NCF Nation: Mardy Gilyard

Big East in the NFL draft

April, 26, 2010
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The NFL's fortnight of drafting -- what, it was only three days? Really? -- came to an end this weekend. I already touched on the first-round results on Friday. Here's a look at where Big East players went the rest of the draft, with some quick comments on each pick:

Second round

No. 37: Nate Allen, S, South Florida, to Philadelphia: No surprise here, as Allen was mentioned as a possible first-rounder at various points.

Third round

No. 65: Jerome Murphy, CB, South Florida to St. Louis: Here is proof that college production isn't always the most important thing to NFL scouts. Murphy struggled against some of the Big East's better receivers, but he has great physical tools and hopefully will find his niche in the pros.

Fourth round

No. 99: Mardy Gilyard, WR, Cincinnati, to St. Louis: If you watched any Bearcats games the past two years, you know that the Rams got an absolute steal. Think Sam Bradford will like having Gilyard around?

No. 101: Mike Williams, WR, Syracuse, to Tampa Bay: He was a first-round talent who was lucky to get picked this high given his off-the-field issues.

No. 107: Marcus Easley, WR, UConn, to Buffalo: Easley had great workouts, and though some thought he would go higher than this, it's still a great story for a guy who was a walk-on this time a year ago.

Fifth round

No. 157: Arthur Jones, DT, Syracuse, to Baltimore: Jones was talked about as a possible first-rounder earlier in his career. This is a great value pick for a player who will always give maximum effort.

Sixth round

No. 177: Carlton Mitchell, WR, South Florida, to Cleveland: Mitchell looked impressive in his workouts, but falling to the sixth round makes you question if he made the right choice in skipping his senior year.

No. 182: Nate Byham, TE, Pittsburgh, to San Francisco: The best blocking tight end in the Big East during his career.

No. 204: Tony Pike, QB, Cincinnati, to Carolina: Pike has to be disappointed that he fell this low and that he was drafted by the same team that took Jimmy Clausen a couple rounds earlier.

Seventh round

No. 226: George Selvie, DE, South Florida, to St. Louis: How much would you have bet against the notion that Selvie would be a seventh-round pick at this time last year? Selvie's production dropped after his breakout sophomore year, and now he'll have to prove himself again.

No. 227: Dorin Dickerson, TE, Pittsburgh, to Houston: Surprised to see Dickerson go this low after his great Combine performance. He's a tweener who needs the right team to showcase his skills.

No. 231: Selvish Capers, OT, West Virginia, to Washington: Capers has a lot of talent and potential.

No. 237: Ryan D'Imperio, LB/FB, Rutgers, to Minnesota: The Scarlet Knights' linebacker was drafted as a fullback although he never played it in college.

No. 238: Ricardo Mathews, DT, Cincinnati, to Indianapolis: Mathews didn't get as much attention on the Bearcats' defense as some other players but had a nice senior season.

No. 249: Robert McClain, CB, UConn, to Carolina: McClain had four interceptions last year and also served as the team's punt returner.

Here's a handy-dandy list of NFL Draft picks per Big East school:

South Florida: 5

Rutgers: 3

Cincinnati: 3

Connecticut: 2

Pitt: 2

Syracuse: 2

West Virginia: 1

Louisville: 0

And, finally, some notable players who weren't drafted (I'll have more later on those who signed free-agent contracts): Andre Dixon and Lindsey Witten from UConn; Aaron Webster and Alex Daniels from Cincinnati; Scott Long from Louisville; and Jarrett Brown from West Virginia.

Biggest shoes to fill in the Big East

February, 8, 2010
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A year ago at this time, the Big East was dealing with the loss of a plethora of stars, including some of the best players in league history. Guys like Pat White, Donald Brown, Kenny Britt, LeSean McCoy and Scott McKillop seemed difficult, if not impossible, to replace.

The league fared just fine in 2009 without those stars, and the good news for 2010 is that many of its top performers will be back. But that's not to say there aren't still some key losses that teams will have to adjust to this spring. Here's a look at the biggest shoes to fill this season in the Big East:

  • Mardy Gilyard, WR, Cincinnati: The Bearcats aren't exactly hurting at wide receiver with Armon Binns, D.J. Woods and USC transfer Vidal Hazelton around. Still, someone must replace Gilyard's leadership and knack for making the big play at crucial times. What might be even more difficult to replace is Gilyard's production on special teams. The two-time Big East special teams player of the year was always a threat to score on kickoffs and punt returns. And hopefully someone will step in Gilyard's role as the best quote in the entire conference.
  • Tim Brown, WR, Rutgers: Brown may not have received a ton of attention nationally, but he was vitally important to the Scarlet Knights. The speedster averaged 20.9 yards per catch and amassed 1,150 receiving yards and nine touchdowns as the team's only true deep threat. With a still very young receiving corps surrounding Tom Savage, Rutgers will need to find someone who can stretch the field the way Brown did.
  • Mick Williams, DT, Pittsburgh: The 2009 co-defensive player of the year in the conference, Williams was a wildly disruptive force in the middle of that Panthers defensive line, as well as an inspirational leader. With fellow senior tackle Gus Mustakas also gone, Pitt needs more production from backups Myles Caragein and Chas Alecxih, among others.
  • Devin McCourty, CB, Rutgers: McCourty was an underappreciated gem for the Scarlet Knights, a lockdown cornerback who also was seemingly everywhere on special teams. He was the leader of the secondary. Guys with his skills don't come around that often.
  • Reed Williams, LB, West Virginia: The Mountaineers had to deal with Williams' absence for most of 2008 and at times this past season because of various injuries. But it was clear that they were a different team whenever Williams was healthy. A smart player (he's the 2009 Big East football scholar-athlete of the year ) who anchored the defense at middle linebacker, Williams was like a coach on the field.
  • George Selvie and Jason Pierre-Paul, DE, South Florida: Say what you will about Selvie's dwindling production, but opposing offense still always had to account for him. And Pierre-Paul ascended to star status in his one year on campus. Combined, the two produced 26 tackles for loss and 10 sacks in 2009. The Bulls now need the next wave of pass-rushers to emerge, with former stud recruit Ryne Giddins one possible candidate.

Big East players of the decade

January, 19, 2010
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It's not easy coming up with a list of the 10 best players of the past decade in the Big East.

You could almost make the list solely from Miami players between 2000 and 2003; the Hurricanes were that dominant with that many unbelievable athletes on the roster.

But there were several other outstanding players on other teams throughout the decade. When trying to pare down the top 10, I gave extra benefit to longevity. Many stars had amazing single seasons -- guys like Willis McGahee, Donald Brown and Elvis Dumervil -- but I leaned toward those who did it over a longer period of time. NFL production doesn't hurt one's case but is not a major determining factor; this is a list of the best Big East players, not top future pros.

So without further ado, here's my Top 10:

10. Brian Brohm, QB, Louisville: Brohm held the league's all-time career yardage mark before Matt Grothe broke it this past season. He led the Cardinals to the 2007 Orange Bowl title, and he still owns Big East records for passing yards in a career (9,956), season (4,024) and a game (555).

9. Mardy Gilyard, WR, Cincinnati: Gilyard's 3,003 career receiving yards rank just 40 yard behind the league's all-time leader, Rutgers' Kenny Britt. But he is also a two-time league special teams player of the year for his tremendous work on kick returns, and he was one of the main catalysts for the Bearcats' back-to-back Big East titles in 2008 and 2009.

8. Ken Dorsey, QB, Miami: Dorsey is the only Big East quarterback who can say he won a national title in the aughts. He finished his career with a ridiculous 38-2 record, was a two-time Big East offensive player of the year award winner, a two-time Heisman Trophy finalist and the co-MVP of the 2002 Rose Bowl.


Ron Scheffler/US PresswireFormer West Virginia quarterback Pat White had a 4-0 record in bowl games.
7. Sean Taylor, DB, Miami: Taylor was an incredible physical specimen who was as feared a defensive player as the league has ever seen. The hard-hitting safety had 10 interceptions while winning 2003 Big East defensive player of the year honors. Tragically, his life was cut short when he was killed in his home in 2007.

6. Dwight Freeney, DE, Syracuse: Freeney was a holy terror on quarterbacks. His 34 career sacks ranks as the third most in Big East history, and he recorded 17.5 of them his senior year. He has gone on to stardom with the Indianapolis Colts.

5. Bryant McKinnie, OT, Miami: It's easy to forget the big guys up front sometimes, but it's impossible to omit McKinnie from this list. The 2001 Outland Trophy winner and two-time All-American did not allow a sack in his college career. He finished eighth in Heisman Trophy balloting in 2001 -- for an offensive lineman, that's staggeringly high.

4. Ray Rice, RB, Rutgers: Rice had two of the top three rushing seasons in Big East history and finished his three-year career with 4,926 rushing yards, only 113 yards behind all-time leader and four-year player Avon Cobourne of West Virginia. Rutgers' running game has sputtered ever since Rice left campus, and he has blossomed into a star at the next level.

3. Ed Reed, DB, Miami: Reed's Big East record of 21 career interceptions may not be broken for a long, long time. The two-time All-American had nine picks and returned three for touchdowns in 2001 alone.

2. Larry Fitzgerald, WR, Pittsburgh: Fitzgerald finished second in the 2003 Heisman Trophy race and ought to have won it. His incredible season saw him catch 92 passes for 1,672 yards and 22 touchdowns. He was almost as good in 2002, as well.

1. Pat White, QB, West Virginia: White may or may not be the best player on this list, but his accomplishments put him above the rest. He finished his career as the NCAA's all-time leader in rushing among quarterbacks, led West Virginia to two BCS bowl wins and went 4-0 in bowls as a starter. Maybe more importantly, he helped save the Big East by leading the Mountaineers to a win over Georgia in the 2006 Sugar Bowl when the league's credibility and BCS status were in question. For pure impact and career achievement, White is the Big East's man of the decade.

Very honorable mention: Andre Johnson, Kellen Winslow, Willis McGahee and Jonathan Vilma, Miami; Donald Brown, UConn; Kenny Britt, Rutgers; Elvis Dumervil, Louisville; Antonio Bryant and Darrelle Revis, Pitt; Mathias Kiwanuka, Boston College; DeAngelo Hall, Virginia Tech.

That's my list. Who's in your Top 10 of the past 10 years?
NEW ORLEANS -- Halftime analysis from the Allstate Sugar Bowl, where Florida leads Cincinnati 30-3:

Player of the half: Tim Tebow. Perhaps you've heard of him. The Florida star is adding to his legend in his final college game with a nearly flawless first half. Tebow completed his first 12 passes and 17 of his first 18. He finished 20-of-23 for 320 yards and three scores -- and again, that's in the first half.

Stat of the half: Cincinnati has 55 total yards to 383 for Florida.

Turning point: When this matchup was announced. Seriously, it's been completely one-sided, and Cincinnati does not appear to belong on the same field with the bigger, faster and crisper Gators.

Unsung hero: The Florida secondary has been great at keeping Cincinnati's receivers bottled up. Mardy Gilyard has only four catches for 20 yards. There just aren't openings down the field, even when the Gators bring pressure.

What Cincinnati needs to do: They need to mix some things up. Why not give Zach Collaros a shot and see if he provides a spark at quarterback? But defensively, I'm not sure what the answer is. Tebow is picking the defense apart. Interim coach Jeff Quinn needs a miracle.

Record performance: Tebow's 12 straight completions to start the game set a new Sugar Bowl record.

Allstate Sugar Bowl warm-ups

January, 1, 2010
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NEW ORLEANS -- The teams have completed their pregame warm-ups, including Tim Tebow for the last time as a collegian (try to hold back those tears).

There do not appear to be any significant injuries for either side. Urban Meyer is not in a hospital gurney. So we should be all set to go.

Cincinnati will wear all white uniforms, including white helmets, for the first time since the 1966 season.

Mardy Gilyard looks ready. Early in warm-ups, the Cincinnati receiver went over to the sidelines where the Bearcats fans were and tried to pump them up. They chanted, "Mardy! Mardy!"

Allstate Sugar Bowl pick

December, 31, 2009
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Cincinnati has been good to me this year. I'm 11-0 when picking the Bearcats and 0-1 when going against them. Should I stick with the one who brung me? Let's see:

Florida 33, Cincinnati 21: I keep trying to find ways to envision the Bearcats winning this game, and it's just not easy to see. Florida will have to have an off game like it did against Alabama and Cincinnati will have to play great.

I just think the offense is going to have a hard time scoring at its usual rate against that fierce Gators defense, and their excellent secondary will slow down Mardy Gilyard, Armon Binns and D.J. Woods. And the way Bob Diaco's defense played down the stretch inspires zero confidence. This could be an unpredictable game because of all the bizarre coaching moves. But on paper, Florida just looks a little too good to me.

Cincinnati seeks defining bowl victory

December, 31, 2009
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NEW ORLEANS -- It's been one weird week leading up to the Allstate Sugar Bowl, as almost all of the talk has centered around coaches coming and going, how the two teams are dealing with that and even 911 calls.

[+] EnlargeCincinnati Bearcats
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesIf Cincinnati can upset the Gators, it would be the biggest win in school history.
Hardly anybody, it seems, wants to talk about the actual game between Florida and Cincinnati. The sideshow has become the main show.

Truth is, though, this game could be remembered for a lot more in future years if the Bearcats manage to win it. It would have to go down as the biggest win in school history, and probably the best by the Big East since the current league format began in 2005.

"This is a huge opportunity for us to show that we're legitimate, because a lot of people don't think that we are," Cincinnati linebacker JK Schaffer said.

Cincinnati's credentials are tough to ignore, since the team is 12-0, ranked third in the BCS standings and has won two straight Big East titles. Still, there is always going to be some doubt about whether the Big East's best can match the cream of the crop of the SEC.

No program in college football has done more the past four years than Florida, which has won two of the past three BCS titles. The Gators were ranked No. 1 nearly all season before losing to Alabama in the SEC championship game. West Virginia's BCS wins over Georgia and Oklahoma gave the Big East a major shot in the arm; this victory would be bigger than both of those.

"We feel we can play against anybody but most times we don't get credit for that," Bearcats receiver Mardy Gilyard said. "This will show the nation that the Bearcats and the Big East can play ball just like the Big Ten, the Big 12, the SEC and the ACC. We play good ball in our conference, and we just want to showcase that to the best of our ability."

Outside of the title game, the outcome of a BCS game doesn't always matter too much. Just getting there is the key. Louisville won the 2007 Orange Bowl and saw its program tumble. Cincinnati lost last year's Orange Bowl and went 12-0 this year.

But this game could have lasting ramifications for the Bearcats, who lost the architect of their recent success when Brian Kelly went to Notre Dame. They do not want to lose their momentum like Louisville did with its coaching transition.

"If we beat Florida, that would really put us up on the map as far as recruiting and getting larger support from the Cincinnati fan base," linebacker Craig Carey said. "Top recruits in the country would start opening their eyes to Cincinnati."

And then there's history. A win would make the Bearcats 13-0, and for the rest of their lives the players could at least make the argument that they were the best team in college football in 2009.

"I'd love to have that conversation Friday night if we can pull it off," quarterback Tony Pike said.

By then maybe the talk around the Sugar Bowl will be back to the actual game.
One team lost its coach to Notre Dame. The other is losing its coach -- at least temporarily -- to health concerns following this game. Has there ever been a BCS bowl game where there has been less talk about the game itself than Friday night's Allstate Sugar Bowl between Cincinnati and Florida? Big East blogger Brian Bennett and SEC blogger Chris Low take a closer look at the matchup and everything surrounding it.

Brian Kelly and Urban Meyer
US PresswireThe recent career moves made by Brian Kelly and Urban Meyer have overshadowed the Sugar Bowl.
Brian Bennett: Well, Chris, clearly Urban Meyer and Brian Kelly don't think the Sugar Bowl is that important, since Meyer tried to upstage it with his non-retirement retirement and Kelly couldn't be bothered to stick around to coach this game. You've been around the Gators. What's your sense in how they're approaching this game and how much motivation they'll have to play it after losing to Alabama?

Chris Low: Brian, an excellent question. The only thing missing now is for a bunch of players on both sides to take a leave and decide not to play in the game. That said, Florida has about seven juniors who are looking strongly at turning pro. That's never a good thing, because you never know for sure what their commitment level is for that last game -- assuming it is their last game. The best thing the Gators have going for them is Tim Tebow. He desperately wants to go out a winner and has had a pretty good hold on this team for the last couple of years. Typically, the Gators have followed his lead. But with no national championship to play for and so many unknowns concerning Meyer's future, this has an uneasy feel to it if you're of the orange and blue persuasion.

BB: Of course, Cincinnati has its own distractions, with Kelly's departure and interim coach Jeff Quinn taking the Buffalo job. But I get the sense that the Bearcats are focused and motivated for this game. Unlike Florida, they really have something to prove. They can show that they can win without Kelly, that they can beat a big SEC power and they can finish 13-0 with at least a claim to being the best team in the country. Motivation only goes so far, though. Cincinnati is going to have to play a nearly perfect game, I think, to win. I actually believe that outside of Tim Tebow, Florida doesn't have nearly as many offensive weapons as the Bearcats do. Am I crazy on that point, Chris? And did the Gators' defense show some fatal flaws in Atlanta?

[+] EnlargeAaron Hernandez
Al Messerschmidt/Getty ImagesAaron Hernandez has been one of Florida's most dangerous weapons.
CL: Sticking with the motivation theme for a moment, this will be the first game Florida has played since the end of the 2007 season where the Gators didn't have a national championship in their sights. Talk about reshuffling the deck. But, no, I don't think you're off at all about the lack of offensive weapons for the Gators. They have plenty of talent and plenty of guys who can run fast. What they don't have is an abundance of guys who consistently made plays down the field in games this season. Tight end Aaron Hernandez is a tough matchup for anybody, and the Gators will involve him in several different ways. Receiver Riley Cooper was Tebow's favorite target on the perimeter and made some big plays for the Gators. But all in all, it was much more of a grind-it-out offense this season, and as we saw in the SEC championship game, the Gators aren't real comfortable when they have to play from behind. To me, the key is whether the Bearcats can keep Tebow in a bunch of third-and-long situations. Do they have that kind of defensive muscle, Brian, to stuff the Gators on first down?

BB: In short, no. At least not if that defense plays the way it did down the stretch this season, when it gave up more than 36 points per game. The Bearcats are small up front and highly susceptible to being pushed around by bigger offensive lines, which the Gators have. Tebow could give them nightmares with a power option. Cincinnati is really built defensively to stop spread attacks with its speed, though its athletes probably can't match Florida's. Defensive coordinator Bob Diaco would love to see the Gators play like they did against Alabama, when they pretty much abandoned the running game. But Cincinnati will likely have to score quickly and build a lead for that to happen. Arkansas gave Florida some trouble with its spread. How do you think the Gators' defense will stand up to the Bearcats' no-huddle, pass-happy system which is unlike most SEC offenses? Can they pressure Tony Pike, who gets rid of the ball so quickly from the shotgun?

[+] EnlargeMardy Gilyard
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesCincinnati has gotten big plays from Mardy Gilyard all season.
CL: It's hard for anybody to get that last impression of the Florida defense out of their mind. The Gators didn't do much of anything well defensively against Alabama in the SEC championship game. But in fairness, that was the exception this season. Charlie Strong's guys set the tone for the Gators as they sprinted out to a 12-0 regular season. When they needed a play on defense, they got it. I do believe Florida is well equipped to handle Cincinnati's up-tempo style. For one, the Gators get their best pass-rusher, junior defensive end Carlos Dunlap, back for this game after he was suspended for the SEC championship game. He's a force coming off the edge, but Jermaine Cunningham is just as good on the other side. And even if the Bearcats are able to get rid of the ball quickly and neutralize the Florida pass rush, the Gators have plenty of answers in the secondary. Strong won't be afraid to play man coverage with cornerbacks Joe Haden and Janoris Jenkins, both of whom will be playing in the NFL at some point. There's a reason Florida tied for the SEC lead with 20 interceptions. The Gators had 13 of those during the final six weeks of the regular season. Heck, even middle linebacker Brandon Spikes has four interception returns for touchdowns over the last two seasons. In short, this is a Florida defense that gravitates to the football.

BB: It's a formidable defense, Chris, and as much as I've been impressed with Cincinnati all year, I'm not sure the Bearcats can match athlete vs. athlete, especially without the game-day wizardry of Kelly. They are going to have to get some special-teams magic from Mardy Gilyard, get their offense to put Florida on its heels early and hope that the Gators really don't care much about this game. I see the Bearcats hanging tough early but losing by about two scores in this one. How do you see this playing out?

CL: The Tebow factor is just too much for me to pick against the Gators. He will make sure they're ready to play even if a few of his teammates happen to be thinking more about NFL dollars than the Bearcats. I look for the Gators to get out of the gate quickly on offense and then break the game open with a big play in special teams. There are so many ways they're capable of doing that, too, with a blocked kick, punt return for a touchdown or simply setting up short drives for themselves with their superior punt game. Cincinnati will score some points in this game, but I have Florida winning going away ... by at least 17 points.

Sugar Bowl notebook

December, 29, 2009
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NEW ORLEANS -- Some news and notes from Tuesday's Allstate Sugar Bowl media sessions:
  • While Cincinnati is certainly happy to be in New Orleans, the Bearcats can't help but think how close they came to Pasadena.
After returning home from a 45-44 victory at Pitt on Dec. 5, most of the players anxiously watched the Big 12 title game, hoping for a Texas loss to Nebraska. That might have been enough to vault the 12-0 Bearcats into the BCS title game. And when Colt McCoy's last pass sailed out of bounds and the clock showed zero, they thought they were headed to the national championship.

"I was at (receiver) Charley Howard's house eating wings," wideout Mardy Gilyard said. "When I saw that clock hit zero, I threw my wings in the air. My brother and everybody were calling me immediately, saying 'You all are going to be in the big show.' And then all of a sudden that dreaded second came back on the clock.

“It was really a swift change. My wings were in the air and then by the time they touched the ground, I was like, 'I wonder what BCS game we’re going to be in.'"

Big 12 officials, of course, put one second back on the clock, and Texas kicked the winning field goal. But Cincinnati players don't sound too upset to have missed out on their shot at the title.
"We were so close," center Chris Jurek said. "But the two teams playing for the national championship are the right teams to be playing for it."
  • Florida's defense should get a boost with the return of defensive end Carlos Dunlap. The junior, who tied for the team lead with seven sacks this season, didn't play in the SEC championship game against Alabama after a DUI arrest.
"He made a mistake that never should have happened," defensive coordinator Charlie Strong said. "But he came back and was willing to apologize to the team."

Strong said no decision had been made whether Dunlap will start, but he will play.

"Everybody makes mistakes, but his was at a time that we really, really needed him," linebacker Ryan Stamper said.
  • Florida's defensive players know they're going against one of the best offenses in the country. They see that as a chance to prove themselves.
Alabama ran all over the Gators in a 32-13 romp in that SEC title game. Cornerback Joe Haden said shutting down Cincinnati would restore the defense's reputation.

"This gives us a chance to rebound and show that last game was a fluke," Haden said. "Alabama did a great job, but we definitely didn't play as well as we should have."

Haden said the secondary is excited to play what is primarily a passing team, after spending most of the season preparing for run-heavy offenses in the SEC.
  • Gilyard, who's from Bunnell, Fla., told me for the story I wrote earlier this week that he had been recruited by Florida, but that the Gators backed off because of academic concerns. He added some more details to that account on Tuesday.
"Ron Zook was the coach then, and he came to my high school," Gilyard said. "And that day, I did something knuckleheaded. I skipped school. My high school coach called me, upset of course, saying 'Ron Zook is here, we've checked all your classes, where are you?' I was at the beach or something. I'm sure Florida was like, 'Get him out of here.' I'm blessed that somebody wanted to fool with me."
  • Quote of the day: Cincinnati left tackle Jeff Linkenbach, on both teams' rather interesting coaching situations: "It's been bizarre. But we're in New Orleans. It's a bizarre place."
NEW ORLEANS -- Cincinnati's offense has raced up and down the field all season, often scoring at a breakneck pace. Only one opponent -- West Virginia -- held the Bearcats' up-tempo spread to fewer than 28 points this year.

But will that offense -- missing its mastermind, Brian Kelly -- succeed against Florida's defense? Cincinnati passing game coordinator Charley Molnar described the Gators D as the best in the nation, and the numbers suggest that's not far off. Florida ranked third in the FBS in scoring defense this season, allowing fewer than 12 points per game.

[+] EnlargeTony Pike
Jeanine Leech/Icon SMIQuarterback Tony Pike is impressed with what he's seen of the Florida defense.
The Bearcats dominated the Big East as well as teams like Oregon State and Illinois. But this is an SEC defense loaded with athletes. It may not be a fair comparison, but the last time Florida played a team from Ohio in a BCS game, its speed was too much for Ohio State to handle.

"It's the Florida athlete vs. the Ohio athlete," Gators linebacker Ryan Stamper said.

Cincinnati understands the mammoth challenge awaiting Friday night in the Allstate Sugar Bowl.

"This is the best defense I've seen on film since I've been here," Bearcats senior quarterback Tony Pike said. "The biggest thing about Florida is they have athletes and speed at every position. You play some teams where the D-line may be unbelievable, but you may get a break in the secondary and the linebackers. But from the D-line to the linebackers to the secondary, this is the best group I've seen."

Pike said he expects to see a lot of man coverage from Florida's secondary. The Gators are so strong up front that they don't have to blitz often to get pressure.

"I think they resemble Pitt's defensive line, just with their sheer size and speed," Cincinnati center Chris Jurek said. "Their overall team speed on defense can be overwhelming for some teams."

Jurek and the Bearcats' offensive line will be under serious pressure, but on the other hand, they allowed only 12 sacks this season. Pike operates almost exclusively out of the shotgun and delivers the ball quickly by design.

"It's going to be a great challenge for the whole offensive line," left tackle Jeff Linkenbach said. "But we put four [linemen] on the Big East first and second teams. So this will be a great place for us to showcase ourselves."

Few teams have been more efficient or explosive offensively this season than the Bearcats. They excel at creating seams and getting receivers in open space. Pike is very accurate, and the wideouts go get the ball.

That formula has worked to perfection all year. Now it's time to see whether it will work against one of the nation's best defenses.

"We'll spread 'em out and get 'em moving, because that's what we do," receiver Mardy Gilyard said. "I know they have great athletes all over the field on defense, but we have athletes all over the field on offense. It will be strength against strength."

Big East announces postseason awards

December, 9, 2009
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Dion Lewis is the Big East's offensive player of the year, while Pitt teammates Greg Romeus and Mick Williams shared the defensive player of the year award in voting by the league's head coaches. It's the first time two teammates have ever shared that honor.

Cincinnati's Mardy Gilyard repeated as the league's special teams player of the year, while Brian Kelly made it a three-peat on coach of the year honors.

Lewis, who rushed for nearly 1,700 yards, also was named the Big East rookie of the year. He's the first to win both offensive and rookie awards since Virginia Tech's Michael Vick.

The league also announced its postseason first and second All-Big East teams and made the late Jasper Howard an honorary captain. The UConn cornerback was stabbed to death hours after the Huskies' Oct. 17 win over Louisville.

"We regard the Big East Conference as the biggest family in collegiate athletics,” commissioner John Marinatto said in a statement. “As a family, we wanted to respectfully remember Jasper Howard and honor his memory."

When I revealed my own awards on Tuesday, I chose Williams as the defensive player of the year but noted how close it was between him and Romeus. Obviously, the coaches couldn't decide.

Here's the complete list of all the award winners and the first- and second-team selections. There are a few differences between the official Big East team and my choices for the ESPN.com All-Big East team. Because the league simply awards extra spots when there are ties, both Bill Stull and Tony Pike are officially first-teamers at quarterback. Anthony Davis made the league first team but not mine at offensive tackle; while Davis is clearly the most naturally gifted lineman in the league, there's no way he was consistent or productive enough this season to earn that distinction.

The coaches also chose Cincinnati's Chris Jurek at center, while I had UConn's Moe Petrus. Either one is a fine choice.

On defense, the official team has five defensive linemen, four linebackers and three cornerbacks, plus two safeties. Well, you could definitely stop some offenses with that kind of lineup. I think it's time the league institute some tiebreaker rules, because in an eight-team league, that's completely ridiculous.

Anyway, one of the main differences in the league's team and my own is the coaches voted for West Virginia's Robert Sands at safety over my pick, South Florida's Nate Allen. I have no beef with that, since I wrestled with that choice for a long time.

Most people would have picked two-time All-American defensive end George Selvie as the preseason defensive player of the year. The South Florida senior only made the league's second team, however.

ESPN.com's All-Big East team

December, 8, 2009
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The official league selections will come out tomorrow. Here are my choices for the best of the Big East, from a season's worth of observations and some consultation from league coaches:

Offense

QB: Tony Pike, Cincinnati

RB: Dion Lewis, Pittsburgh

RB: Noel Devine, West Virginia

WR: Mardy Gilyard, Cincinnati

WR: Jonathan Baldwin, Pittsburgh

TE: Dorin Dickerson, Pittsburgh

OT: Jason Pinkston, Pittsburgh

OT: Jeff Linkenbach, Cincinnati

C: Moe Petrus, Connecticut

OG: John Malecki, Pittsburgh

OG: Zach Hurd, Connecticut

Defense

DE: Greg Romeus, Pittsburgh

DE: Jason Pierre-Paul, South Florida

DT: Mick Williams, Pittsburgh

DT: Chris Neild, West Virginia

LB: Lawrence Wilson, Connecticut

LB: Kion Wilson, South Florida

LB: Derrell Smith, Syracuse

CB: Devin McCourty, Rutgers

CB: Aaron Berry, Pittsburgh

S: Aaron Webster, Cincinnati

S: Nate Allen, South Florida

Specialists

K: Tyler Bitancurt, West Virginia

P: Scott Kozlowski, West Virginia

KR: Mardy Gilyard, Cincinnati

PR: Robert McClain, Connecticut
It was supposed to be a down year for the Big East.

The league entered the season with no ranked teams and much uncertainty. Every team had at least one major question mark, and several stars were lost in the 2009 NFL draft.

Instead, the conference had one of its strongest showings and most exciting seasons ever. Two teams -- Cincinnati and Pittsburgh -- cracked the top 10, five total league teams appeared in the Top 25 at some point and three finished in the final rankings. Cincinnati provided the Big East a legitimate powerhouse, going 12-0 and coming up a controversial Big 12 second short of possibly crashing the BCS title game.

[+] EnlargeDion Lewis
Al Messerschmidt/Getty ImagesDion Lewis rushed for 1,640 yards and 16 touchdowns for the Panthers.
While the Bearcats were clearly the league's best team, the conference remained very balanced. Cincinnati beat Pitt by one point, Connecticut by two and West Virginia by three. West Virginia beat Pitt on a last-second field goal, while Pitt pulled the same trick on UConn.

South Florida got its usual September day in the sun by beating Florida State before slinking back into the shade by mid-October. Rutgers won eight games, including a blowout of South Florida and a thriller over UConn, but couldn't get a signature win. Syracuse, despite a 4-8 record, showed signs of progress under first-year coach Doug Marrone, while Louisville ended the Steve Kragthorpe era after missing a bowl for the third straight year.

In all, the league was highly competitive each week and finished 32-8 against nonconference opponents. The Big East provided lots of great stories -- like Cincinnati's run, UConn's strength in the light of tragedy and Greg Paulus' transition from point guard to quarterback -- and several dramatic games, including the Cincinnati-Pitt finale and virtually every game Connecticut played. Many young stars, from Dion Lewis to Mohamed Sanu to Zach Collaros, came of age under the bright lights and will be making plays in this league for years.

If that's what a down year looks like, may the Big East never find its way up.

Offensive MVP: Pitt running back Dion Lewis

Had Tony Pike stayed healthy all year, he may have run away with this award. But that doesn't diminish the amazing achievements by Lewis, who did the unthinkable by dominating the conference as a true freshman. He finished third in the nation in rushing with 1,640 yards and scored 16 touchdowns. He eclipsed 100 yards nine times and went over 150 yards in five of his last seven games. The rest of the Big East can't believe they have to face this guy for at least two more years.

Defensive MVP: Pitt defensive tackle Mick Williams

This was a very difficult choice. Several defensive players had standout years, but there was no one obvious guy like Scott McKillop last year. I asked a few coordinators around the league for help with this pick, and the consensus was that Williams and fellow Pitt defensive lineman Greg Romeus were the two most disruptive, headache-inducing defenders in the conference this year. I give Williams the nod over Romeus because he had 15 tackles for loss from the defensive tackle position, which is very impressive, and his work on the inside helped make it possible for Romeus to rush the passer on the edge.

Special teams MVP: Cincinnati returner Mardy Gilyard

Rutgers' Devin McCourty had a great year on special teams as well, but Gilyard had the uncanny ability to make a huge play when his team needed it most. Never was that more evident than his 99-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against Pitt. Gilyard returned two kickoffs and a punt back for scores this year and was a threat to go all the way every time he touched the ball.

Newcomer of the year: Lewis

If he's the offensive player of the year, then this is obvious. There were other top-notch newcomers who might have won this in other years, including Rutgers' Sanu and South Florida's Jason Pierre-Paul.

Coach of the year: Cincinnati's Brian Kelly

Kelly might not have any more room on his mantle for this award since it would be the third time in three years he's won it. UConn's Randy Edsall deserves strong consideration as well for the way he kept his team together and led with grace after the death of Jasper Howard. But 12-0 is 12-0, especially when you replaced virtually your entire defense.

Biggest surprise: Connecticut

Not so much that it finished 7-5, which was about as expected, but because the Huskies rebounded from tragedy to close the year strong while becoming an offensive power.

Biggest disappointment: South Florida

I suppose it shouldn't be a surprise anymore, but after yet another 5-0 start that included a win at Florida State, the Bulls sure should have done better than 7-5 and the International Bowl. Yes, Matt Grothe's injury didn't help. But when you consider that five of the team's victories came over two FCS teams, Western Kentucky, Syracuse and Louisville, that 7-5 mark looks even drearier.

Game of the year: Cincinnati 45, Pitt 44, Dec. 5

The Big East saved its best for last, as the schedule worked out perfectly to create a de facto championship game at Heinz Field. And what a game it was, with Cincinnati coming back from a 21-point first-half deficit and 14-point fourth quarter hole to win on a touchdown pass in the final minute. It's a game that will remembered by both sides for a long, long time.

Allstate Sugar Bowl

December, 6, 2009
12/06/09
9:54
PM ET
Allstate Sugar Bowl: Cincinnati (12-0) vs. Florida (12-1)
Jan. 1, 8:30 p.m. (FOX)

Cincinnati had hoped to play for the BCS title after its perfect season. A Sugar Bowl trip against the defending national champs and the team that was ranked No. 1 most of the season is not a bad consolation prize.

The Bearcats -- who are making their second straight BCS appearance -- could even siphon some first-place votes in the final Associated Press poll with an impressive performance against the Gators. But that won't be easy.

The Cincinnati defense allowed 146 points in its last four regular-season games, and while Florida struggled at times this season to score points, giving Urban Meyer and Tim Tebow nearly a month to prepare is a scary proposition. The Gators' overall team speed and athleticism will provide a stiff test, though with guys like Mardy Gilyard, Armon Binns and Isaiah Pead, the Bearcats are not exactly plodders either.

Interim Bearcats coach Jeff Quinn has to be encouraged by how Alabama scored 32 points on the mighty Gators' defense, which had allowed only 20 points once before Saturday. Nobody has been able to keep Tony Pike, Gilyard and the Bearcats' attack under 24 points all season, and they're very comfortable if it becomes a shootout.

It's no BCS title game, but beating the program that has recently been the gold standard in college football would represent a huge leap forward for Cincinnati, which is Meyer's alma mater. Like a lot of alumni, Meyer probably never thought he'd see the day when the Bearcats could stack up to SEC powers in the Sugar Bowl. We'll find out if that day has arrived.

Big East helmet stickers, Week 14

December, 6, 2009
12/06/09
12:20
AM ET
  • Mardy Gilyard, WR/KR, Cincinnati: Gilyard caught five balls for 118 yards and a touchdown and had 256 return yards -- including a 99-yard touchdown -- in the Bearcats' 45-44 win at Pittsburgh.
  • Dion Lewis, RB, Pittsburgh: Lewis carried a school record 47 times for 194 yards and three touchdowns in Pitt's loss.
  • Sidney Glover, DB, West Virginia: Glover had a 24-yard interception return for a touchdown in the Mountaineers' 24-21 win at Rutgers.
  • Marcus Easley, WR, Connecticut: Easley had eight catches for 122 yards and a touchdown in UConn's 29-27 win over South Florida.

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