NCF Nation: Zach Collaros

Big East position rankings: QB

February, 17, 2012
We continue on with our 2011 postseason position rankings with quarterback. There should not be too many surprises on this list. For me, it was hardest to separate Syracuse-USF-Rutgers in the middle of the pack. You could also make the case to flop Pitt and UConn.

1. West Virginia. Geno Smith went about shattering school, Big East and Orange Bowl records during his career year for the Mountaineers, throwing for 4,385 yards, 31 touchdown passes and seven interceptions. His development under Dana Holgorsen was about what we expected. Preseason ranking: 1.

[+] EnlargeWest Virginia's Geno Smith
Andrew Weber/US PresswireWest Virginia's Geno Smith passed for 4,385 yards and 31 touchdowns under new coach Dana Holgorsen.
2. Cincinnati. Zach Collaros' worth to the team was illustrated when he got hurt against West Virginia. The Bearcats lost their grip atop the Big East and ended up sharing the league title. Munchie Legaux was not great, but Collaros was. Cincinnati may have relied more on the run this year, but I thought Collaros and Isaiah Pead complemented each other perfectly. Preseason ranking: 2.

3. Louisville. True freshman Teddy Bridgewater really helped anchor this team once he replaced Will Stein in the starting lineup. He set a school freshman passing record with 2,129 yards and won Big East Newcomer of the Year honors. Without Bridgewater, I'm not sure this team wins a share of the Big East title. He showed poise and maturity beyond his years. Preseason ranking: 7.

4. Syracuse. Ryan Nassib had a career year for the Orange, setting highs for completions, attempts, yards, completion percentage and touchdown passes. There is no doubt he made some significant strides for Syracuse, but the biggest knock is that he never really was able to make the plays to get his team in position to win just one game in the final stretch of the season. Preseason ranking: 6.

5. USF. Coach Skip Holtz rightfully points out that the Bulls offense was improved in 2011 vs. 2010. But I think most of us were waiting on B.J. Daniels to take that next step and become an elite quarterback in the Big East. We are still waiting. He barely improved his completion percentage and threw just 13 touchdown passes -- though he did have a career-high with 601 yards rushing. What sticks out most are critical mistakes against UConn and West Virginia that cost his team wins. Preseason ranking: 4.

6. Rutgers. Greg Schiano went with musical quarterbacks again, switching back and forth and then back again from Chas Dodd to Gary Nova to Dodd. Neither was particularly effective, and both had a penchant for making bad mistakes. It's a true credit to receiver Mohamed Sanu that he was able to have such a great year with such inconsistent quarterback play. Preseason ranking: 5.

7. Pitt. How much more can be said about the way Tino Sunseri played this season? The further removed we are from the year, the more I'm convinced that his coaches let him down. Still, he was not very good in 2011 -- 38 yards passing against Utah was the low point. It was a disaster of a season. Preseason ranking: 3 (Gulp!)

8. UConn. Three quarterbacks in contention, but the Huskies really had no true quarterbacks. Johnny McEntee ended up winning the right to start, but he was completely overmatched. Scott McCummings came in for Wildcat duties and Michael Nebrich was an afterthought. No surprise that this was the worst passing offense in the Big East. Preseason ranking: 8.
It is time to evaluate the receiver position in the Big East. For the postseason rankings, I am going to include tight ends as well. Before the season started, I did them separately, but it makes more sense to do them together.

This is a position group that has a clear-cut 1-2. To me, the rest are pretty interchangeable, as no other group really stood out to me this season.

1. West Virginia. Slam dunk to have the Mountaineers on top, given the way Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey performed this season. Each had 1,000-yard seasons -- the first time in school history two players hit that mark. Bailey led the Big East with 12 receiving touchdowns, and was No. 1 in receiving yards per game. Austin was third in receiving yards per game and second in receptions per game. Add in Ivan McCartney, also ranked among the top-10 receivers in the Big East and that says it all. Preseason ranking: No. 2.

[+] EnlargeWest Virginia's Stedman Bailey
Kim Klement/US PRESSWIREWest Virginia's Stedman Bailey led the Big East in touchdowns and yards receiving per game.
2. Rutgers. Mohamed Sanu had an unbelievable season for Rutgers with a school and Big East record 115 receptions. He dominated at receiver, leading the league in receptions per game and finishing second in receiving yards per game. That domination meant his teammates did not get as many opportunities -- Brandon Coleman only had 17 receptions; Mark Harrison 14, Quron Pratt had 32. But when you have an unstoppable force like Sanu, you keep going to him. Preseason ranking: No. 1.

3. Syracuse. When you think of the Orange, you don't necessarily think of high-profile receivers. But Alec Lemon and Nick Provo teamed to have outstanding seasons this year. Both posted career years, Provo made the Big East first team and Lemon made the second team. The two combined for 119 catches and 13 touchdowns. Depth wasn't great, but the performance of Lemon and Provo make up for that and vaults Syracuse here. Preseason ranking: No. 5.

4. Cincinnati. I thought the Bearcats receivers had a down year. D.J. Woods didn't really live up to his potential, and Anthony McClung led the team with 683 yards. That is the fewest yards for the team's leading receiver since 2006. What really sticks out: when Zach Collaros got hurt, the receivers as a whole never really stepped up the way they should have to help Munchie Legaux. Preseason ranking: No. 3.

5. Louisville. The Cardinals did get much better play out of their receivers, and were helped with the impact freshman DeVante Parker and Eli Rogers made. They didn't have anybody with eye-popping numbers, but they did have consistent enough performances out of this group. Preseason ranking: 7.

6. USF. The Bulls were really hurt by injuries at this position, and never really had a go-to guy emerge. Sterling Griffin was en route to a good season before he got hurt; A.J. Love got hurt as well. That left the position in the hands of many young, inexperienced guys. I thought Deonte Welch really had a nice second half. He was their best receiver when Griffin was out. Preseason ranking: 6.

7. UConn. Considering the way the Huskies struggled in the pass game, Kashif Moore, Isiah Moore and Ryan Griffin all put together solid seasons for UConn. Both Moores ranked in the top 10 in the Big East in receiving, and Griffin was the second-best tight end behind Nick Provo. Depth was lacking at the position -- as only five players caught double-digit passes, and only three are true wide receivers. Preseason ranking: 8.

8. Pitt. The Panthers got their tight ends and running backs involved heavily in the pass game, probably because there was depth lacking at the actual receiver position. Devin Street put together a solid season, with 754 yards receiving, and Mike Shanahan was decent. But otherwise, big plays were lacking. Passing game woes obviously had an impact. Preseason ranking: 4.

Big East offseason to-do lists

January, 20, 2012
Every team has plenty to do in the offseason. Today, I present to you my top priorities for each Big East program headed into the 2012 season.

  • Settle on a quarterback. If 2011 was any indication, then Munchie Legaux seems a sure bet to start next season. He showed flashes, but he needs to spend the bulk of his offseason developing a nice rhythm and chemistry with his receivers. That was one of the biggest roadblocks for him when he took over for Zach Collaros. Cincinnati has some good talent at receiver -- with Anthony McClung, Kenbrell Thompkins and Alex Chisum coming back -- so this must be a top priority.
  • Develop senior leadership. The Bearcats are losing the best senior class in school history, filled with leaders left and right. With guys such as Collaros, Isaiah Pead and JK Schaffer gone, who is going to take the responsibility of leading this team? That is something that must be worked on throughout the offseason.
  • Find a quarterback. Sounds the same as last season, right? The Huskies never really found one in 2011 and that is a big reason why they struggled. Spring practice has the potential to have five different quarterbacks taking reps in Johnny McEntee, Scott McCummings, Michael Nebrich, Chandler Whitmer and Casey Cochran. Somebody has to emerge to take a hold of this offense.
  • Work on improving the secondary. The weakest part of this team last season ranked No. 113 in the nation, so this is a clear area that has to get better. The Huskies were hurt when starting cornerback Blidi Wreh-Wilson missed a good chunk of the season with a knee injury, and they also had to rely on freshmen in Byron Jones and Ty-Meer Brown. This group will be much more experienced, so you have to hope they will be much better, too.
  • Mature. The Cardinals were one of the youngest teams in the nation last season, and their immaturity showed at times. But now they enter the offseason with exceedingly high expectations. Many preseason lists have them ranked in the Top 25 and challenging for the Big East title. This team will still be young in 2012, so it will be imperative for coach Charlie Strong to help get this group to mature quickly and stay focused.
  • Work on the run game. Strong wants the run game to be the bread-and-butter of the offense, and this was an area that took a step back in 2011 with Bilal Powell gone. Louisville went from being ranked No. 1 in the Big East to No. 5 in the Big East, averaging 121.5 yards per game. That is down over 50 yards per game. Dominique Brown and Jeremy Wright are back, but they have to be consistent and the Cardinals probably need somebody else to emerge.
  • New identity. A new coach means a new identity, so it will be interesting to see how the Panthers look under Paul Chryst and his new staff. We will find out when spring practice opens in March. There is plenty of talent on the roster, but the big question is how will the talent be utilized?
  • Is Tino the man? This is starting to sound like a trend, right? The Panthers have quarterback issues as well after Tino Sunseri had a season to forget. Much of his performance can probably be laid at the feet of former coach Todd Graham, who stubbornly tried to run an offensive system that was not suited for the players he had. You can be sure Chryst will open up the quarterback competition to see who emerges.
  • Handle expectations. The Scarlet Knights have not been so good in the past when the pressure is on. All you have to do is look back at what happened this season, with a shot to win a share of the Big East title. Now they are getting some preseason love and probably have their best team since 2006. So coach Greg Schiano is going to have to do a good job of managing preparation and focus because expectations were raised off a successful 2011 campaign.
  • Quarterback derby. Yet another Big East team with a quarterback question mark. Chas Dodd and Gary Nova ended up splitting the starts this past season. Now there is the possibility that former quarterback Tom Savage transfers back in. I don't know if Schiano can afford to keep playing musical chairs with his quarterbacks every season.
  • Re-focus. The Bulls have to put 2011 behind them and focus on the future. This is still a team that has the talent to win. Coach Skip Holtz has to find a way to get that done. This is going to be a veteran team that has been through good times and bad. He needs leaders who will their teammates to victory, who know how to win close games and are determined to get this team back on top. Who are they?
  • New defense. USF brings in new defensive coordinator Chris Cosh from Kansas State, its third different coordinator in the past four years. Getting the players adapted to his scheme as soon as possible has to be a point of emphasis in the spring and throughout the offseason.
  • More offensive consistency. To be sure, Ryan Nassib and Alec Lemon both had career years and made strides for the Orange. But a lot of that was because the run game was inconsistent, and Syracuse found itself trailing late in several games. This team has to find a way to sustain drives and score -- Syracuse was No. 7 in the Big East in scoring offense (24.2 ppg).
  • Shore up the defense. The Orange lose some of their best players on the defensive line, and have to get better in the secondary, which was a major problem for most of the year. Syracuse ranked No. 98 in the nation in pass defense, and they lose some key contributors. Shamarko Thomas is really going to have to step up and take control of this group.
West Virginia
  • Big 12 or Big East? The Mountaineers are bent on leaving for the Big 12, regardless of any court outcomes. On-field issues have nothing on trying to figure out where you are going to be playing. And who you are going to be playing.
  • Defense. Coach Dana Holgorsen has hired a few defensive assistants, but still no word yet on who is going to run the show. That, of course, will determine the future course of this defense. It appears an inevitability that they will no longer use the 3-3-5 that former coordinator Jeff Casteel ran. Plus, players such as Keith Tandy, Najee Goode, Bruce Irvin and Julian Miller are gone. Shoring up this unit has to be tops on Holgorsen's list.

Q&A: Cincinnati coach Butch Jones

January, 17, 2012
I had a chance to catch up with Cincinnati coach Butch Jones and hit a wide variety of topics. In Part I, he reflects on 2011. Stay tuned for Part II, in which he looks to the future.

What was your favorite moment of the season?

[+] EnlargeButch Jones
Richard Mackson/US PresswireButch Jones hasn't let a smaller athletic budget hinder him from having success at Cincinnati.
BJ: There's so many that I don't think there's one particular moment but just the journey and obviously very happy for our players, especially our seniors. Everything we talk about in our program is about how you leave your legacy overall. When I said it at Big East media days at that point in time, I liked the way we managed our business and conducted ourselves. To win a Big East championship and also have the academic achievement award, to represent our conference and win the Liberty Bowl was very fitting, and I think when you throw in the adversity and the resilience our football team had to show. It's one of the most under-talked stories in college football -- Zach Collaros coming back for that game.

I’ve said it before -- we live in SportsCenter society. The only thing people see are the highlights. They don't see the trials and tribulations, the amount of effort Zach put in to the rehab process, eight, nine hours a day. In his mind, he was going to play in that football game. So I just think that obviously 10-win seasons are extremely difficult in the world of college football, so there's so many things and it provides us with great momentum. But it also defines our foundation of what it means to be a senior in our program. They've laid the foundation, and the expectations of what we expect from our future seniors.

Is this the best senior class in the history of Cincinnati football?

BJ: We’ve played football here, this is our 124th year. We’ve had five 10-win seasons and these seniors have been a part of three of those. I think also the exciting thing for us, for a lot of them it was their first bowl victory in their careers, the first bowl victory versus a BCS opponent. They finished the way we want our teams to finish. That's a tribute to them.

There is something to be said about the intangible of leadership. How important is that to a winning team?

BJ: We won this year on intangibles, on character, work ethic. Leadership is something that develops daily. It doesn't develop overnight. We have a peer intervention program, we teach leadership, we define leadership and we've already started that process. The greatest thing is the younger players in our program had the benefit of witnessing the leadership of this senior class. The younger players saw that each and every day, and so it's something that we spend more time on -- leadership sometimes and the intangibles -- than actual X and Os, because everything is about the team. We do lose a lot of quality individuals, but I also think we have a number of quality individuals in our program.

You mentioned before the contributions of the senior class. Cincinnati has won at least a share of a Big East title in three of the past four years, yet still does not get much respect nationally. How do you change that?

BJ: Great programs are marked by their level of consistency, so being consistent in everything we do on and off the field. We have very high expectations for ourselves, so just continuing to win on and off the field and playing with a level of consistency with everything that we do.

Top 10 Big East moments from 2011

January, 12, 2012
Now it is time to relive the top moments in the Big East for 2011 -- both the good, and the bad.

1. Eric LeGrand returns. Not only was this the top moment in the Big East, it was one of the top moments in all of sports in 2011. Seeing the injured LeGrand lead his Rutgers teammates onto the field in his wheelchair before the start of the West Virginia game Oct. 29 in middle of a snowstorm had to soften the hearts of even the most jaded. What LeGrand has been able to do is truly inspiring in the year since he was paralyzed making a hit against Army in 2010. He has gone further than anybody ever anticipated -- he has started rehab work on a treadmill and gotten twitches and sensations throughout his entire body. And he has begun to do radio and television work for Rutgers, as well.

[+] EnlargeEric LeGrand
Noah K. Murray/The Star-Ledger via US PresswireEric LeGrand, injured in 2010, led his Rutgers teammates onto the field Oct. 29.
2. Expansion. This is the storyline that eclipsed most everything else for the entire season. First it was Pitt and Syracuse leaving, seemingly catching commissioner John Marinatto off guard. Then TCU jumped ship. Then West Virginia. When everything was tidied up in December, the Big East had gone Big Country, adding Boise State, San Diego State, SMU, UCF and Houston. West Virginia's fate remains tied up in pending lawsuits. However that saga plays out, the Big East is prepared to launch Version 3.0 in 2013.

3. West Virginia goes BOOM! You could make the case that the way the Mountaineers dismantled Clemson in the Discover Orange Bowl should be ranked higher. In any other season, it would be No. 1. But when folks look back on the 2011 season, I think the first two stories are more likely to come to mind because of the way they transcended sports, and signaled the dawning of a new era. If we are going with purely on-the-field stories, then this one is the hands-down choice. West Virginia scored a bowl-record 70 points on the Tigers. For perspective, not even the worst teams in the nation -- New Mexico, FAU, Indiana and Akron -- had 70 scored on them this year. The ACC champ did. Unforgettable moment: Darwin Cook returning a fumble 99 yards to swing momentum, then taking down Obie the Orange Bowl mascot.

4. Down goes Collaros. One play changed the entire complexion of the Big East race. Too simple to say? Nope. Cincinnati had a two-game lead on everybody else on Nov. 12 when West Virginia came to town. In the second quarter, Bruce Irvin sacked Zach Collaros, who fumbled on the play. Julian Miller recovered in the end zone for a touchdown but the damage was done for the Bearcats. Collaros broke his ankle, and Cincinnati dropped two straight. West Virginia won out and finished in a three-way tie with Cincinnati and Louisville. The Mountaineers clinched the BCS berth -- leading to the eventual walloping of Clemson -- because they finished as the highest-ranked team in the final BCS standings.

5. Todd Graham bolts. In one of the most stunning turns of events this season, Todd Graham decided he had enough of Pittsburgh after 11 months on the job and a 6-6 record. He bolted for Arizona State without saying good-bye to his players, gleefully spewing the same speech he gave to the Panthers when he was hired for his "dream job." His coaching move drew universal scorn, and outrage from his players, as well. They took to Twitter to lambaste their former coach for his lies and unseemly departure.

6. Four clutch plays. West Virginia faced a must-win against USF in the regular-season finale Dec. 1. With the game tied at 27 and 5 minutes left in the fourth quarter, the Bulls embarked on a drive that took them down to the West Virginia 28. That's when clutch play No. 1 happened. Najee Goode forced B.J. Daniels to fumble and the Mountaineers recovered. Geno Smith took over with 3:02 left. Clutch play No. 2: Stedman Bailey makes an unbelievable catch on fourth-and-10 for 26 yards, down at the USF 16. Clutch play No. 3: Shawne Alston drags Bailey back to the line of scrimmage after the catch so the Mountaineers can get the snap off without a penalty. Clutch play No. 4: Tyler Bitancurt hits a 28-yard field goal to win the game 30-27 and a share of the Big East title.

7. Ray Graham gets hurt. Pitt running back Ray Graham ranked second nationally and led the Big East in rushing yards per game (134.1) headed into Week 9 against UConn. But early on against the Huskies, Graham crumpled to the ground while making a cut, clutching his right knee. He had torn his ACL, and his season was over. You could almost say the same for the Panthers, who struggled to do anything on offense without their best player.

8. Charlie Strong, surfer. You know how momentous Louisville's 38-35 victory over West Virginia was this season? So momentous it sent coach Charlie Strong bodysurfing over his players in a jubilant locker room afterward. He had Adrian Bushell and Andrew Johnson to thank. On the first play of the fourth quarter, West Virginia lined up for a 23-yard field goal to tie the game. Bushell blocked the kick; Johnson returned it 82 yards for a touchdown and the momentum went to the Cardinals. It was their first win in Morgantown since 1990, and third win ever in the series.

9. Syracuse does what? Surely Syracuse's win over West Virginia in Morgantown in 2010 was a fluke. Surely the Mountaineers would gain revenge in the Dome. Yeah. About that. The Orange schooled West Virginia and reintroduced the Mountaineers to the tight end, pulling the biggest upset of the season 49-23. Syracuse had not scored that many points in the series since 1960. The game also marked the triumphant return of Chandler Jones -- who had two sacks and six tackles in his first game back from a knee injury.

10. USF collapse. The Bulls began the year 4-0 with a national ranking and a victory at Notre Dame. Then Big East play happened. USF lost seven of its final eight games and missed a bowl for the first time as members of the Big East. The Bulls also posted their worst record in Big East play (1-6). A team pegged as a dark horse disappointed in every possible way, losing five games by six points or fewer.
Here are some of the highs and lows of Big East bowl season:

Best performance, team: West Virginia. The 70-33 win over Clemson in the Discover Orange Bowl goes down as one of the best team performances in bowl history. The Mountaineers set a bowl record for points scored, and another bowl record for points scored in one quarter (35, second); an Orange Bowl record for touchdowns (10); and tied an Orange Bowl record for first downs (31). Theirs was the most dominating bowl win of the season.

[+] EnlargeWest Virginia Mountaineers wide receiver Tavon Austin
Douglas Jones-US PRESSWIREWest Virginia wide receiver Tavon Austin set records in the Mountaineers Orange Bowl victory.
Best performance, individual: Tavon Austin, West Virginia. Geno Smith won game MVP honors, but I thought the biggest difference maker was Austin. He set Orange Bowl records for total yards (280), receptions (12) and receiving touchdowns (4) and his versatility was a major reason why the Mountaineers won. Smith said this about Austin after the game: "He won me an MVP. I should give him a trophy."

Worst performance, team: Pitt. The numbers on offense were ugly once again in the BBVA Compass Bowl against SMU. The Panthers had season lows in points and yards rushing (10), and their 205 total yards were second-worst this season. They also were 6-of-17 on third down, and had no touchdowns in four trips inside the SMU 25. Pretty sure Pitt is happy to turn the page on this season.

Best comeback: Zach Collaros, Cincinnati. In the weeks leading up to the AutoZone Liberty Bowl, we could only guess about whether Collaros would make it back from a broken ankle. He was weeks ahead of rehab, but there was still soreness and he was not running all that well. But Collaros is such a gamer, he refused to be held out of the game. He made his triumphant return and the Bearcats beat Vanderbilt 31-24.

Worst injury: Khaseem Greene, Rutgers. It looked gruesome on television -- Greene went down hard on his ankle against Iowa State in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl, and we were all thankful when the television replays stopped. It was a tough end to the season for the co-Defensive Player of the Year, who had one of the finest defensive performances this bowl season with 13 tackles, half a sack and a forced fumble. Greene ended up with a broken ankle, but should be just fine for the start of training camp this summer.

Worst loss: Louisville. Yes, we can say Pitt had a terrible loss, but the season had gone horribly for the Panthers and after another coaching change, you almost understood why they failed to show up. But the Cardinals finished the season with wins in four of their final five games, and earned a share of the Big East title. They were riding high going into their game against NC State in the Belk Bowl. An NC State team, by the way, that Cincinnati clobbered earlier in the season. I fully expected a win. But Louisville came out flat and trailed 31-10 before a valiant attempt at a comeback. Too many mistakes did in the Cardinals and they lost 31-24. I give a hand clap to the comeback, but I firmly believe this is a game the Cardinals should have won.

Best momentum swing (1): Clemson running back Andre Ellington was on his way in for a short touchdown in the second quarter against the Mountaineers. But he lost the football, and Darwin Cook returned it 99 yards for a score. West Virginia ended up scoring 35 points in the second quarter -- including 21 off three turnovers.

Best momentum swing (2): Cincinnati trailed Vanderbilt 21-17 early in the fourth quarter, after Larry Smith connected with Chris Boyd on a 68-yard touchdown pass. Ralph David Abernathy IV took the ensuing kickoff and returned it 90 yards for a score to put the Bearcats ahead 24-21. It was the first return for a score in his career. Even better -- Cincinnati would never trail again.

Worst series: Louisville scored to make it 31-24 with 4:29 left in the fourth quarter. Plenty of time to kick it deep and then trust your defense to get a three-and-out to set up good field position for a game-winning drive. Charlie Strong opted for an onside kick, and NC State recovered. Luckily for the Cardinals, NC State coach Tom O'Brien made a move that was even more head-scratching when he decided to go for it on fourth-and-1 from the Louisville 33. The Cardinals stopped them to get great field position with 1:35 remaining. But Teddy Bridgewater took two sacks on the drive, and ended up throwing his third interception to end the game.

Best turnaround: Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights went into their game against Iowa State averaging 2.6 yards a carry and 91.5 yards a game on the ground. They nearly doubled those numbers in the bowl game, rushing for 173 yards and 4.1 yards a carry, as Jawan Jamison had 131 yards and two touchdowns.

Early 2012 Big East power rankings

January, 10, 2012
Because I love you all so much, I now present to you my early 2012 Big East power rankings. The season is one day old, so I reserve the right to change my mind based on spring practice and then fall practice. To say these are way early is to say West Virginia beat Clemson. Understatement!

1. West Virginia.* You see the asterisk there for obvious reasons. Will the Mountaineers be in this league in 2012, or will somebody else get to be called the favorite in the preseason? Should West Virginia return to this league, that performance in the Orange Bowl should frighten the rest of this conference. Now granted, there will be some major questions on this defense, but if Geno Smith, Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey can put up half a hundred every week, the Mountaineers are going to be really tough to beat.

2. Rutgers. This was a tough call for me. The Scarlet Knights still have quarterback issues, a nonexistent running game and are losing Mohamed Sanu. But they also return 16 starters, including Co-Big East Defensive Player of the Year Khaseem Greene. Everything should be in place for this team to make a serious run. The offensive line will be better; I firmly believe the quarterback play will be better; and there is enough talent at receiver to make up for Sanu's loss.

3. Louisville. Right now, I think it is a toss up between Louisville and Rutgers. The Cardinals also return a majority of their starters, including freshman of the year Teddy Bridgewater, along with a talented receiving corps and an offensive line that solidified itself as the season went on. What I worry about most right now is maturity and leadership. Louisville seems to thrive in an underdog role, and that will not be the case in 2012.

4. Cincinnati. The Bearcats lose 21 seniors, including Offensive Player of the Year Isaiah Pead, Co-Defensive Player of the Year Derek Wolfe, defensive leader JK Schaffer and starting quarterback Zach Collaros. There is a lot of young talent on this team, but the key word is young. How will the Bearcats handle themselves without so many of their best players?

5. USF. This has got to be the year the Bulls make a serious run at the Big East. The only problem is they have no idea how to win Big East games, and that prevents me from listing them higher than middle of the road in this league. There are going to be a lot of returning starters and returning seniors on this team, and plenty of talent. But there are some holes that have to be filled on the offensive line, defensive line and in the secondary. B.J. Daniels must win this season.

6. Pitt. I truly believe Paul Chryst is the best hire Pitt could have made this time around. But does that mean he has what he needs to be able to turn this team into a serious Big East contender? There are major question marks at quarterback, offensive line, defensive line and linebacker. The defense was the strength of this team but it's losing most of its best players. How does Ray Graham come back from knee surgery? I think of all the Big East teams, the Panthers have the most questions headed into the offseason.

7. UConn. Should we talk again about quarterback issues for the Huskies? It was the same theme in the preseason last year. We are no closer today to knowing who is going to lead this team, because there will be yet another quarterback competition. Running back should be an area of strength, just like last season, and there are some good players returning on the defensive line. But offensive line and secondary are also two major questions that must be improved for this team to contend again.

8. Syracuse. The Orange lost their best players on defense in Phillip Thomas, Chandler Jones and Mikhail Marinovich, along with 1,000-yard rusher Antwon Bailey. There are also depth questions on the offensive line, defensive line and at receiver. Ryan Nassib took a good first step this season, but he's got to make bigger steps this year. First and foremost, this team must find an identity and solve all the issues that plagued them at the end of this season.

Final Big East power rankings

January, 10, 2012
The time has come to put a big red bow on the 2011 season. I present to you the final Big East power rankings:

1. West Virginia (10-3). I would say scoring a bowl-record 70 points against Clemson in the Discover Orange Bowl gives the Mountaineers this spot quite comfortably. They lost a couple of head-scratchers, but they also beat Cincinnati -- the other 10-win Big East team -- and ended the season with four straight victories.

2. Cincinnati (10-3). We can talk about woulda been or shoulda been had Zach Collaros stayed healthy. But the reality is that the Bearcats put together their third championship season in four years, and won their first bowl game since 2007. Cincinnati also reached 10 wins for the fourth time in five seasons.

3. Rutgers (9-4). How about woulda been or shoulda been for the Scarlet Knights? Had they beaten UConn in the regular-season finale, they would have had a share of their first Big East championship. But nine wins is not too shabby for a team picked to finish last in the Big East. Plus, Rutgers owns the nation’s longest active bowl winning streak with five consecutive victories in postseason play.

4. Louisville (7-6). The Cardinals slip a notch because they could not close the season out with a win. Too many mistakes doomed them in a Belk Bowl loss to NC State. Still, you have to give credit to coach Charlie Strong for leading this team to a share of the Big East championship in his second season. They just have a lot of maturing to do.

5. Pitt (6-7). Let's be honest -- the Panthers closed out the season about as terribly as a team can play. But who can blame them for wanting the season to be over as quickly as possible after 1.) the disappointing season and 2.) the debacle that was Todd Graham? They beat the bottom three teams, so there is no real reason to rank them lower.

6. UConn (5-7). Had the Huskies held on to leads against Iowa State, Vanderbilt or Western Michigan, they would have gone back to a bowl game. But alas, they were never able to string together consecutive wins on the season, and beat only one team with a winning record.

7. USF (5-7). The Bulls have to be the biggest disappointment of the Big East, after some picked them as a dark horse to win the conference. Their only league win came at Syracuse, and they ended the season with seven losses in their final eight games. Really hard to believe for a team with so much talent.

8. Syracuse (5-7). What can you say about a team that had a major victory (over West Virginia), then proceeded to lose five straight to end the season? Their résumé is pretty comparable to USF, but the Bulls won head to head so Syracuse ends up here.
Stedman Bailey J. Meric/Getty ImagesStedman Bailey and West Virginia made a loud statement on their way out of the Big East.

MIAMI -- There is being disrespected. And then there is the Big East.

Er, the Big Least.

The league everybody wants to diss and dismiss. The league that does not deserve its automatic qualifying status. The league that nobody wants to invite to the party.

As much as the ACC has stunk up nearly every one of its BCS games, it is the Big East that gets derisively mocked. It is the Big East that does not belong. It is the Big East without a marquee national team.

Consider what happened Wednesday night.

No Big East team has been embarrassed in a BCS game the way West Virginia embarrassed Clemson in the Discover Orange Bowl. What was supposed to be an offensive shootout certainly was on the West Virginia side of the field. Clemson delivered duds in the form of turnovers, missed tackles and blown assignments.

The Mountaineers turned a first-quarter deficit into a rout behind a 35-point spree in the second period, scoring often and at will in a 70-33 victory. No team has ever scored that many points in a bowl game. Quarterback Geno Smith teamed with nationally unheralded Tavon Austin to shred the Tigers. Smith, named the game's MVP, set a BCS and Orange Bowl record with six touchdown passes, and set an Orange Bowl record with 401 yards passing.

Know which quarterbacks he surpassed? A couple guys named Matt Leinart and Tom Brady. Not bad for Smith. Or West Virginia. Or the Big East, guaranteed to finish with a winning bowl record. Come to think of it, the Big East will have a winning bowl record in six consecutive seasons.

But before we get carried away with this Big East redemption story, there is one little problem.

West Virginia is headed out the door for the Big 12. So is this a West Virginia story, or a Big East story? Can it be both, with so much bad blood between the two?

It absolutely should be, for one final glorious night.

Just ask West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen, who sounds just as perturbed as a perpetually disregarded fan base when asked about the bad rap the Big East gets, and whether this win says anything about his league.

"I've only been there a year, I know, but West Virginia has won three BCS games in the last six years, which is a pretty good track record," Holgorsen said. "West Virginia has been in the Big East for the last six years, last time I checked. So I think that's a pretty good track record.

"Then going through the Big East schedule one year, we had some pretty tough games. We lost a couple of those, and then the ones that we won were tough. So the product at West Virginia was out there. There was a lot of teams in the Big East that gave us all we wanted."

Clemson -- not so much. It is not lost on many Big East fans that West Virginia has more BCS wins (three) than the entire ACC (two). But again, the same sentiment follows -- what happens to this league when its best representative finally leaves?

Teams like Cincinnati, Connecticut and Louisville have played on this stage, but none impressed the way the Mountaineers did on Wednesday night. There was no doubting which team had the best quarterback, and the best wide receiver. National pundits wanted to talk Tajh Boyd and Sammy Watkins. Nobody wanted to talk Smith and Austin.

So yes, even though West Virginia is about to bid adieu, this team feels just as disrespected as everybody else in the Big East. The players saw that few national media members picked them to win. In an ESPN SportsNation poll, 73 percent of the country picked Clemson to win.

"That was huge for me," said Austin, who finished with a BCS and Orange Bowl record four touchdown catches and 280 all-purpose yards. "Me and Devon Brown were in the hotel, and it's the first time I'd seen it. I kind of got mad and turned the TV off and went to sleep. Coach Holgorsen got us together in our meeting and told us just to believe in ourselves and believe in the people in this room, and that's what we did. We bought into what he said, and we got the job done."

Let's just throw around the disrespect card a little bit more. All three Big East co-champions were underdogs going into their bowl games: NC State was favored to beat Louisville; Vanderbilt was favored to beat Cincinnati; and Clemson was favored to beat West Virginia.

The Cardinals faltered. But West Virginia and Cincinnati finished with identical 10-3 records as the two best teams in the Big East. These two teams have been tied together since Nov. 12, when West Virginia beat the Bearcats 24-21 after knocking starting quarterback Zach Collaros out for the rest of the regular season. That win ultimately decided the BCS representative in this game; Collaros returned to guide the Big East to yet another win over the SEC. You can understand why a few Cincinnati players were a bit salty on Twitter while they watched West Virginia dismantle the Tigers.

No word on whether commissioner John Marinatto felt just as salty. To root or not to root had to be the question. There is resentment and bitterness on both sides, but the Big East absolutely needed to have one of its teams deliver this type of performance on a national stage.

Even if it is one that is saying goodbye.

Cincinnati dropped the SEC to 1-1 in bowl play with a 31-24 win against Vanderbilt, in what was a pretty exciting AutoZone Liberty Bowl.

After a bit of a sluggish first half from both offenses, each team found more ways to find the end zone in the last two quarters, combining for 34 points. The Bearcats put more of an emphasis on the running game, pounding Vandy's defense with Isaiah Pead, and another costly turnover doomed the Commodores.

How the game was won: Defenses led the way in the first half, as the offenses combined for 292 yards and 21 points. But things were very back-and-forth in the fourth quarter. There were three lead changes before two minutes passed in the quarter. Cincinnati took the lead for good when Ralph Abernathy took a kickoff 90 yards for a touchdown immediately after Vanderbilt took a 21-17 lead on a 68-yard touchdown reception by Chris Boyd. Pead sealed the Bearcats' win with his 12-yard touchdown run, three plays after a costly interception thrown by Vandy quarterback Larry Smith.

Best call: With Vanderbilt's offense stumbling through the first two quarters, coach James Franklin made the decision early in the third to permanently sit starting quarterback Jordan Rodgers after Rodgers suffered an injury. Smith replaced him, and the Commodores compiled 183 yards and 17 points with Smith under center. Rodgers appeared to be healthy enough to return, but Franklin stuck with Smith.

Turning point: Vanderbilt's offense was much more efficient with Smith at quarterback, but he made a fatal mistake with less than four minutes remaining in the fourth when he threw behind receiver Jordan Mathews and into the hands of Cincinnati's Nick Temple, who returned the ball 12 yards to Vandy's 31-yard line. Three plays later, Pead's touchdown run made it 31-21 Cincinnati.

Stat of the game: The teams combined for 15 punts for an average of 42.5 yards per kick. Four punts went for 50-plus yards and three were down inside the 20-yard line.

Player of the game: Pead was an absolute workhorse for the Bearcats. He carried the ball 28 times for 149 yards and scored the go-ahead touchdown.

Unsung hero: Cincinnati quarterback Zach Collaros returned from his broken ankle and showed good game management late. He was far from great and was shaky early, but he limited his mistakes for the most part. He did have just 80 passing yards and two interceptions, but for as rusty as he looked early, he could have been a lot worse.

Second guessing: With the score tied 7-7 with less than three minutes remaining in the first half, Franklin decided to go for a fourth-and-2 at the Cincinnati 44-yard line. On the play, running back Zac Stacy took the handoff, but then tried a jump pass to tight end Brandon Barden. The pass was way off and Cincinnati took over. The Bearcats then drove 56 yards for a touchdown and a 14-7 halftime lead.

What it means: Cincinnati, which might have been in a BCS bowl game if not for Collaros' injury, heads into the offseason with a ton of momentum following a 10-win season. Vanderbilt will have to deal with losing another big game because of costly mistakes. Still, things feel different at Vandy, and even with the loss, the Commodores have to feel good about Franklin's first year.

Record performance: With his two interceptions Saturday night, Vanderbilt senior cornerback Casey Hayward tied Leonard Coleman for first all-time in Vanderbilt history with 15 career interceptions.

Liberty Bowl: Three Keys

December, 30, 2011
You saw the preview and prediction. Now here are three keys for Cincinnati (9-3) headed into the AutoZone Liberty Bowl against Vanderbilt on Saturday afternoon:

1. Slow down Zac Stacy. Cincinnati has been solid against the run in every game except one this season. I know Bearcats fans are still wondering how Rutgers rushed for over 200 yards on the ground back in November. The larger point is this -- Cincinnati has held opponents under 100 yards in six games this season. Twice the Bearcats held opponents to negative yards rushing. They are 5-1 in those games. Meanwhile, if you limit Stacy you have a greater chance for success. In five of Vanderbilt's six losses this season, Stacy was held under 100 yards.

2. Protect Zach Collaros. Cincinnati has been much improved in this department, but it has got to be a huge point of emphasis going into this game because Collaros is coming off a broken ankle. The last thing the Bearcats want is for Collaros to be sacked, or forced to scramble for his life on every down. Coach Butch Jones says Collaros is 100 percent healthy, but this is his first game action in eight weeks and presumably the most he will be doing on his ankle. Collaros is a good runner and scrambler, so Cincinnati is not going to want to take that ability away from him. But it's best to allow him to make plays with his feet on his own, and not as a result of a relentless pass rush.

3. Make some big plays. Cincinnati does have the capability of getting big plays from all areas of its team. This season, the Bearcats had 97 plays go for 20 yards or more -- including 19 from Big East Offensive Player of the Year Isaiah Pead. Included in there is a 65-yard touchdown run against Tennessee earlier in the season. That is tied for the team's longest rushing play of the year. If Cincinnati can hit on some big plays for touchdowns early this could be a huge advantage.
Cincinnati (9-3) takes on Vanderbilt (6-6) in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl on Saturday at 3:30 p.m. Here is a quick preview:

WHO TO WATCH: Cincinnati defensive tackle Derek Wolfe. I have a feeling that very few in SEC country has ever heard of Wolfe, who had one of the best seasons for an interior lineman in the entire country. Wolfe ranked No. 6 in the nation in tackles for loss (19.5) and No. 11 in sacks (9.5), and is going to be an integral part of this game because he is disruptive both in the run game and in the pass game. His ability this season to get behind the line and cause massive disruptions has been a big reason why Cincinnati had the most improved defensive front in the Big East this season.

WHAT TO WATCH: Cincinnati quarterback Zach Collaros and his injured ankle. Collaros has been practicing for several weeks now, but he has not played in an actual game for two months. So how he handles the rust factor early on is going to be a big key. One other tendency he has is to throw at least one silly interception a game. He had at least one in five of his past six starts (minus West Virginia). Also, running back Isaiah Pead was much better with Collaros behind center. When Munchie Legaux started, everybody keyed on stopping Pead to make Legaux try and win it. But with Collaros and Pead in the backfield, Cincinnati should be much more balanced and much more difficult to stop.

WHY TO WATCH: In the all-important battle between conferences, you know it is highly important for a Big East co-champion to beat anybody from the SEC. Even a team that went 6-6 and does not have a prolific bowl history like Vanderbilt. Unfortunately for Cincinnati, all the folks in the SEC remember is the way the Bearcats played in a 45-23 loss to Tennessee in Week 2. Never mind the Bearcats are a much better team today than they were back in September. Those results matter, and so does this record -- Cincinnati is 2-17-1 against SEC teams since 1980.

PREDICTION: Cincinnati 27, Vanderbilt 21. From my predictions post Monday: 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.

Collaros to start in Liberty Bowl

December, 29, 2011
As expected, Cincinnati will start Zach Collaros at quarterback in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl against Vanderbilt, coach Butch Jones said Thursday.

Collaros missed the final three regular-season games after breaking his ankle against West Virginia.

"He's done an outstanding job," Jones told reporters in Memphis, Tenn. "He's worked himself back into being game ready. Today was a culmination of a couple weeks and we wanted to see how he would mange the game-like situations today. He's 100 percent."

Jones added that Collaros has been battling the flu more than his ankle in the past few days.

Holgorsen survives one crazy ride

December, 28, 2011
The quiet of the spring was shattered at a casino one night.

It was then that everything changed for West Virginia.

[+] EnlargeDana Holgorsen
Charles LeClaire/US PresswireAfter a rocky start, West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen excelled this season, leading his team to a conference title.
Dana Holgorsen would go from admonished coach to Big East champion, from the butt of jokes to unprecedented success in his first year guiding the Mountaineers.

All of that seemed improbable in late May, when Holgorsen admitted to inappropriate behavior at a casino in Cross Lanes, W. Va. But even more improbably, that night began a series of events that elevated him from coach-in-waiting to head coach a year earlier than anybody anticipated.

Amid speculation and innuendo that Bill Stewart had been spreading rumors and looking for dirt on Holgorsen, athletic director Oliver Luck decided he'd had enough.

West Virginia was making headlines for the wrong reasons. His succession plan had failed miserably. Stewart could no longer be trusted to run the football program. He was sent out the door without a farewell tour, a farewell news conference, a farewell anything.

The Holgorsen era began on a Friday night in June, under a mask of ambiguity. Nobody really knew how a first-time head coach, known as a quirky coordinator with a penchant for downing Red Bulls, would handle all his newfound responsibilities or the adversity presented to him -- with about six weeks to go before the start of fall camp.

Holgorsen had to get to know his defensive players in a short period of time. He had to work with a staff of assistants that he did not hire. He had to handle the questions about his inexperience, about his character and about the sky-high expectations for this team -- expectations based almost entirely on the offense he was bringing to Morgantown.

So it is easy to see how the adversity Holgorsen and his players have faced really has defined this season for West Virginia. It is no wonder the one word Holgorsen uses to describe this team is resilient.

"Our guys play a little bit better when their backs are against the wall," Holgorsen said in a recent phone interview.

Holgorsen is probably the last person you will find in a Hallmark store picking out a saccharine greeting card. He is not much on reflecting, or evaluating himself or the job he has done. But if you stop to think about where he has come in six months, it is truly remarkable. Consider:

  • He is the first West Virginia coach to lead this team to a Big East championship and a BCS bowl in his first season.
  • He is one of just seven coaches to go to a BCS bowl in his first year as a head coach.
  • West Virginia is one of just three schools in the nation with a 3,500-yard passer and two 1,000-yard receivers.
  • Total offense ranks No. 17 this season, up from No. 67 in last season.
Now consider this: West Virginia was all but out of the Big East race after losing to Louisville 38-35 on Nov. 5. That loss dropped the Mountaineers to 2-2 in the Big East, two games behind league-leading Cincinnati. It was the second head-scratching conference loss after a miserable 49-23 loss to Syracuse on a Friday night in October.

West Virginia, the preseason pick to win the Big East, had to get its act together. Holgorsen, sensing there was no unity or identity to his team, had a simple request: play with enthusiasm, play with energy. West Virginia is not going to just beat its chest and win games.

"I could pinpoint about 100 ideas about why all that happened, which bottom line is this -- all those are are excuses," Holgorsen said. "So whether it was a new coaching staff learning to coach together, a new feel with the head coach. Based on changing things in June, I don't think we were very familiar with each other. Sometimes it takes longer than others to figure out what kind of team you've got. We just identified a group of guys that needed to be held accountable for what they're doing and part of that is what they're doing on the sidelines, whether we thought we were good enough to just show up and beat Syracuse and Louisville, being patted on the back probably has something to do with it, being picked to win the conference, that probably had something to do with it, just feeling you can show up and win."

After the Louisville loss, West Virginia geared up for a huge game at Cincinnati. Holgorsen saw the emotion he begged for early in that game. After Julian Miller recovered a fumble in the end zone, Holgorsen ran onto the field to chest bump his player. Cincinnati quarterback Zach Collaros was injured on that play, and the Big East race turned.

West Virginia ended up winning with a fourth-quarter comeback and a blocked field goal on the last play of regulation to insert itself back in the Big East race. The resilience Holgorsen talked so much about came through in wins over Pitt and USF. Both games also came down to second-half comebacks. West Virginia ended up winning a share of the Big East title and the BCS berth to get its first trip to the Orange Bowl.

"He comes in here, his first head-coaching job, and all the things he had to go through with the whole coaching switch over, definitely to get through that and have us ready week in and week out to play says a lot about him," Miller said. "It's something the fans should be proud of -- to have a guy like him here now and hopefully later on down in the future."

There is no question adjustments had to be made back in June. The seniors were playing for their third head coach in five seasons, so they had no idea what to expect. The laid-back Holgorsen is brutally honest with his players, so that was another adjustment. So was his sideline demeanor, a stark departure from his personality in meeting rooms. Holgorsen has a tendency to turn many shades of red while yelling about a missed assignment or dropped pass.

"You need tough skin," receiver Tavon Austin said. "He is not going to sugar coat anything. Coach is never afraid to tell you when you're wrong."

Holgorsen shouldn't be afraid of getting a little bit of praise himself. His move to West Virginia and his ability to bat away one challenge after another has the Mountaineers back in the national spotlight.

For all the right reasons this time.

Predictions: Big East bowls

December, 26, 2011
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.