NCF Nation: George Baker

Big East predictions: Week 1

August, 30, 2012
8/30/12
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The time you all have been waiting for has finally arrived. Prediction time! Otherwise known as the day Andrea shows how smart/stupid she is with her picks.

If there is one thing I learned last season in my first year making Big East predictions, it was to expect the unexpected. That lesson did not sink in until late in the season, but hopefully I have figured it all out and will have a 100 percent prediction mark this time.

Tonight

UMass at UConn, 7:30 p.m. Big East Network. The history between these schools goes back to 1897, though it is their first meeting as FBS schools. The Huskies go into the game with what should be a pretty strong defense, though this will be a good opportunity to work on getting some depth and game experience for some young players on the line. This also is the first big test for quarterback Chandler Whitmer, making his first start. UMass has a new coach in Charley Molnar, who used to be an assistant at Cincinnati and Notre Dame. He essentially has lost all of his starters at the skill positions. UConn 34, UMass 10.

Friday

Villanova at Temple, 7 p.m., ESPN3. The first two games in this series were close, but last season the Owls won in decisive fashion, 42-7. This season, Villanova goes into the game with every single starter returning on offense and defense except one, making this team far more experienced than the Owls, who only return eight starters. But the talent level is really no match. Temple has added Boston College transfer Montel Harris, and returns Chris Coyer at quarterback. Players like John Youboty and Levi Brown are ready to emerge on the defensive line. I do not expect this game to be close. Temple 38, Villanova 13.

Saturday

Northwestern at Syracuse, noon, ESPN2. The first of the biggest nonconference games in the Big East pits two teams that have been picked to finish near the bottom of their respective leagues. The Wildcats have had plenty of success under Pat Fitzgerald, but their win totals have decreased the past few seasons. Kain Colter will present challenges for a Syracuse defense that has had problems stopping dual-threat quarterbacks. But the Orange should be stronger at linebacker and in the secondary. Northwestern is green in the secondary, and Syracuse has a veteran quarterback who can take advantage. Mild upset! Syracuse 24, Northwestern 21.

Youngstown State at Pitt, 6 p.m., ESPN3. Will Ray Graham play or will he not play? That is the question. Truth be told, it will not matter much to the overall outcome if Graham stays on the bench. Pitt should have enough to be able to beat its FCS opponent without Graham. What observers mostly want to see is how the Panthers handle their new offensive and defensive schemes, and how Tino Sunseri looks throwing the ball. Pitt 40, Youngstown State 13.

Chattanooga at USF, 7 p.m., ESPN3. Are the Bulls for real this year? We may have to wait a week on that answer, considering the opponent to start. Last season, USF rolled right through its lesser nonconference competition without any foreboding about what was to come. But there are plenty of players to watch this week, from rotation at receiver and running back to George Baker at cornerback. USF 50, Chattanooga 10.

Rutgers at Tulane, 8 p.m., CBS Sports Network. The last time these two teams played, Tulane won, so I understand why Rutgers fans have asked me what to expect out of the Green Wave. They do have talent at some of their skill positions, with quarterback Ryan Griffin, running back Orleans Darkwa and their leading group of receivers back. But this is a team that only won two games last season and just went through a coaching change. Gary Nova takes the reins of the offense, but Rutgers' defense will dominate. Rutgers 35, Tulane 10.

Sunday

Kentucky at Louisville, 3:30 p.m., ESPN. This is the big one, folks! Louisville went into last season's game as the underdog, and now the Cardinals are double-digit favorites. You think Louisville is young with only eight seniors? Try out Kentucky, which has 24 sophomores, redshirt freshmen or true freshmen listed on its two-deep headed into the game. Running back Josh Clemons is out because of a knee injury, and the Wildcats will go with a new quarterback in Maxwell Smith. Louisville should be outstanding on defense once again, and get another leap from Teddy Bridgewater. Louisville 28, Kentucky 14.

Checking in with USF

April, 3, 2012
4/03/12
8:00
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I had a chance to visit USF all day Monday, checking in on the Bulls to see where they stand in their quest to move on from a disappointing 5-7 season a year ago. Everybody was really great, from coach Skip Holtz, to the players, to the coordinators, so stay tuned for plenty of videos and posts in the coming days. And special thanks to everyone at USF.

Here are a few quick notes:
  • Holtz says he will be ready to reveal his first depth chart after the first major scrimmage of the spring Friday. The scrimmage will feature eight- to 10-play scrimmages, and there will be a set number of plays for everybody, that way each player can be evaluated. Plays will be called to get the ball in specific players' hands. One big key for the offense -- there will be no designed runs called for B.J. Daniels. Offensive coordinator Todd Fitch said he wants to see his offense run without relying on Daniels. In each of the past three seasons, Daniels has had more than 100 carries.
  • Two players who have stood out on the defensive line this spring: junior college transfer Tevin Mims at end and Luke Sager at tackle. Mims initially signed with Texas before transferring to Navarro Junior College. Holtz praised him for his early progress this spring. Sager, meanwhile, has done a nice job in competition with Elkino Watson for the open tackle spot. It's not a foregone conclusion that Watson wins the starting job.
  • Sophomore Austin Reiter has done a nice job stepping in at center for Chaz Hine, and looks to be the front-runner to win the starting job. Fitch had high praise for Reiter, who played sparingly a season ago.
  • Fidel Montgomery, Josh Brown, Kenneth Durden and George Baker are competing for the open cornerback spot. Coaches are pleased with how far Montgomery and Brown have come in their short time on campus since transferring in from junior college. Working on building depth in the secondary is a major spring priority.
  • Linebacker play was a strong part of the Kansas State defense last year under defensive coordinator Chris Cosh, and he really is working with his group this spring to make sure there is much better communication between the front and the back end. He highlighted DeDe Lattimore in particular, as a player who is starting to play much better against the pass. Depth is an issue at this position.

Stay tuned for plenty more!
We round out the defensive team position rankings with the cornerbacks. There are some teams with plenty of experience. Others are in desperate need of improvement. Where do they stack up?

[+] EnlargeBlidi Wreh-Wilson
David Butler II/US PresswireUConn's Blidi Wreh-Wilson is one of the Big East's top returning cornerbacks.
1. Connecticut. Both starters return in Blidi Wreh-Wilson and Dwayne Gratz, and the Huskies should continue to make the improvements they made in the second half of the season. The two combined for six of the team's 20 interceptions. Wreh-Wilson should be a preseason All-Big East selection and is one of the best in the league.

2. West Virginia. Keith Tandy returns after making first-team All Big East last season, though the Mountaineers have to replace Brandon Hogan, a second-team selection. They do have an experienced player in Pat Miller set to take over, with Brodrick Jenkins and Brantwon Bowser providing depth as well.

3. USF. The Bulls have to make up for the loss of Mistral Raymond, but have plenty of experienced players back in Kayvon Webster, Ricardo Dixon, George Baker and returning starter Quenton Washington. West Virginia gets the nod ahead of USF because of Tandy.

4. Syracuse. Both starters are gone in Mike Holmes and Da'Mond Merkerson. Kevyn Scott and Keon Lyn are penciled in to start. Scott has experience, while Lyn has plenty of potential. The problem is depth. Walk-on Joe Nassib is listed as a backup. Early enrollee Jaston George needs to show big improvement in the fall.

5. Pittsburgh. Coach Todd Graham has talked up K'Waun Williams and fifth-year senior Buddy Jackson after both had good springs. Antwuan Reed missed spring with injury but should be fine for the season, giving the Panthers three players with the potential to have a good year. The problem is that Williams is inexperienced and Jackson has failed to live up to expectations. Reed was inconsistent last season, too.

6. Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights lose their best cover cornerback in Brandon Bing, and David Rowe moved to safety. Both starting jobs are up for grabs. On the post-spring depth chart, Logan Ryan and Marcus Cooper were battling for one spot and Brandon Jones and Mason Robinson for another. Robinson moved over from receiver. Jordan Thomas also is in the mix after moving from running back.

7. Cincinnati. The Bearcats were pretty dismal in the secondary last season. They return everybody, and Dominique Battle should be back from a knee injury that cost him most of the season. Still, they need to tackle better and become more aggressive to help this unit improve.

8. Louisville. The Cardinals have major problems at cornerback. They lose starters Johnny Patrick and Bobby Burns, and Darius Ashley is suspended indefinitely following his second DUI arrest. Jordan Paschal, Anthony Conner and Preston Pace are in the mix. Freshman receiver Charles Gaines was moved here in the spring to provide some relief. But this is a major area of concern.

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