Top storylines heading into the spring

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While we’re still over six months away from the start of the 2012 season, we’re not wandering through a football-less desert quite yet.

From Feb. 13 (Army first practice) through May 5 (UCLA’s spring game), all 124 Div. 1-A (FBS) football programs will utilize their 15 allotted spring sessions to begin preparations in earnest for the upcoming season.

Below are but a few of the storylines and issues we’ll be following over the next couple of months.

Conference change, it’s a comin’
Missouri and Texas A&M from the Big 12 to the SEC.  TCU and West Virginia from the Big East to the Big 12.  Fresno State, Hawaii and Nevada officially moving to the Mountain West from the WAC.  And four brand-new football programs moving up from Div. 1-AA (FCS) to Div. 1-A (FBS): South Alabama (Sun Belt), Texas State (WAC), UMass (MAC) and UT-San Antonio (WAC).  Hell, there’s even the very real possibility that Temple could be leaving the MAC for the Big East this year as well.

While the moves won’t become officially official until July 1, all of those schools will, in essence, conduct spring practice as members of their new respective conferences.  In particular, a lot of the “new kid on the block” attention will be paid to Missouri and Texas A&M — and new head coach Kevin Sumlin — because, well, it’s the SEC and the six-peat BcS champion conference always has more than its share of eyes upon it.

Sideline upheaval
More than one-fifth (27) of the 124 football program that will play at the Div. 1-A level in 2012 made a change at head coach at some point after the start of the 2011 season. From Penn State and Ohio State in the Big Ten to four new ones in the Pac-12 — the most of any BcS conference; Conference USA will have five new head coaches — to Texas A&M ahead of its move from the Big 12 to the SEC, none of the 11 conferences were spared at least one change at head coach from where its members were at the beginning of last season.

The spring sessions will be, for the most part, the first chance for those coaches and their coaching staffs to really get a good look at and begin the evaluation of the roster. The “real” work won’t begin until September, but laying the foundation of new schemes on both sides of the ball will begin in earnest. What happens during the next couple of months will determine how far ahead/behind/in step with the more entrenched programs lugging experienced staffs into the new year.  All eyes in particular will be on Bill O’Brien, who will not only take over the scandal-stained Nittany Lions program but will also be embarking upon his first season as a Div. 1-A head coach.  Well, all that and replacing a legendary icon who had been the face of Happy Valley for nearly half a century as well.

Needing Moore Luck at quarterback
For the first time in four years at Boise State and three at Stanford, the two top-ten programs won’t have the experience and talent of Kellen Moore and Andrew Luck, respectively, under center.

Who will they have?  Brett Nottingham will enter the spring as the odds-on favorite to replace Luck with the Cardinal, with Robbie Picazo and Josh Nunes expected to provide the stiffest competition for the redshirt sophomore.  Outside of Moore, junior-to-be Joe Southwick attempted the most passes (30) for the Broncos last year and was listed as the co-backup along with sophomore-to-be Grant Hedrick.  How those two competitions shake out will go a long, long way in determining whether the two programs can maintain the on-field excellence and build upon the foundations laid by Luck and Moore.

Better this time around?
After winning its first BcS title under Nick Saban in 2009, Alabama “stumbled” through a 10-3 season the following year, with all three losses coming in SEC play. With a second crystal football in three years tucked under its arm, the Tide will attempt to become the first SEC program in the BcS era to repeat as champions. Two problems with going back-to-back, however. One, the Tide will be forced to replace half its starting lineup, including seven on a defense that ranked at or near the top in nearly every major statistical category in 2011 season. And, two, LSU — ya know, the winner of the Tide’s division and loser of the rematch — remains in the SEC West and returns a squad that not only should be at or near the top of the preseason rankings but will be better because of the attrition at the quarterback position.

Fun fact? The Tide has not lost to a non-conference foe since its two-touchdown beatdown at the hands of Utah in the Sugar Bowl following the 2008 regular season.  This year, the Tide will get an immediate test of the rework and revamping begun in the spring as they face likely top-ten foe Michigan in a neutral site game to open the season.

Get those seats warmed, fellas
It’s never too early for some hot seat talk, is it?  Based on the offseason he’s had — nearly a dozen transfers and the Danny O’Brien fiasco — and coming off an abysmal two-win first season at Maryland, Randy Edsall should sit at or near the top of any list of coaches on the hot seat.  Given the significant amount of attrition on both the roster and the coaching staff — he will have new offensive and defensive coordinators — this spring will likely resemble his first with the Terps, sort of a feeling-out process all over again with the added bonus of vultures circling over the two-win carcass.  Edsall simply needs a solid spring to lead to vast improvement in 2012 or he could very well find himself on the outside of the program looking in 2013.

Other coaches who need a strong spring to translate into an immediate turnaround in 2012 include Tennessee’s Derek Dooley, Boston College’s Frank Spaziani, Kentucky’s Joker Phillips, UCF’s George O’Leary and Cal’s Jeff Tedford.

(Still to come: individual storylines for the six BcS conferences — the ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC.)

Oregon State reportedly finds new head coach in Beau Baldwin

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As coaching vacancies are opening up, one report Friday night says Oregon State has filled their vacancy in the football program. Cal offensive coordinator Beau Baldwin is reported to be slated as the next head coach of the Beavers, according to Football Scoop.

The hire is expected to happen quickly at the conclusion of this weekend’s Pac-12 action. Cal is playing UCLA Friday night in the season finale for the Bears, and Oregon State plays Oregon on Saturday.

Baldwin joined the Cal staff under new head coach Justin Wilcox after eight seasons as the head coach at Eastern Washington, one of the top FCS programs over that span. Baldwin will be no stranger to the Pac-12 North, having competed against a handful of Pac-12 opponents over the years and even winning. As a head coach at Eastern Washington, and before that at Division 2 Central Washington, Baldwin has a record of 95-35 with a national championship at Eastern Washington in 2010.

Oregon State’s head coaching position opened up on October 9 when Gary Andersen mutually agreed with the university to part ways, leaving behind a buyout as part of the agreement.

No. 25 Virginia Tech defeats Virginia for 14th straight year

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It’s been a long time since the last time Virginia handed their in-state rivals from Blacksburg a loss, and it will be at least another year more until they do so again. No. 25 Virginia Tech (9-3, 5-3 ACC) extended their winning streak against Virginia (6-6, 3-5 ACC) to 14 with a 10-0 win in Charlottesville on Friday night.

Josh Jackson‘s eight-yard touchdown pass to Chris Cunningham was the only touchdown scored in the game and padded a lead to 10-0 for Virginia Tech in the third quarter. A week after making big plays for a half against Miami, Virginia’s offense was finding little opportunity with the football. Virginia Tech held the hosts to fewer than 200 yards of offense.

The last time Virginia Tech lost to Virginia was in 2003. The Cavaliers upset the No. 21 Hokies 35-21 with a 28-7 advantage in the second half. Virgina Tech’s shutout of Virginia was the third shutout victory in the series for the Hokies since 2006, all with Bud Foster as defensive coordinator.

Both Virginia Tech and Virginia will be participating in the bowl season this year. What bowl games that are heading to remains to be determined.

Iowa clobbers Nebraska in what appears to be end of the road for Mike Riley

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The Iowa Hawkeyes have been one of the weirdest teams to figure out this season. On Friday, the Hawkeye faithful were thankful the good Iowa showed up in Lincoln. Iowa (7-5, 4-5 Big Ten) blasted Nebraska (4-8, 306 Big Ten) on the strength of a 28-point outburst in the third quarter of a 56-14 victory over the Huskers. For Nebraska, it was a fitting end to a disappointing season and perhaps the final nail in the coffin of the Mike Riley era in Lincoln.

Iowa became the third team to win three straight games played in Lincoln, Nebraska in the last 40 years. Oklahoma and Texas are the only two programs to pull off that once-unthinkable feat. But since Nebraska joined the Big Ten and paired up with Iowa for a regular season rivalry in the Big Ten schedule, the Hawkeyes have enjoyed their trips to Nebraska. This just happened to be the biggest blowout in the Big Ten series, and it came one year after Iowa blew out Nebraska by a 40-10 score the previous season. For those counting at home, Nebraska has now lost two straight games to Iowa by a combined score of 96-34.

Nebraska managed to show some fight late in their road game at Penn State last week, but Iowa was having none of that this week. The Hawkeyes out-gained Nebraska 505-267 in offensive yardage and Iowa forced three Nebraska turnovers while picking up 23 first downs and allowing just 12. Nebraska went the entire second half without scoring a point, while Iowa went on a roll. This game was tied 14-14 at halftime, believe it or not.

Iowa running back Akrum Wadley took over the game for the Hawkeyes. Wadley rushed for 165 yards and three touchdowns, with two of those scores coming in the third quarter.

Iowa will now go to a bowl game, while Nebraska is tasked with figuring out what to do next. Unlike at Arkansas, where the plug was pulled on Bret Bielema minutes after losing a regular season finale at home, Mike Riley is still employed by Nebraska. But for how much longer? Rumors about where Nebraska is going next continue to swirl, with UCF head coach Scott Frost being a trendy name to attach to the Nebraska job (Frost just completed an undefeated 11-0 season at UCF), but there has been no official change just yet in Lincoln.

But with an AD change this year and the way this season devolved, Riley’s days are all but over in Lincoln.

No. 15 UCF remains perfect after wild win over USF clinches AAC East

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I’ll allow you to try catching your breath before we try to recap exactly what happened in the final minutes of the War on I-4 between two AAC championship contenders. No. 15 UCF (11-0, 8-0 AAC) came out on the positive end of a wild and crazy ending to keep the regular season spotless in the loss column. UCF scored a go-ahead touchdown, gave up a tying touchdown, scored the game-winning touchdown and recovered a late fumble to close the books on a 49-42 victory over rival USF (9-2, 6-2 AAC) in the span of just two minutes.

UCF and USF combined for over 1,100 yards of offense in the back-and-forth game, but UCF scored three touchdowns in the first and fourth quarters to get off to a fast start and find a way to grab the game by the horns and drive it home. McKinzie Milton passed for 373 yards and four touchdowns and rushed for 56 yards and a score to help the Knights outlast a valiant effort from Quinton Flowers and a record-setting day for USF wide receiver Tyre McCants. Flowers passed for 503 yards and four touchdowns and rushed for 102 yards and a score. McCants broke the USF record for most receiving yards in a game in the first half, but ended his day with 227 yards.

USF had their opportunities to win this game. The Bulls missed a field goal in the first half and Flowers threw his only interception late in the first half when it appeared the Bulls could have taken a lead into halftime. The fumble by Mitchell Wilcox came at the end of a play that was moving the ball across midfield in the final moments. USF, the preseason favorite in the AAC, will still be going to a bowl game and should be a threat to whomever they face, but two losses along the way prevented them from living up to the lofty expectations placed on them this season.

UCF will host Memphis in the AAC Championship Game next week. The winner of that game will be nearly guaranteed a spot in the New Years Six bowl line-up as both teams are currently the highest-ranked teams in the playoff selection committee’s weekly rankings. UCF defeated Memphis earlier in the season with a 40-13 victory in Orlando, but the Tigers have been playing much better since that game. The rematch should be much more competitive next week.

UCF wrapped up a perfect regular season on the same day No., 2 Miami suffered its first loss of the year. UCF is now the only undefeated team in the state of Florida this season.