NCF Nation: Julian Miller

Big East position rankings: DL

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8. Syracuse. The Orange never really got much going along the front, and a big reason why is because they missed Chandler Jones so much while he was gone. The fact that he made the Big East first team in only seven games should prove how badly he was needed. Syracuse ranked No. 7 in the league in tackles for loss; No. 8 in sacks (28), and No. 6 in rushing defense. Those TFL and sack stats are pretty good nationally, but these guys are being judged against the rest of the Big East, and most games, they just fell short. Preseason rank: 6.

Big 12 spring football preview

February, 21, 2012
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Spring football is already under way at Texas Tech, but in the coming weeks, the Big 12's other nine programs will join the Red Raiders in taking the field as a team for the first time since January, December or November for some.

Here's a preview of what to expect:

BAYLOR BEARS

Spring practice start date: March 19
Spring game: April 14

What to watch:
  • Nick Florence: It's not official, but the Baylor quarterback job is Florence's to lose. That means he inherits the unenviable task of replacing the school's first Heisman winner. He replaced RG3 in 2009 with mixed results, but showed some major potential in a win over Texas Tech when RG3 took a shot to the head and sat out the second half. Can he keep the bowl streak alive at Baylor? We'll get an idea this spring.
  • The defense's progression: You didn't need to see much more than the 67-56 Alamo Bowl win over Washington to know the Bears needed some work on defense. In the month of November, Baylor became the first team in FBS history to win four consecutive games in a single season while also giving up at least 30 points in each of those games. The defense can't make Florence pick up the slack to that level. Year 2 under Phil Bennett must be better. Baylor has no excuses. The Bears have the athletes on campus necessary to be at least a decent defense.
  • The team's attitude/motivation: Baylor played with a lot of purpose the past two seasons, and made history in both, cracking a 16-year bowl drought and winning 10 games this year. Is that fire still there? Baylor has to prove it is without RG3 (and Kendall Wright) carrying the team on the field, emotionally and mentally.
IOWA STATE CYCLONES

Spring practice start date: March 20
Spring game: April 14

What to watch:
  • The quarterback battle: Or is it? Jared Barnett looked like the man of the future in Ames late in the season, leading the Cyclones to an historic upset of No. 2 Oklahoma State. But in the ugly Pinstripe Bowl loss to a mediocre Rutgers team, Barnett's inaccuracy posed big questions. He was benched and Steele Jantz stepped in, though he didn't play much better than Barnett. Turnovers were an issue for Jantz early on, but Barnett has to bounce back in the spring to make sure the job doesn't come open.
  • The receivers: Darius Reynolds was the big-play man for the Cyclones, but he's gone. It's going to be tough to replace him. Slot receivers Aaron Horne and Josh Lenz were productive, but did little to stretch defenses like Reynolds did. Can ISU find someone to fill the void?
  • The new man at left tackle: Iowa State had the luxury of having a future pro, Kelechi Osemele, at left tackle for the past three seasons. He earned All-Big 12 nods in each of those seasons, but he's gone now. Junior Carter Bykowski was behind Osemele on the depth chart, but will the converted tight end be the new man at tackle for the Cyclones?
KANSAS JAYHAWKS

Spring practice start date: March 27
Spring game: April 28

What to watch:
  • Uh, everything?: I mean, what's not to watch at KU? Charlie Weis steps in for the fired Turner Gill and tries to build KU up from nothing. The Jayhawks were one of the worst teams in Big 12 history last season, losing six games by at least 30 points. Weis will speak his mind and watching him rebuilding the Jayhawks is going to be fun. It all starts next month -- on the field, at least.
  • KU's new pass-catch combo: Dayne Crist is on campus, and so is Oklahoma transfer Justin McCay, a former blue-chip recruit who didn't quite catch on in Norman. Quarterback and receiver were arguably the two biggest positions of need for KU last year, and we'll get a preview of what could be a productive combo next season. McCay isn't officially eligible for the 2012 season yet -- he needs the NCAA to waive its mandated redshirt year after a transfer -- but the coaching staff is confident he'll have it granted.
  • The uncertainty on the depth chart: When a new staff comes in, you never know what to expect. Kansas' leading rusher in its final season under Mark Mangino, Toben Opurum, is now one of its best defensive linemen. Look for Weis to shake things up, too. Where? Who knows?
KANSAS STATE WILDCATS

Spring practice start date: April 4
Spring game: April 28

What to watch:
  • Collin Klein's maturation: Kansas State's quarterback could be fun to watch this spring and next fall. His throwing motion isn't pretty, but his accuracy improved in a big way throughout the season. If that continues at a pace anything close to what we saw last year, K-State's going to be a load for everyone. Look out.
  • Developing depth at running back: John Hubert is back, and so is seldom-used Angelo Pease. Bryce Brown is gone, though. Klein handles a lot of the heavy lifting in the running game, but it'd be some nice insurance if K-State could establish some more depth in the backfield. Making Klein carry the ball 300 times again is tempting fate.
  • Stars becoming superstars: Kansas State brings back more starters than all but seven teams in college football, so this team is going to look remarkably similar in 2012 to the way it did last year. However, it should get better. And its two transfers could look dominant this spring. Cornerback Nigel Malone and linebacker Arthur Brown emerged as stars last year, but we could see the duo emerge as true game-changers this spring. Look out, Big 12 offenses.
OKLAHOMA SOONERS

Spring practice start date: March 8
Spring game: April 14

What to watch:
  • New faces on, off the field: Mike Stoops' arrival as the defensive coordinator was the biggest news this offseason in the Big 12, and Brent Venables, who had been at OU for all of Bob Stoops' tenure, left for Clemson rather than become co-defensive coordinator. Hopes are high that Stoops can revitalize Oklahoma's defense. He was in charge when the Sooners rode a dominant D to the 2000 national title, and the Sooners have the talent to win it all in 2012. Receiver Trey Metoyer joins the team this spring, and could be a major contributor immediately. Two of the team's four new tight ends are also enrolled early.
  • QB Blake Bell's role: The Belldozer is back … but so is full-time quarterback Landry Jones. How will the balance between the duo look this spring? And what new wrinkles will we see in Oklahoma's simple, yet near-unstoppable short-yardage formation that scored 13 touchdowns in the second half of 2011?
  • The battle at defensive end: Oklahoma must fill two huge holes at defensive end. Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year Frank Alexander is gone, as is possible first-round pick Ronnell Lewis. R.J. Washington contributed late and has potential, but David King filled in for Lewis in the final three games of the season. The duo could be great, but it could also be pretty pedestrian. We'll get an idea this spring, but Lewis and Alexander set a high, high bar.
OKLAHOMA STATE COWBOYS

Spring practice start date: March 12
Spring game: April 21

What to watch:
  • The quarterback battle: This will easily be the highest-profile, highest-quality quarterback battle in the Big 12. It won't be at the level of Texas Tech in 2010, but it won't be too far off. Clint Chelf, J.W. Walsh and Wes Lunt will go head to head. All have plenty of potential, though Lunt may have the most. The big-armed true freshman also has the least experience. Anything could happen here.
  • Which receivers rise: Justin Blackmon and Josh Cooper leave huge holes behind. It's not every day a two-time Biletnikoff Award winner walks on campus. Hubert Anyiam is gone, too. Michael Harrison is unlikely to play for the 2012 season, but the school has offered no confirmation on his status. He had the most potential, but OSU is deep at the position. Who emerges as the top target? Isaiah Anderson? Tracy Moore? Josh Stewart? Anything could happen there, too.
  • Defense needs a leader: Safety Markelle Martin has been the heart of the defense the past two seasons, but his big-hitting days are over. Who becomes the new voice of the defense? It needs to find leadership this spring heading into summer voluntary workouts.
TEXAS LONGHORNS

Spring practice start date: Feb. 23
Spring game: April 1

What to watch:
  • The quarterback competition: I still think having a competition at the spot, which Texas says it will, isn't the best option, but David Ash and Case McCoy will go at it alongside early-enrolling freshman Connor Brewer. If Ash secures the job, expect an announcement heading into summer officially anointing the sophomore.
  • More sophistication on both sides of the ball: The progression is natural and likely. Offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin and defensive coordinator Manny Diaz had good first years in Austin, but this is Year 2. The spring won't be devoted to learning the playbook. It's time to master it. Both units could look markedly different, and much more refined next fall. Deny it all you like: Texas is back on its way to the top after a rough two years.
  • Maturing offensive weapons: Last season, the Longhorns relied on two true freshman running backs (Malcolm Brown/Joe Bergeron), a freshman/sophomore rotation at quarterback and its top receiver (Jaxon Shipley) was a true freshman. No. 2 (Mike Davis) was a sophomore. I hope I don't have to tell you what freshmen and sophomores do in college football. Look. Out.
TCU HORNED FROGS

Spring practice start date: Feb. 25
Spring end date: April 5

What to watch:
  • Can TCU shut out the scandal? Four team members were arrested in a recent drug sting and kicked off the team. How much of a distraction will that be for a program undergoing the most monumental change in its history? Quantifying the effects of the scandal will be pretty impossible, and we've got no idea how they'll handle the change, but will it be on players' minds?
  • The offense tightens up: The Horned Frogs' offense is absolutely loaded and ready to go for 2012. Quarterback Casey Pachall returns and brings his top three weapons (Josh Boyce, Skye Dawson and Brandon Carter) with him. Running backs Waymon James, Ed Wesley and Matthew Tucker each topped 700 yards rushing in 2011 and all return. The spring will be all about fine-tuning an already stellar offense, and it'll be fun to watch.
  • Replacing departed starters: All-America linebacker Tanner Brock was among the four football players arrested and booted from the team, as was all-conference defensive tackle D.J. Yendrey and likely starting safety Devin Johnson. Those were unforeseen losses, but TCU can't feel sorry for itself. Gary Patterson has no choice but to find new faces to fill those holes.
TEXAS TECH RED RAIDERS

Spring practice start date: Feb. 17
Spring game: March 24

What to watch:
  • Once again, a new defense: Texas Tech sounds like a broken record these days when it comes to defensive coordinators. This time, Art Kaufman will be stepping to the microphone as the fourth defensive coordinator in Lubbock in four years. He's bringing a 4-3, a shift back to what Ruffin McNeil ran in 2009. Chad Glasgow's 4-2-5 and James Willis' 3-4 failed miserably in 2011 and 2010, respectively, the first two years under Tommy Tuberville.
  • The battle at running back: No one knows yet if Eric Stephens will be back next season. There's still a long way to go in his rehab from a dislocated knee he suffered last season in a loss to Texas A&M. DeAndre Washington is also out this spring after tearing his ACL against Missouri. Harrison Jeffers hung up his cleats. Who will prove to be reliable this spring? Look for the Red Raiders to try to use sophomore Bradley Marquez, freshman Javares McRoy and junior SaDale Foster in a manner similar to the way Oregon uses scatback De'Anthony Thomas, with lots of short passes and bubble screens to get them the ball in space, where they can use their speed and shiftiness to make plays.
  • Team health: Tuberville said earlier this month that the team is missing 15 players this spring. It can't afford any more injuries. It's already going to be tough to get enough done this spring, but Tech can't start getting banged up.
WEST VIRGINIA MOUNTAINEERS

Spring practice start date: March 11
Spring game: April 21

What to watch:
  • Dana Holgorsen's offense in Year 2: Holgorsen didn't get a chance to coach his talented offense at Oklahoma State in its second year. The results could have been crazy. They might be at West Virginia in 2012, and the beginning steps will be taken this spring as Geno Smith & Co. get more and more comfortable with the system and Holgorsen adds more wrinkles.
  • The battle at running back: Sophomore Dustin Garrison hurt his knee in practices leading up to the Mountaineers' 70-33 Orange Bowl win over Clemson, and won't be there for the spring. What does senior Shawne Alston have in store for the spring? Garrison was the featured back last season, but a big spring could help Alston earn a few carries next year.
  • Defense needs help: Najee Goode leaves a big hole at linebacker, and defensive back Eain Smith's exit means the Mountaineers enter the season without two of their top three tacklers from a year ago. Bruce Irvin and Julian Miller's talents on the defensive line will be tough to replace, and in a league that requires a great pass rush, Irvin, Goode and Miller's 19 combined sacks must be replaced somehow.
We're back, and the kindly introduction is over. It's time to get to know the real West Virginia.

How will the Mountaineers handle the transition? Big 12 blogger David Ubben and Big East blogger Andrea Adelson debated the issue.

David Ubben: TCU's jump would seem to be a lot bigger, but the Big East has had its well-chronicled struggles the past few years. The Mountaineers left the league with a convincing Orange Bowl win against Clemson, scoring 70 points in the process. Talk about endearing yourself to your new offensive-minded friends, huh? You've seen this team up close lately, though. What, if anything, do you think WVU will have to change to get back to the BCS as a Big-12 member?

[+] EnlargeBrodrick Jenkins
Kim Klement/US PresswireBrodrick Jenkins, an up-and-coming cornerback, will lead the Mountaineers into Big 12 play next season.
Andrea Adelson: Well, one thing that definitely is going to change is the way West Virginia plays defense. Long-time defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel is out, and so is the odd 3-3-5 stack defense. The Mountaineers are going to go with a 3-4 base set under former Oklahoma State assistant Joe DeForest. This should help ease the transition from the stack, as West Virginia does not have the type of players on the roster to go with four down linemen.

In addition to the new scheme, West Virginia is losing its two best pass-rushers in Bruce Irvin and Julian Miller, perhaps its best defensive player in linebacker Najee Goode, and its best cover corner in Keith Tandy. There were times last season when the Mountaineers got beat deep in pass coverage, which will not bode well in Big 12 play.

However, cornerback Brodrick Jenkins has the potential to be truly terrific in 2012. He showed flashes late last season. As for the offense, coach Dana Holgorsen is looking for perfection. That means more consistent play out of an offensive line that was mediocre at times last season, and more explosion out of the run game. Starting running back Dustin Garrison is coming off ACL surgery, so it will be interesting to see whether he will be the same back come August.

Say what you will about the Holgorsen passing offense, but he definitely wants a running back to complement Geno Smith the way Kendall Hunter did with Brandon Weeden at Oklahoma State in 2010. How do you think West Virginia will fit in to its new conference home?

DU: WVU is a good fit on the field. Geographically, not so much, but the Big 12 teams have to like that. There's a lot of uneasiness with TCU entering the league. That could shake up recruiting a lot and cut into the share of teams like Oklahoma State and Texas Tech.

But West Virginia's clearly a strong brand. This is a team that could just as easily have been in the SEC. Instead, it's in the Big 12. The three BCS wins are a big deal, as was the Orange Bowl win. That's endeared the Mountaineers to their new opponents in the Big 12. To win like that on that kind of stage says a lot about where the program is and where it's headed. Having a coach like Holgorsen, who has lots of ties to Texas, will help them grab a few players in Texas, too. The difference between WVU and Mizzou isn't much when you think about recruiting in Texas. I could see WVU being the biggest threat to Missouri recruiting in Texas.

But like TCU, winning games gets people excited. Big 12 fans are psyched about the Mountaineers, who seem like a fun group.

How do you think WVU's transition will compare to TCU's?

AA: Watching a team put up 70 points is always fun! Hearing a guy like Holgorsen talk is always fun because you never know what he is going to say.

But on to your question: I think West Virginia will have a much smoother transition than TCU because it has played in an AQ conference already. Yeah, OK enter your Big Least jokes in here. But West Virginia has been a solid program throughout the course of its history. Note that the Mountaineers are one of just 14 schools to have 700 program victories -- joining Texas and Oklahoma from the Big 12.

West Virginia is one of just three schools to have at least nine wins in seven straight seasons. That doesn't happen by accident. And it's also important to note West Virginia is not exactly in a recruiting hotbed. Talent does not come pouring out of the state the way it does in Texas. The Mountaineers have built pipelines into Florida -- Geno Smith and Stedman Bailey being two notable examples on the squad -- and try to mine talent in Baltimore, Virginia and Washington, D.C. So I do think there will be inroads made into Texas with the Big 12 affiliation.

Already on the roster from the state are starting running back Dustin Garrison and quarterback Ford Childress, an ESPNU 150 player in the class of 2012. I respect the job Gary Patterson has done in building TCU, but I simply think there is going to be much more of a growing curve for a team transitioning to an automatic qualifying conference. What do you think?

DU: I'd agree. The Big East has been weak, but there aren't any teams like New Mexico and UNLV in that league, who are little more than a week off for teams as talented as TCU has been the past few years. Show up and you win.

Last year, even Kansas beat the MAC champions, Northern Illinois, before losing its final 10 games of 2011. Big 12 champion Oklahoma State lost to 6-7 Iowa State, too. This league is so, so deep. You have to show up and play well every week, and even then, you might not win. In 2010, 11 of the league's 12 teams had five wins and at least played a game with a chance to win six and qualify for a bowl game.

This year, nine of the 10 teams did that. It's got elite teams, too. Texas and OU played for titles in 2008 and 2009 and OSU was barely shut out of the title game this year.

The depth of the Big 12 is what TCU will have to get used to. In that sense, WVU will have to adjust much less. Of course, you never know for sure. We'll find out next year. WVU had some head-scratching losses, too. Losing to Syracuse by 26 points? Really? Sheesh.

Both of these teams are built to win in 2012, and I think they'll do it. But winning a Big 12 title requires you to show up every week and play well. In the Big East, which sent an eight-win team to the BCS in 2010, that hasn't necessarily been true.

In the Big 12, Texas or OU has basically run through the year with 0-2 losses every single season. If WVU wants to win this league, they'll have to do that.

When do you think WVU will win its first title? Will it win one?

[+] EnlargeGeno Smith
Kim Klement/US PresswireGeno Smith will enter the Big 12 in his third season as West Virginia's starting quarterback.
AA: It is tough to put a time frame on when West Virginia will win a league title. As crazy as it might sound, I think this team is built to contend in 2012. The Mountaineers dropped FSU from the nonconference schedule, so you could consider Kansas as filling that void. I am sure West Virginia takes that.

Oklahoma is going to be a preseason national favorite, but after that, every single team returning has major question marks. Is Texas going to be Texas? What does Baylor do without RG3? What does Oklahoma State do without Weeden and Justin Blackmon?

You bring up a good point about the head-scratching losses. There have been a bunch of those over the last several seasons -- including TWO in a row to Syracuse. This is a team that has simply been inconsistent. It didn't put together a full game against Clemson. But I think Geno Smith, Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey are going to be a handful for teams to stop, so I wouldn't be surprised if the Mountaineers were a surprise contender in 2012. Are you buying or selling?

DU: I'd generally agree. Year 1 seems to be their best chance. It's a wide-open year in the Big 12, and I think Oklahoma's a bit overrated heading into next year, though the potential for a national title run is there. Texas looks like it's on its way back up, but next year won't be the year.

If it doesn't happen next year, though, I don't think WVU will win a Big 12 title in the next decade. It's a solid program that I think could get into the BCS, but win the Big 12?

With the stability, metroplex location and winning tradition, I like TCU's upside a whole lot more, and its ability to win a Big 12 title in the future. I'm buying a Horned Frogs Big 12 title in the next decade. Not so much on WVU.

Time to put you on the spot: What's WVU's record next year and Big 12 finish?

AA: I can see the hate mail trickling into the Big 12 mailbag over that one, Mr. Ubben!
I am going to say West Virginia goes 10-2 and finishes second in the Big 12. What say you?

DU: Maybe so. But hey, that's how we do things on the Big 12 Blog. I call it like I see it. And I see more potential for the Froggies, though I think the Mountaineers will be a solid, solid program. I wouldn't be that surprised if they won the league, but I'm not betting on it.

This is a league built around the state of Texas, and the location's going to make it tough for them to consistently field teams that can win 11-12 games consistently.

Next year, I'll take 9-3 for the Mountaineers, but a tie for third place.

Big East recruiting needs

January, 23, 2012
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National signing day is inching ever closer, so it is time to take a look at the biggest recruiting needs for every team in the Big East.

Cincinnati

Defensive line. Cincinnati loses a host of seniors from this position, including Co-Defensive Player of the Year Derek Wolfe, John Hughes, Monte Taylor, and Rob Trigg. Factor in the key contributors for 2012 will be seniors in Dan Giordano, Brandon Mills and Walter Stewart and it is time to reload at this position.

Receiver. There is some promising young talent on the roster, but several guys are going to be leaving in the next few years. The Bearcats really need a guy who can stretch the field and make some big plays to join Anthony McClung and Alex Chisum.

Secondary. The Bearcats are going to take a hit at this position after 2012, losing a ton of seniors-to-be, including Cam Cheatham, Drew Frey, Dominique Battle and Reuben Johnson. Senior safety Wesley Richardson is already gone. The lone four-star commitment the Bearcats have is from a safety, Marcus Foster.

UConn

Quarterback. This need has been addressed in this recruiting cycle, with junior college transfer Chandler Whitmer and Casey Cochran already enrolled in school.

Tight end. With the impending departure of Ryan Griffin and John Delahunt, the Huskies could use another young player to be groomed to take over. Tight end is a critical part of the UConn offense.

Offensive line. UConn is losing its two best linemen in Moe Petrus and Mike Ryan. Of the 16 linemen currently listed on the roster, seven are juniors or seniors. Linemen generally take a redshirt season, so it never hurts to sign more to be able to restock.

Louisville

Linebacker. The Cardinals are losing Dexter Heyman and have a lot of juniors and seniors on their roster at this position. It is no surprise, then, that three of the top players coming in are linebackers -- Keith Brown and James Burgess are already enrolled; four-star recruit Nick Dawson has given a commitment.

Offensive line. Louisville has young players here, but not much depth, as evidenced this season when several true freshmen were forced to play much earlier than anticipated. It never hurts to build depth here, and the Cardinals have gotten a huge commit from four-star guard Abraham Garcia out of Miami.

Running back. This was an area the Cardinals struggled in this season, having to move quarterback Dominique Brown to the position. Victor Anderson is gone, and this team could really used another back to carry the load.

Pitt

Quarterback. This one is pretty self explanatory if you watched Tino Sunseri play. Mark Myers and Trey Anderson are also on the roster, but the Panthers are in definite need here -- which is why so many fans are looking forward to commit Chad Voytik coming to town.

Linebacker. This has been an area of inconsistency for the Panthers, who lose their best player in Max Gruder. There are some young players with talent in Todd Thomas and Ejuan Price, but this position could definitely use an upgrade.

Receiver. The play of the offense was disappointing this season, and that includes the receivers. Pitt could use some players to stretch the field. Ronald Jones was a start this season. But when you consider that Cameron Saddler, Mike Shanahan and Devin Street will all be upperclassmen in 2012, this is a definite area of need.

Rutgers

Receiver. Mohamed Sanu is gone, and Mark Harrison is a senior to be. There is plenty of young talent, but there is a reason Rutgers has commitments from four athletes. This gives the Scarlet Knights the flexibility to try them at receiver or running back, another area of need.

Running back. Once Savon Huggins got hurt this year, Rutgers had Jawan Jamison and Jeremy Deering at running back and that was about it. Depth has to be developed here.

Offensive line. Strides have absolutely been made at this position, but coach Greg Schiano likes to reiterate that the Scarlet Knights aren't going to pull themselves out of the hole they were in overnight. They need another solid draft class at this position to keep building.

USF

Secondary. Injuries and inconsistent play this season showed the Bulls really lacked some depth and need some immediate help in this area, which is why they signed junior college cornerbacks Fidel Montgomery and Josh Brown. One of their top four-star commitments is cornerback Chris Bivins.

Quarterback. Beyond B.J. Daniels, a senior in 2012, the Bulls have Bobby Eveld and Matt Floyd as the two heirs to take over. Eveld has been less than impressive, and we don't know much about Floyd. The Bulls would be served to get another quarterback in as they prepare for the future.

Running back. Darrell Scott is gone, and the Bulls are really in need of a game breaker at this position. Demetris Murray is going to be a senior, and nobody else really has stepped up at the position. Depth has to be built here, because USF goes into spring practice with four running backs on the roster.

Syracuse

Defensive line. The Orange are losing Chandler Jones and Mikhail Marinovich and could really used some difference-makers up front who can help get after the quarterback. Depth is an issue here. One of their big commitments so far has been defensive end Josh Manley out of Georgia.

Secondary. This was one of the weakest parts of the team and now the Orange lose Phillip Thomas and Kevyn Scott, and there was a lack of depth when injuries hit this position in 2011. Brooklyn prep safety Wayne Morgan would be a huge get to add to this unit.

Receiver. Alec Lemon is a senior, Van Chew is gone and who knows what happens with Marcus Sales. The bottom line is the Orange are in major need of a game-changer to turn 15-yard passes into 40-yard receptions.

West Virginia

Quarterback. Geno Smith is a rising senior and after him it is crickets in the form of one player behind him in Paul Millard. So consider this need majorly filled with Ford Childress, ranked No. 139 on the ESPNU 150.

Offensive line. The most inconsistent part of the team in 2011, West Virginia has a major need here. The Mountaineers struggled so badly here they started converted defensive lineman Curtis Feigt late in the season. Don Barclay is gone, and Joe Madsen, Jeff Braun and Josh Jenkins are all upperclassmen.

Defensive line. Julian Miller, Josh Taylor and Bruce Irvin are gone, and there are depth concerns here. West Virginia has four commitments from defensive linemen already.

Big East offseason to-do lists

January, 20, 2012
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Every team has plenty to do in the offseason. Today, I present to you my top priorities for each Big East program headed into the 2012 season.

Cincinnati
  • Settle on a quarterback. If 2011 was any indication, then Munchie Legaux seems a sure bet to start next season. He showed flashes, but he needs to spend the bulk of his offseason developing a nice rhythm and chemistry with his receivers. That was one of the biggest roadblocks for him when he took over for Zach Collaros. Cincinnati has some good talent at receiver -- with Anthony McClung, Kenbrell Thompkins and Alex Chisum coming back -- so this must be a top priority.
  • Develop senior leadership. The Bearcats are losing the best senior class in school history, filled with leaders left and right. With guys such as Collaros, Isaiah Pead and JK Schaffer gone, who is going to take the responsibility of leading this team? That is something that must be worked on throughout the offseason.
UConn
  • Find a quarterback. Sounds the same as last season, right? The Huskies never really found one in 2011 and that is a big reason why they struggled. Spring practice has the potential to have five different quarterbacks taking reps in Johnny McEntee, Scott McCummings, Michael Nebrich, Chandler Whitmer and Casey Cochran. Somebody has to emerge to take a hold of this offense.
  • Work on improving the secondary. The weakest part of this team last season ranked No. 113 in the nation, so this is a clear area that has to get better. The Huskies were hurt when starting cornerback Blidi Wreh-Wilson missed a good chunk of the season with a knee injury, and they also had to rely on freshmen in Byron Jones and Ty-Meer Brown. This group will be much more experienced, so you have to hope they will be much better, too.
Louisville
  • Mature. The Cardinals were one of the youngest teams in the nation last season, and their immaturity showed at times. But now they enter the offseason with exceedingly high expectations. Many preseason lists have them ranked in the Top 25 and challenging for the Big East title. This team will still be young in 2012, so it will be imperative for coach Charlie Strong to help get this group to mature quickly and stay focused.
  • Work on the run game. Strong wants the run game to be the bread-and-butter of the offense, and this was an area that took a step back in 2011 with Bilal Powell gone. Louisville went from being ranked No. 1 in the Big East to No. 5 in the Big East, averaging 121.5 yards per game. That is down over 50 yards per game. Dominique Brown and Jeremy Wright are back, but they have to be consistent and the Cardinals probably need somebody else to emerge.
Pitt
  • New identity. A new coach means a new identity, so it will be interesting to see how the Panthers look under Paul Chryst and his new staff. We will find out when spring practice opens in March. There is plenty of talent on the roster, but the big question is how will the talent be utilized?
  • Is Tino the man? This is starting to sound like a trend, right? The Panthers have quarterback issues as well after Tino Sunseri had a season to forget. Much of his performance can probably be laid at the feet of former coach Todd Graham, who stubbornly tried to run an offensive system that was not suited for the players he had. You can be sure Chryst will open up the quarterback competition to see who emerges.
Rutgers
  • Handle expectations. The Scarlet Knights have not been so good in the past when the pressure is on. All you have to do is look back at what happened this season, with a shot to win a share of the Big East title. Now they are getting some preseason love and probably have their best team since 2006. So coach Greg Schiano is going to have to do a good job of managing preparation and focus because expectations were raised off a successful 2011 campaign.
  • Quarterback derby. Yet another Big East team with a quarterback question mark. Chas Dodd and Gary Nova ended up splitting the starts this past season. Now there is the possibility that former quarterback Tom Savage transfers back in. I don't know if Schiano can afford to keep playing musical chairs with his quarterbacks every season.
USF
  • Re-focus. The Bulls have to put 2011 behind them and focus on the future. This is still a team that has the talent to win. Coach Skip Holtz has to find a way to get that done. This is going to be a veteran team that has been through good times and bad. He needs leaders who will their teammates to victory, who know how to win close games and are determined to get this team back on top. Who are they?
  • New defense. USF brings in new defensive coordinator Chris Cosh from Kansas State, its third different coordinator in the past four years. Getting the players adapted to his scheme as soon as possible has to be a point of emphasis in the spring and throughout the offseason.
Syracuse
  • More offensive consistency. To be sure, Ryan Nassib and Alec Lemon both had career years and made strides for the Orange. But a lot of that was because the run game was inconsistent, and Syracuse found itself trailing late in several games. This team has to find a way to sustain drives and score -- Syracuse was No. 7 in the Big East in scoring offense (24.2 ppg).
  • Shore up the defense. The Orange lose some of their best players on the defensive line, and have to get better in the secondary, which was a major problem for most of the year. Syracuse ranked No. 98 in the nation in pass defense, and they lose some key contributors. Shamarko Thomas is really going to have to step up and take control of this group.
West Virginia
  • Big 12 or Big East? The Mountaineers are bent on leaving for the Big 12, regardless of any court outcomes. On-field issues have nothing on trying to figure out where you are going to be playing. And who you are going to be playing.
  • Defense. Coach Dana Holgorsen has hired a few defensive assistants, but still no word yet on who is going to run the show. That, of course, will determine the future course of this defense. It appears an inevitability that they will no longer use the 3-3-5 that former coordinator Jeff Casteel ran. Plus, players such as Keith Tandy, Najee Goode, Bruce Irvin and Julian Miller are gone. Shoring up this unit has to be tops on Holgorsen's list.

Top 10 Big East moments from 2011

January, 12, 2012
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Now it is time to relive the top moments in the Big East for 2011 -- both the good, and the bad.

1. Eric LeGrand returns. Not only was this the top moment in the Big East, it was one of the top moments in all of sports in 2011. Seeing the injured LeGrand lead his Rutgers teammates onto the field in his wheelchair before the start of the West Virginia game Oct. 29 in middle of a snowstorm had to soften the hearts of even the most jaded. What LeGrand has been able to do is truly inspiring in the year since he was paralyzed making a hit against Army in 2010. He has gone further than anybody ever anticipated -- he has started rehab work on a treadmill and gotten twitches and sensations throughout his entire body. And he has begun to do radio and television work for Rutgers, as well.

[+] EnlargeEric LeGrand
Noah K. Murray/The Star-Ledger via US PresswireEric LeGrand, injured in 2010, led his Rutgers teammates onto the field Oct. 29.
2. Expansion. This is the storyline that eclipsed most everything else for the entire season. First it was Pitt and Syracuse leaving, seemingly catching commissioner John Marinatto off guard. Then TCU jumped ship. Then West Virginia. When everything was tidied up in December, the Big East had gone Big Country, adding Boise State, San Diego State, SMU, UCF and Houston. West Virginia's fate remains tied up in pending lawsuits. However that saga plays out, the Big East is prepared to launch Version 3.0 in 2013.

3. West Virginia goes BOOM! You could make the case that the way the Mountaineers dismantled Clemson in the Discover Orange Bowl should be ranked higher. In any other season, it would be No. 1. But when folks look back on the 2011 season, I think the first two stories are more likely to come to mind because of the way they transcended sports, and signaled the dawning of a new era. If we are going with purely on-the-field stories, then this one is the hands-down choice. West Virginia scored a bowl-record 70 points on the Tigers. For perspective, not even the worst teams in the nation -- New Mexico, FAU, Indiana and Akron -- had 70 scored on them this year. The ACC champ did. Unforgettable moment: Darwin Cook returning a fumble 99 yards to swing momentum, then taking down Obie the Orange Bowl mascot.

4. Down goes Collaros. One play changed the entire complexion of the Big East race. Too simple to say? Nope. Cincinnati had a two-game lead on everybody else on Nov. 12 when West Virginia came to town. In the second quarter, Bruce Irvin sacked Zach Collaros, who fumbled on the play. Julian Miller recovered in the end zone for a touchdown but the damage was done for the Bearcats. Collaros broke his ankle, and Cincinnati dropped two straight. West Virginia won out and finished in a three-way tie with Cincinnati and Louisville. The Mountaineers clinched the BCS berth -- leading to the eventual walloping of Clemson -- because they finished as the highest-ranked team in the final BCS standings.

5. Todd Graham bolts. In one of the most stunning turns of events this season, Todd Graham decided he had enough of Pittsburgh after 11 months on the job and a 6-6 record. He bolted for Arizona State without saying good-bye to his players, gleefully spewing the same speech he gave to the Panthers when he was hired for his "dream job." His coaching move drew universal scorn, and outrage from his players, as well. They took to Twitter to lambaste their former coach for his lies and unseemly departure.

6. Four clutch plays. West Virginia faced a must-win against USF in the regular-season finale Dec. 1. With the game tied at 27 and 5 minutes left in the fourth quarter, the Bulls embarked on a drive that took them down to the West Virginia 28. That's when clutch play No. 1 happened. Najee Goode forced B.J. Daniels to fumble and the Mountaineers recovered. Geno Smith took over with 3:02 left. Clutch play No. 2: Stedman Bailey makes an unbelievable catch on fourth-and-10 for 26 yards, down at the USF 16. Clutch play No. 3: Shawne Alston drags Bailey back to the line of scrimmage after the catch so the Mountaineers can get the snap off without a penalty. Clutch play No. 4: Tyler Bitancurt hits a 28-yard field goal to win the game 30-27 and a share of the Big East title.

7. Ray Graham gets hurt. Pitt running back Ray Graham ranked second nationally and led the Big East in rushing yards per game (134.1) headed into Week 9 against UConn. But early on against the Huskies, Graham crumpled to the ground while making a cut, clutching his right knee. He had torn his ACL, and his season was over. You could almost say the same for the Panthers, who struggled to do anything on offense without their best player.

8. Charlie Strong, surfer. You know how momentous Louisville's 38-35 victory over West Virginia was this season? So momentous it sent coach Charlie Strong bodysurfing over his players in a jubilant locker room afterward. He had Adrian Bushell and Andrew Johnson to thank. On the first play of the fourth quarter, West Virginia lined up for a 23-yard field goal to tie the game. Bushell blocked the kick; Johnson returned it 82 yards for a touchdown and the momentum went to the Cardinals. It was their first win in Morgantown since 1990, and third win ever in the series.

9. Syracuse does what? Surely Syracuse's win over West Virginia in Morgantown in 2010 was a fluke. Surely the Mountaineers would gain revenge in the Dome. Yeah. About that. The Orange schooled West Virginia and reintroduced the Mountaineers to the tight end, pulling the biggest upset of the season 49-23. Syracuse had not scored that many points in the series since 1960. The game also marked the triumphant return of Chandler Jones -- who had two sacks and six tackles in his first game back from a knee injury.

10. USF collapse. The Bulls began the year 4-0 with a national ranking and a victory at Notre Dame. Then Big East play happened. USF lost seven of its final eight games and missed a bowl for the first time as members of the Big East. The Bulls also posted their worst record in Big East play (1-6). A team pegged as a dark horse disappointed in every possible way, losing five games by six points or fewer.

But enough about the offense ...

January, 2, 2012
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FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- With the way the West Virginia and Clemson offenses have been hyped leading into the Discover Orange Bowl, you have to wonder whether both defenses have gotten a little tired about hearing how they are the weak link.

After all, there has been nothing weak about the way the Mountaineers defense played at the end of the season. After struggling early on, West Virginia put together its three best defensive performances of the season when they were needed most -- in the final three games. In those games, West Virginia had 14 sacks and allowed averages of 22.7 points and 365.7 yards per game.

[+] EnlargeJulian Miller
Jared Wickerham/Getty ImagesJulian Miller, center, and Najee Goode both had key roles in West Virginia's late-season defensive surge.
Consider that in the first nine games of the season, West Virginia had just 14 total sacks, allowed 27.4 points a game and 487.8 yards of offense.

Defensive end Julian Miller pinpointed why things turned around late in the season for the defense.

"It was mainly three things," he said. "No. 1, younger guys started stepping up, started to understand our defense and started make plays for us. No. 2, with our defensive coaches, we had the No. 3-ranked defense last year so those guys had high expectations for us coming in. At the beginning, we weren't living up to those expectations. It got to a point where we got frustrated and tired of getting yelled. We knew we could be doing better. Everything the coaches were teaching us, we started realizing they're right, so let's go ahead, get our stuff together and play ball like we know we can. No. 3, it was gaining confidence as a defense. We weren't as confident as we could have been. Those last three games, being able to play the way we did, our confidence was almost through the roof and that's a good way to come into a game like this."

Miller, for one, came on strong at the end of the year, mainly because he was healthy again. An ankle injury hobbled him for much of fall camp and the start of the season, so he was not as effective as he was in 2010. He had a huge play against Cincinnati when he recovered a fumble in the end zone, and that helped get the BCS dominoes to fall in favor of West Virginia.

The following week against Pitt, Miller had four sacks to tie a single-game high. West Virginia had 10 total in that game. Then, in the finale against USF, linebacker Najee Goode forced a crucial fumble late in the game that allowed West Virginia to drive for the winning touchdown. Pat Miller also scored on an interception return for a touchdown -- the second defensive score in three weeks. West Virginia had one (Terence Garvin against Maryland) in the first nine games of the season.

West Virginia also forced at least one turnover in five consecutive games to end the season. In the first seven games, it failed to force a turnover four times. There were nine forced turnovers in those first seven games; 10 in the final five.

So offense might get all the headlines, but this is quite a confident group headed into its showdown Wednesday.

"I love our offense," Goode said. "The fact they can score 35 points a game makes our job easier. The team that plays the best defense is going to win. If you take advantage of some of the stuff Clemson does, if we can take advantage of Tajh Boyd, fluster him a little bit, and even though Sammy Watkins is a great player, he's still a freshman. He hasn't played against a defense like ours. Tajh Boyd hasn't played against a defense like ours. So if we can confuse him enough to do certain things and take advantage of certain plays they run, then we can have a great game.

"Kinda how we played Oklahoma (in 2008 Fiesta Bowl), that was a bigger team, that was a huge team compared to us, and then we were able to confuse Sam Bradford, who's in the NFL right now. A good offense like (Clemson's), we have to play a sound game, we have to execute."

Holgorsen survives one crazy ride

December, 28, 2011
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The quiet of the spring was shattered at a casino one night.

It was then that everything changed for West Virginia.

[+] EnlargeDana Holgorsen
Charles LeClaire/US PresswireAfter a rocky start, West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen excelled this season, leading his team to a conference title.
Dana Holgorsen would go from admonished coach to Big East champion, from the butt of jokes to unprecedented success in his first year guiding the Mountaineers.

All of that seemed improbable in late May, when Holgorsen admitted to inappropriate behavior at a casino in Cross Lanes, W. Va. But even more improbably, that night began a series of events that elevated him from coach-in-waiting to head coach a year earlier than anybody anticipated.

Amid speculation and innuendo that Bill Stewart had been spreading rumors and looking for dirt on Holgorsen, athletic director Oliver Luck decided he'd had enough.

West Virginia was making headlines for the wrong reasons. His succession plan had failed miserably. Stewart could no longer be trusted to run the football program. He was sent out the door without a farewell tour, a farewell news conference, a farewell anything.

The Holgorsen era began on a Friday night in June, under a mask of ambiguity. Nobody really knew how a first-time head coach, known as a quirky coordinator with a penchant for downing Red Bulls, would handle all his newfound responsibilities or the adversity presented to him -- with about six weeks to go before the start of fall camp.

Holgorsen had to get to know his defensive players in a short period of time. He had to work with a staff of assistants that he did not hire. He had to handle the questions about his inexperience, about his character and about the sky-high expectations for this team -- expectations based almost entirely on the offense he was bringing to Morgantown.

So it is easy to see how the adversity Holgorsen and his players have faced really has defined this season for West Virginia. It is no wonder the one word Holgorsen uses to describe this team is resilient.

"Our guys play a little bit better when their backs are against the wall," Holgorsen said in a recent phone interview.

Holgorsen is probably the last person you will find in a Hallmark store picking out a saccharine greeting card. He is not much on reflecting, or evaluating himself or the job he has done. But if you stop to think about where he has come in six months, it is truly remarkable. Consider:

  • He is the first West Virginia coach to lead this team to a Big East championship and a BCS bowl in his first season.
  • He is one of just seven coaches to go to a BCS bowl in his first year as a head coach.
  • West Virginia is one of just three schools in the nation with a 3,500-yard passer and two 1,000-yard receivers.
  • Total offense ranks No. 17 this season, up from No. 67 in last season.
Now consider this: West Virginia was all but out of the Big East race after losing to Louisville 38-35 on Nov. 5. That loss dropped the Mountaineers to 2-2 in the Big East, two games behind league-leading Cincinnati. It was the second head-scratching conference loss after a miserable 49-23 loss to Syracuse on a Friday night in October.

West Virginia, the preseason pick to win the Big East, had to get its act together. Holgorsen, sensing there was no unity or identity to his team, had a simple request: play with enthusiasm, play with energy. West Virginia is not going to just beat its chest and win games.

"I could pinpoint about 100 ideas about why all that happened, which bottom line is this -- all those are are excuses," Holgorsen said. "So whether it was a new coaching staff learning to coach together, a new feel with the head coach. Based on changing things in June, I don't think we were very familiar with each other. Sometimes it takes longer than others to figure out what kind of team you've got. We just identified a group of guys that needed to be held accountable for what they're doing and part of that is what they're doing on the sidelines, whether we thought we were good enough to just show up and beat Syracuse and Louisville, being patted on the back probably has something to do with it, being picked to win the conference, that probably had something to do with it, just feeling you can show up and win."

After the Louisville loss, West Virginia geared up for a huge game at Cincinnati. Holgorsen saw the emotion he begged for early in that game. After Julian Miller recovered a fumble in the end zone, Holgorsen ran onto the field to chest bump his player. Cincinnati quarterback Zach Collaros was injured on that play, and the Big East race turned.

West Virginia ended up winning with a fourth-quarter comeback and a blocked field goal on the last play of regulation to insert itself back in the Big East race. The resilience Holgorsen talked so much about came through in wins over Pitt and USF. Both games also came down to second-half comebacks. West Virginia ended up winning a share of the Big East title and the BCS berth to get its first trip to the Orange Bowl.

"He comes in here, his first head-coaching job, and all the things he had to go through with the whole coaching switch over, definitely to get through that and have us ready week in and week out to play says a lot about him," Miller said. "It's something the fans should be proud of -- to have a guy like him here now and hopefully later on down in the future."

There is no question adjustments had to be made back in June. The seniors were playing for their third head coach in five seasons, so they had no idea what to expect. The laid-back Holgorsen is brutally honest with his players, so that was another adjustment. So was his sideline demeanor, a stark departure from his personality in meeting rooms. Holgorsen has a tendency to turn many shades of red while yelling about a missed assignment or dropped pass.

"You need tough skin," receiver Tavon Austin said. "He is not going to sugar coat anything. Coach is never afraid to tell you when you're wrong."

Holgorsen shouldn't be afraid of getting a little bit of praise himself. His move to West Virginia and his ability to bat away one challenge after another has the Mountaineers back in the national spotlight.

For all the right reasons this time.
ACC blogger Heather Dinich has the height and weight advantage, but Big East blogger Andrea Adelson is a shifty little back with elusive speed. Today they go head-to-head to determine who will have the better conference this bowl season. The ACC has been dogged time and again for its losing record in bowl games, which extends back to 2006, but the Big East has been the joke of the BCS conferences this year. The two conferences will square off this bowl season in two bowls, as NC State (7-5) will face Louisville (7-5) in the Belk Bowl on Dec. 27 (8 p.m. ET, ESPN), and Clemson (10-3) will face West Virginia (9-3) on Jan. 4 in the Discover Orange Bowl (8 p.m. ET, ESPN). If you thought the NC State-Cincinnati game was ugly this season, brace yourself for this catfight …

Heather Dinich: I would love to entertain you all day, AA, but the truth is there really is no argument here for the Big East. In fact, I almost feel bad for you. Almost. I’ve got two teams in BCS bowls and you’ve got, well, West Virginia -- a program that loves its conference so much it’s already got one foot in the Big 12. The Big East was so good this year that its best nonconference win came against Notre Dame by a South Florida team that finished 1-6 in the league. Now, I will give you this: The ACC and Big East enter bowl season tied at 3-3 this year, thanks to wins by Syracuse (ahem, in overtime with Wake’s quarterback injured), West Virginia (you and I could beat Maryland) and Cincinnati (I’ve got nothin’). There’s no reason, though, that the ACC shouldn’t come out 2-0 against the punching bag of the BCS. First down, me. Your turn.

[+] EnlargeTeddy Bridgewater
Jamie Rhodes/US PresswireQuarterback Teddy Bridgewater led the Cardinals to a 5-1 record over the second half of the season.
Andrea Adelson: Yes, there is plenty to brag about when your second BCS team is a laughingstock that does not deserve its spot in the big game. I think even you said that yourself, Heather. The Big East has its problems, and it's easy to take tired jabs. But it does appear as if my preseason prediction is on the verge of coming true. You might recall that I said this summer that the Big East would have a winning record over the ACC this year. Let's take a closer look at the X's and O's to really get this debate started. I would love to hear how NC State is going to beat Louisville, the hottest team in the Big East right now after ending the season 5-1. Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater was just named by "College Football Live" as rookie of the year, and the Cardinals' defense has been playing lights-out during this winning streak. The Cardinals have their run game going, they've shored up their offensive line and their defense is one of the most aggressive in the Big East -- ranking No. 2 in scoring defense and total defense. Adrian Bushell has developed into a shutdown corner, Dominique Brown has made a huge difference in his move from quarterback to running back, and Bridgewater rarely makes mistakes. Cincinnati hammered NC State, a team I think you called the most inconsistent in the ACC. So how exactly are the Wolfpack going to win this game? And I love how Clemson lost three of four going into the ACC title game, but a win over big-game choker Virginia Tech makes the Tigers a favorite all of a sudden. But we can get to that game in a second.

HD: Wait, wait, wait. Are we talking about the same Louisville team? The one that ranks No. 100 in scoring offense? No. 104 in total offense? No. 111 in sacks allowed? And No. 94 in rushing offense? Yep, that’s the one. How is NC State going to beat that team? Probably by pressuring Bridgewater into an interception right into the hands of cornerback David Amerson, who leads the nation with 11 picks. By winning the turnover battle, thanks in part to quarterback Mike Glennon, who has eight touchdown passes to one interception in the past two wins. By making great use of their tight end, George Bryan. And by winning the field position battle, thanks to the No. 12 punt returner in the country, T.J. Graham. Yeah, Louisville won five of its last six games, OK, but three of those wins came against teams with losing records in conference play. NC State, meanwhile, beat Clemson, the No. 7 team in the country. Speaking of the Tigers, I know you’re going to bring up West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith as your main argument, but I’ll see you Smith and raise you Sammy Watkins. Oh, and P.S. West Virginia is 4-9 against the ACC in postseason play.

AA: You can bring up Geno, who has been quite solid this season. But I will bring up the West Virginia defense, which you could argue is the biggest reason why the Mountaineers are playing in this BCS game. West Virginia looked really shaky early in the year. I will bring up the Syracuse game for you. But then Dana Holgorsen urged his players to quit acting like they could just step onto the field and win without even trying. There was one more hiccup against Louisville, but the defense has been outstanding in wins over Cincinnati, Pitt and USF. Two of those teams are going to bowl games. West Virginia had defensive scores against the Bearcats and Bulls. It was Najee Goode's huge strip of B.J. Daniels late in the season finale against USF that allowed the Mountaineers to come back and win. How about 10 sacks against Pitt? Clemson is going to have to account for Julian Miller and Bruce Irvin up front -- both players have come on strong at the end of the season. And the biggest reason West Virginia has improved on pass defense has been cornerback Brodrick Jenkins, who's a major upgrade over Pat Miller. He and first-team Big East cornerback Keith Tandy have been a nice duo. Plus, West Virginia just finds a way to win close games -- 4-1 in games decided by six points or less.

[+] EnlargeClemson's Sammy Watkins
Joshua S. Kelly/US PRESSWIREAP All-American Sammy Watkins led all freshmen this season with 77 receptions for 1,153 yards and 11 touchdowns.
HD: Two words for the West Virginia defense against Chad Morris’ offense: good luck. If it were JUST Sammy Watkins, that would be one thing, but as Virginia Tech figured out in loss No. 1 to Clemson, the Tigers’ offense runs deeper than the country’s best freshman. Tight end Dwayne Allen has been an X factor all season, and the Tigers have plenty of other options surrounding quarterback Tajh Boyd. Clemson has already set school season records for passing yards, total offense and points scored. Boyd has been inconsistent this season, but he’s had far more good moments than disappointing ones. The biggest factor for Clemson has been the turnover margin. The Tigers are 8-0 when they win the turnover battle and 2-3 when they don’t. These two teams are similar in that area. Clemson has lost 20 turnovers this year, WVU 21. I’m guessing that slim margin could be the difference in the game. Quite frankly, Clemson is the more talented team and should win. The ACC will prove this season that it’s the better conference. If it weren’t, why would Pitt and Syracuse be so quick to jump ship? You can’t possibly think that adding Boise State, San Diego State, Houston, UCF and SMU will beef up the Big East. To me, it just got watered down. Even you called the realignment scenario “preposterous.” Great word, by the way.

AA: Are you talking about the same juggernaut Clemson offense that averaged 14 points in its losses to NC State, Georgia Tech and South Carolina? The same Boyd who threw two touchdown passes and five interceptions in those games? Yeah, I think West Virginia can handle that. Don't forget, the Mountaineers see a pretty prolific offense in practice, and Dana Holgorsen has been doing this a little longer than Chad Morris. As for realignment, what the Big East had to do to get itself back in order is preposterous, no question. Having to reach all the way to California to find a new member is ridiculous. But the Big East would not be in this predicament if the ACC kept its hands to itself. If the ACC was such a great, solid conference filled with the finest football programs, why exactly does it keep raiding the Big East? The ACC can now count five former Big East members. Hey, I have an idea. Maybe we should just start calling the ACC the Big East because it will have more of the Big East's original members than the newly reformed Big East-West-Country-USA. The ACC really has the worst of both worlds, taking jabs not only for its own league members but for the Big East, too!

HD: Hey, if I recall correctly, the ACC “received applications” from Pitt and Syracuse, not the other way around. There was probably a line at ACC commissioner John Swofford’s door, with Rutgers, UConn and West Virginia all elbowing each other to try to get in, too. The ACC will be bigger and better, thanks to expansion. The Big Conference will be just that -- bigger. Look, I’d love to sit here and watch you swing at air some more, but the ACC has eight teams in bowl games, unlike the Big East. I’ve got some work to do. So why don’t you just settle in, get yourself some Beef O’Brady’s, and watch the ACC go 2-0 against your Big conference. I know, I know, you’ve got something to say. Go ahead and have the last word. You’ll need it.

AA: Well, considering you cover a conference with 12 teams and I cover one with eight, the Big East has just about the same percentage of teams in bowls. And I don't really need to remind you that the Big East has a better winning percentage in bowl games, or that the ACC has not posted a winning record in bowl games since 2006. Or that the ACC hasn't posted a winning record against the Big East in bowl games since 2007. Nah, you don't need to be reminded at all.

ESPN.com All-Big East team

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

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

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

Without further adieu:

OFFENSE

QB: Geno Smith, West Virginia

RB: Isaiah Pead, Cincinnati

RB: Ray Graham, Pitt

OT: Don Barclay, West Virginia

OT: Justin Pugh, Syracuse

C: Joe Madsen, West Virginia

OG: Randy Martinez, Cincinnati

OG: Andrew Tiller, Syracuse

WR: Mohamed Sanu, Rutgers

WR: Stedman Bailey, West Virginia

DEFENSE

DL: Julian Miller, West Virginia

DL: Kendall Reyes, UConn

DL: Derek Wolfe, Cincinnati

DL: Chandler Jones, Syracuse

LB: JK Schaffer, Cincinnati

LB: Najee Goode, West Virginia

LB: Khaseem Greene, Rutgers

S: Hakeem Smith, Louisville

S: Duron Harmon, Rutgers

CB: Adrian Bushell, Louisville

CB: Keith Tandy, West Virginia

SPECIALISTS

PK: Dave Teggart, UConn

P: Pat O'Donnell, Cincinnati

RS: Tavon Austin, West Virginia

Weekend Rewind: Big East

November, 28, 2011
11/28/11
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Let's take a look back at Week 13 in the Big East and quick look ahead to Week 14:

[+] EnlargeJulian Miller
Frank Victores/US PresswireJulian Miller has been a defensive force for WVU this season.
The good: West Virginia put together its best defensive effort of the season in a 21-20 win over Pitt. The Mountaineers had a season-high 10 sacks, and now have 15 sacks in the last two games. They had 11 combined in the first nine -- including five in a win over UConn. Julian Miller tied a school record with four sacks in one game. West Virginia held Pitt to 296 yards, the first time since a win over UConn that it held its opponent to under 300 yards of total offense. Miller wasn't the only one with four sacks this weekend. UConn defensive end Trevardo Williams also had four sacks in a 40-22 win over Rutgers, giving him a Big East leading 12.5 sacks this season. The 40 points the Huskies scored were the second-most all-time in the series with Rutgers. Lyle McCombs had 95 yards rushing, and now has 1,109 rushing yards this year, good for the ninth-best single-season rushing total in school history. ... Louisville finished at 5-2 in the league, which is the most wins in the league since the Cardinals went 6-1 in 2006. Cards held USF to only 64 yards rushing, marking the third time this season they have held an opponent under 70 yards on the ground. It also marks the sixth time they have held an opponent below 100 yards rushing. Louisville also had three sacks, extended its streak to 17 straight games with at least one in a game. ... Cincinnati showed up on offense, with Munchie Legaux throwing the first two touchdown passes of his career, and Jordan Luallen adding 77 yards on six carries in a 30-13 win over Syracuse. Isaiah Pead had 246 all-purpose yards and leads the Big East with 13 touchdowns. After notching a season-low 225 yards of total offense against Rutgers, Cincinnati had 368 against Syracuse. ... Rutgers receiver Mohamed Sanu ends the season with a Big East-record 109 receptions.

The bad: One of the stories of the season for Pitt has been its play on the offensive line. With injuries and inexperience, the Panthers have been one of the worst in the country in this area. They gave up a whopping 10 sacks against West Virginia -- the most they have given up in a Big East game. Much of the blame against the Mountaineers falls on quarterback Tino Sunseri, who held onto the ball way too long in many of the instances. He was sacked three times on the final seven plays of the game. Pitt blew a 20-7 lead because its offense was simply unable to move the ball. The Panthers scored touchdowns on two of their first three drives, but were held out of the end zone for the rest of the game. . ... USF also blew a lead against Louisville. The Bulls held an early 17-3 lead, but was outscored 24-7 in the second half, marking the fourth time this season they could not hold onto a second-half lead. After starting the season 4-0 with a national ranking, the Bulls have lost six of their last seven games and are in danger of missing a bowl game for the first time in seven seasons. ... Syracuse has had just as tough a time in Big East play, as the Orange have lost four straight games since beating West Virginia. Their offense struggled once again, scoring 13 points in a loss to Cincinnati. Syracuse is 1-5 this season when it is held to 21 points or fewer. ... Rutgers lost a chance to win a share of its first Big East title after turning the ball over a season-high six times in a loss to UConn. Chas Dodd was pulled from the game in the fourth quarter, and Rutgers had minus-9 yards rushing, a week after going over 200 yards in a win over Cincinnati. After leading the league for much of the season in turnover margin, Rutgers finishes up at plus-3. ... About the only thing that went wrong for UConn -- kicker Dave Teggart had his Big East record streak of consecutive made extra points end at 127 when he had an attempt blocked against Rutgers.

Milestone watch

Tavon Austin, WR, West Virginia. Austin set the school-record for receptions against Pitt, and now has 82.

Stedman Bailey, WR, West Virginia. Bailey set the school record for single-season receiving yards against Pitt, and now has 1,117 this season.

Teddy Bridgewater, WR, Louisville. Bridgewater broke the school's freshman passing yards record, and has 1,855 yards on the season. Chris Redman set the record of 1,773 yards in 1996.

Brandon Coleman, WR, Rutgers. Had career-highs with 223 yards receiving and six receptions in a 40-22 loss to UConn. The yardage total is the fourth-highest in school history.

Khaseem Greene, LB, Rutgers. Greene has 127 tackles on the season, the most by a Scarlet Knight since Gary Brackett totaled 130 tackles in 2002.

Alec Lemon, WR, Syracuse. Has a school-record 60 receptions this season.

Geno Smith, QB, West Virginia. Smith set the single-season school records for attempts (448), completions (291) and passing yards (3,741) in a win over Pitt.

Week 14 schedule

Thursday

West Virginia at USF, 8 p.m., ESPN

Saturday

UConn at Cincinnati, noon, ESPN

Syracuse at Pitt, noon, ESPN2

Big East helmet stickers: Week 13

November, 26, 2011
11/26/11
9:44
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How about a few helmet stickers for a job well done:

Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Louisville. Bridgewater threw a career-high three touchdown passes, going 19-of-28 for 241 yards in a 34-24 win over USF on Friday. Bridgewater broke the school's freshman passing record for yards by a quarterback, and now has 1,855 yards this season. That is better than the mark of 1,773 yards, set by Chris Redman in 1996.

Julian Miller, DE, West Virginia. Miller tied a single-game school record with four sacks in a 21-20 win over Pitt on Friday night. Miller had 12 total tackles in the game, and was a huge reason why the Mountaineers were able to shut down the run game and get so much pressure on Pitt quarterback Tino Sunseri. West Virginia had 10 sacks in the game.

Isaiah Pead, RB, Cincinnati. Pead was all over the place in the Bearcats' 30-13 win over Syracuse, compiling 246 all-purpose yards. Pead had a career-high 112 yards receiving and a touchdown, and had 80 yards rushing and a touchdown. He also returned the first punt of his career 34 yards -- the longest punt return of the season for Cincinnati. Pead is now over 1,000 yards on the season, becoming the first Cincinnati player in 25 years with back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons.

Corey Smith, P, West Virginia. Smith relieved an ineffective Michael Molinari in the second quarter and boomed his first punt 57 yards to pin Pitt deep in its own territory. It went on that way the entire game for Smith, who averaged 57.2 yards on four punts, and had two land inside the 20. Smith lost his job five games into the season because he was struggling, but found a good groove against the Panthers, and helped shift momentum in the battle for field position.

Trevardo Williams, DE, UConn. Williams has put together an outstanding season for the Huskies, and he had a monster game in a 40-22 win over Rutgers. Williams had four sacks, and now leads the Big East with 12.5 sacks this season. Connecticut tied a season high with seven sacks in the game.
West Virginia defenseJared Wickerham/Getty ImagesWest Virginia's defense was all the difference in the Mountaineer's win over Pitt.
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- Julian Miller showed up for interviews barefoot, with his left ankle wrapped heavily in ice. You could understand why the West Virginia defensive end needed to give his feet a break.

Miller had the most dominating performance of his career, in the final home game of his career, on his birthday no less, keying a stifling defensive effort to help the Mountaineers beat Pitt 21-20 on Friday night. West Virginia kept its Big East title hopes alive with the victory, although the Mountaineers will need some help from Cincinnati to keep their BCS dream from dying.

All West Virginia can do to help itself is win. It appeared that might not happen for a good chunk of what could end up being the final Backyard Brawl between the two longtime rivals. West Virginia could not get out of its way for a good portion of the contest, gift-wrapping just about all the scoring opportunities the Panthers had. The Mountaineers had three turnovers -- including two muffed punts deep in their own territory.

But the defense came up with one gigantic stop after another in its best performance of the season.

[+] EnlargeTino Sunseri
Charles LeClaire/US PresswirePittsburgh coach Paul Chryst has hinted that Tino Sunseri will be his starting quarterback in the fall.
Miller tied a single-game record with four sacks. West Virginia had 10 on the night, nine in the second half. That second half was absolutely huge for this defense, a unit that has struggled to stop its opponents this season. That it came against the worst offensive line in the Big East hardly was a surprise.

"We knew that was a weakness of theirs, and we wanted to go out there and take advantage of it," Miller said.

The Panthers now have given up 52 sacks on the season, approaching numbers put up by the Rutgers offensive line last season. When Pitt quarterback Tino Sunseri needed to make a play on the final two possessions of the game, he reverted to form and took one sack after another. The final possession ended with three sacks in seven plays.

"I'm puzzled," Pitt coach Todd Graham said. "I don't understand it. You can't take sacks. We sat there and took one right after another. It is our job as coaches to get our guys to execute the system, and we absolutely did not. That was the difference."

Pitt was able to jump out to a 20-7 lead based mostly on West Virginia (8-3, 4-2) mistakes. A personal foul penalty on a missed Pitt field goal gave the Panthers new life, and they converted the opportunity into a touchdown. The two muffed punts deep in the Mountaineers' own territory were damaging, too.

But they would have been more so had the defense not held the Panthers (5-6, 4-3) to field goals in both instances. You never got the feeling the Panthers were in control of the game. They could hardly move the ball after the first half and were severely hampered when starting running back Zach Brown was unable to play in the second half because of a bruised sternum.

Where West Virginia might have hung its head at the deficit early in the season, the Mountaineers refused to get themselves down Friday night.

"I always tell the guys, 'How are we going to get back in it? What are we going to predict?'" linebacker Najee Goode said. "Me and Keith [Tandy] were like, 'We're going to get the ball and we're going to score and we're going get the ball back and we're going to score again and we're going to win 21-20.' I said, 'That sounds like a plan to me.'"

Indeed, after falling behind by 13 points, West Virginia put together a quick seven-play drive that ended when Shawne Alston ran in from 8 yards out. It took a while longer for the Mountaineers to get their game-winning drive together.

That came in the fourth quarter, and it happened thanks to a pretty gutsy play call. After a personal foul penalty on Aaron Donald gave West Virginia the ball at the Pitt 28, West Virginia spoiled a third-and-short when Geno Smith threw a pass that lost 5 yards. Coach Dana Holgorsen decided to go for it on fourth-and-6 from the Pitt 24.

"We felt like we needed to roll the dice," Holgorsen said. "We were down there and felt like we should go for it. I'm glad we did."

Smith was perfectly happy with the call, too. He converted when he threw a 9-yard pass to Tavon Austin. Alston rumbled in from a yard out to give West Virginia a 21-20 lead. It was the first lead of the game for the Mountaineers. That was all they needed to close out the win.

West Virginia held Pitt to 80 total yards in the second half -- 30 yards rushing -- and just five first downs.

"We pretty much battled every kind of adversity you can think about," Smith said. "The defense did a great job keeping us in the game throughout. They played probably the best game of the season if you ask me. Those guys have been battling all year. They're coming along, they're getting better and they really kept us in this one, and we pulled it out late."

They need to pull another one out next week in the finale at South Florida to have any shot at winning a conference title. Pitt has been eliminated from contention and needs to win next week against Syracuse to become bowl eligible.

As for whether this is the final Backyard Brawl, none of the players want to see it end.

"It's pretty much a classic every time," Smith said.



MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- It is a beautiful night for football, with clear skies and mild temperatures for the 104th edition of the Backyard Brawl between Pittsburgh and West Virginia.

Here are a few keys for each team.

Pitt

1. Run baby, run. Plenty on this in the pregame video, but the Panthers want to have some balance to help Tino Sunseri. They slowed down the tempo just a touch in their last win against Louisville, and could try to do that again against the Mountaineers, especially if it means keeping West Virginia off the field. Since the 2000 season, Pittsburgh is 41-13 when it has a 100-yard rusher.

2. Pressure. Pitt has gotten much better on the defensive front, and a big reason has been the development of sophomore defensive end Aaron Donald, who leads the Big East with nine sacks. The key to any game plan against the Mountaineers is to pressure quarterback Geno Smith. Since 2000, only three Pitt players have 10 or more sacks in a season.

3. Convert in the red zone. Pitt has been excellent in the red zone this season, ranking first in the Big East and tied for seventh nationally in red zone efficiency. Pitt has converted 32 of 35 trips inside the 20 this year -- with 26 touchdowns. The three failed attempts were missed field goals.

West Virginia

1. Put the game in the hands of Tino Sunseri. West Virginia knows the Panthers might want to establish the run game, and West Virginia would love nothing more than for Sunseri to beat him. He has played better of late, but Sunseri also has a tendency to make way too many mistakes and take sacks he shouldn't take.

2. Convert third downs. West Virginia ranks No. 2 in the Big East in third-down conversions (42 percent). In five of 10 games, the Mountaineers have converted on third downs 45 percent of the time or better. Pitt has been great on defense on third down, leading the Big East and ranking 10th nationally in third-down efficiency defense (32 percent). The Mountaineers have to win the third down battle to have a great shot at winning.

3. Win up front. West Virginia has struggled getting pressure on the passer this season, but this could be the perfect opportunity to change that. Pitt has struggled big time on the offensive line this season, so Bruce Irvin and Julian Miller could have a big game.

Cincinnati QB Zach Collaros out

November, 12, 2011
11/12/11
1:26
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CINCINNATI -- Cincinnati starting quarterback Zach Collaros was taken off the field on a cart with a right leg injury in the second quarter against West Virginia, a potentially devastating blow for the Bearcats.

He was on the sideline for the second half in street clothes, on crutches.

Collaros was hurt after he was tackled and his leg bent back awkwardly. He fumbled on the play, and West Virginia defensive tackle Julian Miller recovered in the end zone to put the Mountaineers up 17-7.

His backup, Munchie Legaux, only has limited game experience this season. Collaros is the heart of not only the offense, but his team, and is an exceptional leader whom his teammates have rallied around this season. He went into the game needing 34 completions to become the second quarterback in school history with 5,000 yards passing, 500 completions and 50 touchdowns.

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