NCF Nation: North Carolina

There's a lot new at UCLA this spring, even with 16 players with starting experience returning on both sides of the ball.

There's five new coaches, including two new coordinators. There's uncertainty about scheme on both offense and defense. And there's uncertainty at quarterback.

As for the offense, the "pistol" isn't dead. Said coach Rick Neuheisel to that query, "Oh, no. No. No." Even though new coordinator Mike Johnson isn't a pistol guy, Jim Mastro tight ends/F-backs coach is. Mastro was hired away from Nevada, where the scheme was invented.

[+] EnlargeBrett Hundley
Cliff Welch/Icon SMIBrett Hundley will get a lot of reps during spring practices for UCLA.
So there will be some pistol. The Bruins will lineup mostly in the shotgun. They will still use an "F-back," a hybrid position that can be a small quick receiver (Damien Thigpen) or a tight end (Morrell Presley). And there will be some two-back formations. The idea is to develop some run-pass balance, which has eluded the Bruins over the past three seasons.

"The pistol is a formation and it was certainly successful in the run game," Neuheisel said. "What we need now is to develop the throw game that compliments and goes along with that and uses other formations."

As for that throwing game, quarterback Kevin Prince will be able to do very little this spring because he's still recovering from knee surgery. Darius Bell (shoulder) is also out and Nick Crissman will be limited as he comes back from a shoulder injury. That means more reps for Richard Brehaut, who is playing baseball but will not miss any spring football practices, and true freshman Brett Hundley.

Hundley, the touted recruit, is the guy everybody will be watching.

"As is always the case, when somebody's down, it creates opportunities for someone else," Neuheisel said. "With Prince not able to [practice], it creates more reps. Darius Bell not able to go for spring practice, it creates more reps. So Brett Hundley is going to be the benefactor of that. He's going to get lots of chances. How fast he grows and matures in the offense and shows he can understand all he needs to handle to be effective, that will just enhance his ability to play and play at an early time in his career."

We wrote about the depth chart on Tuesday.

Here, again, is the list of injured players.

Out
WR Jerry Johnson (ankle)
RG Casey Griffiths (back)
QB Darius Bell (shoulder)
P-K Jeff Locke (hip)
DE Keenan Graham (hip)
MLB Patrick Larimore (shoulder)
CB Antony Jefferson (foot)
FS Dalton Hilliard (knee)

Non-contact
WR Shaquelle Evans (shoulder)
QB Kevin Prince (knee)
LB Jared Koster (shoulder)

Some notes:

What are you talking about, Willis? Defensive lineman Brandon Willis is supposed to be headed back to North Carolina, the school from where he transferred to UCLA. But there may be another chapter in this twisting tale. Said Neuheisel: “That’s still an uncertain situation. We signed a release and want him to have the opportunity to explore his options and make sure he’s meeting his family obligations. But he has yet to enroll at North Carolina, and I don’t think he’s heard from the NCAA with regard to the waiver and whether or not he can play next fall. I’m still waiting to hear."

Neuheisel said Willis has not withdrawn from UCLA. Willis wants to return to UNC to be closer to his sick grandmother, but he probably doesn't want to sit out the season. He left UNC because his father got a job in Los Angeles.

F-back and RB: How will things stack up in the backfield? Johnathan Franklin and Derrick Coleman are both back, but Malcolm Jones and Jordan James could make a challenge. Further, Neuheisel said he wants to get a look at 6-foot-5, 238-pound sophomore F-back Anthony Barr with the ball in his hands. Said Neuheisel, "We want to find out more about Anthony as a running back."

Safety numbers: Sophomore Dietrich Riley is listed as the No. 2 at strong safety behind senior Tony Dye, but that figures to be an interesting competition. And things at both safeties could be fluid with Hilliard, listed No. 1 at the spot manned by Rahim Moore the previous three seasons, out with a knee injury.

Non-AQ predictions: Week 5

September, 30, 2010
9/30/10
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Predictions: ACC | Big 12 | Big East | Big Ten | Pac-10 | SEC | Non-AQ

My picks in Week 4 were not too bad. Took a risk with the upset special and lost it, but what is life without risk? Still hoping to improve on 7-3 this week. With a 28-16 overall record, I am ready for what Week 5 has to offer -- even though it is not much in the way of marquee games.

Also, several readers have emailed me asking about why I leave certain teams out of the picks. My assignment is to make picks for 10 to 12 games featuring non-AQ teams, at least one from each conference. I try to look for the best games on the schedule. I could pick the easy ones, but what fun is that? So for that reason, Utah has not been in the picks for a few weeks. The competition has not warranted a spot, and I wanted to give myself something other than a guaranteed win.

On to the picks!

BYU 24, Utah State 20. Can BYU really lose four in a row? The Cougars have never lost three in a row under Bronco Mendenhall until last week, so anything is possible with the way the season is going for BYU. They lost their best defensive player, Romney Fuga, last week after a low hit against Nevada. Jake Heaps gets his first career start on the road. Neither unit has been overly impressive. Both teams are actually desperate for a win at 1-3. But the Cougars have won 10 straight in the lopsided “rivalry” and have more talent.

Air Force 21, Navy 20. I went back and forth on this one. I know Navy has won seven straight. I know Navy always finds a way to win these games. But there is a reason Air Force is the favorite. The Falcons have simply played better than Navy this season.

Upset Special: Army 24, Temple 23. Giving out a little service academy love here. Running back Bernard Pierce is a game-time decision. Without him, Temple could be hurting. Yes, Army has not beaten a tough opponent yet, but I like the way the Black Knights are playing. They are creating turnovers and Trent Steelman has found his groove.

Miami (Ohio) 28, Kent State 21. The Golden Flashes have had a tough schedule to open the season, with back-to-back games at Boston College and Penn State before the bye. They might be without RB Eugene Jarvis once again. Miami has played well at home, and the battle to watch here is Thomas Merriweather against the No. 1 rushing defense in the country. Miami gets the edge at home.

North Carolina 33, East Carolina 30. This game is going to be closer than a lot of people think because the Pirates can score and the Tar Heels are still undermanned. Still, East Carolina has problems on defense, and that is going to be the deciding factor in the end.

Pittsburgh 20, FIU 10. The Pittsburgh Panthers looked pretty awful in a loss last week at Miami. Now they face another team from Miami. Luckily for them, the FIU Panthers don’t pose the same type of threat. Nonetheless, FIU has played its nonconference opponents tough, almost beating Rutgers and Texas A&M. They will keep this one close.

Toledo 24, Wyoming 20. The Cowboys made a rare trip East to Toledo, where coach Dave Christensen spent nine seasons as an assistant. They are struggling while Toledo has reeled off three straight wins on the road, including one over Purdue. Going with the hot team in this one.

North Texas 27, Louisiana 17. The Mean Green unleashed their run game last week with Lance Dunbar, James Hamilton and quarterback Riley Dodge, rushing 54 times for 257 yards against FAU. Seems like a good strategy, considering the team is down to its third quarterback. Louisiana, meanwhile, struggled to stop Middle Tennessee on the ground. Sensing a possible light at the end of the tunnel for North Texas.

Western Michigan 34, Idaho 30. Idaho is a tough team to figure out, after losing on the road to Colorado State. Given the way the Vandals struggled to stop the pass last week, and how Alex Carder is playing for Western Michigan, the Broncos should have the advantage.

Southern Miss 28, Marshall 13. Southern Miss leads the series 4-1 against Marshall, but the only loss game at home two seasons ago in the conference opener. The same scenario awaits this week, but Marshall has struggled all season to find any semblance of consistency.

Winless Watch, Week 4

September, 22, 2010
9/22/10
9:00
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Welcome to the Winless Watch, where we take a look at the teams still waiting on that first victory of the year, and their odds of getting it this week.

Nine teams won their first game of the season last week. But there are still 12 looking to turn that frown upside down:

Western Kentucky (0-3). Streak: L 23. This week: at USF. Chances: 1 percent. Last week’s game against Indiana started well, but after taking a 7-0 lead it went all downhill. Bobby Rainey had another 100 yard game, but the Hilltoppers need more than just him to win.

Eastern Michigan (0-3). Streak: L 15. This week: Ohio State. Chances: 0.25 percent. The chances are closer to zero for the upset, but hey, never say never. The Eagles played their first two games close, but then got blown out last week against Central Michigan. Ending this winless streak isn’t going to happen against the No. 2 team in the country.

Colorado State (0-3). Streak: L 12. This week: Idaho. Chances: 10 percent. The Rams have scored 19 points in three games. The offensive line hasn’t given true freshman quarterback Pete Thomas any help -- allowing 12 sacks -- and neither has the run game. The Rams are averaging 42.7 yards on the ground. Idaho simply has the better team.

New Mexico State (0-2). Streak: L 9. This week: at Kansas. Chances: 20 percent. The Aggies are also offensively challenged, having scored 31 points in two games. The Jayhawks have been maddeningly inconsistent, but have the talent and home-field advantage.

North Texas (0-3). Streak: L 7. This week: at FAU. Chances: 10 percent. The Mean Green's luck has gone from bad to worse after losing its second quarterback for the season because of injury. They were shut out at Army last week and have now lost nine starters to injuries this season.

FIU (0-2). Streak: L 4. This week: at Maryland. Chances: 10 percent. The Panthers have played valiantly against Rutgers and Texas A&M but let late leads slip away in both games. They need more offensive production to pull one of these games out. It’s not going to happen this week.

New Mexico (0-3). Streak: L 4. This week: at UNLV. Chances 30 percent. It’s the all-winless bowl, so somebody has to win. New Mexico is without B.R. Holbrook for the second straight game because of a knee injury. Freshman Tarean Austin is expected to play. The Lobos haven’t done anything on offense or defense, so it’s hard to see how they will win this game.

North Carolina (0-2). Streak: L 4. This week: at Rutgers. Chances: 80 percent. Another heartbreaking loss for short-handed North Carolina last week. I know I put their chances pretty high at beating Georgia Tech, and it almost happened. Rutgers is no Georgia Tech. Even the short-handed Tar Heels should be able to win.

ULM (0-2). Streak: L 4. This week: Southeastern Louisiana. Chances: 80 percent. Southeastern Louisiana played Tulane tough in the season opener, but this game should be just what ULM needs to get that first win of the season.

UNLV (0-3). Streak: L 3. This week: New Mexico. Chances: 70 percent. The Rebels are not great, but they are better than the Lobos.

Akron (0-3). Streak: L 3. This week: at Indiana. Chances: 20 percent. When your quarterbacks are completing 40 percent of their passes, you’re not going to have a great shot at winning. Playing back to back teams from AQ conferences hurts. So does that loss to FCS Gardner-Webb.

Marshall (0-3). Streak: L 3. This week: Ohio. Chances: 80 percent. Just when you think the Herd could be turning a corner, they lose at Bowling Green. Marshall won in the Little Caesar’s Pizza Bowl last year, and I am going to predict a win in this game.

Bad snaps plague variety of teams

September, 7, 2010
9/07/10
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No, you did not imagine it. Several quarterback-center exchanges were less than a snap in the first college football weekend.

In the more high-profile cases, Florida, North Carolina, Oregon State and Virginia Tech all cost themselves thanks to bad snaps. In the case of the Beavers, a miscommunication with the center and new quarterback Ryan Katz cost the team a safety on what could have been the game-tying drive late in their 30-21 loss to TCU.

The Tar Heels lost one fumble on a bad snap early in the game, and also gave up a safety because of another. The Gators had a new center and new quarterback playing. They lost one fumble early in the game because Mike Pouncey snapped the ball into the ground. In all, there were 13 bad snaps -- five that Brantley missed. The Hokies had a bad snap on the second play of the game and lost the fumble, leading to a field goal for Boise State.

[+] EnlargeBrown/Brantley
AP Photo/John RaouxAustin Brown of Miami (Ohio) disrupted John Brantley and the Florida offense according to Redhawks coach Mike Haywood.
One of the root causes for the problems seems to be the shotgun snap, and the cat-and-mouse game the offense and defense play in those formations.

“It’s become an issue,” said Western Michigan coach Bill Cubit, whose team had a bad shotgun snap Saturday that Michigan State converted into a touchdown. “If I could, we’d be underneath the center but with the defenses today, you’d like to give your quarterback a little bit more room, but then you create the double edged sword.

“What’s happening is I think all of us are trying to be cute. Now everybody is faking the signal to snap to the center. Sometimes the center doesn’t see that, he sees a foot movement, the quarterback out there he may be checking to his wideouts, the center doesn’t know that and snaps it.”

The shotgun snaps also become an issue in loud stadiums, where teams have to rely on a silent snap count. “That’s where I think the issue is, all the silent counts now," Culbit said. "The center’s checking back there, what’s the signal to snap the ball? All the while nobody on the defense is moving. It’s a long process and it’s a little bit intricate.”

Pouncey took full responsibility for his botched snaps Saturday against Miami (Ohio), but Redhawks coach Mike Haywood had a front-row seat to all the problems the Gators had. He said his defensive tackle, Austin Brown, played a role in wreaking havoc.

“It’s really important that you understand Austin Brown is an undersized guy going up against a guy the size of Pouncey,” Haywood said. “His initial quickness and his tenacity caused him a problem because Pouncey didn’t expect a guy as quick as Austin Brown on him. When you try to change up head counts with one bob or two bobs and try to do different things to slow down the defensive line it sometimes because a problem.”

Shotgun snaps aren’t easy, of course. They take timing and precision, considering the quarterback is lined up 5 yards behind the center. Air Force offensive line coach Clay Hendrix said his team practices shotgun snaps every day before practice, even though the Falcons do not rely on the formation for their base offense.

Absolute precision is the key in their offense because they do run a lot of the option. Hendrix doesn’t want his quarterback getting the ball too far to the right when he has to go to his left. He wants the shotgun snap to become second nature.

“On certain plays, you have to be dead on as far as the snap goes,” he said. “If you don’t, it’s going to screw everything up.”

He also cited more responsibility on the center as another key factor when snaps go wrong.

“I know a lot of people particularly in the passing game are asking the center to make decisions from a protection standpoint,” he said. “Now he’s caught up -- are we protecting right? Protecting left? and Oh by the way, I have to snap it. In the gun, the snap’s going 5 yards backward -- you have a lot more opportunity to mess it up than when he’s under center.”

Perhaps some of the problems can be attributed to first week jitters. Though the Gators were under center more than they ever were when Tim Tebow was there, Gators coach Urban Meyer says the team will continue to line up in the shotgun. "We are going to correct that issue," Meyer said.

We’ll see whether teams have made improvements this week.

What to watch around the nation

September, 3, 2010
9/03/10
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Our esteemed conference bloggers gave us their top 10 storylines to watch yesterday. Today, we present the top 10 storylines to watch across the country.

1. How does North Carolina recover emotionally from losing so many players? We know North Carolina is going to be depleted on the field against LSU on Saturday. Twelve players have been declared ineligible, including six starters. Of those six, five are on what is supposed to be one of the best defenses in the country. Players are going to have to step up, yes, but you have to wonder what type of toll this is going to take on the team from a mental standpoint. North Carolina is going into one of the biggest national games in the country with one arm tied behind its back. Surely the players know this. Surely coach Butch Davis knows this. He is going to have to do one heck of a coaching job to get his players to focus on the actual game and not all the outside distractions.

2. Big debut for Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly: Opinions are mixed on just how well Kelly will do in his first season as Irish coach. There are some who believe a 10-win season is possible. Others think seven wins is more likely. We will have to see how Dayne Crist does in the new spread offense, but more importantly -- how much better is the defense going to be this season? This is a team that returns nine starters from a defense that ranked 86th in the country last season. Yes, there is another new defensive scheme in place, but it should get a big test from Purdue and pass-happy quarterback Robert Marve.

3. How much of a home-field advantage will Virginia Tech have against Boise State? We have gone over some of the matchups, most notably the Hokies running backs vs. the Boise State defense. But intangibles are going to play a role here. How does Boise State handle traveling across the country and going into what should be a hostile environment? It has practiced for the heat and humidity, but it is hard to simulate actual game conditions with 90,000 fans -- most of whom are against you. Boise State has played in front of hostile crowds before, but this should be especially loud.

4. How does Year 3 of the Rich Rodriguez era start? Rodriguez could have the hottest seat of any coach in the country right now, what with NCAA sanctions looming and two straight losing seasons on his resume. Michigan fans want to win yesterday, let alone now. There is still uncertainty at quarterback, where up to three players could play against Connecticut. Every game Michigan plays these days feels like a must-win, but especially this one because of all the distractions outside the program.

5. No Tim Tebow, now what? The Florida Gators are ranked so high in the preseason polls this year largely because of the expectations on new quarterback John Brantley. He has a different style to be sure, more of a drop-back passer with a much stronger arm, but many expect him to step in and keep the Gators offense rolling along. He will have to do it without two of the team's top receivers, Riley Cooper and Aaron Hernandez. Who is going to step up to be the leader of that receiving group? Will the Gators have an effective way to run the ball with Tebow gone? After all, Tebow led the team in rushing the past three seasons.

6. How does Alabama handle playing without Mark Ingram and defensive end Marcell Dareus? Yes, the Tide is only playing San Jose State, but a big game against Penn State looms and the Tide could potentially be without both players in that one. Alabama has a capable back in Trent Richardson, and Damion Square is expected to play in Dareus' place. Both are going to need to get comfy out there before Sept. 11.

7. Does Nebraska have an offense to match its defense? The Cornhuskers are getting much love based on the way their defense played last season, and their near-upset of Texas. But their offense was atrocious, ranking 99th in the entire country. Once again, there is quarterback uncertainty, so that does not exactly project the confidence that this unit is going to magically be better. In its four losses last season, Nebraska averaged 11 points.

8. Can Oregon State put enough pressure on TCU quarterback Andy Dalton? Much of the focus on this game has centered around the Rodgers brothers and their return to Texas. Jacquizz Rodgers vs. the always strong TCU defense is a great matchup to watch. But another one is how Oregon State defends Andy Dalton. The last time we saw Dalton, he was frazzled into throwing three interceptions, including one that was returned for a touchdown in the Fiesta Bowl against Boise State. He threw only five in the regular season.

9. Georgia breaks in a new quarterback and new defense: How are the Bulldogs going to look with a redshirt freshman in Aaron Murray leading the offense, and a new defense playing the 3-4? Georgia is going to need answers fast with a road game at South Carolina looming. The Gamecocks looked pretty good Thursday night.

10. Charlie Strong vs. Joker Phillips: It's great to see two African-American head coaches making their debut in such a huge rivalry game. Their rise has helped increase the number of minority head coaches to 13 going into the 2010 season, up from nine in 2009.

Best opening weekend games

August, 16, 2010
8/16/10
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Today we gave you 20 games to watch this season. Three from opening weekend made the Top 20 list. But there are several others that just missed the cut:

USC at Hawaii, Sept. 2. We have got to know how Lane Kiffin does in his opener with the Trojans, right? So much melodrama has followed this program since Kiffin took over, you can bet he and his players will be thrilled to start playing games -- even though they are ineligible for postseason play. We will get to see what strides QB Matt Barkley has taken, and take a look at the retooled Monte Kiffin defense. USC freshman RB Dillon Baxter won’t be there -- he is suspended for violating team rules.

LSU vs. North Carolina, Sept. 4. Huge game for both teams ranked in the bottom portion of the Top 25. Both teams have great defenses but mediocre offenses. There are some high expectations for North Carolina this season. If the Tar Heels can open with a win against a top-quality SEC team, their confidence will no doubt grow.

Purdue at Notre Dame, Sept. 4. Two intriguing storylines here -- Brian Kelly makes his debut as Irish coach with high expectations and plenty of pressure. We’ll see how his new offense looks with Dayne Crist under center. Michael Floyd could have a tremendous season. For Purdue, Miami transfer Robert Marve makes his debut. If Marve has a good season, the Boilermakers could surprise.

Connecticut at Michigan, Sept. 4. When the Huskies were put on the schedule, a faction of Michigan fans scoffed. But the Huskies come into the Big House with a shot at winning the game. The Michigan defense has been atrocious and is lacking depth in the secondary. The specter of NCAA sanctions loom above the program as well. Could this be the last season opener Rich Rodriguez coaches with the Wolverines?

Washington at BYU, Sept. 4. Steve Sarkisian returns to his alma mater with a quarterback who would fit right in at BYU. Jake Locker is receiving early Heisman and NFL draft buzz. Meanwhile, the Cougars have quite the opposite situation at quarterback, where Jake Heaps and Riley Nelson are competing for the starting job. If coach Bronco Mendenhall doesn’t have his mind made up before the opener, watch for both to play.

Of course, the following weekend is shaping up to be even better, with Michigan-Notre Dame, Florida State-Oklahoma, Miami-Ohio State, Penn State-Alabama, Oregon-Tennessee and Stanford-UCLA all on the schedule.

Posted by ESPN.com's Graham Watson

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- The first step was a Top 25 ranking, the second was validation. Less than a week after North Carolina appeared at No. 22 in the AP rankings, the Tar Heels took that second step Saturday with a dramatic 29-24 come-from-behind win over Notre Dame.

It didn't matter that it wasn't one of the storied Notre Dame teams. It didn't matter that this was the first time the two schools had met when the Tar Heels were ranked and the Irish were not. What mattered was that North Carolina validated its ranking with a win over a name foe and gave further credibility to the program coach Butch Davis is building.

"We are excited and thrilled to have won this game," Davis said after his team's victory. "I don't know if I have ever been involved in as bizarre a football game as what transpired tonight."

"It was two teams that fought hard and you've got to give Notre Dame an awful lot of credit. I know they hate coming out on the short end. It's two programs scratching and fighting and trying to find away to reestablish themselves as football programs."

This game was a chance for both teams to make their mark on the national scene. But for a North Carolina team that many thought would be a force in the ACC this year, this win will likely open some eyes and give the Tar Heels some of the credit for which they were looking.

(Read full post)

Posted by ESPN.com's Graham Watson

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- The first step was a Top 25 ranking, the second was validation. Less than a week after North Carolina appeared at No. 22 in the AP rankings, the Tar Heels took that second step Saturday with a dramatic 29-24 come-from-behind win over Notre Dame.

It didn't matter that it wasn't one of the storied Notre Dame teams. It didn't matter that this was the first time the two schools had met when the Tar Heels were ranked and the Irish were not. What mattered was that North Carolina validated its ranking with a win over a name foe and gave further credibility to the program coach Butch Davis is building.

"We are excited and thrilled to have won this game," Davis said after his team's victory. "I don't know if I have ever been involved in as bizarre a football game as what transpired tonight."

"It was two teams that fought hard and you've got to give Notre Dame an awful lot of credit. I know they hate coming out on the short end. It's two programs scratching and fighting and trying to find away to reestablish themselves as football programs."

This game was a chance for both teams to make their mark on the national scene. But for a North Carolina team that many thought would be a force in the ACC this year, this win will likely open some eyes and give the Tar Heels some of the credit for which they were looking.

(Read full post)

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