NCF Nation: North Carolina Tar Heels

SEC LogoMike Ehrmann/Getty ImagesThe ACC has a few teams that could be a natural fit if the SEC were to expand further.

Maryland and Rutgers officially made the move to the Big Ten on Tuesday, and that got us at the SEC blog thinking. If (more like when) the SEC goes to 16 teams, who would be the two teams most likely to join college's football elite conference?

I know, I know. You've all enjoyed an offseason devoid of conference realignment rumors, but wouldn't it be fun to think of the possibilities? Hypothetically, of course.

Edward and I took to the task. We eliminated Clemson and Florida State because despite how much sense it makes, it's never going to happen. They're more likely to join the Big 12 one day than the SEC. With that in mind, we picked the two teams that not only make sense but that we most want to see join the league that's won seven of the last eight national championships.

Take 1: Greg Ostendorf

Did you know that Georgia Tech and Tulane were founding members of the SEC? Why not just bring them back? Both schools would embrace the move, and Alabama's fight song would make sense again. Nah, the SEC can do better than that. This is the same league that went out and swiped Texas A&M the last time it expanded.

I'm thinking bigger. I'm thinking the program that invented swagger, the program that has won five national championships in the last 30 years, the program that nearly joined the SEC in 1990 when the league first expanded.

I'm thinking Miami.

It's been awhile since the Hurricanes were at the top of the college football world, but you'd think a move to the SEC would help with that. It'd be significant for recruiting as local kids would no longer have to leave town to play in the SEC. Attendance would go up if for no other reason than visiting schools bringing their fans down to South Beach, and it might help the school's chances of landing a new stadium.

From the SEC's standpoint, it makes sense geographically. It would bring back the Florida-Miami rivalry, and who wouldn't want to see Alabama, LSU or Auburn play Miami every couple of years. This should have happened years ago.

If Miami joined, Florida State would once again make the most sense to jump on board, but that's not going to happen. So instead I went the other direction with my second choice. I went with Louisville.

It would continue to expand the SEC's market in that area, it would pair the Cardinals with their in-state rival Kentucky, and it would significantly boost the league in both basketball and football. And how about Bobby Petrino returning to the SEC? Love him or hate him, he's the type of personality that would thrive in this league. He's already shown that once.

If the league sticks to its current model, both Louisville and Miami could join the East and allow for Missouri to move over to the West where it belongs.

Take 2: Edward Aschoff

While I like where Greg's head is at, I'm thinking even bigger. Also, Greg, have fun convincing Florida that having Miami in the same conference is beneficial.

If I were in charge of the SEC, I'd send some feelers east and see if there's any interest from North Carolina and Virginia Tech.

Both schools have been linked to the SEC for years. We're basically just waiting for someone to strike. I mean, it makes sense for both of them to ditch the ACC and make a new home in SEC territory. Travel wouldn't be bad for either school, and think of all the increased exposure for their brands.

However, whenever dealing with these schools, you have to think about their rivals -- Duke and Virginia. Would either school leave the ACC without its instate counterpart? That's a tough one, and you have to wonder if the SEC would want Duke or Virginia as a package deal. It might be tough to leave a man behind, but when the SEC -- and all that money -- comes calling, you'll probably wait around to hear the entire pitch.

We know that UNC and Virginia Tech would certainly benefit from a financial aspect, but the SEC would benefit too. UNC makes the most sense with that rich athletic and academic background (let's just put aside that whole academic investigation for a second). Not only do you have a football team that could compete, UNC would be an excellent addition to most Olympic sports, too. You now completely own the Carolina markets and get a school with a real national brand. Oh, and another power in basketball? Commissioner Mike Slive would love that (sorry Kentucky).

Virginia Tech has the atmosphere and culture that would make the transition over the SEC extremely easy. SEC fans have to be dying to check out a game in Blacksburg. And it's another market to tap into once you get Washington, D.C. secured. Virginia Tech might not have the overall athletic history as UNC, but it's by no means shabby.

It's tough to say that this scenario would ever happen, but it'd be perfect for the SEC, and not just for football reasons.

The Belk Bowl unfolded quickly as North Carolina jumped out to an early lead over Cincinnati and never looked back Saturday, running away with a 39-17 win. Here's how it all happened:

It was over when: Can a game be over almost as soon as it begins? North Carolina started off as strong as conceivably possible, scoring the game's first touchdown on a 2-yard run from Romar Morris with 5 minutes, 40 seconds left in the first quarter. Just three minutes later, the Tar Heels delivered what proved to be a debilitating series of jabs as Kareem Martin got the sack-safety and T.J. Logan followed that up by taking the ensuing kickoff 78 yards for a score, resulting in a 9-point swing. Cincinnati showed some life in the second half, but the 16-point deficit was ultimately too much to overcome.

Game ball goes to: Even without Blake Anderson calling plays, North Carolina didn't miss a beat. Marquise Williams executed the offense in perfect tandem with head coach Larry Fedora, who subbed in while his former offensive coordinator was off starting his own head-coaching career at Arkansas State. Williams, a talented sophomore, spread the ball around in the air, completing passes to seven different receivers while rushing for 46 yards. He finished the game with 171 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions on 19-of-33 passing.

Unsung hero: Make no mistake, North Carolina won the Belk Bowl in the trenches. A tip of the cap should go to both the offensive and defensive lines. The Tar Heels wouldn't have jumped out to such a big lead without the defense providing four sacks and three three-and-outs in the first half. Cincinnati's line entered the game having allowed 12 sacks all season, but UNC wound up with five on the day. UNC's offensive line, meanwhile, allowed for a balanced offensive attack, with 171 yards through the air and 174 yards on the ground.

Stat of the game: North Carolina got the monkey off its back by finally not rejecting some good old-fashioned home cooking. The Tar Heels won a bowl game in their home state for the first time after losing the three previous bowl games they played in Charlotte. Ryan Switzer, meanwhile, managed to tie an NCAA record by returning his fifth punt for a touchdown this season. Where many would have called for a fair catch in the third quarter against the Bearcats, Switzer hung in, caught the ball with a number of defenders in the vicinity and weaved upfield 85 yards for the score.

What North Carolina learned: Fedora taught his Tar Heels that it's not how you start but how you finish. Ending the season with six wins in seven games was impressive. Getting above .500 after starting off the year 1-5 was incredible. The hope for North Carolina is that the momentum coming out of the Belk Bowl will carry over into next season and such a furious surge won't be necessary to reach the postseason again. With Williams, freshman tailback Logan, freshman receiver Switzer and sophomore receivers T.J. Thorpe and Quinshad Davis all returning to Chapel Hill, the future is bright.

What Cincinnati learned: The Bearcats, on the other hand, end the season on a sour note. The momentum of winning six straight games late in the year was almost entirely wiped out after losing in overtime against Louisville on Dec. 5 and then getting blown out by North Carolina on Saturday. Next season will be tough for head coach Tommy Tuberville, as he will be without senior quarterback Brendon Kay and the quarterback of the defense in senior linebacker Greg Blair. But with the much-traveled redshirt freshman transfer quarterback Gunner Kiel entering the fold, there's reason for optimism. The former No. 3-ranked quarterback in the 2012 class has all the tools to do well in the Bearcats' spread offense.

To watch the trophy presentation of the Belk Bowl, click here.

ACC Power Rankings: Week 2

September, 9, 2013
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It's time for a fresh set of power rankings with another week in the books. The top four teams remain the same from last week, but there was some shuffling the rest of the way down.

1. Clemson (2-0, 0-0 ACC; last week: 1): The Tigers did what we all expected in a 52-13 win over South Carolina State. They also ended up moving up one spot in the AP poll to No. 3. Their big win over Georgia in Week 1 remains the crown jewel in the ACC crown after two weeks.

2. Florida State (1-0, 1-0 ACC; last week: 2): The Seminoles were off this past week after beating Pittsburgh in the opener. Let's see what Game 2 has in store for Jameis Winston this weekend against Nevada.

3. Miami (2-0, 0-0 ACC; last week: 3): The Hurricanes had the most impressive win in Week 2, over No. 12 Florida, which vaults them to No. 15 in the latest AP poll. But that win does nothing to change their standing in the ACC. There remains a clear gap between Clemson, Florida State and the rest of the league. Miami looks like it is starting to close the gap, but the Canes still have a long way to go -- especially after their offense struggled for most of the day against the Gators.

4. Georgia Tech (1-0 0-0 ACC; last week: 4): The Jackets were also off in Week 2, so all we have to judge them on is a blowout win over FCS Elon. The next five weeks will tell us what we need to know about this team, as the Jackets prepare to play at Duke, North Carolina, Virginia Tech, at Miami and at BYU. That is one of the most brutal stretches any ACC team has to play this season.

5. North Carolina (1-1, 0-0 ACC; last week: 7): The truth is, you could flip flop the Tar Heels and Virginia Tech at this point. Despite their victories over the weekend, both have problems that must be addressed. For starters, North Carolina has to get the coin toss figured out. The defense was once again up and down. They need a more consistent, better effort out of that group.

6. Virginia Tech (1-1, 0-0 ACC; last week: 5): North Carolina gets the nod ahead of Virginia Tech for this week based on the quality of opponent it just played. The Tar Heels beat an FBS team, Virginia Tech an FCS team. I think we can all agree the Hokies have a formidable defense -- better than North Carolina's -- but the offense still has a ways to go to be respectable. Logan Thomas now has one touchdown pass and three interceptions on the season.

7. Virginia (1-1, 0-0 ACC; last week: 6): No. 2 Oregon boatraced the Hoos on Saturday, but the truth is, nobody really expected them to win the game. They stay in the top half of the rankings this week based on their win over BYU in the opener. That win looks a lot better today after BYU clobbered No. 15 Texas. Virginia enters a five-game stretch now with winnable games. If the Hoos can take advantage, they will be looking good for a bowl spot.

8. Maryland (2-0, 0-0 ACC; last week: 8): The Terps have beaten their first two opponents by a combined 90-20 and have not faced much of a test. The opponents' strength has been really weak, hence their spot here. Still, this is a team that has showed off its talent on offense in the first two weeks. C.J. Brown, in his return from a knee injury, ranks No. 3 in the nation in total QBR to lead all ACC quarterbacks. Chew on that one for a while.

9. Duke (2-0, 0-0 ACC; last week: 10): Give the Blue Devils credit for pulling out a road win in Memphis with backup quarterback Brandon Connette this past Saturday. You can write the win off by saying it was "only Memphis," but the Tigers are a rapidly improving team and Duke was on the ropes. Any road win is a good win for a team that won only once away from home last season.

10. NC State (2-0, 0-0 ACC; last week: 9): The Wolfpack get downgraded slightly for struggling to beat Richmond. While it is true the Spiders have caused FBS opponents fits, the Wolfpack nearly handed the game away with their own miscues. NC State had four turnovers, including three inside Richmond territory. Quarterback Pete Thomas struggled, throwing two interceptions. While he did lead the team into field goal range for the game winner, he has some work to do to improve.

11. Boston College (2-0, 1-0 ACC; last week: 14): The Eagles climb out of the cellar for the first time in a long time after their 24-10 win over Wake Forest. You can already see the difference new coach Steve Addazio has made in the program. His team is playing a lot more physically and with a lot more energy. That is best illustrated in Andre Williams, who is now averaging 5.5 yards per carry -- one full yard better than last season. The BC run game has gone from awful to respectable in a matter of weeks. The Eagles have now matched their win total from 2012.

12. Pittsburgh (0-1, 0-1 ACC; last week: 12): The Panthers were off last week, so they stay put here. The good news is they will not have to play a team as strong as Florida State the rest of the way in the ACC. They get New Mexico this week.

13. Wake Forest (1-1, 0-1 ACC; last week: 11): The Deacs were supposed to be better this season with so many veterans returning, but they looked completely lost against BC. The defense got gashed on the ground. The offense could not run, nor could it execute the option effectively. Not sure why coaches insisted on sticking with it when it was not working. Their inability to run the ball was a bugaboo last season, and it looks to be the same this season.

14. Syracuse (0-2, 0-0 ACC; last week: 13): The Orange have been the biggest disappointment in the ACC so far based on the first two games. No doubt they played a tough schedule to start against two Big Ten teams, but they were not even competitive in a loss to Northwestern this past weekend in which Drew Allen got benched after throwing four interceptions and the defense gave up 581 yards of total offense. Scott Shafer has some serious questions to answer before the season gets away from him.
I was on vacation last week, and all hell broke loose.

Actually, I knew it was coming when my bosses emailed me a copy of this ESPN.com Insider story: College Football Future Power RankingsInsider.

I read over it just as you surely did, with plenty of "Agree," "Disagree" and "That's just crazy." That would happen with any list like this. That, by the way, is why we in the media make lists like this: Debate. Those who use the World Wide Web love to express Outrage over all the stuff that Outrages us.

The panel of experts who put this ranking together are each gentlemen and scholars: Travis Haney, Brock Huard, Tom Luginbill, Todd McShay and Mark Schlabach. They used a methodology and surely did their best. Not all of them are yoked with the unenviable burden of living far away from the West Coast.

[+] EnlargeMike Riley
George Frey/Getty ImagesPerhaps unnoticed nationally, Oregon State has enjoyed lots of success under coach Mike Riley.
Of course, I think the Pac-12 is under-represented. The Pac-12 teams that made this top 25 should be higher, and several teams that didn't make the list are stronger -- in my humble, humble opinion -- than those that did.

But one inclusion over those Pac-12 candidates was completely cracked. With all due respect to North Carolina, the Tar Heels at No. 21 makes no sense whatsoever.

If you are projecting forward, Washington is more justifiable than UNC. The Huskies are a former national power -- finished ranked No. 3 in 2000 -- who bottomed out, then meandered for several years but appear to be rising as they step into a fancypants new stadium that might be as nice as any in the country.

Yet I immediately emailed my bosses pointing out that omitting Oregon State would be a significant mistake. They made me go and sit in time out. Bosses are so unfair.

What is curious to me is there is no measure with which you could say North Carolina football is better -- past or present -- than Oregon State football.

None.

In 1996 and 1997, the Tar Heels finished ranked in the AP Top 10. With that gloss on his resume, coach Mack Brown bolted for Texas.

Know how many times UNC has finished ranked in the AP Top 25 since then? Zero.

Zero. Zero. Zero.

Oregon State? Five times, including a No. 4 ranking in 2000 and a No. 20 ranking last fall.

Five times.

Or how about this: Oregon State has five seasons with nine or more victories since 2000.

North Carolina? Zero.

Zero. Zero. Zero.

North Carolina has five losing seasons since 2000. Oregon State has four, but three of those included five wins. Four of the Tar Heels' losing seasons featured four or fewer defeats, including a 2-10 campaign in 2003.

North Carolina record since 2000: 76-83 (.478).

Oregon State record since 2000: 97-65 (.599).

Moreover, keep in mind that Oregon State is playing in a conference that has been consistently and significantly superior to the ACC. They've got a better record playing in the Major Leagues compared to what UNC has done in AAA ball.

Is this all about recruiting? Maybe. The state North Carolina produces more highly rated recruits than Oregon by a wide margin, and the Tar Heels typically rank ahead of the Beavers in the national recruiting rankings.

But it's not Oregon State's fault that its recruiting is annually underrated. At present, there are 23 Beavers in the NFL and 25 Tar Heels. That's basically a push.

Oregon State fans have been on the whole pretty irritated for the past few years, even after last year's uptick. A lot of that is due to the rise of rival Oregon as a national power, as well as a two-year downturn in 2010 and 2011.

This is another reason to be annoyed. And, Beavers, I'm with you on this.
The ACC presidents say they're sticking together. Stop laughing, guys. They're serious.

OK, I'm laughing, too. Can't help it.

Here's the statement the ACC presidents released today:
"We, the undersigned presidents of the Atlantic Coast Conference, wish to express our commitment to preserve and protect the future of our outstanding league. We want to be clear that the speculation about ACC schools in negotiations or considering alternatives to the ACC are totally false. The presidents of the ACC are united in our commitment to a strong and enduring conference. The ACC has long been a leader in intercollegiate athletics, both academically and athletically, and the constitution of our existing and future member schools will maintain the ACC's position as one of the nation's premier conferences."

Well, isn't that nice, the illusion of solidarity. I don't buy it, you don't buy it, and even the ACC presidents, if injected with truth serum, don't buy one word of this. Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany wouldn't buy it, either, if he wasn't so busy counting his money.

It would be nice if the statement were true, but what we've seen in the past two and a half years invalidates every word. Remember when the Big East put out a similar statement in September 2011?

The realignment rage is far from over, and the chances of the ACC preventing another raid from a richer league like the Big Ten are slim to none.

Is the Big Ten expanding now? No. Were the rumors last week about talks with Georgia Tech substantiated? Not according to league officials I spoke to in Indianapolis. Is the Big Ten in a mad dash to become the first league to 16? No. In fact, the Big Ten has been reactive more than proactive.

But the Big Ten eventually will become a 16-team league, and odds are the additional schools will come from the ACC. If you want to speculate about the Big Ten's next expansion targets, look at big markets with good recruits and lots of Big Ten alumni.

Georgia Tech is a strong candidate because of its location, and schools like Virginia and maybe even North Carolina -- the white whale for the Big Ten, in my view -- could be in play. And while the ACC claims it's sticking together, there's simply too much money involved for individual members to say no.

NC State athletic director Debbie Yow, who previously held the same post at Maryland, expressed displeasure at Maryland's recent departure for the Big Ten.

"Maryland will be on a plane to play Wisconsin in the middle of the winter," Yow said. "Hope that money is really, really good."

Of all people, Yow should know why Maryland needs the Big Ten's money so badly. And yes, the money is really good and will only get better after the Big Ten finalizes its mammoth TV deal in a few years.

These types of statements insult fans' intelligence. What is that line about anything you say can and will be used against you? Brace yourselves, ACC.

Big East weekend rewind: Week 3

September, 17, 2012
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One final look at the week that was in the Big East:

The good: The Big East went 6-1 this week, with the only loss, of course, coming to a fellow conference squad. Not every win was pretty, but the Big East did enough to pull out every nonconference win, including a perfect 3-0 slate against the ACC, one week after dropping a pair of contests to ACC teams and three days after non-football member Notre Dame defected for the ACC.

The bad: Louisville pulled out a win over North Carolina and that's what matters most, but the Cardinals' second half was very troubling, as they watched a 36-7 halftime lead turn into a 39-34 final, decided on a fourth-down pass break-up in the end zone. Syracuse and Cincinnati looked less than stellar against FCS opponents, with the Orange trailing Stony Brook at halftime and the Bearcats turning the ball over six times against Delaware State.

The ugly: South Florida is now 0-9 in Thursday night games since joining the Big East. Five days after pulling off a dramatic, come-from-behind win at Nevada, the Bulls laid an egg against Rutgers, giving the ball away four times in a 10-point home loss that looked all too familiar to folks who followed this team a year ago.

[+] EnlargePaul Chryst
Cal Sport Media via AP ImagesPaul Chryst, right, got his first win as a head coach in style after the Panthers soundly beat No. 13 Virginia Tech.
Team of the week: We've given Pitt a lot of grief here through the first two weeks, and rightfully so. But you cannot say enough about the performance the Panthers delivered Saturday against Virginia Tech, just dominating the Hokies from start to finish and getting Paul Chryst his first career win as a head coach.

The clutch: It should have never come down to this, but Louisville cornerback Andrew Johnson made a terrific play on Bryn Renner's final throw of the game, ensuring that Erik Highsmith could not come down with what would have been a game-winning catch and, more importantly, preventing a devastating blow to a Cardinals team that was on a roll two quarters earlier.

Best half: For as much heat as Louisville is taking for letting up against UNC, we cannot overlook what a dominating first-half performance the Cardinals delivered. Teddy Bridgewater showed no signs of slowing down, tossing three first-half touchdowns as the Twitter conversation late-afternoon Saturday turned to, yes, what to do about a potentially undefeated Louisville. The team still has a long way to go, but so far it is tough to see anyone in the Big East beating the Cardinals when they're at their best.

The surprise: We'd been saying that Syracuse was the best 0-2 team in the nation after losing to a Northwestern team that looks better than advertised and a USC team that, well, doesn't. But the Orange struggled against Stony Brook, trailing by three at halftime and going 0-for-2 on fourth-and-goal plays. (Ryan Nassib, meanwhile, continued to impress in his first win of the season.)

What to watch in the Big East: Week 3

September, 13, 2012
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Here's what to keep an eye on this weekend in the Big East:

1. Rutgers' passing game. The Scarlet Knights simply need to be more effective passing the football. Quarterback Gary Nova has shouldered the blame for his team's passing game, which, despite two inferior opponents, is 111th in the nation so far. USF surrendered 271 passing yards in a victory at Nevada last week, but the Bulls' defense remains several notches above Tulane and Howard.

2. Andre Davis. Hey, it's not like he didn't ask for the attention. The USF wideout set a school record with 191 yards and two scores last week, and the focus will be on him even more from here on out after Sterling Griffin suffered a season-ending torn anterior cruciate ligament.

[+] EnlargeGary Nova
AP Photo/Mel EvansRutgers will be counting on QB Gary Nova to step up in their bowl matchup against Virginia Tech.
3. Can the Big East stick it to the ACC? Losing both games last weekend to ACC teams was bad enough. Then the ACC took Notre Dame in Wednesday as a partial member. (Yes, we know the Irish were never a Big East football team, but the move is still a score in the other direction.) Three interconference games line this week's schedule, with the highlight being UConn looking for revenge against former coach Randy Edsall and Maryland.

4. What will Pitt do? The Panthers lost by double digits at home to an FCS school. They were routed in their Big East opener at Cincinnati. This isn't their ACC opener, but it is a contest against a Virginia Tech team that's been as consistently good as any program in the nation. Pitt's offensive linemen will have their work cut out for them against the Hokies' deep defensive line.

5. UConn's offense looks to get on track. Four turnovers and 239 total yards doomed the Huskies in their home loss to NC State. The No. 1 Big East defense should have enough to stop undermanned Maryland, but eventually UConn will need some playmakers to step up on the other side of the ball.

6. Teddy Bridgewater looks to ride hot streak. Has there been a more efficient quarterback through two weeks this season than Louisville's? UNC gave up 327 yards to Tanner Price last week in a loss at Wake. Bridgewater wasn't great last year in a loss at Chapel Hill, but it was just his second career start.

7. Syracuse looks for a payoff. It should finally get a win when it hosts FCS Stony Brook this Saturday. And Ryan Nassib and Co. will deserve it after as tough a two opening weeks as any team in the country. The Orange need to take advantage everywhere they can on this schedule, where breaks are few and far between.

8. Cincy looks to build off opener. Are the Bearcats that good or is Pitt that bad? It will be tough to tell when Cincinnati hosts FCS Delaware State, but Munchie Legaux will look to improve on his accuracy and keep the Bearcats hot going into their next game against Virginia Tech.

Big East weekend rewind: Week 2

September, 10, 2012
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One last look back at a rather disappointing weekend for the conference:

The good: The Big East won three games this weekend against opponents from other conferences, with Cincinnati beating conference rival Pitt on Thursday. Quarterbacks Teddy Bridgewater and B.J. Daniels shined the brightest, as Bridgewater built off his remarkable opener against Kentucky by going 30-of-39 for 344 yards with two touchdowns in Louisville's win over Missouri State. Daniels, meanwhile, overcame a slow start to put in a 363-yard performance in USF's comeback over Nevada.

[+] EnlargeGeorge Winn
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesGeorge Winn rushed for two touchdowns and 95 yards in the Bearcats' win over Pittsburgh.
The bad: The Big East failed its first two tests against the ACC, as UConn's offense stalled against NC State and Temple looked like a shell of itself against Maryland. A chance for the conference to rebound awaits this weekend, with three inter-conference matchups on deck between the Big East and ACC.

The ugly: Pitt. Again.

The clutch: Daniels delivered for the Bulls when it mattered most, leading an 11-point comeback with less than three minutes remaining and giving USF a big nonconference win going into its Big East opener Thursday against Rutgers. Daniels threw a pair of 50-plus-yard touchdown passes in the closing minutes, and he never turned the ball over, either.

The most impressive loss: No, there aren't any moral victories. So instead Syracuse gets recognition here. Not too many people outside of Central New York felt the Orange even belonged on the same field as USC, but they kept it to a five-point game heading into the fourth quarter before falling 42-29. As colleague Andrea Adelson said, this is the best 0-2 team in the nation.

The best handling of a Week 1 bye ever: Cincinnati coach Butch Jones was not a fan of sitting at home when everyone else opened their seasons. After Thursday, he might be suggesting that the Bearcats do that more often. They opened with a bang against Pitt, from George Winn's 58-yard touchdown run on their first offensive play to sacking Tino Sunseri six times. Questions surround Pitt, and it was only one game, but the Bearcats look like they aren't ready to surrender their recent standing near the top of the Big East anytime soon.

Up next: USF and Rutgers meet Thursday in Tampa, Fla., in a game that could have conference-title implications down the road. UConn faces old coach Randy Edsall in Maryland, with Louisville hosting UNC and Pitt hosting Virginia Tech to round out the Big East/ACC slate Saturday. Cincinnati and Syracuse host FCS opponents Delaware State and Stony Brook. Temple is off.
1. Outland Trophy winner Barrett Jones of Alabama is moving from left tackle to center. A fifth-year senior who played two seasons at right guard, Jones is mastering a skill unique to the position he has never played. “The only times I really mess it up now,” Jones said, “is when I’m trying to change a call right at the end, or something is happening right as the ball is being snapped. They’re blitzing on something, and my mind wanders for just a split second. For me, it’s low. I just don’t put enough on it. I don’t follow through. I just gotta focus on snapping it first before I block one of those guys.”

2. When Texas co-offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin said Monday that David Ash and Case McCoy both would play quarterback, it sounded as if the Longhorns didn’t have a starter. Head coach Mack Brown cleared that up Wednesday, naming Ash the starter. Brown said both would play, even as Ash moved ahead of McCoy at the end of last season and stayed there. As sensitive to public perception and player confidence as Brown is, I’ll go ahead and ask: if McCoy weren’t the brother of one of the most beloved Longhorns ever, would this still be a competition?

3. A North Carolina judge’s decision ordering former Tar Heel head coach Butch Davis to surrender the bills of his private cell phone to the university will make the stomach of every coach in America flip. Private cell phones are how coaches skirt the NCAA Manual. If North Carolina finds something like calls to recruits during dead periods, the school will be in more trouble. Let’s hope Davis didn’t keep his cell phone records private for any reason other than protecting privacy.

Top Pac-12 newcomers

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Most Pac-12 teams will have new faces on hand this spring -- early-entry high school or JC players or transfers -- who are expected to provide immediate help, if not win starting jobs.

Here are seven we expect to make a mark in 2012 (feel free to comment on how you can't believe we left out so-and-so).

LB Brian Wagner, Arizona: Wagner was prolific tackler at Akron, collecting at least 100 stops in three years as a starter and earning All-MAC honors in two out of his three seasons with the Zips. He might not have top-flight Pac-12 speed, but the Wildcats are fairly desperate at linebacker.

QB Connor Wood, Colorado: Wood, a Texas transfer, was expected to win the job even before Nick Hirschman re-injured his foot. But with Hirschman out, it's Wood's offense -- at least for the spring. In the fall, Jordan Webb, a two-year starter at Kansas with two years of eligibility remaining, is expected to join the fray.

DE Arik Armstead, Oregon: The true freshman arrives in Eugene this spring after one of the more closely watched recruiting sagas on the West Coast. While more than a few folks believe the 6-foot-8, 280 pounder is a prototypical left OFFENSIVE tackle, he's going to at least start off on defense at Oregon. He's athletic enough to play end, and could immediately be in the picture to replace the departed Terrell Turner.

TE Caleb Smith, Oregon State: The Beavers use both a tight end and an H-back, and Smith, a touted recruit from Kentridge High School in Renton, Wash., looks like a good candidate to replace departed -- and productive -- H-back Joe Halahuni. He could challenge sophomore Connor Hamlett, the backup tight end in 2011, for the starting job.

DE Brandon Willis, UCLA: Willis' wanderlust has been almost comical -- he's transferred between UCLA and North Carolina twice -- but he was once a touted recruit and could compete for immediate playing time on an experienced but underachieving Bruins D-line.

RB Kelvin York, Utah: York, a 5-foot-11, 225-pound transfer out of Fullerton College, picked the Utes over a host of suitors. At the very least will be Robin to John White's Batman. It's also possible they could be 1A and 1B, almost splitting carries equally.

RB/WR Antavius Sims, Washington: Sims is a JC transfer who signed with the Huskies in 2011 but didn't qualify academically. He was expected to play cornerback, but has been shifted to offense so he can use his speed both as a runner and receiver.

Neal would be huge get for Rodriguez

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Recruiting season ain't over until the last hat has been pulled from a grubby high school backpack. And there is hope in Tucson that the final name hasn't been inked on Rich Rodriguez's first recruiting class with Arizona. Specifically, hope that the Wildcats' new coach still has a shot at landing five-star athlete Davonte Neal.

Neal, from Chaparral High in Scottsdale, is the last player remaining on the 2012 ESPNU 150 list not to have committed to a team. He's reportedly going to make a decision next week. Among the schools still in the hunt for his services are Notre Dame, Arkansas, North Carolina and Arizona.

[+] EnlargeDavonte Neal
Davide De Pas for ESPN.comArizona athlete Davonte Neal is the last member of the ESPNU 150 to announce his college choice.
This could be a huge get for Rodriguez. Aside from the obvious on-field contributions that a wide receiver with 4.4 speed brings to a pass-happy offense, or a potential lock-down corner, it would go a long way in Rodriguez setting up stakes in his new home state.

New coaches love to come in and make promises -- that they are going to put up fences to keep top-flight athletes in and out-of-town poachers away. It's a cliche I hear all too often in Southern California, where it seems like you can pick up a four-star player next to the cereal aisle at Vons.

But nabbing a top-10 prospect like Neal would go a long way in winning the hearts and minds of a fanbase still sour after a 4-8 season.

Consider the signing of D.J. Foster at Arizona State. No new coach in the country entered his new digs with as much animosity in his wake as Todd Graham. But just a few weeks later, when one of the top prospects in the state spurns 15 other schools -- nine of them from within the conference -- and opts to stay at home, it's a big deal. Suddenly people start singing a different Graham tune. Graham promised to hit Phoenix and the surrounding areas hard. And he did. He goes from oath-breaker to promise-keeper. Now Graham looks like a guy that can get the job done.

The same can happen for Rodriguez. He's hired former Chaparral coach Charlie Ragle to be his in-state recruiting liaison and he's locked up a pair of Chaparral recruits already. If the Wildcats don't land Neal -- who some think is headed to Arkansas or Notre Dame -- it won't be the end of the world. The fact that Rodriguez is still in the hunt for the last remaining five-star is promising.

And he's already signed a pretty respectable class -- given the time crunch-- headlined by quarterback Javelle Allen. But if Rodriguez can reel in the 5-foot-10, broad-shouldered fish, it will alleviate concerns that his Big East/Big Ten ties are tough to overcome and that despite a shortened recruiting season, he can be a major player in Arizona recruiting.
It's been a revolving door on Tennessee's coaching staff ever since the season ended, and head coach Derek Dooley moved quickly to fill his latest opening.

The Vols announced on Thursday that Sam Pittman had been hired to coach the offensive line after Harry Hiestand bolted for the Notre Dame offensive line job.

Pittman was at North Carolina for the past five seasons and part of Butch Davis' original staff there in 2007. Just prior to the 2011 season, Pittman was promoted to associate head coach, replacing John Blake, who resigned one game into the 2010 season after being linked to NCAA allegations that triggered an investigation of the Tar Heels' football program. Pittman was named as one of the country's top 25 recruiters by ESPN.com in 2011. He was at Northern Illinois before joining Davis at North Carolina.

The Vols have seen five different assistant coaches to leave since the end of their 5-7 season. One of those, receivers coach Charlie Baggett, was not retained. Defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox and linebackers coach Peter Sirmon left for the same jobs at Washington, while special teams coordinator/tight ends coach Eric Russell left to join Mike Leach's staff at Washington State.

Dooley is targeting Alabama linebackers coach Sal Sunseri and Navy defensive coordinator Buddy Green to replace Wilcox. Dooley has talked with both Sunseri and Green in the last two days. Dooley has offered the special teams coordinator's job, meanwhile, to San Diego Chargers assistant Rich Bisaccia, who just finished his first season as the Chargers' special teams coordinator. Bisaccia was previously the associate head coach and special teams coordinator for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Dooley had already hired Jay Graham to coach the Vols' running backs. Graham, a former star running back at Tennessee, had been at South Carolina the past three seasons.
Breathe, USC fans, breathe.

In fact, I'd suggest you ignore what happened Tuesday with Ohio State and its slap on the wrist from the NCAA for a massive systemic breakdown and a coverup by head coach, Jim Tressel.

Yes, when you hold up the Ohio State case and the USC case, it's impossible not to conclude the Ohio State case was far more severe. It was, of course, without question. No informed, objective person believes differently.

[+] EnlargeUSC Trojans
Kirby Lee/US PresswireTrojans fans spell out the word playoffs, but there won't be any postseason play for USC this season.
But here's the thing: Being outraged will accomplish nothing. You will be unhappy and your team will still be docked 30 scholarships over the next three years for what one player secretly did while Ohio State will be down just nine scholarships over the same time period for the rule-breaking of five with full knowledge of their head coach. And your unhappiness will provide great joy to folks who don't like your team.

Adopting a placid pose — at least as best as you can — will be good practice for handling potentially more infuriation ahead. The NCAA also likely will give even worst upcoming cases — North Carolina and the University of Miami at Paul Dee — less severe penalties than it gave USC.

Why? Because the NCAA treated USC unfairly — everybody in college sports knows this — and it likely won't revisit such irrational harshness. In the end, the justification for such severe penalties, meted out in contrast to past precedent, was little more than "just because."

But the NCAA, an organization not endowed with a sense of self-awareness, failed to foresee when it curb-stomped USC that among the lawbreakers in college football, the Trojans were jaywalkers amid a mob of bank robbers. Ohio State's sanctions, in fact, represent a return to NCAA normalcy: Mostly toothless penalties that will have little effect on the program's prospects, other than a single-season bowl ban.

There we go again: Fretting the particulars and the injustice of it all.

The point is USC fans have been quite reasonably been shaking their fists at the heavens or, more accurately, the NCAA home office in Indianapolis for two years. That anger has accomplished nothing, other than emboldening taunts from opposing fans.

You know: Fans whose teams didn't finish 10-2 and ranked No. 5 in the nation.

And therein lies the ultimate revenge: Winning.

It's hard to imagine the next five years won't see a USC downturn. Losing 30 scholarships is a tough burden. Things could be particularly difficult in 2014 and 2015, when the true cumulative impact arrives. And it could be even more galling if Ohio State is back in the national title hunt those years. Maybe playing Miami in a Fiesta Bowl rematch!

But if the Trojans can somehow remain in the picture, perhaps playing in a Rose Bowl -- or two -- along the way that would be a heck of a panacea, wouldn't it?

It's a longshot, sure. But other than that, we've got nothing for you USC. Sorry.

Easy, now. Breathe, breathe. Happy place. Happy place.

Oh, no. That's exactly what we were trying to avoid.

AdvoCare V100 Independence Bowl

December, 4, 2011
12/04/11
11:09
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Missouri Tigers (7-5) vs. North Carolina Tar Heels (7-5)

Dec. 26, 5:00 p.m. ET (ESPN2)

Missouri take by Big 12 blogger David Ubben: Missouri is headed to the SEC next season, and went out quietly in Big 12 play. The Tigers roll with dual-threat quarterback James Franklin, but are still trying to find their offense after losing Henry Josey, the Big 12's leading rusher at the time, to a serious knee injury. He started the season No. 3 on the depth chart. It's been up to Kendial Lawrence and De'Vion Moore to pick up the slack.

The Tigers' defense had high hopes coming into the season, and it's been good after some early-season struggles, but perhaps not as good as expected. The defensive line hasn't dominated as most expected, but the Tigers played well enough to win four of their final five games to rescue a rough start against a brutal schedule. Mizzou may have the best five losses of any team in the country: Oklahoma State, Kansas State, Baylor, Oklahoma and Arizona State. Not a bad one in the bunch, and all four but Oklahoma State came on the road. Mizzou is better than its record suggests, and will get a chance to prove it in the postseason.


North Carolina take by ACC blogger Heather Dinich: The entire season could have unraveled for UNC, considering former coach Butch Davis was fired just days before summer practices began, but interim coach Everett Withers kept the program on track for its fourth straight bowl appearance.

North Carolina has faced Missouri twice, losing both times, but has not played the Tigers since 1976. North Carolina started the season 5-1, but fizzled down the stretch against better competition. The Tar Heels lost four of their past six games, including a fifth-straight loss to rival NC State. Individually, though, it has been an impressive season for a few Tar Heels. Tailback Giovani Bernard rushed for a UNC freshman record 1,222 yards and became the first Tar Heel since 1997 to run for more than 1,000 yards.

Receiver Dwight Jones set a school record with 79 receptions and has 11 touchdown catches, which is just one shy of the single-season record. And quarterback Bryn Renner enters the bowl game tied for the school record with 23 touchdown passes. Defensively, Carolina is led by defensive end Quinton Coples and linebacker Zach Brown. Coples ranks fourth among active college players with 24 career sacks. Brown led the Tar Heels with 91 tackles, including 11.5 for losses and 5.5 sacks.
Jonas GrayMatt Quinnan/Icon SMIJonas Gray and the Fighting Irish will get a taste of ACC action the next three weekends.
Before Notre Dame can get to its regular-season finale at Stanford, it has to get through the ACC.

The Irish's next three games are against Wake Forest, Maryland and Boston College. Two of the three are away from South Bend, but two of the three serve as Irish home games. (Confusing, we know.)

With the Irish 5-3 and set for confere ... er, ACC, play, Notre Dame blogger Matt Fortuna and ACC blogger Heather Dinich preview this week's matchup in Winston-Salem, along with the other two contests.

Matt Fortuna: Heather, first off, what do you make of this Wake Forest team? It is tough to judge from the Midwest -- it beats FSU, gets rocked by UNC and Virginia Tech. Also, the decision to make this a night game struck me as interesting. Are the folks down there treating this one like their biggest home game of the season?

Heather Dinich: Matt, there’s no question the Deacs are taking this one seriously, especially after such a poor performance against North Carolina. What to make of Wake Forest? This is a much, much better team than the one that finished 3-9 a year ago. They’re one win away from bowl eligibility and would like nothing more than to wrap that up this weekend against the Irish. Heading into this game, I thought Wake was overmatched, but now I think they’ll make it an interesting game. With both teams at 5-3, are they more alike than many thought they’d be? It’s hard to tell with such different schedules, but I think Notre Dame has the better win over Michigan State. Turnovers were a huge factor last week for the Deacs. Wake had turned it over just five times all season and then against UNC it had five turnovers. It was an uncharacteristic performance, to say the least. If the Deacs can take care of the ball and get the passing game going, they stand a chance. The bigger question to me is, are the next three weeks a foreshadowing of what’s to come with Notre Dame and the ACC? What are you hearing out of South Bend?

MF: Five turnovers in one game? No kidding, they really are alike. As for your question, Notre Dame will strive to remain independent in football at all costs. Right now I think the Irish are content to watch the dominoes fall in front of them until they are forced to make a move. If that time does come, however, I do think the ACC would be its best bet. For one, Notre Dame would be marginalized in the Big Ten, serving as just another regional power along with Michigan, Nebraska, Ohio State and Penn State. In the ACC it can still expand its recruiting bases from as South as Florida to as North as New York and Boston. Mike Brey, the men's basketball coach, has stated his preference is to remain somewhere East if Notre Dame is forced to move. Also, it is pretty funny that, in addition to this slate of games, the Irish have already traveled to future ACC member Pitt this season, and they currently seem bound for the Champs Sports Bowl, where they would face another ACC school. That would be five out of 13 games this season against current or future ACC schools, for those keeping count at home. While we're at it, Heather, who do you think looks like Notre Dame's likely bowl opponent should it find itself in Orlando?

HD: Right now I’ve got Florida State heading to the Champs Sports Bowl, Matt, and it seems like the most likely scenario. That would be a great matchup of two traditional programs, but let’s stick with the ones we know right now. Heading into this season, I predicted the ACC would strike out against the Irish with an 0-3 record. I still don’t see BC winning at Notre Dame on Nov. 19, considering what a dreadful season it’s been for the Eagles, and if BC isn’t going to get the W, there’s no reason to think Maryland can, even though that game is a virtual home game for the Terps in FedEx Field in Landover, Md. Maryland can’t even fill its own stadium, though, let alone a pro venue, and the Terps just lost at home to Boston College. It’s been a rough first season for Randy Edsall. So, it looks like the Deacs are the ACC’s best hope at picking up a W against Notre Dame, at least from my perspective. What are you predicting the Irish do against the ACC in three games?

MF: I'm with you, Heather. I just cannot see Maryland or Boston College beating Notre Dame, making Wake the favorite among the ACC teams to do so. Even then, the Deacs are clearly overmatched and will have a tough time keeping up with the Irish on both sides of the ball. I circled this one as a potential upset when making second-half predictions a little more than three weeks ago, but Wake has done little since (its only win was over Duke ... by 1) to convince me it can pull off the victory. Who do you got?

HD: I’m sticking with my preseason prediction, Matt, and going with the Irish. I’ll leave the score for tomorrow’s predictions post, but I just don’t see Wake Forest beating Notre Dame’s offensive line or slowing down that running game. Notre Dame’s offense line averages 305.6 pounds. Wake Forest’s undersized D-line checks in at an average of 247.5. No wonder Jonas Gray is averaging 8 yards per carry, and the Irish didn’t allow one sack in October. And of course, they’ve got one of the top linebackers in the country in Manti Te’o. Wake Forest will correct a lot of the mistakes it made last week against North Carolina, but it will come up short in a close game. Since you’re the visitor to ACC country, though, I’ll give you the final word.

MF: Not sure if that qualifies as southern hospitality, but it is appreciated nonetheless. I expect Gray to have a huge game as well. He's a guy who had zero career touchdowns until Week 4 at Pitt. He has had eight since, including three this past Saturday. Brian Kelly's teams are built for November and December, as evidenced by his 21-6 mark in the regular season's final two months. I think Wake Forest has a chance to keep it close early, but it lacks the depth and size to hang with the Irish throughout the night.

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