NCF Nation: South Florida Bulls

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.

3-point stance: Ducks not giving it up

September, 24, 2013
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1. We get blinded by all the gaudy stats thrown onto the scoreboard by Oregon -- 61.3 points and 672 yards per game -- but here's one that's pretty remarkable. The Ducks, averaging 72 plays per game, have yet to turn the ball over in three games. Not only that, the turnover-free streak actually is five games long. Oregon last lost a turnover in the 17-14 loss to Stanford in Game 11 last season. The Ducks are plus-seven in turnover margin this season, and plus-52 in the Chip Kelly/Mark Helfrich Era.

2. At the other end of the spectrum is West Virginia, which turned the ball over as many times as it punted -- six! -- in the 37-0 loss at Maryland. How bad did West Virginia perform? Maryland scored seven times -- once on defense. Four of the offensive scoring drives began in Mountaineers' territory. Since starting last season 5-0 and rising to No. 5 in the rankings, West Virginia has gone 2-8 against FBS opponents, the victories coming at Iowa State last season and against Georgia State this month.

3. Anyone else noticed that the American is 4-6 against the other AQ conferences? That would be the same American that is being left behind by the College Football Playoff next season. The American can finish .500 against the AQs with a couple of longshots this week. No. 13 South Carolina plays at unbeaten UCF, which seems a more plausible upset than USF's chance at home against No. 14 Miami. The Bulls (0-3) already have used three quarterbacks this season. They have completed 37.1 percent of their passes.
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.
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.
Florida State and USF have set a home-and-home series for 2015 and 2016, the schools announced Monday.

USF will visit Tallahassee on Sept. 26, 2015, with the Seminoles making the trip to Tampa on Sept. 24, 2016.

"We’ve been working collaboratively on extending the series between USF and FSU for some time," USF athletic director Doug Woolard said. "The two previous games provided such great atmospheres for both of our fan bases that it was important for us to extend the series. Combined with our recent non-conference scheduling announcements, we’re very pleased with how our future schedules have come together."

Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher said, "We're excited to have USF back on the schedule. They're a great program. It's been a good series thus far, and it's great for our fans to have another in-state series on the schedule."

In the first meeting between the two schools in 2009, USF visited Doak Campbell Stadium in Tallahassee and pulled the 17-7 upset. The Seminoles made the return trip to Tampa last season, handing the Bulls a 30-17 defeat in front of a USF-record 69,383 fans.
Almost every mock draft or board looking at next season has Louisville Cardinals quarterback Teddy Bridgewater placed at No. 1 or No. 2 overall. Andrea and SEC blogger Edward Aschoff had a spirited debate about this earlier this week, with Aschoff siding with South Carolina end Jadeveon Clowney.

Scouts Inc.'s Todd McShay has chimed in this week as well, and he is going with Clowney , though the Big East is hardly overlooked on his initial 2014 draft board.

Two players from the conference make the top 32, with one just missing the cut.

Bridgewater is at No. 2, USF end Aaron Lynch is at No. 28 and Rutgers wideout Brandon Coleman is on the "10 more to monitor" list.

Of course, this is all assuming that Bridgewater and Lynch leave school early. Coleman, too, is eligible for a fifth year in 2014. Lynch still has three years of eligibility remaining, and would jump based off just two years of college ball, as he sat out the 2012 season following his transfer from Notre Dame.

While there is no denying Lynch is a first-round talent -- his 5.5 sacks in Year 1 with the Irish demonstrated that -- maturity issues are obviously a question mark following a 2011 season that saw him get called for his six penalties (and refuse to apologize for them). Notre Dame running the regular-season table without him in 2012 is hardly a glowing endorsement, and he won't be facing the same competition this fall that he had while in South Bend, Ind., though Bulls coach Willie Taggart spoke about Lynch turning a corner this spring.

Coleman, meanwhile, has quietly crept up on a few recent draft boards after a season in which he amassed 718 yards and 10 scores. He sat out this spring while recovering from minor knee surgery, but given Rutgers' lack of experience at receiver, and the return of Gary Nova under center, he is in position to have another breakout year in 2013.
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.
Willie Taggart has been anything but subtle since taking over the reigns at USF. That extends beyond the football field, too.

On Tuesday, the Bulls' new head coach took his enthusiasm to a whole new level, appearing at a news conference to help promote TNA Impact Wrestling's upcoming show at the USF Sun Dome in Tampa, Fla. His partner in crime? None other than Hulk Hogan.

[+] EnlargeWillie Taggert
Photo courtesy of USFUSF coach Willie Taggart meets with Hulk Hogan and the wrestler Magnus to promote a TNA Wrestling event set for Tampa next month
"What are you gonna do when the Hulkmania and Bullmania goes wild on you, baby?!?!" Taggart shouted to the assembled crowd.

Taggart presented Hogan, who attended USF in the 1970s, a green No. 1 Bulls jersey bearing his last name on the back. Hogan returned the favor by giving the coach a championship belt.

"Because we know what's gonna happen this season, and we're gonna go ahead and predict the future ahead of time, I'm gonna go ahead, put the belt on the championship school, championship coach and championship team this year," Hogan screamed.

The event will tape live May 23 on Spike TV.

USF posted a video Tuesday of Hogan and wrestler Magnus with Taggart, who fittingly caps Hogan's brief speech with a Do Somethin'.

Taggart has plenty of work to do in turning around a Bulls team that went 3-9 a season ago. But with a little more than four months in Tampa under the coach's belt, we have learned that, if nothing else, the Taggart era will not lack for entertainment in one fashion or another.
USF beefed up its nonconference schedule Friday, announcing future home-and-home series with Wisconsin and Maryland.

“We are pleased to be able to add quality Big Ten opponents in Wisconsin and Maryland to our football schedule,” athletic director Doug Woolard said in a statement. “They should be outstanding opportunities for our football program as well as attractive games for our fans.”

The Bulls will face the Badgers in Madison on Sept. 27, 2014, with a second game taking place in Tampa, Fla., on Sept. 16, 2017.

The Terrapins will be in Tampa on Sept. 6, 2014 before hosting the Bulls in College Park on Sept. 19, 2015.

USF's 2014 nonconference slate will now feature two Big Ten opponents and an ACC one, as NC State travels to Raymond James Stadium on Sept. 13, 2014.

“This is the type of schedule we want to have here at USF,” coach Willie Taggart said in a statement. “We want to challenge and prove ourselves against top competition. We think it is important to play these types of non-conference games, not only for recruiting, but also to excite our fan base and for the continued growth of our program.”
Last Wednesday's announcements that Connecticut had agreed to a home-and-home series with Boise State and that Cincinnati would be heading to the Big House in 2017 were the latest in a trend that has seen BCS-conference schools boost their nonconference schedule strength.

While the soon-to-be-former Big East is entering its last season as a BCS school, before the four-team college football playoff takes into effect in the 2014-15 season, aggressive scheduling is one way to keep the league on the national radar.

The slates will provide several opportunities for big national upsets in the coming years, so here's a look at some of the notable future opponents for each current conference school.

Cincinnati: The Bearcats host Purdue this season and will travel to West Lafayette, Ind., in 2016. They go to Illinois this year as well, a return trip from the schools' 2009 game at Nippert Stadium. In addition to going to Michigan in 2017, Cincinnati goes to Ohio State in 2014 and 2016 and has a home-and-home with BYU set for 2015 and 2016 (at BYU, at Cincinnati).

Connecticut: The Huskies host Michigan and Maryland this year, the second parts of home-and-homes from 2010 and 2012, respectively. In addition to the Boise State home-and-home set for 2014 and 2018 (at UConn, at Boise), UConn has a home-and-home with BYU in 2014 and 2015 (at UConn, at BYU), a home-and-home with Tennessee set for 2015 and 2016 (at UConn, at Tennessee) and a home-and-home with Virginia scheduled for 2016 and 2017 (at UConn, at Virginia).

Houston: The Cougars host BYU this year and head to Provo, Utah next year.

Louisville: The Kentucky series is the only one the Cardinals currently have scheduled with a BCS-conference opponent through 2016, going to Lexington this season and in 2015, with the Wildcats visiting in 2014 and 2016. Perhaps that will change when the Cardinals begin ACC play in the 2014 campaign.

Memphis: The Tigers host Duke this season after visiting the Blue Devils in 2012. They have a home-and-home with UCLA for 2014 and 2017 (at UCLA, at Memphis), a home-and-home with Kansas for 2015 and 2016 (at Kansas, at Memphis), a home-and-home with Missouri for 2015 and 2016 (at Memphis, at Missouri) and a four-game home-and-home with Ole Miss from 2014-17, beginning in Oxford, Miss.

Rutgers: The Scarlet Knights host Arkansas this season after traveling to Fayetteville, Ark., in 2012. They will host future Big East member Tulane in 2014, each's first season in its new conference, after playing the Green Wave in Piscataway, N.J., in 2010 and in New Orleans last season. Miami (FL) visits Rutgers in 2018 and hosts it in 2019, and the Scarlet Knights have future home-and-homes with UCLA (2016 at Rutgers, 2017 in L.A.) and Kansas (2015 at Rutgers, 2018 in Lawrence, Kan.) To Rutgers' credit, it had also originally scheduled home-and-homes with Maryland and Penn State before it had announced that it was moving to the Big Ten.

SMU: The Mustangs have quite the in-state home-and-home lineup. They canceled this season's home game with Baylor, and while it is unknown if the 2013 game will be made up or bought-out completely, the schools still have a home-and-home scheduled through 2019. The Battlle for the Iron Skillet with TCU will continue through 2017, with the Horned Frogs playing host this season. SMU will go to Texas A&M this year and host the Aggies in 2014, closing out a four-year home-and-home. They begin this season with a Friday night home contest against Texas Tech.

Temple: The Owls begin the Matt Rhule era at Notre Dame this season, a place they will re-visit in 2017. The Irish will visit Philadelphia in 2014. The two-for-one Penn State series continues from 2014-16, with the Nittany Lions visiting Philly in 2015. Temple will host Maryland in 2014 and travel to College Park at a future date to be determined, after a home-and-home in 2011 and 2012 that saw the visiting team win each time (Temple, then Maryland).

UCF: The Knights aren't backing down as they move up a level of play. They go to Penn State this season and will host the Lions in either 2014 or 2015. They host South Carolina this season and visit the Gamecocks in 2015. They go to Missouri in 2014 after hosting the Tigers this past season. They host BYU in 2014 after visiting the Cougars in 2011. And they go to Maryland in 2016 before hosting the Terps the following season. UCF has a 2017 date at Texas, too, as part of an agreement that saw the Longhorns visit the Knights in 2007 for UCF's first game in its new stadium before hosting them in 2009.

USF: The Bulls host Michigan State this season as part of a two-game home-and-home that will be returned in 2017. They will play the final game of a five-game series with the Miami (FL) this fall at home as well. USF will host North Carolina State in 2014, have a two-game home-and-home with Indiana in 2015 and 2016 (at USF, at Indiana) and play at Florida sometime in the future.
Willie Taggart's youthful exuberance is palpable everywhere, from the music he blasts at South Florida practices to the declarations he makes about his Bulls team to the media — "come out every single day with an enthusiasm unknown to mankind."

The 36-year-old Taggart is the youngest head coach in a Big East that boasts no shortage of them. Taggart is the fifth-youngest coach in the nation in 2013, according to a list of 14 that Temple provided to the Philadelphia Inquirer's Keith Pompey.

Taggart is less than a month younger than the sixth-youngest coach on that list, second-year Memphis coach Justin Fuente. Two spots lower? That would be 38-year-old Temple head man Matt Rhule, giving the Big East three of the nation's eight youngest coaches.

As for the flip side of things, UCF coach George O'Leary is the elder statesman of the league, at 66 years old. O'Leary is the sixth-oldest coach in the nation in 2013.

Connecticut's Paul Pasqualoni (63) and SMU's June Jones (60) also crack the 60-and-over crowd, coming in as the ninth- and 17th-oldest active coaches, respectively.

Here is a list of Big East coaches by birth date:

Willie Taggart, USF (Aug. 27, 1976)
Justin Fuente, Memphis (July 30, 1976)
Matt Rhule, Temple (Jan. 31, 1975)
Tony Levine, Houston (Oct. 28, 1972)
Kyle Flood, Rutgers (Jan. 20, 1971)
Charlie Strong, Louisville (Aug. 2, 1960)
Tommy Tuberville, Cincinnati (Sept. 18, 1954)
June Jones, SMU (Feb. 19, 1953)
Paul Pasqualoni (Aug. 16, 1949)
George O'Leary (Aug. 17, 1946)

Q&A: USF coach Willie Taggart

March, 20, 2013
3/20/13
9:00
AM ET
Willie Taggart has wasted no time since arriving in Tampa, Fla. The former Western Kentucky coach and Bradenton, Fla., native has made a strong first impression after taking over the South Florida program in December.

Taggart opens his first spring with the Bulls on Wednesday, and we caught up with him earlier this week to talk about his expectations as USF takes the first steps toward turning around a 3-9 campaign from a season ago.

Does it feel like it's been three months already?

Willie Taggart: It seems like it's been longer than that. It's like, geez, can we just out here and play a little football? It seems like it's been forever, but it's been good though. It gives us a lot of opportunities to get to know our players and pretty much get to know everyone around here. In a new environment you want to get a good feel for how things operate around here and try to get to know everyone, so it's been awesome from that standpoint.

How nice is it to finally take off the suit and get to work with this group?

WT: Oohhhh, it's nice. Can't wait to put on the shorts and go out and have my whistle on, go back to -- this is what I do, coach ball. And more importantly just to get around our guys. I'm really anxious to get out there, watch our guys compete. They've done a great job this offseason, winter conditioning. I'm really seeing them compete in football. I think that's what we all are waiting to see and see what we're going to have going into the fall.

You've promised to kick up the intensity. What are the challenges of doing that with a first spring?

WT: I think more than anything it's just teaching them how you're going to do things, and once they see how you do it, you do it constantly day in and day out. Then it becomes a part of them. We always talk around here,"We've got to train them." Either you're trained or you're untrained. And we've got to train them to do it how we want and come out every single day with an enthusiasm unknown to mankind.

Think they're used to your enthusiasm yet?

WT: It seems like they've bought in. They get fired up and we get them going every day. When we went out for winter conditioning they had a lot of juice, a lot of excitement. I know spring ball, whether it's me or anyone else here, beginning of spring ball, those guys come out fired up. But I think our guys now are more anxious to go out and learn the new system and impress the coaches. They all have to do that. They all compete for jobs, so I think they'll all be fired up about that.

What are you looking for from the quarterback position?

WT: A smart guy, first and foremost. Guy's got to be smart, a workaholic. Football is everything to them. That they're going to be in that film room constantly to get better. Guys that are competitive, competitive guys. And they've got to be tough. I think that's one position you've really got to be tough, mentally and physically, and being a leader. But I want those guys to go out and compete and lead this football team on and off, the way they carry themselves and the way they compete. It's hard to be a leader if you're not making plays.

What about running back?

[+] EnlargeWillie Taggart
AP Photo/The Tampa Bay Times, Daniel WallaceOne of the top priorities for first-year USF coach Willie Taggart: finding the right fit at quarterback heading into the season opener.
WT: I know Mike Pierre and Marcus Shaw have done a great job this offseason in winter conditioning and in the weight room. They've done a great job of doing all the things we've asked them to do. Really been impressed with those guys. Looking forward to seeing those guys come out and competing on the football field. Want to see them translate what they've been doing in winter conditioning to the football field. Marc is one of those guys I sat down with when I first got here, told him he looked the same way he did when I first met him when he was getting recruited. It's time now. We don't have much time. It's time now to be the player that we all intend for you to be and that you intended to be when you decided to come to school here. I think he's taken that and used it to motivate himself to be the player that he wants to be. Now we need to see it on the football field on Wednesday. And I told him -- this offense, it's been pretty successful for running backs. So if any one of these guys is not successful, it's not the offense. They proved it, the last few backs. There's a high standard that you're living up to right now and we're going to keep that standard going. But they're excited about it.

What do you think of the UCF game being played on Black Friday?

WT: I haven't even thought about that, to be honest with you. To be flat-out honest with you, I haven't thought about it being on Black Friday and really haven't thought much of playing Central Florida. Been all about playing McNeese State [in the Aug. 31 opener] and even before them, just playing each other this spring. I haven't thought that far ahead. Now's just more getting our guys together. But I think it's going to be great -- just the rivalry, which I think drives college athletics, is these rivalries. Great to have one.

I know UCF catching up in recruiting isn't ideal for you guys, but between your arrival and them joining the Big East, how invigorating is it to have that kind of local rival as you start at USF?

WT: It's a good thing. Both of us in the same conference and we're competing, trying to do the same thing, win the conference championship. And we all know that it all starts with recruiting. You've got to get the players in that can play football and help you win and coach them up. It's awesome. Anyone we're playing and competing against, we've got to beat them all. Not just on the field but off the field, too, we're trying to.

I don't want to say easier, but how much different has it been on the I-4 corridor talking to coaches, kids and parents as a South Florida coach?

WT: I think it's easier because a lot of kids we're recruiting are here in Florida and we're not trying to convince them to come to Kentucky, to leave and go up in the cold and play ball. So I think from that standpoint it's a little easier. But if it's anything, it's just that we have a lot of contacts down here, a lot of previous relationships that are helping us. It's not like we're trying to get to know anyone; we know them. A lot of these kids nowadays, especially in this area, they've been growing up wanting to be a South Florida Bull, unlike when I was growing up around here -- I wanted to be Florida, Miami or Florida State. That's changing with these kids as they grow up. I think a lot of their parents grew up like I did, enjoying those schools. But these kids now are growing up and they're seeing South Florida around now. And a lot of them are intrigued and a lot of them wanted to be a Bull from way back when, and that's exciting to see, especially when we're coming off a 3-9 season. To get the interest and seeing the kids that are excited about being South Florida Bulls has been really, really impressive.

Defensively, what's your philosophy? I know you want to blitz a lot. Anything you're specifically looking to see this spring from that side of the ball?

WT: You want to be sound. You want to be a tough, physical defense. When teams play us I want guys saying, "That's a physical football team. That team's going to hit you no matter what. They're going to hit you and make plays." I do believe defense wins championships, and we've got to have a great defense. There's too many good offenses out here now, you've got to be able to stop them, and we have a lot of talent on this team. There's no reason for us not to be really good on defense, but you've got to be sound, you've got to be disciplined at what you do. And then at the end of the day you've got to make plays. Once you get in those positions and the coach puts them in those positions, the kids make that play. But we've got to find the right kids that can make those plays and then put them on the field so they can do it.

One of those kids is a pretty talented recruit, he had a great first year at Notre Dame, Aaron Lynch. What's it been like being around him so far, and how do you think not playing for a year has maybe put a bit of a chip on his shoulder?

WT: It's been fun being around Aaron. He's one of those guys, my first days on the job I sat down and talked with him, talked with him about expectations on this football team and him making himself better as a football player. And he's been committed to doing that. His winter conditioning has been great. Watching him go out and run and compete, making himself better. He's becoming a mature kid. He got married last year. He's one of the guys on the team that's married. He just came back from spring break and he cut all of his hair off, looks sharp now. First it was wild. We had a team meeting, I'm looking for all the wild hair and I don't see him. I'm at the whole team, I'm like, "Where is Aaron Lynch?" And they're like, "Oh, he's back there, Coach." I'm like, "Wow, this is what spring break'll do for you! Can we have another week of spring break around here?" Again, to me when a guy does something like that it's a sign of maturity, and a guy that's willing to change and make himself better. I know nowadays it's hard to do that when a lot of your peers are doing it and look at those guys. But for a guy like that to cut his hair off and get himself sharp and think about the way people look at him and want to represent himself the right way, it's really impressive. And if he'll continue to work hard and do those things it'll pay off on the football team. He can be everything that he wants to be, and I don't think he'll fail at football.

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