NCF Nation: Bruce Irvin

Big East: D-E-F-E-N-S-E

May, 4, 2012
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Anybody who has watched the Big East in recent years realizes this a much more defensive league, than offensive league.

Last season, seven of the eight teams ranked in the top half of the nation in total defense. The "worst" defense, Syracuse, ranked No. 64 -- just outside the top half. In 2010, six of eight teams ranked in the top half of the nation in the same category. The "worst" two defenses -- Cincinnati and Rutgers -- were ranked No. 61 and 63, respectively. In 2009, the worst defense, Cincinnati, ranked No. 67 in the nation.

I went back and looked at recent draft history to see how this translated to the next level.

[+] EnlargeChandler Jones
Jason O. Watson/US PresswireSyracuse defensive end Chandler Jones was drafted in the first round by New England last month.
Sure enough, defensive players were selected more than offensive players, and in higher rounds to boot.

In the past two drafts, 21 of the 34 players selected came from the defense. In the recently concluded NFL draft, eight of the 12 Big East players came from the defense. More pronounced, five of the seven players drafted in the first three rounds were defensive, and all played defensive line (Bruce Irvin, Chandler Jones, Derek Wolfe, Kendall Reyes and John Hughes).

Going back to the 2010 draft, 12 of the 16 players taken in the first three rounds were on defense.

We can continue looking a bit deeper to see defensive line has been an incredible strength, not just in the draft this year. In the past four drafts, the Big East has had at least one defensive lineman drafted in the first three rounds. Last year, two of the first four Big East picks were linemen. In 2010, Jason Pierre-Paul of USF went in the first round.

Coaches like Charlie Strong, Greg Schiano, Randy Edsall, Dave Wannstedt, Paul Pasqualoni and Jim Leavitt all have had a hand in the transformation, given their defensive backgrounds.

So will the trend hold for the 2013 draft?

In the super early mock drafts for next season, there are no Big East players listed in the first round. But CBS Sports already has a listing of the top draft prospects, by position. Eleven defensive players are listed among the Top 25 players at their respective positions, compared to five on offense.

However, there are more offensive players ranked among the Top 5 at their positions. Justin Pugh of Syracuse is listed as the No. 4 offensive tackle; Ray Graham of Pitt is listed as the No. 5 running back; and Ryan Griffin of UConn is listed as the No. 5 tight end.

The top-ranked defensive player is Khaseem Greene, at No. 6 among outside linebackers. Sio Moore of UConn also makes that list, at No. 9.

There is obviously an entire season of football to be played, and all these projections will change. But the way the Big East's defensive players have emerged is a trend worth noting.
You saw him beat up on Big East quarterbacks the last two years, so you know what West Virginia defensive end Bruce Irvin can do when he is playing at his best.

And yet, Irvin turned out to be the biggest draft-day surprise Thursday, when Seattle took him with the No. 15 overall pick, eliciting a chorus of "Who?" among the uninitiated. Most experts had pegged another Big East player -- Syracuse defensive end Chandler Jones -- to go to the Seahawks.

[+] EnlargeBruce Irvin
Randy Litzinger/Icon SMIFormer West Virginia defensive end Bruce Irvin was only one of two players with Big East ties selected in Thursday's first round of the NFL draft.
Jones did eventually go in the first round, at No. 21 to the New England Patriots. They were the only two players with Big East ties selected on the first day of the draft, which turns out to be more than most everybody expected. A few months ago, most wondered whether the Big East would even have one player taken in the first round.

A few months ago, most had Irvin pegged as a second or third-round pick. Scratch that. A mere 24 hours ago, most had Irvin pegged as a second or third-round pick. His measurables are undeniable. He can run like a cheetah, as he proved at the NFL combine with his blazing 4.41 in the 40-yard dash. He can take down quarterbacks like a possessed man-child, as evidence by his 23 sacks in two years with the Mountaineers.

The Seahawks called him the best pure pass-rusher available in the draft, which is why they made him the first defensive end selected Thursday night. So why all the shock? The doubters? The haters?

For one, Irvin is a raw talent, having only played two years on the highest level in college football. He played in a defensive formation that nobody uses in the NFL. He struggled on non-passing downs, so much so that West Virginia took him out of the starting lineup after five games so he could return to his duties as a pass-rush specialist.

Listen to him when he says, "I've heard I'm a one-trick pony. But the crazy thing is I got 23 sacks in two years and I've never been coached. If I get a little coaching, just imagine what I can do."

He has a background that no doubt scared some teams off, when in fact, they probably should have taken a much harder look to see how the adversity he overcame built his character and gave him an unparalleled work ethic. Irvin could very well be homeless in Atlanta today, had he not accepted help and made the conscious decision to change his life. There are many others who have failed given the same opportunities.

Granted, Irvin did not help his situation when he was arrested last month and charged with destruction of property and disorderly conduct. Those charges have since been dropped. Was it a reminder to some teams to throw up a red flag?

That hardly matters now. Seattle coach Pete Carroll is fully aware of what Irvin has gone through, having recruited him out of Mt. San Antonio Junior College while still coaching USC. Most of all, he is fully aware of the incredible potential Irvin has to fill a need that the Seahawks sorely need.

Coaches often say players succeed or fail in the NFL based on the organization that drafts them, and whether or not they have NFL coaches who believe in them. Drafting Irvin so high is a huge risk. But every team takes a risk of some kind in the NFL draft, so that should not make this pick any more shocking than Miami drafting a quarterback who went 7-6 last year at perennial underachiever Texas A&M.

Drafting is all about projecting, same as in recruiting. There is no complete player in the draft. Every pick is a guess. Seattle is guessing Irvin will be worth the risk.

The spotlight is firmly on Irvin and the Seahawks now. He has the potential to be great. Now in addition to learning a new system and accepting the coaching, he will have to deal with expectations that come with being a first-round pick. Folks will want him to live up to some preconceived notion of what first-round picks should do. If Irvin is as ferocious rushing the passer in the NFL as he was in college, I believe he will not only meet those expectations.

He will exceed them.

Big East position rankings: DL

February, 21, 2012
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As we move along in our final position rankings for the 2011 season, we come to the defense. First up: defensive line. To me, this was the strongest, deepest position in the Big East; thus the toughest to rank. Trust me when I say I would not call any of these defensive fronts bad, although they each had their moments to forget. Six of the eight teams in the league in 2011 gave up more than 200 yards rushing at least once. Read on to find out the two that did not.

For these rankings, I am taking into account both rush defense, sacks, tackles for loss, personnel and my own impressions from what I saw this season.

[+] EnlargeCincinnati defensive tackle Derek Wolfe in action during a college football game against Akron, Saturday, Sept. 17, 2011 in Cincinnati.
AP Photo/Al BehrmanDefensive tackle Derek Wolfe and Cincinnati led the nation in tackles for loss this past season.
1. Cincinnati. Not only were the Bearcats the most improved group this season, they were the best up front -- No. 2 in the Big East in rush defense; No. 2 in the nation in sacks; No. 1 in the nation tackles for loss. Tackle Derek Wolfe won Co-Big East Defensive Player of the year. Twice, opponents were held to negative yards rushing. Yes, there was one bad game late in the season against Rutgers. But otherwise, this unit was aggressive and tenacious and the best of the bunch. Preseason rank: 7 (Yikes!)

2. Pitt. This is a group that got better as the season went on, and collectively had some pretty solid performances. Among the top eight players in sacks in the Big East -- three belong to the Panthers (Aaron Donald, Chas Alecxih and Brandon Lindsey). Their ability to get after the quarterback is a big reason why I have them here. They might have ranked No. 5 in the league in rushing defense, but they were No. 21 in the nation. Donald and Alecxih also earned spots on the Big East second team. Preseason rank: 2.

3. USF. The Bulls were vastly better at the end of the season than they were at the beginning, yet I still can't get that performance against Pitt out of my head (gave up more than 300 yards on the ground), probably because I was in the stadium and have not seen a worse display of run defense in a long time. Still, I give these guys credit for bouncing back. After that game, the highest run total USF yielded was 132 to Louisville. The Bulls ranked No. 2 in the nation in tackles for loss, No. 3 in the Big East for sacks and were able to develop some solid players up front. Preseason rank: 4.

4. UConn. The difficulty in ranking the Huskies is the fact that most teams just decided to throw on them, which probably skews the No. 1 run defense ranking a little. There were only 385 rushing attempts against them this past season -- the only Big East school with fewer than 400. Still, UConn did not allow 200 yards on the ground this season, a rare feat in the league. Trevardo Williams led the league in sacks with 12.5, and Kendall Reyes contributed 13.5 tackles for loss and has the potential to be a first-round NFL pick. Reyes was a first-team Big East selection; Williams made the second team. Preseason rank: 1.

5. Rutgers. Yes, the run defense was tough to watch at times (three straight games allowing more than 200 yards rushing), but the Scarlet Knights were able to get back to what they do best -- pressuring the quarterback and taking players down in the backfield. Last season, Rutgers had 17 total sacks. This past season, the Scarlet Knights ranked No. 4 in the league with 36. Justin Francis led the way with 6.5, and Scott Vallone made improvements as well. Preseason rank: 8.

6. Louisville. Injuries on the front really hurt the Cardinals this past season. They did rank No. 3 in the league in rushing defense, but there was never a real sense that they could produce a consistent pass rush from their linemen. Louisville ranked No. 6 in tackles for loss and No. 6 in sacks. The team leader in sacks, Marcus Smith, had 5.5. Only Syracuse ranks lower in that category. There is great potential here as the young players who got experience showed definite flashes. Preseason rank: 5.

7. West Virginia. As much as I think Bruce Irvin and Julian Miller are terrific players, this group as a whole I thought was disappointing in 2011. There were definite strides at the end of the season, but for most of the season we all wondered what was wrong with the potent pass rush? Through nine weeks, West Virginia had 10 sacks. That improved in a big way once Irvin was used in more situational downs, but the Mountaineers ranked No. 7 in the Big East in sacks (31) and No. 8 in tackles for loss, along with No. 8 in run defense. Though they never gave up 200 yards on the ground, they did give up more than 180 four times. Preseason rank: 3.

8. Syracuse. The Orange never really got much going along the front, and a big reason why is because they missed Chandler Jones so much while he was gone. The fact that he made the Big East first team in only seven games should prove how badly he was needed. Syracuse ranked No. 7 in the league in tackles for loss; No. 8 in sacks (28), and No. 6 in rushing defense. Those TFL and sack stats are pretty good nationally, but these guys are being judged against the rest of the Big East, and most games, they just fell short. Preseason rank: 6.

Big 12 spring football preview

February, 21, 2012
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Spring football is already under way at Texas Tech, but in the coming weeks, the Big 12's other nine programs will join the Red Raiders in taking the field as a team for the first time since January, December or November for some.

Here's a preview of what to expect:

BAYLOR BEARS

Spring practice start date: March 19
Spring game: April 14

What to watch:
  • Nick Florence: It's not official, but the Baylor quarterback job is Florence's to lose. That means he inherits the unenviable task of replacing the school's first Heisman winner. He replaced RG3 in 2009 with mixed results, but showed some major potential in a win over Texas Tech when RG3 took a shot to the head and sat out the second half. Can he keep the bowl streak alive at Baylor? We'll get an idea this spring.
  • The defense's progression: You didn't need to see much more than the 67-56 Alamo Bowl win over Washington to know the Bears needed some work on defense. In the month of November, Baylor became the first team in FBS history to win four consecutive games in a single season while also giving up at least 30 points in each of those games. The defense can't make Florence pick up the slack to that level. Year 2 under Phil Bennett must be better. Baylor has no excuses. The Bears have the athletes on campus necessary to be at least a decent defense.
  • The team's attitude/motivation: Baylor played with a lot of purpose the past two seasons, and made history in both, cracking a 16-year bowl drought and winning 10 games this year. Is that fire still there? Baylor has to prove it is without RG3 (and Kendall Wright) carrying the team on the field, emotionally and mentally.
IOWA STATE CYCLONES

Spring practice start date: March 20
Spring game: April 14

What to watch:
  • The quarterback battle: Or is it? Jared Barnett looked like the man of the future in Ames late in the season, leading the Cyclones to an historic upset of No. 2 Oklahoma State. But in the ugly Pinstripe Bowl loss to a mediocre Rutgers team, Barnett's inaccuracy posed big questions. He was benched and Steele Jantz stepped in, though he didn't play much better than Barnett. Turnovers were an issue for Jantz early on, but Barnett has to bounce back in the spring to make sure the job doesn't come open.
  • The receivers: Darius Reynolds was the big-play man for the Cyclones, but he's gone. It's going to be tough to replace him. Slot receivers Aaron Horne and Josh Lenz were productive, but did little to stretch defenses like Reynolds did. Can ISU find someone to fill the void?
  • The new man at left tackle: Iowa State had the luxury of having a future pro, Kelechi Osemele, at left tackle for the past three seasons. He earned All-Big 12 nods in each of those seasons, but he's gone now. Junior Carter Bykowski was behind Osemele on the depth chart, but will the converted tight end be the new man at tackle for the Cyclones?
KANSAS JAYHAWKS

Spring practice start date: March 27
Spring game: April 28

What to watch:
  • Uh, everything?: I mean, what's not to watch at KU? Charlie Weis steps in for the fired Turner Gill and tries to build KU up from nothing. The Jayhawks were one of the worst teams in Big 12 history last season, losing six games by at least 30 points. Weis will speak his mind and watching him rebuilding the Jayhawks is going to be fun. It all starts next month -- on the field, at least.
  • KU's new pass-catch combo: Dayne Crist is on campus, and so is Oklahoma transfer Justin McCay, a former blue-chip recruit who didn't quite catch on in Norman. Quarterback and receiver were arguably the two biggest positions of need for KU last year, and we'll get a preview of what could be a productive combo next season. McCay isn't officially eligible for the 2012 season yet -- he needs the NCAA to waive its mandated redshirt year after a transfer -- but the coaching staff is confident he'll have it granted.
  • The uncertainty on the depth chart: When a new staff comes in, you never know what to expect. Kansas' leading rusher in its final season under Mark Mangino, Toben Opurum, is now one of its best defensive linemen. Look for Weis to shake things up, too. Where? Who knows?
KANSAS STATE WILDCATS

Spring practice start date: April 4
Spring game: April 28

What to watch:
  • Collin Klein's maturation: Kansas State's quarterback could be fun to watch this spring and next fall. His throwing motion isn't pretty, but his accuracy improved in a big way throughout the season. If that continues at a pace anything close to what we saw last year, K-State's going to be a load for everyone. Look out.
  • Developing depth at running back: John Hubert is back, and so is seldom-used Angelo Pease. Bryce Brown is gone, though. Klein handles a lot of the heavy lifting in the running game, but it'd be some nice insurance if K-State could establish some more depth in the backfield. Making Klein carry the ball 300 times again is tempting fate.
  • Stars becoming superstars: Kansas State brings back more starters than all but seven teams in college football, so this team is going to look remarkably similar in 2012 to the way it did last year. However, it should get better. And its two transfers could look dominant this spring. Cornerback Nigel Malone and linebacker Arthur Brown emerged as stars last year, but we could see the duo emerge as true game-changers this spring. Look out, Big 12 offenses.
OKLAHOMA SOONERS

Spring practice start date: March 8
Spring game: April 14

What to watch:
  • New faces on, off the field: Mike Stoops' arrival as the defensive coordinator was the biggest news this offseason in the Big 12, and Brent Venables, who had been at OU for all of Bob Stoops' tenure, left for Clemson rather than become co-defensive coordinator. Hopes are high that Stoops can revitalize Oklahoma's defense. He was in charge when the Sooners rode a dominant D to the 2000 national title, and the Sooners have the talent to win it all in 2012. Receiver Trey Metoyer joins the team this spring, and could be a major contributor immediately. Two of the team's four new tight ends are also enrolled early.
  • QB Blake Bell's role: The Belldozer is back … but so is full-time quarterback Landry Jones. How will the balance between the duo look this spring? And what new wrinkles will we see in Oklahoma's simple, yet near-unstoppable short-yardage formation that scored 13 touchdowns in the second half of 2011?
  • The battle at defensive end: Oklahoma must fill two huge holes at defensive end. Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year Frank Alexander is gone, as is possible first-round pick Ronnell Lewis. R.J. Washington contributed late and has potential, but David King filled in for Lewis in the final three games of the season. The duo could be great, but it could also be pretty pedestrian. We'll get an idea this spring, but Lewis and Alexander set a high, high bar.
OKLAHOMA STATE COWBOYS

Spring practice start date: March 12
Spring game: April 21

What to watch:
  • The quarterback battle: This will easily be the highest-profile, highest-quality quarterback battle in the Big 12. It won't be at the level of Texas Tech in 2010, but it won't be too far off. Clint Chelf, J.W. Walsh and Wes Lunt will go head to head. All have plenty of potential, though Lunt may have the most. The big-armed true freshman also has the least experience. Anything could happen here.
  • Which receivers rise: Justin Blackmon and Josh Cooper leave huge holes behind. It's not every day a two-time Biletnikoff Award winner walks on campus. Hubert Anyiam is gone, too. Michael Harrison is unlikely to play for the 2012 season, but the school has offered no confirmation on his status. He had the most potential, but OSU is deep at the position. Who emerges as the top target? Isaiah Anderson? Tracy Moore? Josh Stewart? Anything could happen there, too.
  • Defense needs a leader: Safety Markelle Martin has been the heart of the defense the past two seasons, but his big-hitting days are over. Who becomes the new voice of the defense? It needs to find leadership this spring heading into summer voluntary workouts.
TEXAS LONGHORNS

Spring practice start date: Feb. 23
Spring game: April 1

What to watch:
  • The quarterback competition: I still think having a competition at the spot, which Texas says it will, isn't the best option, but David Ash and Case McCoy will go at it alongside early-enrolling freshman Connor Brewer. If Ash secures the job, expect an announcement heading into summer officially anointing the sophomore.
  • More sophistication on both sides of the ball: The progression is natural and likely. Offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin and defensive coordinator Manny Diaz had good first years in Austin, but this is Year 2. The spring won't be devoted to learning the playbook. It's time to master it. Both units could look markedly different, and much more refined next fall. Deny it all you like: Texas is back on its way to the top after a rough two years.
  • Maturing offensive weapons: Last season, the Longhorns relied on two true freshman running backs (Malcolm Brown/Joe Bergeron), a freshman/sophomore rotation at quarterback and its top receiver (Jaxon Shipley) was a true freshman. No. 2 (Mike Davis) was a sophomore. I hope I don't have to tell you what freshmen and sophomores do in college football. Look. Out.
TCU HORNED FROGS

Spring practice start date: Feb. 25
Spring end date: April 5

What to watch:
  • Can TCU shut out the scandal? Four team members were arrested in a recent drug sting and kicked off the team. How much of a distraction will that be for a program undergoing the most monumental change in its history? Quantifying the effects of the scandal will be pretty impossible, and we've got no idea how they'll handle the change, but will it be on players' minds?
  • The offense tightens up: The Horned Frogs' offense is absolutely loaded and ready to go for 2012. Quarterback Casey Pachall returns and brings his top three weapons (Josh Boyce, Skye Dawson and Brandon Carter) with him. Running backs Waymon James, Ed Wesley and Matthew Tucker each topped 700 yards rushing in 2011 and all return. The spring will be all about fine-tuning an already stellar offense, and it'll be fun to watch.
  • Replacing departed starters: All-America linebacker Tanner Brock was among the four football players arrested and booted from the team, as was all-conference defensive tackle D.J. Yendrey and likely starting safety Devin Johnson. Those were unforeseen losses, but TCU can't feel sorry for itself. Gary Patterson has no choice but to find new faces to fill those holes.
TEXAS TECH RED RAIDERS

Spring practice start date: Feb. 17
Spring game: March 24

What to watch:
  • Once again, a new defense: Texas Tech sounds like a broken record these days when it comes to defensive coordinators. This time, Art Kaufman will be stepping to the microphone as the fourth defensive coordinator in Lubbock in four years. He's bringing a 4-3, a shift back to what Ruffin McNeil ran in 2009. Chad Glasgow's 4-2-5 and James Willis' 3-4 failed miserably in 2011 and 2010, respectively, the first two years under Tommy Tuberville.
  • The battle at running back: No one knows yet if Eric Stephens will be back next season. There's still a long way to go in his rehab from a dislocated knee he suffered last season in a loss to Texas A&M. DeAndre Washington is also out this spring after tearing his ACL against Missouri. Harrison Jeffers hung up his cleats. Who will prove to be reliable this spring? Look for the Red Raiders to try to use sophomore Bradley Marquez, freshman Javares McRoy and junior SaDale Foster in a manner similar to the way Oregon uses scatback De'Anthony Thomas, with lots of short passes and bubble screens to get them the ball in space, where they can use their speed and shiftiness to make plays.
  • Team health: Tuberville said earlier this month that the team is missing 15 players this spring. It can't afford any more injuries. It's already going to be tough to get enough done this spring, but Tech can't start getting banged up.
WEST VIRGINIA MOUNTAINEERS

Spring practice start date: March 11
Spring game: April 21

What to watch:
  • Dana Holgorsen's offense in Year 2: Holgorsen didn't get a chance to coach his talented offense at Oklahoma State in its second year. The results could have been crazy. They might be at West Virginia in 2012, and the beginning steps will be taken this spring as Geno Smith & Co. get more and more comfortable with the system and Holgorsen adds more wrinkles.
  • The battle at running back: Sophomore Dustin Garrison hurt his knee in practices leading up to the Mountaineers' 70-33 Orange Bowl win over Clemson, and won't be there for the spring. What does senior Shawne Alston have in store for the spring? Garrison was the featured back last season, but a big spring could help Alston earn a few carries next year.
  • Defense needs help: Najee Goode leaves a big hole at linebacker, and defensive back Eain Smith's exit means the Mountaineers enter the season without two of their top three tacklers from a year ago. Bruce Irvin and Julian Miller's talents on the defensive line will be tough to replace, and in a league that requires a great pass rush, Irvin, Goode and Miller's 19 combined sacks must be replaced somehow.
We're back, and the kindly introduction is over. It's time to get to know the real West Virginia.

How will the Mountaineers handle the transition? Big 12 blogger David Ubben and Big East blogger Andrea Adelson debated the issue.

David Ubben: TCU's jump would seem to be a lot bigger, but the Big East has had its well-chronicled struggles the past few years. The Mountaineers left the league with a convincing Orange Bowl win against Clemson, scoring 70 points in the process. Talk about endearing yourself to your new offensive-minded friends, huh? You've seen this team up close lately, though. What, if anything, do you think WVU will have to change to get back to the BCS as a Big-12 member?

[+] EnlargeBrodrick Jenkins
Kim Klement/US PresswireBrodrick Jenkins, an up-and-coming cornerback, will lead the Mountaineers into Big 12 play next season.
Andrea Adelson: Well, one thing that definitely is going to change is the way West Virginia plays defense. Long-time defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel is out, and so is the odd 3-3-5 stack defense. The Mountaineers are going to go with a 3-4 base set under former Oklahoma State assistant Joe DeForest. This should help ease the transition from the stack, as West Virginia does not have the type of players on the roster to go with four down linemen.

In addition to the new scheme, West Virginia is losing its two best pass-rushers in Bruce Irvin and Julian Miller, perhaps its best defensive player in linebacker Najee Goode, and its best cover corner in Keith Tandy. There were times last season when the Mountaineers got beat deep in pass coverage, which will not bode well in Big 12 play.

However, cornerback Brodrick Jenkins has the potential to be truly terrific in 2012. He showed flashes late last season. As for the offense, coach Dana Holgorsen is looking for perfection. That means more consistent play out of an offensive line that was mediocre at times last season, and more explosion out of the run game. Starting running back Dustin Garrison is coming off ACL surgery, so it will be interesting to see whether he will be the same back come August.

Say what you will about the Holgorsen passing offense, but he definitely wants a running back to complement Geno Smith the way Kendall Hunter did with Brandon Weeden at Oklahoma State in 2010. How do you think West Virginia will fit in to its new conference home?

DU: WVU is a good fit on the field. Geographically, not so much, but the Big 12 teams have to like that. There's a lot of uneasiness with TCU entering the league. That could shake up recruiting a lot and cut into the share of teams like Oklahoma State and Texas Tech.

But West Virginia's clearly a strong brand. This is a team that could just as easily have been in the SEC. Instead, it's in the Big 12. The three BCS wins are a big deal, as was the Orange Bowl win. That's endeared the Mountaineers to their new opponents in the Big 12. To win like that on that kind of stage says a lot about where the program is and where it's headed. Having a coach like Holgorsen, who has lots of ties to Texas, will help them grab a few players in Texas, too. The difference between WVU and Mizzou isn't much when you think about recruiting in Texas. I could see WVU being the biggest threat to Missouri recruiting in Texas.

But like TCU, winning games gets people excited. Big 12 fans are psyched about the Mountaineers, who seem like a fun group.

How do you think WVU's transition will compare to TCU's?

AA: Watching a team put up 70 points is always fun! Hearing a guy like Holgorsen talk is always fun because you never know what he is going to say.

But on to your question: I think West Virginia will have a much smoother transition than TCU because it has played in an AQ conference already. Yeah, OK enter your Big Least jokes in here. But West Virginia has been a solid program throughout the course of its history. Note that the Mountaineers are one of just 14 schools to have 700 program victories -- joining Texas and Oklahoma from the Big 12.

West Virginia is one of just three schools to have at least nine wins in seven straight seasons. That doesn't happen by accident. And it's also important to note West Virginia is not exactly in a recruiting hotbed. Talent does not come pouring out of the state the way it does in Texas. The Mountaineers have built pipelines into Florida -- Geno Smith and Stedman Bailey being two notable examples on the squad -- and try to mine talent in Baltimore, Virginia and Washington, D.C. So I do think there will be inroads made into Texas with the Big 12 affiliation.

Already on the roster from the state are starting running back Dustin Garrison and quarterback Ford Childress, an ESPNU 150 player in the class of 2012. I respect the job Gary Patterson has done in building TCU, but I simply think there is going to be much more of a growing curve for a team transitioning to an automatic qualifying conference. What do you think?

DU: I'd agree. The Big East has been weak, but there aren't any teams like New Mexico and UNLV in that league, who are little more than a week off for teams as talented as TCU has been the past few years. Show up and you win.

Last year, even Kansas beat the MAC champions, Northern Illinois, before losing its final 10 games of 2011. Big 12 champion Oklahoma State lost to 6-7 Iowa State, too. This league is so, so deep. You have to show up and play well every week, and even then, you might not win. In 2010, 11 of the league's 12 teams had five wins and at least played a game with a chance to win six and qualify for a bowl game.

This year, nine of the 10 teams did that. It's got elite teams, too. Texas and OU played for titles in 2008 and 2009 and OSU was barely shut out of the title game this year.

The depth of the Big 12 is what TCU will have to get used to. In that sense, WVU will have to adjust much less. Of course, you never know for sure. We'll find out next year. WVU had some head-scratching losses, too. Losing to Syracuse by 26 points? Really? Sheesh.

Both of these teams are built to win in 2012, and I think they'll do it. But winning a Big 12 title requires you to show up every week and play well. In the Big East, which sent an eight-win team to the BCS in 2010, that hasn't necessarily been true.

In the Big 12, Texas or OU has basically run through the year with 0-2 losses every single season. If WVU wants to win this league, they'll have to do that.

When do you think WVU will win its first title? Will it win one?

[+] EnlargeGeno Smith
Kim Klement/US PresswireGeno Smith will enter the Big 12 in his third season as West Virginia's starting quarterback.
AA: It is tough to put a time frame on when West Virginia will win a league title. As crazy as it might sound, I think this team is built to contend in 2012. The Mountaineers dropped FSU from the nonconference schedule, so you could consider Kansas as filling that void. I am sure West Virginia takes that.

Oklahoma is going to be a preseason national favorite, but after that, every single team returning has major question marks. Is Texas going to be Texas? What does Baylor do without RG3? What does Oklahoma State do without Weeden and Justin Blackmon?

You bring up a good point about the head-scratching losses. There have been a bunch of those over the last several seasons -- including TWO in a row to Syracuse. This is a team that has simply been inconsistent. It didn't put together a full game against Clemson. But I think Geno Smith, Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey are going to be a handful for teams to stop, so I wouldn't be surprised if the Mountaineers were a surprise contender in 2012. Are you buying or selling?

DU: I'd generally agree. Year 1 seems to be their best chance. It's a wide-open year in the Big 12, and I think Oklahoma's a bit overrated heading into next year, though the potential for a national title run is there. Texas looks like it's on its way back up, but next year won't be the year.

If it doesn't happen next year, though, I don't think WVU will win a Big 12 title in the next decade. It's a solid program that I think could get into the BCS, but win the Big 12?

With the stability, metroplex location and winning tradition, I like TCU's upside a whole lot more, and its ability to win a Big 12 title in the future. I'm buying a Horned Frogs Big 12 title in the next decade. Not so much on WVU.

Time to put you on the spot: What's WVU's record next year and Big 12 finish?

AA: I can see the hate mail trickling into the Big 12 mailbag over that one, Mr. Ubben!
I am going to say West Virginia goes 10-2 and finishes second in the Big 12. What say you?

DU: Maybe so. But hey, that's how we do things on the Big 12 Blog. I call it like I see it. And I see more potential for the Froggies, though I think the Mountaineers will be a solid, solid program. I wouldn't be that surprised if they won the league, but I'm not betting on it.

This is a league built around the state of Texas, and the location's going to make it tough for them to consistently field teams that can win 11-12 games consistently.

Next year, I'll take 9-3 for the Mountaineers, but a tie for third place.
With one day to go before signing day, it is worth taking a look back at how the players on the Big East first-team fared when they were coming out of high school.

You will see, once again, that recruiting rankings generally have nothing to do with the way a player will do in college. So anybody freaking out about what your school does or does not have in the way of commitments for 2012, just take a deep breath. And look at how some of the most unheralded players out of high school become some of the best in the Big East.

I used ESPN recruiting rankings. Note only one player honored on the first team was ranked as an ESPNU150 player. Many on defense came in as either athletes, receivers or quarterbacks.

Offense

[+] EnlargeCincinnati defensive tackle Derek Wolfe in action during a college football game against Akron, Saturday, Sept. 17, 2011 in Cincinnati.
AP Photo/Al BehrmanCincinnati defensive tackle Derek Wolfe -- the 2011 co-Big East Defensive Player of the Year -- was unranked coming out of high school.
WR Mohamed Sanu, Rutgers. Sanu was ranked the No. 18 safety in the nation coming out of high school in 2009, with a scout grade of 80.

WR/RS Tavon Austin, West Virginia. Austin was rated the No. 41 running back in the nation coming out of high school in 2009 -- three spots behind De'Antwan Williams (Rutgers) and one spot behind Jason Douglas (Pitt). Know who else was ranked ahead -- Victor Marc and Bradley Battles of USF.

OT Justin Pugh, Syracuse. Unranked at his position for the class of 2009, Pugh got a scout grade of 40. Talk about making the most of somebody who was "undervalued."

OT Don Barclay, West Virginia. Ranked No. 65 at his position in the class of 2007. One other West Virginia player was ranked athead of him, at No. 55 -- Gino Gradkowski, who transferred to Delaware.

OG Randy Martinez, Cincinnati. Rated the No. 161 defensive end in the class of 2007.

OG Art Forst, Rutgers. Forst was ranked the No. 25 offensive tackle in the class of 2008 -- the second-highest Big East player on the list behind Lucas Nix of Pitt.

OG Andrew Tiller, Syracuse. Tiller was unranked and did not even get a scouts grade when he was being evaluated in 2009 out of Nassau Community College.

C Moe Petrus, Connecticut. The best center in the Big East was unranked and had no scouts grade when he signed with UConn in 2007.

TE Nick Provo, Syracuse. Provo was ranked No. 86 at his position in the class of 2007

QB Geno Smith, West Virginia. Smith has lived up to his billing -- ranking No. 97 on the ESPNU150 in the class of 2009. He was the No. 8 player at his position and No. 15 in the state of Florida.

RB Isaiah Pead, Cincinnati. The No. 152 ranked running back in the class of 2008, Pead got a scout grade of 71. He just won MVP Honors on the Senior Bowl.

RB Ray Graham, Pittsburgh. Rated the No. 66 running back in the class of 2009, Graham was rated behind West Virginia's Daquan Hargrett (left program) and USF's Adaris Bellamy (academics).

RB Antwon Bailey, Syracuse. Ranked the No. 128 running back in the class of 2008 -- well behind fellow signee Averin Collier (No. 42). Collier was considered the gem of the class, but academics derailed his career.

K Dave Teggart, Connecticut. Teggart was ranked the No. 25 kicker in the class of 2007.

Defense

DL Derek Wolfe, Cincinnati. Wolfe was unranked at his position in the class of 2008 and got a scout grade of 40. Four years later, he was the co-Big East Defensive Player of the Year.

DL Kendall Reyes, Connecticut. Reyes also was unranked in his position in the class of 2007 with a scout grade of 40. Believe it or not, he came into UConn at 220 pounds (he's now around 300) and now has a shot to be a mid-round draft pick.

DL Chandler Jones, Syracuse. Jones came to Syracuse as a 230-pound tight end, unranked and giving a scout grade of 40. Now he is headed to the NFL draft as a projected second-to-third round pick.

DL Bruce Irvin, West Virginia. Irvin took an incredible journey to West Virginia through Mt. SAC junior college after dropping out of high school.

LB JK Schaffer, Cincinnati. Schaffer was ranked the No. 93 outside linebacker in the class of 2008, behind such players as Tyler Urban, Marvin Booker (Rutgers), Quavon Taylor (USF) and Marcus Witherspoon (Rutgers).

LB Khaseem Greene, Rutgers. No ranking or scout grade for Greene, who went to prep school before arriving at Rutgers.

LB Najee Goode, West Virginia. Goode was a quarterback and linebacker in high school who was not ranked.

CB Adrian Bushell, Louisville. Bushell was ranked the No. 21 cornerback in the class of 2008 and originally signed with Florida. After playing at junior college, he made an immediate impact with the Cardinals.

CB Keith Tandy, West Virginia. Tandy was ranked the No. 207 quarterback in the nation in the class of 2007. The same group that featured Jimmy Clausen and Ryan Mallett.

S Drew Frey, Cincinnati. Frey was a receiver coming out of high school and unranked, with a scout grade of 40.

S Hakeem Smith, Louisville. Smith was ranked the No. 93 receiver in the class of 2009, but his athleticism allowed him to switch to defense and emerge as one of the best safeties in the league.

S Jarred Holley, Pittsburgh. Also a receiver in the class of 2008, Holley was ranked No. 230 at that position with a scout grade of 65.

S Duron Harmon, Rutgers. The No. 49 athlete in the class of 2009, he was ranked below teammate Jamal Merrell, Todd Thomas of Pitt and Kayvon Webster of USF.

P Pat O'Donnell, Cincinnati. O'Donnell was unranked with a scout grade of 40, but he has emerged as one of the most impressive iron men in the league.

Big East recruiting needs

January, 23, 2012
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National signing day is inching ever closer, so it is time to take a look at the biggest recruiting needs for every team in the Big East.

Cincinnati

Defensive line. Cincinnati loses a host of seniors from this position, including Co-Defensive Player of the Year Derek Wolfe, John Hughes, Monte Taylor, and Rob Trigg. Factor in the key contributors for 2012 will be seniors in Dan Giordano, Brandon Mills and Walter Stewart and it is time to reload at this position.

Receiver. There is some promising young talent on the roster, but several guys are going to be leaving in the next few years. The Bearcats really need a guy who can stretch the field and make some big plays to join Anthony McClung and Alex Chisum.

Secondary. The Bearcats are going to take a hit at this position after 2012, losing a ton of seniors-to-be, including Cam Cheatham, Drew Frey, Dominique Battle and Reuben Johnson. Senior safety Wesley Richardson is already gone. The lone four-star commitment the Bearcats have is from a safety, Marcus Foster.

UConn

Quarterback. This need has been addressed in this recruiting cycle, with junior college transfer Chandler Whitmer and Casey Cochran already enrolled in school.

Tight end. With the impending departure of Ryan Griffin and John Delahunt, the Huskies could use another young player to be groomed to take over. Tight end is a critical part of the UConn offense.

Offensive line. UConn is losing its two best linemen in Moe Petrus and Mike Ryan. Of the 16 linemen currently listed on the roster, seven are juniors or seniors. Linemen generally take a redshirt season, so it never hurts to sign more to be able to restock.

Louisville

Linebacker. The Cardinals are losing Dexter Heyman and have a lot of juniors and seniors on their roster at this position. It is no surprise, then, that three of the top players coming in are linebackers -- Keith Brown and James Burgess are already enrolled; four-star recruit Nick Dawson has given a commitment.

Offensive line. Louisville has young players here, but not much depth, as evidenced this season when several true freshmen were forced to play much earlier than anticipated. It never hurts to build depth here, and the Cardinals have gotten a huge commit from four-star guard Abraham Garcia out of Miami.

Running back. This was an area the Cardinals struggled in this season, having to move quarterback Dominique Brown to the position. Victor Anderson is gone, and this team could really used another back to carry the load.

Pitt

Quarterback. This one is pretty self explanatory if you watched Tino Sunseri play. Mark Myers and Trey Anderson are also on the roster, but the Panthers are in definite need here -- which is why so many fans are looking forward to commit Chad Voytik coming to town.

Linebacker. This has been an area of inconsistency for the Panthers, who lose their best player in Max Gruder. There are some young players with talent in Todd Thomas and Ejuan Price, but this position could definitely use an upgrade.

Receiver. The play of the offense was disappointing this season, and that includes the receivers. Pitt could use some players to stretch the field. Ronald Jones was a start this season. But when you consider that Cameron Saddler, Mike Shanahan and Devin Street will all be upperclassmen in 2012, this is a definite area of need.

Rutgers

Receiver. Mohamed Sanu is gone, and Mark Harrison is a senior to be. There is plenty of young talent, but there is a reason Rutgers has commitments from four athletes. This gives the Scarlet Knights the flexibility to try them at receiver or running back, another area of need.

Running back. Once Savon Huggins got hurt this year, Rutgers had Jawan Jamison and Jeremy Deering at running back and that was about it. Depth has to be developed here.

Offensive line. Strides have absolutely been made at this position, but coach Greg Schiano likes to reiterate that the Scarlet Knights aren't going to pull themselves out of the hole they were in overnight. They need another solid draft class at this position to keep building.

USF

Secondary. Injuries and inconsistent play this season showed the Bulls really lacked some depth and need some immediate help in this area, which is why they signed junior college cornerbacks Fidel Montgomery and Josh Brown. One of their top four-star commitments is cornerback Chris Bivins.

Quarterback. Beyond B.J. Daniels, a senior in 2012, the Bulls have Bobby Eveld and Matt Floyd as the two heirs to take over. Eveld has been less than impressive, and we don't know much about Floyd. The Bulls would be served to get another quarterback in as they prepare for the future.

Running back. Darrell Scott is gone, and the Bulls are really in need of a game breaker at this position. Demetris Murray is going to be a senior, and nobody else really has stepped up at the position. Depth has to be built here, because USF goes into spring practice with four running backs on the roster.

Syracuse

Defensive line. The Orange are losing Chandler Jones and Mikhail Marinovich and could really used some difference-makers up front who can help get after the quarterback. Depth is an issue here. One of their big commitments so far has been defensive end Josh Manley out of Georgia.

Secondary. This was one of the weakest parts of the team and now the Orange lose Phillip Thomas and Kevyn Scott, and there was a lack of depth when injuries hit this position in 2011. Brooklyn prep safety Wayne Morgan would be a huge get to add to this unit.

Receiver. Alec Lemon is a senior, Van Chew is gone and who knows what happens with Marcus Sales. The bottom line is the Orange are in major need of a game-changer to turn 15-yard passes into 40-yard receptions.

West Virginia

Quarterback. Geno Smith is a rising senior and after him it is crickets in the form of one player behind him in Paul Millard. So consider this need majorly filled with Ford Childress, ranked No. 139 on the ESPNU 150.

Offensive line. The most inconsistent part of the team in 2011, West Virginia has a major need here. The Mountaineers struggled so badly here they started converted defensive lineman Curtis Feigt late in the season. Don Barclay is gone, and Joe Madsen, Jeff Braun and Josh Jenkins are all upperclassmen.

Defensive line. Julian Miller, Josh Taylor and Bruce Irvin are gone, and there are depth concerns here. West Virginia has four commitments from defensive linemen already.

Big East offseason to-do lists

January, 20, 2012
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Every team has plenty to do in the offseason. Today, I present to you my top priorities for each Big East program headed into the 2012 season.

Cincinnati
  • Settle on a quarterback. If 2011 was any indication, then Munchie Legaux seems a sure bet to start next season. He showed flashes, but he needs to spend the bulk of his offseason developing a nice rhythm and chemistry with his receivers. That was one of the biggest roadblocks for him when he took over for Zach Collaros. Cincinnati has some good talent at receiver -- with Anthony McClung, Kenbrell Thompkins and Alex Chisum coming back -- so this must be a top priority.
  • Develop senior leadership. The Bearcats are losing the best senior class in school history, filled with leaders left and right. With guys such as Collaros, Isaiah Pead and JK Schaffer gone, who is going to take the responsibility of leading this team? That is something that must be worked on throughout the offseason.
UConn
  • Find a quarterback. Sounds the same as last season, right? The Huskies never really found one in 2011 and that is a big reason why they struggled. Spring practice has the potential to have five different quarterbacks taking reps in Johnny McEntee, Scott McCummings, Michael Nebrich, Chandler Whitmer and Casey Cochran. Somebody has to emerge to take a hold of this offense.
  • Work on improving the secondary. The weakest part of this team last season ranked No. 113 in the nation, so this is a clear area that has to get better. The Huskies were hurt when starting cornerback Blidi Wreh-Wilson missed a good chunk of the season with a knee injury, and they also had to rely on freshmen in Byron Jones and Ty-Meer Brown. This group will be much more experienced, so you have to hope they will be much better, too.
Louisville
  • Mature. The Cardinals were one of the youngest teams in the nation last season, and their immaturity showed at times. But now they enter the offseason with exceedingly high expectations. Many preseason lists have them ranked in the Top 25 and challenging for the Big East title. This team will still be young in 2012, so it will be imperative for coach Charlie Strong to help get this group to mature quickly and stay focused.
  • Work on the run game. Strong wants the run game to be the bread-and-butter of the offense, and this was an area that took a step back in 2011 with Bilal Powell gone. Louisville went from being ranked No. 1 in the Big East to No. 5 in the Big East, averaging 121.5 yards per game. That is down over 50 yards per game. Dominique Brown and Jeremy Wright are back, but they have to be consistent and the Cardinals probably need somebody else to emerge.
Pitt
  • New identity. A new coach means a new identity, so it will be interesting to see how the Panthers look under Paul Chryst and his new staff. We will find out when spring practice opens in March. There is plenty of talent on the roster, but the big question is how will the talent be utilized?
  • Is Tino the man? This is starting to sound like a trend, right? The Panthers have quarterback issues as well after Tino Sunseri had a season to forget. Much of his performance can probably be laid at the feet of former coach Todd Graham, who stubbornly tried to run an offensive system that was not suited for the players he had. You can be sure Chryst will open up the quarterback competition to see who emerges.
Rutgers
  • Handle expectations. The Scarlet Knights have not been so good in the past when the pressure is on. All you have to do is look back at what happened this season, with a shot to win a share of the Big East title. Now they are getting some preseason love and probably have their best team since 2006. So coach Greg Schiano is going to have to do a good job of managing preparation and focus because expectations were raised off a successful 2011 campaign.
  • Quarterback derby. Yet another Big East team with a quarterback question mark. Chas Dodd and Gary Nova ended up splitting the starts this past season. Now there is the possibility that former quarterback Tom Savage transfers back in. I don't know if Schiano can afford to keep playing musical chairs with his quarterbacks every season.
USF
  • Re-focus. The Bulls have to put 2011 behind them and focus on the future. This is still a team that has the talent to win. Coach Skip Holtz has to find a way to get that done. This is going to be a veteran team that has been through good times and bad. He needs leaders who will their teammates to victory, who know how to win close games and are determined to get this team back on top. Who are they?
  • New defense. USF brings in new defensive coordinator Chris Cosh from Kansas State, its third different coordinator in the past four years. Getting the players adapted to his scheme as soon as possible has to be a point of emphasis in the spring and throughout the offseason.
Syracuse
  • More offensive consistency. To be sure, Ryan Nassib and Alec Lemon both had career years and made strides for the Orange. But a lot of that was because the run game was inconsistent, and Syracuse found itself trailing late in several games. This team has to find a way to sustain drives and score -- Syracuse was No. 7 in the Big East in scoring offense (24.2 ppg).
  • Shore up the defense. The Orange lose some of their best players on the defensive line, and have to get better in the secondary, which was a major problem for most of the year. Syracuse ranked No. 98 in the nation in pass defense, and they lose some key contributors. Shamarko Thomas is really going to have to step up and take control of this group.
West Virginia
  • Big 12 or Big East? The Mountaineers are bent on leaving for the Big 12, regardless of any court outcomes. On-field issues have nothing on trying to figure out where you are going to be playing. And who you are going to be playing.
  • Defense. Coach Dana Holgorsen has hired a few defensive assistants, but still no word yet on who is going to run the show. That, of course, will determine the future course of this defense. It appears an inevitability that they will no longer use the 3-3-5 that former coordinator Jeff Casteel ran. Plus, players such as Keith Tandy, Najee Goode, Bruce Irvin and Julian Miller are gone. Shoring up this unit has to be tops on Holgorsen's list.

Top 10 Big East moments from 2011

January, 12, 2012
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Now it is time to relive the top moments in the Big East for 2011 -- both the good, and the bad.

1. Eric LeGrand returns. Not only was this the top moment in the Big East, it was one of the top moments in all of sports in 2011. Seeing the injured LeGrand lead his Rutgers teammates onto the field in his wheelchair before the start of the West Virginia game Oct. 29 in middle of a snowstorm had to soften the hearts of even the most jaded. What LeGrand has been able to do is truly inspiring in the year since he was paralyzed making a hit against Army in 2010. He has gone further than anybody ever anticipated -- he has started rehab work on a treadmill and gotten twitches and sensations throughout his entire body. And he has begun to do radio and television work for Rutgers, as well.

[+] EnlargeEric LeGrand
Noah K. Murray/The Star-Ledger via US PresswireEric LeGrand, injured in 2010, led his Rutgers teammates onto the field Oct. 29.
2. Expansion. This is the storyline that eclipsed most everything else for the entire season. First it was Pitt and Syracuse leaving, seemingly catching commissioner John Marinatto off guard. Then TCU jumped ship. Then West Virginia. When everything was tidied up in December, the Big East had gone Big Country, adding Boise State, San Diego State, SMU, UCF and Houston. West Virginia's fate remains tied up in pending lawsuits. However that saga plays out, the Big East is prepared to launch Version 3.0 in 2013.

3. West Virginia goes BOOM! You could make the case that the way the Mountaineers dismantled Clemson in the Discover Orange Bowl should be ranked higher. In any other season, it would be No. 1. But when folks look back on the 2011 season, I think the first two stories are more likely to come to mind because of the way they transcended sports, and signaled the dawning of a new era. If we are going with purely on-the-field stories, then this one is the hands-down choice. West Virginia scored a bowl-record 70 points on the Tigers. For perspective, not even the worst teams in the nation -- New Mexico, FAU, Indiana and Akron -- had 70 scored on them this year. The ACC champ did. Unforgettable moment: Darwin Cook returning a fumble 99 yards to swing momentum, then taking down Obie the Orange Bowl mascot.

4. Down goes Collaros. One play changed the entire complexion of the Big East race. Too simple to say? Nope. Cincinnati had a two-game lead on everybody else on Nov. 12 when West Virginia came to town. In the second quarter, Bruce Irvin sacked Zach Collaros, who fumbled on the play. Julian Miller recovered in the end zone for a touchdown but the damage was done for the Bearcats. Collaros broke his ankle, and Cincinnati dropped two straight. West Virginia won out and finished in a three-way tie with Cincinnati and Louisville. The Mountaineers clinched the BCS berth -- leading to the eventual walloping of Clemson -- because they finished as the highest-ranked team in the final BCS standings.

5. Todd Graham bolts. In one of the most stunning turns of events this season, Todd Graham decided he had enough of Pittsburgh after 11 months on the job and a 6-6 record. He bolted for Arizona State without saying good-bye to his players, gleefully spewing the same speech he gave to the Panthers when he was hired for his "dream job." His coaching move drew universal scorn, and outrage from his players, as well. They took to Twitter to lambaste their former coach for his lies and unseemly departure.

6. Four clutch plays. West Virginia faced a must-win against USF in the regular-season finale Dec. 1. With the game tied at 27 and 5 minutes left in the fourth quarter, the Bulls embarked on a drive that took them down to the West Virginia 28. That's when clutch play No. 1 happened. Najee Goode forced B.J. Daniels to fumble and the Mountaineers recovered. Geno Smith took over with 3:02 left. Clutch play No. 2: Stedman Bailey makes an unbelievable catch on fourth-and-10 for 26 yards, down at the USF 16. Clutch play No. 3: Shawne Alston drags Bailey back to the line of scrimmage after the catch so the Mountaineers can get the snap off without a penalty. Clutch play No. 4: Tyler Bitancurt hits a 28-yard field goal to win the game 30-27 and a share of the Big East title.

7. Ray Graham gets hurt. Pitt running back Ray Graham ranked second nationally and led the Big East in rushing yards per game (134.1) headed into Week 9 against UConn. But early on against the Huskies, Graham crumpled to the ground while making a cut, clutching his right knee. He had torn his ACL, and his season was over. You could almost say the same for the Panthers, who struggled to do anything on offense without their best player.

8. Charlie Strong, surfer. You know how momentous Louisville's 38-35 victory over West Virginia was this season? So momentous it sent coach Charlie Strong bodysurfing over his players in a jubilant locker room afterward. He had Adrian Bushell and Andrew Johnson to thank. On the first play of the fourth quarter, West Virginia lined up for a 23-yard field goal to tie the game. Bushell blocked the kick; Johnson returned it 82 yards for a touchdown and the momentum went to the Cardinals. It was their first win in Morgantown since 1990, and third win ever in the series.

9. Syracuse does what? Surely Syracuse's win over West Virginia in Morgantown in 2010 was a fluke. Surely the Mountaineers would gain revenge in the Dome. Yeah. About that. The Orange schooled West Virginia and reintroduced the Mountaineers to the tight end, pulling the biggest upset of the season 49-23. Syracuse had not scored that many points in the series since 1960. The game also marked the triumphant return of Chandler Jones -- who had two sacks and six tackles in his first game back from a knee injury.

10. USF collapse. The Bulls began the year 4-0 with a national ranking and a victory at Notre Dame. Then Big East play happened. USF lost seven of its final eight games and missed a bowl for the first time as members of the Big East. The Bulls also posted their worst record in Big East play (1-6). A team pegged as a dark horse disappointed in every possible way, losing five games by six points or fewer.
ACC blogger Heather Dinich has the height and weight advantage, but Big East blogger Andrea Adelson is a shifty little back with elusive speed. Today they go head-to-head to determine who will have the better conference this bowl season. The ACC has been dogged time and again for its losing record in bowl games, which extends back to 2006, but the Big East has been the joke of the BCS conferences this year. The two conferences will square off this bowl season in two bowls, as NC State (7-5) will face Louisville (7-5) in the Belk Bowl on Dec. 27 (8 p.m. ET, ESPN), and Clemson (10-3) will face West Virginia (9-3) on Jan. 4 in the Discover Orange Bowl (8 p.m. ET, ESPN). If you thought the NC State-Cincinnati game was ugly this season, brace yourself for this catfight …

Heather Dinich: I would love to entertain you all day, AA, but the truth is there really is no argument here for the Big East. In fact, I almost feel bad for you. Almost. I’ve got two teams in BCS bowls and you’ve got, well, West Virginia -- a program that loves its conference so much it’s already got one foot in the Big 12. The Big East was so good this year that its best nonconference win came against Notre Dame by a South Florida team that finished 1-6 in the league. Now, I will give you this: The ACC and Big East enter bowl season tied at 3-3 this year, thanks to wins by Syracuse (ahem, in overtime with Wake’s quarterback injured), West Virginia (you and I could beat Maryland) and Cincinnati (I’ve got nothin’). There’s no reason, though, that the ACC shouldn’t come out 2-0 against the punching bag of the BCS. First down, me. Your turn.

[+] EnlargeTeddy Bridgewater
Jamie Rhodes/US PresswireQuarterback Teddy Bridgewater led the Cardinals to a 5-1 record over the second half of the season.
Andrea Adelson: Yes, there is plenty to brag about when your second BCS team is a laughingstock that does not deserve its spot in the big game. I think even you said that yourself, Heather. The Big East has its problems, and it's easy to take tired jabs. But it does appear as if my preseason prediction is on the verge of coming true. You might recall that I said this summer that the Big East would have a winning record over the ACC this year. Let's take a closer look at the X's and O's to really get this debate started. I would love to hear how NC State is going to beat Louisville, the hottest team in the Big East right now after ending the season 5-1. Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater was just named by "College Football Live" as rookie of the year, and the Cardinals' defense has been playing lights-out during this winning streak. The Cardinals have their run game going, they've shored up their offensive line and their defense is one of the most aggressive in the Big East -- ranking No. 2 in scoring defense and total defense. Adrian Bushell has developed into a shutdown corner, Dominique Brown has made a huge difference in his move from quarterback to running back, and Bridgewater rarely makes mistakes. Cincinnati hammered NC State, a team I think you called the most inconsistent in the ACC. So how exactly are the Wolfpack going to win this game? And I love how Clemson lost three of four going into the ACC title game, but a win over big-game choker Virginia Tech makes the Tigers a favorite all of a sudden. But we can get to that game in a second.

HD: Wait, wait, wait. Are we talking about the same Louisville team? The one that ranks No. 100 in scoring offense? No. 104 in total offense? No. 111 in sacks allowed? And No. 94 in rushing offense? Yep, that’s the one. How is NC State going to beat that team? Probably by pressuring Bridgewater into an interception right into the hands of cornerback David Amerson, who leads the nation with 11 picks. By winning the turnover battle, thanks in part to quarterback Mike Glennon, who has eight touchdown passes to one interception in the past two wins. By making great use of their tight end, George Bryan. And by winning the field position battle, thanks to the No. 12 punt returner in the country, T.J. Graham. Yeah, Louisville won five of its last six games, OK, but three of those wins came against teams with losing records in conference play. NC State, meanwhile, beat Clemson, the No. 7 team in the country. Speaking of the Tigers, I know you’re going to bring up West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith as your main argument, but I’ll see you Smith and raise you Sammy Watkins. Oh, and P.S. West Virginia is 4-9 against the ACC in postseason play.

AA: You can bring up Geno, who has been quite solid this season. But I will bring up the West Virginia defense, which you could argue is the biggest reason why the Mountaineers are playing in this BCS game. West Virginia looked really shaky early in the year. I will bring up the Syracuse game for you. But then Dana Holgorsen urged his players to quit acting like they could just step onto the field and win without even trying. There was one more hiccup against Louisville, but the defense has been outstanding in wins over Cincinnati, Pitt and USF. Two of those teams are going to bowl games. West Virginia had defensive scores against the Bearcats and Bulls. It was Najee Goode's huge strip of B.J. Daniels late in the season finale against USF that allowed the Mountaineers to come back and win. How about 10 sacks against Pitt? Clemson is going to have to account for Julian Miller and Bruce Irvin up front -- both players have come on strong at the end of the season. And the biggest reason West Virginia has improved on pass defense has been cornerback Brodrick Jenkins, who's a major upgrade over Pat Miller. He and first-team Big East cornerback Keith Tandy have been a nice duo. Plus, West Virginia just finds a way to win close games -- 4-1 in games decided by six points or less.

[+] EnlargeClemson's Sammy Watkins
Joshua S. Kelly/US PRESSWIREAP All-American Sammy Watkins led all freshmen this season with 77 receptions for 1,153 yards and 11 touchdowns.
HD: Two words for the West Virginia defense against Chad Morris’ offense: good luck. If it were JUST Sammy Watkins, that would be one thing, but as Virginia Tech figured out in loss No. 1 to Clemson, the Tigers’ offense runs deeper than the country’s best freshman. Tight end Dwayne Allen has been an X factor all season, and the Tigers have plenty of other options surrounding quarterback Tajh Boyd. Clemson has already set school season records for passing yards, total offense and points scored. Boyd has been inconsistent this season, but he’s had far more good moments than disappointing ones. The biggest factor for Clemson has been the turnover margin. The Tigers are 8-0 when they win the turnover battle and 2-3 when they don’t. These two teams are similar in that area. Clemson has lost 20 turnovers this year, WVU 21. I’m guessing that slim margin could be the difference in the game. Quite frankly, Clemson is the more talented team and should win. The ACC will prove this season that it’s the better conference. If it weren’t, why would Pitt and Syracuse be so quick to jump ship? You can’t possibly think that adding Boise State, San Diego State, Houston, UCF and SMU will beef up the Big East. To me, it just got watered down. Even you called the realignment scenario “preposterous.” Great word, by the way.

AA: Are you talking about the same juggernaut Clemson offense that averaged 14 points in its losses to NC State, Georgia Tech and South Carolina? The same Boyd who threw two touchdown passes and five interceptions in those games? Yeah, I think West Virginia can handle that. Don't forget, the Mountaineers see a pretty prolific offense in practice, and Dana Holgorsen has been doing this a little longer than Chad Morris. As for realignment, what the Big East had to do to get itself back in order is preposterous, no question. Having to reach all the way to California to find a new member is ridiculous. But the Big East would not be in this predicament if the ACC kept its hands to itself. If the ACC was such a great, solid conference filled with the finest football programs, why exactly does it keep raiding the Big East? The ACC can now count five former Big East members. Hey, I have an idea. Maybe we should just start calling the ACC the Big East because it will have more of the Big East's original members than the newly reformed Big East-West-Country-USA. The ACC really has the worst of both worlds, taking jabs not only for its own league members but for the Big East, too!

HD: Hey, if I recall correctly, the ACC “received applications” from Pitt and Syracuse, not the other way around. There was probably a line at ACC commissioner John Swofford’s door, with Rutgers, UConn and West Virginia all elbowing each other to try to get in, too. The ACC will be bigger and better, thanks to expansion. The Big Conference will be just that -- bigger. Look, I’d love to sit here and watch you swing at air some more, but the ACC has eight teams in bowl games, unlike the Big East. I’ve got some work to do. So why don’t you just settle in, get yourself some Beef O’Brady’s, and watch the ACC go 2-0 against your Big conference. I know, I know, you’ve got something to say. Go ahead and have the last word. You’ll need it.

AA: Well, considering you cover a conference with 12 teams and I cover one with eight, the Big East has just about the same percentage of teams in bowls. And I don't really need to remind you that the Big East has a better winning percentage in bowl games, or that the ACC has not posted a winning record in bowl games since 2006. Or that the ACC hasn't posted a winning record against the Big East in bowl games since 2007. Nah, you don't need to be reminded at all.


MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- It is a beautiful night for football, with clear skies and mild temperatures for the 104th edition of the Backyard Brawl between Pittsburgh and West Virginia.

Here are a few keys for each team.

Pitt

1. Run baby, run. Plenty on this in the pregame video, but the Panthers want to have some balance to help Tino Sunseri. They slowed down the tempo just a touch in their last win against Louisville, and could try to do that again against the Mountaineers, especially if it means keeping West Virginia off the field. Since the 2000 season, Pittsburgh is 41-13 when it has a 100-yard rusher.

2. Pressure. Pitt has gotten much better on the defensive front, and a big reason has been the development of sophomore defensive end Aaron Donald, who leads the Big East with nine sacks. The key to any game plan against the Mountaineers is to pressure quarterback Geno Smith. Since 2000, only three Pitt players have 10 or more sacks in a season.

3. Convert in the red zone. Pitt has been excellent in the red zone this season, ranking first in the Big East and tied for seventh nationally in red zone efficiency. Pitt has converted 32 of 35 trips inside the 20 this year -- with 26 touchdowns. The three failed attempts were missed field goals.

West Virginia

1. Put the game in the hands of Tino Sunseri. West Virginia knows the Panthers might want to establish the run game, and West Virginia would love nothing more than for Sunseri to beat him. He has played better of late, but Sunseri also has a tendency to make way too many mistakes and take sacks he shouldn't take.

2. Convert third downs. West Virginia ranks No. 2 in the Big East in third-down conversions (42 percent). In five of 10 games, the Mountaineers have converted on third downs 45 percent of the time or better. Pitt has been great on defense on third down, leading the Big East and ranking 10th nationally in third-down efficiency defense (32 percent). The Mountaineers have to win the third down battle to have a great shot at winning.

3. Win up front. West Virginia has struggled getting pressure on the passer this season, but this could be the perfect opportunity to change that. Pitt has struggled big time on the offensive line this season, so Bruce Irvin and Julian Miller could have a big game.

Could this be final Backyard Brawl?

November, 23, 2011
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Todd Graham and Dana HolgorsenAP PhotoTodd Graham and Dana Holgorsen will be coaching in their first (and perhaps only) Backyard Brawl.
West Virginia and Pitt have played 103 times, developing their heated rivalry into one of the biggest, most intense games in college football.

But perhaps more than some of the juicy storylines going into their game Friday night in Morgantown, the question that has dominated this week has been whether this rivalry can be saved.

Both teams are headed for different conference homes, and that might make it difficult to keep this game on the schedule on a yearly basis. Nearly everybody associated with both programs, from coaches Todd Graham and Dana Holgorsen, to the players and fans, wants to see the Backyard Brawl live on.

Yet nobody knows what their new conference schedules will bring them or what their nonconference game philosophies will be moving forward. West Virginia is set to play nine conference games in the Big 12, further complicating efforts. There is the hope the schools will be able to work out an agreement to preserve the history and the tradition of this game, but for now we are left to wonder.

That has not been lost on the schools, either. Pitt defensive tackle Chas Alecxih said the coaches have indicated this could be the final game.

"I think that’s a tragedy if it ends," Alecxih said in a phone interview. "It’s one of the oldest rivalries in college football, one of the most intense. I think it’s a shame. ... I don't want to say this is a big thing we're thinking about, but if this were to be the last time we played on a consistent basis, it would be great to say we won it."

It is obvious there is no love lost between these two schools. Back in August at Big East media day, the contingents of players from the two schools avoided each other at the clambake and media session. West Virginia defensive end Bruce Irvin said this when asked how he felt about Pitt: "You aren't supposed to hate anybody, but I think that's as close to hate you can get, that rivalry. We don't speak to them, and they don't speak to us."

There have been plenty of recent upsets, which have lent unpredictability to this game. This year, there are conference implications on the line, as both teams still have a chance to make it to a BCS game. Plus, there is the compelling storyline of Holgorsen versus Graham, two coaches in their first seasons as head coaches in the Brawl.

The last Backyard Brawl that featured two new head coaches was in 1966, when Pitt's Dave Hart faced West Virginia's Jim Carlen. The host Panthers won 17-14, for Pitt's only victory that season. Five of the previous seven new coaches at Pitt have defeated West Virginia in their first Brawl. The only ones who didn't were Dave Wannstedt (2005) and Paul Hackett (1990).

Holgorsen and Graham have a history against each other, dating back to their Conference USA days. Things flared between them for the first time in 2009. Graham was the head coach at Tulsa, and Holgorsen was the offensive coordinator at Houston. After the Cougars won 46-45, Holgorsen accused Tulsa of faking injuries to slow down the Houston attack.

Then last season, with Holgorsen as offensive coordinator at Oklahoma State, the Cowboys beat Tulsa 65-28, rolled up 722 yards of offense and kept throwing the ball late with the game out of reach.

The two said all the right things about one another this week when asked to describe their relationship.

“There's always a tremendous amount of respect when it comes to coaching against each other," Holgorsen said. "Bad blood may exist with guys that work with each other, but I can't say I’ve had any negative situations with coach Graham to the point where I wouldn't consider him a friend."

That might be going further than some players involved in the game.

"A lot of guys take this game to heart," Pitt offensive lineman Jordan Gibbs said. "I wouldn’t say it’s hate, but I know they dislike us. We can’t be worried about them. We just have to go out and play our best game."

WVU pass rush needs to get going

September, 20, 2011
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West Virginia had the best sack duo in the Big East returning this season, leaving many to believe the Mountaineers pass rush would be fierce.

With Bruce Irvin and Julian Miller combining for 23 sacks in 2010, it was natural to expect that. But so far, the West Virginia pass rush has been neutralized. The Mountaineers have a total of one sack -- that belongs to Irvin in the season opener against Marshall. Getting a sustained pass rush against No. 2 LSU on Saturday night is a huge key in an upset bid.

[+] EnlargeBruce Irvin
Randy Litzinger/Icon SMIBruce Irvin has been limited as a pass rusher so far this season.
Part of the reason for not seeing a huge amount of sacks is because of the offenses West Virginia has played. All three have been quick-strike type offenses, where the ball is required to leave the hands of the quarterback as early as possible. Coach Dana Holgorsen estimated that Maryland quarterback Danny O'Brien got rid of the ball before the defensive line could get to him 95 percent of the time last week.

“When those situations arise when the quarterback hangs on to it, we just have to do a better job," Holgorsen said. "We feel like we have a couple guys that know how to rush the passer. It’s just about taking advantage of the opportunities when you get it.”

There are a few other reasons for the decreased sack production. Irvin is playing more snaps and starting at defensive end. There is much more of an awareness on him this season than there was last -- when he had 14 sacks as a pass-rush specialist. He has had to play through more double teams, and has been chipped by running backs. Scouts Inc. NFL draft expert Kevin Weidl had this to say about Irvin against Maryland on ESPN Insider:
"It's clear Irvin is one of the most natural pass-rushers in the nation. Irvin has tremendous first-step quickness to get upfield and around the edge, and late in the second quarter he smoked the Terps' offensive tackle around the corner and hurried QB Danny O'Brien. On the very next play, Irvin set up the tackle with an outside move before quickly redirecting inside and getting in O'Brien's face again."

The Maryland game last year was his breakout performance. He had three sacks in the game. His first knocked O'Brien out of the game. West Virginia had eight total sacks in that dominating performance. Irvin had three tackles and one tackle for loss last week in a 37-31 win.

Irvin has said he needs to play more disciplined for the entire game. Before the game last week, he said he would give himself a B or B-minus on his performance so far. "As the game goes on, I start to wander off and just pretty much freestyle," he said. "The biggest thing is to play disciplined all four quarters. To be a good football player, I have to do that."

One other factor could be Miller's move to defensive tackle. He also has been hobbled with an ankle injury, but had his best game against Maryland last week with six tackles and a forced fumble.

LSU has only given up three sacks this season, so trying to get to quarterback Jarrett Lee is going to be a huge challenge. West Virginia had two sacks and three tackles for loss last year at LSU, but the Tigers have a different starting quarterback in Lee and a different style of offense. Lee is more of a classic drop-back passer, and that could present some opportunities for West Virginia to get a few more sacks.

But first the Mountaineers have to get past a solid offensive line. We will see if they are up to the task.

West Virginia has to start faster

September, 14, 2011
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For such a high-tempo offense, West Virginia is not moving very fast to start games.

The Mountaineers have scored a combined three points in the first quarter of their two contests this season, and have found themselves trailing in both games after the opening period.

Rather than setting an early tempo, they have been sluggish. Of the six first-quarter drives, three have gone three-and-out.

That sluggishness carried over into the second quarter against Norfolk State last week, as West Virginia trailed 12-10 at halftime. You can imagine the locker-room scene at the break.

"Geno [Smith] stepped up and said a few things, I myself stepped up and said a few things," receiver Stedman Bailey said. "Just about everybody had something to say. We were very disappointed to be down to a team like Norfolk State at halftime.

[+] EnlargeGeno Smith
AP Photo/Chris JacksonGeno Smith and the Mountaineers know they can't continue to start games slowly.
"I spoke to the receivers for the most part. We had a few mental errors in the first half, and I told them that we have to come out and play our game."

Indeed, West Virginia ended up scoring 45 second-half points en route to a 55-12 victory. But with a game at Maryland on Saturday -- followed by a huge contest at home against LSU -- West Virginia cannot afford to keep starting slowly.

"We haven’t started well offensively in two weeks," coach Dana Holgorsen said. "Defensively, we haven’t given up any touchdowns, but we’ve given up some drives in the first quarter. I don’t have the yardage numbers, but I imagine we’re getting slaughtered on it.

"On the road, you have to try to start fast. They’ll be rowdy and have a tough crowd. It's hard to get the home crowd out of it, but starting fast is the only chance you’ve got."

The defense had a much worse start against Norfolk State. In the first quarter of that game, West Virginia was outgained 96-19 and allowed 21 total plays.

"The level of competition goes up this week and of course next week," defensive end Bruce Irvin said. "We can’t pull what we pulled last week. Maryland is a well-coached team and very disciplined. Coach Holgorsen and his staff stressed to the guys we have to come out fast, we have to come out physical. It is a noon game, it's going be hot but we have to play through it, and play like we know how to play."

Both Bailey and Irvin said there is no way the team will come out flat against Maryland because it is looking ahead to its huge showdown against the Tigers. Holgorsen said his players didn’t take Norfolk State as seriously as they should have, and that was the reason they came out and struggled.

So he’s got their attention. Now it’s a matter of making the plays that are needed. Defensively, West Virginia has to start creating some turnovers. The Mountaineers have zero to start the season. The pass rush also has to improve -- West Virginia only has one sack in two games.

Offensively, the running game has got to get better. West Virginia ranks No. 109 in the nation in rushing offense. For the offense to function well, there has to at least be the threat of the run. Smith has played well for the most part, and is one of the few players on offense who completely gets what Holgorsen wants to do.

“I still really don’t know where we’re at right now,” Holgorsen said. “This next week will tell a lot.”

Big East predictions: Week 1

September, 1, 2011
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Predictions: ACC | Big 12 | Big East | Big Ten | Pac-12 | SEC | Upset pick


Game day is finally here, so you know what that means. Prediction time! With four games against FCS opponents and two more against non-AQs, this should be a good week for the Big East.

Murray State at Louisville, Thursday, 6 p.m. ESPNU. We get our first glimpse at the baby Cardinals, who have 21 true or redshirt freshmen on their two-deep headed into this game, and are going to be without two big contributors in center Mario Benavides and defensive end B.J. Butler. This is going to be a test for the Cardinals and their green secondary because Murray State likes to throw. Pat Forde called an upset, but I am going with the Cardinals. Louisville 38, Murray State 17.

NC Central at Rutgers, Thursday, 7:30 p.m. ESPN3. We get to see new-look Rutgers against an overmatched opponent, so we may not have many answers headed into next week's big game against North Carolina. Still, everyone should be looking forward to seeing what Savon Huggins can do, and how the revamped defense looks with so many players in new positions. Rutgers 48, NC Central 10.

Wake Forest at Syracuse, Thursday, 8 p.m., ESPN3. The first of several ACC-Big East showdowns comes to you live from the Carrier Dome, where Syracuse has not exactly enjoyed much of a home-field advantage of late. The Orange haven't had much success against the ACC, either. But Doug Marrone is prepared to usher in a new era. The offense should be able to get a few points on the board. Wake Forest running back Josh Harris will get his yards, but Syracuse will do just enough to contain him and the Demon Deacons. Syracuse 21, Wake Forest 17.

Austin Peay at Cincinnati, Saturday, 7 p.m. ESPN3. The Bearcats begin Year 2 under Butch Jones with high hopes of getting back to a bowl game. The defense needs to make significant improvement for that to happen. This will be a good warm up for Cincinnati before taking on Tennessee the following weak. Austin Peay is not the best FCS team, coming off a 2-9 season from a year ago. Cincinnati has outscored its FCS opponents by a 240-20 margin since 2006. Cincinnati 48, Austin Peay 17.

Fordham at UConn, Saturday, noon, ESPN3. This game was supposed to be played tonight but had to be moved to Saturday because Rentschler Field is being used as a staging area to help victims of Hurricane Irene. Still no word on when or where it will be played. When the game finally kicks off, we will finally know who will start at quarterback for the Huskies. That should not make too much of a difference in this one. UConn 38, Fordham 3.

Buffalo at Pitt, Saturday, 6 p.m., ESPN3. The Panthers unveil their brand new no-huddle offense and 3-4 defense against Buffalo, one of the worst teams in the country last season. The Bulls have former Cincinnati backup Chazz Anderson starting at quarterback and are coached by former Cincinnati assistant Jeff Quinn. The Pitt D should be prepared for this offense, considering it goes against the no huddle every day. Buffalo is starting three freshmen on the offensive line, and faces a steep challenge against one of the most talented defensive fronts in the Big East. Pitt 45, Buffalo 13.

USF at No. 16 Notre Dame, Saturday, 3:30 p.m, NBC. Both Skip Holtz and Brian Kelly are going into Year 2 at their respective programs, with high hopes for each. The Bulls are 12-19 against ranked opponents, but have won their fair share of big games. I think USF will give Notre Dame all it can handle because of its team speed. But in the end, I think the much more experienced Notre Dame lines have a major advantage and are going to be able to control the game. That will make the difference. Notre Dame 24, USF 20.

Marshall at West Virginia, Sunday, 3:30 p.m., ESPN. After much anticipation, we get to see the debut of Dana Holgorsen as a head coach and offensive coordinator in Morgantown. How will Geno Smith and company fare against Marshall, a team that has never beaten WVU? Marshall is starting a true freshman at quarterback, and that could be very bad news for the Herd with Bruce Irvin set to prove he can be an everydown player. It's not going to be close this year. West Virginia 55, Marshall 17.

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