Butch Jones

Big East spring storylines


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) 

Arkansas State claims fourth SBC title in five years

Blake Anderson
Associated Press
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There might not be a more impressive Group of Five football program than Arkansas State right now.

The Red Wolves have had five different head coaches since 2010.  This season under Blake Anderson is the first that’s seen the same head coach in back-to-back seasons since 2009-10, with Hugh Freeze (2011), Gus Malzahn (2012) moving on to positions at Power Five schools and Bryan Harsin (2013) taking the job at his alma mater Boise State in that span.

But the most impressive facet of the program?  The success amidst all of the change.

Thanks to ASU’s 52-28 win over New Mexico State, the Red Wolves pushed their 2015 record to 8-3 overall and 7-0 in league play and landed them another Sun Belt Conference trophy.  Appalachian State (6-1 in conference play) had a slight chance at its first outright SBC championship, but they would’ve needed two wins combined with two ASU losses to close out the season.  The Mountaineers could still claim a co-championship with a win next week and a Red Wolves loss, while the latter would claim it outright with a win.

Regardless it’s the first title for Anderson, but the program’s fourth in the past five seasons — three outright, one shared — with all four coming with a different head coach on the sidelines.

Coach Anderson and his program won’t get the credit they deserve nationally, but they should be applauded for building upon and sustaining the foundation they’ve been given by their predecessors.

Derrick Henry carries No. 2 Alabama past Auburn, into SEC Championship

Derrick Henry
Associated Press

His team called, and he answered. It called and it called and it called again, and every time he answered. Derrick Henry rushed 46 times for 271 yards to lead No. 2 Alabama past Auburn 29-13 Saturday evening in the Iron Bowl. The win sends Alabama to the SEC Championship for the second consecutive year and fifth time under head coach Nick Saban.

After a field goal exhibition in the first half, Alabama found paydirt first on a 34-yard scoring strike from Jake Coker to ArDarius Stewart, pushing the lead to 19-6 with 5:14 remaining in the third quarter.

Auburn immediately responded when Jeremy Johnson hit Jason Smith for a Ricardo Louis-style tipped 77-yard touchdown pass.

Alabama pushed the lead back to two scores with another Griffith field goal — his fifth of the day — from 47 yards out with 10:04 remaining.

The Tide forced a punt after Griffith’s field goal, then consumed more than five minutes in a 10-play, 51-yard drive that was mostly all Henry. Auburn eventually forced a turnover on downs on a 4th-and-1 at the Auburn 31, but immediately gave the ball back when Johnson threw a three-yard completion to Peyton Barber and three straight incompletions to Melvin Ray, the final a drop that hit an open Ray right in the hands with 2:09 remaining.

The win sends Alabama (11-1, 7-1 SEC) to the SEC Championship for the second consecutive year, the third time in their last four years and fifth time since 2008. Overall, this will be the Tide’s 10th SEC Championship appearance and eighth time opposite East champion Florida. Alabama is 3-4 in the previous seven meetings.

Auburn closes its regular season at 6-6 and a dead-last 2-6 in the SEC West. No team has see-sawed this decade like the Tigers, with their two SEC championships in the last six seasons but two last place finishes in the SEC West since 2012. The loss drops the Tigers to 2-9 in their last 11 games against SEC competition.

USC dominates UCLA for Pac-12 South crown; Trojans vs. Stanford for Pac-12 title

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For the first time in program history, the school with the most football championships in Pac-12 history will play in the Pac-12 Championship Game. USC (8-4, 6-3 Pac-12) snapped its three-game losing streak against crosstown rival No. 22 UCLA (8-4, 5-4 Pac-12) in convincing fashion in the second half to pick up a 40-21 win and claim ownership of the Pac-12 South Division championship. The win will send USC to the Pac-12 Championship Game to play Pac-12 North champion Stanford next week.

USC quarterback Cody Kessler may not have put up huge numbers against the Bruins, but his 15-of-26 for 175 yards and two touchdowns without an interception was effective enough to lead the team to a victory. Freshman quarterback Josh Rosen for UCLA got his first dose of the rivalry with the Trojans, and it did not go as well. Rosen was picked off twice and he completed just 19 of his 37 pass attempts. Bruins running back Paul Perkins rushed for 95 yards and two scores, but USC’s Justin Davis was the big runner of the day with 130 rushing yards. USC’s Adoree’ Jackson made some big plays happen as well with a punt return for a touchdown. USC’s Rasheem Green had a 31-yard fumble return for a touchdown in the third quarter that gave USC a 26-21 lead. This proved to be the game-winning score, as the Trojans continued to tack on a couple of more touchdowns on offense.

USC was the preseason favorite of the Pac-12 media at media day this summer, and now they have a chance to make good on those expectations. The fact they have arrived at this point is a fascinating story all by itself given the bumpy path it took to get to this point.

Stanford handed USC its first loss of the season in the early part of the season. The Cardinal took a 41-31 victory against the Trojans and never really looked back in conference play. USC struggled a few more times and had to go through an in-season coaching change with the firing of Steve Sarkisian. Clay Helton took over as the interim coach for the Trojans, and quickly calmed the stability of the program after a loss at Notre Dame. USC ripped through Utah to mix up the Pac-12 North and went on to win the next three games before hitting a speed bump on the road at Oregon against a resurgent Ducks program. USC has won more Pac-12 conference championships than any other conference member, including time as the Pac-8 or Pac-10, with 38 conference championships. It has not played in the Pac-12 Championship Game though, but that will change next week.

USC may be able to play spoiler for Stanford’s playoff dreams, if the Cardinal manage to beat Notre Dame tonight. The Pac-12 champion is still unlikely to sneak into the four-team playoff field, but Stanford is the one that has a slight chance to do so. USC, with four losses, will not have enough things bounce their way to make that giant leap.

No. 5 Michigan State clinches Big Ten East, heads to Indy with showdown with undefeated Iowa

Christian Hackenberg, Joel Heath, Lawrence Thomas
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Another week, another game where No. 5 Michigan State (11-1, 7-1 Big Ten) took care of business. The Spartans will play for the Big Ten championship after wrapping up the Big Ten East Division on its home field with a convincing victory over Penn State (7-5, 4-4 Big Ten) Saturday in East Lansing, 55-16. The win clinched the east due to a head-to-head tiebreaker against Ohio State earned last weekend in Columbus and sets up a battle with undefeated Iowa in the Big Ten Championship Game in Indianapolis next weekend.

Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook was not playing at 100 percent, but he was more than effective enough to lead the Spartans to victory in his final game in Spartan Stadium. Cook tossed three touchdowns for Michigan State and was the clear winner in the battle of potential early-round NFL draft picks in the 2016 NFL Draft. Penn State’s Christian Hackenberg was picked off on the first possession of the game and was not as efficient with his passing as Penn State’s offensive line was manhandled at times by the Spartans defensive front. Hackenberg’s stock has dropped some this season (fitting considering how many dropped passes Penn State receivers have had this season), but Cook’s steady play should keep him among the candidates for top quarterbacks in the draft pool.

Leading by 10 going to halftime, 20-10, Michigan State took firm control of the game right out of the halftime break by driving right down the field on Penn State for an eight-play, 75-yard touchdown drive to build a 27-10 lead. After the Spartans defense forced a three-and-out, Michigan State strung together another draining touchdown drive, going 69 yards over 12 plays and capping the drive with Cook completing a touchdown pass to Josiah Price for a 34-10 lead. From there, Michigan State could waltz its way to the win, because there was no way Penn State was battling back from that deficit with its offensive play and drained and depleted defense.

Michigan State will now play No. 4 Iowa for the Big Ten championship next week in Indianapolis. This will be the first time Iowa has played in the conference’s championship game, but this will be Michigan State’s third trip to the big game. That will tie Wisconsin for most appearances in the Big Ten title game, which was first played between the Spartans and Badgers in 2011. Michigan State won the Big Ten championship in 2013, knocking off what was an undefeated Ohio State team. There is no question that Michigan State is a program ready to play on the big stage this game will offer, especially with so much riding on the outcome with a spot in the College Football Playoff in sight. Getting by Iowa may prove tricky with the Hawkeyes defense, but if Michigan State plays the way it did today against Penn State and has in the past when in a big game, then the Spartans should feel very confident in their chances next week in Indianapolis. The winner of next week’s Big Ten Championship Game is pretty much guaranteed a spot in the four-team playoff field at the end of the season.

Penn State, on the other hand, will begin waiting for a bowl invitation to come their way and prepare to figure out how it can take steps forward as a football program. Penn State will very likely be playing in one of the Big Ten’s lower-profile bowl games. It played in the Pinstripe Bowl last season and will not be going back there. The extra practices will be beneficial for Penn State though, as it continues to need to improve on offensive line. The time off will also be welcomed, as Penn State’s defense has been gassed and depleted down the stretch of the regular season.