Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Shwag's Annual College Football Preview: The Big East

Many of you may remember my annual college football preview from I have decided to revive this annual fluff article and expound upon you what I really don't know. Ahh, the future, what will it hold? It is time I put on my great Carnac hat and peer into my crystal ball. First up in my series, we'll look at the Big East, a conference I that I may or may not have an affinity for.

Predicted Order of Finish
  1. West Virginia
  2. USF
  3. Cincinnati
  4. Rutgers
  5. Pitt
  6. UConn
  7. Louisville
  8. Syracuse
The era of change. West Virginia has a new head man in Bill Stewart. Ray Rice, Steve Slaton and Brian Brohm have moved on. These were the players that saved the league, but none of them have left the cupboard too bare. Coming off the league's third straight BCS bowl win, the league has let everyone know that it is here to stay and the future looks very bright with some outsanding recruiting classes and major investments into the programs from the schools themselves. Commissioner Mike Tranghese can go out knowing that the league is in such a great shape.

West Virginia
The Rich Rodriguez departure from Morgantown and subsequent court battle, could have been the start of the downfall of the program in Morgantown. A funny thing happened. The players and the coaching staff that was left, made sure to remind everyone, WVU was not going away and in fact may be stronger than last year. Ask Oklahoma, how good they are. Coach Bill Stewart made sure to surround himself with one of the top staffs in the country. He brought in Doc Holliday from Florida, David Lockwood from Minnesota and Notre Dame, Mike Joseph from Notre Dame, Jeff Mullen from Wake Forest and most notably, DC Jeff Casteel, stayed home. With coach Mullen coming in from Wake to install motion and downfield passing into West Virginia's vaunted spread offense, the mounties are no longer one dimensional. West Virginia returns their whole line which was ranked third in the country in rushing last year. Did I mention that Pat White is back? Throw in some Noel Devine and the mountaineer offense will probably be amongst the nation's best again. No more eight in the box. The defenses will have to be honest this year.

The big question will be on defense where the mountaineers need to replace seven starters. The good thing is that Jeff Casteel has an abundance of talent to work with. The mountaineers finally brought in a defensive back coach to properly teach proper techniques, with one of the best in the country in David Lockwood. The DB's for years had been sort of an achilles heel under Rodriguez. Look for an upgrade here. The linebackers are as deep as they have ever have been at WVU. Reed Williams, the Fiesta Bowl defensive MVP, is the big question mark on whether he can return this season after shoulder surgery. The defensive line has some major holes to fill with the departures of Kellien Dykes and Johnny Dingle. Look for newcomer Tevita Finau to push for some time up front.

South Florida
The monster has awoken. No longer is there the big three in Florida. Say hello to our friends with the geographical error in their name. Say hello to South Florida. Jim Leavitt has done an incredible job building the program from scratch in Tampa. With the abundance of talent in Florida, his recruiting travel budget is probably one of the smallest in the NCAA. He can throw a rock from Raymond James stadium and probably hit the homes of ten division one players. Their success has not been a fluke. They are for real and should challenge again for the Big East title. Back again, is one of the Big East's best QB's in Matt Grothe. When he is on the run, he is almost like Houdini at getting out of trouble. RB Mike Ford is as fast is he as he is big. At 6'2" 225 lbs, he reminds me of another former big east back from Louisville named Michael Bush. He is Michael Bush with a legit 4.3 forty. The Bulls only had to replace one man on the line. They look to be very big and strong this year. The big question mark will be at receiver where they led the league last year in dropped balls. They will need an upgrade in performance this year.

The Bulls return probably the best defensive coordinator in the league in Wally Burnham. He is an absolute tactitian on the sidelines. Up front, the Bulls return the top DE in the league in George Selvie. Nobody is quicker off the ball. The linebackers must replace Ben Moffit. If they can, the linebacking corps should be pretty good. Their biggest holes will be the in backfield where they will need to replace the top corners in the league in Mike Jenkins and Trae Williams. Look for the bulls to challenge the Mountaineers for the league title this year. I can guarantee that both teams have December 6th circled on the calendars.

The best young coach in the league is the Bearcat's Brian Kelly. He has been a winner at every stop along the way. Coming off a 10-3 record in his first year, I expect coach Kelly to be right on par or even better this year. This team is centered around its defense and as the old adage goes, defense wins championships. Pre-season All-American DT Terrill Byrd anchors the top returning unit in the league. The senior laden unit is going to be tough especially against the run with two of the three linebacker are returning letterman. Mike Mickens is one of the best returning DB's in the league. They need to however replace both safeties.

The big question is who will be the signal caller this year. If Ben Mauk can get one more year from the NCAA then all is good. If not, the nod will probably go the Notre Dame transfer Demetrius Jones. Coach Kelly has a reputation as being one of the top qb coaches in the land, so I think whoever it is, should be adequate. Their running game has been mediocre at best. If freshman Isiah Pead is as good as his high school press clippings, things may be different in the queen city. Marcus Barnett at receiver is absolutely gifted. The question is, can they get the ball to him? The line must replace the right side. The offensive unit has so many questions , that I can't rank them higher. Coach Kelly is such a tremendous coach, that I think they should end up in the top three by year's end.

Greg Schiano said hell no to Michigan, got a new stadium expansion and lost the best running back in school history. It has been one of those years. RU has had their best run ever under the tutelage of Coach Schiano. It all began his first year when he gathered all the top prospects in New Jersey that year in a room and asked them to stay home and help build something together. Many did. No longer is New Jersey being poached by other schools. With Schiano's ties to south Florida, it is no wonder they have been so successful. The success of this years team rides on the arm of Mike Teel. For all the talent he has, he needs to stop throwing the ball to the opposing team. He does have the league's best wideout tandem in Kenny Britt and Tiquan Underwood. Both will be playing on Sundays in the future. Their line should be outstanding, thanks in no large part to their recruiting efforts. Anthony Davis is an absolute beast. The big hole will be at running back where they will need to replace Ray Rice. It looks to be that they will use a tandem of backs with Jordan Brooks and Kordell Young. Another guy who could get some looks, is a local kid Joe Martinek from my neck of the woods. If Joe Sr. is reading this, he knows that I have felt that Joe would have looked great in the gold and blue.

Rutgers returns five of the starting front seven on defense. That would be great for some teams, but until they learn to stop the run, it could be track meets again for Rutgers. This has been their achilles heel. With the influx of young talent pushing the current starters, maybe this year could be the year. I will believe it when I see it. The DBs are very strong with mostly everybody back, except for strong safety. Courtney Greene's decision to stay should bolster this unit. Now I would have ranked RU higher, but they need to prove to me that they are ready to make that next step.

No loss will ever be more devastating to me than the loss that my beloved Mountaineers had against Pitt. No win was ever more important for one guy's job than Pitt's victory over WVU. Dave Wannstedt got the win he needed to right the ship. On paper, he has been a great recruiter. On the field, for the most part, until the win at WVU, their teams have been a disappointment. Returning this year is one of the league's outstanding backs in Lesean McCoy. He has NFL star written all over him. At receiver, Derek Kinder returns along with incoming stud freshman Jonathan Baldwin. Both have great hands. Both should make great impacts. Jonathan Baldwin should win the league's freshman of the year. The big question marks are at QB and on the line. Who will be the QB, Junior Bill Stuhl or Sophomore Pat Bostick? The line returns only two starters. Will the skill guys be enough?

On defense remember this name, Scott McKillop. He is the best linebacker to play at Pitt since Hugh Green. The whole unit is deep. The line returns almost everybody as well. All of the DB's saw significant playing time on a unit that was in the top five nationally. The big problem is, can they replace DC Paul Rhoades? With Wannstedt in charge, I am not sure. Can he finally learn to develop the talent? I am not sure that he can. If he does, this team may be one for the ages, but I am not holding my breath.

Randy Edsall has been quietly building a strong program at UConn. After last year's success of sharing the Big East title, will they build on this? I am not sold on this program yet. Last year's 66-21 loss to my mountaineers tells me otherwise. QB Tyler Lorenzen has all the skills to make it at the next level. The big question is will he have anyone to throw the rock to? The huskies receiving corps is thin at best. Edsall is looking to basically have warm bodies after his top guy transferred and the other two returners didn't take a snap in spring ball. The line looks so so, with with three returners. They need to protect Lorenzen. He was on his back far too much. The huskies have a nice one two punch at RB with Donald Brown and Andre Dixon. I don't how well the line will hold up.

On defensive, the huskies return six of their starting front seven. They must learn to stop the run or like RU, get out your track shoes boys!. The DB's are young, so expect a big learning curve. Will Lorenzen be enough to get them through? That is the big question.

The makeover in Louisville has begun. It is going to be long year for the Cards as Coach Steve Kragthorpe looks to change the atmosphere and the defense at Papa John's Stadium. For a guy who had all the accolades coming in and all the talent on the field, Steve Kragthorpe's first year was a huge disappointment to the Cardinal faithful. He needs to get the talent to match his quasi-spread offense that he ran at Tulsa. For all the arm strength that QB Hunter Cantwell has, he is not matched for Coach Kragthorpe's system. As well, his top returning running back, transferred. Look for Victor Anderson to step up. Hopefully he can live up to his high school credentials. Who are the receivers going to be? These are the questions that many are asking. The line is being rebuilt as well.

Now to the defense. There is nowhere than to go up from where they are. They couldn't stop the pass. They couldn't stop run, but they were tops in penalties. The defense only returns four starters. Kragthorpe brought in former Michigan DC Ron English to overhaul the unit that was near the league bottom in every statistical category. Can Kragthorpe do it? I hope, but some decisions are making me wonder, like pulling out of Florida to only spot recruit there. He has decided to go the Kansas State route and load up on Jucos. It may be a long couple of years for my friends in da'ville.

At least Louisville can say,Thank God for Syracuse. No coaching tenure has been worse in the history of the Orange than Greg Robinson. He has been 7-28 in three years. From the school that produced so many great stars and has had such a rich history, this has been unacceptable. The only good thing that the Orange have is Mike Williams at WR. He is the best wideout they have had since Marvin Harrison. Laver Lobdell could be great at WR, but without significant coaching, I don't see it happening. Andrew Robinson is a good QB with no line or running back to bail him out. I can't see that many points put up this year by the Orange.

On defense, the line could be its strength. Arthur Jones is a stud at Nose tackle. The other stud is CB Mike Holmes. The problem is that they need nine other guys to show up. I knew Greg Robinson was doomed from the start. In his first year, against Iowa, they were going for the win on their own goal line. The Orange ended up with eight chances to do it thanks to a Hawkeye penalty. They ran the same play eight consecutive times with a hand off to the running back. The problem was that the starting running back at the time was on the sidelines, not even in the game. Coach Robinson had no clue. So as they say, it will be a long year up north. Plenty of good seats will be available.


Next up the SEC....

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

One For the Road

January 3, 2006 is the day that will live in infamy, not just for the victory that my beloved Mountaineers had over the much favored Georgia Bulldogs in the Sugar Bowl. More importantly, it showed that the Big East truly belonged. One conference commissioner, was sitting in the press box of the Georgia Dome that night, with that Cheshire Cat grin, knowing that he had been right all along. I learned that Mike Tranghese was a man that I should never play poker against. Because when the chips were down, he was holding that royal flush the whole time.

Last week, Big East Commissioner Mike Tranghese announced that he would be retiring at the end of the 2008-2009 academic year. With nearly 30 years with the conference, his time had come. He had been there since the beginning in 1979, when a small group of eastern basketball powers would form a league. It was he and then conference founder Dave Gavitt that took a chance with a relatively unknown entity at the time with ESPN. The decision in hindsight would be the first in many great decisions that would define his career. In an almost symbiotic relationship, the league and the channel would grow to unprecedented heights during the 1980's and beyond.

In 1990 when he took over as the commissioner, the next move was to try to fulfill Joe Paterno's dream of an eastern football conference. For years, the eastern powers wanted to do it except two teams, Pitt and Syracuse. They were afraid that an Eastern conference would destroy what they had in the Big East in basketball. They could not have been more wrong. In 1991, Penn State fed up with the stances of Pitt and Syracuse, decided to join the Big 10. Tranghese had enough foresight, to expand the Big East to include the football schools as a part of the league, bringing in WVU, Miami, Virginia Tech and Rutgers. The league would thrive.

The departures of Miami, BC and Virginia Tech could have been the end of the conference, but again, when the chips were down, Mike Tranghese was at his best. As much as it is not needed now, the relationship with Notre Dame was needed so the Big East could have a seat at the big boy table at the BCS fortress of ineptitude. With that secure, the conference needed to prove itself. Pitt's thrashing by Utah in the Fiesta bowl was not a good omen for the league.

What the league needed was an influx of talent and exposure. In one of his smartest moves, Tranghese negotiated with ESPN to broadcast their games on Thursday nights. As per usual the critics and traditionalists were in an uproar. How could they do something as crazy as play a game on a weeknight? It was, in hindsight, pure genius. The league was the only show in town on that night on TV. Instead of playing their marquee games on Saturdays, going against every other conference, they said why not play when there is no competition? The exposure and its results in upgraded recruiting and coaching are now bearing this out.

Since the departure of the three teams, The ACC has not won one BCS game. The Big East, however, have one the last three straight, beating the conference champs of the SEC, ACC and Big XII respectively. Karma is a bitch.

For all the venom, I had against Tranghese with the handling of the departures of VPI, Miami and BC, and his help in the formation of the BCS, I could not have been more wrong about that man. I have learned that sometimes, it's better to sit back and have faith that he will lead us through the darkness. That's what great leaders do. Now if only Jim Delaney at the Big Ten (11) would follow suit...



Rest in Peace, Jim McKay

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Kickin' It Old School

For many of you that read my blog, I am usually taking on the wonderful world of college sports, but today, something has me feeling nostalgic. It could be the after effects of the high school reunion a couple weeks back. It could be that I have a jumped the shark as they say and I'm on the downward slide. Maybe Neil Young was right, it is better to burn out than to fade away, but at least, I've got the memories to keep me going. For the first time in a long, long time, I have a genuine interest and excitement in the NBA finals.

A long time ago, I was this small town kid with the Tony Hawk shwap. I lived and breathed everything that was the NBA. Baseball didn't do it for me. Football was cool. Hockey was great. My soccer fandom was in its infancy. None of them however could feed my imagination the way that basketball did at the time.

With every fantastic highlight, I would go outside and somehow try to imitate on our backyard court what I just saw. Lack of athletic ability usually got in the way. Everyday I would shoot hoops for hours on end. Often, my dad and I would play a game of horse. Of course I would try every fantastic highlight reel film shot I saw. My Dad of course would be shooting shots popular in his era like the hook, the set shot and the left handed layup, while I would be trying the double pump in mid air, with a kiss off the glass. I thought I was Jordan. My dad thought he was Bill Walton. Neither one of us though had a great shooting percentage. I guess that would explain why Coach K never sent me that scholarship offer and my dad never made it past the Fountain Hill High School varsity.

In my dad's youth, they had Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, Jackie Robinson, Roberto Clemente and Whitey Ford. We had Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and of course, his airness, Michael Jordan. These were my heroes. Charles Barkley telling me that he was no idol, made him more of one to me. I remember Mr. Robinson's house. I remember Dominique Wilkins with the windmill slam. Watching Spud Webb win the slam dunk competition gave hope to the little guys like me. When Michael hit the last shot against Utah, it ended. It ended that is, until now.

Something feels right about a Boston - LA final. I am not a particular fan of either team, I guess its the nostalgia of so many great memories of my youth coming out. It was Magic vs. Larry back then. Now its Kobe vs. Boston's big three. It has everything you want, from the Zen Master on the sidelines to Jack Nicholson sitting in the stands. If only Chick Hearn and Johnny Mosley were still alive to call the games, we then could have had basketball nirvana. Showtime may have closed its curtains, but Kobe and company opened it back up in HD.

So I guess now I'll be looking for the Spike Lee Mars Blackman Nike commercials again. It was never really the shoes Spike. For the first time in many years, the other day I went to the local basketball court to shoot some hoops. I probably had a shooting percentage of around fifteen percent. Just like back in the day, it was the wind, of course...