Big East spring storylines

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Unscathed by the first round of conference realignment in 2010, the Big East was by far the most impacted by conference realignment 2.0 this past summer and fall. Now, Big East teams head into spring practice for the final time before dramatic changes alter the look of the conference beginning in 2013.

But there will be one noticeable absence, as West Virginia will be playing in the Big 12 this fall. The Mountaineers have acted as the Big East’s lifeboat since 2005, contributing to three of the conference’s four BCS bowl wins under the “new” Big East lineup.

That new lineup is about to get, well, newer. Boise State, Central Florida, Houston, Memphis, San Diego State and SMU will all join as either all-sports members or football-only members beginning in 2013. But what does the Big East have in store for the transition year? Can any of the seven remaining members* — or eight if Temple joins immediately — emerge as a Top 25 team and show up to the BCS party like the Mountaineers have done before?

Those answers begin in spring practices. Here’s what to watch.

New coaches, old philosophies
It’s easy to rag on the Big East, but consider the following: since 2006, at least one Big East school per year has gone through a coaching change, and Cincinnati, Louisville and Pittsburgh have endured a few. It’s tough, if not downright impossible, to achieve any kind of consistency with that sort of coaching turnover. Pitt and Rutgers are the latest Big East schools to see their coach depart, with Todd Graham going to Arizona State and Greg Schiano testing the NFL waters, respectively. But both programs rebounded with decent, albeit unproven, head coaching hires in Paul Chryst and Kyle Flood. For the Panthers, Chryst will look to re-establish the ground-and-pound identity that went on hiatus under Graham. Expect the Scarlet Knights to maintain similar offensive and defensive philosophies.

Quarterbacks club
With Geno Smith (WVU) and Zach Collaros (Cincy) gone, the Big East lost its two best quarterbacks. Now, the conference is left with a mixed bag of signal callers that are either young (Teddy Bridgewater of Louisville and Munchie Legaux of Cincinnati come to mind), inconsistent (South Florida’s 10th year senior B.J. Daniels) or TBD (Rutgers, UConn and Pitt).  The quarterback is the most important position in football, and right now, there isn’t much star power at that position in the Big East. Who has a good spring, and more importantly, who carries it over to the fall, will be a storyline to watch.

Drinking the Orange Kool-Aid
Remember when Syracuse was good and the Carrier Dome was one hell of a tough place to play in college football? Remember when Paul Pasqualoni was coaching future NFL stars like Donovan McNabb and Dwight Freeney? The Orange’s gridiron success seems a distant memory now –their last 10-win season came in 2001 — but believe it or not, Syracuse is still a good brand. It just needs some on-the-field success to match. Doug Marrone looks like he can be the guy to get Syracuse back to glory, but as we saw last season, injuries and suspensions can sour any team’s chances of winning. The key for the Orange will be to stay healthy during the spring and summer months. Do that, and Syracuse has a chance for a Big East championship in 2012.

Can USF hit the Bulls-eye?
As I mentioned above, South Florida quarterback B.J. Daniels has had a productive, but up-and-down career in Tampa. That has to change if the Bulls are going to be a legit contender for the Big East title. Thankfully, Daniels will have arguably the deepest and most talented group of receivers to throw to this year, with leading receiver Sterling Griffin returning after missing part of last season with an injury. The Bulls will also be breaking in a new defensive coordinator, their third in four years, with Chris Cosh. USF has talent, and they look great every year on paper. It just hasn’t translated into meaningful victories. Yet.

Cincinnati’s offensive production
Collaros is gone and Big East Offensive Player of the Year, running back Isaiah Pead, is off to the NFL. Those two combined for just over two-thirds of the Bearcats’ offense last year. Who steps up in spring practices? Cincy has a young group of running backs, including touted back Jameel Poteat, and coach Butch Jones may go with a rotation at that position, much like WVU did this past year. The Bearcats also return their top two receivers from last season, Anthony McClung and Kenbrell Thompkins.

(*note: Syracuse and Pitt will be leaving for the ACC; exactly when is still being determined) 

Buffalo clinches bowl eligibility with three-game winning streak

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In his third season as Buffalo’s head coach, Lance Leipold is taking the program bowling. And how they got there is commendable. Entering the month of November with a record of 3-6, the Bulls had no margin for error. A three-game winning streak to close out the regular season seemed like a reach, but on Friday afternoon the Bulls put the finishing touches on just such a winning streak.

Buffalo (6-6, 4-4 MAC) rushed out of the gates to a 24-7 lead on Ohio (9-4, 5-3 MAC) on their home field, but the Bulls needed a big play on special teams and defense to close the books on a bowl-clinching 31-24 victory. Tied at 24-24 in the fourth quarter, Ohio was forced to punt from their own seven-yard line. K.J. Osborn returned the punt 39 yards to the Ohio six-yard line. Two plays later, Emmanuel Reed gave the Bulls the lead with a short touchdown run. Then the game was put in the hands of the defense.

Ohio has a masterful drive rolling out, spanning 62 yards over 13 plays and wasting away nearly all of the clock after starting the drive with 8:10 to play. On 4th and 12 at the Buffalo 13-yard line, Nathan Rourke‘s pass was picked off by Khalil Hodge in the endzone with a little more than a minute to play. Ohio could call two timeouts to stop the clock, but the Bulls still managed to pick up a first down to close out the game.

While not to discredit Buffalo for their achievement here, it is worth noting Ohio’s fate in the MAC East Division race was settled earlier this week. The Bobcats were eliminated from clinching the division after Akron wrapped up the division with a win earlier this week. Had Akron lost, Ohio could have clinched the division with a win against Buffalo.

The MAC now has seven teams that have met the six-win minimum to go to a bowl game this season. This is Buffalo’s first bowl season since 2013, but Leipold is no stranger to a college football postseason. Leipold won six Division 3 national championships with Wisconsin-Whitewater from 2007 through 2014, and his D3 powerhouse program only missed the postseason once during that run.

Arkansas blows 21-7 lead as Drew Lock leads Mizzou’s rally for halftime lead

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It was a tale of two quarters between Missouri and Arkansas, with Arkansas rushing out of the gates for a 21-7 lead only to see Missouri battle back to take a 31-28 lead into halftime. Missouri kicker Tucker McCann kicked a 37-yard field goal in the final minute of the half to give Missouri the lead.

Arkansas cashed in on an interception by Missouri quarterback Drew Lock on the game’s opening possession by traveling 70 yards on five plays to take a 7-0 lead with a Devwah Whaley goal line run. Mizzou’s Ish Witter capped a 92-yard drive later in the first quarter to tie the game at 7-7, but the Razorbacks stormed right back with a quick four-play, 75-yard touchdown drive highlighted by Austin Allen‘s 57-yard pass to Jordan Jones for the score. Moments later, a good punt return by Henre’ Toliver gave the Razorbacks the ball at the Missouri 29-yard line and two plays later David Williams ran in from 16 yards out for a score to push the lead to 21-7.

Lock led a second-quarter charge for the Tigers with three touchdown passes, including one from 55 yards and another from 56 yards as the big plays doomed Arkansas.

No. 12 TCU locks up Big 12 title game date with Oklahoma

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After a few-year sabbatical, the inaugural renewal of the Big 12 championship game is officially set.

Needing just to get past one-win Baylor, No. 12 TCU did just that as the Horned Frogs outlasted the feisty Bears 45-22 in Fort Worth.  With the win, TCU locks up the other spot in the conference title game opposite Oklahoma, with that matchup going down in Jerry’s World next Saturday.  The Sooners have already beaten the Horned Frogs this season, 38-20 in Norman two weeks ago; a second win over the same team will likely push OU into the playoffs.

TCU finishes the 2017 season 7-2 in conference play.  Iowa State (5-3) needed a win over Kansas State Saturday plus a TCU loss today plus a couple of the other 5-3 Big 12 teams to win in order to send them to the league title game.

Kenny Hill paced the Horned Frogs once again, passing for 325 yards and three touchdowns in the win.  His 26 completions (in 36 attempts) went to 11 different receivers.  The quarterback added another touchdown on the ground.

A little bit of a concern, especially with Baker Mayfield and the high-powered OU offense looming, TCU gave up 314 yards passing, including 301 from freshman signal-caller Charlie Brewer.  Conversely, they did hold the Bears to just 2.7 yards per rushing attempt.

Pitt stuns No. 2 Miami, ends Hurricanes’ perfect season

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Pitt’s done gone and done it again.

On Dec. 1, 2007, a 4-7 Pitt team stunned second-ranked West Virginia in a 13-9 upset in Morgantown, costing the Mountaineers a spot in the BCS title game.  Just a week shy of the 10th anniversary of that upset, 4-7 Pitt played host to second-ranked Miami — and the Panthers did it again, jumping out to a 10-7 halftime lead before holding on away for a 24-14 win.  The loss ends the Hurricanes’ nation’s-best winning streak at 16 games in a row.

Thanks in very large part to Pitt’s defense, Miami’s offense could muster next to nothing on the day, churning out just 176 yards of offense while the game was still within reach (they finished with 234).  True freshman quarterback Kenny Pickett, however, seemingly put the game out of reach when, on a fourth-and-five, scampered nearly untouched on a naked bootleg for a 22-yard touchdown that made it a three-score game with just under three minutes remaining.

However, a U touchdown less a minute later made it a 10-point deficit with 2:16 left in the fourth, with the Hurricanes recovering an onsides kick on the ensuing kickoff to give them a flicker of hope; a Malik Rosier fumble on that next possession snuffed out said flicker.

This is actually the third time in a decade the Panthers have knocked off the No. 2 team in the country, including last year’s dumping of Clemson — a fact that head coach Pat Narduzzi used in calling his shot to his team at halftime.

For The U, it’s a potentially crippling loss.  Or, it could mean almost nothing.

Playing with fire for most of the season — they trailed at the half in five of their 11 games, including today — the Hurricanes finally got burned; whether it’s a first-, second- or third-degree burn remains to be seen.  The good news for The U is they will still face No. 3 Clemson in the ACC championship game next weekend, with the winner likely (maybe) (possibly) earning a spot in the College Football Playoff.  This loss, though, erases any margin of error the Hurricanes had heading into that game as they won’t make the playoffs as a two-loss at-large team.