NCF Nation: Najee Goode

Big East position rankings: LB

February, 22, 2012
2/22/12
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We continue with our final 2011 position rankings by moving to linebacker. There were plenty of exemplary individual performances in this group, as six teams were represented on the Big East first and second teams. But this evaluation is of the unit as a whole, so I am factoring in the performance of every starter, along with depth and stats.

[+] EnlargeKhaseem Greene
Rich Kane/Icon SMIKhaseem Greene's position switch went better than anyone could have expected, as he ended up leading the conference in tackles.
1. Rutgers. Khaseem Greene's move to linebacker was the smartest position change of the year, pushing the Scarlet Knights into the top spot in this category. Greene led the league with 140 tackles en route to Big East Co-Defensive Player of the Year honors. He was essentially all over the field. Greene and Steve Beauharnais were the only linebacker tandem to finish in the top 10 in the Big East in tackles for loss. Add in the much-improved Jamal Merrell and it's easy to see why this group is No. 1. Preseason ranking: No. 4.

2. Cincinnati. J.K. Schaffer had yet another outstanding season for the Bearcats, racking up 100 tackles once again. But quietly, Maalik Bomar put together a nice year as well, and that helped make up for some serious question marks that surrounded this unit going into the season. True freshmen Dwight Jackson and Nick Temple made contributions, but on the whole it was the Schaffer show again and that was enough to boost this group. Preseason ranking: 8.

3. Louisville. Dexter Heyman and Preston Brown had career seasons for the Cardinals, elevating the position and helping Louisville post another outstanding season on defense. Heyman and Brown finished in the top 15 in the Big East in tackles, and Heyman ranked fourth in the league with 16 tackles for loss. His play earned him second-team honors, and he leaves a big hole to fill for 2012. Preseason ranking: 3.

4. UConn. The Huskies were one of two teams without a linebacker on the Big East first or second team. But I thought this position group was vastly underrated for most of the year. Sio Moore came up with some big plays, and Yawin Smallwood and Jory Johnson developed nicely throughout the season. To illustrate how active Moore was, he was the top linebacker in tackles for loss with 16. This unit should be even better in 2012. Preseason ranking: 2.

5. USF. The Bulls were the other team without a linebacker named to the Big East first or second team but that shouldn't diminish the season DeDe Lattimore had. He had seven sacks, 13 tackles for loss and led the team in tackles. In fact, all three linebackers led the team, in Mike Lanaris and Sam Barrington. But the group as a whole underachieved, as the Bulls struggled to get teams off the field and were often times out of position to make a play. Preseason ranking: 1.

6. West Virginia. Middle linebacker Najee Goode had a terrific season, earning first team Big East honors. But beyond him, there were few significant contributions. Injuries hurt and so did inexperience. Plus, the expected emergence of junior college transfer Josh Francis never materialized. Between Jared Barber, Jewone Snow and Doug Rigg, there was not much doing in this group. Preseason ranking: 5.

7. Pitt. The problem in evaluating Pitt is this -- Brandon Lindsey played both end and linebacker in the hybrid Panther role. Does he get evaluated with the line group or the linebacker group? He started eight games on the line, so I gave more weight to his contributions at end. However, I did take him into account for this unit, though it was not enough to life this group up much as a whole. Max Gruder was solid, but otherwise this was a lackluster bunch. Todd Thomas showed some spark but injuries slowed him down. Between Shane Gordon, Greg Williams and Tristan Roberts, there were problems all year. Preseason ranking: 6.

8. Syracuse. It was a struggle for the Orange on defense this season, and linebacker was no exception. Marquis Spruill had to make the transition to middle linebacker and struggled at times. Dyshawn Davis showed glimpses as a true freshman. Dan Vaughan actually was the leading linebacker in tackles. You generally want your linebackers to lead the team in that category, and that was not the case this season. But there is talent here. Another year of development for Spruill and Davis could yield big things in 2012. Preseason ranking: 7.

Big 12 spring football preview

February, 21, 2012
2/21/12
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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.
With one day to go before signing day, it is worth taking a look back at how the players on the Big East first-team fared when they were coming out of high school.

You will see, once again, that recruiting rankings generally have nothing to do with the way a player will do in college. So anybody freaking out about what your school does or does not have in the way of commitments for 2012, just take a deep breath. And look at how some of the most unheralded players out of high school become some of the best in the Big East.

I used ESPN recruiting rankings. Note only one player honored on the first team was ranked as an ESPNU150 player. Many on defense came in as either athletes, receivers or quarterbacks.

Offense

[+] EnlargeCincinnati defensive tackle Derek Wolfe in action during a college football game against Akron, Saturday, Sept. 17, 2011 in Cincinnati.
AP Photo/Al BehrmanCincinnati defensive tackle Derek Wolfe -- the 2011 co-Big East Defensive Player of the Year -- was unranked coming out of high school.
WR Mohamed Sanu, Rutgers. Sanu was ranked the No. 18 safety in the nation coming out of high school in 2009, with a scout grade of 80.

WR/RS Tavon Austin, West Virginia. Austin was rated the No. 41 running back in the nation coming out of high school in 2009 -- three spots behind De'Antwan Williams (Rutgers) and one spot behind Jason Douglas (Pitt). Know who else was ranked ahead -- Victor Marc and Bradley Battles of USF.

OT Justin Pugh, Syracuse. Unranked at his position for the class of 2009, Pugh got a scout grade of 40. Talk about making the most of somebody who was "undervalued."

OT Don Barclay, West Virginia. Ranked No. 65 at his position in the class of 2007. One other West Virginia player was ranked athead of him, at No. 55 -- Gino Gradkowski, who transferred to Delaware.

OG Randy Martinez, Cincinnati. Rated the No. 161 defensive end in the class of 2007.

OG Art Forst, Rutgers. Forst was ranked the No. 25 offensive tackle in the class of 2008 -- the second-highest Big East player on the list behind Lucas Nix of Pitt.

OG Andrew Tiller, Syracuse. Tiller was unranked and did not even get a scouts grade when he was being evaluated in 2009 out of Nassau Community College.

C Moe Petrus, Connecticut. The best center in the Big East was unranked and had no scouts grade when he signed with UConn in 2007.

TE Nick Provo, Syracuse. Provo was ranked No. 86 at his position in the class of 2007

QB Geno Smith, West Virginia. Smith has lived up to his billing -- ranking No. 97 on the ESPNU150 in the class of 2009. He was the No. 8 player at his position and No. 15 in the state of Florida.

RB Isaiah Pead, Cincinnati. The No. 152 ranked running back in the class of 2008, Pead got a scout grade of 71. He just won MVP Honors on the Senior Bowl.

RB Ray Graham, Pittsburgh. Rated the No. 66 running back in the class of 2009, Graham was rated behind West Virginia's Daquan Hargrett (left program) and USF's Adaris Bellamy (academics).

RB Antwon Bailey, Syracuse. Ranked the No. 128 running back in the class of 2008 -- well behind fellow signee Averin Collier (No. 42). Collier was considered the gem of the class, but academics derailed his career.

K Dave Teggart, Connecticut. Teggart was ranked the No. 25 kicker in the class of 2007.

Defense

DL Derek Wolfe, Cincinnati. Wolfe was unranked at his position in the class of 2008 and got a scout grade of 40. Four years later, he was the co-Big East Defensive Player of the Year.

DL Kendall Reyes, Connecticut. Reyes also was unranked in his position in the class of 2007 with a scout grade of 40. Believe it or not, he came into UConn at 220 pounds (he's now around 300) and now has a shot to be a mid-round draft pick.

DL Chandler Jones, Syracuse. Jones came to Syracuse as a 230-pound tight end, unranked and giving a scout grade of 40. Now he is headed to the NFL draft as a projected second-to-third round pick.

DL Bruce Irvin, West Virginia. Irvin took an incredible journey to West Virginia through Mt. SAC junior college after dropping out of high school.

LB JK Schaffer, Cincinnati. Schaffer was ranked the No. 93 outside linebacker in the class of 2008, behind such players as Tyler Urban, Marvin Booker (Rutgers), Quavon Taylor (USF) and Marcus Witherspoon (Rutgers).

LB Khaseem Greene, Rutgers. No ranking or scout grade for Greene, who went to prep school before arriving at Rutgers.

LB Najee Goode, West Virginia. Goode was a quarterback and linebacker in high school who was not ranked.

CB Adrian Bushell, Louisville. Bushell was ranked the No. 21 cornerback in the class of 2008 and originally signed with Florida. After playing at junior college, he made an immediate impact with the Cardinals.

CB Keith Tandy, West Virginia. Tandy was ranked the No. 207 quarterback in the nation in the class of 2007. The same group that featured Jimmy Clausen and Ryan Mallett.

S Drew Frey, Cincinnati. Frey was a receiver coming out of high school and unranked, with a scout grade of 40.

S Hakeem Smith, Louisville. Smith was ranked the No. 93 receiver in the class of 2009, but his athleticism allowed him to switch to defense and emerge as one of the best safeties in the league.

S Jarred Holley, Pittsburgh. Also a receiver in the class of 2008, Holley was ranked No. 230 at that position with a scout grade of 65.

S Duron Harmon, Rutgers. The No. 49 athlete in the class of 2009, he was ranked below teammate Jamal Merrell, Todd Thomas of Pitt and Kayvon Webster of USF.

P Pat O'Donnell, Cincinnati. O'Donnell was unranked with a scout grade of 40, but he has emerged as one of the most impressive iron men in the league.

Big East offseason to-do lists

January, 20, 2012
1/20/12
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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.

2011 Big East All-Bowl Team

January, 13, 2012
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Without further adieu, here is your 2011 Big East All-Bowl team:

OFFENSE

QB: Geno Smith, West Virginia. Smith was named the Discover Orange Bowl MVP after the Mountaineers routed Clemson 70-33. Smith ended up with Orange Bowl records for passing yards (401), touchdowns responsible for (six) and total offense (433). He threw just 11 incompletions and had zero interceptions.

RB: Isaiah Pead, Cincinnati. The Big East Offensive Player of the Year turned in a terrific final performance as a member of the Bearcats in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl against Vanderbilt. Pead set a school bowl record with 149 yards rushing in a 31-24 win, his sixth 100-yard game of the season. His 12-yard touchdown run with 1:52 remaining sealed the team's first bowl victory since 2007.

RB:Jawan Jamison, Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights run game was inconsistent all season, but the redshirt freshman stepped up against Iowa State in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl. Jamison was named MVP of the game after gaining 131 yards and two touchdowns on 27 carries. It was his third 100-yard game of his career. All of them happened this season.

[+] EnlargeWest Virginia Mountaineers wide receiver Tavon Austin
Douglas Jones-US PRESSWIREWest Virginia WR Tavon Austin had 280 all-purpose yards in the Orange Bowl.
WR: Tavon Austin, West Virginia. The best playmaker on the Orange Bowl field was pretty much unstoppable. Austin racked up an Orange Bowl record with 280 all-purpose yards, including 117 yards receiving, 46 yards rushing and 117 yards on kickoff returns. He also set Orange Bowl records for receptions (12) and receiving touchdowns (four).

WR: Josh Bellamy, Louisville. Bellamy set a season-high with 98 receiving yards in a loss to NC State in the Belk Bowl. Still, he had the most receiving yards by a Cardinal in a bowl game since Harry Douglas had 165 against Wake Forest in the 2007 Orange Bowl. His 53-yard reception in the first quarter was a career long and the second-longest pass play for Louisville this season.

OG: Randy Martinez, Cincinnati. Martinez has been one of the most consistent offensive linemen for the Bearcats over the past two seasons, and he graded out near the top once again in the Liberty Bowl. Martinez helped pave the way for 221 rushing yards -- second most against FBS competition this season.

OG: Betim Bujari, Rutgers, OT: Desmond Wynn, Rutgers. Bujari made just his third start of the season, on the left side no less. Wynn slid over from guard to tackle. But the combination worked for the Scarlet Knights, who put together perhaps their best effort on the offensive line all season. Rutgers ran for 173 yards -- their second-highest total of the season. And they did not allow a sack.

OT: Don Barclay, West Virginia, C: Joe Madsen, West Virginia. One of the biggest knocks against the Mountaineers this season was their inconsistency on the offensive line. In the days leading up to the Orange Bowl, Madsen said he felt the unit had played to the level of its competition. The hope was that facing several NFL draft prospects on the Clemson line would help West Virginia play better. Whatever works, right? West Virginia ran for 188 yards and did not allow a sack in its domination of the Tigers.

DEFENSE

DL: Myles Caragein, Pitt. The Panthers may not have had the greatest game in the BBVA Compass Bowl against SMU, but Caragein was solid for most of the afternoon, with six tackles, 2.5 for loss, 1.5 sacks and a pass breakup.

DL: Derek Wolfe, Cincinnati. Wolfe ended his Co-Defensive Player of the Year season with six tackles, including two for loss, against Vanderbilt.

DL: Aaron Donald, Pitt. Donald did his part for the Panthers, with one sack, a forced fumble, a tackle for loss and five tackles in all. Pitt racked up four sacks on the day and held SMU to 61 yards rushing in the loss.

LB: Najee Goode, West Virginia. Goode was a part of an outstanding defensive effort, with 1.5 tackles for loss, one sacks, one pass breakup and one fumble recovery against Clemson.

LB: Khaseem Greene, Rutgers. After posting one of the best regular seasons in school history, Greene finished everything off with a team-high 13 tackles in the Pinstripe Bowl to finish the year with 140, tied for fifth in the school single-season record books. Unfortunately, he could not complete the game after breaking his ankle. He is expected to be fine for 2012.

LB: JK Schaffer, Cincinnati. Schaffer had nine tackles, a sack and a tackle for a loss in a win over Vanderbilt. He closes out his career with 337 stops, a mark that ranks him ninth on the Big East career list.

LB: Nick Temple, Cincinnati. The true freshman saved his best performance of the season for the final game of the season. Temple had a career-high eight tackles, a forced fumble and his first career interception in a win over Vanderbilt. Simply put, he was everywhere for the Bearcats.

S: Darwin Cook, West Virginia. Cook had perhaps the play of the game in the Orange Bowl, when he scooped up a fumble by Andre Ellington and returned it 99 yards for a touchdown to seize momentum in the second quarter against Clemson. West Virginia ended up scoring 35 points in the frame to put the game way, way, way out of reach.

S: Eain Smith, West Virginia. With starting Terence Garvin out because of a knee injury, many wondered whether Cook and Smith would take more on their shoulders. They both delivered in a big way. Smith finished with a game-high 13 tackles, including 12 solo stops, and assisted on a tackle for loss.

CB: Keith Tandy, West Virginia. Tandy had six tackles and an interception on the night, and was part of a secondary that completely shut down Sammy Watkins, holding him to 66 yards on five catches. After a shaky start, West Virginia hunkered down and gave up just 78 yards passing in the second half. Tajh Boyd completed only 52 percent of his passes.

CB: Logan Ryan, Rutgers. Ryan really seemed to grow up throughout the season and ended the year with another big performance. Logan had seven tackles -- 2.5 for loss -- one interception and half a sack in the win over Iowa State.

SPECIAL TEAMS

PK: Tyler Bitancurt, West Virginia. Bitancurt was 10-for-10 on extra-point attempts in the Orange Bowl, setting a new record for extra points attempted and made in any bowl game.

P: Justin Doerner, Rutgers. Doerner had a terrific performance against Iowa State with a season-best 49.7-yard average on six punts. Two of them went inside the 20. One of them went 57 yards. His average was tops among the five Big East punters in bowl games.

KR: Ralph David Abernathy IV, Cincinnati. After Vanderbilt went up 21-17 early in the fourth quarter, Abernathy took the ensuing kickoff and returned it 90 yards for a score to put the Bearcats up for good. It was the first return for a score in his career.

AP: Austin. See above.

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.

Video: West Virginia's Najee Goode

January, 5, 2012
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Andrea Adelson talks to West Virginia linebacker Najee Goode after the Mountaineers' 70-33 win over Clemson in the Discover Orange Bowl.

West Virginia news and notes

January, 3, 2012
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FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Here are a few news and notes from West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen's final news conference before the Discover Orange Bowl against Clemson:
  • Holgorsen said he had not made a decision on who would start at safety in place of the injured Terence Garvin. Freshmen Shaq Petteway and Wes Tonkery, and junior college transfer Matt Moro will all be rotated in. "When you lose Terence Garvin, who was our leading tackler last year and has played a lot of football, you can't just replace him with one guy," Holgorsen said. "And all those guys I mentioned are all new guys. Matt is a junior college kid first year, Wes is a freshman, Shaq is a true freshman. You've got a lot of guys that haven't been put in that situation. So what you do is you plug one guy in, see how it works, and then if you need to take him off and calm him down and put somebody else in there, then you need to do that."
  • One of Holgorsen's bigger concerns about playing in the game was the way his players would handle some of the distractions of South Beach. But he said there were no problems with any of his players. "We all had our concerns with it just because it's a busy place, and there's a lot to do," he said. "I give our team a tremendous amount of credit. You know, we named captains in the beginning of the week with Geno Smith, Joey Madsen, Keith Tandy and Najee Goode, and then we talked to the rest of the seniors about this being your team and there's going to be situations out there to where you're going to have to make decisions on whether you do the right thing or do the wrong thing. That's no different here than it is in Morgantown throughout the course of the week. I just was really proud of how the guys handled themselves."
  • Holgorsen was also asked if there was such a thing as being over prepared, with so much time to get ready for the game. "You've got to be careful with time on your hands," he said. "Coaches have a tendency to outsmart themselves at times, so you've got to figure out what your team does well, which we've had a lot of time here in the last four months to figure out what our team does well, and we've just got to put them in those positions to be successful."

But enough about the offense ...

January, 2, 2012
1/02/12
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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."

Orange Bowl news and notes

December, 31, 2011
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FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Greetings from beautiful South Florida, where West Virginia and Clemson practiced for the second day in preparation for the Discover Orange Bowl.

Mountaineers defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel and select defensive players met with the media this morning, along with Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris and select offensive players.

The big story of the day, of course, were the injuries that keep mounting for West Virginia. Running back Dustin Garrison is out for the game, the third West Virginia starter to be declared out. On Casteel's side of the ball, West Virginia will be without safety Terence Garvin. Redshirt freshman Wes Tonkery and true freshman Shaq Petteway have been working the position during practice but no starter has been announced.

"We'll still work those two kids the next two or three practices, and they're both going to play," Casteel said. "That's what happens when you get an injury; a kid has to step up, and the next guy goes. I know that they're excited to play. We've been through those situations before, so those guys will be ready to go."

Eain Smith and Darwin Cook could be relied upon even more with Garvin out.

"I think the key is letting the kids get in and get settled in," Casteel said. "For some of these kids, obviously this is a big game for them. Once they get in and settle in, they're going to find it's no different than any of the other games that they've played.

"But our leaders will settle those guys down, and they'll be ready to play."

Playing with young players like Petteway and Tonkery is going to be something West Virginia will have to get through, the way it did when Garvin missed the Cincinnati game with a knee injury. Smith started in place of Garvin in that game, but the coaches don't seem to want to move him for this game.

Garvin was third on the team with 72 tackles. With the way Clemson likes to throw the ball, and the talent the Tigers have at the skill positions, they could take advantage.

"Will it change our thinking?" Morris asked. "We're going to do what we do. We've got to be able to be who we are, what got us to this point in the season. You know, we try to do a good job of mixing up the run and the pass. So are we going to change our thought process? No. And if we were, I couldn't tell you.

"So it's one of those type of deals. We feel like we've got to make sure that we do the things that got us here, protecting the football, being physical, playing physical and being aggressive. That's who we are, that's who I've been since 2002, and it's not going to change.

"You know, it's unfortunate. I heard the injury report, and that's unbelievable. I hate that for that young man. What a great football player. But again, we've got to do what's got us here to this point."

Both head coaches offered statements about the way practice, which was closed to the media, went Saturday afternoon:
  • Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said receiver DeAndre Hopkins practiced and is good to go for the game. "He’s back and it and looked fine," Swinney said. "Probably could’ve practiced yesterday, but we just wanted to have another day to evaluate him but I thought he moved around pretty good. Other than that, we’re physically in good shape, just have to mentally get dialed in."
  • West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen named his captains for the game: linebacker Najee Goode, center Joe Madsen, quarterback Geno Smith and cornerback Keith Tandy.
  • Former Mountaineers who were at practice Saturday were Grantis Bell (WR, 1985-88), Johnny Dingle (DL, 2005-07), Dale Williams (OL, 1991-93) and James “Puppy” Wright (LB, 1991-94).
  • Also in attendance at Saturday's practice was former Miami coach Randy Shannon and Florida Atlantic assistant Kurt VanValkenburgh.
  • “Practice went fine today," Holgorsen said. "We consider this our Tuesday practice so we were getting into our normal routine for the game week. The weather has been outstanding and I can see that our players are getting excited for game day. The player’s focus has been good, and they have been working hard. We are down here to win a football game, and I think our mix of preparation and fun has been good.”
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
10:30
AM ET
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
We continue our team position rankings with the linebackers. This position was one of the hardest hit in the league with the number of quality players who are gone. You could probably interchange teams 2-7 in the rankings, depending on your point of view. So who is going to step up? Let's peer into the crystal ball.

[+] EnlargeSam Barrington
Kim Klement/US PresswireSouth Florida linebacker Sam Barrington, 36, leads the Big East's best group of linebackers.
1. South Florida. Sam Barrington and DeDe Lattimore form the best linebacking duo in the league, helping put the Bulls into the top spot. By no means have they fully arrived -- plenty of room for improvement here. What also helps with the ranking is depth. Reshard Cliett had a nice spring, after coming into USF as a safety. Junior college transfer Mike Juene was in for spring and also has raised expectations. Mike Lanaris and Curtis Weatherspoon should be important contributors as well.

2. Connecticut. The strength of the team is on defense, but if there is one group on this unit that has the biggest questions it is linebacker. There is no disputing Sio Moore is one of the best in the league. But the Huskies lost four-year starters Lawrence Wilson and Scott Lutrus. Jory Johnson, Jerome Williams, Mike Osiecki and Yawin Smallwood are all in the mix, but there is no question this group is much more inexperienced than a year ago. Still, Moore makes this a top-tier group.

3. Louisville. The Cardinals lose Brandon Heath and a few other players who brought valuable experience. But Daniel Brown and Dexter Heyman are experienced starters who will anchor this unit. The Cardinals took a hit when Brandon Golson reportedly decided to transfer, so they are going to need to work on some depth.

4. Rutgers. Some players moved around during the spring -- Manny Abreu moved from strongside linebacker to defensive end, and Khaseem Greene moved from safety to weakside linebacker. These moves should make the defense better. Steve Beauharnais switched back to the strong side from the middle, a move that should benefit him. Ka'Lial Glaud is now penciled in to start in the middle. Marvin Booker had a good spring as well. Depth is an issue and true freshman Quentin Gause and Kevin Snyder could play. But this group should be better.

5. West Virginia. Najee Goode is a proven big-time player, but there were some huge losses for this unit. Anthony Leonard, JT Thomas and Pat Lazear are all gone. Junior college transfer Josh Francis and Casey Vance are competing on the weakside and Doug Rigg, Tyler Anderson and Donovan Miles on the strong side. Francis would add athleticism to the group, but first he has to win the starting job.

6. Pittsburgh. The Panthers are transitioning to a 3-4 and experimented plenty during the spring with various combinations. They have experience, with the top seven linebackers on the team returning. Plus Brandon Lindsey is going to play more of a hybrid defensive end/linebacker role. But this was one of the worst units on the team last season. Max Gruder and Greg Williams have to be better for this unit to be ranked higher.

7. Syracuse. The Orange lose not only two of their best players, but two of their biggest leaders in Doug Hogue and Derrell Smith. Smith led the team in tackles, and Hogue was right behind him, making linebacker one of the biggest question marks on this team heading into the season. Two other contributors, Malcolm Cater and Brice Hawkes, were kicked off the team. That leaves sophmore Marquis Spruill as the only player with significant playing time among the linebackers, and he moved to a new position in the middle. Early enrollee Dyshawn Davis, a receiver in high school, is penciled in to start so that should tell you where this group is headed into the fall.

8. Cincinnati. JK Schaffer is one of the best in the Big East, but depth here is a concern. Walter Stewart has moved to defensive end, leaving a hole at one of the linebacker spots. True freshmen Nick Temple and Dwight Jackson were in for spring practice are expected to compete for starting jobs. This unit was not very good last year and undersized, making it the group with the most to prove in 2011.

Previous rankings
Reviewing West Virginia's Gold-Blue spring game from Friday night, won by the offense 83-17:

Offensive MVP: Quarterback Geno Smith completed 26 of 37 passes for 388 yards and four touchdowns as Dana Holgorsen's offense was fully unleashed against the Mountaineers' second-string defense. Smith's night included 44- and 67-yard touchdown passes to Stedman Bailey and a 38-yard scoring strike to Tavon Austin. Backup quarterback Paul Millard added 253 yards and two touchdowns on 18-of-30 passing. Overall, the offense racked up 838 total yards and 683 in the air on 104 plays.

Defensive MVP: Julian Miller had two sacks and four total tackles, though this was clearly a night set up for the offense.

Costly injury? Starting offensive guard Josh Jenkins suffered an MCL sprain and a strain of another ligament around his kneecap. Jenkins will be put in a brace and go through physical therapy for six to eight weeks to let the MCL sprain heal. The West Virginia medical staff will decide after that time whether Jenkins needs surgery on his knee cap. Not having Jenkins would be a big loss for the Mountaineers.

Running back battle: One of the more intriguing subplots of the spring for the Mountaineers was who would claim the No. 1 tailback spot. It's a battle that probably will continue into the fall. True freshman Vernard Roberts led all rushers with 64 yards on 10 carries Friday. Trey Johnson had 57 yards on nine attempts and the only rushing touchdown. Johnson also had a 65-yard reception for a score.

Other notes: The estimated crowd of 22,000 was the largest for a Big East spring game this year. ... Ryan Nehlen was given the Nickolich Award as the top walk-on of the spring, and he caught five passes for 79 yards in the spring game. ... Defensive lineman Will Clarke, linebacker Najee Goode and cornerback Keith Tandy received the Iron Mountaineer Award, presented to the most outstanding performers in the team's offseason strength and conditioning program.

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