NCF Nation: Gary Nova

Maryland and Rutgers officially made the leap on Tuesday. In less than two months, they'll be playing football as members of the Big Ten.

We've been talking about this moment since November 2012. Rarely, have the Terrapins and Scarlet Knights been mentioned as contenders in their new league. But change comes fast in college football.

It could happen here, too. On this historic day as the Big Ten goes from 12 to 14, here are six reasons to believe that Maryland and Rutgers, as a pair and individually, can experience success in the Big Ten:
  • The Big Ten just isn't that good. You've heard about this, right? The league last played for a national championship seven years ago and hasn't won a title since January 2003. It has performed poorly of late against the major-conference competition and went 2-5 in bowls last season, though Michigan State did win the Rose Bowl – the Big Ten's second triumph in Pasadena since New Year's Day 2000. How does any of this impact Maryland and Rutgers, expected by many to finish 6-7 in the Big Ten East Division? It means no conference foe is unbeatable. It means there's hope.
  • For a while, at least, they're going to get noticed. Rutgers has long operated in the shadow of pro sports in its region, while Maryland football played second fiddle amid the ACC basketball buzz. The Big Ten figures to change some of that. The Terps have already benefited in recruiting from the move. Rutgers needs to capitalize on the attention to make a dent in a deep pool of New Jersey prep talent. You want excitement? Check out Rutgers' Big Ten opener, Sept. 13, when Penn State visits for the first meeting in the series since 1995. Expect Maryland's first Big Ten home game, three weeks later against Ohio State, to equally move the needle.
  • The Terps are trending up. Coach Randy Edsall took Maryland from a two-win team in 2011 to six in 2012 and seven last year. The Terrapins remained an average program in the ACC, but Edsall and his staff have begun to stack the pieces in place, notably on offense, to make a move in the Big Ten. For quarterback C.J. Brown, the time is now to make a mark in the new league. Brown, from Cranberry Township, Pennsylvania, is a dual threat who knows the Big Ten style. He works well with coordinator Mike Locksley, an innovative offensive mind. Meanwhile, Maryland's incoming class, bolstered by the impending move, ranked 50th nationally, featuring home grown star Damian Prince at offensive tackle.
  • Deon Long and Stefon Diggs are healthy. Diggs, a junior, and the senior Long form perhaps the best receiving duo in the Big Ten. Both wideouts suffered leg fractures on Oct. 19 in the Terps' 34-10 loss at Wake Forest. Long broke the fibula and tibia in his right leg; Diggs broke the fibula in his right leg, triggering a stretch of four Maryland losses in five games before a regular season-ending win at North Carolina State. Long and Diggs returned for spring practice and appear on track to torment even the best of secondaries in the Big Ten this fall.
  • Gary Nova is back at the helm. This could go either way, depending on whom you ask at Rutgers. But we say it's good for the Scarlet Knights to go through a transformation such as this in with a steady hand at quarterback. Nova has started 28 games and ranks third in school history with 51 touchdown throws. He was benched in favor of Chas Dodd after winning five of 10 starts in 2013, but Nova has won consistently, dating to his unbeaten days as a starter at Don Bosco Prep. To help his cause, Rutgers returns five starters on the offensive line and its top four rushers.
  • There's new energy on the Rutgers defense and strength up the middle. Joe Rossi, the 35-year Rutgers defensive coordinator promoted this offseason from special teams coach, offers a new start for a unit that endured struggles last season. Its strength comes against the run, which figures to suit Rutgers better in the Big Ten than it did in the AAC. And through the core of its defense, tackle Darius Hamilton, middle linebacker Kevin Snyder -- who switched spots with linebacker Steve Longa -- and safety Lorenzo Waters form a backbone of veteran leadership.
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If Ron Burgundy coached college football -- the San Diego Border Terriers, perhaps? -- he would only need to learn two lines to survive spring practice.

1. "I like my team."

2. "I'm glad we don't have a game tomorrow."

[+] EnlargePat Fitzgerald
AP Photo/Jeff HaynesPat Fitzgerald's Wildcats had to deal with a lot off the field this spring.
College coaches have recited those phrases in spring ball for decades. The 14 men leading Big Ten programs are no exceptions. But the standard spring sentiments apply to the league more this year than most.

There are reasons to believe the Big Ten will be better this fall, but the work is far from over on most campuses. This isn't a league of finished products, and the coming months take on added importance before the 2014 season kicks off in late August.

"I don't think we're that far behind; it's just painfully obvious that we're not there," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "This next phase will be the most important phase of this team's life. It's always important, but with a lot of things we've gone though, we've got to come together."

Northwestern went through a lot in the spring, mostly away from the field, as the campaign for a player union gained national media attention, especially after players were declared employees of the school in March. The team held a historic vote Friday, after Fitzgerald had expressed his opposition to unionizing. Some players expressed concern that the vote could split the team.

It will be months before we know if the union plan goes through, but the Wildcats continue preparing for a pivotal season. They found their quarterback this spring in senior Trevor Siemian and an offensive identity based around the passing game. But questions along both lines remain.

The spring also produced quarterback answers at Iowa (Jake Rudock) and Minnesota (Mitch Leidner). Michigan's Devin Gardner had a rough spring game but still seems likely to retain his job. Another senior signal-caller, Rutgers' Gary Nova, is a good bet to remain atop the depth chart. Although Nebraska's Tommy Armstrong lacks Nova's or Gardner's experience, he exited spring just as he entered it: as the Huskers' top quarterback.

Indiana's platoon system of Nate Sudfeld and Tre Roberson frustrates some, but not coach Kevin Wilson, who has given every indication that he'll continue to use both for another season.

Other quarterback races have been reduced but not resolved. Illinois will pick between Wes Lunt, the Oklahoma State transfer who impressed for much of the spring, and veteran backup Reilly O'Toole. Coach Tim Beckman wants a resolution before two-a-day practices in August.

Purdue's Danny Etling, who started the final seven games of his freshman season, appeared to have a slight lead coming out of the spring, but coach Darrell Hazell isn't ready to declare a starter. So Austin Appleby and David Blough remain alive.

Wisconsin reduced its candidate pool from four to two as Joel Stave, who boasts 19 career starts but also a nagging throwing shoulder injury, will compete with dual-threat Tanner McEvoy in camp.

"It will be a fight," coach Gary Andersen said.

Quarterback is just one spot where Wisconsin has questions. The Badgers went through much of the spring with only four healthy wide receivers. They've also revamped their defensive front seven, which returns only one starter from 2013.

[+] EnlargeRaekwon McMillan
Miller Safrit/ESPNEarly enrollee Raekwon McMillan could make an immediate impact for Ohio State's defense this fall.
Ohio State didn't have star quarterback Braxton Miller for spring ball because of shoulder surgery, but the Buckeyes focused on bolstering a defense that struggled last fall. Freshman Raekwon McMillan, an early enrollee, is pushing for the starting middle linebacker spot, and competition will continue at the cornerback spot opposite Doran Grant. Chris Ash, the Buckeyes' new co-defensive coordinator, worked to simplify the scheme this spring.

"We only have about six defensive calls," safety Tyvis Powell said after the spring game. "We had too many last year."

Offensive line remains Michigan's focal point coming out of the spring. A sloppy spring game didn't ease fears about the Wolverines' front five, although coach Brady Hoke saw positive signs in earlier practices. A critical summer awaits new coordinator Doug Nussmeier, tasked with resurrecting Michigan's run game.

At Penn State, new coach James Franklin continues to energize both players and fans. But he's also realistic about the depth challenge his team faces, particularly along the offensive line.

"When you don't have a two-deep of scholarship players, you've got issues that you're going to have to overcome," Franklin said. "We don't."

Like Rutgers, Maryland began its Big Ten transition this spring and welcomed running back Wes Brown and wideout Marcus Leak after absences from the team. If the Terrapins finally stay healthy, they could be worth watching in a loaded East Division.

Sitting atop the division is defending Big Ten champ Michigan State. The Spartans had a relatively stress-free spring, but they must fill key spots on defense, especially at linebacker and cornerback, where players like Taiwan Jones and Darian Hicks step in.

The returning pieces for teams like Michigan State, Ohio State, Iowa, Nebraska and Wisconsin fuel optimism around the league. But in spring, optimism is always tempered by what lies ahead.

"We're improving," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said Saturday, "but we're hardly ready to play."

They won't have to for 132 days.

Until then, stay classy, Big Ten fans.
Here's a team-by-team look at what to watch in the new Big Ten East this spring.

Indiana

Spring start: March 8

Spring game: TBA

What to watch
  • Getting defensive: The Hoosiers have had no trouble scoring since Kevin Wilson took over the program, but opponents have made it look even easier. New defensive coordinator Brian Knorr might have his hands full turning around the Big Ten’s worst unit, but Indiana could be dangerous if he can.
  • Quarterback derby: The offense operated just fine with Tre Roberson and Nate Sudfeld taking turns leading the attack, so Wilson might not even need to settle on just one quarterback. Typically it does help to have a pecking order behind center, though, and the Hoosiers will be watching these guys closely to see if one can gain some separation.
  • Next in line: There is a ready-made candidate to take over as the team’s most productive receiver, but Shane Wynn is going to need some help. For all his speed and elusiveness, Wynn is still undersized and doesn’t fit the mold of a traditional receiver, which will make it necessary for somebody like Nick Stoner to step up to help replace Cody Latimer.
Maryland

Spring start: March 1

Spring game: April 11

What to watch
  • Get healthy: The Terrapins have one of the most talented groups of wide receivers in the country when they’re completely healthy, but that was an issue last season with both Stefon Diggs and Deon Long suffering broken legs -- just for starters. Neither of those game-breakers is expected to be on the field this spring, but their respective rehabs are critical moving forward.
  • Give and take: An emphasis on protecting the football on offense and creating more turnovers defensively is nothing new in spring practice, but Randy Edsall might just double down on that message this year. The Terrapins finished last in the ACC in turnover margin last season and were ranked No. 102 in the nation with seven more giveaways than takeaways, which isn’t a recipe for success in any league.
  • Coaching chemistry: The deck wasn’t completely reshuffled, but the Terrapins will have three new assistants in charge and could use a seamless transition as they prepare to move to a new league. Keenan McCardell (wide receivers), Chad Wilt (defensive line) and Greg Studrawa (offensive line) will help deliver Edsall’s message moving forward, and it’s as crucial for a coaching staff to jell and find common ground as it is for players on the field.
Michigan

Spring start: Feb. 25

Spring game: April 5

What to watch
  • Go pro: If it was the coordinator keeping Brady Hoke from putting the offense he wanted on the field, that won’t be an issue anymore with Al Borges out of the picture. Snapping up Doug Nussmeier from Alabama should put the Wolverines on the path for a more traditional pro-style attack, and establishing that playbook starts on the practice field in spring.
  • Quarterback quandary: The competition to lead the new-look offense is open between Devin Gardner and Shane Morris, and how that battle shakes out will obviously have a lasting impact and shape the season for the Wolverines. Gardner has the edge in experience and turned in a gritty, wildly productive outing against Ohio State while injured to end the season, but he certainly has lacked consistency. Morris filled in during the postseason with mixed results, but one of those guys will need to emerge.
  • On the line: The Wolverines were in the middle of the pack in the Big Ten in sacks, and only Purdue was worse in the league at protecting the quarterback. Both sides of the line have plenty of room to develop, and those daily battles against each other this spring will need to sharpen both the pass-rushers and the blockers if Michigan is going to be able to win games up front.
Michigan State

Spring start: March 25

Spring game: April 26

What to watch
  • Something cooking: The finishing flourish in the Big Ten title game and the Rose Bowl showed how far Connor Cook had come from the start of the season to the end, but there’s still more room to grow. His numbers are slightly skewed thanks to the way Michigan State handled the job early in the season, but overall he averaged fewer than 200 yards per game passing. With such a great defense, that was enough -- but boosting that total would be better for the Spartans.
  • Reload defensively: The seemingly impenetrable defense might have been more than sum of its parts, but the individual pieces Michigan State had on hand weren’t too shabby, either. With Darqueze Dennard, Max Bullough and Denicos Allen all gone, the Spartans will need to identify some replacements for the stars of that elite unit from a year ago.
  • Plug some holes: Both starting offensive guards have to be replaced, and given the perhaps overlooked significance of the work the line did for the Spartans last season, that shouldn’t be dismissed as a meaningful item on the checklist. Cook has to be protected in the pocket, for starters, but with the way the Spartans traditionally pound the football on the ground, they’ll need some road-pavers to step up during spring practice to keep the offense on the upswing.
Ohio State

Spring start: March 4

Spring game: April 12

What to watch
  • Backs to the wall: There weren’t many deficiencies to be found on a team that again went through the regular season unbeaten, but Ohio State’s glaring weakness caught up with it late in the year. The Buckeyes looked helpless at times against the pass, and new co-defensive coordinator and secondary coach Chris Ash was brought in to make sure that unit is dramatically improved.
  • Hold the line: The Buckeyes held on to Braxton Miller for another year, but they lost four seniors who had protected the quarterback for the past couple of seasons. That might be a worthwhile trade, but finding replacements up front will be imperative for a team that has leaned heavily on that veteran presence in the trenches since Urban Meyer took over the program. Taylor Decker is the lone holdover in the starting lineup, and he’ll need to assert himself as the leader of the unit.
  • Air it out: Miller had some shaky performances throwing the ball down the stretch, but taking the passing game to a higher level is not solely his responsibility. The Buckeyes also need improved play and more reliable options at wide receiver, and they’ve recruited to address that issue over the past couple of years. Michael Thomas, who redshirted during his second year on campus, might be leading the charge for a new batch of playmakers on the perimeter.
Penn State

Spring start: March 17

Spring game: April 12

What to watch
  • Starting fresh: There are new playbooks to learn again for the Nittany Lions, and spring practice will be the first chance for James Franklin to start shaping his team in his image. That process doesn’t just include memorizing schemes and assignments for the players, since every coach has a different way of structuring practices and meetings. The sooner the Nittany Lions adjust the better off they’ll be in the fall.
  • Next step: As debut seasons go, it’s hard to find much fault in the work Christian Hackenberg did after being tossed into the fire as a true freshman. He threw for nearly 3,000 yards with 20 touchdowns, completing 59 percent and setting the bar pretty high for himself down the road. As part of his encore, Franklin would probably like to see the young quarterback cut down on his 10 interceptions as a sophomore.
  • Tighten up the defense: There were pass defenses with more holes than Penn State’s a year ago, but that will be little consolation for a program that has traditionally been so stout on that side of the ball. Adrian Amos and Jordan Lucas can get the job done at cornerback, but the Nittany Lions need to get stronger at safety -- and also need to fill notable spots in front of them with linebacker Glenn Carson and defensive tackle DaQuan Jones now gone.
Rutgers

Spring start: March 25

Spring game: April 26

What to watch
  • Toughen up: The Scarlet Knights have seen hard-hitting competition and proven they aren’t afraid of a challenge, but the Big East and American conferences don’t provide nearly the weekly physical test that playing in the Big Ten does. There’s no reason to think Kyle Flood won’t have his team ready for the transition and a new league, but developing both strong bodies and minds starts in spring practice.
  • Settle on a quarterback: There’s a veteran signal-caller on hand with 28 career starts to his credit, but Flood made it no secret as far back as January that he would hold an open competition during camp to lead the offense. Gary Nova has the edge in experience, but he also has more interceptions in his career than games started. That could open the door for one of three younger guys to step in, though Mike Bimonte, Blake Rankin and Chris Laviano have combined to take a grand total of zero snaps.
  • Star turn: There’s nothing wrong with spreading the wealth, and the Scarlet Knights certainly did that in the passing game last season. Having five targets with at least 28 receptions can keep a defense off-balance, which is a good thing. But ending the season with none of those guys topping 573 yards might not be quite as encouraging, and establishing a consistent, go-to, big-play threat in the spring could prove useful for a team that finished No. 62 in the nation in passing yardage.
The last two seasons have shown that two-quarterback systems can work in the Big Ten.

Northwestern recorded 10 wins in 2012 while rotating Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian. Indiana led the Big Ten and ranked ninth nationally in total offense last fall while alternating between Tre Roberson and Nate Sudfeld.

[+] EnlargeJoey Bosa, Connor Cook
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesAfter taking over the quarterback job in Week 5, Connor Cook led the Spartans to 10 consecutive wins.
Given the recent success, my next statement might surprise you: Every Big Ten team would be best served picking one quarterback and sticking with him in 2014. That includes Indiana and Northwestern.

Quarterback rotations can be successful in the short term, but they are rarely sustainable or desirable. We saw this at Northwestern last fall, as the Wildcats never established a consistent offensive rhythm and operated with a reduced playbook, in part because of injuries but also because the unit lacked a clear identity. Northwestern finished 10th in the league in scoring.

Minnesota alternated between quarterbacks Philip Nelson and Mitch Leidner during several games, including the Texas Bowl against Syracuse. Although the Gophers had a nice surge during Big Ten play and recorded eight wins, they also finished 11th in the league in scoring and last in passing.

Nebraska had some success using two quarterbacks (Tommy Armstrong Jr. and Ron Kellogg III) last season but did so out of necessity following Taylor Martinez's injury. The Huskers also struggled to pass the ball, finishing 11th in the league.

The strongest argument for picking a quarterback and sticking with him comes from the Big Ten's best team in 2013. Michigan State's offense was a train wreck in non-league play as the Spartans used three quarterbacks. After a Week 4 loss to Notre Dame, the coaches decided Connor Cook would be their guy. You all know what happened next, but what struck me was Cook's mindset at the time.

"We went through spring ball competition and fall camp competition, it was the most stressed out I've ever been in my entire life just trying to be the quarterback," Cook said last month before the Rose Bowl. "After I got the starting job and started a couple of games, the stress went away and it turned to focus, me being focused and knowing they're not going to use other quarterbacks in the game and not stress too much that go if I make a bad play I'm going to be pulled.

"That's when the stress went out the window."

Players like Northwestern's Siemian and Indiana's Roberson and Sudfeld are more accustomed to sharing time than Cook was, but each of them, like any quarterback, would rather be the clear-cut starter.

Illinois' Nathan Scheelhaase is another good example of a player who benefited from an unambiguous role. He struggled from the middle of the 2011 season through all of 2012, raising the possibility of a rotation last season. Instead, Scheelhaase started every game and led the Big Ten in passing (3,272 yards).

[+] EnlargeTommy Armstrong Jr.
Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY SportsAfter playing well in place of Taylor Martinez, sophomore signal-caller Tommy Armstrong Jr. is the favorite to start for the Cornhuskers in 2014.
I'm all for competition at quarterback, and the Big Ten will feature plenty of it this spring and summer. Only five quarterbacks -- Ohio State's Braxton Miller, Penn State's Christian Hackenberg, Michigan State's Cook, Iowa's Jake Rudock and Michigan's Devin Gardner -- can feel pretty secure about their starting roles. Gardner has been mentioned as a possible rotation candidate with Shane Morris -- some Michigan fans wouldn't mind seeing Gardner line up at wide receiver, a position of need -- but I'd be surprised if Morris leapfrogs the senior.

I'm also OK with teams employing change-up quarterbacks for a package of plays, be it the Wildcat or something else. Michigan State could be a candidate for this in 2014 with dynamic redshirt freshman Damion Terry possibly spelling Cook from time to time.

The first few games also provide a platform to use multiple quarterbacks in settings that can't be replicated on the practice field. Former Ohio State coach Jim Tressel often did this with his younger quarterbacks, giving them a first-half series or two. It makes sense. But by Week 4, roles must be identified.

The offseason is full of Big Ten quarterback questions:

  • Will Oklahoma State transfer Wes Lunt take the reins at Illinois?
  • How will Gardner and Hackenberg fare with new offensive coordinators?
  • After Nelson's transfer, who emerges at Minnesota among Leidner, Chris Streveler and possibly a young quarterback such as Dimonic McKinzy?
  • Nebraska's Armstrong went 6-1 as a freshman starter, but can he hold off Johnny Stanton?
  • Can Gary Nova retain his job at Rutgers?
  • Will Danny Etling keep the top job at Purdue, or will Austin Appleby and possibly early enrollee David Blough enter the mix?
  • How does Siemian bounce back at Northwestern, and do the Wildcats look at Matt Alviti and Zack Oliver?
  • Will either Roberson or Sudfeld finally separate himself at IU?

Ultimately, these questions must be answered. The teams that avoid prolonged rotations should be better off for it.

Rutgers season preview

August, 14, 2013
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Rutgers Scarlet Knights

Coach: Kyle Flood (9-4 career, 9-4 at Rutgers)

2012 record: 9-4

Key losses: RB Jawan Jamison, CB Logan Ryan, LB Khaseem Greene

Key returnees: QB Gary Nova, WR Brandon Coleman, OL Kaleb Johnson

Newcomer to watch: DL Darius Hamilton

Biggest games in 2013: Arkansas (Sept. 21), Louisville (Oct. 10)

[+] EnlargeFlood
Jim O'Connor/US PresswireCoach Kyle Flood's 2013 challenge at Rutgers: replacing a significant loss of talent from last season's squad.
Biggest question mark heading into 2013: Rutgers earned a share of the Big East title in Flood’s first year, but is looking to replace 11 players either drafted or signed by NFL teams at the end of the year. This season will be Flood’s first real test as a head coach. He leaned on the talent Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Greg Schiano recruited while he was at Rutgers, but with his first full recruiting season as a head coach under his belt, Flood will have to replace last season’s veteran team with players he’s brought in and developed.

Forecast: Offensively, Rutgers has an identity and experience with Nova, Coleman and an offensive line that returns two all-conference selections. The Scarlet Knights’ defense is a different story. Leading the Big East in scoring defense and holding nine opponents to 15 points or fewer last season, the defense returns just four starters, especially missing the presence of Greene (136 tackles) and Ryan (94 tackles and four interceptions). Linebacker Jamal Merrell and defensive end Jamil Merrell will be called on to lead the defense as they ranked third on the team in tackles and second on the team in sacks, respectively. Defensive lineman Isaac Holmes returns from a season-ending injury he suffered against Arkansas to provide even more experience up front.

Though Nova will be without last year’s 1,000-yard rusher Jawan Jamison, Flood expects him to improve on a season where he started every game, throwing 22 touchdown passes and 2,695 yards. Coleman, Nova’s top target, tied the Big East lead with 10 touchdown receptions last season.

“I think any time your quarterback starts an entire season and has an opportunity not to just go through the winter program or spring practice, or your summer program, but all of those things in a calendar year, he has a chance to come out of it a significantly higher-level player,” Flood said. “I think Gary has taken advantage of all those things. He's as anxious as we are to see him out on the field and see him perform.”

Picked to finish third in the American Athletic, the Scarlet Knights will host Arkansas, a team they upset on the road last season. But Rutgers will have to steal at least one of its conference road games against Louisville and Central Florida if it wants to finish near the top of the league again.
We'll soon have the American Athletic Conference media days. Here's some info to get you started:

When: July 29-30

Where: Newport, R.I.

Big names in attendance: QB Teddy Bridgewater, Louisville; QB Garrett Gilbert, SMU; WR Brandon Coleman, Rutgers; LB Greg Blair, Cincinnati; LB Yawin Smallwood, UConn; S Hakeem Smith, Louisville; QB Gary Nova, Rutgers.

Five storylines/things to watch:

1. Name tags might be mandatory. The American will have 10 football-playing schools this season: UCF, Cincinnati, Connecticut, Houston, Louisville, Memphis, Rutgers, SMU, USF and Temple. Louisville (leaving for the ACC) and Rutgers (Big Ten), two of six holdovers from the former Big East, depart the league after the season. East Carolina, Tulane and Tulsa jump to the American from Conference USA in 2014.

2. Can Louisville win the league and crash the BCS championship game in its last season in the league? After going 11-2 and trouncing Florida 33-23 in the Allstate Sugar Bowl last season, the Cardinals bring back 14 starters, including a Heisman Trophy nominee in Bridgewater. Can anybody in the league challenge the Cardinals this season?

3. Is that really Tommy Tuberville coaching at Cincinnati? The former Auburn coach never seemed like a good fit at Texas Tech, where he went 20-17 in three seasons. Former Cincinnati coach Butch Jones, now at Tennessee, guided the Bearcats to back-to-back 10-win seasons, so Tuberville inherits another pressure-packed situation.

4. Along with Tuberville, there will be two other new faces on the sideline: USF’s Willie Taggart (formerly of Western Kentucky), and Temple’s Matt Rhule (a former Owls assistant).

5. The American became a landing spot for plenty of high-profile transfers. Former Notre Dame defensive end Aaron Lynch is eligible after sitting out last season at USF, where he’ll be joined by former Penn State quarterback Steven Bench, who is eligible to play immediately. Former FSU linebacker Jeff Luc landed at Cincinnati, and Louisville added former Florida tight end Gerald Christian and receiver Robert Clark.

100-day checklist: Big East

May, 21, 2013
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We have officially reached the 100-day mark until the college football regular season kicks off. There is still plenty of business to tend to until then -- much of which is being discussed this week at the Big East's spring meetings in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. -- so here is a checklist of five things that the conference needs to accomplish between now and Aug. 29, when three league teams (UConn, Rutgers and UCF) will be among the 34 to start their 2013 campaigns before everyone else.

1. Release a new logo: The league will officially become known as the American Athletic Conference at the conclusion of the 2012-13 college sports season. A new logo is on the way, but is not expected to be revealed during this week's conference meetings, though we could see it in the next couple of weeks.

2. Get QB answers: Cincinnati, Houston, Memphis, USF and Temple all exited the spring with open competition under center, though some seem to have a lot more clarity (Cincinnati, Houston, Temple) than others (Memphis, USF). For the other five teams, the summer is about continuing the growth of returning starters, all of whom took big steps this spring to build off their 2012 campaigns (particularly Rutgers' Gary Nova and UCF's Blake Bortles).

3. Find a true No. 2 to Louisville: No, the Cardinals have not already won the AAC in their final year in the conference before moving to the ACC. But the early Heisman Trophy and NFL draft hype surrounding quarterback Teddy Bridgewater -- coupled with preseason top-10 appearances in every major forecast, a favorable schedule and the overall brilliance of its athletic department this academic year -- has the hype at previously unforeseen levels on campus. Louisville still has 12 games to deal with once the first ball is kicked this fall, but it is the only team in the conference that, this far out, seems to have most of the answers it needs heading into the season. Who will make the biggest strides in the next 100 days to close that gap and emerge from the pack of relative unknowns in the league? This is, after all, the conference's last year with a guaranteed BCS bowl berth.

4. Make the rounds: Matt Rhule does not need to meet and greet all that many new people in the Philadelphia area since he was a longtime Temple assistant, but he is stepping into his first career head-coaching job. Willie Taggart has been a hit back in his home area of Tampa, Fla., but he is taking over a roster that has vastly underachieved the past two years, and he is entering recruiting battles with local rival and Big East newcomer UCF. Tommy Tuberville has had great success on the recruiting circuit so far at Cincinnati, but he has a big standard to live up to in following the footsteps of the school's past three head coaches. How will each new head coach in the conference further establish himself in the dog days of summer?

5. Houston must figure out several game locations: One of the more overlooked aspects of one of the conference newcomers this season is the Cougars' need to determine where they will play all of their home games. Four of them have been slated for Reliant Stadium, but the school's Oct. 12 game against Memphis and Nov. 23 tilt with Cincinnati still need locations. Rice Stadium and BBVA Compass Stadium are the options, according to the Houston Chronicle.

Q&A: Rutgers coach Kyle Flood

March, 28, 2013
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Rutgers was the last Big East team to open spring practice, kicking things off on Tuesday.

Kyle Flood is back in Piscataway, N.J., for his second season at the helm of the program, and his ninth overall with the school. We caught up with the head coach Wednesday, with one practice in the books and the Scarlet Knights looking to leave a lasting impression as they ready for their final season in the Big East.

What are you looking for Gary Nova to improve upon this spring? What do you want to see from the guys behind him?

Kyle Flood: I think Gary's got a unique advantage coming into this spring that we haven't had a quarterback have in a long time around here, in that he got a chance to play in 13 football games last year as a starting quarterback and essentially played in the entirety of every one of them. So I think there's an experience advantage that he has that hopefully we can capitalize on. I think the fastest ways we can capitalize on it is if we can keep the highs and make them consistent, and then take some of the low points and take some of the games where maybe he wasn't as pleased with his performance and move him up a little bit, so you don't see the big swings between the really positive games and the games he wasn't happy with. So I think that in and of itself, if we can get to that point -- and I don't know if that happens in just 15 practices in the spring; I think that's the combination of everything he's done since the bowl game, spring practice and then what's going to come afterwards -- but going into next season that's hopefully what we can do.

You guys obviously have a challenge without Brandon Coleman this spring. What are you looking for from the receiving corps during these practices, and is there anyone you're looking to see rise to the occasion?

KF: I think they're all fighting to find out what their role is going to be. Guys like Miles Shuler, who has got a tremendous skill set and really has come a long way in terms of being a receiver the last year. I'm excited to see what kind of spring Miles is going to have. A guy like Quron Pratt, who has been an excellent player here — statistically maybe that hasn't shown up, but he really has done a lot of things for us over the last two years. He can now have a much bigger role. When guys like Timmy Wright and Mark Harrison graduate, it provides opportunity, and with Brandon Coleman not there this spring it'll be even more opportunity for him to showcase himself. And then you've got some younger guys also, guys like Ruhann Peele and Carlton Agudosi, who are fighting right now to show the coaching staff how big of a role they should have next year.

There's no Coleman, and we know about Savon [Huggins]. Who are some of the other playmakers you are hoping to emerge from spring?

[+] EnlargeKyle Flood
Frank Victores/USA TODAY SportsCoach Kyle Flood said spring drills at Rutgers have been a bit choppy so far -- though that's normal as younger players see more time on the field.
KF: I have seen so much of Savon through his career right now in terms of practice and then in games -- I'm very confident Savon's going to do an excellent job for us at running back. I think everybody else right now at that position is doing exactly what those young receivers are doing; they're fighting to show us as players how big of a role they should have, and I think that competition is going to be exciting for everybody, including Savon. I didn't get a chance to get to it, but I would feel the same way really about the quarterbacks. I think all these quarterbacks right now, they're lined up behind Gary. And Chas [Dodd] is a little bit of a unique commodity in that he's won football games for us at Rutgers. Those guys create a very competitive environment. Every player in our program right now this spring could see opportunity, and that kind of competitiveness in the rooms, and the opportunity that spring provides, it really gives everybody a chance as we go through the spring.

You guys are breaking in two new coordinators this spring. Offensively with Ron Prince, do you expect this spring to be a little bit of a feeling-out period, or do you think things will go over relatively smoothly with him in charge of the offense?

KF: It'll go over smoothly from coach Prince's perspective and from mine. I think that the bumps in the road are going to be some of the young players who now are going to have a lot more on their plate than they've ever had, and that'll create -- even yesterday in our first practice, some of the young receivers and running backs not having been in the fire, so to speak, are out there and they're struggling to get lined up. They're not as quick as maybe you would like them to be or maybe the group of receivers would have been last year because they were used to doing it. Those are all going to be things that are part of the learning curve as we go forward. I think there are going to be some rougher patches this spring at every position, but generally when those things happen it's much more about the younger players being allowed and given more opportunities than anything else. When you get to the season you're really only repping your starters and your ones and one-and-a-halves, as we call them. So right now everybody's getting reps, and at times that can make it a little bit slower or a little bit more choppy than you'd like it to be, but it's a necessity because you've got to find out what they know.

Defensively, you lose an all-timer in Khaseem Greene and another really good linebacker in Steve Beauharnais. Are those players really replaceable, or do you look for a collective effort from the group?

KF: I don't think you replace players really at any position. Football is the ultimate team game, and to think that you're going to replace a Khaseem Greene or a Steve Beauharnais, that's really not the way we think about it. We've played defense at a high level here for a long time and we've done it with a lot of different pieces. And I think now what the staff is looking to see is who are the pieces going to be. And at linebacker we've got two guys in Jamal Merrell and Kevin Snyder, who, in my opinion, have already established themselves as players in our defense. We're trying to figure out who the third piece of that puzzle's going to be. Is that going to be a new Mike? Is that going to be a new Will? I'm not sure I can answer that question just yet. But I'm confident with what we have coming back that we'll be able to continue our tradition here of playing defense at a high level.

Three new starters in the secondary. Jeremy Deering is back there full-time. What do you see from him and that position group as a whole? What makes you feel more comfortable with him back there?

KF: As coaches I think we'd better always be trying to get our best athletes on the field. And if there is a guy on your team you think can be a starter on defense but he's on offense, and he has a significant role on offense but maybe it won't be showcased the way he could be on defense, I think it's our responsibility to see if that player would have an interest in it. And I approached Jeremy with that decision and he was really excited about it. And it was certainly something that we tinkered with a little bit last year trying to build some depth in our sub packages, and we weren't really able to really put it in as far as we wanted to, but now with having an offseason and needing a guy with the departures of Duron Harmon, Wayne Warren and some of the other defensive backs, it's really a position on our team that will have more new faces than any other. And we really thought that Jeremy Deering, even though he is going into his senior year, he's got the right skill set to do that. He's got the right frame of mind to do it and he has the desire to do it, and I think Jeremy's going to do very well back there for us.

Big-picture, the Big East has been going through a lot of changes. The conference welcomes in four new teams this fall. I was just curious from your standpoint if there's anything different that you have to prepare for when you're seeing fresh staffs and fresh players on your schedule this season?

KF: I think with the way the Big East was constituted in the past, we've seen a good variety of pro-style offenses, spread offenses. We have played the academies, so we've seen the option. We had West Virginia in the conference for a long time, so we played against the 3-3 defense. I don't know that there will be anything in this new collection of teams that will be significantly unique. Now I do know that each one will bring very specific challenges and they'll have strengths and weaknesses to their teams just like we do. But those will be things we'll address after spring practice. Right now we're trying to figure out what we are. We're trying to figure out who are going to be the playmakers on our team that are going to be out there. Who are going to be the people in the sub packages, and really what is our football team going to look like? And that's what I'm most concerned about, and I think that's what spring practice is for. We have the schedule, so we know who the first four games are going to be now. We'll get a little bit involved into doing some early game-planning for them, but we won't do that until after spring practice is over.
Memphis

Spring Start: Feb. 28

Spring game: April 6

What to watch:
  1. Quarterback: Jacob Karam returns as the starter after throwing for 1,895 yards, 14 touchdowns and three interceptions. But coach Justin Fuente says Karam will be pushed during the spring and has to win the starting job all over again.
  2. Bump up the physicality: Fuente has said repeatedly that he wants to see his team be more physical, especially now that it is joining the Big East. The spring is the perfect chance to improve in this area. "We will play some of the same teams we played last year, but they will be the bigger, more physical teams we played last year," he said. "We have to understand that we have a lot of ground to make up. That is not ground that is made up easily."
  3. Competition at defensive back: The Tigers lose two starters from their defensive backfield -- Cannon Smith and Robert Steeples -- and Fuente is excited about the competition at this position going into the spring.
Rutgers

Spring Start: March 26

Spring game: April 27

What to watch:
  1. Quarterback: Even though coach Kyle Flood says Gary Nova is his starter, you can bet there is going to be competition at this position going into the spring, especially with a new offensive coordinator in Ron Prince. That doesn't mean there will be changes, but certainly Prince is going to want to take a look at all the players he has available to evaluate what they can or cannot do.
  2. Defensive leaders: Rutgers lost its top defensive playmakers and needs to find guys who can step in for Scott Vallone, Khaseem Greene, Steve Beauharnais and Logan Ryan, to name four. Plus, there is a new coordinator in Dave Cohen, so there might be some adjustment period.
  3. Huggins stepping up: The time is now for the highly heralded local recruit to live up to the expectations that came with him when he arrived on campus. Jawan Jamison is gone off to the NFL, so all eyes have turned to Huggins to see if he has what it takes to be the next 1,000-yard rusher.
SMU

Spring Start: March 25

Spring game: April 20

What to watch:
  1. Replacing Zach Line: The Mustangs have to replace their top runner over the past several seasons in Line, who had three straight 1,000-yard seasons. Leading the charge this spring are junior college All-American Traylon Shead and reserve back Rishaad Wimbley, who switched from defense a few seasons ago.
  2. New defensive starters: The Mustangs lost the bulk of their playmakers on defense in Margus Hunt and linebackers Taylor Reed and Ja'Gared Davis. Finding guys to step up without them is a huge priority. Watch for Zach Wood at defensive end in place of Hunt; and Kevin Pope and Robert Seals at linebacker.
  3. More consistency at QB: June Jones' offense runs best when the quarterback is at his best. Garrett Gilbert returns as the starter, but he is going to need to find much more consistency this spring and into the fall. Two numbers that have to be improved: accuracy (53 percent in 2012) and touchdown-to-interception ratio (15-to-15 in 2012).
USF

Spring Start: March 20

Spring game: April 13

What to watch:
  1. New coaches, new style: Coach Willie Taggart has promised to ratchet up the intensity and transform his team into more of a smash-mouth group. That process begins in the spring, when he has his first opportunity to really show his players what he expects out of them. You can bet he expects a lot more physicality from his offensive and defensive lines to start.
  2. Quarterback competition: Who will emerge as the starter? Will we even know after the spring? Matt Floyd and Bobby Eveld, the top two candidates, have plenty of work to do as they fight to win the starting job. But this competition could very well go into the fall, when freshman Mike White arrives on campus.
  3. Defensive back improvement: This was the worst group the Bulls had a year ago and the one in most need of immediate improvement. USF registered two interceptions in 2012, tied with Auburn for the fewest among all 120 schools in the nation. And they both came in the same game -- against UConn on Nov. 3.
Temple

Spring Start: March 22

Spring game: April 20

What to watch:
  1. New staff: Matt Rhule certainly has a familiarity with Temple, having served as an assistant there under both Al Golden and Steve Addazio. But anytime a new coach comes in, there is change, so the spring gives him his first chance to really start implementing his style and what he wants to get accomplished.
  2. Quarterbacks: You can bet this competition is going to be open this spring, with Chris Coyer, Juice Granger and Kevin Newsome all returning. Coyer and Granger both started a year ago; Newsome transferred in from Penn State a few years ago. How this shakes out is one major story to watch.
  3. Running backs: Montel Harris and Matt Brown are gone, taking with them 1,426 yards rushing and 16 of the team's 21 rushing touchdowns. Jamie Gilmore got more carries as the season went on when Brown was hurt; Kenny Harper also is back and certainly will be relied upon even more.

Another new-look spring for Big East

February, 27, 2013
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For the second straight spring, Extreme Makeover: Big East edition has gripped the conference.

Four teams enter practice with an eye toward their first Big East season. Two teams enter spring practice wondering if 2013 is their final Big East season.

The mix makes for quite the dysfunctional pairing, and most likely the only configuration featuring remaining members Cincinnati, UConn, USF and Temple, incoming members UCF, Houston, Memphis and SMU and departing members Louisville and Rutgers playing under the same conference umbrella.

Got all that?

What must be most especially difficult for the league this spring is marketing and promoting what should be a preseason top-10 team -- Louisville -- knowing the Cardinals are not long for the Big East world. It was the same scenario that unfolded back in 2011, when West Virginia represented the Big East as its highest-rated Top 25 team and Orange Bowl participant, with a move to the Big 12 just months away.

[+] EnlargeTeddy Bridgewater
Cal Sport Media via AP ImagesThere are many question marks at QB in the Big East this spring. Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater is certainly not among them.
Given all the conference realignment, this is certainly not uncharted territory. But it certainly takes the luster off what should be downright euphoria over having one of the projected marquee teams in all the nation in 2013. Along with that conundrum is the idea that the Big East cannot begin to rebrand itself while it continues to have a hodgepodge of teams with one foot in the door and one foot out.

None of this is new, but it certainly is more than a little uncomfortable. Having said that, Louisville remains the biggest story to watch this spring and into the fall because of the opportunity the Cardinals have in front of them. Not only do they return nearly all of their key starters from the Sugar Bowl-winning team of a season ago, they return soon-to-be junior quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, already a preseason Heisman candidate.

Last spring, he was incredible, completing 70 percent of his passes in a near-flawless performance. That translated into a super sophomore season that not only has people talking Heisman now, it also has them talking about whether this is his final spring in a Cardinals uniform. Another solid spring showing from him, and Louisville should cement its standing as the preseason favorite to win the Big East, with an outside shot as a dark horse national title contender.

Louisville, however, is only one of a handful of Big East schools with quarterback certainty. UCF returns Blake Bortles, who had a 3,000-yard season in 2012 as the Knights went 10-4 in their final year in Conference USA. He is perhaps the next-best quarterback in the league, although that is probably up for debate, as Cincinnati returns Brendon Kay.

But Kay is going to face some competition this spring, with new coach Tommy Tuberville taking charge. He is not the only incumbent who is sure to be pushed. At Rutgers, coach Kyle Flood says Gary Nova remains the starter, but new offensive coordinator Ron Prince is certainly going to want to see what all his signal-callers have to offer. At Memphis, Jacob Karam must win his starting job again. At SMU, Garrett Gilbert needs to work on his consistency. So does UConn quarterback Chandler Whitmer, who is going to see some competition for his job as well.

At Houston, David Piland is in for a fight for his spot. USF and Temple need starters, too. The Bulls lose veteran B.J. Daniels and return Matt Floyd and Bobby Eveld. The Owls rotated between Chris Coyer and Clinton Granger last season, but Penn State transfer Kevin Newsome could figure into the mix as well with new coach Matt Rhule taking charge.

The quarterback position in the Big East represents the league as a whole: plenty of uncertainty this spring.

Big East mailbag

January, 25, 2013
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A little light on the letters this week. The mailbag is always open, so please stay in touch!

John in Trenton, N.J., writes: It would have been good on your part in your grading of Rutgers to point out there is a positive opportunity for the offense future in that a new OC will be hired to replace (Dave) Brock. Perhaps this will help Rutgers turn its fortunes around. But, that would have required a nice ending to your story. I am so glad we are going to the B1G.

Andrea Adelson: Sorry to be Debbie Downer, John, but the grades are based on the 2012 season. And it is really hard to find silver linings with a unit that ranked No. 104 in the nation in total offense. Last I checked, Dave Brock coached every game in 2012. His departure means a time to look ahead to 2013, not to alter grades based on what could happen in the future. But hey, I am sure Brian and Adam are full of roses and daisies in Big Ten land.




Aaron H. in RU LA LA LAND writes: David Brock getting the Delaware HC job ... He's to blame for Gary Nova's regression. He did an awful job calling the games late in the year. It all started with the Kent State game in which he made no adjustments when it was apparent to everyone watching that Kent State was just dropping back on playing middle zone. They need to hire someone who can exploit other teams' weaknesses and adjust during the game. Also put his players in the best situation to succeed.

Adelson: I think Rutgers needs a fresh start, as I pointed out in my video Thursday. Given the talent this team has brought in at running back, quarterback and receiver, it is simply inexcusable to have an offense ranked No. 97 or worse in the nation for four consecutive years. Mind-boggling, really. The Scarlet Knights need somebody aggressive, and creative who -- as you suggest -- can put his players in the best possible situations. Brock did not do that with Nova.




Michael Medlin in Orlando writes: Your article about the Harbaugh influence in the BE was good. Just wanted to add a little known fact. Jim was the best man at Coach (Willie) Taggart's wedding. People don't realize just how close those two really are.

Adelson: Great factoid, Michael. I loved the anecdote in the Yahoo! Sports story about how Jim Harbaugh convinced Taggart to come to Western Kentucky. Lots of connections to that Harbaugh family.




JD in Orlando writes: Andrea, It seems to me that the ultimate goal of these conferences is to continue expansion until you get to an 18 or 20 team super conference, where the need for divisional conference crossover games would go away and the championship game would never be a regular-season rematch. Do you see this as the ultimate goal of this conference expansion?

Adelson: The scenario more people talk about is the 16-team superconference. I think the idea of an 18-/20-team superconference is unwieldy, especially when you start talking about dividing up television dollars among 20 teams. I'm not sure conferences really would go this route just to avoid a rematch in a championship game.




Jamie in Texas writes: A lot of media seem to have forwarded the premise that the MWC has overtaken the Big East in terms of financial viability and prominence now that Boise State and SDSU have backed out, but nobody really seems to back it up with numbers or named sources. I suspect Mike Aresco wasn't crazy about the "western footprint" deal because it only involved football and would eventually be a conference weakness. Given competitive balance, financial backing, applicable TV markets, etc., which conference do you truly think will give its programs a more lucrative package?

Adelson: That is a great question. I am still going to say the Big East will be able to deliver a better financial package because it has better markets in Florida and Texas. But it obviously hurts to lose its prominent programs and the basketball members that did provide a boost in negotiations. I am not going to speculate on what potential numbers are because that would be fruitless. It will be interesting to see how both these play out to see which one ends up with the "better deal." Remember, the Mountain West still has football programs like New Mexico and Wyoming. All of the incoming schools into the Big East are either in or near major metropolitan areas.


Big East bowl superlatives

January, 10, 2013
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Time to take a last look back at the best and worst of bowl season.

Best quarterback not named Bridgewater: Brendon Kay, Cincinnati. No question that Teddy Bridgewater had the best day among Big East quarterbacks with his performance against Florida in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. But I am here to remind you about the terrific day Kay had in a 48-34 win against Duke in the Belk Bowl. Kay finished 17-of-25 for a career-high 332 yards and a career-best four touchdown passes. He also added 76 yards rushing, his second game in 2012 tallying 70 or more yards on the ground. Kay, the game's Most Valuable Player, tied a Cincinnati bowl record with his four touchdown passes.

Worst offense: Rutgers. We all know we were watching a pretty miserable offensive performance in a 13-10 overtime loss to Virginia Tech in the Russell Athletic Bowl. But just how bad was it? Well, Virginia Tech and Rutgers mustered 196 yards of total offense -- the worst performance of all 70 bowl teams. No other bowl team went below 200 yards of total offense. But, hey, Gary Nova -- still the Rutgers quarterback.

[+] EnlargePrince-Tyson Gulley
Rich Barnes/USA TODAY SportsSyracuse's Prince-Tyson Gulley ran wild against West Virginia in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl.
Best individual performance: Bridgewater did what we have grown accustomed to seeing. But best bowl performance of all goes to Syracuse running back Prince-Tyson Gulley, who was an absolute machine in a 38-14 win against West Virginia in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl. Gulley ran for a career-high and bowl-record 213 yards and three total touchdowns. Only two players had more rushing yards during bowl season. And Gulley, well, he obliterated his old single-game career high of 98 yards, set against Louisville in November.

Worst overall performance: Pitt. Rutgers' offense was abysmal in the bowl game, but the Scarlet Knights played well enough on defense to win. Pitt? Well, Pitt flat out did not show up in the BBVA Compass Bowl, and lost 38-17. Recurring theme of the season, right? With Ray Graham out, Pitt was severely limited with its options on offense, even though Rushel Shell was productive early. Tino Sunseri was ... Tino Sunseri, ending his streak of games without an interception. And the Panthers finished with 266 total yards, while allowing Ole Miss to run for 224.

Best game: Louisville 33, Florida 23. There is no getting around how big this win is, not just for Louisville but for the Big East. What is particularly interesting is I have heard more people give credit to Louisville than blame Florida for failing to show up. Props to coach Charlie Strong, who wanted this game so badly, you could just see him pounding home that message over and over and over again during bowl preparation. His players wanted to win more, plain and simple.

Best quote: "We hit a streak this year, we were 90 and no one gave us respect. And it's funny to watch, people get to the Big East, they say don't talk about the Big East, they don't play anybody. I hope they opened up their eyes, because on any given night, if you prepare well, if you focus in and if the preparation's there for your team, you can go beat anybody. That just shows it doesn't matter. There's so much parity in college football right now, who is to say who is the best team out there." -- Louisville coach Charlie Strong.
It's hard to believe, but the 2012 season is over. That was fast. So what did we learn during bowl season? Glad you asked.

1. Louisville gets national recognition. One of the best ways to earn respect in college football -- beat a top-5 team from the SEC. Louisville sent the college football world into a tizzy with its 33-23 win over Florida in the Allstate Sugar Bowl because, well, teams from the Big East are not supposed to beat teams from the SEC. Especially in BCS games. At least that is the old script. The new script? Teams from the Big East are, well, yeah OK, they are not too bad. Not when you have an All-American-caliber player in Teddy Bridgewater running the show. Bridgewater made a statement -- and got his Heisman campaign underway in the victory. Louisville vaulted eight spots in the AP poll to finish No. 13. Bigger things are in store.

[+] EnlargeLouisville's Teddy Bridgewater
Chuck Cook/USA TODAY SportsTeddy Bridgewater gets a thumbs up for a bowl performance that jump-started next season's Heisman campaign.
2. Another winning bowl record. I know Big East fans get tired of the naysayers, but all they have to do is point to the facts -- the Big East went 3-2 during bowl season, joining the ACC and SEC as the automatic qualifying conferences with a winning bowl record. That marks seven straight seasons for the Big East. For those who want to say the league is crumbling, the Big East would still have a winning bowl record without departing teams Rutgers, Pitt, Syracuse and Louisville. They went 2-2 in their bowl games. Incoming teams UCF, SMU and San Diego State (maybe?) went 2-1. That would still give the future Big East a 3-1 bowl record.

3. Syracuse has some major talent in the backfield. The Orange finished their final game in the Big East with an impressive 38-14 win over West Virginia in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl, and their backfield talent was on full display. Prince-Tyson Gulley ran for a career-high 213 yards in the second-best bowl performance by any running back, while 1,000-yard rusher Jerome Smith added 152 yards. And Syracuse did it without suspended running back Adonis Ameen-Moore. I know the Orange will lose a lot as they move on to the ACC, but their backfield is going to be in terrific hands.

4. Paging Rutgers' offense. The Scarlet Knights managed 196 yards of total offense against a down Virginia Tech team in a game that most will remember for the way coach Kyle Flood stuck with Gary Nova despite another off game. But as Flood explained earlier this week, "If I felt like the quarterback wasn’t playing well, but the rest of the offense was and I felt like a change could have a significant impact then you consider it. But in that game on offense, there were not a lot of things going right at any position. To expose somebody who hadn’t been in the game and to put him in that, I didn’t see what kind of positive outcome that could have." So if the offensive struggles are not only on Nova, this does not bode well for 2013, considering the offense returns more starters than the defense and Jawan Jamison is gone.

5. Cincinnati showed up. The talk going into the Belk Bowl was that Cincinnati would have a hard time focusing, what with coach Butch Jones gone, along with half the staff. Only five assistants stuck around to coach bowl practices, leaving the Bearcats at a serious disadvantage. It looked that way early against Duke, but I give the Bearcats helmet stickers for not letting a bad quarter and a half lead to an entire-game meltdown. The Bearcats showed their moxie in a 48-34 come-from-behind win over Duke, getting them to 10 wins for the fifth time in six seasons. Shorthanded no less. All Cincinnati does is keep on winning.
Rutgers coach Kyle Flood held a season-ending conference call Monday. Bet it comes as no surprise that the hottest topic of conversation centered around the quarterbacks.

Flood was asked once again whether there would be an open competition this spring, given the way Gary Nova performed in the second half of the season. At his Russell Athletic Bowl news conference, Flood adamantly stood behind Nova. Flood stood behind Nova again during the call, saying, "One of the things I’m most excited about this spring is to have somebody coming back for the first time in a long time at that position who’s going to get the reps that a starter gets."

"The thing that maybe got lost in the postgame press conference, but this is always the case and I think the players know this -- if there’s ever a situation where there’s a player who’s clearly the best player at the position, then they’ll start. There are no endowed positions at Rutgers," Flood said. "But Gary has a unique opportunity coming in as a starter and getting starters’ reps this spring. That’s something neither he nor Chas (D0dd) had last spring. The experience of having the season, the opportunity to get reps in the spring, I’m really excited to see where Gary’s game can go."

Nova seemed to regress as the season went on, but Flood never benched him in favor of Dodd. Flood was asked whether he had any concerns about Dodd transferring, considering the one-time starter threw one pass all season and seems likely to go into 2013 as the backup again.

"I spoke with Chas, and am I concerned about it? No, I’m not concerned about it," Flood said. "Do I understand those things happen at times? I do. It’s a part of Division I athletics and a position at quarterback where only one guy gets to play generally, those things tend to happen.

"I know Chas has done a tremendous job the entire year as the backup in terms of his preparation and his work ethic and his leadership. Players looking for other options, they don’t do that. You don’t see that kind of commitment to the program. I never once doubted Chas’ commitment to the program."

Virginia Tech wins defensive slog

December, 28, 2012
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ORLANDO, Fla. -- You knew it, I knew it, everybody knew it: The Russell Athletic Bowl would be a defensive struggle between two highly skilled groups at Rutgers and Virginia Tech.

But did anybody expect the slog that ensued?

Gary Nova and Logan Thomas did nothing to dispel the notion that they are quarterbacks who have yet to live up to their full potential. Virginia Tech finished with 3 total yards rushing. Rutgers averaged 1.7 yards per carry. Virginia Tech averaged 2.7 yards per play. Rutgers averaged 2.5 yards per play.

It was almost as if they were playing a game of "anything you can do, we can do worse!" Virginia Tech owned that game within the game in the first half. But in the fourth quarter, boy, that was all Rutgers. Virginia Tech overcame a 10-0 deficit to tie the game thanks to a host of Scarlet Knights errors, then Cody Journell made a 22-yard field goal in overtime to give the Hokies a 13-10 victory Friday night, preserving a 20th consecutive winning season.

[+] EnlargeBruce Taylor
AP Photo/Scott A. MillerLinebacker Bruce Taylor hoists the Russell Athletic Bowl trophy after a team-high 11 tackles in the lockdown of Rutgers.
"Nothing comes easy for us," Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer said. "It's work, but we got a bunch of guys that will hang on, and keep working at it. Rather than get down a couple times this year, we could have shut it down, and these guys never did. We always hung together and we kept playing. That's what this game is all about. That's what life is all about."

This game unfolded the way the seasons have unfolded for both teams. Neither has had much success on offense, though their issues have been different. Thomas has been way too turnover-prone, and we saw that on the second play of this game, as he couldn't handle a bad snap and fumbled in the end zone. Rutgers linebacker Khaseem Greene recovered for his team's only touchdown on the night.

Thomas sailed balls left and right. He threw two interceptions. At halftime, the Hokies had 73 total yards of offense, and Thomas was 10-of-21 for 84 yards. Rutgers was not much better on offense, and much of that falls on Nova, a quarterback who gets easily rattled when the pressure gets to him.

Viewers have seen it many times this year, and Virginia Tech saw that on film as it prepared for this game.

"We got after him all day," Virginia Tech linebacker Jack Tyler said. "Our defensive line played great, got great pressure and you can have Tom Brady back there as the quarterback, and if you get pressure on him, he’s going to be very average. And that was our game plan going in. He had a tendency down the stretch to turn the ball over a little bit and we knew if we got to him we could make that happen."

Rutgers led 10-0 into the fourth quarter, but that was through no effort from its offense. Virginia Tech played well defensively enough to hang around, well enough to drop three shoulda-been interceptions. So you almost felt as if it was a matter of time before somebody on the Hokies side came up with a game-changing interception.

Enter Antone Exum.

His interception early in the fourth quarter allowed Virginia Tech to score the only offensive touchdown of the game, as Thomas threw a 21-yard pass to Corey Fuller to tie the score at 10. We have seen a similar scenario play out all year -- struggling Virginia Tech offense gets bailed out by the defense.

We've seen it play out at Rutgers, too. But tonight, there was not much the Scarlet Knights defenders could do to help their woefully anemic teammates on offense. In the fourth quarter, Rutgers ran 19 plays for 12 yards. Twice on third and long, Rutgers ran the ball, too scared to allow Nova to perhaps win the game.

Two straight games now, Rutgers has blown late leads and Nova has thrown interceptions down the stretch to cost his team. Nova finished 17-of-40 for 129 yards and that crucial interception. But coach Kyle Flood was unwavering in his support of his embattled quarterback after the game, saying confidently that Nova is his starter headed into the spring.

There is not as much certainty at Virginia Tech, where Thomas is faced with a decision about whether to return or go to the NFL draft. His body of work this season and on Friday night indicates he would be foolish to leave. Perhaps he gets a high enough grade from the NFL draft advisory board because all his measurables scream, yes, you are an NFL quarterback!

If that was his final game at Virginia Tech, it was not his prettiest. Check that. It was not pretty for either offense, period. Or for football, period. The teams combined for a bowl-record 21 punts. Good defense, bad offense? Depends on your perspective.

"It was the prettiest game for our defense," Tyler said with a smile.

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