NCF Nation: SMU Mustangs

Jim HarbaughGregory Shamus/Getty ImagesJim Harbaugh has his work cut out for him at Michigan, which just went 5-7.

Back in October and November, before Michigan officially had an opening for a head coach, its fans already started daydreaming about the possibility of prying Jim Harbaugh from the NFL.

The evolution of fantasy to reality of Harbaugh’s return to Ann Arbor, each day providing additional drama, ended up being one of the more fascinating coaching storylines of 2014.

DALLAS -- Baker Mayfield is not a normal freshman.

The Texas Tech walk-on quarterback led the Red Raiders to a 41-23 win over SMU at Ford Stadium on Friday night. Here’s how it happened.

How the game was won: The Red Raiders pulled away in the fourth quarter, scoring 21 consecutive points to put the game away after SMU had cut the margin to 20-16 after three quarters.

Player of the game: Mayfield accounted for five touchdowns (four passing, one rushing) in his first collegiate game. The walk-on true freshman settled down more and more as the game went on, finishing 43-of-60 for 413 yards and four touchdowns. He scored on an 11-yard, fourth-quarter touchdown run to help secure the win.

Turning point: Mayfield’s 33-yard pass to Jordan Davis with 1:01 left in the first half. The freshman zipped the ball through a tight window to Davis before the safety could arrive, and Davis did the rest. It seemed to give the Red Raiders’ quarterback renewed confidence that he could get it done against SMU.

Unsung hero of the game: SMU quarterback Garrett Gilbert has to be disappointed with a loss, but he did as much as he could to prevent the season-opening setback. He accounted for 441 yards, including a 23-yard touchdown run.

Unsung hero of the game, Part II: When he wasn’t holding on running plays, Texas Tech receiver Eric Ward was close to unstoppable. The senior finished with 13 receptions for 150 yards in the win.

What Texas Tech learned: Coach Kliff Kingsbury learned that Mayfield can excel in his offense. Anytime you start a true freshman, particularly at quarterback, you never know how he will respond. Mayfield responded by making big plays without making the big mistake. Kingsbury will be smiling all the way back to Lubbock.

What SMU learned: The Mustangs learned they need to find some playmakers on offense. Dropped passes, limited yards after catch and a general lack of explosiveness was the underlying narrative for June Jones’ squad. Gilbert is going to need some help from his teammates if SMU hopes to have success in 2013.
1. The American Athletic Conference has taken a lot of heat since its inception. The league is losing its automatic-qualifier status after this season. But the one thing the American has is good, veteran coaches. Four of the league's coaches -- June Jones of SMU, George O’Leary of UCF, Paul Pasqualoni of Connecticut and Tommy Tuberville of Cincinnati – have won at least 100 games. Only the SEC has more with five, and that’s actually a lower percentage (5-of-14, 35.7 percent) than the American (4-of-10, 40 percent).

2. The rise of freshman walk-on quarterback Baker Mayfield at Texas Tech brings to mind two points. One, Mayfield played high school football at Austin's Lake Travis High, as sophisticated a prep program as there is anywhere. That explains his maturity. Two, when a new coach comes in with new systems, the depth chart becomes wide open. Mayfield has gotten a closer look because sophomore Michael Brewer is day-to-day with a back injury.

3. At first glance, the announcements in the last few days that bowl games are starting next season in the Bahamas, Boca Raton, Fla., and Montgomery, Ala., make no sense. There are 35 bowls this season, and 6-6 teams are needed to fill them. However, in the next couple of years, Appalachian State, Georgia Southern, Old Dominion, and Charlotte are moving up to FBS, increasing the membership to 129. More teams? More bowls.
Shortly after his first spring as an assistant coach at SMU, Hal Mumme purchased a copy of Walter R. Borneman's "The Admirals," a book about the quartet of five-star admirals who led the United States to victory in World War II.

The parallels can be difficult to decipher. On one end stand William Leahy, Ernest King, Chester Nimitz, and William Halsey -- four men who helped establish the U.S. as the world's greatest fleet. On the other stand names like Mumme, June Jones, Dan Morrison and Jason Phillips -- a core of influential minds who will comprise the Mustangs' coaching staff this season, their first in the American Athletic Conference.

But the blending of brains should be a fascinating experiment, if only to see the godfather of the Air Raid offense (Mumme) paired with the curator of the Run 'n' Shoot (Jones, the head coach). The fact that they are also working with Morrison -- who at Hawaii coached NCAA all-time touchdown pass leader Colt Brennan -- and Phillips, who led the nation in receiving yards during Houston's Run 'n' Shoot heyday in 1987 and 1988, should only get the creative juices flowing some more.

"I bought the book on purpose, because it's kind of like being on the staff at SMU," Mumme cracked.

Mumme, SMU's passing game coordinator, will be working closely with Phillips, the co-offensive coordinator who is in his second season with the Mustangs after a nine-year stint with Houston, where Kevin Sumlin's four-year tenure featured many Air Raid principles. Their first-year graduate assistant is Timmy Chang, who became the NCAA's all-time passing leader under Morrison at Hawaii.

There are still questions. Will there be a catchy new name for this hybrid offense?

"I don't know what we'll call it, but it's the 21st Century version," Mumme said

And what, exactly, will it look like?

Jones says Mumme's offense is known for stretching the field horizontally, whereas his gets the ball down the field vertically. The common link between the two is Phillips, who coached in the former scheme and played in the latter.

"I think what we tried to do is combine some of those things off of the packages that our kids were doing pretty soundly here that we think we can add, and they'll do good with some of the things that Hal brought," Jones said.

"And I think once we manage the players, getting them in the right spots, I think we're going to have some fun."

Mumme, 61, and Jones, 60, have known each other for more than 30 years. They studied each other's film in the 1990s when Mumme was coaching Valdosta State and Jones was with the Atlanta Falcons. And they crossed paths in the Western Athletic Conference throughout the last decade, when Mumme spent four years at New Mexico State and Jones was at Hawaii.

"We'd get together and joke around with the media all the time about how we were going to have a game where there were no runs," Mumme said.

Both said that they had been trying to work together for years, though nothing materialized until Jones hired Mumme away on March 20 from Div. II McMurry in Abilene, Texas.

Together in Dallas, they will see their brainchild play out through the arm of fifth-year senior and former Texas quarterback Garrett Gilbert, who totaled 3,278 yards and 23 scores in his first season at SMU, which finished 7-6 last season. Gilbert and Mumme immediately hit it off upon the coach's arrival, meeting regularly to share ideas as the assistant helped install the new offense.

"It's a very cool combination on paper," Gilbert said. "We've still got to come out and execute it on Saturdays in the fall. But it gives us the opportunity to throw the ball down the field that coach Jones has been so great at, and doing some of the stuff that coach Mumme has been so famous for and so good at over the years -- getting the ball out of the quarterback's hands, letting the wide receivers make plays down the field... fast-paced. A combination of those two things will be great for our offense."

Perhaps fittingly, this outfit's first test will come on the season's first Friday night against Kliff Kingsbury in his debut as head coach at Texas Tech -- a coach and program with no shortage of Air Raid ties themselves.

"I don't think it's too early to imagine the fireworks," Mumme said.

Jones said that last season was a big year mentally for Gilbert, who came off a final campaign with the Longhorns that saw him lose his starting job before undergoing the season-ending shoulder surgery. Three years earlier, after the 2009 season, ESPN's former No. 2 quarterback recruit nationally had been thrust into the BCS title game against Alabama as a true freshman, getting picked off four times after starter Colt McCoy was knocked out of the contest.

Gilbert threw 13 interceptions through his first seven games with SMU in 2012 before closing the regular season with five straight pick-less contests.

He netted 310 yards, two scores and two interceptions in a 43-10 rout of favored Fresno State in the Hawai'i Bowl, as the Mustangs closed the season on a 5-2 stretch.

But Gilbert, who went through a coaching change before his senior year at (Austin) Lake Travis, a coordinator change with the Longhorns in 2011, a transfer to SMU last season and the addition of Mumme this season, will basically be learning his sixth different offense in the past seven years.

One worry, at least, can be quelled, as Gilbert and Mumme are in lockstep when it comes to this offense's ultimate goals.

"We want to lead the nation in passing, that's for sure," Mumme said. "We want to win a whole bunch of games. What's the name of our conference? We want to win that."

Sheraton Hawaii Bowl

December, 2, 2012
12/02/12
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Fresno State Bulldogs (9-3) vs. SMU Mustangs (6-6)

Dec. 24, 8 p.m., Honolulu (ESPN)

Fresno State take by Pac-12 blogger Kevin Gemmell: In one season, head coach Tim DeRuyter has reversed the fortunes of the Bulldogs, taking over a 4-9 squad and transforming it into a 9-3 unit. The backfield of quarterback Derek Carr and running back Robbie Rouse has been potent. Carr is completing 68.1 percent of his throws with 36 touchdowns to just five interceptions. He's been especially sharp on third downs, completing 66 percent of his throws with nine touchdowns and one interception. Rouse has crossed the 1,000-yard rushing mark for the third straight season (1,468) and has accounted for 14 touchdowns (12 on the ground).

But, perhaps DeRuyter's biggest influence has been on the defensive side of the ball, where the Bulldogs were 107th in scoring defense last season before his arrival, yielding 35.15 points per game. This season Fresno State ranks 27th, allowing 22.25 points per game.

SMU take by RecruitingNation's David Helman: It hasn’t been bad month for SMU coach June Jones.

The Mustangs ended Jones' fifth season in Dallas by winning four of their final six games, capped off by an upset of Conference USA West Division champion Tulsa to earn bowl eligibility. The reward is a trip back to Jones' old stomping grounds at Hawaii, where he led the Warriors to a 76-41 record from 1999-2007, not to mention an undefeated regular season in 2007.

Fans will no doubt recognize SMU triggerman Garrett Gilbert from his previous stint at Texas. Gilbert hasn't enjoyed the same success typically associated with Jones-coached quarterbacks. The junior completed just 53.1 percent of his passes on the year for 2,720 yards, 14 touchdowns and 13 interceptions.

While Jones' Hawaii teams often used running backs as an afterthought, the Mustangs lean heavily on Zach Line. The senior finished 2012 with 1,207 yards -- just 17 behind his total from 2011 -- and 12 touchdowns. Line's 46 career rushing touchdowns puts him just one behind Eric Dickerson as the program's all-time leader, and he sits 336 yards away from Dickerson's career rushing total of 4,450 -- good enough for No. 2 in SMU history.

Instant analysis: Texas A&M 48, SMU 3

September, 15, 2012
9/15/12
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DALLAS -- Texas A&M's offense kick-started in the second quarter and rolled from that point on as the Aggies dominated SMU, 48-3. Here's how it went down at Gerald J. Ford Stadium on Saturday:

It was over when: Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel danced his way to a 15-yard touchdown run to give the Aggies a 34-3 lead with 4:27 to go the third quarter. The way SMU's offense produced, you could argue it was done before this point, but it was an answer to SMU's only score in the first three quarters, a Chase Hover 25-yard field goal.

Game ball goes to: Manziel. After a respectable debut against Florida, the redshirt freshman really turned it loose on Saturday against the Mustangs. He set a Texas A&M single-game freshman record with 294 yards passing (breaking Kevin Murray's record of 280 set against Rice in 1983) and accounted for six touchdowns -- four passing and two rushing. He also ran for 124 yards on 13 carries, leading all rushers on Saturday. He wowed onlookers with his improvisation, whether it was throwing on the run, eluding tacklers or launching the ball from an awkward body position.

Game ball, Part 2: The Texas A&M defense. SMU failed to convert on 13 of its first 14 third-down attempts. Part of that was the Mustangs' execution, but the Aggies' pass rush and secondary deserves credit as well. Damontre Moore picked up two more sacks, giving him five on the year after getting three last week against Florida, and the secondary did a solid job in coverage and tackling.

Rising star: Mike Evans. The redshirt freshman receiver caught six passes for 123 yards, all in the first half. He has good size (6-foot-5, 218 pounds) and has the athleticism to go up and get jump balls. He also showed the speed to get to deep passes in coverage and is physical enough to shove tacklers aside and gain extra yardage. He has only played organized football since his senior year of high school, so it appears he can only grow and improve as he continues to play.

What it means: The SMU team that the Aggies faced is not in the same ballpark as Florida was in terms of talent, but it is good for the Aggies to get their first win of the Kevin Sumlin era. Some of the signatures of Sumlin and offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury's offense emerged -- the big plays, the high tempo -- and the Aggies were able to move the ball consistently, something they didn't do in the second half against Florida. And a second straight good performance from the defense has to be encouraging to Aggies' fans.
The best Big East rivalry may never be played again, now that expansion has changed the face of college football.

Pitt and West Virginia had made a living hating each other, a bitter rivalry that really transcended the Big East and became one of the most heated in the entire country. Think of rivalry games, and think of the Backyard Brawl.

No future meetings between the two schools have been scheduled, with West Virginia beginning play in the Big 12 in 2012 and Pitt on its way out to the ACC. So what does that leave the Big East in terms of true league rivalries?

[+] EnlargeKeg of Nails
Frank Victores/US PRESSWIREIs the battle for the Keg of Nails the Big East's best rivalry now?
The longest running one remaining is Pitt-Syracuse. The two schools first met in 1916 and have played 67 times, including every year since 1955. But alas, those two schools are on their way out of the Big East.

So turn your attention to Cincinnati-Louisville. These two schools first played in 1922 and have met 52 times, with the rivalry starting back up in 1996 after a three-year hiatus. Cincinnati leads the series 30-21-1 and has won the last four.

But that could very well change in 2012.

While there may not be much national cache to the rivalry game between the two programs, all the ingredients are there for the intensity to ratchet up another notch between the two.

  • The game already has a nifty trophy. The "Keg of Nails" has been handed out to the winner of this game since 1929, when fraternity chapters on both campuses decided the victorious players were tough as nails. The trophy is a replica of a keg that was used to ship nails and features the logos of both schools and the scores of every game. This rivalry is not merely contained to the Big East, either. The two were also Missouri Valley and Conference USA rivals.
  • They are virtually neighbors. In the newly far-flung Big East, that counts for something. The two schools are a mere 106 miles away from each other.
  • The two programs are on the rise, with coaches on the rise. Both Louisville coach Charlie Strong and Cincinnati coach Butch Jones head into their third seasons as Big East champions, and it seems pretty clear that neither one is going to stop at one, either. Louisville is expected to contend for the Big East championship this season; Cincinnati may have lost a bunch of starters but there is plenty of talent on the roster. Both coaches have become "hot" names in coaching circles because of their successes, and both have pledged their commitment to their respective programs. You can definitely see this game having pivotal implications in the race for the conference championship in the years to come.

While it is true that both schools have other rivals (Louisville has Kentucky; Cincinnati has Miami (Ohio) and Pitt), nobody says rivalries have to be exclusive. Michigan has Michigan State and Ohio State; Florida has Tennessee, Florida State and Georgia; Florida State has Florida and Miami; Oklahoma has Texas and Oklahoma State; Texas has Oklahoma and Texas A&M.

In the cases of all those rivalries, the greater the stakes, the greater the intensity, the greater the scrutiny. Florida State-Miami has lost a bit of its luster, compared to the 1980s and 1990s. If Cincinnati and Louisville are competing for Big East and national championships every year, the game will grow in national stature.

Here are a few other potential rivalry games in the new Big East:

USF vs. UCF: The War on I-4 has been played four times, with USF winning all meetings. Bulls fans will say this is not a rivalry because they have dominated the series, last played in 2008. There is no question the hatred is there, one of the key components to any good rivalry. USF fans look down at UCF as being a whiny little brother; UCF fans think USF fans are entitled for no apparent reason. Let the rivalry resume!

Temple vs. Rutgers: Having the schools in close proximity to one another certainly helps, along with the natural rivalry between New Jersey and Philadelphia. Rutgers fans will tell you a rivalry can't exist until Temple is on the same playing level. But Temple fans will tell you the Owls are already there, with three straight winning seasons. Watch out for some major recruiting clashes between the two as well.

Navy vs. SMU: There already is a trophy for the winner in this game. It is named after Frank Gansz, who played at Navy and later served on the coaching staffs at SMU and Navy. The trophy was established in 2009, and Navy has won it three times. The two are set to become conference rivals in 2015.

Recruiting needs: Non-AQs

January, 26, 2012
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Time to take a look at recruiting needs for some selected non-AQ schools.

Boise State

Running back. With Doug Martin gone, there is no question the Broncos need some quality players at this position to not only play but add depth. This was already one that had depth issues because of injuries this season -- which is why a walk-on running back had the ball late in the game against TCU. Boise State has two commitments from quality prep players in Devan Demas and Jack Fields, both out of Texas.

Linebacker. Three of the four players on the two deep are gone, so this is a definite area where the Broncos have got to get some more players. Two of their more highly rated commitments are linebackers -- Ben Weaver and Andrew Pint.

Secondary. Another problem area for the Broncos in 2011 was in the secondary after injuries also hurt depth. They lose George Iloka, Hunter White, Travis Stanaway and Cedric Febis, plus Jamar Taylor is a rising senior. So you can see why the Broncos have commitments from four defensive backs.

BYU

Quarterback. Jake Heaps' departure all of a sudden hurts depth at the position. Riley Nelson is a senior; James Lark is a senior. There are a few other guys on the roster, but now the commitment of four-star prospect Tanner Mangum is even more important.

Linebacker. Jameson Frazier is gone, and five others on the depth chart will be either juniors or seniors -- including Uona Kaveinga, Kyle Van Noy and Brandon Ogletree. So this is probably a good time to restock the position to start building some depth.

Receiver. Cody Hoffman had a great year, but you still get this nagging feeling that the Cougars really need a game-changer at receiver who can really stretch the field. Some thought Ross Apo might do that but it didn't quite happen in 2012. So I bet BYU fans feel good about some of the receiver/athlete commitments already on board.

East Carolina

Secondary. The Pirates are losing three starters in the secondary and four key backups are juniors. It's huge for this program to get a commitment from four-star safety Lucas Thompson. He should help right away.

Offensive line. No question East Carolina has to keep adding quality players here because depth was lacking this season. Plus, the Pirates lose starter Steven Baker at left tackle, several key backups and four players on the depth chart will be juniors or seniors.

Running back. This is another area where the Pirates have to build some depth. There simply wasn't any once Reggie Bullock got hurt last season. Receiver Torrance Hunt had to fill in while Bullock was out. East Carolina has commitments from four athletes, including two with three-star ratings, so the hope is to try and convert a few of them into quality backs.

Houston

Defensive line: If there is one area that has to get better for the Cougars, it is defense. Certainly strides have been made but they were exposed in the Conference USA championship game. This team has to get better up front, which is why you see five defensive linemen commits. In fact, its best commit is four-star defensive tackle Donald Hopkins.

Offensive line: The Cougars lose starting center Chris Thompson, and seven of their offensive linemen will be juniors or seniors next season. Time to reload.

Receiver/running back: Houston has plenty of guys listed on its roster at these positions, but the Cougars are going to be in need of some athletes to take the place of Tyron Carrier, Patrick Edwards, Justin Johnson and Bryce Beall.

SMU

Offensive line. This is an area that coach June Jones has worked at to create depth, but the Mustangs have to continue to build. They lose six seniors of the 2011 team -- including all five starters.

Defensive back. Of the eight players listed on the depth chart, four seniors are gone -- including starters Chris Banjo and Richard Crawford. The other four will be juniors or seniors.

Receiver. In the offense Jones likes to run, you can't have too many athletes or receivers. Cole Beasley and Terrance Wilkerson are gone, Darius Johnson will be a senior and Jeremy Johnson and Keenan Holman will be juniors. One of the Mustangs' top commitments is athlete Daijuan Stewart.

Southern Miss

Linebacker. Starting linebackers Ronnie Thornton and Jeremy Snowden are gone from the 4-2-5 set the Golden Eagles ran last year. So is backup Tim Green. It's unclear what type of formation Southern Miss will run under its new coaching staff, but stocking up in this area is a good idea.

Defensive line. The Golden Eagles lose Cordarro Law and three other seniors from the two-deep. Of the 10 linemen remaining on the roster, only five are freshmen or sophomores.

Receiver: Three starters were seniors, including Kelvin Bolden and Ryan Balentine. There were only two freshmen on the roster last season so this should be an area that gets addressed.

Non-AQ chat wrap

January, 18, 2012
1/18/12
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Thanks for joining me today for another great non-AQ chat. We talked about the future for Boise State, Houston and SMU and host of other schools, along with the possibilities of a plus-one.

If you missed it, here is the wrap. See you again next week!

Instant analysis: SMU 28, Pitt 6

January, 7, 2012
1/07/12
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SMU beat Pitt 28-6 in the BBVA Compass Bowl on Saturday. Here is an instant analysis.

How the game was won: Pitt looked uninspired from the outset, and was totally outplayed in every aspect of the game. After SMU jumped out to a 21-0 first-quarter lead, you had to figure the game was just about over because the Panthers' anemic offense is simply not equipped to come from behind. The Pitt offensive line struggled once again, particularly left tackle Greg Gaskins, and so did quarterback Tino Sunseri -- who had two turnovers. Though Pitt was able to get pressure on SMU quarterback J.J. McDermott, he was able to avoid major sacks and find holes in the man-to-man defense to find wide open receivers.

Turning point: First quarter. This is all you need to know about how the first quarter went. Total yards: SMU 159, Pitt minus-5; First downs: SMU 7, Pitt 0; Time of possession: SMU 10:56, Pitt 3:49.

Stat of the game: 7. Total rushing yards for Pitt in the game.

Player of the game: SMU DE Margus Hunt. Pitt has now given up over 60 sacks on the season after the Mustangs got seven in the game. Hunt had four as he simply overpowered Gaskins all game long.

Second guessing: Pitt was terrible inside the SMU 25 today. In four opportunities, the Panthers came away with two field goals, a missed field goal and an interception. The interception was a fluke, as it bounced off Isaac Bennett's hands, then off a helmet and into the arms of Stephon Sanders. On several of the other possessions, Sunseri took sacks at the worst possible time. Sums up the story of the season. Pitt also had two opportunities on special teams taken away -- one was a recovered onside kick negated by an inadvertent whistle; another was a fake punt for a first down negated because of a false start. SMU also blocked one Pitt punt.

Well wishes: SMU running back Jared Williams broke his left leg on a scary hit with Pitt safety Andrew Taglianetti. Williams was carted off the field on a stretcher with an air cast on his leg, and Taglianetti was visibly distraught over the hit.

What Pitt learned: There is plenty of work for new coach Paul Chryst to do. As has been the case in 2011, quarterback and offensive line play are two of the biggest issues that have to be fixed. Good thing Chryst and incoming offensive coordinator Bob Bostad have the experience needed to make these two areas better. Pitt is going to be a more traditional offense in the future, and to be able to do that, the offensive line has got to be better. One thing has to be said about the coaching in this game -- the Panthers only had five full-time coaches on the sideline, and interim coach Keith Patterson was put in an extremely difficult position to lead this team.

What SMU learned: When the Mustangs are able to hold onto the football and make plays in the pass game, they win. SMU went into the game with the worst turnover margin in the nation (minus-17) but was plus-2 in this game. McDermott hit Darius Johnson for a 50-yard touchdown early in the game, and was able to pick apart a Pitt defense that at times had linebackers on the Mustangs' fastest receivers. Johnson ended up with seven catches for 121 yards -- and he returns next season along with injured running back Zach Line, Hunt and many other standouts on offense and defense.

BBVA Compass Bowl: Three Keys

January, 6, 2012
1/06/12
2:30
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You saw the preview and prediction. Now here are three keys for Pitt and SMU in the BBVA Compass Bowl:

Pitt

1. Focus. The same question has to be asked again this year heading into the BBVA Compass Bowl: What will be the motivation for the Panthers, who are playing in this game for the second straight season under an interim head coach? There is no doubt these players and this program were rocked hard by the way former coach Todd Graham left. They must put those negative emotions behind them and play for themselves and each other. This is a team that has been maddeningly inconsistent, which led to a disappointing season. Can they pull it together one final time to win their third straight bowl game?

2. Run. Pitt has experienced the most success this season when running the ball. That task got more difficult when Ray Graham was lost for the season. It will be even harder now that backup Zach Brown is questionable for the game with a bruised sternum. True freshman Isaac Bennett and Corey Davis will be relied upon to shoulder the load, so the game doesn't rest on the arm of quarterback Tino Sunseri.

3. Get after J.J. McDermott. Pitt has been terrific with its pass rush all season, tied for fourth nationally in sacks with an average of 3.25 per game. The Panthers have 39 total sacks on the season. The Mustangs have given up 27 sacks on the year, so there should be plenty of opportunity for Aaron Donald and Brandon Lindsey to get after McDermott. That obviously is a huge key if the Panthers want to disrupt their passing game -- the strength of the team.

SMU

1. Limit the mistakes. SMU ranks last in the nation in turnover margin (minus-17) and has at least one interception in 11 of its 12 games this season. Only East Carolina has thrown more interceptions than SMU’s 19 in 2011, according to ESPN Stats & Information. On the bright side, Pitt only has eight interceptions this year. On the down side, Pitt did force six turnovers the last time out against Syracuse.

2. Make Sunseri win it. SMU has some pretty talented players up front. Defensive end Taylor Thompson, who has seven sacks and six forced fumbles on the season, is going to need a big game to slow down the Pitt running attack and to take Sunseri down. Ja'Gared Davis is also an important player for the Mustangs on defense -- he has 4.5 sacks and 11 tackles for loss. Taylor Reed is a tackling machine and will be key to slowing down the Pitt run.

3. Pass game must get going. There is no escaping this -- SMU has to pass the ball in order to win. The Mustangs went 2-4 in their last six games largely for this reason: Scoring an average of 17.7 points during the stretch, SMU averaged just 223.7 yards through the air and threw six touchdowns and 11 interceptions. The Panthers have been much better on pass defense in the second half of the season but will be challenged by Cole Beasley and Darius Johnson -- each has over 900 yards receiving and the duo has combined for nine of the team's 16 touchdowns this season. If SMU can protect McDermott and connect on big pass plays early to take a quick lead, Pitt could find itself in serious trouble. The Panthers are not equipped to play from behind.
Pitt (6-6) and SMU (7-5) will play for the first time in 29 years when they meet at 1 p.m. Saturday in the BBVA Compass Bowl in Birmingham, Ala. The Panthers and Mustangs last met on Jan. 1, 1983, in the Cotton Bowl. The SMU "Pony Express" backfield of Eric Dickerson and Craig James beat the Dan Marino-led Panthers 7-3.

The Panthers will try to give the Big East a 4-1 bowl record for the season.

WHO TO WATCH: Pitt quarterback Tino Sunseri. It is hard to imagine any quarterback in the country taking as much criticism, and as many shots, as he has this season. He was sacked more than 50 times, and former coach Todd Graham essentially blamed him for not making his "high-octane" offense work. Through it all, Sunseri took the high road, kept his head up and kept playing. Say what you will about his football season -- he deserves credit for taking the hits while trying to remain a leader for this football team. Interim coach Keith Patterson said this week that the offense would slow down a bit to emphasize what Sunseri does best, which is running the football. Zach Brown (bruised sternum) is most likely out, so the load will fall once again to freshman Isaac Bennett.

WHAT TO WATCH: Pittsburgh defense against SMU offense. The Mustangs have the potential to put up points in a hurry, but the key is being able to limit the passing game. More emphasis will be placed on that with leading rusher Zach Line out for this game. This is really all you need to know about what SMU does when it scores: The Mustangs are 7-0 this season when scoring first and 7-0 when scoring at least 21 points. Slowing down receiver Darius Johnson will be the biggest key. Johnson has five 100-yard games this season, and three with 10 or more catches.

WHY TO WATCH: This could have been a future Big East game, but alas, Pitt is headed to the ACC when SMU joins with the Big East. Either way, June Jones has done a remarkable job in turning around the Mustangs, though they probably fell a little short of expectations this season. SMU is playing in its third straight bowl game -- tying a school record. When his offenses are on, they are fun to watch.

PREDICTION: Pitt 28, SMU 17. From my predictions post a few weeks ago: Pitt has to do what has worked best this season -- establish the run and let Sunseri manage the game. The defense has been much improved in the second half of the season, and SMU has struggled to put up points of late. The Mustangs also will be without leading rusher Line, who played a big role in the offense. If the Panthers can continue to get after the quarterback and play well in the secondary, they should be able to win this game.

Predictions: Big East bowls

December, 26, 2011
12/26/11
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The time has come for me to make my can't-be-beat Big East bowl predictions. All year you guys wanted me to think outside the box and pick some upsets. I shall deliver today. The pick for the Orange Bowl comes later this week, so West Virginia fans have to wait a few more days.

Belk Bowl: Louisville (7-5) vs. NC State (7-5), Dec. 27, 8 p.m. Here comes Test 1 against the ACC. The Wolfpack will have the benefit of playing in front of a partisan crowd, but Louisville goes into the game on a bit of a hot streak, having closed the season with a 5-1 mark. The Cardinals have simply found their identity. This offense is not going to light up the scoreboard, but it has become more efficient and balanced since play-calling duties switched to Shawn Watson. The defense has been solid, and will be one of the best the Wolfpack have faced this season. Louisville ranks No. 10 nationally in rushing defense (103.5 ypg), No. 14 in scoring defense (19.2 ppg) and No. 23 in total defense (327.8 ypg). Here is the bottom line for me: You know what you are going to get out of the Cardinals. They have been exceptionally consistent in the second half of the season. You cannot say the same for NC State, one of the most inconsistent teams in the nation. Will we see the NC State team that beat Clemson or the one that lost to Boston College and nearly lost to Maryland? Louisville 24, NC State 20.

New Era Pinstripe Bowl: Rutgers (8-4) vs. Iowa State (6-6), Dec. 30, 3:20 p.m. Once again, Rutgers is playing the quarterback shuffle game, and coach Greg Schiano has not announced whether Chas Dodd or Gary Nova will start in the bowl game. No matter who is behind center, you can bet one thing has been emphasized since Rutgers lost to UConn -- hold onto the football. Rutgers turned the ball over six times against the Huskies and simply never gave itself a chance to win. Iowa State has been solid at forcing turnovers, but the Cyclones have given the ball away too many times this season. Rutgers owned the turnover margin earlier this season but has fallen off lately. The key for Rutgers in all its wins this season has been simple -- create turnovers, limit mistakes and allow defense and special teams to carry the day. Schiano always gets his team up for bowl games, and Iowa State has dropped two games in a row since beating Oklahoma State. Rutgers 27, Iowa State 20.

AutoZone Liberty Bowl: Cincinnati (9-3) vs. Vanderbilt (6-6), Dec. 31, 3:30 p.m. I have been outspoken on this game in the past week so you know where I am going with this one. Zach Collaros might be back at quarterback for the Bearcats, which should be a huge advantage. Still, these teams are very similar -- good running backs (Isaiah Pead, Zac Stacy) and good defenses (Vandy ranks No. 19 in the nation, Cincinnati ranks in the top 10 against the run and leads in sacks). The quarterback matchup between Jordan Rodgers and Collaros should be a good one as well, but I still give the advantage to the Bearcats. This is a team that was on pace to get to a BCS game before Collaros broke his ankle. Cincinnati has been terrific at getting after the quarterback and making tackles behind the line, and the secondary is much improved. The seniors are eager to win their first bowl game and eager to prove the naysayers wrong once again. Cincinnati 27, Vanderbilt 21.

BBVA Compass Bowl: Pitt (6-6) vs. SMU (7-5), Jan. 7, 1 p.m. The big question headed into this one is how Pitt responds with interim coach Keith Patterson leading the way. The Panthers played under an interim coach in this game last year against Kentucky and won, so clearly this is not a unique situation. Pitt has to do what has worked best this season -- establish the run and let quarterback Tino Sunseri manage the game. The defense has been much improved in the second half of the season, and SMU has struggled to put up points of late. The Mustangs also will be without leading rusher Zach Line, who played a big role in the offense. If the Panthers can continue to get after the quarterback and play well in the secondary, they should be able to win this game. Pitt 28, SMU 17.

3-point stance: Courageous Spartans

December, 20, 2011
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1. Michigan State fifth-year senior Arthur Ray Jr., spent the 2009 and 2010 seasons fighting bone cancer in his left leg. After spending nearly two years on crutches, Ray returned to play in three games this season. The Football Writers Association of America named Ray the winner Monday of the Discover Orange Bowl-FWAA Courage Award. Someone should create an award for Spartans; left guard Joel Foreman, who gave up his streak of 22 straight starts so that Ray could start the 2011 opener against Youngstown State.

2. Former ESPN announcer Craig James announced Monday that he is running in the Republican primary for the 2012 U.S. Senate in Texas. If the former SMU tailback is elected, he will join a very short list of senators who played college football. Sen. Joe Manchin (D.-W.Va.) went to West Virginia on a football scholarship but got hurt. Former senators John Culver of Iowa and the late Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts were teammates at Harvard. I know I must be missing others. Let me know at Ivan.Maisel@espn.com.

3. Coaches love to use bowl practices as a pre-spring practice for next season. At Boise State, for example, sophomore Joe Southwick and freshman Grant Hedrick prepared for replacing Kellen Moore, the winningest quarterback in FBS history. Brent Pease, the Broncos’ quarterback coach, said he must figure out what they know and how well they know it. “What [will] they understand in the heat of the moment?” Pease asked. “None of them have really been [in when] the game’s on the line.”

Big East expansion news and notes

December, 8, 2011
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It is going to be a Big East expansion kinda day today. Here are some leftover notes from commissioner John Marinatto following his conference call announcing new members Boise State, San Diego State, Houston, UCF and SMU.

  • Marinatto seemed to believe having the Big East in all four time zones would be a benefit when negotiations begin for a new media rights deal next September. He even talked about having games back-to-back-to-back as an appealing option. "We think that's a very powerful model as we move forward in our upcoming TV negotiations, initially with ESPN eight months from now, because it provides something that no other conference in the country can represent. So we're excited about that prospect," he said.
  • [+] EnlargeJohn Marinatto
    AP Photo/Stew MilneCommissioner John Marinatto is bringing in five new schools to the Big East.
    On the subject of divisions, Marinatto said there were no decisions yet on how everybody would be divided up. "What we're looking at specifically is two sixteam divisions, you play everybody once for five, then you cross over for three others," he said. "We will have all of our athletic directors included in the room in order to determine what is the best model. But that's the general model that we've discussed as we've unfolded this plan that we've shared with each of the schools that are on the call today as well as our ongoing members."
  • That model includes 12 teams. The Big East will have 10 once West Virginia, Pitt and Syracuse leave. So expansion is not quite done yet. Air Force is out, after announcing it would stay in the Mountain West. Navy cannot make a commitment for 2013. Villanova would only be considered if the Big East decides to move to 14 or 16 teams. So who does that leave? Marinatto was mum on the future prospects. But he did say if the Big East stayed at 10 for now, there would be a discussion about appealing to the NCAA to play a championship game as a 10-team league.
  • Incoming members will be subject to the 27-month waiting period to depart the conference once they actually join in 2013. Should anybody change their mind before them, the only penalty they incur would be a financial one. That is how the Big East handled TCU.
  • Boise State president Bob Kustra was asked a pointed question about TCU using the Big East as leverage for an invitation to the Big 12. Would Boise State do the same if the Pac-12 or Big 12 came calling? Kustra said, "We've made the commitment to the Big East. I particularly like the idea of introducing Boise State University's brand of football east of the Mississippi and across this nation. I think John Marinatto made an excellent point when he talked about the fact that this is indeed a conference, the only conference in America, in four time zones and a coasttocoast conference. That is appealing to us. That is just as appealing to us as the opportunities we may have had in the past. Certainly it's the reason why we're in the conference now and where we intend to stay."
  • Marinatto was asked if he was confident the Big East would hold onto AQ status: "Part of our objectives in expansion was to create the best conference we could both on the football side as well as other sports. We recognize obviously the departure of the schools leaving the conference affected us. But we always felt confident that if we made the right moves, we would keep our BCS AQ status and we've done that.
  • He also was adamant that Pitt, Syracuse and West Virginia stay for the full 27-month waiting period. That would make a 13-team league for 2013. "I guess if the SEC can figure out a way to do it next year, we can certainly figure out a way to do it when we need to."
  • Sorry, you guys are stuck with the Big East. I was really looking forward to Big Country. Sorry, Bryant Reeves.

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