NCF Nation: DeAngelo Smith

Justin Hunter and Da'Rick RogersAP Photo/Wade PayneJustin Hunter (11) and Da'Rick Rogers (21) are considered to be the best receiving duo in the SEC.
Our SEC position rankings continue with a look at schools' wide receiver and tight end groups.

Past rankings:
On to the league's wide receiver/tight end groups:

1. Tennessee: The Vols are equipped with two of the top wideouts in the league with Da'Rick Rogers, who was second in the SEC in receiving last year, and Justin Hunter, who might be the SEC's top deep threat. It sounds like Hunter will be 100 percent this fall after his ACL injury last year. Junior college transfer Cordarrelle Patterson is big, fast and possesses the big-play gene. The speedy Zach Rogers is back and is so is talented tight end Mychal Rivera.

2. Arkansas: Cobi Hamilton is now Arkansas' primary receiver, and he might be the league's most complete wideout. He can make the big-play and elude defenders along the way. While Marquel Wade's status is still unclear, if he does return, he'll be a major lift for this offense because of his playmaking ability in the slot. Julian Horton and Javontee Herndon have always impressed coaches in practice and now will get their chances to in games. Tight end Chris Gragg should be even more involved and is the league's top tight end.

3. Georgia: While Malcolm Mitchell could go back and forth between receiver and corner, when he's at receiver he's Georgia's top offensive threat and was one of the league's best as a rookie. There are vets behind him, starting with reliable senior Tavarres King, who had a very good spring, senior Marlon Brown, who seemed to take a big step in his game this spring. Sophomores Michael Bennett and Chris Conley combined for 48 catches for 608 yards and seven touchdowns last year. Unproven tight ends Arthur Lynch and Jay Rome will replace Orson Charles and Aron White.

4. Texas A&M: This isn't the fastest group out there, but there are some pretty reliable weapons, starting with star Ryan Swope, who could have left for the NFL after catching 89 passes for 1,207 yards and 11 touchdowns last year. Uzoma Nwachukwu was third on the team with 50 catches for 639 yards and three tight ends -- Nehemiah Hicks, Michael Lamothe and Hutson Prioleau -- return. Keep an eye on junior Nate Askew, who could be a downfield threat this fall.

5. LSU: Odell Beckham Jr. was one of the top rookies last year and could be even better in Year 2. He'll be joined by potential deep threat and big-play target Jarvis Landry, who developed some good chemistry with quarterback Zach Mettenberger this spring. Russell Shepard is talented, but he's been wildly inconsistent. Keep an eye on junior James Wright and incoming frosh Avery Johnson, who is the younger brother of Patrick Peterson. Also, tight end Chase Clement is on the John Mackey watch list.

[+] EnlargeJordan Matthews
Don McPeak/US PresswireWide receiver Jordan Matthews is one player the Commodores will be counting on this fall.
6. Vanderbilt: This group surprised last year and returns most of its components, starting with Jordan Matthews, who was fourth in the SEC in receiving last year. Sophomore Chris Boyd was solid last year, hauling in 31 catches and eight touchdowns. Jonathan Krause is very good in space and should see his role increase this fall after a solid spring. The coaches are excited about former QB Josh Grady moving to receiver. Replacing tight end Brandon Barden won't be easy.

7. Alabama: There is more speed out wide in Tuscaloosa, but there's a lot more youth. The Tide could turn to freshmen Chris Black, Amari Cooper and Eddie Williams to help develop a more downfield passing game. More will be expected from veterans Kenny Bell and Kevin Norwood, while sophomore DeAndrew White possesses a ton of speed. Still no word on Duron Carter. Tight end Michael Williams was solid last year, but will be used even more this fall.

8. Mississippi State: There is a lot of experience here, but this group has still underperformed at times, especially senior Chad Bumphis, who has yet to live up to all the hype that followed him from high school. Seniors Chris Smith and Arceto Clark combined for 65 catches last year, while the staff is very excited about the big-play potential redshirt freshman Joe Morrow possesses. Tight end Malcolm Johnson serves as a very reliable tight end target, as well.

9. Missouri: The Tigers lost two starting receivers and stud tight end Michael Egnew, but three of the top five pass catchers are back, including inside threat T.J. Moe, who led Mizzou in receiving last year. Big things are expected from Marcus Lucas, who can stretch the field with his speed and physicality, and the coaches think L'Damian Washington can also be a downfield threat. Also, Dorial Green-Beckham, last year's top recruit, should make an immediate impact. Eric Waters is replacing Egnew, but has just two career catches and suffered a knee injury this spring.

10. Auburn: Emory Blake is one of the league's top downfield threats and has been one of Auburn's most consistent offensive weapons. So has tight end Philip Lutzenkirchen, who should be more of a passing threat with the addition of transfer fullback Jay Prosch. There is a lot of depth, but it's unproven. Trovon Reed was supposed to be a star, but had a lackluster second year. Seniors Travante Stallworth and DeAngelo Benton have 15 and 14 career catches, respectively. Quan Bray has shown potential and could have a bigger role this season and keep an eye on freshman Ricardo Louis.

11. Florida: The Gators have struggled here since 2009 and still lack proven playmakers. Andre Debose is probably the best bet to be one, but he's been very inconsistent. Quinton Dunbar has the speed to be an outside threat, but caught just 14 passes last year. And the coaches are still waiting for senior Frankie Hammond Jr. to turn things up. True freshman Latroy Pittman had a great spring and the coaches are excited about his potential. Tight end Jordan Reed is one of the most athletic players in the league and will be a bigger target with two young quarterbacks throwing the ball.

12. South Carolina: Now that Alshon Jeffery is gone, the Gamecocks have questions and inexperience here. The fast, athletic Ace Sanders is the only returning pass catcher with at least 20 catches from last year (29). The hope is Bruce Ellington will be more of a factor this fall. Tight ends Justice Cunningham and Rory Anderson combined for 26 catches and four touchdowns. Damiere Byrd has blazing speed, but caught just one pass last year. DeAngelo Smith had a solid spring, and the coaches hope he can be a downfield threat. A lot will be expected from incoming freshman Shaq Roland.

13. Ole Miss: Sophomore Donte Moncrief is a budding star in this league and thinks he'll be even better in Hugh Freeze's spread offense. Ja-Mes Logan caught 20 passes last year, but had a very good spring. But Nickolas Brassell was an academic casualty and Randall Mackey had to move over from quarterback. The coaches are looking for consistency from Terrell Grant and Vince Sanders, who are both pretty unproven. Tight end Jamal Mosley is expected to do more in the spread and averaged 13.8 yards per catch last year.

14. Kentucky: Joker Phillips' goal this spring was to find more playmakers and he thinks he did with sophomore Demarco Robinson, who had five receptions last year, and redshirt freshman Daryl Collins. The hope is that they'll take some pressure off of La'Rod King, who is really the only proven receiving threat on the team. Tight ends Ronnie Shields and Tyler Robinson did well this spring, but combined for just 10 catches last year.
Spring practice is all about working the kinks out and getting guys back into the regular football flow.

It's also time for some of the more unheralded players to try and make a name for themselves.

Four springs are in the books in the SEC, and here are some under-the-radar guys who came up big:

Florida

QB Tyler Murphy -- He wasn’t even the favorite to be the No. 2 quarterback in Gainesville, but had the best spring game of the quarterbacks and improved mightily. Murphy finished with a game-high 68 yards and a touchdown on 7-of-11 passing.

WR Quinton Dunbar -- Coach Will Muschamp said Dunbar made the biggest plays in practice this spring. He had two catches for 45 yards, including a 29-yard catch-and-run in Florida’s spring game.

LSU

WR Kadron Boone -- Boone showed he has the speed and athleticism to be a threat in the Tigers’ offense. He’s unproven, but had a solid spring. Boone finished LSU’s spring game with a game-high four catches for 77 yards.

CB Tharold Simon -- Throughout the spring, Simon drew praise from coach Les Miles, who said he’s competing for regular time in LSU’s cornerback rotation. Though he recorded just one tackle in the spring game, he kept some of the tightest coverage on the field.

Mississippi State

QB Dylan Favre -- The redshirt freshman went 17-of-26 passing for 199 yards, with a touchdown and an interception, and also carried the ball 10 times for a game-high 41 yards in the Bulldogs’ spring game. Chris Relf is the starter, but Favre provides some nice depth at the position.

WR Robert Johnson -- Johnson made strides as a part of Mississippi State’s talent receiving corps. He led all receivers with seven receptions during the spring game and finished with 74 yards, including a 24-yard touchdown.

South Carolina

WR DeAngelo Smith -- South Carolina was looking for some big-play ability to complement Alshon Jeffery and might have found it in Smith. He was named the offensive player of the spring for the Gamecocks and caught three touchdowns in the spring game. One went for 62 yards.

OL A.J. Cann -- The redshirt freshman entered the spring as the No. 2 left guard, but also pushed for time at right guard. He could be a viable option at either position for the Gamecocks.

Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett

• Former Cincinnati defensive back DeAngelo Smith helped rescue a reporter when the Dallas Cowboys' training facility collapsed on Saturday, according to the Cincinnati Enquirer.

• The Charleston Gazette's Dave Hickman says fans shouldn't get too worked up over West Virginia's post-spring depth chart.

• Former South Florida players Jarriett Buie, Marc Dile and Amarri Jackson earned free-agent contracts after tryouts with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Greg Auman says in his St. Petersburg Times blog.

• Former Rutgers defensive lineman Jamaal Westerman has impressed at New York Jets rookie camp after not being drafted, Dave Hutchinson writes in The Star-Ledger.

Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett

Twenty-seven Big East products had their name called over the weekend in the NFL draft. Three league schools had their best drafts ever.

Cincinnati had six players taken, the most of any Big East team and the most in program history. The previous school record had been five, which happened in 1998, 1960 and 1947. The Bearcats were one of only nine schools to have six or more players drafted this year.

Connecticut had never had a player taken in the first two rounds of the draft before Saturday. Four Huskies went in the first two rounds this year, including the school's first-ever first-rounder, running back Donald Brown.

Rutgers had a record-setting five players drafted, including the Scarlet Knights' first-ever first-rounder, wide receiver Kenny Britt. The most Rutgers had ever previously had drafted in one year was three, in 2007.

Here's a rundown of all the league draft picks and some commentary:

Cincinnati

Player, Position, Round, Team

Connor Barwin, DE, 2, Houston Texans

• DeAngelo Smith, DB, 5, Dallas Cowboys

Brandon Underwood, DB, 6, Green Bay Packers

Mike Mickens, DB, 7, Dallas Cowboys

Trevor Canfield, OG, 7, Arizona Cardinals

Thoughts: Kind of surprising that Mickens went after Underwood and Smith, when he was generally regarded as the best pro prospect of the three for most of his career. The fifth round is lofty territory for a punter, but Huber is that good.

Connecticut

Player, Position, Round, Team

• Donald Brown, RB, 1, Indianapolis Colts

Darius Butler, DB, 2, New England Patriots

Will Beatty, OT, 2, New York Giants

Cody Brown, OLB, 2, Arizona Cardinals

Thoughts: We thought UConn would have a huge day, and the Huskies sure did.

Louisville

Player, Position, Round, Team

Eric Wood, C/OG, 1, Buffalo Bills

George Bussey, OT, 5, New England Patriots

Thoughts: Bussey didn't get much pre-draft buzz, but the Patriots must have liked the former walk-on who became a three-year starter and All-Big East performer. Wood will play guard for the Bills.

Pittsburgh

Player, Position, Round, Team

LeSean McCoy, RB, 2, Philadelphia Eagles

Scott McKillop, LB, 5, San Francisco 49ers

LaRod Stephens-Howling, RB, 7, Arizona Cardinals

Derek Kinder, WR, 7, Chicago Bears

Thoughts: OK, Pitt fans. How do you feel about McCoy going to Philly? Will you still root for him? Getting McKillop in the fifth round seems like a steal.

Rutgers

Player, Position, Round, Team

• Kenny Britt, WR, 1, Tennessee Titans

Mike Teel, QB, 6, Seattle Seahawks

Jason McCourty, DB, 6, Tennessee Titans

Courtney Greene, DB, 7, Seattle Seahawks

Tiquan Underwood, WR, 7, Jacksonville Jaguars

Thoughts: I didn't think Teel would get drafted, but good for him. The Titans and Seahawks must have liked Greg Schiano's program.

South Florida

Player, Position, Round, Team

Tyrone McKenzie, OLB, 3, New England Patriots

Thoughts: Despite all that Florida talent, the Bulls had the smallest draft class in the Big East.

Syracuse

Player, Position, Round, Team

Tony Fiammetta, FB, 4, Carolina Panthers

Ryan Durand, OG, 7, Tennessee Titans

Thoughts: Durand was another guy who wasn't on many mock draft boards. There were some good fullbacks in the Big East, including Pitt's Conredge Collins and Louisville's Brock Bolen. But Fiammetta was the only one drafted.

West Virginia

Player, Position, Round, Team

Pat White, QB/WR, 2, Miami Dolphins

Ellis Lankster, CB, 7, Buffalo
Bills

Pat McAfee, K, 7, Indianapolis

Thoughts: Can't wait to see how the Dolphins, who showed a lot of creativity on offense last year, use White.

Prominent players who went undrafted:

Hunter Cantwell, Louisville

Greg Isdaner and Mortty Ivy, West Virginia

Jamaal Westerman, Rutgers

• C.J. Davis, Pittsburgh

Julius Williams, UConn

Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett

At this time last year, few people were talking about Donald Brown, Connor Barwin, Will Beatty or Tony Pike. Each emerged out of the shadows to become a star in the Big East.

Who will be the next batch of players to post have breakthrough seasons? Unlike the top newcomers, which we explored on Thursday, this list is about players who have already seen some time on the field but may be about to make you sit up and take notice. This is a tough exercise to do before seeing players in the spring, but here are five early possibilities:

Cory Grissom, DT, South Florida: He appeared in only one game in 2008 before being shelved by an ankle injury, for which he gained a medical redshirt. Bulls coaches love him and think he has the most talent of any of their young interior linemen. Look for him to fight for a starting spot on what could be the league's best defensive line in '09.

Dominique Battle, CB, Cincinnati: Battle was named the Bearcats' newcomer of the year after playing in every game as a freshman, but he was overshadowed by Mike Mickens and DeAngelo Smith. With both those guys off to the NFL Draft, Battle should step right in as a starting corner. Cincinnati has shown it knows how to develop ball-hawking defensive backs, and the athletic Battle fits that mode to a tee.

Julian Miller, DL, West Virginia: Miller was the Mountaineers' scout team defensive player of the year during his redshirt season, then played all 13 games last year as a backup, recording 3.5 sacks. He should challenge Larry Ford for the starting job at defensive end. On a defense that returns most of its starters from a year ago, Miller could be the biggest depth-chart mover.

Andre Dixon/Jordan Todman, RB, UConn: Donald Brown cast a long shadow by leading the nation in rushing in 2008, so one or both of these guys might emerge in his absence. Dixon led the team in rushing two years ago and was second team All-Big East, but he vanished as a junior. Todman made a strong freshman debut and has the burst to excel in many roles in the Huskies' new no-huddle offense.

T.J. Porter, WR, Pittsburgh: Porter backed up Derek Kinder at flanker last season but still finished third on the team in catches, yards and yards per catch. The graduation of Kinder and Oderick Turner opens up plenty of playing time for the Florida-bred speedster. And with defenses no doubt gearing up to double team Jonathan Baldwin, Porter could be in line for a big senior season.

Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett

National signing day is just a week away now. As teams scramble to fill out their needs and hold on to their commitments, it's a good time to look back at some of the most memorable moments in Big East recruiting over the past five years.

1. Ray Rice spurns Syracuse for Rutgers: The star running back committed to the Orange after his junior season. But after Paul Pasqualoni was fired in late December of 2004, Rice backed out of that pledge and cast his lot with the Scarlet Knights. He went on to become one of the best running backs in Big East history with three spectacular years in Piscataway, while Syracuse struggled offensively during coach Greg Robinson's tenure.

2. The 2004 quarterback coups: Louisville announced itself as a major player when it convinced local schoolboy legend Brian Brohm to stay home instead of going to Notre Dame or Tennessee. Brohm led the Cardinals to an Orange Bowl win his junior year and broke several school records. West Virginia got a quarterback in that class who was less heralded but turned out to be pretty good in his own right. Pat White pulled off a signing day surprise by switching from LSU to the Mountaineers, who told him he could stay under center instead of moving to another position. White ended his career as one of the most accomplished quarterbacks in NCAA history.

3. Pitt gets real McCoy: Pittsburgh coach Dave Wannstedt found some early success on the recruiting trail, but he really made waves by signing running back LeSean McCoy in 2007. McCoy had been recruited by all the top schools in the country before a senior-year injury prompted him to go to prep school, and then Wannstedt was able to beat out Penn State the following year. McCoy stuck around for only two seasons before bolting for the NFL, but his huge production and star power helped change the fortunes and the image of the program.

4. Cincinnati's super sleepers of '04 and '05: Nobody thought much of Mark Dantonio's first and second recruiting classes. One major recruiting service ranked the 2004 group 80th in the nation, while the following year's class was tied for 94th. But those unheralded recruits included such players as Mike Mickens, DeAngelo Smith, Dominick Goodman, Mardy Gilyard, Terrill Byrd, Trevor Canfield, Connor Barwin and the vast nucleus of a team that would win 21 games in 2007 and 2008, culminating in this season's Big East title and FedEx Orange Bowl berths. Just goes to show you what recruiting rankings are worth.

5. Louisville's 2005 and 2006 disasters: All seemed right in the world for the Cardinals on the field in 2005 and 2006. They were winning lots of games under Bobby Petrino and captured their first Big East title in '06. The recruiting classes Petrino signed were ranked among the highest in school history. But more than half of those two classes never made it to campus, suffered career-ending injuries, transferred or were dismissed for off-the-field transgressions. Several others never lived up to their billing. The program is still paying the price for those recruiting failures, having not reached a bowl game since and facing serious depth issues next season.

Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett

CINCINNATI -- Most people think of Brian Kelly's spread offense when they think of Cincinnati. It's the defense that has the Bearcats on top of the Big East.

On Saturday night, that defense held the league's top scoring team, Pittsburgh, to its lowest point total in conference play during a 28-21 victory. Heading into the fourth quarter, the Panthers had just 106 total yards and only seven points. A long touchdown pass against a busted coverage in the final 90 seconds prevented Pitt from posting its lowest score of the year. After a 69-yard touchdown drive on its first possession, the Panthers had just 37 until the fourth quarter began.

The Bearcats did it without one of their best defensive players. All-Big East cornerback Mike Mickens missed the game with a left knee strain. Just like they did when their quarterbacks went down this season on offense, the defense just kept going.

"It was just next man in," corner DeAngelo Smith said. "Brandon Underwood stepped in and did the job. Mike was cheering us on from the sidelines."

Two weeks ago, Cincinnati held West Virginia to under 100 yards rushing as a team for the first time in seven years. On Saturday, star running back LeSean McCoy managed only 82 yards.

This defense has speed and strength on the front line and outstanding cover skills in the secondary. Pittsburgh quarterback Bill Stull could only connect with deep threat Jonathan Baldwin once for 22 yards, and Baldwin had to make a terrific move to come back for the ball on that fourth quarter play. Stull was intercepted once and sacked seven times.

"The key for us was to keep McCoy under wraps and then be able to play some coverage situations," Kelly said. "We got Stull to move his feet, and that's so important, because when he can set his feet he can rip the ball down the field. And they've got great receivers who can go down and get it."

Defensive end Connor Barwin had three of his team's sacks on the night, giving him 10 on the season. That's not bad considering that he was a tight end until this spring.

"I don't know what I'm doing," Barwin said.

With 10 starting seniors, the Bearcats defense has plenty of knowledge and experience. And right now, it's why Cincinnati is on track to win the Big East.

Halftime: Cincinnati 14, Pitt 7

November, 22, 2008
11/22/08
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Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett

CINCINNATI -- Pittsburgh had the extra week to prepare for this game, but Cincinnati came in with the better game plan.

Coach Brian Kelly and his staff knew that Pitt's defensive line loves to get up the field and pressure the quarterback, so they countered that in the first half with a lot of quick throws and by getting Tony Pike out of the pocket. It worked beautifully, as Pike was 16-of-21 for 169 yards and had two touchdowns in the first half.

On at least two occasions, Pitt showed an obvious blitz at the line of scrimmage, and Pike checked into the right play to burn it. The first touchdown came that way, as Marcus Barnett walked into the end zone from 20 yards out after defender Elijah Fields fell down.

After going 69 yards on its opening drive to score, Pitt managed just 31 total yards the rest of the half. Even without Mike Mickens, the Cincinnati secondary has managed to contain the deep pass, and the one time Bill Stull tried to find Jonathan Baldwin long, DeAngelo Smith had good coverage.

The game's still very much in doubt, but it will be up to the Panthers to come out with a better second-half plan.

Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett
 
 AP Photo/David Kohl
 Tony Pike threw for 281 yards and two TDs against South Florida.

CINCINNATI -- Tony Pike sat in the Cincinnati training room on Wednesday afternoon and suddenly realized he was surrounded by peers.

"There were five quarterbacks in there getting treatment," Pike said. "We even had a redshirt freshman break his foot this week. It was pretty much a training room full of quarterbacks."

The latest in the never-ending series of quarterback casualties struck Chazz Anderson, who missed Thursday's game against South Florida with a medial collateral sprain in his knee. He's out for about 10 days, becoming the third different starting quarterback the Bearcats have lost to injury. And that's not even counting Ben Mauk's failed appeal to the NCAA this summer.

Such calamities might have killed lesser teams. But Cincinnati (6-2, 2-1) is still very much alive in the Big East race after its best overall performance of the season in a 24-10 win over the No. 23 Bulls.

These were the Bearcats last seen during their 10-win campaign a year ago and the ones everyone expected this season. The defense rediscovered its ball-hawking ways, intercepting Matt Grothe three times. The offense, stymied for weeks by the quarterback uncertainty, produced 396 yards while finding a nice balance between the running and passing games.

"Everything played into our hands tonight," receiver Mardy Gilyard said. "We played our best game."

They couldn't have done so without Pike, who was questionable to play until Tuesday. The junior broke his left forearm in the Sept. 27 game at Akron and needed to have a plate and six screws inserted. He sat two games, then fell awkwardly in the first half at UConn. That caused the plate to push against a nerve and made his left hand go numb. He also suffered a broken radius in his wrist. Anderson had to finish out the 40-16 loss.

(Read full post)

Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett

Here are a few links to get you through a Thursday without Big East football.

  • The Connecticut Post breaks down the matchups in Friday's Louisville-Connecticut game. The outcome? Louisville 27, UConn 24. In overtime.
  • Cincinnati safety DeAngelo Smith and cornerback Brandon Underwood will switch positions against Akron, Bill Koch reports in his Cincinnati Enquirer blog. Brian Kelly said he's planned all along to rotate the two. I've always thought it was a bit odd that he moved Smith, who had eight interceptions as a cornerback last season, but he knows a lot more than I do.
  • The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette hosted chats by Pitt beat writer Paul Zeise and West Virginia scribe Chuck Finder. Both are full of good insider information, if you're into that sort of thing.
  • Harrison Beck, a Florida native, has a big challenge on his hands going against the South Florida defense, Greg Auman writes in the St. Petersburg Times.
Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett

CINCINNATI -- Brian Kelly began his sales pitch the minute he became Cincinnati's coach in December 2006.

He told his new players they would compete for the Big East championship and become a Top 25-caliber program right away.

 
  Jim Rinaldi/Icon SMI
 Cincinnati coach Brian Kelly has the Bearcats thinking big.

His optimism met some understandable skepticism. The Bearcats had just finished a 7-5 regular season, a banner year by their recent standards, and were happy to get invited to the International Bowl.

"We had a lot of seniors on the team, and it was kind of like, 'Who's this guy coming in and saying all this big talk?'" senior defensive end Connor Barwin recalled.

Kelly led Cincinnati to a bowl victory, then continued his ambitious proselytizing all summer. When Cincinnati knocked off Oregon State by 31 points in Week 2 last season, the new coach had found true believers.

"That's when we started to think, 'OK, this guy knows what he's talking about and his philosophy works,'" Barwin said. "That allowed us to get the confidence he had been talking about since he walked through the door."

The Bearcats finished 10-3 in Kelly's first season, the most victories by the program since 1951. They landed their first-ever spot in the final Associated Press poll, at No. 17.

Now, the sales pitch aims even higher. Kelly will take his team on the road against No. 4 Oklahoma this Saturday, and he sounds positively giddy about the opportunity.

"We took this game on as an opportunity to measure ourselves against the very best," he said. "When I came here, my first goal was to get our football team to change its mindset as far as how they compete, what they compete for. This is the next progression. We know we can compete for a championship in the Big East. Now we want to find out where we stand on a national stage."

Kelly went looking for a prominent 2008 opponent even before the 2007 season kicked off. (Oklahoma will return the favor in Cincinnati's Paul Brown Stadium in 2010).

He could hardly have found a tougher measuring stick. The Sooners are 50-2 at home since 2000 and have been installed as a 21.5-point favorite Saturday. The game will be played before 82,000 Boomer Sooner faithful, nearly two-and-half times as many fans as Cincinnati sees at its own home stadium.

But the Bearcats shouldn't be too intimidated by the atmosphere. They have a veteran team -- 18 juniors and seniors fill the starting lineup -- and many of the upperclassmen remember the 2005 trip to Penn State and the 2006 visit to Ohio State.

Of course, both of those games ended in blowout losses. The difference this time around? Cincinnati players believe.

"When we went to Ohio State, I don't want to say we didn't think we could win," Barwin said. "But it was kind of like, 'Hey, if we get a couple of breaks and play our best, maybe we'll come out with a big upset.'

"But this year, everybody's excited. We know how talented we are and we're confident in our ability. We think we can go down (to Oklahoma) and come out with a win."

Part of that confidence stems from Kelly's offensive brilliance. From Grand Valley State, where he won back-to-back Division II national championships, to Central Michigan, Kelly's teams have always scored points in bunches. Cincinnati has averaged 35.9 points in his 15-game tenure, eclipsing 40 points six times.

"We feel like we can score on anybody," receiver Dominick Goodman said.

Facing the spread won't be anything new for Oklahoma, which had mixed results against the scheme last season. The Sooners' two victories over Missouri -- 41-31 in the regular season and 38-17 in the Big 12 title game -- had some analysts decreeing that Bob Stoops had found the key to stopping the spread with his speed on defense. But Oklahoma also lost to Texas Tech and Colorado, both of which employ different types of spread principles.

"I think at Missouri they'd probably say, 'We played well offensively, but we didn't hold them down,'" Kelly said. "Those were shootouts. And our systems are a little bit different."

And there was one other game on the Sooners' schedule last year that caught Cincinnati's attention. Fellow Big East member West Virginia rolled over Oklahoma 48-28 in the Fiesta Bowl. The Bearcats only lost 28-23 to the Mountaineers in November.

"That showed us their weaknesses," Goodman said. "Hopefully, we can go out there and do the same thing West Virginia did."

But Kelly doesn't see many weaknesses to exploit on the Sooners, who boast one of the nation's most experienced (and talented) offensive lines, a star backfield with quarterback Sam Bradford and tailback DeMarco Murray and NFL prospects all over the defense. Kelly described Oklahoma as "a Big East all-star team."

Cincinnati has some studs of its own, especially on its underrated defense. Mike Mickens and DeAngelo Smith are two of the best defensive backs in the country who combined for 14 interceptions a year ago. Defensive tackle Terrill Byrd, back after a one-game suspension, was a second-team all-American last year.

The Big East sure could use a respectable effort by the Bearcats after its teams went 0-4 against major-college competition in the first weekend.

"If Cincinnati went out there and got a win," said Connecticut coach Randy Edsall, "it would do a lot for Cincinnati and do a lot for our conference."

Kelly is a restless promoter of his program and a master of the perfect sound bite. He publicly complained last year when his hometown paper, the Cincinnati Enquirer, didn't bother to send a reporter to Big East Media Day. Instead of feuding with the paper, though, he began writing a preseason diary in its pages.

He's convinced just about everybody that Cincinnati can field a winner. But the next level of credibility can only be purchased by winning games like this.

"(A win) would kind of give us that national attention, the national respect," Barwin said. "You don't get respect after one year. You've got to do it consistently."

Big East internal affairs

September, 3, 2008
9/03/08
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Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett

Each Wednesday, we'll dig deep inside the Big East to get you the scoop on depth chart movement, injuries and other important information that will prepare you for the weekend.

West Virginia: With Reed Williams' status still up in the air, the Mountaineers needed someone to step up at linebacker. It looks like J.T. Thomas could be that guy. The sophomore outside linebacker was credited with a pair of sacks and a tackle for loss against Villanova in his first start.

"He's lightning fast, and he'll probably be the next great one here at linebacker," coach Bill Stewart said. "He has a chance -- now, just a chance -- to be a real household name, not only in West Virginia but throughout this part of country, because of his speed."

Cincinnati: DeAngelo Smith tied for the national lead with eight interceptions last season at cornerback. So why would coach Brian Kelly move the senior to safety? Because the Bearcats want to find a place for Brandon Underwood, a cornerback who transferred from Ohio State. The Eastern Kentucky game didn't provide much of a gauge for Smith's switch, but this weekend at Oklahoma sure should.

"He's still learning the position," Kelly said, "but he makes up for it with such a great knack and a savvy for going and getting the football."

Pittsburgh: Jonathan Baldwin's time might be now at Pittsburgh. The Panthers badly need an infusion of playmakers on offense, so look for the 6-foot-5 true freshman wide receiver to become more heavily involved, perhaps as early as this weekend against Buffalo. Baldwin did not have a catch in the loss to Bowling Green.

Connecticut: Andre Dixon, last year's leading rusher for the Huskies, missed the opener with a bum ankle. But Dixon has been practicing this week and looks good to come back for Saturday's game at Temple. Donald Brown benefitted most from Dixon's absence, rushing for four touchdowns in the first half last week. Look for the two backs to split carries now, with Brown still getting the bulk of the workload.

Syracuse: Greg Robinson has three tailbacks capable of starting -- Curtis Brinkley, Delone Carter and Doug Hogue. Brinkley got the start because of seniority against Northwestern and earned 49 yards on nine carries. Carter had 45 yards on six attempts, while Hogue amassed 23 yards on six carries. Robinson said it will be a game-time decision on who starts this week against Akron, and all three likely will continue to split time.

Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett

Stay frosty, people. Our long summer of waiting ends tomorrow night. While we'd all gladly take any college football right now, here are the 25 things I'm most excited about seeing this year in the Big East.

 
 Brett Hansbauer\US PRESSWIRE
 Pat White can beat opponents on the ground and through the air.

1. One more year of West Virginia's Pat White.
We've been incredibly lucky to watch this rare talent for the past 2 1/2 years. He only needs 784 yards -- a little more than half a season's worth for him -- to become the all-time leading rushing quarterback in Division I-A history. And this year he's supposed to show off his improved passing skills. Appreciate White while he's still around.

2. A full workload for Noel Devine.
The West Virginia sophomore might be the shiftiest, most elusive running back in college football. He averaged 8.6 yards per carry in a limited role last year and needed only two carries to rush for 100 yards against Maryland. He carved up Oklahoma for 108 yards on just 11 carries in the Fiesta Bowl. What can he do with the ball in his hands 20-25 times a game? I can't wait to find out.

3. LeSean McCoy's encore.
The Pittsburgh tailback tallied 1,328 yards and 14 touchdowns as a freshman, and he made only nine starts. Can he approach 2,000 yards as a sophomore?

4. Matt Grothe on the run.
The South Florida quarterback says he wants to think more and make better decisions this year. But it's so much fun watching Grothe improvise out of the pocket and make plays that few other QBs would even try.

5. Kenny Britt and Tiquan Underwood on the fly.
The two Rutgers wideouts each had at least 1,100 yards receiving last year -- and that was with Ray Rice around. Without a proven running game to rely on, Britt and Underwood could put up even more staggering numbers this year.

6. Mike Mickens and DeAngelo Smith breaking on the ball.
The two Cincinnati cornerbacks were sensational last year, combining for 14 interceptions. That's more than half the Division I-A teams had last year. Smith may play a little more at safety this season, but both will still view every pass as a potential turnover.

7. George Selvie on the attack.
The South Florida defensive end is a joy to watch because of his relentless effort -- unless you happen to play for the opposing offense. He has set 20 sacks as his goal this year, and I wouldn't bet against him.

8. Hunter Cantwell under center.
The Louisville quarterback has patiently waited his turn for three years behind Brian Brohm, occasionally and admirably filling in whenever Brohm got hurt. Now, the former walk-on and avid outdoorsman finally gets his chance to run the team full-time. You can't not root for a guy like Cantwell if you like college football.

9. The Plains meets The Hills.
I find the endless "Which conference is better?" arguments tiresome, especially since they usually involve nothing but speculation. That's why I'm excited about one of the SEC's best, Auburn, coming to reigning Big East champion West Virginia's home turf on Oct. 23. It should be a great game, and at least something will be proven on the field this time.

10. Connecticut's response to the naysayers.
Few teams can legitimately play the "No Respect" card like Connecticut. The Huskies won a share of the Big East title last year and bring almost everybody back. But they've been consistently ignored, or worse, picked to finish at the bottom of the league this season. Will they prove doubters wrong or right?

11. Syracuse rolling out the orange carpet.
On Sept. 12, a movie about legendary running back Ernie Davis called "The Express" will premiere in downtown Syracuse. Orange legends like Jim Brown and Floyd Little will be in attendance, along with Dennis Quaid and other stars of the movie. It will be a weekend-long celebration of the first African-American to win the Heisman Trophy, and perhaps Syracuse will find enough inspiration to knock off Penn State on Sept. 13 at the Carrier Dome.

12. Kevin Huber getting his kicks.
Punts are normally a time to run to the refrigerator, but don't miss Cincinnati's fourth downs. Huber was a first-team All-American last year who averaged 46.9 yards per punt, including three 62-yarders.

13. The Big East's big finish.
There's no conference title game, but the league has done a great job of scheduling marquee games late in the year. The South Florida-West Virginia season finale on Dec. 6 looks like a classic waiting to happen.

14. Trent Guy leading Louisville onto the field.
Guy was shot in the back as he left a nightclub in the early-morning hours of July 5. In an amazing recovery, he'll be in uniform Sunday against Kentucky -- and may even play. By all accounts, Guy is a terrific student and campus leader who's among the most popular players on the team.

15. "Take Me Home, Country Roads" at Milan Puskar Stadium
So maybe John Denver didn't actually have West Virginia in mind when he wrote the song (legend has it that he was inspired while driving in Maryland). There's still something magical about hearing it at Mountaineers games, where it's been played since 1972. And when the voices swell during the chorus -- "Where I belong, West Virginia ..." -- well, I dare you not to sing along.

16. Bon Jovi sing-alongs at Rutgers Stadium.
I'll never forget the night two years ago when Rutgers upset undefeated Louisville on a Thursday night in Piscataway. Fans stormed the field and stayed there for what seemed like hours. The loudspeakers played "Livin' on a Prayer," and you could hear the crowd sing "WHOA-OH" part of the chorus all the way up in the press box. It's not exactly "Hail to the Victors," but it's entertaining.

17. The Cathedral of Learning bathed in gold.
OK, so there aren't a lot of traditions in the Big East, where it seems nearly half the teams just started playing
yesterday. But Pittsburgh's been around a while and has a neat one: after every Panthers win, the Cathedral of Learning -- which is the second tallest educational building in the world -- is illuminated in the team's home gold colors. That hasn't happened too frequently in the past three years, but the improved Panthers should run up the electricity bill in 2008.

18. Weeknight football
Who needs Saturdays? The Big East has long been at the forefront of the nontraditional game day. This year brings two games on a Sunday, one each on a Monday and Wednesday, eight on a Thursday and seven on a Friday. You can argue the merits of such scheduling -- especially what Friday night games do to the local high school scene -- but in the end it means more college football for you to see. And it sure beats watching singing and dancing competitions.

19. The South Florida Sun Dolls.
'Nuff said.

20. A full house at Nippert Stadium.
Before last year, that phrase would have been an oxymoron. But second-year coach Brian Kelly has brought excitement to Cincinnati and the crowds to charming Nippert, which the school claims is the fourth-oldest stadium in college football. Sunk right into the middle of campus, the 35,000-seat bandbox offers one of the most intimate game day experiences you can find anywhere.

21. The return of Louisville's running game.
People often described Bobby Petrino's offense as "wide open" or "high flying," but the real secret to his success at Louisville was his dedication to the power running game. The Cardinals went away from that last year, but new offensive coordinator Jeff Brohm pledges to reinstall that toughness. With Brock Bolen, Bilal Powell and newcomer Victor Anderson, Louisville could have one of the more underrated backfields in the Big East.

22. A pitcher and a slice at Varsity Pizza.
A campus-area institution, the walls here are covered with Orange memorabilia and the opponent's flag is turned upside down after every Syracuse football victory. The pizza is $1.35 a slice and the beer is cold (make mine a veggie and a Sam Adams seasonal, please). There's no better spot for tailgating or just to escape the snow if it's, you know, like mid-September.

23. Bill Stewart's news conferences.
This man makes Bobby Bowden look mean-spirited. The exceedingly friendly new West Virginia coach is a treat to interview as he spins his straight-from-the-hills pearls of wisdom.

24. Jonathan XIII.
He might not be as famous as Uga or Ralphie or Bevo, but I'm a sucker for live mascots, and Connecticut's all-white Siberian Husky is the Big East's best animal option. Good dog.

25. The International Bowl.
Just kidding. Is it kickoff time yet?

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