NCF Nation: SMU Mustangs

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.

Dr. King meeting lasts a lifetime

February, 21, 2014
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If Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., enjoyed college football, he kept it to himself. It is quite possible that he couldn't bring himself to cheer for the state universities in his native Georgia or his adopted home of Alabama, given their opposition to everything he ever stood for.

There was the one time that the Crimson Tide unknowingly lent the civil rights movement a hand. Late in 1964, a judge in Selma, Ala., issued an injunction forbidding the discussion of racial issues at any gathering of three or more persons.

(Seriously. In America. In my home state. In my lifetime.)

According to Taylor Branch, who wrote a three-volume biography of Dr. King, when Alabama played Texas in the 1965 Orange Bowl, Dallas County Sheriff Jim Clark left Selma, the county seat, to attend the game.

In his absence, Dr. King convened a meeting of 700 people at Brown Chapel. To thunderous cheers, he challenged the injunction in a speech in which he said, "Our cry to the state of Alabama is a simple one. Give us the ballot!"

In Branch's seminal work, published over 18 years and spanning more than 2,300 pages, there is virtually no other mention of college football that involves his subject. There is, however, at least one other occasion on which Dr. King and his work intersected with the sport.

To continue reading, click here.

Video: UCF 17, SMU 13

December, 7, 2013
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Blake Bortles rushed for two touchdowns to lead No. 16 UCF past SMU 17-13.

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: National player of the week

October, 28, 2013
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Mark Schlabach takes a look at SMU's Garrett Gilbert, who had a record-setting performance against Temple and is this week's five-star player of the week.

3-point stance: SMU heading to Michigan

October, 24, 2013
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1. SMU announced Wednesday that it would play at Michigan in 2018, its first visit to Ann Arbor since opening the 1963 season with a 27-16 loss in the Big House. The SMU release recounted the legend that Ford exec Lee Iacocca was so taken with the spirit of the visitors that he decided to name the new Ford sports car the Mustang. Legend? Fact? Look at it this way: Michigan only beat two other teams that year, Northwestern and Illinois. Buick already had a Wildcat. And I just don’t think Wilson Pickett would have sung “Illini Sally.”

2. Playing a team with a unique offense such as Georgia Tech’s option for the first time is difficult enough. Syracuse tried to do so with a new 3-4 defense. But the thing a defense needs most against the option is discipline. That’s hard when playing a scheme for the first time. The Yellow Jackets won, 56-0. Syracuse head coach Scott Shafer said it wasn’t the scheme, it was the fact that the Orange couldn’t get off blocks. He also said this: “You know, as a coach you fight the 20/20 hindsight, but you also learn from it. You know, difficult lesson because we didn't do a good job.”

3. Texas Tech head coach Kliff Kingsbury, on the ESPNU College Football Podcast, on what it’s like depending on true freshman quarterbacks Baker Mayfield and Davis Webb: “I’m not very patient by nature, but I force myself to be, and I just keep going back to when I was their age and what I was doing. I was redshirting and I was going home to see my girlfriend every weekend. I just try to think back at how I wasn’t mentally prepared to do the things they are doing. It’s really impressive to watch them on a daily basis at that age prepare and attack and just try to get better. That’s where I find my patience coaching these young guys.”

Aggies' defense shows progress in win

September, 22, 2013
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Coming off a thriller that few will soon forget, No. 10 Texas A&M had a few questions to answer going into Saturday's battle with SMU.

Though it's way too early to surmise that they've permanently answered some of those questions, the Aggies certainly took steps toward a few solutions in their dominant 42-13 win over the Mustangs at Kyle Field.

The biggest question about the Aggies after three games surrounded their defense, or lack thereof. If Texas A&M (3-1) couldn't prove that it could get stops against an opponent like SMU (the Aggies already allowed significant yardage to Rice and Sam Houston State, though the unit was shorthanded for both games), when would it ever show that? The rest of A&M's SEC schedule is coming, starting with a road game at Arkansas on Sept. 28.

Fortunately for the Aggies, the unit showed some progress.

[+] EnlargeDeshazor Everett
AP Photo/Bob LeveyDeshazor Everett's move to safety this week was one of several moves that help jumpstart the Texas A&M defense.
Though SMU compiled 292 yards in the first three quarters as A&M built a 42-6 lead, the Aggies were stellar on third downs, holding the Mustangs to just four conversions on its first 14 attempts in that span and 5-of-16 for the game.

"We looked pretty fast out there tonight," Aggies defensive coordinator Mark Snyder said. "There were times where we looked extremely fast, which is what I was hoping was the case. We still have some areas that we've got to work on, but it was a much better game from our sideline tonight."

Snyder made two key personnel changes this week. He moved starting cornerback Deshazor Everett to safety to help address the issues the Aggies have had in coverage and he inserted true freshman Darian Claiborne into the starting lineup at middle linebacker.

"I think we have the right guys on the field right now," Snyder said. "[Claiborne] needs to play and needs to be on the field. He was able to make the adjustment from [weakside linebacker] to [middle linebacker] in a week. … I was really proud of him. He handled getting the front [seven] set, he brought a lot of energy, he's a lot like Steven Jenkins and I was very, very happy with that."

Everett spent time at both cornerback and safety last season, so it's not an unfamiliar move for the junior. By moving him back there, the Aggies moved third cornerback Tramain Jacobs to the starting lineup next to De'Vante Harris, and he didn't appear to miss a beat. Everett said because SMU runs an offense similar to A&M's, the transition was smooth.

"It was pretty simple," Everett said. "I see those formations a lot and I know what the safety's checks are to me at corner. … It kind of helped me because I know where the corner is going to be and where I should be if I were a corner, to want safety help."

Was Saturday a sign that a cure-all is coming to a defense that ranked in the bottom 20 in the nation in total yards allowed and rushing yards allowed coming into the game? Far from it. But it was a much-needed positive performance from a group that has struggled through youth, inexperience and missing personnel because of suspensions or injuries in the first three games. On-field communication and the ability to make adjustments in the first three games was a chore simply because of the lack of consistency in starting personnel from week to week.

"In the first couple, three weeks … there were a lot of moving parts and guys out there just worrying about doing their job, not being able to communicate," head coach Kevin Sumlin said. "There's definitely a comfort factor with having all your pieces back and being able to not only play that play but also make adjustments as the game moves on."

With the Aggies resuming SEC play next week in Fayetteville, Ark., having some success on defense is key.

Offensively, the Aggies ran smoothly, as they have most of the year. Quarterback Johnny Manziel threw strikes when he stayed in the pocket and chewed up rushing yards when he darted out of it. His night, which included 244 passing yards, 102 rushing yards and three total touchdowns, was done by the 10:06 mark of the third quarter with the Aggies leading 39-6. Malcome Kennedy (six catches, 83 yards) continued to show that will be a legitimate receiving threat to complement star sophomore receiver Mike Evans and the running game was productive and efficient, led by Manziel and Ben Malena (13 carries, 71 yards, two touchdowns).

The win wasn't without its warts though. Like SMU, the Aggies were heavily penalized (there were 29 accepted penalties in the game, 13 of which went against the Aggies for 114 yards) and the kicking game continues to be a struggle. Sophomore place-kicker Taylor Bertolet missed back-to-back point-after-touchdown kick attempts in the first half and was replaced thereafter by junior walk-on Josh Lambo. And what happened when Lambo entered the game? Holder Drew Kaser bobbled a snap -- the second time that's happened this season -- and as a result, Lambo's first PAT attempt failed.

When Lambo connected on a PAT after a Malena touchdown run with 11:34 remaining in the third quarter, it almost seemed as if the cheers for Lambo were as loud as those for Malena's touchdown. Finding a solution at place-kicker is critical if the Aggies expect to remain contenders in the SEC West. Against SMU, those points left on the field didn't matter. Against Ole Miss or LSU on the road later this season, they might.

Sumlin, when asked who will be kicking field goals and PATs moving forward, called the situation "a competition."

"We're going to keep the competition up just like we do at every position," Sumlin said. "Lambo came in and did a good job. … It's just like any other position. … We evaluate guys every week, no matter what the position, so there will be competition there."

But the Aggies made some plays on defense. They forced a turnover that led directly to points when defensive back Toney Hurd Jr. jolted the ball loose from receiver Jeremiah Gaines, a fumble that Everett returned for a 12-yard touchdown. Linebacker Tommy Sanders intercepted a pass late, and though he fumbled, freshman defensive end Daeshon Hall was able to scoop it up for a 39-yard return. The secondary was tested a few times in the first half by SMU quarterback Garrett Gilbert (37-of-62 passing, 310 yards) but passed with flying colors when it came to third downs or plays near the end zone or red zone.

"I feel like going back into SEC play [next week] it was great for us to come and play well," Hurd said. "It was great for our defense to put a good showing out tonight."
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.

Future American Power Rankings

June, 21, 2013
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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.

First-year players to watch

June, 11, 2013
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There are plenty of first-year players to watch in the soon-to-be renamed Big East this fall. Here is a quick look at those with the potential to have breakout seasons.

[+] EnlargeLouisville Cardinals Red Team running back Brandon Radcliff
Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY SportsLouisville Cardinals running back Brandon Radcliff really stepped up in the spring game.
Brandon Radcliff, RB, Louisville. With Senorise Perry out this spring, Radcliff got an opportunity to show what he can do. Radcliff ended up with 56 yards on five carries in the spring game and seems poised for more. Perry's status for the start of the season remains up in the air, so watch for Radcliff and Dominique Brown to carry the load early on.

Prescott Line, RB, SMU. His brother, Zach, was a constant in the Mustangs' backfield over the last several seasons but now he's gone. That leaves big shoes to fill. Line is next in line to help carry the load, as he had a good spring and should see plenty of action this year with Traylon Shead in the backfield.

Chris Muller, RG, Rutgers. Muller was a huge get for Rutgers when he signed back in 2012, and now he is poised to see some serious game time as a redshirt freshman. He is listed on the post-spring depth chart as the co-starter at right guard with veteran Antwan Lowery.

Averee Robinson, DT, Temple. Robinson, the younger brother of former Owls standout Adrian Robinson, enrolled in January and made his presence known in the spring, earning reps with the second team. He had a great performance in the spring game (four sacks) and certainly will be in the Owls rotation come fall.

Luke Adams, DE, UCF. Adams was easily one of the bright spots for the revamped Knights' defensive line in the spring and finished camp penciled in as the starter.

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.
Former Temple coach Wayne Hardin was one of 14 men Tuesday to be named to the College Football Hall of Fame, emerging from a pool of 77 candidates and joining Colorado's Bill McCartney as the only coaches to make it this year.

The winningest coach in Temple history, Hardin led the Owls to an 80-52-3 record during his tenure, from 1970-82. The 1979 team's Garden State Bowl win over Cal was the first bowl win in program history, giving it a record 10 wins for the season. (The Owls finished 10-2.) The team finished ranked 17th in both the AP and UPI polls, also marking school records for the highest ranking in program history.

Temple won a school-record 14 straight games from 1973-74 under Hardin, who won the 1974 Kodak District II coach of the year and was inducted into Temple's Hall of Fame 20 years later.

“This is a great day for Temple University,” interim athletic director Kevin Clark said in a statement. “Wayne Hardin is not only a Hall of Fame football coach, but a Hall of Fame person. The entire Temple community is grateful that he has been selected for induction into the College Football Hall of Fame.”

Hardin is the third Temple player or coach to be inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame, joining former coaches Ray Morrison (1940-48, inducted in 1954) and Glenn S. “Pop” Warner (1933-38, inducted in 1951).

Before he entered Philadelphia, Hardin was Navy's head coach from 1959-64, coaching two Heisman Trophy winners (Joe Bellino, Roger Staubauch) and twice leading the Midshipmen to top-5 rankings.

He will be inducted Dec. 10 at the 56th annual NFF awards dinner at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York.

The other former Big East player and coach candidates -- Memphis coach Billy Jack Murphy, SMU running back Eric Dickerson and Temple running back Paul Palmer -- did not make the Hall on Tuesday.
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.

Big East spring game previews

April, 19, 2013
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Nine of 10 Big East teams will be through with spring practices come Monday, with Rutgers serving as the outlier. With UConn, Temple and SMU all gearing up for their annual spring games this Saturday, here's a peek at what to look for.

UCONN
Fans in attendance for the noon start at Rentschler Field should keep an eye on how the offense moves under new coordinator T.J. Weist. The Huskies ranked 118th in total offense last year as coordinator George DeLeone was stripped of his duties, though he remains the offensive line coach. But the squad returns all five starters up front to protect incumbent quarterback Chandler Whitmer, as well as top running back Lyle McCombs, as the unit will look to keep pace with a defense that was nothing short of outstanding last season but is down a few stars who will hear their names called next weekend in New York.

Hank Hughes is the new man in charge of the defense, and he has Yawin Smallwood back to anchor a unit that has said goodbye to Sio Moore, Jory Johnson, Trevardo Williams and Blidi Wreh-Wilson. The Huskies boast plenty of potential in the middle with linebackers Graham Stewart, Ryan Donohue, Jefferson Ashiru and Omaine Stephens -- but that is just potential, for now.

UConn needs answers on both sides of the ball if it hopes to improve off head coach Paul Pasqualoni's consecutive 5-7 seasons.

SMU
The Mustangs will have an open practice at 9 a.m. local time at Pettus Practice Field, with many current and former players signing autographs afterward. There will be an NFL Punt, Pass and Kick competition afterward for kids ages 6 through eighth grade.

The Mustangs are intriguing, first and foremost, because they brought Hal Mumme aboard as their assistant head coach and passing game coordinator. Pairing the Air Raid curator with head coach June Jones and his run 'n' shoot pedigree is a fascinating experiment in and of itself.

Kenneth Acker, who is coming off a second-team All-Conference USA season in the secondary, is another experiment this spring, with the staff splitting the cornerback wide to catch some passes with the offense.

Defensively, the Mustangs are replacing a bulk of their production from last season, with Margus Hunt, Ja'Gared Davis and Taylor Reed all gone. Kevin Pope and Robert Seals must step up at linebacker.

TEMPLE
Head coach Matt Rhule's first spring will feature live kicking and punting, normal scoring and 15-minute quarters. Who will eventually emerge as quarterback, however, is another matter. Juice Granger and Thomas Rumer will see action on the Cherry squad, which is coached by defensive coordinator Phil Snow, while Chris Coyer and Connor Reilly will take reps for the White team, coached by offensive coordinator Marcus Satterfield.

Reilly has thrived under the pro-style attack, ascending to No. 1 on a depth chart that was expected to see Coyer and Granger fight for the top spot. Coyer has seen time as an H-back in practice, but Rhule said he will remain under center. Kevin Newsome, out with a shoulder injury, has been moved to H-back.

Reigning conference freshman of the year Tyler Matakevich leads a defense that struggled across the board last season, while Levi Brown and Sean Daniels are the big guys up front worth keeping an eye on.

The live kicking and punting part of Saturday's 1 p.m. contest at Edberg-Olson Hall is worth noting in that the Owls need to replace Brandon McManus, who held the school records for field goals made and punting average.
Traylon Shead arrived at Texas back in 2010 with great expectations already attached to him as one of the most highly touted recruits in the country.

But Shead never really got his career going with the Longhorns. After two seasons, he decided to transfer. His stat line when he left? Empty.

Shead landed at Navarro Junior College and vowed to himself that he would prove all his doubters wrong when he got his next shot in Division I.

Now here he is, with his next shot.

[+] EnlargeTraylon Shead
Photo/SMU AthleticsSMU running back Traylon Shead embraces the high expectations.
Shead arrived at SMU in January with great expectations, deja vu for a player already used to the pressure. With Zach Line gone, all eyes have turned to Shead as the next great running back for the Ponies. He has spent the spring learning the system and preparing himself for his moment in the spotlight come August.

"Because I have high expectations here, the biggest transition is to come in and try to have a big impact because, to live up to those expectations," Shead said in a recent phone interview. "That means I have to work a lot harder, study the playbook and be a good student.

"Being compared to Zach, it’s an honor. But also there’s a lot of pressure. If you don’t live up to it, you have a lot of criticism. In the back of my mind, this is my last go around in D-I and I really need to buckle down and prove all those doubters wrong and prove to everybody who gave me a chance that they gave the opportunity to the right person."

The comparisons between Line and Shead are easy to make. Both are bigger backs with deceptive speed. (Line is 6-foot-1, 230 pounds; Shead is 6-2, 225 pounds). Both excel at catching passes out of the backfield. Both are also good blockers. Shead, however, comes into SMU with much bigger expectations. Line was recruited to SMU as a linebacker. Shead was a Parade All-American.

Things just did not work out for him at Texas. When asked for his reasons behind transferring, Shead mentioned wanting to be closer to his daughter, Aniya, who turns 2 next month. Dallas is much closer to his hometown of Cayuga, Texas, than Austin. Shead saw that Line was about to end his SMU career so he had it in his mind that he wanted to play for the Mustangs after spending a year in junior college.

What a year it was. Shead ran for 1,194 yards and 17 touchdowns for Navarro in 2012. He signed with SMU in December and has been taking first-team reps for the past several weeks of spring practice, alternating with Prescott Line -- Zach's brother. Aniya and her mom -- Shead's girlfriend -- stay with Shead in Dallas for a majority of the week.

When asked for how he looks back on what happened at Texas, Shead said, "I take it as a learning experience but I appreciate the coaches for giving me the opportunity to come there and to leave in such a good way. Just not being able to play much there, I have a lot of doubters here and there. That’s my mentality since I was at Navarro, to get back to D-I and I appreciate SMU for giving me the opportunity. Now that I’m here, it’s time to prove those doubters wrong and prove I can play at D-I even though I came from a small school in East Texas. That and going home and seeing my daughter, are the two biggest factors that motivate me."

Shead says he feels as if he has picked up the offense well this spring, but has plenty more work to do in the offseason. He wants to work on his pad level, stamina and footwork, all while trying to pattern his game after Falcons running back Steven Jackson.

"Seeing how big of an impact he had in college and in the NFL -- that’s what I’m trying to work toward," Shead said. "He has speed and power, and he’s also a big back. We’re similar in size so that’s what I’m trying to get my game level to."

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