NCF Nation: American Athletic Conference
And, of course, new challenges, as well.
This is life now in the American Athletic Conference, which won’t complete its makeover complete until next season, when Navy joins the fold as a football-only member.
For now, it watches two others walk out the door while welcoming three new programs into the fold.
Goodbye, Louisville and Rutgers. Hello, East Carolina, Tulane and Tulsa.
And, if last season is any indication, the newcomers may not be second-class citizens upon their arrivals.
"There's enough talent around the country that creates a little bit more parity than people are talking about now," said East Carolina coach Ruffin McNeil. "I know they're trying to talk about these conferences and those conferences. Well, I've been to those conferences, and there's good football players in each league. And I feel we're ready to compete with anyone. I'm not afraid to say that, and I know other coaches in the league are not, either."
That became evident through UCF's historic campaign in the remodeled league's debut last season, with the Knights going 12-1 and topping Baylor in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl. These, of course, were the same Knights that lost twice to Tulsa a year earlier, and the Golden Hurricane now enter the American coming off a disappointing 3-9 season last fall.
That is all encouraging from one perspective. But the optimist's approach shows a similar surprising run could be on the horizon in 2014.
"East Carolina is going to have a huge advantage in our conference. I think they're going to be the next guys, to be honest, similar to UCF," said conference commissioner Mike Aresco.
"Everything's in place: They've got a Heisman candidate, they've got just some tremendous players and I think they're going to make a mark quickly because they've never had this kind of TV exposure. They've got a 50,000-seat stadium and they fill it up all the time. Their quarterback Shane Carden I think will be a Heisman candidate. I think they're the kind of team that will really benefit."
Among the old guard, UConn made a major move by hiring prized Notre Dame defensive coordinator Bob Diaco to head its program. Cincinnati has another year under Tommy Tuberville and could possibly start the most talked about quarterback to never take a college snap in Gunner Kiel.
The American begins life in the post-BCS era with no automatic entry to access bowls. It is a member of a group of five conferences from within which the top overall team will be granted a berth at the adults' postseason table.
It's not exactly ideal, but after enduring a year of turmoil and coming out on the other end with a BCS win and several probable high draft picks to its name, the league enters its next phase with a much more positive outlook.
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.
It was a wild one in Birmingham, Ala., but behind 17 unanswered points in the fourth quarter, Vanderbilt defeated Houston 41-24 in the BBVA Compass Bowl.
The Commodores opened the game with a 24-0 lead at halftime before allowing the Cougars to score 24 straight points of their own in the third quarter.
However, a 21-yard touchdown run and late interceptions by safety Jahmel McIntosh and cornerback Andre Hal helped seal Vandy's win after a valiant Houston comeback.
It was over when: Hal intercepted Houston quarterback John O'Korn and returned it 30 yards to the Houston 2-yard line, setting up Vandy's final touchdown.
Game ball goes to: In his final game in a Vanderbilt uniform, senior receiver Jordan Matthews led the Commodores with five catches for 143 yards and two touchdowns. Surprisingly, this was Matthews' first multi-touchdown game of the season. All of Matthews' stats came in the first half. He caught five of quarterback Patton Robinette's six pass completions. The SEC's all-time leader in receptions and receiving yards enjoyed a nice final game at the college level.
Stat of the game: It truly was a tale of two halves in Birmingham. The Commodores outgained Houston 232-22 in the first half and held the Cougars to just one first down. In the second half, Houston dominated the stat chart with 362 offensive yards to Vandy's 133. Houston outgained Vandy 309-44 in the third quarter alone.
Stat of the game II: Both teams combined to go 3-of-34 on third downs and punted 20 total times.
Unsung hero: Vandy kicker Carey Spear connected on two big field goals and five extra points. He also made a touchdown-saving tackle on a 62-yard kickoff return by Demarcus Ayers. The Cougars failed to score on the drive.
What it means for Vanderbilt: Vandy is now 16-4 in its past 20 games and has now won bowl games in back-to-back seasons for the first time in school history. The Commodores also have back-to-back nine-win seasons for the first time ever. Expect coach James Franklin to hear his named mentioned even more when it comes to head-coaching vacancies at both the college and pro level. It wasn't the prettiest victory after a bit of a second-half lull for the Commodores, but this win should still give the Commodores a ton of momentum going into the offseason. It certainly won't hurt in recruiting either.
What it means for Houston: The Cougars shouldn't hang their heads for too long after this loss. There is still a lot of good, young talent on this team, starting with O'Korn, receiver Deontay Greenberry and running back Ryan Jackson. The offense stalled against Vandy's stout defense early, but showed just how explosive it can be when things started to click in the third quarter. A solid second year under Tony Levine should help create higher expectations for a Houston program that should come back stronger in 2014.
To watch the trophy presentation of the BBVA Compass Bowl, click here.
George O'Leary has brought No. 15 UCF to the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl, arriving at the BCS party just as the band is breaking down and the barkeep is cleaning up. But O'Leary's career has been a case study in living one step out of the spotlight.
"You know what's funny about the whole thing?" O'Leary said. "We've won 10 games three out of the last four years. And nobody knew it. All of a sudden, we won 11, and because of the BCS, everybody sees it."
As the sweet old ladies in his New York City parish used to say, the map of Ireland is on O'Leary's face. The 67-year-old coach has that Big Apple mixture of romanticism wrapped in a cynical crust. His favorite tool is the needle. He has a million bits of Irish wisdom, aphorisms and toasts, nearly all of which his players hear over the span of their careers.
Put team before self. Don't ask for your name on your jersey. "It has your number on it," O'Leary tells them. "If you're any good, they'll know who you are."
Don't take shortcuts. "Don't learn the tricks of the trade," he has said. "Learn the trade."
What's funny about the whole thing is that a dozen years after he fell off the top of the mountain -- because he took a shortcut -- O'Leary has reached the top again.
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Notre Dame finally pulled away from Rutgers to escape Yankee Stadium with a 29-16 win Saturday in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl. Here's how it went down:
It was over when: Tarean Folston punched it in from three yards out with 3:38 remaining to make it 26-16 and give Notre Dame some much-needed breathing room. Redshirt senior Dan Fox picked off Rutgers quarterback Chas Dodd on the ensuing drive to effectively seal the game. Kyle Brindza added a 49-yard field goal to make it 29-16.
Game ball goes to: Folston was named the starter by coach Brian Kelly earlier this week. Before the game, Kelly issued a statement saying that George Atkinson III (and cornerback Jalen Brown) would not play due to a violation of team rules, which Atkinson tweeted (and then deleted) was him texting during a team meal. In any event, Folston took advantage of Atkinson's absence and might have gained the front-runner status for the starting running back job heading into next season. He capped his rookie year with 73 yards and a touchdown on 17 carries, adding three catches for 21 yards. Kudos to Cam McDaniel for being his reliable self, as he had 17 carries for 80 yards and added three catches for 29 yards. The duo did this behind an offensive line missing its three regular interior starters.
Stat of the game: Pick your poison: Notre Dame completely outdid Rutgers in first downs (31-16), total yards (494-236), takeaways (4-1) and time of possession (38:16-21:44). It is hard to imagine how the Scarlet Knights managed to stay in this game for so long (19-16 with four minutes left).
Unsung hero: Brindza connected on 5 of 6 field goal attempts on what was an uneven surface, helping Notre Dame put up points whenever its offense could not punch it in. That was two field goals clear of the Irish's bowl game record. Credit to TJ Jones for catching five balls for 66 yards and carrying it four times for 16 yards and a touchdown in his college finale as well. (Oh, and let's not overlook Louis Nix, who is injured and has signed with an agent, meaning he could not travel with the team. That did not stop him from providing terrific Twitter commentary throughout the afternoon.)
What it means for Notre Dame: Let's just say the Irish had a lot more to lose in this one than they had to gain. But they can exit 2013 with a 9-4 record, their second-best mark since 2006. From an optimist's perspective, this is probably what was expected outside of the program when starting quarterback Everett Golson got suspended from school in May and once the injuries kept mounting as the season progressed. Stephon Tuitt's NFL decision will play a huge role in determining preseason expectations for this team, but getting Golson and many offensive weapons back will be huge for a program that has yet to really turn the corner offensively in four years under Kelly.
What it means for Rutgers: Goodbye American Athletic Conference, hello Big Ten. The Scarlet Knights had some opportunities to make this game a lot more interesting, but a number of questionable calls prevented them from gaining some much-needed momentum in this game, which in turn prevented them from gaining some positive momentum going into their new conference. First, coach Kyle Flood elected to decline an offside penalty on an 18-yard field goal by Kyle Federico, passing on an opportunity to go for a short touchdown in a game with little to lose and few touchdown opportunities to be gained. Later, the Scarlet Knights ran a halfback pass from the Irish 20 with Justin Goodwin, who tossed an interception to KeiVarae Russell. Michigan State made a similar mistake against the Irish earlier this year, and that one also was picked, a game-turning play in what turned out to be the Spartans' lone loss this season.
To watch the trophy presentation of the New Era Pinstripe Bowl, click here.
Who to watch: TJ Jones is playing in his final college game. Notre Dame's team MVP from this season has caught 65 balls for 1,042 yards with nine touchdowns, becoming Tommy Rees' most reliable target. And he is facing a Rutgers defense that has been susceptible to the big play, as the Scarlet Knights have allowed an FBS-high 153 pass plays of 10 or more yards, an average of 13 per game. Look for Rees and Jones to connect early and often.
What to watch: This could also be Stephon Tuitt's final game. The 6-foot-6, 312-pound end is a nightmare for offensive linemen, tallying 18 sacks over the past two seasons. Seeing how much he -- along with a now-healthy Sheldon Day opposite him and what is likely to be a revolving door in the middle at nose guard -- can pressure Rutgers quarterback Chas Dodd into mistakes will probably dictate the flow of this game. The Scarlet Knights are tied for 98th nationally in sacks allowed, surrendering 2.58 per game, and Saturday could provide a nice opportunity for Tuitt to leave a final impression on NFL scouts, as the draft advisory board gave the junior a second-round grade, according to Brian Kelly.
Why to watch: This is the finale for a group of Notre Dame seniors who have, in large part, turned the program around. Many committed to the Charlie Weis regime -- or, in some cases, to no coach at all before Kelly was hired. They have gotten the Irish to a point where Pinstripe Bowl berths and eight- or nine-win seasons are disappointments, and they are a big reason why Kelly, the fourth-year coach, gave them such a strong say in where they would go bowling once a BCS bid was off the table. This could, in theory, be an audition for the Irish's two interim coordinators as well, as Mike Denbrock (offense) and Kerry Cooks (defense) will run their units after Chuck Martin and Bob Diaco left for head-coaching jobs at Miami (Ohio) and UConn, respectively.
Prediction: Notre Dame 38, Rutgers 14. The Irish offense will have its way with an uncharacteristically bad Scarlet Knight defense (one that is also with an interim coordinator, in Joe Rossi).
UCF Knights (11-1) vs. Baylor Bears (11-1)
Jan. 1, 8:30 p.m. ET, Glendale, Ariz. (ESPN)
UCF KNIGHTS BREAKDOWN
UCF entered its first year in the American Athletic Conference with high hopes. But nobody outside the program anticipated the Knights would win the conference championship. Not with preseason No. 9 Louisville standing in the way.
UCF went on the road and never flinched, not after falling behind 28-7. Blake Bortles calmly led a 38-35 comeback win, throwing the winning touchdown pass to Jeff Godfrey with 23 seconds remaining. The win paved the way for UCF to earn the American title outright and its first BCS bid as new league members. It also served as the biggest win in school history given where the Knights stand today.
Bortles keyed the season. The junior from Orlando threw for 3,280 yards this season, with 22 touchdowns to seven interceptions. He has risen up through NFL draft boards with his performance and now faces a decision about whether to return to UCF. But he wasn’t alone. The Knights have one of the deepest receiving groups in the league, as three players have at least 600 yards. Storm Johnson ran for 1,000 yards, and the Knights ranked in the top 20 in the nation in total defense, scoring defense, pass efficiency defense and rushing defense.
But the season was not without its share of drama. Five times UCF needed to come from behind in the second half to win conference games. That includes victories over Memphis, Temple and USF -- three of the worst teams in the league.
The Temple victory was perhaps the closest UCF came to seeing its BCS dreams end. The Knights trailed 36-29 with 2 minutes to go, but J.J. Worton made an acrobatic, one-handed touchdown catch to tie the game, and Bortles got the Knights into field goal range with 2 seconds left to lead the win.
History has been made. As the American moves forward into a new era, UCF gives the league plenty to build on. -- Andrea Adelson
BAYLOR BEARS BREAKDOWN
Dreams came true in Waco, Texas, this season, as Baylor rose from the conference cellar to Big 12 champions under the direction of Art Briles. The Bears could win 12 games for first time in program history with a Tostitos Fiesta Bowl win over UCF.
Quarterback Bryce Petty was easily the best signal-caller in the conference and played a major role in the Bears’ FBS-leading 53.3 points per game and 624.5 yards per game this season. He will lead a passing attack that could be a handful for a UCF defense that allowed 229.83 passing yards per game, tied for 61st in the FBS.
Even though Briles’ squad featured the nation’s most productive offense, the real foundation of Baylor’s first Big 12 championship was its defense. The Bears defense ranked among the top three in the Big 12 in most categories and led the conference in yards per play allowed (4.53) and yards per rush allowed (3.26).
Safety Ahmad Dixon brought a physical tone and unyielding confidence to the defense, while its front seven, led by defensive end Chris McAllister, was underrated throughout the fall.
After its strong finish to the 2012 season, Baylor was viewed as an Big 12 sleeper heading into the 2013 season. Turns out the Bears were the Big 12’s sleeper team. And much more. -- Brandon Chatmon
Cincinnati Bearcats (9-3) versus North Carolina Tar Heels (6-6)
Dec. 28, 3:20 p.m. ET, Charlotte, N.C. (ESPN)CINCINNATI BEARCATS BREAKDOWN
Tommy Tuberville’s tenure as Cincinnati coach got off to a perplexing start. A season-opening 35-point rout of Big Ten bottom-feeder Purdue was followed by a 28-point loss at underwhelming Illinois. Even worse, the Bearcats lost their starting quarterback for the season that day, as Munchie Legaux suffered a gruesome knee injury.
The Bearcats once again were led down the stretch by quarterback Brendon Kay, just as they were late last season. A sixth-year senior, Kay replaced an ineffective Legaux late in the 2012 season and filled in for an injured Legaux this year. He threw for at least 299 yards in each of Cincinnati's final six games, including consecutive 400-yard performances heading into the Louisville game.
Cincinnati is 9-3, and a second consecutive berth in the Belk Bowl will give it a chance to clinch a double-digit win season under Tuberville. That would give the Bearcats their sixth 10-win season in the past seven. To put that into perspective, the program had never done that until 2007, under Brian Kelly. Tuberville would be the third coach to take Cincinnati to that plateau. -- Matt Fortuna
The Tar Heels had one of the most impressive turnarounds in college football, as they started out 1-5 then reeled off five straight wins to become bowl eligible. UNC became just the sixth team since the regular season expanded to 12 games in 2006 to start 1-5 and still make it to a bowl game.
Ebron finished the regular season with 55 catches for 895 yards, an ACC single-season record for receiving yards by a tight end. Williams has 1,058 total offense yards in the past three games, the most in any three-game stretch in school history.
UNC has also gotten a boost from its return game this year, as freshman Ryan Switzer tied the single-season ACC record with four punt return touchdowns. The Tar Heels couldn’t get it done against rival Duke, though, and lost to the Blue Devils for the second straight season. With 13 seconds left in the game, Williams was intercepted.
Fortunately for UNC, though, its bowl bid was secured a week earlier with an 80-20 win over Old Dominion. After missing the postseason in 2012 because the program was ineligible, North Carolina will embrace its return to a bowl game. -- Heather Dinich
Dec. 28, noon ET, Bronx, N.Y. (ESPN)
RUTGERS SCARLET KNIGHTS BREAKDOWN
The Scarlet Knights clinched a share of the Big East title last season and looked in position to achieve similar success in their final year in the American Athletic Conference after a 4-1 start, with the only loss coming in overtime at Fresno State in the season opener.
But they dropped five of their next six games before winning Saturday, with Chas Dodd starting the final two contests at quarterback in place of Gary Nova. Dodd was mediocre in a loss at UConn before turning a strong outing on senior day, and he received a great performance from his defense.
But that was an outlier in a season that ended up costing coordinator Dave Cohen his job on Sunday. Rutgers surrendered 50-plus points three different times, and 40-plus points five times. The post-Christmas matchup with the Irish will be the program's final tune-up before it moves on to the Big Ten next season, and though AD Julie Hermann gave Flood a vote of confidence, Rutgers has shown little sign this season that it is ready for the step up in competition.
NOTRE DAME FIGHTING IRISH BREAKDOWN
An 8-4 season was not what Notre Dame had in mind after running the table in the regular season in 2012. But the Irish are hoping that the New Era Pinstripe Bowl can give their senior class a chance to go out on a high note.
The Irish were the only team to beat Michigan State in the regular season. Their victory over Arizona State grew more impressive by the week. So, too, did their victory over USC, as they missed Tommy Rees for much of the second half because of injury, but their defense stepped up to shut out the Trojans over the game's final 30 minutes. It was Notre Dame’s third victory over its rival in the teams' past four meetings.
The biggest steps back for Notre Dame this season came from the running game and defense. The backfield wasn’t consistently productive and the defense missed four starters from last year much more than initially anticipated. Season-ending injuries to Louis Nix, Jarrett Grace and Ben Councell did not help, and Stephon Tuitt and Sheldon Day were rarely healthy at the same time as Nix, rendering the defensive line thin.
Still, with the return of suspended quarterback Everett Golson imminent, a victory in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl could initiate some momentum toward a promising future.
After setting California single-season state records with 2,165 receiving yards and 33 touchdowns while leading Washington Union High to a Division III State Championship as a senior, Greenberry, the No. 17 wide receiver in 2012’s ESPN 300, had his pick of practically every prominent football program.
“Without a doubt, Deontay was one of the more highly touted guys that we’ve targeted,” said Houston assistant coach Jamie Christian, who recruited Greenberry to UH. “Navigating that process can be tough on a young guy. But, he had a vision for what he wanted, and his mom and brothers did a lot in terms of helping him stay grounded and focused on his goals.”
On signing day, Greenberry stunned the nation by selecting Houston over USC, Alabama, Arizona State and his initial commitment, Notre Dame, among others.
“I felt very comfortable with Coach Christian, and UH just felt like home. I visited the week before signing day and it was everything that I wanted,” Greenberry said. “People told me that I was crazy for passing on some of the big-time teams. But, to me, being surrounded by good people was more important than the name of the school.”
As a true freshman in 2012, Greenberry made an immediate impact on the Cougars, collecting 47 receptions for 569 yards and three touchdowns, en route to earning Conference USA All-Freshman Team honors.
This season, Greenberry has served as a steadying force for a Cougars offense that has been in flux since concussions ended the career of starting quarterback David Piland in early October.
“Deontay has grown a lot in the short time that he’s been with us,” Christian said. “He is becoming a better player because he's learning to free up his teammates by blocking and running routes without the ball. He’s stepping up because he knows that the guys are depending on him.”
Through seven games this season, Greenberry has already eclipsed his rookie numbers by accounting for 842 yards and eight touchdowns, all while learning to become a leader.
“Deontay has always been a lead-by-example type of guy, but lately, he is starting to speak up and work into a more vocal role,” Christian said. “He has the chance to be as good as he wants to be, because he has the physical abilities, the football IQ and the desire to lead. Deontay is just beginning to tap into his true potential.”
It’s a work in progress, but one that was evident last week against Rutgers, when the shifty, 6-foot-3, 198-pound sophomore gashed the Scarlet Knights’ secondary for a career-best 168 yards and three touchdowns.
“The only thing that I’m focused on right now is working on the details,” Greenberry said. “Whether it’s throwing a block or catching a touchdown, my teammates look to me to make plays and contribute every week.
“In some ways, it’s kind of overwhelming to realize that I’m living out my dream right now,” Greenberry added. “Everything has happened really fast. To be honest, there are times that I’m afraid to blink because I’m scared I might miss something.”
It was over when: Teddy Bridgewater threw his first touchdown pass. At least it felt that way. Bridgewater was absolutely terrific from the moment the game started, opening 9-of-9 for 122 yards and two touchdowns. There is a reason NFL scouts filled the Louisville press box on Sunday.
Gameball goes to: Bridgewater. The Heisman hopeful threw four first-half touchdown passes, the most in a half for the Cards since Dave Ragone threw four in the first half against East Carolina in 2002. Bridgewater ended his day going 23-of-28 for 355 yards with five touchdowns and one interception in just three quarters.
Unsung heroes: Kai De La Cruz and Damian Copeland. The Cardinals have the best group of receivers in the American, and one of the most talented in the country. They are deep, too. You saw that against Ohio as each player caught two touchdown passes. Copeland ended with 98 yards, and De La Cruz registered the first 100-yard game of his career.
What it means: Louisville opened its quest to compete for a BCS championship without much trouble. While it is easy to dismiss Ohio as a team from the MAC, we also saw many FCS upsets over the weekend -- including one ranked team going down. Just about everybody expected to see a stellar performance from Bridgewater, who had both college and NFL experts drooling all over Twitter. Perhaps the best part of the game from a Cards perspective was seeing the way the defense played. This was a group that was sometimes lackadaisical last season and oftentimes did not exert its will up front. But we saw this group come on strong in the Allstate Sugar Bowl win over Florida, and that tenacity continued against the Bobcats. Ohio came in with a good dual-threat quarterback in Tyler Tettleton, but he was completely shut down and the Bobcats could get nothing going all day. Penalties were a problem for Louisville, but those are mistakes that can get cleaned up. When you couple a strong defense with talent at quarterback, running back and receiver, you have the makings of a very special season.