NCF Nation: D.J. Woods

New Wisconsin head coach Gary Andersen on Thursday announced five assistant coaches for the 2013 season.

Several of these names have already been reported but they're now official. Here's the rundown:
  • Andy Ludwig, offensive coordinator/quarterbacks
  • Dave Aranda, defensive coordinator
  • Bill Busch, secondary
  • Chad Kauha'aha'a, defensive line
  • T.J. Woods, offensive line

Andersen is retaining two assistants from the previous Badgers staff: running backs coach Thomas Hammock and Ben Strickland, who coached the secondary in 2011 and will assist Busch.

Andersen worked with Ludwig at Utah, and Kauha'aha'a worked on Andersen's staff at Utah State before joining Utah's last year. The other three assistants -- Aranda, Busch and Woods -- served on Andersen's staff at Utah State this past season.

The notable absence here is Bart Miller, who coached Wisconsin's offensive line this season after being promoted from his graduate-assistant role to replace the fired Mike Markuson. Miller fostered improvement with the line and gained the respect of the players, but Andersen opted to go with Woods, who coached four first-team All-WAC selections the past two seasons, as his line coach. Miller mentioned before the Rose Bowl that he could be auditioning for a spot on Andersen's staff. Ironically, Woods helped tutor Miller at New Mexico as an offensive graduate assistant there.

Andersen still has two assistant coaches to hire, so we'll see if Miller ends up filling one of those spots. Tight ends/H-backs coach is a possibility for Miller.
"I have previously worked with the five coaches we are bringing in and I have gotten to know Thomas and Ben in the last few weeks so that familiarity will be beneficial," Andersen said in a prepared statement. "Both on offense and defense, these coaches have shown a lot of flexibility within their systems, and their main goal is to get the best 11 players on the field and build around their strengths. Our style on offense will be very familiar to Wisconsin fans while on defense I am confident that we can continue the great tradition of tough and physical units that has been established here."

Although most of the new additions spent most of their careers on the West Coast, Busch has ties to Wisconsin after serving as a graduate assistant for former Badgers coach Barry Alvarez in 1993-94.

Thoughts on Andersen's staff additions?
It is time to evaluate the receiver position in the Big East. For the postseason rankings, I am going to include tight ends as well. Before the season started, I did them separately, but it makes more sense to do them together.

This is a position group that has a clear-cut 1-2. To me, the rest are pretty interchangeable, as no other group really stood out to me this season.

1. West Virginia. Slam dunk to have the Mountaineers on top, given the way Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey performed this season. Each had 1,000-yard seasons -- the first time in school history two players hit that mark. Bailey led the Big East with 12 receiving touchdowns, and was No. 1 in receiving yards per game. Austin was third in receiving yards per game and second in receptions per game. Add in Ivan McCartney, also ranked among the top-10 receivers in the Big East and that says it all. Preseason ranking: No. 2.

[+] EnlargeWest Virginia's Stedman Bailey
Kim Klement/US PRESSWIREWest Virginia's Stedman Bailey led the Big East in touchdowns and yards receiving per game.
2. Rutgers. Mohamed Sanu had an unbelievable season for Rutgers with a school and Big East record 115 receptions. He dominated at receiver, leading the league in receptions per game and finishing second in receiving yards per game. That domination meant his teammates did not get as many opportunities -- Brandon Coleman only had 17 receptions; Mark Harrison 14, Quron Pratt had 32. But when you have an unstoppable force like Sanu, you keep going to him. Preseason ranking: No. 1.

3. Syracuse. When you think of the Orange, you don't necessarily think of high-profile receivers. But Alec Lemon and Nick Provo teamed to have outstanding seasons this year. Both posted career years, Provo made the Big East first team and Lemon made the second team. The two combined for 119 catches and 13 touchdowns. Depth wasn't great, but the performance of Lemon and Provo make up for that and vaults Syracuse here. Preseason ranking: No. 5.

4. Cincinnati. I thought the Bearcats receivers had a down year. D.J. Woods didn't really live up to his potential, and Anthony McClung led the team with 683 yards. That is the fewest yards for the team's leading receiver since 2006. What really sticks out: when Zach Collaros got hurt, the receivers as a whole never really stepped up the way they should have to help Munchie Legaux. Preseason ranking: No. 3.

5. Louisville. The Cardinals did get much better play out of their receivers, and were helped with the impact freshman DeVante Parker and Eli Rogers made. They didn't have anybody with eye-popping numbers, but they did have consistent enough performances out of this group. Preseason ranking: 7.

6. USF. The Bulls were really hurt by injuries at this position, and never really had a go-to guy emerge. Sterling Griffin was en route to a good season before he got hurt; A.J. Love got hurt as well. That left the position in the hands of many young, inexperienced guys. I thought Deonte Welch really had a nice second half. He was their best receiver when Griffin was out. Preseason ranking: 6.

7. UConn. Considering the way the Huskies struggled in the pass game, Kashif Moore, Isiah Moore and Ryan Griffin all put together solid seasons for UConn. Both Moores ranked in the top 10 in the Big East in receiving, and Griffin was the second-best tight end behind Nick Provo. Depth was lacking at the position -- as only five players caught double-digit passes, and only three are true wide receivers. Preseason ranking: 8.

8. Pitt. The Panthers got their tight ends and running backs involved heavily in the pass game, probably because there was depth lacking at the actual receiver position. Devin Street put together a solid season, with 754 yards receiving, and Mike Shanahan was decent. But otherwise, big plays were lacking. Passing game woes obviously had an impact. Preseason ranking: 4.

Big East good to great

August, 12, 2011
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Which players have the potential to go from good to great in the Big East?

Josh Chichester, TE, Louisville. Now that he has made the transition from receiver to tight end, the potential is there for Chichester to become the best tight end in the league. His size, 6-foot-8 and 258 pounds, gives him the ability to be unguardable for opposing defenses.

[+] EnlargeB.J. Daniels
Kim Klement/US PresswireSouth Florida quarterback B.J. Daniels has flashed the ability to develop into a star.
B.J. Daniels, QB, USF. Folks have been waiting on a breakout season for the third-year starter. This could be it now that he has more consistency with his coordinators and some momentum off a good bowl game from last season. A tweaked hamstring should not impact him much during camp.

Chandler Jones, DE, Syracuse. Early reports out of Syracuse camp indicate Jones is wreaking havoc during practice. His goal is to get double-digit sacks this year. With questions inside, he could be relied up on even more to hold down the line.

D.J. Shoemate, UConn. Given the history at churning out 1,000-yard running backs, the potential is there for Shoemate to follow. The offensive line and tight end positions are solid, giving him an even better opportunity.

Geno Smith, West Virginia. Smith already is one of the elite quarterbacks in the Big East. But will the new Dana Holgorsen offense make him one of the elite quarterbacks in the country?

Tino Sunseri, QB, Pitt. Sunseri is now in an offensive scheme that could lead to incredible numbers. He feels comfortable running the hurry-up, and has the ability to make all the throws. He should definitely be able to improve on his touchdowns (16) and yards (2,572) from last season.

Scott Vallone, NT, Rutgers. A move to the nose tackle position could help Vallone really emerge as a dominant player. He was a freshman All-American in 2009, so the potential is there in his new role.

D.J. Woods, Cincinnati. Is Woods next in line to get the major numbers racked up from Armon Binns (1,101 yards in 2010) and Mardy Gilyard (1,191 yards in 2009)?
It is time to rank the Big East wide receivers. There is plenty of talent at this position, so let's see how the list shakes out.

1. Tavon Austin, West Virginia. If I am going with him as "NEXT" in the Big East, then he is going to be ranked No. 1. Now that he is going into his second year as a receiver, he feels totally at ease with his role and should have a monster year with Dana Holgorsen in charge.

[+] EnlargeMark Harrison
AP Photo/Mike CarlsonMark Harrison caught 44 passes for 829 yards and nine touchdowns last season.
2. Mark Harrison, Rutgers. I like Harrison because he seems to have the complete package. He is big (6-foot-3, 230 pounds), he is fast (4.38 speed) and he is a go-to guy (829 yards, 9 touchdowns last season). With a more focused offensive system in place, he should be even better in 2011.

3. D.J. Woods, Cincinnati. Though Woods was second in the league in receiving last season (898 yards), he could be overshadowed by some of the young talent the Bearcats have, including Kenbrell Thompkins, Shaq Washington and Anthony McClung. Still, Woods is the leading returning receiver in the league.

4. Mohamed Sanu, Rutgers. Sanu fought through an injury-plagued season in 2010, but when healthy he is one of the more dynamic players in the league. You have to love the size and versatility of Rutgers' receivers.

5. Mike Shanahan, Pitt. Shanahan should be the direct beneficiary of Jon Baldwin leaving and the new high-flying offense coming to the Panthers. At 6-foot-5 and 220 pounds, Shanahan is more of a possession-type receiver but he definitely is one of the most valuable pieces of this offense.

6. Stedman Bailey, West Virginia. Look for his numbers to increase in the Holgorsen offense. He should form a nice one-two combo with Austin in Morgantown. Bailey has terrific hands and catches everything that comes his way.

7. Van Chew, Syracuse. Chew leads a Syracuse crew that returns its top three receivers from last season. He may be underrated because the Orange are not known for their huge passing numbers, but look for them to work on the deep ball more this season.

8. Devin Street, Pitt. Purely based on potential here in the new Todd Graham offense. Street is a big-time deep threat. If Tino Sunseri can get him the ball and make explosive big plays, Street will be among the best in the league.

9. Josh Bellamy, Louisville. Receiver is a big question for the Cardinals, but with Bellamy returning, he should be the go-to player for Teddy Bridgewater and Will Stein. He has the size (6-foot, 206 pounds) to make plays and, now that he is going into his second year in the offense, should be much improved.

10. Marcus Sales, Syracuse. Sales really seemed to turn a corner this spring with Chew out. The two make a good tandem for the Orange, and he should have better numbers this season.

Previous player rankings:
I had a chance to catch up with Cincinnati quarterback Zach Collaros to find out how the offseason is going, what he thinks of all the pub going to Geno Smith and how he good he thinks this offense can be this season.

AA: What have been the biggest things you have worked on this offseason?

ZC: We’re running a lot as an offense, working hard on tempo, getting lined up faster, working on execution, working with receivers, getting our timing down on routes, doing 7-on-7s. As a senior class, we've taken it upon ourselves to lead the activities. We've embraced the role of leadership, we’ve had a positive summer, and grown closer as a team. Hopefully that translates onto the field.

[+] EnlargeZach Collaros
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesZach Collaros threw for 2,902 yards and 26 touchdowns last season.
AA: How about you? How have you improved this summer?

ZC: Physically, it’s the best I've felt in a long time. We're in great condition -- the strength coaches always have us in great condition. In terms of football, I’m working on things that translate onto the field -- getting the ball off, not taking sacks. A big factor in summer is watching film, not just on the first two games, but stuff you did last year in ways you can improve. It hasn’t been just me. Others have gotten after it in that aspect and that's going to help.

AA: A lot of people are talking about Geno Smith as being the best quarterback in the Big East. How do you feel when you hear that?

ZC: I love being counted out. I’ve always looked at myself as an underdog. It adds that extra motivation you need more after coming off the season we had last year. It adds fuel to the fire, and reason to work harder, people doubting you.

AA: You lost Armon Binns, so who is going to step up in his place?

ZC: Losing Armon hurts. He was a comfort zone for me. We came in together, we grew up together in the program, so losing him will take away that comfortability for me. Anthony McClung, Kenbrell [Thompkins],DJ [Woods] -- I can't say enough about how they've come in and taken over the leadership role. We don’t miss a beat when it comes to 7-on-7s. They’re working hard, setting a good example for the younger kids. All three of those guys did a great job with that, along with them, OJ Woodard is working hard as well. As for the tight ends, Travis Kelce is back on the depth chart now, of course Adrien Robinson is still here, Blake Annen is here. It all starts up front, though; those guys up front have been doing a great job.

AA: What gives you the confidence to know your offensive line is going to be better?

ZC: Alex Hoffman has taken the lead with that group, as well as Randy Martinez. Those are two great guys in the program, great leaders for the younger guys. They’re helping them to develop, and I’m very confident in those guys. It all starts with them. If they can protect and run block, the offense has a nice feeling.

AA: Given all the potential, what are your expectations for the offense?

ZC: I think it's the same as it was last year. We had a lot of potential, and we had a lot of high expectations. High expectations are a good thing because you want to reach those expectations. We didn't last year. Turnovers killed us and not scoring touchdowns and kicking field goals and all that stuff. It comes down to execution. The experience will help me.

AA: How do you work on cutting down those turnovers?

ZC: It all starts with the quarterbacks. I have to cut down on the interceptions. I had a lot of them last year coming from behind, forcing too many balls in there. Me making better decisions is what it all starts with. We fumbled a lot last year, which you can't do. If we cut back on that, we're going to have a really good season. In practice every day, we have a five-minute period dedicated to ball-security drills. I think some of it was unlucky last year. The balls didn't bounce our way. We want to change that this year.

AA: Defense was the weak link, though. How is that unit going to be better?

ZC: Well, they’re all returning, which is a good thing. They all have a year of experience and are sick of people telling them they were the weak link and stuff like that. They want to be better. We have great leaders like JK [Schaffer], Cam Cheatham has stepped up. They're good football players. I know they work very hard in the weight room, they’re watching film and I have a lot of confidence the results on field are going to be much better this year.

AA: What goals have you set for yourself this season?

ZC: I just want to win more games, get back to a bowl game and win the Big East. For myself, I want to have a higher completion percentage, to be in the 64, 65 percent range. As long as I can lead my team to wins. I want my teammates to look at me as a leader. If I can accomplish that, I will be happy.
We wrap up our look at team position rankings with special teams. There are plenty of strong kickers and returners in the league. I did not separate them, though, because those would be more like individual rankings. Those are coming soon.

[+] EnlargeNick Williams
Jim O'Connor/US PresswireNick Williams led the NCAA in kickoff return average last season.
1. Connecticut. The Huskies have one of the best kickers in the league in Dave Teggart and one of the best kickoff returners in the league in Nick Williams putting them in the top spot here. Williams led the NCAA in kickoff return average last season with 35.3 yards per kick. Teggart was the Big East first-team selection, making 25 of 31 field goals. They should be better this year, even with the loss of Robbie Frey.

2. USF. The Bulls also have an excellent kicker-returner duo in Maikon Bonani and Lindsey Lamar. Bonani made 17 of 21 kicks last year, while Lamar was the first-team All-Big East selection, returning two kickoffs for touchdowns and averaging 26 yards per return. Add in punt returner Terrence Mitchell and this is one of the best units in the league.

3. Louisville. The Cardinals have one of the best in the league in Chris Philpott, who punts and kicks. Josh Bleser is solid in splitting the punting duties with Philpott. Victor Anderson and Jeremy Wright are back as kickoff returners -- both averaged 30-plus yards per return last season. Wright's kick return helped the Cardinals win the Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl last year. Doug Beaumont is gone as punt returner, but he is the only loss. This unit has a chance to be No. 1 at year's end.

4. Syracuse. The Orange have one of the best kickers in the league in Ross Krautman, who missed just one of his 19 field goal attempts last season. They do lose their top punt returner in Mike Holmes, along with punter Rob Long so there are questions at some of the most important spots on special teams. But Krautman, and the return of Dorian Graham and Prince-Tyson Gulley returning kicks puts this unit just ahead of the Bearcats.

5. Cincinnati. This is a mixed bag for the Bearcats. They have the best punter in the league in Pat O'Donnell, who also happens to be a physical freak in the weight room. They should be decent in the return game with the return of D.J. Woods, who will compete with Anthony McClung, Shaq Washington and Kenbrell Thompkins to return kicks and punts. Darrin Williams is in the mix for kickoff returner, too. But kicker is a huge question mark. Jacob Rogers was solid last season. Now there is uncertainty in the competition between Tony Miliano and Danny Milligan. Coach Butch Jones says he won't name a starter until game week.

6. Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights also have question marks here. Kicker San San Te returns, but he needs to be better from longer distances (2-of-7 from 40-plus yards). Punter Teddy Dellaganna is gone and so is kickoff returner Joe Lefeged. True freshman Anthony DiPaula enrolled early and takes over at punter. Mason Robinson is back at punt returner, and Jeremy Deering and Mark Harrison make a good combo returning kicks.

7. West Virginia. The Mountaineers need more consistency from kicker Tyler Bitancurt, who missed his final four kicks of last season. He made just 10 of 17 attempts and looked shaky in the spring. West Virginia has a new holder and a new punter in Corey Smith, and hopes for improvement in the return game.

8. Pittsburgh. The Panthers have to replace both kicking specialists, including Big East first-team punter Dan Hutchins. At punter, you have walk-ons Matt Yoklic and Drake Greer, neither of whom has punted in a collegiate game. Kevin Harper takes over as kicker and had a good spring game. The Panthers also replace their long-snapper, so there will be a period of adjustment for this unit when the season starts. Cameron Saddler is a bright spot at returner.

Previous rankings
We continue our team position rankings today with receiver. This is an area of great potential for plenty of teams around the league, especially with some of the high-octane offenses that we are going to see. Only three teams return their leading receiver from last season. The overriding theme seems to be this: there is a lot of talent, but much of it is unproven. So how are these receivers going to step up?

To make these rankings, I considered returning starters, accolades for returning starters, depth and potential.

[+] EnlargeMark Harrison
AP Photo/Mike CarlsonMark Harrison caught 44 passes for 829 yards and 9 touchdowns last season.
1. Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights have proven talent and depth at this position, putting them at the top spot in these rankings. When healthy, Mark Harrison and Mohamed Sanu form one of the top 1-2 punches in the entire league. Add in Brandon Coleman, who had an outstanding spring, along with Tim Wright returning from injury and the top four looks as solid as it gets. Let's not forget incoming speedsters Miles Shuler and Tejay Johnson, who have the potential to play as well.

2. West Virginia. The Mountaineers have Tavon Austin, Stedman Bailey and a whole bunch of questions at the position. But with the new offense Dana Holgorsen is bringing in, other receivers have a chance to be more effective. Austin is about as close as you can come to a surefire first-team All-Big East player. Ryan Nehlen had a nice spring and could be the surprise of the season. So could Tyler Urban, a converted tight end. How will Brad Starks do after shoulder surgery? Will Ivan McCartney live up to his potential? There is talent here and great potential if everybody lives up to expectations.

3. Cincinnati. The Bearcats are stocked with talent, but many of these skill players have got to gain experience and fast with Armon Binns, Marcus Barnett, Vidal Hazelton and Ben Guidugli gone. D.J. Woods is expected to be a first-team All-Big East selection. But beyond he and Anthony McClung, you have got young guys -- junior college transfers Kenbrell Thompkins and Damon Julian, redshirt freshman Dyjuan Lewis, freshmen Shaq Washington, Chris Moore, Alex Chisum and Max Morrison. Thompkins showed great promise in the spring.

4. Pittsburgh. The Panthers lose their leading receiver in Jon Baldwin, but the duo of Mike Shanahan and Devin Street could each be 1,000-yard receivers. Behind them, though, there are some questions and inexperience. Junior Cameron Saddler is going to have to step up. Redshirt freshmen Salath Williams, Drew Carswell, junior college transfer Josh Brinson and true freshman Justin Jackson are all young but have a chance to be big contributors. Pitt also is waiting to hear whether UNC transfer Brendon Felder will have his petition for immediate eligibility granted.

5. Syracuse. The Orange have plenty of solid returning receivers in Van Chew, Marcus Sales and Alec Lemon but what this team is really lacking is big-play potential. In five games last season, Syracuse failed to complete a pass that went longer than 30 yards. In fact, Ryan Nassib averaged 6.5 yards per pass attempt. A healthy Jarrod West could help those numbers improve. Dorian Graham has to work on his hands, too.

6. USF. The Bulls lose leading receiver Dontavia Bogan, but they return injured players Sterling Griffin and A.J. Love to the mix, which is going to be huge. Lindsey Lamar and Evan Landi also return, along with Terrence Mitchell, Joel Miller and Faron Hornes. Deonte Welch had a nice spring game and is listed as a backup behind Landi. True freshman Andre Davis has the potential to contribute as well. The Bulls have plenty of depth here but there are still some questions about this group, especially with Griffin and Love coming off injuries.

7. Louisville. The Cardinals lose their top two receivers, and have got to figure out a way to make big plays and stretch the field with a young group. Josh Bellamy appears to be the go-to man headed into 2011, and much is going to be expected of Andrell Smith and Michaelee Harris. Both are coming off injuries and were unable to practice in the spring. True freshmen are most likely going to be relied upon, giving Eli Rogers and DeVante Parker and opportunity to play.

8. Connecticut. A playmaker has got to emerge from this group to help out whoever is going to be playing quarterback. The Huskies lost leading receiver Mike Smith because of academics. Kashif Moore, Ryan Griffin and Isiah Moore return but UConn is going to need some of its redshirt freshmen like Geremy Davis and Tebucky Jones Jr. to step up. The Huskies are not preparing to run the spread, so the potential for a 1,000-yard receiver in this group is low.

Previous rankings:

Top duos in the Big East

June, 8, 2011
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Geno Smith/Tavon AustinDavid Butler II/US PresswireTavon Austin (1) and Geno Smith (12) are on the watch list for the inaugural Pony Express Award.
Eric Dickerson and Craig James formed the "Pony Express" in their SMU days, a dynamic duo that will forever stand as one of the best in college football history.

Now the two are teaming up for the inaugural Pony Express Award, which will honor the top two- and three-player tandems from across the nation. According to the press release, the top tandem or trio will be honored for their "work ethic, desire, on- and off-field leadership and playmaking ability to best fuel their team."

The West Virginia duo of Geno Smith and Tavon Austin is the only Big East representative on the list. Understandably, expectations are high for Smith to have a 3,000-yard season and Austin to have a 1,000-yard season under new offensive coordinator Dana Holgorsen.

But I am surprised that the Cincinnati tandem of Zach Collaros and Isaiah Pead are not at least on the watch list. Collaros threw for 2,902 yards last season en route making the Big East first team at quarterback. Pead ran for 1,209 yards and made the second team at running back. You could even extend this out to a trio of Collaros, Pead and D.J. Woods, in line for a 1,000-yard season with the departure of Armon Binns.

Others from the Big East who deserve mention:

West Virginia defensive ends Bruce Irvin and Julian Miller. Irvin ranked No. 2 in the nation last season with 14 sacks, and Miller added nine, making them one of the top sack duos in the nation. They both ranked in the top 30 in the NCAA stats.

Others with potential:

Kendall Reyes, Jesse Joseph, Connecticut. Reyes put together a good season in 2010, making the All-Big East first team with 10 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks, while Joseph led the team with 8.5 sacks.

Victor Anderson, Jeremy Wright, Louisville. No question Bilal Powell leaves big shoes to fill for the Cardinals, and it might take two running backs to fill them. Anderson had a nice spring as he attempts to overcome injuries that have slowed his progress. Wright was out for the spring game with a sports hernia. Though he is not fully recovered yet, he is expected to be healthy in time for spring practice.

Tino Sunseri, Ray Graham and Mike Shanahan, Pittsburgh. If Todd Graham can get the same results in his first year at Pitt that he did at Tulsa, then there is the potential for 3,000 yards from Sunseri and 1,000 yards each from Graham and Shanahan. Last season, Tulsa ranked No. 5 in the nation in total offense, No. 13 in passing offense and No. 15 in rushing offense.

Chas Dodd, Mark Harrison, Mohamed Sanu, Rutgers. With all the talent the Scarlet Knights have at the skill positions, there is the potential for a solid season. You can add Savon Huggins to the list, but that all depends on how he performs during fall practice.

Mikhail Marinovich, Chandler Jones, Syracuse. The two defensive ends return to their starting positions and have a chance to become leaders on defense and wreak more havoc than last season. Jones was an All-Big East second-team selection last season.

B.J. Daniels, Darrell Scott, USF. Daniels finished last season much better than he started, and expectations are for him to pick up where he left off. If Scott can come in and contribute the way many anticipate, this could be one of the best tandems in the league.
On the eve of Cincinnati's final spring practice, Zach Collaros was at the car repair shop. He needed a new window after some punk decided to break into his ride.

But Collaros was still in a good mood. He liked the way spring drills had gone for the Bearcats, whom he feels just need some minor repairs themselves to improve on last year's 4-8 record.

They've got a great place to start with their senior quarterback, who led the Big East in passing yards (2,902) and touchdowns (26) last season. Collaros is looking for more than just stats this year, though.

"We had a great season if you just want to talk numbers," he said. "But we weren't very consistent in anything we did, whether it be the passing game or the running game."

[+] EnlargeZach Collaros
AP Photo/David KohlQuarterback Zach Collaros led the Big East in passing yards and touchdowns last season, but he led the conference in interceptions, too.
Turnovers killed Cincinnati last year, and Collaros knows he can't have another season where he throws a league-high 14 interceptions like he did in 2010. He's trying to rein in his desire to make huge plays on every snap.

"When it's third-and-12, it's all right to not throw for the first down and punt the ball sometimes," he said. "And sometimes when you do dumb it down to a two-yard pass, that turns into a 15-yard pass. I'm working on going through my progressions, understanding the game better and not putting the defense in bad situations.

"It's on me to make good decisions. As long as I make good decisions, the offense should be fine."

Collaros can make things happen with his legs as well as his arm, but he might have been a bit too quick to scramble and throw on the move last season. While the team doesn't want him to lose that running threat, Collaros said he worked this spring on sliding in the pocket and looking for his second and third receivers while setting his feet properly for the throw.

He won't have one of his favorite targets from last year in receiver Armon Binns. But Collaros still has D.J. Woods and likes the way the new receivers such as Kenbrell Thompkins and Anthony McClung progressed this spring. Throw in running back Isaiah Pead and a tight end corps led by Travis Kelce, and the Bearcats' offense that led the Big East in scoring last year still looks loaded.

"We have a lot of weapons," Collaros said. "It just comes down to consistency and execution."

There were times last year when Collaros had to throw 40 or 50 times in a game because Cincinnati was playing from behind. He hopes a more experienced defense and a more efficient offense will mean less of those shootout-type situations. He's now the face of a senior class that went to back-to-back BCS games and doesn't want consecutive losing seasons to be a part of their legacy.

"We want to be remembered as winners," Collaros said. "We're going to do everything we can to go out as winners."
I spent some time Thursday at Cincinnati for a story that will appear soon. While there, I got to chat with Bearcats head coach Butch Jones about his team heading into spring practice, which doesn't begin for them until March 29.

Obviously, one of the priorities this spring is correcting the turnover problems that so plagued the 2010 team. Last year, Cincinnati lost 29 turnovers and had the second-worst turnover margin in the country. It's not like Jones and his staff don't know how to teach ball security; his last two Central Michigan teams bettered the national average for turnover margin, and those two teams combined to lose the ball fewer times than the 2010 Bearcats.

Jones said the problem was mostly poor technique by a handful of players. Receiver D.J. Woods had a fumbling issue and needs to get stronger physically so defenders can't poke the ball free; Jones said Woods has had a good winter in the weight room. Jones also has a new coaching technique for this spring: assistants will use a click counter to track all the times they see an offensive player swinging the ball or doing other things that can lead to a fumble. For every one of those instances, running will be served as punishment.

A few other quick notes:
  • Senior safety Wesley Richardson will not participate in the spring after offseason arm surgery. That could give junior-college import Malcolm Murray a chance to make his mark. Jones expects everyone else to be healthy for spring ball, which is one reason he decided to start it so late.
  • The Bearcats will not have a traditional spring game but instead will hold more of an open practice on April 16. But it will be televised and have plenty of other trappings for fans. Without much experienced depth, Jones does not want to risk injury with a full spring game, but he said the team would do a lot of tackling and hitting during practice because the defense needs to learn toughness.
  • I spotted redshirt freshman Camaron Beard in the weight room and the 6-foot-5 defensive linemen is a load. The coaches expect him to make an impact this year and will give him more responsibility in the spring. The staff is also high on early enrollee Shaquille Washington, who'll get a look at receiver this spring. Four other recruits should be in school before spring practice starts since the school uses a quarters system.
  • Jones said getting Travis Kelce back this spring will be a boost to the team. Kelce was suspended last year. The 6-foot-6, 260-pounder will start off at tight end but could get a look as a third-down pass-rushing defensive end.
  • Jones said that the day after Cincinnati lost its season finale to Pittsburgh, he had every sign and picture referencing 2010 removed from the locker room and other player areas. The Bearcats want to forget that 4-8 campaign as much as possible.

Big East spring preview

February, 23, 2011
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Spring practice is just around the corner -- South Florida will be on its new practice fields next week, while other Big East teams will follow suit shortly after.

So here's a look at what to expect from each league team this spring.

Cincinnati

Spring practice starts: March 29
Spring game: April 16

What to watch:
  • Fixing the defense: There's little doubt that improving the defense is the first order of business in Clifton. The Bearcats ranked last in the Big East last season while giving up 28 points per game. The good news is that all 11 starters on that side of the ball are back. The bad news is those are the same guys who couldn't get it done a season ago. An extra year of maturity should help, and Butch Jones expects more depth and competition on defense, including the arrival of junior-college import Malcolm Murray at safety.
  • Restocking the Binns: Cincinnati should still be strong on offense with the return of senior quarterback Zach Collaros and senior Isaiah Pead, the leading returning rusher in the Big East. Yet the loss of the league's most productive receiver in 2010, Armon Binns, means the Bearcats need to find a few more guys to make plays at receiver. D.J. Woods is an obvious choice as the new go-to guy, but he'll have to solve his fumble problems. Transfer Kenbrell Thompkins, who couldn't get eligible last season, will look to step forward. Another sidelined receiver, freshman Dyjuan Lewis, won't be cleared to join in team activities until the summer.
  • Looking for leaders: One of the problems during the 2010 4-8 season, as voiced by departing senior Jason Kelce and implied by Jones, was a lack of leadership on the team. Hey, it happens sometimes when your program has been to back-to-back BCS games and young players feel an undeserved sense of entitlement. Jones has been trying to change that, and we should be able to tell during the spring whether some new leaders have emerged.
Connecticut

Spring practice starts: March 15
Spring game: April 16

What to watch:
  • Back to the future: For the first time since the end of 1990s, and for the first time ever as an FBS-level program, the Huskies will have someone other than Randy Edsall leading them through practice in March. Former longtime Syracuse coach Paul Pasqualoni took over when Edsall left for Maryland, and Pasqualoni hired new coordinators (George DeLeone on offense and Don Brown on defense) to mix in with the holdovers from Edsall's staff. UConn has been doing things the same way for a long time, and with pretty strong results. How will the team react to Pasqualoni's new-look, old-school ways?
  • Backfield in motion: Quarterback Zach Frazer is gone. Star tailback Jordan Todman left early for the NFL. Fullback Anthony Sherman graduated. Everything behind center is new. The quarterback position looks pretty wide open, with sophomore Michael Box perhaps having the edge after making one (very unsuccessful) start in 2010. Early enrollee Michael Nebrich is one to watch. How will the Huskies replace Todman? Good question. Robbie Frey decided to concentrate on graduate school, leaving USC transfer D.J. Shoemate as the only experienced ballcarrier. Freshman Lyle McCombs' status is unclear for spring after his offseason arrest, and the two running backs in the signing class won't arrive until summer. Right now, it's anybody's guess as to who might carry on the UConn running back tradition.
  • Reloading at linebacker: The Connecticut defense brings a lot back, but one position that needs refilling is linebacker. Lawrence Wilson, who led the Big East in tackles the past two seasons, and Scott Lutrus, a four-year starter and solid leader, both exhausted their eligibility. Sio Moore looks like a rising star and had some huge games in 2010, but the other two positions have large shoes to fill.
Louisville

Spring practice starts: March 23
Spring game: April 15

What to watch:
  • Smooth sailing for Bridegwater?: The Cardinals' most pressing issue is at quarterback, where senior co-starters Justin Burke and Adam Froman are gone. Highly-touted recruit Teddy Bridgewater will participate in the spring, and how quickly he picks up the college game and coordinator Mike Sanford's system could go a long way to determining what happens this fall. If he needs more time, senior Will Stein will happily take the reins.
  • Rebuilding the O-line: The key to Louisville's offensive success was its senior-laden line, which proved to be the best in the Big East a year ago. But now four new starters must be found to go along with center Mario Benavides. The new guys must get up to speed and develop chemistry quickly for the running game and presumed new starter Jeremy Wright to duplicate last season's progress.
  • Last line of defense: Louisville's defense was most vulnerable at its back end at times last season, and now the Cardinals must replace both starting cornerbacks (including All-Big East first team performer Johnny Patrick), no to mention two senior linebackers. An obvious candidate to take over some leadership is safety Hakeem Smith, who was the Big East rookie of the year. The plus side is that Charlie Strong and coordinator Vance Bedford will have more young talent to work with.
Pittsburgh

Spring practice starts: March 15
Spring game: April 16

What to watch:
  • Golden Graham?: There will be no more drastic change in the Big East this spring than the offense at Pittsburgh, which will go from a run-based pro-style attack to Graham's no-huddle, wide-open, points-per-minute machine. Can the Panthers get this new offense up and running this spring? Does Graham have the players to make it work? And how will his offense, so successful in Conference USA, translate into the more rugged Big East? All those questions will be fascinating to follow.
  • Quarterback competition: Junior Tino Sunseri started every game in his first year at the controls in 2010, and he played well at times. But a new style and new coaching staff means that he might have an edge, but not necessarily an insurmountable one, in this spring's competition. Redshirt freshman Mark Myers is multi-talented and will be given a look, along with classmate Anthony Gonzalez and Kolby Gray. The current staff has no loyalty to Sunseri, so he'll need to perform at a high level this spring to keep his job.
  • Shoring up the 'D': It's no secret that Pitt struggled in defending the pass last season. Graham's offense may be more explosive, but he doesn't want to have to get into shootouts all the time. He and defensive coordinator Keith Patterson have experience running 3-3-5 and 4-2-5 formations and may go to more of those kinds of looks to counter the increasing spread offenses throughout the league. First Pitt will have to get better play from its secondary and linebackers in pass coverage, and that starts this spring.
Rutgers

Spring practice starts: March 29
Spring game: April 30

What to watch:
  • Line change: The first thing to focus on this spring for the Scarlet Knights is the front five on offense. The offensive line has been a mess for the past two years and was an utter disaster a year ago. Head coach Greg Schiano is counting on junior-college center Dallas Hendrickson to provide some immediate help, and that another year will lead to better things for the returnees. Rutgers needs answers at right tackle, especially, and if the line can't block its own defense in spring practice, you'll know there's trouble.
  • A Frank re-assessment: Former Pitt offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti takes over the Scarlet Knights' playcalling duties this spring, and his pro-style background seems like a perfect match for what Schiano likes to do. Look for Cignetti to try to establish a stronger running game this spring (while waiting for mega-recruit Savon Huggins to arrive this summer) and abandon the Wildcat formation and other gimmicks that Rutgers desperately turned to the past two years. His work with sophomore starter Chas Dodd will also be critical, since there are no other experienced quarterbacks on campus.
  • Recharging the defense: You always expect a Schiano-led defense to be rock solid, but that defense wore down last season and ended up allowing more points in conference play than anybody. Three of the starting four defensive linemen are gone, as well as the team's leading tackler -- linebacker Antonio Lowery -- and safety Joe Lefeged. Schiano has recruited well and has lots of young players ready to step into bigger roles. Spring will be the time we start to learn who's ready to handle increased responsibilities.
South Florida

Spring practice starts: March 3
Spring game: April 2

What to watch:
  • Transfers accepted: Running backs Darrell Scott and Dontae Aycock have strong credentials; Scott was one of the more sought-after recruits in the country before disappointing at Colorado, while Aycock was set to play for Auburn. Both become eligible this year and will show their stuff this spring. The two big-bodied ballcarriers could add some power and explosiveness to the Bulls offense. Notre Dame transfer Spencer Boyd should bring depth, at the very least, to the secondary.
  • B.J. still the main Bull?: Junior B.J. Daniels seemed to reassert himself as the starter with a big performance in the Meineke Car Care Bowl win over Clemson. But before that, there were serious questions about whether sophomore Bobby Eveld might unseat him. Daniels goes into the spring with an obvious edge, but he'll be pushed by Eveld and redshirt freshman Jamius Gunsby. He'll need to perform at a consistent level to stiff-arm questions about his job security.
  • Receiver reconstitution: No doubt, receiver was the position that needed the largest upgrade a year ago. The bad news is, the Bulls lost leading pass-catcher Dontavia Bogan, who was nearly a one-man show at wideout in 2010. On the flip side, A.J. Love and Sterling Griffin return from injury. And Skip Holtz hopes getting thrown into the fire last season sped the development of guys like Evan Landi, Joel Miller and Lindsey Lamar. At the very least, the position has a lot more experience and depth than it did a year ago at this time.
Syracuse

Spring practice starts: March 8
Spring game: April 16

What to watch:
  • Displacing Delone: Senior Delone Carter brought the thunder to the Syracuse running game the last two years, and he may have been the least favorite ballcarrier for opposing tacklers to bring down. With him gone, it remains to be seen whether the smaller Antwon Bailey can be an every-down back, or if youngsters like Prince-Tyson Gulley and Jerome Smith are ready for an increased role in the offense.
  • Linebacker makeover: It would be hard for any team to lose a more productive linebacker tandem than the Orange did with seniors Doug Hogue and Derrell Smith. They were both crucial to what defensive coordinator Scott Shafer liked to do. The lone returning starter is Marquis Spruill, who played as a true freshman last year. Could a newcomer like junior-college transfer Siriki Diabate be ready to help immediately?
  • Wideout wonders: Marcus Sales helped rescue an ailing passing game with his breakout performance in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl. Is Sales ready to play like that all the time now, or was he a one-game wonder? Will Van Chew continue the improvement he showed last season before getting injured? Can the Orange get more out of Alec Lemon? What new faces might help at receiver? The answers to these questions will be key to the attack under Nathaniel Hackett, who was promoted to offensive coordinator this offseason.
West Virginia

Spring practice starts: March 28
Spring game: April 29

What to watch:
  • Dana days: Mountaineer Nation is salivating at the thought of what Dana Holgorsen will do to revive the offense. Holgorsen has had an immediate and incredible impact at the last two places where he called plays, and some solid work in the spring is required to do the same in Morgantown. A couple of things are for sure: the Mountaineers will be throwing it around a whole bunch during practice, and fans will breathlessly gobble up every small detail. Another thing to watch will be the chemistry between Holgorsen's hand-picked offensive staff and Bill Stewart, the man he'll replace at the end of the season. That relationship will also be dissected relentlessly.
  • Defense reload or rebuild?: Most people assume West Virginia will continue to field an excellent defense because of coordinator Jeff Casteel. That may be true, but no team lost more defensive talent than the Mountaineers, who must replace frontline players like tackle Chris Neild, linebacker J.T. Thomas, safety Robert Sands and cornerback Brandon Hogan, among others. There's still a lot to like here, including ends Julian Miller and Bruce Irvin and corner Keith Tandy, but for Casteel must find new contributors to keep his 3-3-5 humming along.
  • Who's in the backfield?: It's not yet know just how much quarterback Geno Smith will be able to do during spring practice after his offseason foot surgery. Obviously, the more reps he can take, the better he'll be able to get Holgorsen's system down. And there's no experience behind him. West Virginia will be cautious with Smith, though, because the fall is way more important. With Noel Devine gone and Tavon Austin seemingly making his move to receiver permanent, there will be competition for the starting running back spot. Shawne Alston and Ryan Clarke are bulldozers who could add an interesting wrinkle to Holgorsen's spread if they get the job done.
As if sorting out the 2010 Big East jumble wasn't difficult enough, I've been tasked with coming up with the super-early forecast for the 2011 season already. Given my recent prognostication track record -- hey, my 2010 preseason pick (Pittsburgh) did win a share of the conference title at least -- odds are this won't be too accurate. But it should be fun and a good cause for debate. I only ask one thing: Do not rip these selections without providing your own rankings.

And away we go:

1. South Florida: Yep, I'm taking a flyer on the Bulls. The 5-2 record down the stretch, impressive bowl showing and returning young talent have me convinced that Year 2 of the Skip Holtz era could be special. B.J. Daniels must make major progress and the receiving corps needs to get better. But if UConn can make a BCS game, why not the Bulls in '11?

2. West Virginia: The Mountaineers should get much better on offense under the direction of Dana Holgorsen and return plenty of key playmakers, including quarterback Geno Smith. But they also lose eight starters off that terrific defense, and the potential for tension in this awkward coaching transition is just too much for me to make the Mountaineers the favorite.

3. Syracuse: The Orange lose some very valuable seniors, especially Doug Hogue, Derrell Smith and Delone Carter. But they also bring back a lot, and the offense should continue to make strides. Will Syracuse build off its breakthrough 2010 season or backslide? I say it keeps moving forward.

4. Pittsburgh: Lots of questions for this team, which will be making a coaching transition and could be shifting into entirely new philosophies on both offense and defense. Losing Dion Lewis and Jon Baldwin hurts, too. But there's still plenty of talent on hand for Todd Graham, who might make the Panthers dangerous by the time conference play rolls around with his high-scoring spread attack.

5. Louisville: If this were the 2012 power rankings, Louisville might be near the top (with TCU?). The Cardinals are bringing in boatloads of blue-chippers and will be a force soon. But they could take a small step backward, or sideways, in 2011 after the departures of so many valuable seniors. Almost the entire offensive line has to be rebuilt, and a true freshman could start at quarterback. This will be a young team that could threaten if it matures quickly.

6. Connecticut: Had Jordan Todman and Randy Edsall come back, I might have made the Huskies the preseason favorite. But as I write this, we don't even know who will be coaching this team in 2011. So consider this No. 6 ranking a mere holding spot until we find out more about UConn's new direction. Several starters will be back, but there will be a new quarterback (which might be a good thing) and a new heir to the running-game legacy. And perhaps completely new schemes on both sides of the ball. Nobody knows anything about the 2011 Huskies right now.

7. Cincinnati: The Bearcats have the most potential of any team to make a huge leap in 2011. Virtually every player comes back off the defense, which can't help but be better than it was in 2010. The offense returns a strong core led by Zach Collaros, D.J. Woods and Isaiah Pead. The second-year in Butch Jones' system should have everybody more comfortable. But until I actually see some improvement from the defense and in ball security by the offense, I will start Cincinnati out low.

8. Rutgers: Here's another team that should be better than 4-8 in 2011. The maturation of players like Mohamed Sanu, Mark Harrison, Jordan Thomas and Jeremy Deering should pay dividends, as should the return to a pro-style attack under former Pitt coordinator Frank Cignetti. Chas Dodd still has to prove he's the guy at quarterback while avoiding the sophomore slump that plagued Tom Savage. There's no experience behind Dodd now that Savage has left. And that offensive line is the offseason's biggest reclamation project. This is another case of needing to see it before I believe it.

How Cincinnati missed out on a bowl

December, 15, 2010
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After two straight Big East titles and BCS game appearances, Cincinnati came crashing down to earth with a 4-8 record in 2010.

Several factors conspired against the Bearcats in this disappointing season. There was the coaching transition, of course, as Butch Jones took over for Brian Kelly. There was a difficult early schedule that included games at Fresno State and NC State and versus Oklahoma, all of which Cincinnati lost. Injuries played a part, as starting receiver Vidal Hazelton went down in the opener with a torn ACL, and the team's most experienced cornerback (Dominique Battle) missed most of the year with a knee injury.

The Bearcats led the league in points scored and total offense but finished last in points allowed thanks to an undersized, inexperienced defense that gave up nearly 34 points per conference game. Unlike last season, when they could win shootouts late in the year because of their prolific offense, they continually ended their own drives with mistakes. Their abysmal minus-15 turnover margin was second-worst in the FBS.

[+] EnlargeZach Collaros
AP Photo/Ed ReinkeQuarterback Zach Collaros is part of a strong returning nucleus on offense for Cincinnati.
Intangibles were at play as well. Jones had to fight a sense of entitlement that stemmed from those two straight championships. Senior center Jason Kelce told the Cincinnati Enquirer earlier this month that the team lacked the hunger it had in previous years.

So what can Cincinnati do to get back to the postseason in 2011?

Jones has a strong nucleus returning. The team loses only six starting seniors, none of them on defense. Quarterback Zach Collaros, running back Isaiah Pead and receiver D.J. Woods are all among the best at their position in the Big East, so the offense should thrive again, especially with a year of Jones' system under their belts. The Bearcats will miss start wideout Armon Binns, but freshman Anthony McClung showed promise late in the year, and former star recruit Dyjuan Woods and junior college transfer Kenbrell Thompkins will become eligible.

The defense remains an issue, and this offseason will be crucial in the weight room for the Bearcats to add some bulk. Jones has to fill in some gaps through recruiting and may look to a junior college player or two to provide immediate help.

Next year's schedule will be slightly easier, with difficult games against Tennessee and NC State but highly winnable contests against Austin Peay, Akron and Miami of Ohio. For the first time in a few years, the Bearcats won't be picked among the favorites for the Big East. But they should improve enough to get back to a bowl in 2011.
I wondered what would happen when Cincinnati's bad defense met Rutgers' poor offense. Clearly, I was focused on the wrong thing.

It's been more about Cincinnati's offense versus Rutgers' (overrated?) defense. The Bearcats have gone nuts in the first half, scoring five touchdowns while taking a 41-24 lead into halftime. Yes, it's 41-24 at halftime.

The Bearcats have 416 yards of offense, and Isaiah Pead has scored three touchdowns in the first half alone. Pead has run for 78 yards and has 36 yards receiving on only 15 touches. D.J. Woods also has two scores.

Rutgers has been able to score, too, already eclipsing its season average in the first half. Mark Harrison has seven catches for 130 yards and two touchdowns.

It's a shootout! We haven't had one of those in a long time in the Big East, so it's fun to see. Unless you're a Rutgers fan.

Week 11 review/Week 12 preview

November, 15, 2010
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The Week (11) that Was:

Team of the week: Connecticut. Every other Big East team cheered on the Huskies as they knocked off Pitt 30-28 on Thursday night. That was the second straight big home win for UConn, following the upset of West Virginia two weeks ago.

[+] EnlargeSouth Florida's Dontavia Bogan
AP Photo/Garry JonesThis TD grab by Dontavia Bogan helped South Florida to an important win against Louisville.
Best game: Three of the four games were decided by three points or less. But I'm a sucker for overtime games, so I'm going with South Florida's 24-21 win against Louisville, which featured a late touchdown, field goal intrigue in the final seconds and a controversial coaching decision in OT.

Biggest play: Ross Krautman's 24-yard field goal with 1:07 left in Syracuse's 13-10 victory against Rutgers. It wasn't the most exciting play or the prettiest game to watch, but that field goal meant the Orange will be going bowling for the first time since 2004.

Best call: Randy Edsall doesn't normally have a reputation as a riverboat gambler. But on 4th-and-1 from his own 19, and his team clinging to a two-point lead with 2:50 left, Edsall decided to go for it. Jordan Todman picked up four yards, Pitt never got the ball back and the Big East race got a lot tighter.

Big Man on Campus (Offense): Todman, RB, Connecticut. Todman rushed 37 times for 222 yards in the win against Pittsburgh.

Big Man on Campus (Defense): Lawrence Wilson, LB, Connecticut. Wilson had 11 tackles and a sack in the Huskies' big win.

Big Man on Campus (Special teams): Krautman, K, Syracuse. In addition to his game-winner, the freshman from New Jersey helped sink Rutgers with a 48-yarder in the third quarter of a game where points were scarce.

Strangest moment: According to West Virginia players, Cincinnati receiver D.J. Woods woofed to them in pregame warm-ups, saying Milan Puskar Stadium "is my house and my field." Why Woods would want to fire up the Mountaineers defense on the road is anybody's guess. West Virginia linebacker J.T. Thomas told teammates that he wanted Woods' head "or I'll go get it myself." Woods was held well below his average, with just three catches for 32 yards, as Cincinnati got blasted 37-10.

Worst hangover: Rutgers. Yeah, Pitt lost a game it shouldn't have, but the Panthers still have a one-game lead. The Scarlet Knights have now lost three straight games and could only muster 10 points at home. The offense continues to be one of the worst in the nation, and now the program is in danger of missing a bowl game for the first time in six years. And Saturday was its second straight loss to Syracuse.


Now let's look ahead to Week 12, where we actually have all Saturday games and even some night contests. (Games listed in descending order of interest and importance):

˙˙Pittsburgh (5-4, 3-1 Big East) at South Florida (6-3, 3-2): Can Pitt maintain its first-place lead? Or will the red-hot Bulls move into a first-place tie? (ESPN2, Noon ET)

Connecticut (5-4, 2-2) at Syracuse (7-3, 4-2): Something's got to give, as UConn is winless on the road and the Orange are 0-2 at home in Big East play. Winner remains in the BCS hunt. (ESPNU, 7 p.m. ET)


West Virginia (6-3, 2-2) at Louisville (5-5, 2-3): The Cardinals try to get that elusive sixth win in their home finale, while the Mountaineers try to build some momentum. (ESPN3.com, Noon ET)

Rutgers at Cincinnati (3-6, 1-3): It's a basement bowl! Rutgers can't score, and Cincinnati can't stop anybody. (ESPN3.com, 7:30 p.m. ET)

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