Spring football primer: Burning questions for each Big East team
|Big East spring practice dates|
Like death and taxes, uncertainty in the Big East seems to be one of the few guarantees in life, especially given the current college football landscape. Entering 2013, the league will once again offer a new look: The conference will say goodbye to Pitt and Syracuse, which are set to join the ACC this summer, and will welcome Central Florida, SMU, Houston and Memphis as its newest members. Though commissioner Mike Aresco's league made additions in its fight to survive realignment, it couldn't stave off disappointment. Boise State and San Diego State opted to remain in the Mountain West after originally agreeing to join the Big East, perhaps a sign of things to come for the embattled conference.
A sense of instability has plagued the Big East recently, from its split with its basketball member schools -- and reportedly the Big East name -- to the expiration of its BCS automatic qualifying status with the onset of a four-team playoff in 2014. But even with an unstable future, the league heads into 2013 with 10 teams and a revamped TV deal. Here are the burning questions facing each Big East program during spring practice.
• Central Florida: Does UCF have the weapons to become the league's surprise team? The Knights fell just short of the Conference USA crown last fall, losing a 33-27 overtime heartbreaker to Tulsa in the conference title game. Quarterback Blake Bortles was one of the more efficient quarterbacks in the league, passing for 3,059 yards and 25 touchdowns against just seven interceptions, and the Knights' offense put up 35.4 points per game. Heading into the spring, Bortles has the experience to become the Big East's second-best passer behind Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater -- especially with his top four receivers returning from last year. Still, UCF needs a serviceable tailback to replace the departing Latavius Murray, who led C-USA by averaging 100.5 yards per game in 2012. Rising junior Storm Johnson (507 yards, four touchdowns) is the team's top returning rusher and could be the answer in the backfield, but he'll need to show improvement over the next few weeks. Bortles will need a productive ground game to keep defenses honest if the passing attack hopes to surprise the rest of the Big East come fall.
• Cincinnati: Who will step up at running back? The Bearcats find themselves in a nearly identical position to last year entering spring practice: They're worried about their future at running back. The departure of 1,000-yard rusher Isaiah Pead in 2011 left a gaping hole in the backfield, but George Winn answered the call with a 1,334-yard campaign of his own in 2012. Now, new coach Tommy Tuberville's roster must reload at the position again following Winn's exit to the NFL draft. The good news is the Bearcats have a wealth of potential options; Ralph David Abernathy IV, Tion Green and Dionte Buckley are perhaps the most viable candidates to step up. But don't count out signee Rodriguez Moore, who comes in as the top-ranked juco running back in the country, according to some outlets. Fortunately for the Bearcats, whoever fills the void should have plenty of protection: Cincinnati returns all five of its starters on the offensive line, including first-team All-Big East selections guard Austen Bujnoch and tackle Eric Lefeld.
• Connecticut: Will the new coordinators make an early impact? UConn's newest staff members have two very different goals for the 2013 season: One must drastically improve his offense, while the other must maintain the status quo on defense. The Huskies finished as the Big East's worst scoring offense (17.8 points per game) and total offense (318.3 yards per game) last season, prompting the demotion of coordinator George DeLeone to offensive line coach. Former Cincinnati receivers coach T.J. Weist is now tasked with retooling the attack, and he'll look to returning quarterback Chandler Witmer -- who managed only nine touchdowns against 16 interceptions last season -- to show maturation this spring. Meanwhile, on the defensive side of the ball, the departure of coordinator Don Brown to Boston College opened the door for defensive line coach Hank Hughes to take the reins of a unit that ranked ninth in the nation in total defense. Standout linebacker Yawin Smallwood and Co. will look to be even more suffocating in 2013.
• Houston: Can the Cougars improve their porous defense? There's no way to sugarcoat Houston's defensive issues in 2012; the Cougars finished 115th nationally in total defense and allowed more than 30 points on six separate occasions. SMU even blew Houston out of the stadium by hanging 72 points during the teams' matchup on Oct. 18. Cougars' defensive coordinator Jamie Bryant didn't last after those numbers, and the program brought in David Gibbs from the NFL's Houston Texans to shore up the unit this season. Coach Tony Levine will need to replace a defensive anchor in the middle with the departure of linebacker Phillip Steward, who led the C-USA with 11 sacks and finished second with 19.5 tackles for loss. If Houston hopes to be competitive this fall, it needs to bolster its defense in a major way this spring.
• Louisville: Can the offensive line continue to protect Teddy Bridgewater? The Cardinals left a lasting impression at the end of the 2012 season by dominating heavily favored Florida in the Sugar Bowl. The upset effectively launched quarterback Bridgewater's 2013 Heisman campaign, and it shot Louisville into the early BCS conversation. Now, after two seasons as the starter, Bridgewater has the talent and experience to keep Louisville atop the league -- but questions remain across the Cardinals' offensive line. The unit enters spring practice having lost Rimington Award finalist Mario Benavides at center and Alex Kupper at left tackle, and Louisville will need to find replacements at those positions. Come fall, nothing will be more important to coach Charlie Strong than keeping his star passer protected.
• Memphis: Will the Tigers continue their climb? Prior to coach Justin Fuente's arrival last year, Memphis hadn't won more than two games in a season since 2008. Fuente led the Tigers to four victories in 2012, a relative resurgence that has many fans hoping for a change of pace for the former C-USA cellar dweller. But a continued renaissance might be too much to ask in the team's first season against more physical competition. The good news is Fuente returns a good portion of talent, including a two-headed rushing attack in rising seniors Brandon Hayes and Jai Steib, who combined for 1,003 yards and 12 touchdowns last season. And starting quarterback Jacob Karem also returns after a 14-touchdown, three-interception junior campaign. Still, even with a strong spring, patience may be key in Memphis.
• Rutgers: Can Kyle Flood's team generate some offense? Rutgers ranked 104th in the FBS in total offense last season, and during its three-game losing streak to close out the year, its attack put up only 11 points per game. Former Kansas State coach Ron Prince will head up the unit this season, and he has no shortage of questions to address heading into the spring. Starting quarterback Gary Nova returns after throwing for 2,695 yards, 25 touchdowns and 16 interceptions last season, but many expect Nova to compete with backup Chas Dodd to maintain the reins to Prince's offense. Meanwhile, with 1,000-yard rusher Jawan Jamison headed to the NFL, the time is now for rising junior Savon Huggins -- a former five-star tailback recruit -- to live up to his potential in a wide-open backfield.
• SMU: Will Garrett Gilbert justify the hype? Gilbert's name probably rings a bell to many college football fans, and for good reason: As a freshman at Texas, Gilbert stepped into the 2009 BCS title game in place of an injured Colt McCoy and performed admirably despite the Longhorns' eventual loss to Alabama. Gilbert transferred to SMU last year, but his junior season wasn't as prolific as he might have hoped; he tossed 15 interceptions to go with 15 touchdowns as SMU finished with a 7-6 record. It's no secret what quarterbacks can do at their peak in coach June Jones' offense, as both Timmy Chang and Colt Brennan rewrote the NCAA record books during Jones' tenure at Hawaii. But Gilbert must first improve on his accuracy (53.0 percent in 2012). Luckily, two of his top three receivers return to Dallas.
• Temple: Can Matt Rhule sell what he's preaching? Temple is a familiar place for new head coach Rhule. The former New York Giants assistant spent six seasons with the Owls under Al Golden and Steve Addazio, and that familiarity has helped Rhule make inroads in Pennsylvania recruiting grounds long dominated by the likes of Penn State and Pitt. But Rhule has plenty of work to do this spring. Temple has a potential quarterback battle brewing between Chris Coyer, Clinton Granger and Penn State transfer Kevin Newsome, and it must also fill the void left by the running back duo of Matt Brown and Montel Harris. Rhule's enthusiasm is there, but progress needs to follow: The Owls finished with the Big East's worst total defense and second-worst total offense in 2012.
• USF: How will the Bulls replace quarterback B.J. Daniels? New coach Willie Taggart inherits a Bulls roster with one of its longtime leaders stepping out the door. The departing Daniels started 42 games throughout his USF career, and he ranks among the top five in nine different categories in the program's record book. Though Daniels never brought the Bulls a Big East title, his absence will be felt during the quarterback battle to replace him this spring. Matt Floyd started USF's final three games after Daniels went down with a broken ankle in November, but the Bulls limped to an 0-3 finish and Floyd failed to throw a touchdown pass. Backup Bobby Eveld should give Floyd a run at the starting job, but three-star signee Mike White might make noise in fall camp if Taggart doesn't make a decision this spring.