NCF Nation: Kentucky Wildcats

1. Bob Stoops said Wednesday on the ESPNU College Football Podcast that when Oklahoma beats Texas, he gives his Sooners a couple of hours to enjoy the State Fair of Texas with their families before the buses head back up I-35. Stoops said he doesn’t go near the Midway, but he does find a quiet picnic table to munch on a hot dog. After 15 seasons and 160 victories -- the most by any head coach in Oklahoma history -- Stoops remains unimpressed with himself.

2. When Joker Phillips finished the 2012 season as a lame-duck head coach at Kentucky, he discussed the emotions of leaving players and a school to which he had devoted 10 years of his life. That’s not how Phillips left Florida. He resigned Wednesday for personal reasons at a time when coaches and players are not together. Two years ago, someone asked Phillips about his future. “I'm 50 years old,” Phillips said. “I don't have a lot of time. I like to think I'm a young 50, but this game is going fast for me.” His departure from Gainesville came way too fast.

3. BYU went into independence four years ago with such optimism, and why not? BYU is a religious school with a national following. But college sports has gotten more exclusive, and even Notre Dame, the ultimate independent, cut a football deal with the ACC. Still, Cougar coach Bronco Mendenhall’s public plea to join the Big 12 sounds like the frustrations of a coach. If BYU were serious about giving up on independence, the university wouldn’t use its football coach to make its case.

3-point stance: UCLA's growing pains

October, 29, 2013
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1. UCLA started eight true freshmen against Oregon, including three on the offensive line, and played 18 overall against the Ducks. If you are looking for a reason that Oregon scored three touchdowns in the fourth quarter, it might be physical (how long can 19-year-olds play guys two or three years older?) and it might be mental (close game, big stakes, who’s been there before?). Either way, the Bruins will get a dividend on this investment in, oh, 2015.

2. If you congratulate No. 3 Florida State head coach Jimbo Fisher for voting his conscience on his USA Today ballot -- he sounded as if he voted Alabama No. 1 -- and if you applaud him for sitting his starters in the second half against North Carolina State after leading 42-0 at halftime, you may as well congratulate him for getting his team on the field for the opening kickoff. That’s how a coach should act. As the saying goes, Fisher is acting as if he has been there before. Which he has, as an assistant under Nick Saban.

3. Kentucky is 1-6, 0-4 in the SEC, and Wildcats first-year head coach Mark Stoops is trying to remain patient. Only the 48-7 loss to No. 1 Alabama could be considered a blowout. “I think we all see us resembling a good football team from time to time,” Stoops said at his press conference Monday, “but that’s not going to cut it and win you a lot of games in the SEC. You’ve got to be good top to bottom, and you’ve got to be good in critical situations, and most importantly when you’re under pressure situations, our habits, bad habits, come right to the surface.”
1. Journalists aren’t supposed to root for anyone, but after all that Tom Savage has put himself through, it’s nice to see the fifth-year Pitt quarterback win the starting job. Savage played as a freshman at Rutgers and transferred to Arizona, only to see Mike Stoops get fired and Rich Rodriguez come in with a completely different offense. Savage left again. He might serve as a prime example of why quarterbacks shouldn’t transfer, but in the meantime, he has earned any good fortune that he produces this season.

2. The NCAA slapped former Ohio State coach Jim Tressel with a show-cause order in 2011, effectively banning him from coaching for five years. So the NCAA has nothing to say about Tressel teaching a coaching class at Akron, an NCAA member? Maybe it’s just that teaching how to coach is not the same as coaching. I don’t blame Tressel, who works in the university administration at Akron. He gets to work with young people again, which is the reason coaches get into the business.

3. The best news in the 2014 SEC schedule released Wednesday is the move of the Kentucky-Louisville rivalry to season’s end. The game will join Florida-Florida State, Georgia-Georgia Tech and South Carolina-Clemson as year-end, intrastate rivalry games between SEC and ACC schools. The prediction here is that the move will make the ‘Cats-Cards football game as intense as the annual basketball game. Laugh if you must, but watch what happens when (not if) Mark Stoops gets Kentucky football up and running.
1. Penn State did what the smart programs do. If the NCAA bans you from the postseason, create your own “bowl.” Alabama and USC both played at Hawaii during their probations last decade. The Nittany Lions one-upped them by agreeing to play Central Florida in Dublin, Ireland, to open the 2014 season. It’s the only “bowl” that Penn State will play during its four-year probation, though the Nittany Lions still list the Big Ten Championship Game on their schedule for the next three seasons. That’s optimism.

2. Kentucky tailback Josh Clemons hasn’t played since the middle of 2011, his freshman year, because of a knee injury. He came back this spring and looked good. But now an Achilles tendon injury will force Clemons to miss a second consecutive season. Clemons brings to mind former Alabama receiver Tyrone Prothro, who made a legendary touchdown catch against Southern Mississippi in 2005 shortly before suffering a career-ending injury. Here’s hoping Clemons’ 87-yard touchdown run against Central Michigan isn’t his last big play.

3. Just wanted to let everyone know that, despite what you may have read about SEC Media Days, Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel and Alabama head coach Nick Saban are not the only two people scheduled to appear over the next three days. The hoopla over both is a great example of how SEC Media Days has become more like Super Bowl Media Day and less like a working event. I’m all for embracing the hype, as long as no one confuses the next three days with actual news gathering.
Last Wednesday's announcements that Connecticut had agreed to a home-and-home series with Boise State and that Cincinnati would be heading to the Big House in 2017 were the latest in a trend that has seen BCS-conference schools boost their nonconference schedule strength.

While the soon-to-be-former Big East is entering its last season as a BCS school, before the four-team college football playoff takes into effect in the 2014-15 season, aggressive scheduling is one way to keep the league on the national radar.

The slates will provide several opportunities for big national upsets in the coming years, so here's a look at some of the notable future opponents for each current conference school.

Cincinnati: The Bearcats host Purdue this season and will travel to West Lafayette, Ind., in 2016. They go to Illinois this year as well, a return trip from the schools' 2009 game at Nippert Stadium. In addition to going to Michigan in 2017, Cincinnati goes to Ohio State in 2014 and 2016 and has a home-and-home with BYU set for 2015 and 2016 (at BYU, at Cincinnati).

Connecticut: The Huskies host Michigan and Maryland this year, the second parts of home-and-homes from 2010 and 2012, respectively. In addition to the Boise State home-and-home set for 2014 and 2018 (at UConn, at Boise), UConn has a home-and-home with BYU in 2014 and 2015 (at UConn, at BYU), a home-and-home with Tennessee set for 2015 and 2016 (at UConn, at Tennessee) and a home-and-home with Virginia scheduled for 2016 and 2017 (at UConn, at Virginia).

Houston: The Cougars host BYU this year and head to Provo, Utah next year.

Louisville: The Kentucky series is the only one the Cardinals currently have scheduled with a BCS-conference opponent through 2016, going to Lexington this season and in 2015, with the Wildcats visiting in 2014 and 2016. Perhaps that will change when the Cardinals begin ACC play in the 2014 campaign.

Memphis: The Tigers host Duke this season after visiting the Blue Devils in 2012. They have a home-and-home with UCLA for 2014 and 2017 (at UCLA, at Memphis), a home-and-home with Kansas for 2015 and 2016 (at Kansas, at Memphis), a home-and-home with Missouri for 2015 and 2016 (at Memphis, at Missouri) and a four-game home-and-home with Ole Miss from 2014-17, beginning in Oxford, Miss.

Rutgers: The Scarlet Knights host Arkansas this season after traveling to Fayetteville, Ark., in 2012. They will host future Big East member Tulane in 2014, each's first season in its new conference, after playing the Green Wave in Piscataway, N.J., in 2010 and in New Orleans last season. Miami (FL) visits Rutgers in 2018 and hosts it in 2019, and the Scarlet Knights have future home-and-homes with UCLA (2016 at Rutgers, 2017 in L.A.) and Kansas (2015 at Rutgers, 2018 in Lawrence, Kan.) To Rutgers' credit, it had also originally scheduled home-and-homes with Maryland and Penn State before it had announced that it was moving to the Big Ten.

SMU: The Mustangs have quite the in-state home-and-home lineup. They canceled this season's home game with Baylor, and while it is unknown if the 2013 game will be made up or bought-out completely, the schools still have a home-and-home scheduled through 2019. The Battlle for the Iron Skillet with TCU will continue through 2017, with the Horned Frogs playing host this season. SMU will go to Texas A&M this year and host the Aggies in 2014, closing out a four-year home-and-home. They begin this season with a Friday night home contest against Texas Tech.

Temple: The Owls begin the Matt Rhule era at Notre Dame this season, a place they will re-visit in 2017. The Irish will visit Philadelphia in 2014. The two-for-one Penn State series continues from 2014-16, with the Nittany Lions visiting Philly in 2015. Temple will host Maryland in 2014 and travel to College Park at a future date to be determined, after a home-and-home in 2011 and 2012 that saw the visiting team win each time (Temple, then Maryland).

UCF: The Knights aren't backing down as they move up a level of play. They go to Penn State this season and will host the Lions in either 2014 or 2015. They host South Carolina this season and visit the Gamecocks in 2015. They go to Missouri in 2014 after hosting the Tigers this past season. They host BYU in 2014 after visiting the Cougars in 2011. And they go to Maryland in 2016 before hosting the Terps the following season. UCF has a 2017 date at Texas, too, as part of an agreement that saw the Longhorns visit the Knights in 2007 for UCF's first game in its new stadium before hosting them in 2009.

USF: The Bulls host Michigan State this season as part of a two-game home-and-home that will be returned in 2017. They will play the final game of a five-game series with the Miami (FL) this fall at home as well. USF will host North Carolina State in 2014, have a two-game home-and-home with Indiana in 2015 and 2016 (at USF, at Indiana) and play at Florida sometime in the future.
Mark Stoops and Charlie StrongGetty ImagesLouisville's Charlie Strong, right, has had more competition for in-state recruits since Kentucky hired Mark Stoops.
Kentucky emerged with a top-40 class from ESPN RecruitingNation on signing day, besting in-state rival Louisville by seven spots. Does this mean the Cardinals' hold on the state is in jeopardy? SEC blogger Edward Aschoff and Big East blogger Andrea Adelson discuss.

Adelson: So, Edward, Mark Stoops has done a bang-up job in his short time on the job and many believe he has what it takes to get the Wildcats back to respectability in short order. I, for one, was surprised he was able to pull in a better class than Louisville and Charlie Strong, who just earned a handsome payday for turning Louisville around himself in just three years. Strong is known as an unbelievable recruiter, doing a terrific job creating a pipeline into talent-rich Florida. He also got Kentucky's top prospect in the class of 2013, ESPN 150 wide receiver James Quick. So he's taking recruits from Florida and he's winning Kentucky and signed himself a pretty solid class of 17 -- even if the class rankings don't reflect the work they did this recruiting cycle. But seeing Kentucky up there in the ESPN rankings has to put a pit in the stomach of Louisville fans everywhere. Because as Louisville has risen, Kentucky has fallen miserably, a double dose of joy for Cards fans. Stoops, however, is no pushover. So now the big question: Does Louisville have to start worrying about Kentucky again?

Aschoff: I'm not ready to crown Stoops as the next great recruiter, but if I'm at Louisville, I'm a little worried about what Stoops could do in and around the state of Kentucky. Sure, Strong got the state's top player, but he was supposed to. What Stoops did was bring in three of the state's top 10 players. Louisville grabbed two. It's not like Stoops blew Strong away in recruiting, but for such a short turnaround, what Stoops did was very impressive. He got wide receiver Ryan Timmons, an ESPN 300 member, to sign with Kentucky over Florida and Ohio State. AND he got ESPN 150 defensive end Jason Hatcher to flip from USC to Kentucky. Yes, he got a top player to pick Lexington over Hollywood! What was also impressive was that he signed 11 players from the state of Florida, a state in which Strong has made a very, uh, strong recruiting priority. Stoops' Florida background will help him compete more head-to-head with Strong even away from the Bluegrass State. Stoops puts a lot of emphasis on defense, and I think he's going to eat into Strong's recruiting on that side of the ball. What say you, Andrea?

Adelson: Well, I think you bring up an excellent point, Edward -- both head coaches are defensive-minded coaches. That is a huge departure from the former head man at Kentucky, Joker Phillips, whose experience is on the offensive side of the ball. So, yes, I do agree that it is going to be interesting to see how they both try to wrangle defensive players into their respective programs and how they each recruit Florida. Louisville signed nine from the state last week -- in addition to the 32 already on the roster. But Louisville has major advantages right now. Its football facilities are better; its football stadium is better; its BCS history is better. Louisville has incredible staff stability right now, and given the $3.7 million Strong is set to make -- with a $5 million buyout to boot -- there is no reason to think he is going anywhere any time soon. Louisville is in way better position than Kentucky is for the long haul. But having said that, I don’t think this rivalry is going to be a gimme for Louisville in the years to come. The recent history indicates that. No team has won more than four straight in the series since the rivalry was renewed in 1994. In fact, I think their game this year in Lexington may end up being the most difficult on the schedule for Louisville. I know it’s looking way far ahead, but do you think there is a chance the Wildcats pull the upset?

Aschoff: With the current roster Kentucky has, it'll be tough, so if the Wildcats are going to pull the upset this fall, those freshmen have to make an immediate impact. That means guys like Hatcher, Smith and Timmons have to take full advantage of all the offseason reps they get. The one thing Stoops has going for him is that he has a solid, veteran quarterback in Maxwell Smith coming back, and if running back Josh Clemons can get healthy, I think he could be one of the pleasant surprises in the SEC because he showed so much potential before his devastating knee injury in 2011. But guys have to stay healthy on offense. The defense does lose some key players, including ends Collins Ukwu and Taylor Wyndham and do-everything defensive back Martavius Neloms, but linebackers Alvin Dupree and Miles Simpson are back and so are defensive tackles Mister Cobble and Donte Rumph. So there's a base to build off of for Stoops, but, again, those freshmen have to develop quickly if the Cats are going to have a chance. If the offense can improve, I think the Wildcats will throw some surprises out there for everyone, not just Louisville in 2013.

3-point stance: Conference consolidation

November, 28, 2012
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1. In 2004, we had 63 schools spread among six major conferences. In 2014, we will have 63 schools spread among five major conferences, the Big East having morphed into Conference USA. That’s not realignment. That’s consolidation. Five conferences split the big TV money instead of six. But the number of schools sharing that money remains the same. Did losing the Big East name in football really result in more money for the other leagues? Could it be that simple?

2. Mark Stoops becomes the head coach at Kentucky, and perhaps the Stoops family will become the first with three brothers to coach FBS football. Bob Stoops has won 148 games (and counting) at Oklahoma. Mike Stoops won 41 games as head coach at Arizona from 2004-11. At 189 wins, the Stoops brothers are barely halfway to the 362 victories of Vince and Bill Dooley.

3. The Big Ten handed out its four major awards Tuesday. Two went to Ohio State (Braxton Miller and John Simon as Offensive and Defensive Player of the Year, respectively) and two went to Penn State (Deion Barnes and Bill O’Brien as Freshman and Coach of the Year, respectively). If schools aren’t eligible for the postseason, why are their players and coaches eligible for awards? Don’t get me wrong. If they deserve the awards, they should get them. It’s just an arbitrary place to draw the line.

Minimal precedent for Alabama win vs LSU

November, 2, 2012
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History shows that the No. 1 Alabama Crimson Tide, who are coming off a home win against a Top-20 opponent Mississippi State, have a tough test Saturday against another highly ranked opponent in the fifth-ranked LSU Tigers at Tiger Stadium.

The AP No. 1 team has faced a Top-20 opponent on the road the week after a home win against another Top-20 opponent nine previous times. The AP No. 1 team is just 2-7 in those games, including the Crimson Tide, who lost in that situation at South Carolina two years ago.

Some of these games are defining moments in the history of at least one of the schools involved.

Here’s a summary of each game since 2000 that fits the same description as Alabama’s game at LSU this Saturday.

2010: 19 South Carolina def. 1 Alabama, 35-21
The Gamecocks came out firing, opening up a 21-3 lead that couldn’t be overcome en route to a 35-21 victory behind three touchdown passes from Stephen Garcia and three scores from freshman running back Marcus Lattimore.

The defense limited future NFL first-rounders Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson to just 64 yards on the ground, allowing South Carolina to earn the school’s first victory vs a No. 1-ranked opponent.

2008: 6 Texas Tech def. 1 Texas, 39-33
Texas was a play away from winning before Texas Tech quarterback Graham Harrell found Michael Crabtree on the sideline for the dramatic game-winning touchdown with one second left.

That loss would be the Longhorns’ only defeat of the season, but was enough to leave them (controversially) out of the BCS national title game that season.

2007: 17 Kentucky def. 1 LSU, 43-37 (3 OT)
The Wildcats, who hadn’t beaten a top-ranked opponent since taking down Ole Miss in 1964, rallied from a 13-point third-quarter deficit to force overtime.

In the third extra period, Kentucky quarterback Andre Woodson found Steve Johnson for a 7-yard touchdown pass, and LSU was unable to pick up a first down on its possession, setting off a wild celebration at Commonwealth Stadium.

Though it seemed like the loss dashed the Tigers’ national title hopes, they actually went on to lose another triple-overtime game later that season (50-48 to Arkansas), but still would end up playing for and winning the national title that season.

2001: 1 Miami (FL) def. 14 Virginia Tech, 26-24
The Hurricanes appeared to have the game under control after taking a 16-point lead in the fourth quarter, but Virginia Tech rallied for two touchdowns, including one off a blocked punt.

A failed two-point conversion by the Hokies and a late interception by Ed Reed (his second of the day) helped the Hurricanes ward off the comeback, giving them a two-point win that was their only single-digit margin of the season. Miami went on to crush Nebraska in the Rose Bowl and win the national title.
LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Georgia got what it wanted when Florida hammered South Carolina on Saturday afternoon, ostensibly setting up next week’s Georgia-Florida game to be for the lead in the SEC East race.

The Bulldogs nearly failed to hold up their end of the bargain that night, however, struggling throughout against four-touchdown underdog Kentucky before finally winning 29-24.

It was not the easy night most Bulldogs fans expected, but the win still gives Georgia a chance to control its destiny, which was the goal when the night began.

It was over when: Ken Malcome’s 5-yard run to the Kentucky 20 gave Georgia a first down and forced the Wildcats to use their last timeout, essentially allowing the Bulldogs to run out the remaining time on the clock.

Game ball goes to: Aaron Murray. Georgia’s quarterback bounced back from possibly the worst performance of his career -- a 109-yard effort in a 35-7 loss to South Carolina -- with one of the best games in his three seasons as Georgia’s starter. Murray set new career highs with 30 completions for 427 yards, finishing 30-for-38 passing with four touchdowns.

Stat of the game: 188/103. Georgia’s offense was inconsistent for most of the night, but the Bulldogs got the job done through the air -- particularly wideouts Tavarres King and Malcolm Mitchell. King threatened his school single-game record (205 yards against Michigan State last season) by finishing with nine catches for 188 yards and two touchdowns. Mitchell also caught nine balls for 103 yards. They became the first Georgia duo with 100 receiving yards apiece in a game since King and Orson Charles did it against Florida in 2010.

Unsung hero: Connor Norman. Kentucky had Georgia on the ropes again after scoring a touchdown late in the fourth quarter that made it 29-24 Georgia. The Wildcats attempted an onside kick and kicker Joseph Mansour nearly recovered it, but Norman sped in and dove on the ball just before Mansour was able to help Kentucky maintain possession.

What it means: The win gives Georgia a chance to claim first place in the division next week, but it was far from a confidence-inspiring victory. Kentucky is arguably the worst team in the SEC and the Wildcats gave the Bulldogs all they could handle. This was certainly not the crisp performance following a bye week that the Bulldogs desired.

Big East weekend rewind: Week 1

September, 3, 2012
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Here's one last look back at the weekend that was for the Big East.

The good: The Big East went 5-2 in its opening weekend. UConn kicked things off by pitching a shutout Thursday, Temple rolled through its Big East debut Friday, USF's and Rutgers' defenses keyed Saturday wins and Louisville looked like the conference favorite it is Sunday.

[+] EnlargeRyan Nassib
Nate Shron/Getty ImagesRyan Nassib threw for 470 yards in a losing effort against Northwestern.
The bad: Syracuse couldn't help a history-making performance effort from Ryan Nassib, giving up a game-winning touchdown drive to Northwestern in a 42-41 home loss. The Orange struggled in the secondary and on special teams, ruining Nassib's nearly 500-yard day. Things don't get easier for them with this schedule, so Syracuse will need to close whenever it gets the chance.

The ugly: FCS school Youngstown State 31, Pitt 17. At Heinz Field.

The extra helmet sticker: Louisville didn't play until Sunday afternoon, but it may have gotten the best individual performance of any conference player this weekend, as quarterback Teddy Bridgewater completed 19 of 21 passes for 232 yards in a 32-14 rout of rival Kentucky in which he was only needed for three quarters.

Turning point: In what ended up being a runaway, Louisville made a statement early. Facing third-and-9 from his own 2, Bridgewater connected with Damian Copeland on a beautiful 23-yard toss near the Kentucky sideline. It was the first big play of many on what ended up being a tone-setting 99-yard drive for Bridgewater and the Cardinals, who took care of business in Week 1.

The newcomers: Steve Addazio and his Owls retained the Mayor's Cup and returned to the Big East with a Week 1 win. Kyle Flood's team used a familiar Rutgers blueprint -- strong rushing, strong defense -- to methodically win a grinder at Tulane. And Paul Chryst suspended six Pitt players before his debut against YSU, one that did not exactly go according to plan.

Up next: Cincinnati finally kicks its season off Thursday, hosting a Pitt team needing to rebound fast. UConn, Temple and Syracuse face BCS schools NC State, Maryland and USC, respectively, while USF travels to Nevada, which upset Cal. Louisville hosts Missouri State and Rutgers hosts Howard.
We're finally here. UConn gets it going against UMass at 7:30 tonight (on ESPN3), kicking off what is sure to be another fun-filled Big East season. Here's what's worth keeping a close eye on during the first weekend.

1. Chandler Whitmer's debut: Whitmer is the only first-time starter for a Big East school this season, and he gets to go first. The Butler Community College (Kan.) transfer will face a Minutemen team making the transition to the FBS this season, and the Huskies are the first of many BCS programs on its 2012 slate.

[+] EnlargeChandler Whitmer
Cal Sport Media via AP ImagesJunior-college transfer Chandler Whitmer will get his first snaps for Connecticut against UMass.
2. Other debuts: By "other," we mean "coaching." Paul Chryst (Pitt) and Kyle Flood (Rutgers) are making their head-coaching debuts this weekend, and each has every reason to feel that his team has a shot at the conference title this season. Steve Addazio is also worth watching, as the second-year Temple coach is new to the conference this year.

3. Final Mayor's Cup?: And speaking of the Owls, they will face Villanova on Friday night in what might be the finale of their annual "Mayor's Cup" rivalry. Here's hoping for the sake of the sport and Philadelphia that the schools can find a way to it keep going, but the possibility that this is it for them makes it more intriguing.

4. UK-UL: Speaking of rivalries, what better way to cap off the opening weekend than with one of the more hostile ones featuring a Big East team? The Cardinals, for once, will be favored when they host Kentucky on Sunday, but the trash-talking has been alive and well throughout the offseason. (Rumor has it the schools played a fairly big hoops game this past spring, too.)

5. Cuse kicks off tough slate: The Orange are the only Big East team other than Louisville that will open against a fellow BCS-conference school, as they host Northwestern at noon Saturday. The Wildcats (yes, that's the third different "Wildcats" squad facing a Big East school this weekend) will hardly be it for Syracuse in the heavy nonconference slate, as the Orange will face USC in Week 2 before games against Minnesota and Missouri.

6. Rutgers-Tulane: The status of this game has been anything but solid all week with Hurricane Isaac on its way to the Louisiana area, but it looks like these two will give it a go Saturday night. The atmosphere for that one should be interesting.

7. Will Ray Graham play?: It will be essentially a game-time decision for the Pitt running back. When healthy, he just might be the best at his position in the country, though the Panthers should be just fine against Youngstown State on Saturday regardless.

8. Will B.J. Daniels put it all together? USF's Big East title hopes may rest on the arms and the legs of the four-year starter, who is on the cusp of multiple school and conference records. His farewell tour kicks off Saturday night against Chattanooga.

9. Four straight days of football. Yup. Starting today, continuing Friday and Saturday, and concluding Sunday, the Big East will have games on four consecutive days. The SEC is the only other big-six conference that can say the same. Enjoy the weekend, folks. I know I will.

10. But what does Cincinnati watch? Butch Jones' team is in the odd spot of spending the season's opening weekend at home before it kicks off its season next Thursday against Pitt. And he doesn't like it. TCU's departure for the Big 12 made this scenario seemingly unavoidable. Odds are the Bearcats will keep a close eye on that 6 p.m. Panthers-Youngstown State tilt.

Big East predictions: Week 1

August, 30, 2012
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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.
For the first time since anybody on the current Louisville football team has arrived at the school, the Cardinals will be the favored team heading into their rivalry game against Kentucky on Sunday.

Perhaps that is a big reason why the intensity surrounding this game has grown a few notches since the summer. Trash talk between both sides has been flying. A mini-brouhaha over the placement of Kentucky billboards on the Louisville campus set message boards and Twitter aflutter. The back and forth has resembled talk that surrounds the basketball teams, not the football teams.

Louisville coach Charlie Strong has done his best to keep his players focused on the game. After some of his players took to Twitter to boast about how badly they would beat the Wildcats, he made a point to tell them to stop talking. The trash talk has subsided, but players they are alluding to the game anyway. Defensive lineman Jamaine Brooks tweeted Tuesday, "Everybody asking bout Sunday just get ya popcorn ready."

Different feel in Louisville indeed.

"I try to get our players to stay away from all that talking because when the game is played, you're going to have to do your talking on the field, so back away from the talking," Strong said earlier this week. "What’s going to be key for us is what we have to get done with our football team. We can’t worry about Kentucky. ... You can talk about the billboards, you talk about what our guys are saying, but on Sunday, they get to prove who is the better football team."

Kentucky players have continued to sound off. After quarterback Morgan Newton slammed the type of schedule the Cardinals play earlier this month, linebacker Avery Williamson recently told WHAS-11 TV in Louisville, “I’d love to hit Teddy [Bridgewater]” to “let him know how physical it’s going to be."

Bridgewater has stayed above the fray. When asked earlier this summer if he paid attention to some of the talk coming from Kentucky, he said, "Not at all." Bridgewater is 1-0 against Kentucky, having come off the bench last season to lead the Cardinals to the upset win.

But center Mario Benavides has much more experience in this rivalry game, having started against the Wildcats as a redshirt freshman in 2009. He has suffered through the losses, and the down times and understands why there is a different sense surrounding this game.

The roles between the teams have essentially been reversed, and hopes are high not only for a victory in this game, but for another Big East championship.

"The only thing I can compare it to is the excitement and the fire the Kentucky fans had when we went to their place my first year starting in 2009, except it was the other way around," Benavides said in a phone interview. "It was a tough environment for an 18-year-old kid in his first game starting in a big-time environment. Now we have such great fans in Louisville. They’re waiting for an opportunity like this, for a potential season like this.

"We’ve always had support but now we’ve given them something to be excited about. It’s definitely a totally different feel, especially for me being one of the older guys. There's a lot of excitement, but you always have that guy on your shoulder telling you to just focus in and play the game and not get too caught up in all that other stuff."
1. Head coaches have been saying that the kicking game is one-third of football going back to the days of leather helmets. In the past decade, as coaches have bestowed more and more titles on their assistants, many schools have special-teams coordinators. But that title and those responsibilities have translated into very few head coaching jobs. Houston promoted Tony Levine. Will that move push open the door for guys like John Baxter at USC and Brian Polian at Texas A&M?

2. USC head coach Lane Kiffin explained away the seven interceptions that quarterback Matt Barkley has thrown this spring by pointing out that wide receiver Robert Woods is injured and not practicing -- not all picks are the fault of the passer -- and that Barkley is, in his fourth spring practice, bored. Kiffin’s acknowledgement that Barkley is human is refreshing. But I’m pretty sure Vince Lombardi and his small playbook didn’t exactly captivate the Packers season after season.

3. New York Yankee fans are delighted that Kentucky won its eighth NCAA men’s basketball championship Monday night, if only because the Yankees won the World Series in the previous seven years that the Wildcats won. There’s also good news in the SEC. In the last 50 years, when Kentucky won the Final Four -- 1978, 1996 and 1998 -- an SEC team also won the football national championship. As if the SEC needed another omen to win its seventh consecutive BCS title.

Oregon believes Kelly is a long-term Duck

December, 31, 2011
12/31/11
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The ink was barely dry on Rob Mullens' new contract to become Oregon's athletic director when he faced what perhaps will be considered the most important task of his tenure, even a decade down the road: Make football coach Chip Kelly happy.

It was the summer of 2010, and there was a general feeling among the pooh-bahs of Oregon sports -- most notably Nike founder Phil Knight and millionaire former AD Pat Kilkenny -- that Kelly sticking around for the long term in Eugene was the best chance for the football program to experience long-term success, a condition that keeps a department with an $80 million budget afloat.

[+] EnlargeChip Kelly
AP Photo/Tony GutierrezOregon doesn't want coach Chip Kelly -- who is in the midst of a 6-year, $20.5 million deal -- going anywhere.
So within 48 hours of his hiring, Mullens -- who was hired away from Kentucky in large part because of his skills with dollars and sense (no cents involved here) -- was on the phone with Kelly's agent working on a new contract.

The endgame was a six-year deal worth $20.5 million. Kelly made $2.4 million last year. He's making $2.8 million this year and will make $3.5 million the next. In 2014 and 2015, he'll pocket $4 million, which is roughly what the nation's highest-paid coaches made this year.

"People can look at the numbers and say it's high, but it fits within the marketplace," Mullens said. "It fits with the results. We have the person we want at the helm of our football program."

No other team in the nation is riding a streak of three consecutive BCS bowl games. That's a big reason Oregon merchandising sales went up from $1.5 million in 2007 -- the year Kelly left New Hampshire to become the Ducks' offensive coordinator -- to $2.25 million in 2010.

While it's difficult to quantify the entire picture financially, Mullens points out that the unprecedented success Kelly has produced over the past three years has more than paid for his big-dollar contract, mostly notably in exposure and increased donations. That revenue flow has been particularly important in a tough economy that has many athletic programs struggling, including many in the Pac-12.

Or at least it did. When the conference signed a $3 billion, 12-year TV contract with ESPN and Fox, athletic directors across the Pac-12 leaped into the air and clicked their heels. They also started to spend that money. Some on new coaches.

Sure, Kelly will make $3.5 million next year. But new UCLA coach Jim Mora, with no college coaching experience, will pocket $2.4 million. Washington State will pay Mike Leach $2.25 million.

In a lot of ways, Kelly's compensation pencils out pretty well for Oregon on the cash-for-accomplishment curve.

"It pays [for Oregon] because, one, he's a great coach," Mullens said. "Two, he's a perfect fit. That combination, you can never guarantee that. He has delivered the results."

In addition, Oregon is paying extra for stability. When the school committed to Kelly with SEC-like money, Kelly also committed to Oregon. His buyout dropped from $4 million last year to $3.75 million this year, but that number is almost prohibitive for even the richest athletic departments. In 2015-16, it will be $2 million, which is still pretty large by industry standards.

What does that buyout mean? Well, it means Kelly doesn't have wandering eyeballs. Further, it mutes all but the most uninformed rumor mills: Despite chatter to the contrary, Mullens said he has not been contacted this year by any college or NFL team that wanted to talk to Kelly about a job.

Further -- as Ken Goe of The Oregonian pointed out when there were rumors in December 2010 that Florida might come after Kelly after Urban Meyer resigned -- Kelly's contract has clauses that will make it a pain in the rear for a team to pursue him.
And a clause in the contract stipulates that Kelly must give Oregon 15 days' written notice before leaving, and further stipulates that he cannot leave during the regular season or before a postseason bowl game in which Oregon is a participant.

The sum total of all this suggests that Kelly wants to remain in Eugene, and Oregon wants him to stick around. There are no guarantees, of course, but the feeling at the administrative level -- and among key boosters -- is that Kelly is the right guy at the nexus of an athletic department that has ambitious, expansionist visions for itself.

No FBS athletic program thrives without football success, and Kelly's presence provides a sense of security for Oregon's cash cow. And as of today, it appears the marriage remains strong.

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