive coordinator David Gibbs.

Each of the Cougars’ four losses have come by seven points or fewer -- not bad for a team with a true freshman quarterback (John O'Korn).

While he’s had some growing pains, O'Korn has been solid (26 touchdowns, eight interceptions) and he has many weapons at his disposal, namely sophomore receiver Deontay Greenberry (76 receptions, 1,106 yards, 10 touchdowns).

One note: Offensive coordinator Doug Meacham has accepted the same job at TCU so co-OC Travis Bush will call the plays in the bowl game. -- Sam Khan Jr.

Video: Houston 34, SMU 0

November, 29, 2013
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John O'Korn threw for 245 yards and two touchdowns to power Houston to a shutout victory over SMU.

Video: UCF 19, Houston 14

November, 9, 2013
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William Stanback scored two touchdowns and No. 21 UCF held off a late Houston threat to win 19-14.

Video: Houston 35, USF 23

November, 1, 2013
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Houston bounced back from its first loss of the season to defeat South Florida 35-23.

Greenberry molding into leader for Houston

October, 31, 2013
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Years before being tabbed one of the nation’s top prospects, becoming the first five-star recruit to sign with Houston and developing into the focal point of a Cougars offense that has accumulated more than 3,400 yards and 37 touchdowns, wide receiver Deontay Greenberry sat, eyes closed, at his home in Fresno, Calif., and envisioned his future.

[+] EnlargeDeontay Greenberry
AP Photo/Mel EvansDeontay Greenberry is leading the AAC in receiving this season.
“My sophomore year of high school, I started getting looks from colleges across the country and I began to understand that I could do something special,” Greenberry said. “It was pretty eye-opening when I realized that I could earn a scholarship for football. Sitting back and recognizing that was a real possibility truly changed my perspective.”

After setting California single-season state records with 2,165 receiving yards and 33 touchdowns while leading Washington Union High to a Division III State Championship as a senior, Greenberry, the No. 17 wide receiver in 2012’s ESPN 300, had his pick of practically every prominent football program.

“Without a doubt, Deontay was one of the more highly touted guys that we’ve targeted,” said Houston assistant coach Jamie Christian, who recruited Greenberry to UH. “Navigating that process can be tough on a young guy. But, he had a vision for what he wanted, and his mom and brothers did a lot in terms of helping him stay grounded and focused on his goals.”

On signing day, Greenberry stunned the nation by selecting Houston over USC, Alabama, Arizona State and his initial commitment, Notre Dame, among others.

“I felt very comfortable with Coach Christian, and UH just felt like home. I visited the week before signing day and it was everything that I wanted,” Greenberry said. “People told me that I was crazy for passing on some of the big-time teams. But, to me, being surrounded by good people was more important than the name of the school.”

As a true freshman in 2012, Greenberry made an immediate impact on the Cougars, collecting 47 receptions for 569 yards and three touchdowns, en route to earning Conference USA All-Freshman Team honors.

This season, Greenberry has served as a steadying force for a Cougars offense that has been in flux since concussions ended the career of starting quarterback David Piland in early October.

“Deontay has grown a lot in the short time that he’s been with us,” Christian said. “He is becoming a better player because he's learning to free up his teammates by blocking and running routes without the ball. He’s stepping up because he knows that the guys are depending on him.”

Through seven games this season, Greenberry has already eclipsed his rookie numbers by accounting for 842 yards and eight touchdowns, all while learning to become a leader.

“Deontay has always been a lead-by-example type of guy, but lately, he is starting to speak up and work into a more vocal role,” Christian said. “He has the chance to be as good as he wants to be, because he has the physical abilities, the football IQ and the desire to lead. Deontay is just beginning to tap into his true potential.”

It’s a work in progress, but one that was evident last week against Rutgers, when the shifty, 6-foot-3, 198-pound sophomore gashed the Scarlet Knights’ secondary for a career-best 168 yards and three touchdowns.

“The only thing that I’m focused on right now is working on the details,” Greenberry said. “Whether it’s throwing a block or catching a touchdown, my teammates look to me to make plays and contribute every week.

“In some ways, it’s kind of overwhelming to realize that I’m living out my dream right now,” Greenberry added. “Everything has happened really fast. To be honest, there are times that I’m afraid to blink because I’m scared I might miss something.”

Video: Houston 49, Rutgers 14

October, 26, 2013
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The Houston Cougars stay unbeaten in the American with a 49-14 win over Rutgers.

Video: BYU 47, Houston 46

October, 19, 2013
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Taysom Hill had four touchdowns and 545 total yards as BYU edged previously undefeated Houston 47-46.

3-point stance: D gives Spartans solace

September, 23, 2013
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1. I know that Michigan State is frustrated with the 17-13 loss at Notre Dame. The Spartans feel like the calls didn’t go their way, the bounces didn’t go their way, and that’s why the game didn’t go their way. But if I’m heading into Big Ten play in an era when defense is vanishing, and I held the Fighting Irish to 14 first downs, then I see a significant upside to the rest of my season, no matter how frustrated I am with the calls and the bounces.

2. Here’s why college athletics as we know it is going to change. Never mind that Arian Foster came out and said he got paid while he played at Tennessee. When a high-profile player such as Foster feels there’s not enough social stigma to prevent him from declaring that he got paid, then the public opinion has shifted enough to mean that a change is going to come. Some people in the NCAA understand that and are trying to manage the change. Others want the status to remain quo. But it never does, does it?

3. If you haven’t seen the onside kick executed by Rice senior Chris Boswell with 2:19 remaining in the Owls’ 31-26 loss to Houston, get thee to YouTube or click here. It defies belief. Boswell has established himself as one of the most talented placekickers in the FBS. He made six field goals of 50 yards or longer last season. He nailed a 56-yarder in Rice’s 23-14 victory over Kansas on Sept. 14, although he missed two 50-plus yarders Saturday. Maybe the onside kick will soothe his anguish.
No one knows what kind of player Rushel Shell ultimately will become, but we do know what colors he'll wear for the foreseeable future.

That would be the Old Gold and Blue:
Shell visited West Virginia on Monday and chose the Mountaineers over Kentucky. He must sit out the 2013 season at West Virginia and will have three years of eligibility remaining.

"Things went really well down at WVU," Shell said. "I enjoyed every moment of it. We toured the campus and facilities, and I got a chance to hang out with other recruits and players on the team.

"They made my visit terrific and made me feel like family."

First things first: That's cold-blooded. Shell first planned on transferring to UCLA, but changed his mind and hoped to return to Pitt. Coach Paul Chryst said that wouldn't be happening.

Now, Shell elects to transfer to a longtime Pitt rival. Staying close to his two daughters was a factor, and the two programs don't meet in the Backyard Brawl anymore. Still, imagine if Missouri receiver Dorial Green-Beckham packed his bags and transferred to Kansas, or if Texas A&M running back Trey Williams reversed field and decided to become a Longhorn.

[+] EnlargeRushel Shell
Kim Klement/USA TODAY Sports Rushel Shell has announced he will transfer from Pitt to West Virginia. History suggests the running back could thrive in coach Dana Holgorsen's offense.
Shell rushed for more than 9,000 yards and finished his high school career as Pennsylvania's all-time rushing leader. He was the No. 3 running back and No. 26 recruit overall in the 2012 class, and made an immediate impact as Pitt's second-leading rusher with 641 yards and four touchdowns as a freshman.

As I mentioned earlier, we don't know what kind of back Shell will become. But the 6-foot, 215-pounder has the potential to become one of the game's best and to continue his career in the NFL.

West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen will get his hands on him in 2014 -- and when that happens, defenses could suffer. Since Holgorsen moved to Houston to become a playcaller in 2008, he's had only two seasons with truly great backs. In those two seasons the results were outstanding.

In 2009, Houston's Charles Sims racked up 1,457 yards of offense and 10 touchdowns on 202 touches, and the Cougars led the nation in total offense. Sims is back in a Holgorsen offense this season after transferring to West Virginia, never quite reaching the heights he did during his freshman season.

"That was probably his best year statistically," Holgorsen said at last week's media days.

After leaving Houston, Holgorsen had a chance to take the reins of an Oklahoma State offense with future San Francisco 49er Kendall Hunter on the roster. Hunter rushed for 1,548 yards and 16 touchdowns in 2010 while Oklahoma State rose from 70th in total offense to third with Holgorsen calling the plays.

West Virginia has already seen its offense spike under Holgorsen, and he has the talent in place for a solid run in the next few years. Holgorsen has a reputation as a coach who loves to air it out -- and he does -- but when he has big talents in the backfield, they don't go ignored and the offense's balance makes it tougher for defenses to lock down.

Sims will get a chance to see that in action now. But in the next three years, it's a safe bet that Shell will get an opportunity to make a lot of noise in what could be a promising career.
When the calendar turns to July 1 on Monday, the American Athletic Conference officially begins operations.

It has been a turmoil-filled two years for the league no longer known as the Big East. But with a measure of stability seeming to take hold across college football, commissioner Mike Aresco is optimistic about the future of his league -- despite being on the outside of the "power five" conference structure.

Aresco has embraced the "challenger conference" mantra and has done his best to extol the virtues of his rebranded league, repeatedly focusing on all the positives each member institution brings not only to football but to all other sports. He has been an exhaustive cheerleader, something the league has desperately needed in its leader.

So now that the American is nearly set for its debut, I had a chance to catch up with Aresco and talk about some of the biggest priorities moving forward.

1. Bowls. The league is working hard to finalize its bowl lineup, which will look different beginning in 2014. The league will no longer have tie-ins to the New Era Pinstripe Bowl, Belk Bowl or Russell Athletic Bowl. Aresco said that the league is working on continuing its tie-ins with the Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl in St. Petersburg, Fla., the BBVA Compass Bowl in Birmingham, Ala., and the Liberty Bowl in Memphis. He also added that the league has been in discussions about a bowl game in Texas, New Orleans, perhaps the Military Bowl in Washington, D.C., and occasionally in Hawaii (that bowl has a tie-in with Conference USA that ends this season).

[+] EnlargeMike Aresco
AP Photo/Jessica Hill, FileCommissioner Mike Aresco has been a tireless cheerleader for the American Athletic Conference as the old Big East assumes its new identity.
As for opponents, Aresco expects to continue to play the SEC in Birmingham. The Liberty could feature the Big 12, as could the Texas Bowl game. The league wants to keep playing the ACC as well. Aresco also mentioned there have been preliminary discussions about playing the Pac-12 in the new South Florida bowl game the American wants to create, and to play in Marlins Park.

Aresco hopes to have more bowl tie-ins than the current five, though he also acknowledged the league may be in a good position to receive at-large bids, too. He hopes to have some announcements in the next two to four weeks.

"We’ll end up fine," Aresco said. "We’ll have a chance to challenge. The key thing, too, is we do have access to the college football playoff system. If our champion is the highest-ranked team of the five conferences, we would be playing on New Year’s Day. That’s what we hope our champion is doing a good part of the time. We feel we have a good opportunity there."

2. Scheduling. There is no question the American is going to have to beef up its nonconference scheduling in order to get teams to either compete for a spot in the playoff or get the coveted spot in a New Year's Day game that goes to the highest finisher among itself, the Mountain West, Conference USA, Sun Belt and Mid-American. But Aresco says the league has not made any policy forbidding games against FCS opponents.

What he said he wants to see is balance in the schedule -- a few tough games, with a few less-challenging ones to allow league teams a chance to win. He also said league teams are working hard to ensure these tougher games against the premier programs in the country are home-and-home series. Perhaps teams would settle on a 2-for-1 or a single road game, but Aresco does not want this to be the norm.

There is also no doubting the exposure added by games against premier programs. Aresco mentioned UCF's game against Penn State in Dublin for 2014 as one example.

"It's a huge opportunity for us to show what we can do against those teams," Aresco said. "We’ve had some success in the past, but we need that opportunity. We know we’re a challenger. We know that we have programs that have history, that have had success, that have been in BCS conferences over the years, and we know what it takes. But we have to get an identity for the league, and we have to make sure people know who we are."

3. Building rivalries. One other key area Aresco mentioned is building rivalries within the league, now that the biggest ones in the former Big East are gone. He recognizes the potential in heavily promoting the UCF-USF rivalry as perhaps the headliner. That game is scheduled for end of the season this year, but he did not rule out possibly moving it to the beginning of the season.

"We definitely think that is a marquee rivalry that will develop," he said. "These are big, important schools that have good programs. Whether we play at the end or the beginning, it’s still up in the air. Some people would say maybe you want to play in the beginning because it’s the old saying, well, a loss early in the season doesn’t hurt you as much late. Miami and Florida State had the philosophy for a number of years. Also, early in the season you can get a great deal of attention for certain games. But right now, I think the plan is to keep it as a late-season rivalry game."

Others with potential that he mentioned include Houston-SMU, East Carolina-Navy and Tulsa-Memphis.

Ex-Houston RB Sims headed to WVU

June, 21, 2013
6/21/13
10:25
PM ET
Former University of Houston running back Charles Sims has informed West Virginia he will transfer there for his senior season, according to a school source.

Sims, who will be eligible to play immediately because he has already earned his degree, racked up 851 yards and 11 touchdowns for the Cougars last season. He also caught three touchdown passes.

For Joe Schad's full story, click here.

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.

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