NCF Nation: East Carolina Pirates

ACC viewer's guide: Week 4

September, 20, 2014
Sep 20
The best day of the week is finally here. Is the best league game of the year here as well? Probably. Here's a primer on all of the action throughout the day. Be sure to follow along on Twitter with all of the hashtags below.


Georgia Tech at Virginia Tech, ESPN, #GTvsVT: The Yellow Jackets have gotten to 3-0 in the most wayward of fashions. The Hokies are coming off a home loss to East Carolina, one week after upsetting a top-10 Ohio State team on the road. Could their trouble be on defense? Brandon Facyson has been playing hurt all season, sure, but Virginia Tech has surrendered 22 plays of 20 yards or more this season, fourth-most in the nation and half its total from last season (44). The big-play threat might not exactly be there with Georgia Tech, but as Jared Shanker noted this week, the visitors do bring with them a knack for converting third downs. Virginia Tech has won the past four games in this matchup.

Iowa at Pittsburgh, ESPNU, #IOWAvsPITT: Third-year Panthers coach Paul Chryst hosts a familiar foe this weekend, as he faced the Hawkeyes six times while he was offensive coordinator at Wisconsin, going 3-3. Pitt is looking for its first 4-0 start since 2000, and it will likely turn to the nation's leading rusher, James Conner, to try to get there, despite Iowa's stingy run defense (No. 7 nationally). Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz, by the way, will experience a homecoming of sorts, as he went to Upper St. Clair High in Pittsburgh.

12:30 p.m.

Maryland at Syracuse, 12:30, ESPN3, #MDvsCUSE: The Terrapins are in their first year away from the "basketball" conference that is the ACC, as coach Randy Edsall said this summer, and the Big Ten newcomers will look to avenge last year's 20-3 home loss to the Orange, which came without receivers Stefon Diggs and Deon Long. Syracuse, meanwhile, looked like a new team in last week's 40-3 win at Central Michigan, as it came off a bye and had quarterback Terrel Hunt back running the show on offense. Syracuse is looking to get to 3-0 for the first time since 1991, which would provide a big boost to a team that will embark on a difficult three-week stretch against Notre Dame, Louisville and Florida State.

Tulane at Duke, ESPN3, #TULNvsDUKE: Has there been a more overlooked team than Duke recently? All the Blue Devils have done is take care of business, coming off a 10-win, division-title season and starting 3-0 this season in methodical fashion (albeit against bad competition). In any event, the unranked Blue Devils close their nonconference slate against American Athletic Conference newcomer Tulane, which is no stranger to the ACC this season, having lost to Georgia Tech two weeks ago. Here's one interesting stat surrounding Duke quarterback Anthony Boone, courtesy of ESPN Stats & Information: The Blue Devils have lost yardage on just three percent of Boone's snaps, the lowest percentage of any Power Five quarterback with at least 150 plays.

[+] EnlargeTyler Murphy
Winslow Townson/Getty ImagesTyler Murphy and Boston College hope to avoid a letdown after their upset of USC when they face FCS Maine on Saturday.
1 p.m.

Maine at Boston College, ESPN3, #MEvsBC: It's all about avoiding a letdown this week in Chestnut Hill, where the Eagles produced one of the young season's greatest upsets last weekend against USC. The Black Bears should hardly pose a huge challenge to BC, which, with Tyler Murphy under center, has been able to stretch the field much more than last season, even if the run game is still its bread and butter. Murphy leads all quarterbacks in rushing yards this season with 401, 40 more yards than he has tallied passing the ball (361).

3:30 p.m.

Louisville at FIU, Fox Sports 1: The Cardinals are looking to rebound from their first defeat of the second Bobby Petrino era, while the Golden Panthers welcome their second straight ACC foe to Miami. FIU gave Pitt a handful last week before the Panthers pulled away, but Louisville will probably not be so kind coming off the loss at Virginia. Louisville beat FIU 72-0 a year ago, and while there are plenty of new faces, quarterback Will Gardner will try to bounce back after getting pulled a week ago. His offensive line will look to get its act together as well.

Virginia at No. 21 BYU, ESPN, #UVAvsBYU: Speaking of the Cavaliers, they should serve as one of the toughest tests the Cougars face all season, as the home team has the best chance of anyone in the nation at running the regular-season table (21.7 percent, per ESPN's FPI). We'll see just how good this Virginia defense really is after strong showings through the first three weeks, as BYU quarterback Taysom Hill and his home field will be a handful to handle. Virginia beat BYU last year in the season opener, one of just two games it won all season.

Army at Wake Forest, ESPN3, #ARMYvsWAKE: The Demon Deacons' defense has actually been pretty good through three games despite a 1-2 record. And while the offense showed signs of life late in last week's loss at Utah State, it cannot afford to give away points, and it would help to develop some form of a ground game. The Black Knights were shut out last week at Stanford. They also boast, at this point, the nation's slowest offense at 31.1 seconds per play, according to data from ESPN Stats & Info.

North Carolina at East Carolina, ESPNU, #UNCvsECU: The Pirates came awfully close to beating a South Carolina team that is probably better than we initially gave it credit for, and they went into Blacksburg, Virginia, last week and took down the Hokies. Now they get the Tar Heels in a rematch of last year's 55-31 ECU rout in Chapel Hill. The Tar Heels have looked underwhelming through two games, and they will be without starting guard Landon Turner. But their offense is still capable of putting plenty of points on the board, and this is a team that certainly has not forgotten about the way it was embarrassed by the Pirates last season. A shootout between Marquise Williams and Shane Carden could be on the horizon. And given UNC's upcoming slate -- at Clemson, Virginia Tech, at Notre Dame -- it better hope it can keep up this time around before league play starts. One thing to keep in mind: With Brian Walker's 100-yard interception return for a touchdown two weeks ago at San Diego State, UNC now has 10 non-offensive touchdowns since last season, according to ESPN Stats & Info. That is tied with North Texas for the second-best mark in the nation during that span, trailing only Florida State's 11.

6 p.m.

Presbyterian at NC State, ESPN3, #PREvsNCSU: The Wolfpack's laughable nonconference slate concludes, and a win here would make them 4-0 after a disappointing 3-9 mark last season. Still, it should do wonders for a young team looking to go bowling in Dave Doeren's second year at the helm, especially if it can replicate its dominant performance from last week at USF. Like its rival in Chapel Hill, NC State needs to do itself a favor, with back-to-back games against FSU and Clemson awaiting in the next two weeks to open conference play. As David Hale notes, quarterback Jacoby Brissett has been invaluable so far for the Pack, leading the ACC in touchdowns and yards and second only to Georgia Tech's Justin Thomas in passer rating.

8 p.m.

Miami at No. 24 Nebraska, ESPN2, #MIAvsNEB: Andrea Adelson and Mitch Sherman did a wonderful job recapping some of the great matchups between these old rivals. What might be the difference at Memorial Stadium, however, is the ground game. Duke Johnson has rushed for at least 90 yards in each of his past five games dating back to last season, while Ameer Abdullah has eclipsed the 100-yard mark in 12 of his past 14 games and has tallied more than 100 yards from scrimmage in 16 straight games, the longest active streak in the nation. The ACC is 6-3 against the Cornhuskers in the past nine meetings, though the Hurricanes are just 1-6 in their past seven games against AP-ranked teams, with an average point margin of minus-22.4.

8 p.m.

No. 22 Clemson at No. 1 Florida State, ABC, #CLEMvsFSU: Here's the matchup we've all been waiting for, but it won't include Jameis Winston. The reigning Heisman Trophy winner will sit out the entire game, the school announced late Friday, after reportedly making profane remarks in public. It will be Sean Maguire's turn to run the show. Maguire has not started a game since Nov. 12, 2011, his senior year at Seton Hall Prep (New Jersey). Coach Jimbo Fisher is 3-1 against Clemson since arriving in Tallahassee, but the lower-ranked team has won two of the past three meetings. The Tigers, meanwhile, are 0-4 all time against AP No. 1 teams, with the last such game coming in the 1999 "Bowden Bowl I" against FSU, a 17-14 Seminoles win. Coming into this contest, ESPN's FPI ranks Clemson 19th, FSU 2nd, and it gives the Seminoles a 77 percent chance to win.

ECU looks to do it again vs. ACC

September, 16, 2014
Sep 16
Ruffin McNeill has not approached East Carolina's rugged three-game nonconference stretch here as proving grounds. The fifth-year Pirates coach has always believed his teams belong with whoever they're playing, Power 5 program or not. They entered South Carolina two weeks ago intending to leave with a win, the same way they entered this past weekend at Virginia Tech, the same way they will approach a home tilt with North Carolina this Saturday.

"We did not go down thinking 'upset,'" McNeill told, referring to the loss to the Gamecocks. "We went down expecting to win, and that's saying it as humble as I can. And that's how much I believe in our staff and our team."

[+] EnlargeShane Carden
Jeremy Brevard/USA TODAY SportsThrough three games this season, East Carolina senior QB Shane Carden has already thrown for 1,031 yards and seven touchdowns.
Such a mentality hardly hindered ECU last season during its 100-plus mile trip to Chapel Hill, as the Pirates had their way with the Tar Heels in a 55-31 rout. It helped earn them more notoriety nationally three days ago in Blacksburg, Virginia, as they jumped on the Hokies early and scored late for a 28-21 win.

This week? ECU is actually favored over in-state neighbor UNC, the first-year American Athletic Conference program looking to make it back-to-back wins against the Heels before it embarks on league play.

"Oh it's been brought up since we lost to them," UNC safety Tim Scott said. "For 365. Every day our coaches remind us if we don't come ready to play, they already showed us the results when we don't come to play and this year we're trying to make sure that doesn't happen again."

To do that, UNC needs to do what it couldn't do last season, and what few have been able to do since, including NC State late in 2013: Stop Shane Carden.

Carden accounted for six total touchdowns last season against the Heels, throwing for 376 yards. Saturday at Virginia Tech, he was responsible for all four ECU touchdowns and threw for 427 yards. The Houston native's rise has mirrored that of his staff's, each in their fifth years in Greenville.

With McNeill getting hired at ECU roughly two weeks before signing day, Carden appeared to be Stephen F. Austin-bound. Former Texas Tech quarterback B.J. Symons, who had played for the Red Raiders while McNeill was an assistant there, called McNeill about Carden, whose dad was Symons' wife's boss. Carden visited ECU, was intrigued by the idea of running an offense designed by Mike Leach proteges and signed with the Pirates a week later.

"He's always been pretty strong on the mental toughness, the leadership, being one of the guys, the guy that they can rally behind," offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Lincoln Riley told "Some of that can be taught, but some of that is natural, God-given ability. Sometimes people just follow people and you can't really nail down exactly why. Some people just have that presence about them, and Shane has that."

Carden's first career pass was picked off, at South Carolina in 2012. But he found his footing late that year, leading the Pirates to five wins in their final six regular-season games, during which they scored 42 points per game. Last season, Carden finished in the top-10 nationally of virtually every passing category, leading ECU to a 10-3 mark while making a leap that McNeill described as going from the quarterback of the offense to the quarterback of the team.

"He works every day like he's losing his job, and he works on his craft," said McNeill, who played defensive back at ECU from 1976-80. "The kids call him cap'n: C-A-P-apostrophe-N."

The 31-year-old Riley, meanwhile, has become one of the hottest names on the assistant coaching circuit, based largely off his work with Carden and before that with Michael Crabtree, whom he mentored when coaching receivers at Texas Tech.

Everything seems to be falling into place right now for ECU, which has one of its favorite sons ushering it into this new era in a new league.

"I'm beginning to see it come into fruition, because one thing with Coach (Steve) Spurrier and Coach (Frank) Beamer: They don't just win for a season, they win for seasons, and I would like to get our program where it's understood that we are going to be successful for seasons, not a season," McNeill said. "And the belief and commitment to the team and belief and commitment to our mission and vision -- it's very important that that is continued."

Another win Saturday over a bigger program from down the road would only further that progress, as it would make ECU 4-1 against the ACC in the past two years and serve notice to the rest of its new league brethren.

"You always hear about teams that went undefeated or only lost one game and everybody says, 'Who'd they play?' And they don't have anything to show for it," Carden said. "Well, ECU always has a chance to play these good teams and give us a chance to put our name in the mix with some big-name schools if we go out and win those games."

ACC viewer's guide: Week 3

September, 13, 2014
Sep 13
It's Saturday, and we're here to catch you up on all that you should be watching throughout the day as 11 ACC teams take the field. Use the hashtags below to follow each game on Twitter. All times are ET.


East Carolina at No. 17 Virginia Tech, ESPN, #ECUvsVT: The Hokies are riding high after notching the upset at Ohio State last week. But the Pirates can help bring them back to earth if they aren't careful. ECU itself is amid a tough three-game stretch against South Carolina, Virginia Tech and North Carolina, and its offense, led by the dangerous Shane Carden under center, is certainly capable of testing the home team's D. If that's not enough to have the Hokies ready, these teams' past two meetings should: Narrow Virginia Tech wins in 2013 (15-10) and 2011 (17-10).

Georgia Southern at Georgia Tech, ESPN3, #GASOvsGT: Can the Eagles notch a signature road win over a Power 5 team for the second year in a row? A year after winning at Florida, they came awfully close in Week 1, falling at NC State by one after leading throughout. Now the FBS newcomers travel to face former head coach Paul Johnson and in-state neighbor Georgia Tech. Georgia Southern is coming off an 83-9 win over Savannah State last week, while the Yellow Jackets are still trying to get on-track offensively after a three-turnover performance in a win last week at Tulane.

Pitt at FIU, Fox Sports 1: Stat-watching might be a priority in this lackluster contest. Panthers running back James Conner enters with 50 carries, 367 yards and five touchdowns to his name through two weeks. Can he play himself further into early-season Heisman discussions? His coach, Paul Chryst, has not ruled out the chance that Conner still lines up at defensive end at some point this season. Still, given the workhorse he has been -- and will need to be if Pitt is to contend for the Coastal -- this might be a good chance to limit his workload in the heat and let Chad Voytik grow as a passer. Also worth keeping an eye on is the man snapping Voytik the ball, as center Artie Rowell is lost for the year after an ACL tear last week. Gabe Roberts and Alex Officer could both see action there in place of Rowell.

Syracuse at Central Michigan, ESPNEWS, #CUSEvsCMU: This game sure looks a lot more interesting than it did two weeks ago, no? The Orange have not even played a half this season with Terrel Hunt under center, as the starter was ejected from the opener after throwing a punch at a Villanova player. The offense struggled immensely without Hunt, needing two overtimes to hold off the FCS Wildcats. The Chippewas, meanwhile, ran Purdue out of their own building last week in West Lafayette, Indiana. Syracuse hopes to have gathered itself during its bye last week and unveil the faster-paced offense it had hoped to run this season.

12:30 p.m.

[+] EnlargeDominique Brown
Jamie Rhodes/USA TODAY SportsThe Cardinals should provide Virginia with an early-season measuring stick of where the team stands.
No. 21 Louisville at Virginia, ESPN3, #LOUvsUVA: We should have a much better answer after this game as to just how improved Virginia really is this season. The Cardinals present a great early-season league test in Charlottesville, and Bobby Petrino's offense going up against the Cavaliers' stout defense in Louisville's first-ever ACC road game will be fascinating to watch. But can the Hoos avoid offensive miscues? That is what cost them a chance to upset UCLA in Week 1, and there is still some uncertainty at quarterback, where Matt Johns has looked better than Greyson Lambert through two games.

3:30 p.m.

Arkansas State at Miami, ESPNU, #ARSTvsMIA: Now would be a good time to see what Brad Kaaya is capable of doing, what with a game at Nebraska next week and a pair of league games after. The true freshman quarterback hasn't been bad through two games, but he hasn't really been asked to do too much, either. If the Hurricanes want to contend for the Coastal crown this season, they'll need more production out of him, and better to throw him to the (Red) Wolves of Arkansas State now than the Blackshirts of Nebraska next week under the lights.

NC State at USF, CBS Sports Network: USF forced six turnovers last week against Maryland but still could not pull out the win. Jacoby Brissett has played well through two games, but the ground game has been every bit as instrumental so far, averaging 207.5 yards per contest. Still, the Wolfpack need to start faster after falling behind at home to Georgia Southern and Old Dominion before mounting comeback wins. A 3-0 start for coach Dave Doeren after a 3-9 debut season would be absolutely huge, and it would make a bowl berth a real possibility for the Pack.

Kansas at Duke, ESPN3, #KUvsDUKE: The Jayhawks are undefeated. And Charlie Weis was set to be David Cutcliffe's boss nearly a decade ago. And Duke clearly needs to get off to a better start than it did last week at Troy after falling behind by 11 early. Still, the Blue Devils have a very balanced attack that will test Kansas far more than Southeast Missouri State did last week. And quarterback Anthony Boone has looked very, very good through two games. Expect more of the same against Kansas.

7 p.m.

Wake Forest at Utah State, CBS Sports Network: Dave Clawson did some house-cleaning this week, kicking running back Dominique Gibson and center Cody Preble off the team for a violation of team rules, in addition to suspending reserve quarterback Kevin Sousa. Clawson is coming off his first win as the Demon Deacons' head coach, but the Aggies will provide a much stiffer test than Gardner-Webb did last week. True freshman signal-caller John Wolford got much better protection last week (two sacks) than he did in a season-opening loss at Louisiana-Monroe (five), but he has to improve his decision-making after throwing three picks last week.

8 p.m.

No. 9 USC at Boston College, ESPN, #USCvsBC: USC has been among the country's most impressive teams through two weeks. BC hopes it is catching the Trojans at the right time. Steve Sarkisian's squad travels cross-country after an upset win at Stanford to face an Eagles team coming off a home loss to Pitt. Still, it's worth pointing out just how well Steve Addazio got BC to play last year against heavy favorites Clemson and Florida State, with the latter contest proving to be the Seminoles' biggest test before the national title game. Also, kudos to BC for its attire for this contest, as it honors Sept. 11 hero and lacrosse alum Welles Crowther.
Setting up the spring in the American Athletic Conference:


Spring start: Feb. 27

Spring game: April 5

What to watch:
  • Gunner Kiel: Attention has followed the former high school sensation for years, from Indiana to LSU to Notre Dame and now to Cincinnati. He enters his redshirt sophomore season having never taken a college snap. With sixth-year senior Munchie Legaux still recovering from last year's leg injury, the show is Kiel's to run this spring.
  • Hank Hughes' defense: The former Cincinnati defensive coordinator returns after coaching last season at UConn. There, he orchestrated a rushing defense that finished 23rd nationally despite a 3-9 campaign. He will keep a 4-3 base but loses three all-conference performers from last season: Greg Blair, Jordan Stepp and Deven Drane.
  • RDA IV: Ralph David Abernathy IV has been a playmaker out of the backfield for the Bearcats in recent seasons, but he has moved to the slot this spring. He will probably still line up in the backfield at times, but seeing what the 5-foot-7, 161-pounder can do in space is definitely worth keeping an eye on, especially if the man throwing him the ball, Kiel, lives up to the hype at quarterback.

Spring start: March 21

Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Carden's ascent: Shane Carden could be a dark-horse Heisman Trophy candidate in 2014. He enters his fifth year in the program coming off a season in which he completed better than 70 percent of his throws for more than 4,000 yards, totaling 43 combined touchdowns between passing and rushing. Similar numbers in a new league will get him much more attention.
  • Replacing Jeremy Grove: The redshirt senior linebacker recently announced that he was hanging up his cleats after several shoulder injuries. The former freshman All-American led the Pirates in tackles for two years running before being limited last season. Expect bigger roles for Zeek Bigger and Brandon Williams, who together last season totaled 10 tackles for loss and three forced turnovers.
  • Filling the backfield void: East Carolina says goodbye to Vintavious Cooper, who turned in consecutive 1,000-yard seasons. While signee Anthony Scott looks like a player who could contribute right away upon his summer arrival, the burden for now falls on the shoulders of three backs who totaled 548 yards on the ground last season.

Spring start: March 3

Spring game: April 11

What to watch:
  • O'Korn looks to take next step: John O'Korn started 11 games last season at quarterback, proving to be efficient through the air and on the ground while taking the Cougars to a bowl game in their first season in the American. Now he's running an offense that, including him, returns eight starters. He set the bar pretty high as league rookie of the year, but incremental improvement could mean big things for Houston in 2014.
  • CB battles: Zach McMillian and Thomas Bates have graduated, taking their combined 10 forced turnovers from last season out the door with them. Two transfers could find themselves in the mix, as Lee Hightower (Boise State) and Tyler White (Utah) look to battle for starting spots on a defense seeking help in the secondary.
  • Trevon Randle: The former LSU linebacker and three-star recruit now finds himself in more of a pass-rushing role after sitting out the 2013 season for undisclosed reasons. The move is interesting for the 6-foot-2, 218-pound Randle, but the talent is certainly there for Randle to become a playmaker, wherever he ends up playing on the field.

Spring start: March 2

Spring game: April 11

What to watch:
  • Paxton Lynch's growth: Lynch made a name for himself by unseating Jacob Karam as the starting quarterback during fall camp last season. He followed with an up-and-down season for the 3-9 Tigers, showing flashes of playmaking ability and a penchant for turning it over. He is now the hunted, not the hunter, with redshirt freshman Brayden Scott now in the role Lynch played last season in hoping to steal the No. 1 job.
  • Hayes' return: The biggest coup of the offseason was the NCAA granting Brandon Hayes a sixth year of eligibility. The former walk-on was the team's MVP and leading rusher last season, and he will help take plenty of pressure off of whoever emerges as the starting quarterback.
  • Defensive growth: The Tigers were ranked 39th last season in total defense, and eight starters return. The unit gave the offense chances to win last season against league heavyweights Louisville and UCF before falling by a 24-17 margin in both games, and the Tigers welcome two new coaches in Ricky Hunley (line) and Ryan Walters (corners).

Spring start: March 4

Spring game: April 5 (no spring game)

What to watch:
  • Replacing Gilbert: SMU opened practice Tuesday with five men in the mix to become its starting quarterback, with Neal Burcham carrying the front-runner status after starting the final two games last season in place of Garrett Gilbert (knee), who totaled nearly 3,800 yards rushing and passing last season, accounting for 27 scores.
  • Receiver depth: The Mustangs are relatively thin at the position following the graduation of two of its top three receivers from last season, as Jeremy Johnson and Keenan Holman each tallied more than 1,000 yards in 2013. Deion Sanders Jr., meanwhile, will miss spring practice because of a shoulder injury.
  • The next Acker: Cornerback Kenneth Acker starred with the Mustangs, earning second-team all-conference distinction after finishing second in the league in passes defended (16) and tallying a team-best three interceptions on the season. Jay Scott, who forced three turnovers himself last season, is also gone. Talented safety Shakiel Randolph could see his role increased after showing plenty of promise in his first two seasons, including a 37-tackle campaign last season.

Spring start: March 24

Spring game: April 26

What to watch:
  • Receiver help: Temple will open spring practice without Robbie Anderson, the Owls' top receiver from last season, who is no longer with the team. Both Anderson and the graduated Ryan Alderman combined for more than 1,300 yards last season, so the pressure will be on Jalen Fitzpatrick and John Christopher to carry bigger workloads going into 2014. They'll have a familiar Philly face coaching them, with former QB Adam DiMichele now the Owls' receivers coach.
  • Aerial attack: One silver lining from a 2-10 campaign last season? P.J. Walker, who rebounded after losing the preseason quarterback battle and ended up starting the season's final seven games, threw for 2,084 yards. He was part of a group that passed for the most yards ever (2,996) by a Temple team, a promising sign moving forward for the second-year player (and his second-year coach, Matt Rhule).
  • Tyler Matakevich: The kid just keeps on getting better, as the linebacker followed up his impressive rookie season by tallying 137 total tackles — including 11.5 for loss — picking off one pass, recovering two fumbles and forcing three more. He wears a single-digit jersey, No. 8, to signify his toughness, and he is a great central piece for the defense to build around. Temple was ranked 109th overall in yards allowed last season.

Spring start: Feb. 7

Spring game: Feb. 26 (no spring game)

What to watch:
  • Injuries: The situation is a little different here with Tulane, which is already finished with its spring season, allowing us to instead look back. And the Green Wave even ended up finishing earlier than anticipated, as coach Curtis Johnson ended it after Feb. 26, cutting the final two practices because of injuries. Among the walking wounded throughout last month: Linebacker Nico Marley, running back Sherman Badie and linebackers Sergio Medina and Edward Williams, who both missed all of spring because of pre-existing injuries.
  • QB battle: Tanner Lee is seemingly the front-runner to start in 2014 after redshirting as a freshman this past fall. A local prospect from Jesuit High, he passed for nearly 4,000 yards in high school while tallying 39 touchdowns and just nine interceptions, and he received a much heavier workload this spring after the Green Wave struggled with consistency in the passing game in 2013.
  • Filling the backfield void: Orleans Darkwa is gone after totaling 920 yards and 12 touchdowns last season. Tulane might be turning to another redshirt freshman, with Badie getting plenty of attention this spring before suffering a concussion down the stretch. Senior Rob Kelley (420 yards in 2013) and three other backfield contributors from last season return to give this unit a bit of depth.

Spring start: March 11

Spring game: April 19

What to watch:
  • Defensive stability: No one in the program is happy following a 3-9 campaign last fall, but the Golden Hurricane bring back plenty of experience from last season as they move into Year 1 in the American. Ten starters are back on defense. Despite finishing just 102nd in yards allowed last season, that gives the program a nice foundation as it welcomes in a tougher slate of opponents.
  • Josh Blankenship and the offense: Head coach Bill Blankenship's newest hire is his son, Josh, who was brought in to coach quarterbacks and rework an offense that finished 100th overall last season. The former Muskogee High head coach is part of a restructured offensive staff after coordinator Greg Peterson left the program and Bill Blankenship gave up coaching the QBs.
  • Backfield holes: Trey Watts and Ja'Terian Douglas are gone after totaling nearly 1,700 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns last season. Reinforcements are on the way in three running back signees from this recruiting cycle, with one of them, juco transfer Tavarreon Dickerson, enrolling early and looking to make an impact after averaging 8.5 yards per carry last season at Trinity Valley.

Spring start: March 12

Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • Like after Bortles: Blake Bortles will be examined and re-examined in the public eye daily before the NFL draft, and his replacement back at UCF has some major shoes to fill. His backup last season, Justin Holman, is the most experienced of a three-man group that includes early enrollee and former SMU commit Tyler Harris.
  • Replacing Storm Johnson: Johnson is gone after rushing for 1,139 yards and 14 touchdowns last season, and Will Stanback will likely have to prepare for a much bigger role in his sophomore year after getting 105 carries in his rookie campaign of 2013. There are plenty of other bodies back there, but none managed the workload Stanback carried last season as a freshman.
  • Offensive line depth: Brent Key is now the assistant head coach of the offense, and he will serve as offensive line coach as well. The spring will be very important in helping to sort out the chaos up front, and one player worth keeping an eye will be Chester Brown, who saw limited action last season after switching from the defensive line in fall camp.

Spring start: March 10

Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • New leader: Bob Diaco had an introductory news conference like few others. The former Notre Dame defensive coordinator is filled with energy, and he certainly brings a new approach atop the program following the Paul Pasqualoni and Randy Edsall eras. He already has made some cosmetic changes in the training facility, but bringing immediate change on the field is a bigger challenge in 2014.
  • Casey Cochran. The Huskies won their final three games last season, putting up 28 or more points in all three contests. Cochran passed for a school-record 461 yards in the finale, and seeing how he and the rest of the quarterbacks develop under this new staff will go a long way toward determining what UConn can do next season.
  • Defensive replenishments. For all of their struggles in recent years, the Huskies haven't lacked for talent or effort on the defensive side of the ball. That shouldn't change under Diaco, who won the Broyles Award as the nation's top assistant coach as Notre Dame's defensive coordinator in 2012. But replacing standouts such as Shamar Stephen and Yawin Smallwood won't be easy.

Spring start: Feb. 26

Spring game: March 29

What to watch:
  • QB battle: Penn State transfer Steven Bench was named the starter at midseason in 2013, but he found himself behind freshman Mike White after an injury. Both quarterbacks turned the ball over way too much last season, and increased production from that position is crucial if Willie Taggart wants to get this program turned around in his second season as head coach.
  • Running backs: The battle to replace Marcus Shaw is on after his 765-yard season in 2013. Mike Pierre, Willie Davis and Darius Tice are the men being counted on now in the backfield, but no player from that trio carried the ball more than 41 times or topped 141 rushing yards for the season.
  • Jamie Byrd: Byrd enrolled at USF this January following a stint at Iowa Western Community College, and he has two years of eligibility remaining. He had 53 tackles, two interceptions, seven passes defended and a fumble recovery last season, and the hard-hitting speedster could make an early impact with the Bulls in the secondary.

American spring preview

March, 5, 2014
Mar 5
Another year, another set of fresh faces.

And, of course, new challenges, as well.

This is life now in the American Athletic Conference, which won’t complete its makeover complete until next season, when Navy joins the fold as a football-only member.

For now, it watches two others walk out the door while welcoming three new programs into the fold.

Goodbye, Louisville and Rutgers. Hello, East Carolina, Tulane and Tulsa.

And, if last season is any indication, the newcomers may not be second-class citizens upon their arrivals.

"There's enough talent around the country that creates a little bit more parity than people are talking about now," said East Carolina coach Ruffin McNeil. "I know they're trying to talk about these conferences and those conferences. Well, I've been to those conferences, and there's good football players in each league. And I feel we're ready to compete with anyone. I'm not afraid to say that, and I know other coaches in the league are not, either."

That became evident through UCF's historic campaign in the remodeled league's debut last season, with the Knights going 12-1 and topping Baylor in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl. These, of course, were the same Knights that lost twice to Tulsa a year earlier, and the Golden Hurricane now enter the American coming off a disappointing 3-9 season last fall.

That is all encouraging from one perspective. But the optimist's approach shows a similar surprising run could be on the horizon in 2014.

"East Carolina is going to have a huge advantage in our conference. I think they're going to be the next guys, to be honest, similar to UCF," said conference commissioner Mike Aresco.

"Everything's in place: They've got a Heisman candidate, they've got just some tremendous players and I think they're going to make a mark quickly because they've never had this kind of TV exposure. They've got a 50,000-seat stadium and they fill it up all the time. Their quarterback Shane Carden I think will be a Heisman candidate. I think they're the kind of team that will really benefit."

Among the old guard, UConn made a major move by hiring prized Notre Dame defensive coordinator Bob Diaco to head its program. Cincinnati has another year under Tommy Tuberville and could possibly start the most talked about quarterback to never take a college snap in Gunner Kiel.

The American begins life in the post-BCS era with no automatic entry to access bowls. It is a member of a group of five conferences from within which the top overall team will be granted a berth at the adults' postseason table.

It's not exactly ideal, but after enduring a year of turmoil and coming out on the other end with a BCS win and several probable high draft picks to its name, the league enters its next phase with a much more positive outlook.

A closer look at East Carolina’s win over Ohio on Monday in the Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl St. Petersburg in St. Petersburg, Fla., which snapped a four-game postseason losing streak for the program.

It was over when: In a back-and-forth battle, the Pirates were able to make the plays that mattered most down the stretch and iced the game with an interception by Damon Magazu as the clock ticked under 7 minutes in the fourth quarter. The ensuing drive didn’t produce any points for East Carolina, but coming on the heels of a touchdown on a trick play, the turnover kept the momentum squarely in its favor down the stretch and killed off a bit of time to give coach Ruffin McNeill his first bowl victory.

Game ball goes to: The Pirates racked up yardage through the air and wound up with a pair of passing touchdowns, but they clearly weren’t playing quite up to their high standards and even looked a bit shaky at times. But the rushing attack more than made up for it as Vintavious Cooper had his way with the Bobcats, using some shifty moves and incredible vision to set a career high with 198 yards and two touchdowns.

Stat of the game: A couple of fourth-down conversions in the red zone came up short, but that was about the only black mark for the Pirates as they moved the ball with relative ease and dominated time of possession. In all, East Carolina put up 568 yards of offense and held the football for more than 33 minutes in what ended up being a comfortable victory.

Best call: The passing game wasn’t quite as sharp as usual, but the Pirates jump-started it down the stretch by flipping the script and throwing it to Shane Carden. A double-pass from Cam Worthy to the junior quarterback midway through the fourth quarter helped seal the deal. Carden came down with the 14-yard toss with two Ohio defensive backs around him -- and then celebrated by pretending he couldn’t shake the football free from his grip.

What it means: The Pirates showed signs of progress a year ago in McNeill’s third season with eight wins, but ending a four-bowl losing streak for the program and clinching a 10-win campaign made it obvious his team is trending in the right direction as it prepares for a move to the American Athletic Conference.

To watch the trophy presentation of the Beef ‘O’ Brady’s Bowl St. Petersburg, click here.

Beef ‘O’ Brady’s Bowl preview

December, 23, 2013
A glance at the lone game on Monday’s schedule, a clash between Ohio (7-5) and East Carolina (9-3) in the Beef ‘O’ Brady’s Bowl (TV: ESPN, 2 p.m. ET).

Who to watch: Shane Carden might have been working well outside of the spotlight compared to the rest of the nation’s most prolific quarterbacks, but he has earned the right to be in that conversation with another eye-popping statistical season leading the attack for the Pirates. The junior ranks sixth in the country in passing yardage with 3,866 in the regular season, two spots ahead of a pair of guys with Heisman Trophies on their mantles in Jameis Winston and Johnny Manziel. While Carden gets nowhere near the acclaim, he has steadily picked apart defenses all season, throwing for more than 300 yards in seven games thanks in part to a productive partnership with junior wide receiver Justin Hardy that generated 105 receptions, more than 1,200 yards and eight touchdowns.

What to watch: With almost no bowl history to speak of until 2007, coach Frank Solich has turned the Bobcats into a fixture of the postseason recently, hitting the road around the holidays for five straight seasons -- and playing some pretty entertaining affairs along the way. Ohio won a thriller two years ago over Utah State in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl and backed that up with a blowout win over Louisiana-Monroe in the Independence Bowl. The Bobcats will need a defense that has had its ups and downs to play like the unit that allowed a total of three points in consecutive outings in September and not the one that was gouged for 49 and 44 points in losses to Bowling Green and Kent State.

Why to watch: For starters, the Bobcats and Pirates have the stage all to themselves, and with only one bowl on the docket, they offer the only college football fix of the day. But beyond that, East Carolina has an offense built to put up fireworks and provide some entertainment. And under Solich, the Bobcats have rarely backed down from a challenge and have proved to be a motivated bunch in bowl games recently.

Prediction: East Carolina 41, Ohio 27

East Carolina Pirates (9-3) vs. Ohio Bobcats (7-5)

Dec. 23, 2 p.m. ET, St. Petersburg, Fla. (ESPN)

[+] EnlargeShane Carden
AP Photo/Gerry BroomeShane Carden pulls the trigger for one of the nation's highest-scoring offenses.
For the seventh time in the past eight years, the Pirates are headed to a bowl game.

It wasn't too tough for East Carolina to reel off nine wins with an offense that ranked second in the conference, averaging 459.8 yards per game. The Pirates also scored 40.4 points per game and reached 30-plus points in nine games.

All year, the Pirates offense moved behind the arm of quarterback Shane Carden, who led the conference with 3,866 yards and was second in the league with 32 touchdowns. Carden eclipsed the 300-yard passing mark seven times and tossed three or more touchdowns seven times as well.

Helping Carden this season has been running back Vintavious Cooper, who has rushed for 995 yards and 12 touchdowns.
-- Edward Aschoff


[+] EnlargeTyler Tettleton
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesTyler Tettleton has thrown for 20 touchdowns this season.
Ohio is headed to a bowl game for the sixth time in nine years under coach Frank Solich and for the fifth straight season. It won the first bowl game in school history in 2011 over Utah State in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl and followed with an Independence Bowl victory last year over Louisiana-Monroe.

Record-setting quarterback Tyler Tettleton, a third-year starter, struggled through November before leading Ohio to a season-ending victory over Massachusetts.

The Bobcats, after opening with a loss to Louisville, reeled off six wins in seven games, including a 34-31 thriller over Marshall on Sept. 14.

Solich's squad is well rounded, ranking third in the 13-team Mid-American Conference in total defense and sixth in total offense.

Running back Beau Blankenship and top receiving target Donte Foster, a second-team All-MAC pick, help carry the load offensively. Cornerbacks Devin Bass and Travis Carrie are strong in coverage and provide a threat in the return game. -- Mitch Sherman

ACC weekend rewind: Week 13

November, 25, 2013
The final regular-season weekend is on deck. Time sure flies. So here's one last look at all that went down in the ACC this past weekend.

The good: The ACC seemingly survived JV week without incident, with Florida State and North Carolina each putting up 80 points, Georgia Tech crushing Alabama A&M 66-7, and Clemson taking care of business against the Citadel with a 56-7 win. Two teams, UNC and Pitt, got to bowl-eligibility, setting up for some great showdowns this coming rivalry weekend.

The bad: Well, there is always Virginia, which lost by 19 at Miami and remains winless in ACC play. And there is NC State, also winless in ACC play after a 14-point home loss to East Carolina -- which, to add insult to injury, further declared its place in the Triangle in a season in which it beat both NC State and North Carolina.

The ugly: North Carolina's 80-20 win over Old Dominion featured a shortened fourth quarter, from 15 minutes to 10. And none of the Tar Heels' 80 points ended up coming in the final frame. Funny enough, this was actually a 14-13 game after the first quarter. I was at Notre Dame on Saturday, and when the out-of-town scores were announced in the press box, this game was announced: "North Carolina 80, Old Dominion 20. That's football, not basketball."

[+] EnlargeDaniel Rodriguez
AP Photo/Rainier EhrhardtClemson walk-on WR Daniel Rodriguez, a Purple Heart recipient, caught a TD pass Saturday, providing a heart-warming moment.
The awesome moment: It came at the 14:10 mark of the fourth quarter, with Clemson already holding a 45-3 lead over the Citadel. Then, Daniel Rodriguez caught a 2-yard touchdown pass from Cole Stoudt, for his first career touchdown. On Military Appreciation Day, no less. If you're not already familiar with Rodriguez's story, become so. Simply amazing.

The icers: Paul Chryst, bravo. Randy Edsall, not so much. Up 17-16 with 1:03 left and Syracuse facing a fourth-and-8 from the Pitt 36, Chryst called a timeout right as the Orange were about to attempt a game-winning field goal, which was then revealed to be a fake, a fake that looked destined to be good. Terrel Hunt then threw an incomplete pass out of the timeout, sealing bowl-eligibility for the Panthers and leaving Syracuse with no other choice but to beat Boston College this Saturday in order to make the postseason. Edsall, meanwhile, called a timeout to ice BC kicker Nate Freese's 52-yard game-winning attempt, which hooked left. With new life from Edsall's timeout, however, Freese drilled it, giving the Eagles a 29-26 win at Maryland, their fourth straight victory.

The unconventional two-pointer: Speaking of BC-Maryland, how about the wild extra-point sequence in the fourth quarter? Alex Amidon hauled in a 74-yard touchdown pass for BC with 5:02 left to take a 26-24 lead. But the extra point was blocked, and Anthony Nixon ran it back the other way to tie the game at 26. You don't see that every day.

The Heisman hopefuls: In making your case for why you should win college football's highest individual honor, you can do a lot worse than what Andre Williams and Aaron Donald did on Saturday. Williams rushed for 263 yards, eclipsing the 200-yard mark for the third straight game. He also got to 2,073 yards on the season, becoming just the 16th player in college football history to reach the 2,000-yard plateau. His 36-yard run set up the game-winning field goal for Boston College. Donald, meanwhile, was named the Walter Camp defensive player of the week award, as the Pitt defensive tackle tallied nine tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss and a blocked extra-point attempt that provided the winning margin in a 17-16 win at Syracuse.

The three-headed attack: Here's another box-score oddity you don't see every day: Florida State had three different players average better than 11 yards per carry. Devonta Freeman carried it 11 times for 129 yards and a touchdown (11.7 yards per carry), Karlos Williams ran it 10 times for 114 yards and two touchdowns (11.4 ypc) and James Wilder Jr. rushed four times for 85 yards and a score (21.3). The Seminoles had 336 rushing yards on the day, averaging 8.4 yards per attempt.

The Blue Devils: Where do we start this time? Duke is in the BCS standings for the first time, at No. 24, after getting picked to finish last in the Coastal Division by the media in July. The Blue Devils have now clinched a tie of the division title after beating Wake Forest 28-21, and can win it outright by winning this Saturday at North Carolina. They have tied a school record with nine wins, something they have not done since 1941. And they have won seven straight games for the first time since 1994.

Future American Power Rankings

June, 21, 2013
You've seen the college football future power rankings. Let's take that to another level here, using the eye test to look at how this conference is set up in the years to come.

1) Cincinnati. With at least a share of four of the past five conference titles, and with a proven coach in Tommy Tuberville aboard, the Bearcats are the class of the conference.

2) UCF. The most ready-made of the conference newcomers this fall, the Knights have the ideal talent, recruiting tools and coaching to compete for the conference crown year-in and year-out moving forward.

3) USF. Like rival UCF, USF is ideally located to land top talent. The Bulls have had that talent in recent years, but the hope is that new coach Willie Taggart can make the most of it and thrive back on the recruiting trail in Tampa, Fla.

4) Tulsa. Three straight eight-plus win seasons show that this program is on the rise, as the Golden Hurricane, much like UCF, look ready to compete with the league's elite upon their arrival.

5) UConn. The last of the "old guard" of the old Big East is in need of a turnaround following consecutive 5-7 seasons under Paul Pasqualoni. A Fiesta Bowl appearance in 2010 and five draft picks this past April show that there is potential here.

6) SMU. June Jones and Hal Mumme together will be a fascinating experiment to watch this year. But with their history and an always-strong nonconference slate, the Mustangs can put themselves in position to be a conference contender only if the breaks fall their way.

7) Navy. The Midshipmen won't be aboard until 2015. But eight-plus wins in nine of the past 10 seasons against a solid independent schedule suggests the triple-option can give its new conference brethren problems upon its arrival in two years.

8) Houston. Kevin Sumlin had a great run in 2011. Tony Levine still has some work to do, especially on the defensive side of the ball, after a down season in 2012. But landing big-name receivers like Deontay Greenberry and Markeith Ambles shows that there is promise for the Cougars moving forward.

9) Temple. The Owls started off 2-0 in the Big East last season, but then received a rude awakening. New coach Matt Rhule seems perfect for the role, but the cupboard is bare as he tries to turn things around in Year 1.

10) East Carolina. The Pirates always face their share of tough nonconference opponents, but Ruffin McNeill seems to have the program trending upward after going bowling in two of his first three seasons.

11) Memphis. Justin Fuente won't let the Tigers get too high on themselves after a three-game winning streak to end last season. By opening up key spots -- including quarterback, where Jacob Karam returns -- he has shown that he is set on taking this program to another level as it enters a new conference and tries to put the Conference-USA era behind it. Still, Fuente faces an uphill battle.

12) Tulane. The Green Wave haven't won five games in a season since 2004. They have their work cut out for them, as they move up to a better version of the C-USA they have struggled in.
Tulsa has a news conference scheduled for 11:30 a.m. ET Tuesday to announce its move to the soon-to-renamed Big East, sources told our Brett McMurphy.

The Golden Hurricanes will leave Conference USA on July 1, 2014, along with Tulane and East Carolina.

The addition of Tulsa will give the "old" Big East 12 teams when Navy joins the conference in 2015.

Rutgers and Louisville will move to the Big Ten and ACC, respectively, at the same time those three schools join their new conference.

You can read more on the move here from McMurphy, who reported the news last Tuesday.

The soon-to-be-renamed Big East Conference is set to add Tulsa as its 12th member and make East Carolina a member in all sports, sources told ESPN.

League presidents are expected to vote on Tulsa's addition by next week. Though commissioner Mike Aresco didn't name specific expansion candidates during a conference call announcing a hoops media rights deal Tuesday, he did say the league expected to have "something relatively soon" on a new member.

Tulsa has long been rumored to be the favored candidate and would begin league play in 2014. When Tulsa is approved, the league will have nine former Conference USA schools.

For more, click here.

Q&A: Big East commissioner Mike Aresco

February, 14, 2013
Mike Aresco's five months on the job as Big East commissioner has been anything but routine. The former CBS Sports executive vice president of programming has seen Notre Dame, Rutgers, Louisville, Boise State and San Diego State make plans to leave his conference since he took the job. He has seen the "Catholic 7" basketball schools break off in an effort to form their own conference, while he has added Tulane and East Carolina, the latter currently set to enter as a football-only member. There is also the matter of negotiating a new television deal.

With moving days taking part across the blogs this week, we caught up with Aresco to talk about incoming 2013 members Central Florida, Houston, Memphis and SMU, as well as several other topics facing the Big East.

Obviously there's a lot out there right now about the TV deal. Where do you guys stand with that, and do you need a 12th school immediately to move forward with any further TV negotiations or deal?

Mike Aresco: I think we are getting closer. The TV doesn't really depend on whether we add another team or teams. I think our position has been that we're not interested in numbers just for numbers' sake. We don't need to be 14 or 16 teams or any of that. We just want to make sure we have the right teams and the right mix athletically, academically. And right now, as you know, we're at 10 with Navy going to join in '15. And Louisville/Rutgers -- if they leave after next year, we're not sure yet -- but if they leave after next year, we would replace them and have 10 and we would also have Navy coming in obviously a year later. At this point, we would definitely look at a 12th, because you'd want even divisions if you ultimately go to a championship game, which I think is our goal. We don't absolutely have to do that, but we think that that's what we would want to do. You can play unbalanced divisions, but it's not a great idea. It just isn't. So I think in that sense we would look at perhaps adding another team -- you know the usual suspects, you've heard those. And I don't know when we would make that decision. We've got some meetings coming up, we call it our group of 11 schools, and we could make a preliminary decision as to whether we want to expand, in probably the next several weeks, and then determine just what we want to do. And then if we did expand, [we'd choose] that team. But in terms of our football, I think everybody's fine playing as a 10-team league until we get Navy in. If we feel the need to expand, great.

[+] EnlargeMike Aresco
Bill Shettle/Cal Sport MediaAmerican Athletic Conference commissioner Mike Aresco said he's confident that the league will have an attractive future bowl lineup.
But you mention some of the teams, I think our conference is really built on some programs that have had success and that really have a lot of potential. We look at SMU, and June Jones has done well there, but I think their best years are still ahead of them. Houston a couple years ago, obviously a tremendous season with Kevin Sumlin. Again, they need to sustain that. Same thing, USF has had years when they've been highly ranked and had good seasons. And UCF, you've seen what UCF has done, very strong program with good facilities. I think what we're looking to do is with our group from the North, Cincinnati, [Tommy] Tuberville there now. UConn. Temple, Al Golden left a program that was definitely rebuilt, and they have to sustain that. And eventually Navy, East Carolina with a great fan base. It's a good group of schools that frankly need to probably develop a storyline, now that we're going to be together. The schools haven't played together before. But I think they're all spending money, they're all trying to improve. Many of them are in big markets. I didn't mention Memphis -- they're spending a lot on their programs, and I didn't mention Tulane, they'll stay until 2014. Houston, building a new stadium.

So I think it's a story of growth. That's what we're looking for, we're trying to grow. We think we can compete. Our goal is to be competing with the five conferences that are perceived as the five power conferences. As you know, we were one of the six, we're still one of the six BCS conferences, but we know that we have to fight and try to be, again, a challenger, to challenge those other five. And that's why I think TV and exposure and marketing and promotion are really important. I think we've got some good brands, some good schools, but there's a lot of untapped potential there.

You mentioned Rutgers and Louisville in passing there. Do you plan ahead as if next year will be their last year in this conference? Where do you guys stand with them as it relates to that?

MA: Don't know yet, Matt, we're still negotiating with them. I think they would probably want to leave after '14, and if a reasonable settlement can be negotiated, we'll certainly look at that. We just haven't made any decision yet. They're definitely in for this year, and then the question is whether they would stay through '14.

Similar with Notre Dame. I know they announced last week that they were going to be in there for at least one more year. Would you envision that being their last year there?

MA: Again, all three of those schools have a commitment through the summer of '15 and then the question comes whether they would stay that extra year. That's going to depend on what kind of agreement we negotiate with them. We certainly have shown a willingness to engage in those kinds of negotiations.

With all the moving parts, do you plan or foresee a nine-game conference schedule in the future?

MA: We don't right now. It's something we could look at, but right now we plan to do an eight-game conference schedule. As you know, a lot of conferences are adopting nine games. Again, we'll either be at ... 11 or 12 [in 2015], '14 we'll either be 10 or 11. I think our membership has expressed preference for eight games. Eight conference games allows them to play more nonconference games. But that's something we can revisit certainly.

As you guys move forward, as the landscape itself moves forward, what are your plans as it relates to bowl tie-ins? What do you guys hope to accomplish in those negotiations?

MA: We'd like to certainly keep the tie-ins we have; we have some good ones. It's a fluid situation. We also could look at some others that make some sense. Again, the conference now will have schools from Texas, from Carolina, very attractive. I think our goal will be to make sure we're in a variety of bowls in a variety of locations so we have nice experiences for our fans and teams. We're definitely talking. We know that that next round is coming up soon. There's going to be some change, we realize that. Could we have some slightly different bowl configurations? We could. But we really like the bowls we're involved in, whether it's the Russell Athletic, or it's the Belk, or it's the Pinstripe, the Liberty, the BBVA Compass. Go down the list, we've got good bowls. But we're going to look at others, too. And we're a bigger conference, Matt, than we were. We'll be at 10 this year, then we'll be potentially at some point 11 and maybe 12. That could give us a chance to develop more tie-ins.

I've seen you touch on this earlier in other interviews. East Carolina, is that a school you want to become a full member eventually?

MA: That's something we haven't decided yet. We're going to take a hard look at that very soon. I think that would certainly be their preference. We haven't made any decisions yet, but we would certainly give that a lot of consideration.

What about the name? I know there's been so much debate about who gets it, who's negotiating with what, what the real Big East is and so forth. How does that play out in your mind in terms of the Big East name? Is that something you really want to fight hard to keep? Do you think maybe a fresher approach would be best for the conference? What's your take on that?

MA: Yeah, people have speculated either way on that. I think our feeling is we would fight hard for it because we think that you can do a fresh approach and keep the name. We would talk about the new Big East or the reinvented Big East, because it isn't the same Big East it was a few months ago. We can't pretend it is. We've had 12 teams leave in the interim for various reasons, and no one's fault, but the point is we know we're a different conference even though we are the Big East. The Big East has tremendous brand equity built up over a lot of years, in basketball and in football. And so consequently our preference would be to keep the name and just rebuild our league and rebuild the brand. I don't think it needs much rebuilding, but clearly when you've had some of the publicity we've had, you need to deal with that and we will. So we think going forward with that brand, with that brand equity is more advantageous than not.

To go off that a little bit, what is it about this conference that you think makes it an elite conference moving forward? What are some of the characteristics that are going to make you a real player in the years to come?

MA: I think we have a real chance to be a player. I think that we have schools that historically have had success, that are in good markets, that have good brands, that have not played together and, as I said, have not developed a storyline yet. But if you look around and you look at the individual programs, they have good potential, they'll play good opponents and I think that they will hold their own. I think you've got schools in talent-rich states. You've got schools with good fan support. You've got schools, again, as I said, in big markets. And take it one by one. Again, Cincinnati with Tommy Tuberville, and they've had a history of hiring excellent coaches. One of the goals of our conference is to hold on to our coaches as long as we can. And you know that head coaches come in, do a great job and move on. We'd like to hold on to them, but if we don't, we'd like to get the next great coach to come along. We had Brian Kelly in this conference. We had Brady Hoke at San Diego State, which didn't end up joining the Big East. You had a lot of terrific coaches around. Kevin Sumlin, look what he's done. And we need to retain them.

But Cincinnati and Tuberville. Connecticut's done a great job over a 10-year period of building a program. Then you've got Navy, everybody loves Navy; they play good football. Temple, again, has just real potential in Philadelphia, has to realize it and it will. East Carolina, solid football program, will gain a lot more attention and exposure in the Big East than it did where they were. And UCF, you've seen what they've done. You've seen what USF has done over the years. USF a little disappointing recently but thinking they've got the coach that is going to take them to the next level. Memphis is spending a lot of money and resources on the program. They have real potential as well. Tulane, new stadium, rich recruiting area. They've had success historically in football. Katrina set them back but they're spending money, they've got the will and determination to get better. And the same thing with Houston and SMU. And as those schools get better they'll garner a lot of attention. Look at SMU, you saw what they did in the bowl game. And you saw what June Jones has done the last few years. So I think there's real potential. There's also a history of achievement. Not necessarily sustained achievement; they haven't had consistently great seasons sometimes -- that doesn't mean that we can't do that.

And one other thing, Matt, I would say: The Big East brand and the Big East conference has always elevated anyone who joined, and I think that's still going to be true. If you look at the history of Louisville coming into the conference, [they] didn't have programs like they have now. Tom Jurich has always credited the Big East with part of their success. Same thing with Frank Beamer and Virginia Tech. He'll always maintain that if it weren't for their time in the Big East, they never could've built their program and their brand. So I think we've always been a scrappy conference. We've had to reinvent ourselves a few times, we've done it successfully, we'll do it again. We also view ourselves as a challenger brand, meaning we're going to challenge. Perception is important. We need to show people that we've got a strong group of schools that are going to compete at a high level, and the goal obviously is to make sure we have the resources. And we'll look at TV. We'll do well enough on the TV in terms of finances, you've read about some of that. And we have resources in our conference, we're part of the BCS for one more year. Going forward we're still part of, I don't know what the whole system's going to be called, but we'll have significant revenue from that. And we'll have other sources of revenue in our conference. So financially we're in good shape. And we think our schools will have the resources to do what they need to do to compete.

The offensive explosion most expected didn't disappoint, as Louisiana-Lafayette and East Carolina lit up the scoreboard in the R&L Carriers New Orleans Bowl. The Ragin' Cajuns and Pirates combined for 45 points in the second quarter and spent much of the game in plus territory. East Carolina erased a 21-point first-half deficit, but couldn't convert enough drives into touchdowns as Louisiana-Lafayette celebrated a New Orleans Bowl championship for the second consecutive year.

Let's take a quick look at what happened in the Big Easy ...

It was over when: A fourth-down rollout pass from East Carolina quarterback Shane Carden to wide receiver Andrew Bodenheimer was broken up by Louisiana-Lafayette cornerback Melvin White near the sideline with 2:32 left. Ragin' Cajuns star kicker Brett Baer, who had booted the game-wining field goal in last year's New Orleans Bowl, secured another by converting a 39-yard field goal try with 10 seconds left. After beginning the game with three consecutive three-and-outs, East Carolina had moved the ball well throughout the second half until the decisive drive.

Game ball goes to: Louisiana-Lafayette quarterback Terrance Broadway. The sophomore was the most dynamic player on the field at the dome despite playing through an apparent right shoulder injury. He completed 21 of 31 passes for 316 yards with a touchdown and an interception, and he added 108 rushing yards and a touchdown on 15 carries. Broadway set the team's single-season total offense record on a third-quarter run, and finished with 416 yards on the day. Cajuns sophomore running back Alonzo Harris also deserves a shoutout after going for 117 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 21 carries.

Stat of the game: Both teams entered the game ranked in the top five nationally in red zone offense -- Louisiana-Lafayette tied for second (94 percent), East Carolina tied for fifth (92 percent) -- and they didn't disappoint. The Ragin' Cajuns and Pirates combined to go 10-for-10 on red zone scores, with eight touchdowns and two field goals.

Unsung hero: Louisiana-Lafayette cornerback Jemarious Moten. The first-team All-Sun Belt selection stepped up in his final collegiate game. After a Broadway interception off a deflection set up East Carolina in Cajuns territory early in the fourth quarter, Moten responded with an interception of Carden near the 10-yard line. He also had a third-down pass breakup midway through the fourth. Although he should have had more than one interception -- and a possible pick-six off a trick play -- he certainly was a factor for the Louisiana-Lafayette defense.

What it means: The Louisiana-Lafayette program has arrived under coach Mark Hudspeth, recording consecutive nine-win seasons and consecutive bowl victories. Before last year's New Orleans Bowl, the Cajuns hadn't played in the postseason since the 1970 season (in the Grantland Rice Bowl). Broadway emerged as a star this fall and should give Louisiana-Lafayette an excellent chance to compete for a Sun Belt title in 2013. East Carolina also has a promising young quarterback in Carden, but the Pirates need to rediscover their postseason mojo after dropping their fourth straight bowl game.
East Carolina (8-4, 7-1 Conference USA) vs. Louisiana-Lafayette (8-4, 6-2 Sun Belt)

WHO TO WATCH: Quarterbacks Terrance Broadway (Louisiana-Lafayette) and Shane Carden (East Carolina). Broadway stepped in for the injured Blaine Gautier in early October and delivered five performances of 250 passing yards or more in Sun Belt play. He can be very accurate, and also boasts good mobility, having eclipsed 100 rushing yards in two of the team's final three regular-season contests. Broadway ranks 22nd nationally in pass efficiency (153.5) and 42nd in total offense (266 ypg). Carden also stepped into the starting job during the season and led his team to the postseason after passing for 2,838 yards and 21 touchdowns, and adding eight rushing touchdowns. He ranks 33rd nationally in pass efficiency (144.9).

WHAT TO WATCH: The passing offenses. Both teams can chuck it around a bit, and neither squad does much to stop the pass. East Carolina checks in at 105th nationally in pass defense (271.7 ypg), while Louisiana-Lafayette is even worse at 111th (283.9 ypg). The Pirates have an elite receiver in sophomore Justin Hardy, who ranks 18th nationally in receptions (6.92 rpg) and 28th in receiving yards (87.2 ypg). Hardy comes off a 16-catch, 171-yard performance in a shootout victory against Marshall. ULL counters with Harry Peoples, who caught 10 passes in a very competitive game against Florida, and had three games of more than 140 receiving yards.

WHY TO WATCH: If today's matchup is anything like the 2011 New Orleans Bowl, which Louisiana-Lafayette won 32-30 on a last-second field goal, everyone's in for a treat. The Ragin' Cajuns are playing in consecutive bowl games after appearing in none before 2011. They gave Florida all it could handle at The Swamp on Nov. 10 and finished the season with three straight wins. East Carolina, meanwhile, has dropped three straight bowl games since beating Boise State in the 2007 Hawaii Bowl. Both teams can put up points and both have somewhat shaky defenses, so this one could turn into an entertaining shootout. It'll be interesting to see how Carden, dynamic running back Vintavious Cooper and the Pirates handle what will feel like a road game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

PREDICTION: Louisiana-Lafayette 38, East Carolina 34. Louisiana-Lafayette had the more impressive season and will be playing in front of a partisan crowd at the dome. Broadway improved with experience as the season went along and should take another step with the added bowl prep time. Carden and Cooper will help East Carolina's offense keep pace for most of the way, but the Pirates have struggled against decent to good competition all season, and today's game is no exception. East Carolina takes the early lead, but Broadway rallies ULL with his arm in the fourth quarter for the win.