NCF Nation: Derek Wolfe

Big East: D-E-F-E-N-S-E

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So will the trend hold for the 2013 draft?

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

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

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

There is obviously an entire season of football to be played, and all these projections will change. But the way the Big East's defensive players have emerged is a trend worth noting.

Big East position rankings: DL

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8. Syracuse. The Orange never really got much going along the front, and a big reason why is because they missed Chandler Jones so much while he was gone. The fact that he made the Big East first team in only seven games should prove how badly he was needed. Syracuse ranked No. 7 in the league in tackles for loss; No. 8 in sacks (28), and No. 6 in rushing defense. Those TFL and sack stats are pretty good nationally, but these guys are being judged against the rest of the Big East, and most games, they just fell short. Preseason rank: 6.
With one day to go before signing day, it is worth taking a look back at how the players on the Big East first-team fared when they were coming out of high school.

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

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

Offense

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Defense

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isaiah Pead shines at Senior Bowl

January, 30, 2012
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The Big East may not have had many players in the Senior Bowl, but it is quality, not quantity that matters.

Cincinnati running back Isaiah Pead continued his impressive week, winning game MVP honors with 129 all-purpose yards in the annual college all-star game. Pead was able to show off his versatility on punt returns -- passing J.D. Hill of Arizona State as the Senior Bowl’s all-time leader in punt return yardage with 98. The previous record of 73 had stood since 1971.

Pead also led all rushers with 31 yards on the ground. It was only in the final few games of his senior season that Cincinnati allowed him to start returning punts, something he had done in high school.

“A win caps off the week," Pead said after the North beat the South 23-13 on Saturday in Mobile, Ala. "You want to go in and practice hard, interview well and meet fans, but going away with a loss -- as a competitor -- I wouldn’t like that. We’re all out here competing and for the North side to come in and get a win caps off everything. I got everything I wanted out of this week. I got good work done at practice and I got a win for this game."

"I got everything I wanted out of this week. I got good work done at practice and I got a win for this game."

UConn defensive tackle Kendall Reyes and Cincinnati defensive tackle Derek Wolfe also played for the North team. Reyes earned the start, and had three tackles and one sacks, while Wolfe had three tackles. Both Pead and Reyes made the CBSSports.com Senior Bowl all-practice team.

Big East's most improved players

January, 19, 2012
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This season saw plenty of players emerge throughout the Big East. But who was most improved among them?

It was tough in many cases to narrow this down to one player per team. My criteria might be different from yours. I am looking for players who were not on any preseason lists, who were not expected to have breakout seasons, who had yet to live up to their full potential.

For example, it would be easy to say West Virginia receivers Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey were among the most improved. There is no doubt they were, as they each got over 1,000 yards. But we all expected them to have big seasons because of Dana Holgorsen. So I went with a different player for West Virginia.

Here are my picks:

Cincinnati: Drew Frey, safety. Runner-up: Derek Wolfe, defensive tackle. This was an incredibly tough choice for me. Wolfe essentially doubled his stats from 2010, ranking No. 5 in the nation in tackles for loss (21.5) and No. 16 in sacks (9.5) en route to Co-Defensive Player of the Year honors. But Wolfe did make my preseason list of top 25 players in the Big East, as I anticipated he would be in store for a solid season. Frey, on the other hand, was a huge question mark going into the year because of the way the Cincinnati secondary played in 2010. He ended up second on the team in tackles (73) and had eight pass breakups. Do you know how many he had last year? One. Frey was first-team All-Big East and emerged as one of the best safeties in the league.

[+] EnlargeTrevardo Williams
Charles LeClaire/US PresswireHuskies defensive end Trevardo Williams, left, lead the Big East with 12.5 sacks.
UConn: Trevardo Williams, defensive end. What a leap Williams made this season, leading the Big East with 12.5 sacks and winning second-team honors. Though he started seven games last season, it was no sure thing that Williams would emerge as the full-time starter. But he more than held his own, and worked in the offseason to use more than just his speed to get after the quarterback. It paid off.

Louisville: Preston Brown, linebacker. When the season started, Brown was not even penciled in as a starter. He played in 13 games in 2010 but coach Charlie Strong was waiting on him to emerge and prove he could be counted on. He most certainly did that in 2011, finishing third on the team with 84 tackles. He was consistently good for most of the season, and he and Dexter Heyman proved to be a great linebacker duo.

Pittsburgh: Aaron Donald, defensive tackle. Donald figured to be counted on to provide depth, but he went ahead and finished second in the Big East in sacks (11) and tackles for loss (16) -- both team-highs. He also added a team-high 11 quarterback hurries. He ended the season as a starter and a second-team All-Big East selection.

Rutgers: Khaseem Greene, linebacker. Runner-up: Mohamed Sanu, receiver. This was really, really, really hard to decide. Sanu set a Big East and school record with 115 receptions and was the best player on offense. Greene won Co-Big East Defensive Player of the Year after switching positions in the offseason. So why Greene? Well, Sanu was on my preseason top 25 players list and I thought he had a chance to have a good season because he was healthy and would be playing receiver. But Greene was more of a question mark because he had moved over from safety. He was on nobody's radar for Defensive Player of the Year when the season started, but emerged as one of the finest players in the league. So he gets the nod.

USF: Kayvon Webster, cornerback. Webster was one of the more highly touted prospects USF signed in 2009, but it has taken a while for him to live up to expectations. He did so this season, in his first year as a full-time starter. Webster had 49 tackles and seven pass breakups this season and made the All-Big East second team.

Syracuse: Alec Lemon, receiver. Lemon more than doubled his receiving and yardage totals from 2010 -- setting a school record with 68 receptions for 834 yards with six touchdowns, all career highs. He had seven or more receptions in six games; in 2009 and 2010 he had two games combined with seven or more catches. Lemon quickly emerged as a much-needed go-to receiver, especially with Marcus Sales out (suspension). His performance placed him on the All-Big East second team.

West Virginia: Tyler Bitancurt, kicker. Runner-up: Stedman Bailey. You can make the argument for Bailey and I would not disagree. Geno Smith and Tavon Austin were projected to have big seasons -- both were in my preseason top 25. Bailey was right on the outside. But the strides Bitancurt made were bigger than any other kicker in the Big East. He took his field goal percentage from 58.8 percent to 72.7 percent, moving him from last place to No. 4 in the league. He nailed a 28-yard kick with no time left against USF to give the Mountaineers a share of the Big East title and a BCS berth.

2011 Big East All-Bowl Team

January, 13, 2012
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Without further adieu, here is your 2011 Big East All-Bowl team:

OFFENSE

QB: Geno Smith, West Virginia. Smith was named the Discover Orange Bowl MVP after the Mountaineers routed Clemson 70-33. Smith ended up with Orange Bowl records for passing yards (401), touchdowns responsible for (six) and total offense (433). He threw just 11 incompletions and had zero interceptions.

RB: Isaiah Pead, Cincinnati. The Big East Offensive Player of the Year turned in a terrific final performance as a member of the Bearcats in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl against Vanderbilt. Pead set a school bowl record with 149 yards rushing in a 31-24 win, his sixth 100-yard game of the season. His 12-yard touchdown run with 1:52 remaining sealed the team's first bowl victory since 2007.

RB:Jawan Jamison, Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights run game was inconsistent all season, but the redshirt freshman stepped up against Iowa State in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl. Jamison was named MVP of the game after gaining 131 yards and two touchdowns on 27 carries. It was his third 100-yard game of his career. All of them happened this season.

[+] EnlargeWest Virginia Mountaineers wide receiver Tavon Austin
Douglas Jones-US PRESSWIREWest Virginia WR Tavon Austin had 280 all-purpose yards in the Orange Bowl.
WR: Tavon Austin, West Virginia. The best playmaker on the Orange Bowl field was pretty much unstoppable. Austin racked up an Orange Bowl record with 280 all-purpose yards, including 117 yards receiving, 46 yards rushing and 117 yards on kickoff returns. He also set Orange Bowl records for receptions (12) and receiving touchdowns (four).

WR: Josh Bellamy, Louisville. Bellamy set a season-high with 98 receiving yards in a loss to NC State in the Belk Bowl. Still, he had the most receiving yards by a Cardinal in a bowl game since Harry Douglas had 165 against Wake Forest in the 2007 Orange Bowl. His 53-yard reception in the first quarter was a career long and the second-longest pass play for Louisville this season.

OG: Randy Martinez, Cincinnati. Martinez has been one of the most consistent offensive linemen for the Bearcats over the past two seasons, and he graded out near the top once again in the Liberty Bowl. Martinez helped pave the way for 221 rushing yards -- second most against FBS competition this season.

OG: Betim Bujari, Rutgers, OT: Desmond Wynn, Rutgers. Bujari made just his third start of the season, on the left side no less. Wynn slid over from guard to tackle. But the combination worked for the Scarlet Knights, who put together perhaps their best effort on the offensive line all season. Rutgers ran for 173 yards -- their second-highest total of the season. And they did not allow a sack.

OT: Don Barclay, West Virginia, C: Joe Madsen, West Virginia. One of the biggest knocks against the Mountaineers this season was their inconsistency on the offensive line. In the days leading up to the Orange Bowl, Madsen said he felt the unit had played to the level of its competition. The hope was that facing several NFL draft prospects on the Clemson line would help West Virginia play better. Whatever works, right? West Virginia ran for 188 yards and did not allow a sack in its domination of the Tigers.

DEFENSE

DL: Myles Caragein, Pitt. The Panthers may not have had the greatest game in the BBVA Compass Bowl against SMU, but Caragein was solid for most of the afternoon, with six tackles, 2.5 for loss, 1.5 sacks and a pass breakup.

DL: Derek Wolfe, Cincinnati. Wolfe ended his Co-Defensive Player of the Year season with six tackles, including two for loss, against Vanderbilt.

DL: Aaron Donald, Pitt. Donald did his part for the Panthers, with one sack, a forced fumble, a tackle for loss and five tackles in all. Pitt racked up four sacks on the day and held SMU to 61 yards rushing in the loss.

LB: Najee Goode, West Virginia. Goode was a part of an outstanding defensive effort, with 1.5 tackles for loss, one sacks, one pass breakup and one fumble recovery against Clemson.

LB: Khaseem Greene, Rutgers. After posting one of the best regular seasons in school history, Greene finished everything off with a team-high 13 tackles in the Pinstripe Bowl to finish the year with 140, tied for fifth in the school single-season record books. Unfortunately, he could not complete the game after breaking his ankle. He is expected to be fine for 2012.

LB: JK Schaffer, Cincinnati. Schaffer had nine tackles, a sack and a tackle for a loss in a win over Vanderbilt. He closes out his career with 337 stops, a mark that ranks him ninth on the Big East career list.

LB: Nick Temple, Cincinnati. The true freshman saved his best performance of the season for the final game of the season. Temple had a career-high eight tackles, a forced fumble and his first career interception in a win over Vanderbilt. Simply put, he was everywhere for the Bearcats.

S: Darwin Cook, West Virginia. Cook had perhaps the play of the game in the Orange Bowl, when he scooped up a fumble by Andre Ellington and returned it 99 yards for a touchdown to seize momentum in the second quarter against Clemson. West Virginia ended up scoring 35 points in the frame to put the game way, way, way out of reach.

S: Eain Smith, West Virginia. With starting Terence Garvin out because of a knee injury, many wondered whether Cook and Smith would take more on their shoulders. They both delivered in a big way. Smith finished with a game-high 13 tackles, including 12 solo stops, and assisted on a tackle for loss.

CB: Keith Tandy, West Virginia. Tandy had six tackles and an interception on the night, and was part of a secondary that completely shut down Sammy Watkins, holding him to 66 yards on five catches. After a shaky start, West Virginia hunkered down and gave up just 78 yards passing in the second half. Tajh Boyd completed only 52 percent of his passes.

CB: Logan Ryan, Rutgers. Ryan really seemed to grow up throughout the season and ended the year with another big performance. Logan had seven tackles -- 2.5 for loss -- one interception and half a sack in the win over Iowa State.

SPECIAL TEAMS

PK: Tyler Bitancurt, West Virginia. Bitancurt was 10-for-10 on extra-point attempts in the Orange Bowl, setting a new record for extra points attempted and made in any bowl game.

P: Justin Doerner, Rutgers. Doerner had a terrific performance against Iowa State with a season-best 49.7-yard average on six punts. Two of them went inside the 20. One of them went 57 yards. His average was tops among the five Big East punters in bowl games.

KR: Ralph David Abernathy IV, Cincinnati. After Vanderbilt went up 21-17 early in the fourth quarter, Abernathy took the ensuing kickoff and returned it 90 yards for a score to put the Bearcats up for good. It was the first return for a score in his career.

AP: Austin. See above.

Early 2012 Big East power rankings

January, 10, 2012
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Because I love you all so much, I now present to you my early 2012 Big East power rankings. The season is one day old, so I reserve the right to change my mind based on spring practice and then fall practice. To say these are way early is to say West Virginia beat Clemson. Understatement!

1. West Virginia.* You see the asterisk there for obvious reasons. Will the Mountaineers be in this league in 2012, or will somebody else get to be called the favorite in the preseason? Should West Virginia return to this league, that performance in the Orange Bowl should frighten the rest of this conference. Now granted, there will be some major questions on this defense, but if Geno Smith, Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey can put up half a hundred every week, the Mountaineers are going to be really tough to beat.

2. Rutgers. This was a tough call for me. The Scarlet Knights still have quarterback issues, a nonexistent running game and are losing Mohamed Sanu. But they also return 16 starters, including Co-Big East Defensive Player of the Year Khaseem Greene. Everything should be in place for this team to make a serious run. The offensive line will be better; I firmly believe the quarterback play will be better; and there is enough talent at receiver to make up for Sanu's loss.

3. Louisville. Right now, I think it is a toss up between Louisville and Rutgers. The Cardinals also return a majority of their starters, including freshman of the year Teddy Bridgewater, along with a talented receiving corps and an offensive line that solidified itself as the season went on. What I worry about most right now is maturity and leadership. Louisville seems to thrive in an underdog role, and that will not be the case in 2012.

4. Cincinnati. The Bearcats lose 21 seniors, including Offensive Player of the Year Isaiah Pead, Co-Defensive Player of the Year Derek Wolfe, defensive leader JK Schaffer and starting quarterback Zach Collaros. There is a lot of young talent on this team, but the key word is young. How will the Bearcats handle themselves without so many of their best players?

5. USF. This has got to be the year the Bulls make a serious run at the Big East. The only problem is they have no idea how to win Big East games, and that prevents me from listing them higher than middle of the road in this league. There are going to be a lot of returning starters and returning seniors on this team, and plenty of talent. But there are some holes that have to be filled on the offensive line, defensive line and in the secondary. B.J. Daniels must win this season.

6. Pitt. I truly believe Paul Chryst is the best hire Pitt could have made this time around. But does that mean he has what he needs to be able to turn this team into a serious Big East contender? There are major question marks at quarterback, offensive line, defensive line and linebacker. The defense was the strength of this team but it's losing most of its best players. How does Ray Graham come back from knee surgery? I think of all the Big East teams, the Panthers have the most questions headed into the offseason.

7. UConn. Should we talk again about quarterback issues for the Huskies? It was the same theme in the preseason last year. We are no closer today to knowing who is going to lead this team, because there will be yet another quarterback competition. Running back should be an area of strength, just like last season, and there are some good players returning on the defensive line. But offensive line and secondary are also two major questions that must be improved for this team to contend again.

8. Syracuse. The Orange lost their best players on defense in Phillip Thomas, Chandler Jones and Mikhail Marinovich, along with 1,000-yard rusher Antwon Bailey. There are also depth questions on the offensive line, defensive line and at receiver. Ryan Nassib took a good first step this season, but he's got to make bigger steps this year. First and foremost, this team must find an identity and solve all the issues that plagued them at the end of this season.
Cincinnati (9-3) takes on Vanderbilt (6-6) in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl on Saturday at 3:30 p.m. Here is a quick preview:

WHO TO WATCH: Cincinnati defensive tackle Derek Wolfe. I have a feeling that very few in SEC country has ever heard of Wolfe, who had one of the best seasons for an interior lineman in the entire country. Wolfe ranked No. 6 in the nation in tackles for loss (19.5) and No. 11 in sacks (9.5), and is going to be an integral part of this game because he is disruptive both in the run game and in the pass game. His ability this season to get behind the line and cause massive disruptions has been a big reason why Cincinnati had the most improved defensive front in the Big East this season.

WHAT TO WATCH: Cincinnati quarterback Zach Collaros and his injured ankle. Collaros has been practicing for several weeks now, but he has not played in an actual game for two months. So how he handles the rust factor early on is going to be a big key. One other tendency he has is to throw at least one silly interception a game. He had at least one in five of his past six starts (minus West Virginia). Also, running back Isaiah Pead was much better with Collaros behind center. When Munchie Legaux started, everybody keyed on stopping Pead to make Legaux try and win it. But with Collaros and Pead in the backfield, Cincinnati should be much more balanced and much more difficult to stop.

WHY TO WATCH: In the all-important battle between conferences, you know it is highly important for a Big East co-champion to beat anybody from the SEC. Even a team that went 6-6 and does not have a prolific bowl history like Vanderbilt. Unfortunately for Cincinnati, all the folks in the SEC remember is the way the Bearcats played in a 45-23 loss to Tennessee in Week 2. Never mind the Bearcats are a much better team today than they were back in September. Those results matter, and so does this record -- Cincinnati is 2-17-1 against SEC teams since 1980.

PREDICTION: Cincinnati 27, Vanderbilt 21. From my predictions post Monday: The quarterback matchup between Jordan Rodgers and Collaros should be a good one as well, but I still give the advantage to the Bearcats. This is a team that was on pace to get to a BCS game before Collaros broke his ankle. Cincinnati has been terrific at getting after the quarterback and making tackles behind the line, and the secondary is much improved. The seniors are eager to win their first bowl game and eager to prove the naysayers wrong once again.

Cincinnati plays underdog role again

December, 28, 2011
12/28/11
4:30
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Here it is bowl season, and Cincinnati has exceeded expectations again. Picked to finish fifth in the conference, the Bearcats won a share of the Big East championship.

Picked to finish fifth in 2008, the Bearcats went to the Orange Bowl.

[+] EnlargeCincinnati defensive tackle Derek Wolfe in action during a college football game against Akron, Saturday, Sept. 17, 2011 in Cincinnati.
AP Photo/Al BehrmanCincinnati defensive tackle Derek Wolfe is used to the Bearcats being underdogs.
Picked to finish fifth in 2009, the Bearcats went to the Sugar Bowl.

You can see why players and fans feel their program is disrespected. So how did Cincinnati (9-3) react to the fact that it is an underdog to a 6-6 Vanderbilt team headed into the AutoZone Liberty Bowl on Saturday?

"That's every week," defensive tackle Derek Wolfe said in a recent phone interview. "Cincinnati is never considered a favorite."

What is different about this season compared to 2008 and 2009 is the recognition the Bearcats received from league coaches. Wolfe was selected co-defensive player of the year , and running back Isaiah Pead was selected offensive player of the year. They are the first Cincinnati players to win those honors. Butch Jones also was picked Coach of the Year.

Still, Cincinnati players do play with a boulder on their shoulders. There really is nothing new about proving themselves. But there may be an added sense of urgency for the seniors in this bowl game. The Bearcats have not won a bowl game since 2007, and they are Cincinnati is 2-17-1 against SEC teams since 1980. Whether it is fair or not, all other leagues are measured against the SEC. So even wins over .500 teams are considered pretty big.

One player who will have to come up big in the game is Wolfe, who was a second-team All-American in three different publications. Wolfe leads the Big East and ranks sixth nationally with 19.5 tackles for a loss and ranks third in the league and tied for 12th in the FBS with 9.5 sacks. While it was known throughout the league that Wolfe was one of the best interior linemen, he was not on anybody's preseason list for potential defensive player of the year.

"It's a great honor and whenever you work hard something is going to come back for you," Wolfe said. "That's what I always preach to people. I did everything I possibly could to make myself better each and every day."

All that work will eventually pay off with a spot in the NFL. Wolfe is listed as a sleeper pick who could make a nice transition from tackle to end in a 3-4 scheme in the pros. Wolfe already has experience playing on the edge, and said he really enjoys when Cincinnati goes with three down linemen and he is on the end because, "I get a lot of space to work on one guy."

He has one game left to show what he can do, and to get that elusive bowl victory.

"We're just trying to finish strong," he said. "I'd hate to leave with a loss. We're going to play as hard as we possibly can."
When the Big East unveiled its Offensive Player of the Year earlier this month, many were surprised to see Cincinnati running back Isaiah Pead walk away with the award.

Including Pead himself.

Pead was at home in Columbus, Ohio, when he got a phone call from coach Butch Jones delivering the good news. West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith was considered the favorite to win the honor, but he may have split votes because teammates Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey were excellent as well. All eight Big East coaches vote for the conference awards, and first and second teams.

[+] EnlargeCincinnati's Isaiah Pead
Richard Mackson/US PRESSWIREIsaiah Pead is the first Bearcat to win the Big East Offensive Player of the Year award.
"I was honored and the first thing I did was thank my teammates and coaches because they were the first ones who helped me," Pead said in a recent phone interview. "To be voted upon by the Big East coaches as one of the best offensive players in the conference means a lot to me. All the coaches don't know me, they don't see me on a day-to-day basis, but they see my work on film. They see I can be a threat offensively."

Was he surprised?

"I was," he said. "I figured it would go to a West Virginia guy and the years I've been here, Cincinnati hasn't gotten a lot of praise. We've won championships, but none of us has gotten the respect we deserve. I was just thankful for it."

That respect came this season for the Big East co-champions, as Pead and co-defensive player of the year Derek Wolfe picked up the big awards. It is the first time Cincinnati has been honored in each category. Jones also won Big East Coach of the Year honors, a fact he neglected to tell Pead when the two spoke on the phone.

For Pead, this season has been especially gratifying because of a challenge Jones issued to him when the season began. Jones wanted Pead to get himself into better shape and become more physical, because he wanted to place more of the workload on his rising senior.

"I walked right out from that meeting and went to the weight room and started lifting weights," Pead said. "Coach said I have all the talent in the world, I've got all the speed but at the next level they don't look for a runner, they look for a running back. That means being elusive but also being physical. I had to get that in my game. I lifted heavier weights, and set personal bests in the bench, squat and clean."

Pead also set career marks for carries (209), yards rushing (1,110), rushing touchdowns (11), receptions (36), yards receiving (304) and receiving touchdowns (three). That just about sums up every statistical category. Though he did not lead the Big East in rushing (Lyle McCombs of UConn did), Pead had the most rushing touchdowns and most points scored for a non-kicker with 84.

Because he did not lead the league in rushing, many have howled about him winning the award. But perhaps Pead was honored for more than just his stats line. He was Cincinnati's best offensive player even before Zach Collaros got hurt. After Collaros went down, he did everything he could to put the Bearcats on his back. He even returned punts for the first time in his career.

Now he hopes to close out his career with a win over Vanderbilt in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl on Dec. 31.

"I've never been a part of a bowl game victory," Pead said. "I think to go out and have a great time, a great week and go out and win the game and have a great night -- that would cap off my college career."

ESPN.com All-Big East team

December, 9, 2011
12/09/11
10:30
AM ET
Editor’s Note: Tune into the “AT&T ESPN All America Team Show” on Saturday (ABC, 1:30 p.m. ET) to see who ESPN’s writers and experts selected.

You saw what the coaches had to say when they picked the All-Big East team. Now it is my turn. I only have a few different opinions than the coaches. To start, West Virginia receiver Stedman Bailey is on my first team over Tavon Austin. Bailey finished with more yards; Austin with more receptions. But I thought Bailey was a little more consistent over the course of the entire season.

I also have West Virginia defensive lineman Julian Miller on the first team ahead of Bruce Irvin. Miller got off to a slow start, mostly because he was hobbled with an injury. But late in the season with games on the line, he was almost unstoppable. Pitt running back Ray Graham also gets a nod even though he missed the final five games of the season with a knee injury.

Without further adieu:

OFFENSE

QB: Geno Smith, West Virginia

RB: Isaiah Pead, Cincinnati

RB: Ray Graham, Pitt

OT: Don Barclay, West Virginia

OT: Justin Pugh, Syracuse

C: Joe Madsen, West Virginia

OG: Randy Martinez, Cincinnati

OG: Andrew Tiller, Syracuse

WR: Mohamed Sanu, Rutgers

WR: Stedman Bailey, West Virginia

DEFENSE

DL: Julian Miller, West Virginia

DL: Kendall Reyes, UConn

DL: Derek Wolfe, Cincinnati

DL: Chandler Jones, Syracuse

LB: JK Schaffer, Cincinnati

LB: Najee Goode, West Virginia

LB: Khaseem Greene, Rutgers

S: Hakeem Smith, Louisville

S: Duron Harmon, Rutgers

CB: Adrian Bushell, Louisville

CB: Keith Tandy, West Virginia

SPECIALISTS

PK: Dave Teggart, UConn

P: Pat O'Donnell, Cincinnati

RS: Tavon Austin, West Virginia

AutoZone Liberty Bowl

December, 4, 2011
12/04/11
11:25
PM ET
Cincinnati Bearcats (9-3) vs. Vanderbilt Commodores (6-6)

Dec. 31, 3:30 p.m. ET (ABC)

Cincinnati take from Big East blogger Andrea Adelson: Most everyone expected the Bearcats to be better this season, with veteran players returning at key positions on offense and defense. But just how much better was the big question. Cincinnati answered that early, jumping out to a 7-1 start to the season behind vastly improved play from its much-maligned defense. Then the season turned.

Quarterback Zach Collaros broke his ankle early against West Virginia and was lost for the regular season. All of a sudden, a team that controlled the Big East was no longer in control at all. The Bearcats lost to the Mountaineers and dropped one to Rutgers the following week, dealing them what would be a death blow to their BCS chances. What perhaps hurts most was this team had a lead on West Virginia in the fourth quarter and could not hold on for the win.

But the Bearcats can still call themselves Big East champions for the third time in four seasons, so that should help take the sting away. Running back Isaiah Pead had another terrific season, becoming the first Cincinnati back in 25 seasons to post back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons. The defensive front played outstanding all season, stuffing the run and getting great pressure on the quarterback with 44 sacks and 106.5 tackles for loss. Defensive tackle Derek Wolfe was a load to handle inside, and linebacker JK Schaffer had 100 tackles for the third straight season.

This was also a team that made a complete turnaround when it came to turnover margin. Last year, the Bearcats were last in the Big East at minus-15 in this category. This year, they led the Big East at plus-11. The good news for Cincinnati is that Collaros is expected back for the bowl game, but he might remind everyone what could have been for the Bearcats this season.


Vanderbilt take from SEC blogger Chris Low: James Franklin vowed when he took the Vanderbilt job that he was unconcerned about what had or hadn’t happened in the past there.

Never mind that the Commodores had been the rest of the SEC’s punching bag. Franklin saw to it that they punched back, and they’re headed to a bowl game for only the fifth time in school history.

Vanderbilt earned that trip by going to Winston-Salem, N.C., on the final weekend of the regular season and routing Wake Forest 41-7 for its sixth win of the season.

The Commodores were agonizingly close to being an eight- or even a nine-win football team. They lost in overtime at Tennessee and lost three more close games to Arkansas, Florida and Georgia by a combined 13 points.

Vanderbilt leaned on its veteran defense early in the season. The Commodores intercepted 17 passes, which is tied for second in the SEC.

But where they made the most improvement was on offense, especially after Jordan Rodgers took over at quarterback in Week 7. He had plenty of help, too. Junior running back Zac Stacy set a school record with 1,136 rushing yards. The offensive line made major strides, and sophomore receiver Jordan Matthews became one of the SEC’s premier big-play threats in the passing game.
The regular season is a wrap, folks. So what did we learn in Week 14?

[+] EnlargeDustin Garrison
AP Photo/Chris O'MearaDustin Garrison and West Virginia are likely bound for a BCS bowl game after beating USF.
1. West Virginia is almost certainly in the BCS. West Virginia rallied to beat USF 30-27 and Cincinnati beat UConn 35-27 to force a three-way tie atop the Big East standings. The Bearcats, Louisville and Mountaineers can all call themselves champions, but it is West Virginia that most likely claims the BCS bid. Barring any unforeseen circumstances, No. 23 West Virginia will finish as the highest-ranked Big East team in the final BCS standings when they are unveiled Sunday night. Nobody believed Louisville and Cincinnati would finish as champions, but West Virginia was the preseason choice to win the league so you can say the Mountaineers met expectations. They may have not done it in dominating fashion -- they needed comeback wins in their final three games -- but good teams find a way to win the close matches. Just ask USF. Now the Big East is faced with quite the awkward situation. It is embroiled in a lawsuit with its BCS rep.

2. Cincinnati roared. When the game kicked off between Cincinnati and UConn, the Bearcats knew they were on the outside looking in when it came to a BCS spot. Some wondered whether that would affect their performance. Cincinnati vowed it was all about the ring, and indeed the defense came out with an inspired showing -- two defensive scores, six sacks, 13 tackles for loss and three quarterback hurries. Walter Stewart had one of the highlight plays of the year when he stripped Johnny McEntee in the end zone. J.K. Schaffer had 11 tackles and finished with more than 100 for the third straight season. Derek Wolfe had 10 tackles, five for loss. John Hughes had nine tackles, four for loss. The Huskies made a game of it late, but the overall performance on defense was pretty stellar.

3. Pitt salvages season. No way did anybody in Pittsburgh, let alone coach Todd Graham, think that the Panthers would go 6-6 this season. He came into the job boasting of lofty goals with his spread, no-huddle offense. But reality hit early, when it became apparent that he simply did not have the personnel to run the offense the way it should be run. Still, becoming bowl eligible after a 33-20 win over Syracuse has to take some of the sting off a season that fell short of expectations. The offense wasn't exactly a well-oiled machine against the Orange -- six Syracuse turnovers essentially saved the day. Graham will gladly take the extra practice time that comes with bowl preparation, and another opportunity to send the senior class out the right way.

4. USF, Syracuse, UConn staying home. All three of these teams made bowl games last season -- UConn was in the BCS -- but all three fell short this year. Each finished 5-7, for a variety of reasons. USF and Syracuse ended the season on major losing skids. The Bulls opened 4-0 and dropped six of their final seven. Syracuse opened 5-2 and lost five straight after failing to generate much offense. UConn was never able to win consecutive games, gave up too many big plays in the passing game, and could never quite get its quarterback situation figured out. Syracuse finished 1-6 in Big East play for the fifth time in six years.

5. Bulls disappoint. Preseason expectations were highest for USF, so its collapse probably is the most disappointing in the league. The Bulls end with their first losing season since 2004, when they went 4-7, the year before they joined the Big East. Four of its losses came on the final play of the game. Five of them featured blown second-half leads. That includes its loss to West Virginia. Just when it appeared USF might work its magic on West Virginia in Tampa yet again, it killed itself with turnovers and penalties. The final five minutes were a microcosm of the season. B.J. Daniels fumbles deep in West Virginia territory. The ensuing Mountaineers drive is aided by a personal foul penalty on USF. As West Virginia lines up for the field goal, USF gets flagged again, making it a chip shot for Tyler Bitancurt. Bulls fans want Skip Holtz on the hot seat, but he's not going anywhere just yet.

Big East helmet stickers: Week 14

December, 3, 2011
12/03/11
5:12
PM ET
How about a few helmet stickers on the final week of the regular season for a job well done.

Tavon Austin, KR, West Virginia. Austin returned a kickoff 90 yards for a touchdown in a 30-27 win over USF, becoming the first Mountaineer to score on at least two kickoff returns in a season since Shawn Terry scored on three in 2000.

Tyler Bitancurt, K, West Virginia. Bitancurt made a 28-yard field goal with no time left to give the Mountaineers a 30-27 win over USF, clinching a share of the Big East championship. Bitancurt did have a miss in the game, but he also made a total of three field goals, including one from 42 yards.

Kevin Harper, K, Pitt. Harper kicked a career-high four field goals in a 33-20 win over Syracuse. Harper made kicks from 37, 47 and two from 36 in the victory, though he did miss one from 44 yards.

Brandon Lindsey, DE, Pitt. Lindsey was a huge reason why Pitt beat Syracuse 33-20. He had a hand in half of Syracuse's six turnovers -- with two forced fumbles and an interception that directly led to 13 points. Lindsey added a sack, three quarterback hurries and six total tackles.

Walter Stewart, DE, Cincinnati. Stewart got the game started with a huge play, snatching the ball out of Johnny McEntee's hands in the end zone for a defensive score, as the Bearcats went on to beat UConn. It was the first touchdown of Stewart's career. He was credited with a sack, tackle for loss, forced fumble and fumble recovery on the play.

Derek Wolfe, DT, Cincinnati. Wolfe recorded 10 tackles, 2.5 sacks and five tackles for loss in a 35-27 win over UConn. Wolfe moves into fourth place on the school career sacks list with 19.5, and 10th on the career tackles for loss list with 35.

Final: Cincinnati 35, UConn 27

December, 3, 2011
12/03/11
3:51
PM ET

Cincinnati survived a serious second-half scare from UConn to hold on for a 35-27 win and clinch a share of the Big East title -- a season removed from a losing season.

Cincinnati, Louisville and West Virginia all finish as Big East co-champions. The BCS representative will be determined by the final BCS standings -- where it is almost certain West Virginia will finish as the highest-ranked team. We won't know officially until the standings are unveiled Sunday night, but No. 23 West Virginia is the only Big East team currently ranked in the Top 25.

The Bearcats jumped out to a 28-6 halftime lead but there was fight left in the Huskies in the second half. UConn quarterback Johnny McEntee played much better, and was able to find some holes in the Cincinnati secondary as he led the Huskies on a comeback. McEntee threw two fourth-quarter touchdown passes -- to Mark Hinkley and Ryan Griffin. That 25-yard touchdown pass to Griffin came one play following an interception by Munchie Legaux.

Cincinnati got the ball with 5:46 remaining. All UConn needed was one stop to try and complete its comeback bid. But the Bearcats made two third-and-short conversions with runs, and they were able to ice the game despite being outscored 21-7 in the second half. Dave Teggart ended up with four field goals on the day for the Huskies, who had to play the majority of the game without backup quarterback Scott McCummings (concussion).

Legaux threw three touchdown passes, but also had two interceptions. The Bearcats were not as effective using Jordan Luallen as they were last week, as he had four catches for no yards. It was the defense that really made the difference in this game. Walter Stewart scored a touchdown after snatching the ball from McEntee in the end zone, and Drew Frey had an interception return for a touchdown.

The Bearcats had six sacks in the game, and John Hughes and Derek Wolfe were absolute terrors behind the line of scrimmage. Now Cincinnati can look forward to getting back to a bowl game, most likely the Liberty Bowl. UConn ends the season without a bowl berth, a year after representing the Big East in the BCS.

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