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) 

Ken Sparks, fifth-winningest coach at any level in college football history, dies at age 73

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College football has lost a coaching legend of the sport that you may never have heard of.

Carson-Newman announced Wednesday morning that its legendary former head football coach, Ken Sparks, passed away earlier in the day at the age of 73.  Sparks had been battling prostate cancer since being diagnosed in 2012, but doctors stopped treating him in January of this year.

According to WBIR-TV, Sparks had been in hospice care for the last several weeks.

Sparks was the head coach at Carson-Newman from 1980 through November of 2016, when he stepped down because of health concerns. During his time at the Div. II program — the first baker’s dozen years they were an NAIA school — the Eagles went 338-99-2. Sparks laid claim to five NAIA national championships and qualified for the Div. II playoffs 15 times in 24 years, although they failed to win a title at that latter level.

The 338 wins for Sparks are the fifth-most at any level of college football, behind only John Gagliardi (489), Joe Paterno (409), Eddie Robinson (408) and Bobby Bowden (377).

Alabama won’t be rushing Bo Scarbrough back this spring

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Not surprisingly, Alabama is going to err on the side of caution when it comes to one the most productive horses in its backfield stable.

On a second-down carry late in the third quarter of the national championship game loss to Clemson, Bo Scarbrough went down with an injury that turned out to be a fractured bone in his lower right leg.  The rising sophomore running back has recovered enough to be a participant in the Crimson Tide’s spring practice during some drills, albeit in non-contact mode.

Following the fourth practice of the spring Tuesday, Nick Saban made it clear made it clear that, while Scarbrough is getting some work in, the football program won’t be pushing him.

“Bo is doing more and more every day,” the head coach said according to al.com. “He did quite a bit today in practice, non-contact stuff, but he’s sort of gaining confidence. Our goal for Bo is by the end of spring, he’s fully confident that he can do everything he needs to do. Whether he ever scrimmages or is really something that we’re not that concerned about.”

It’s expected Scarbrough, barring a setback between now and then, will be fully recovered well ahead of the start of summer camp in early August.

Scarbrough’s 812 yards rushing year was second amongst Tide backs, while his 11 rushing touchdowns were second on the team.  He ran for 180 of those yards and two of the touchdowns in the College Football Playoff semifinal win over Washington, then had 93 yards and two more touchdowns before going down with the injury in the title game.

Western Kentucky hoops star to give Hilltoppers football a try

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Coming off a season in which he was the best player on Western Kentucky’s men’s basketball team, Justin Johnson is going to try his hand at another sport.

According to the Bowling Green Daily News, Johnson will practice with the Hilltoppers football team for the remainder of spring practice. The 6-7 forward will, not surprisingly, spend his time at tight end.

At the end of practices this spring, a WKU official told CFT, both sides will determine what if any future Johnson has in the sport.

Johnson admitted in one interview earlier this basketball season that he grew up wanting to play linebacker for Ohio State, and he did play two years of football at his Kentucky high school. Despite the fact that both Kentucky and Louisville had interest in him as a tight end, he ended up signing with WKU’s hoops team in 2014.

That decision has worked out well for both parties as Johnson has led the team in scoring and rebounding each of the past two seasons. He led Conference USA in the latter category as well as double-doubles, and was named second-team all-conference after his junior season.

Victim of alleged WKU football attack plans to file charges

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A former Western Kentucky fraternity member says he was attacked by a group of Hilltoppers football players and plans to file charges.

Jerald Armfield, an alum of WKU’s Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity, told WBKO-TV he was caught in an ongoing feud between the fraternity and the football team:

“I went to the house in the best interest of the fraternity and Western as a whole to prevent any type of violence from occurring. We got up there and realized they were all hiding behind garbage cans, trees, and buildings.”

“I never in my wildest dreams thought they would attack me in the manner that they did. They all started surrounding me. One of them threw a rock at me. It was within a few seconds that one of them punched me in the face.”

“I fell down. I was kicked several times. The whole time they were beating me, I was begging them to stop, telling them I wasn’t here the night before, I had nothing to to do with it, like please stop, please stop, and they didn’t.”

Armfield said between nine and 10 people ultimately attacked him; it isn’t known for sure how many of that group are on the football team, though the program’s involvement in the incident is being investigated.

“We are aware of the allegations involving a few members of our football team,” the program said in the statement when word of the altercation broke three weeks ago. “We are cooperating fully with the authorities. However, at this time, we have not received a police report and cannot provide further comment.”

While the status of the investigation is currently unknown, Armfield told WBKO he would like it to end with multiple charges. “I made it very clear that night when the police arrived on the scene that I wanted charges pressed,” he said. “As far as I know a detective from Bowling Green Police Department has it. As it stands right now, I still want charges pressed. They need to be held accountable for what they did not only as citizens but as students at Western.”