The Big East is still here folks! After rumors of Syracuse, Pitt or Rutgers to the Big Ten, West Virginia to the SEC/ACC, Cincinnati to waiving their hands around and spinning in a circle the conference still exists for football and there is a BCS bid up for grabs. Knowing you have a 1/8 chance of getting a payday bonanza has to be good motivation going into the season and most of the teams have a legitimate shot at it. Our pick of who takes the Beast next.
There was quite a mess left for Cincinati last year after such a successful year. This was mostly thanks to the Catholics over in Indiana. Brian Kelly's departure left the Bearcats' already slim chances against Tim Tebow's last college fame at none. UC made a wise choice in picking up Butch Jones to follow Kelly up just as he did at Central Michigan. Even though he's American and his name doesn't mean anything, Butch will keep a close version of the same offense that had them 6th in scoring in the nation last year. The even better news is that Zach Collaros is back at QB and filled in terrifically when Tony Pike got injured last year. Collaros will also have Armon Binns to throw the ball to and Isaiah Pead to hand if off to. [Seriously, the variations on spelling the name Isiah has to stop. Yes I checked three times and that is how you spell Pead's name.] Now the question again will turn to the defense and that may seem silly after the team went 12-1 and was one clock tick away from playing for the BCS title but the lasting memory is that Sugar Bowl. Also the defense did tend to be a bit porous last year against good offenses.
The crazy schedule that Cincinnati plays make predicting their season tough. Hosting UT-Martin, Indiana State, and Miami (the other one) make it seem like a cupcake extravaganza, but they also play at NC State(albeit not the toughest contest) and host Oklahoma. After those games they avoid West Virginia, Pitt and Rutgers until November and the first week of December. I think by then they will be playing Butch ball and win a second consecutive year.
Pitt is on paper the purported prohibitive favorites to pilfer the precarious conference prize. Alliteration aside, I already picked Clemson to go far enough and I have a rule about only picking one, what I like to call, Clemson a year. So you will not see Michigan State or Cal winning anything in the remainder of our previews. Running back Dion Lewis was a sensation last year and now in his second year he should keep the momentum going, especially behind the blocking of LT Jason Pinkston. They did lose their verteran QB Bill Stull but they have playmaker Jon Baldwin at wideout to help new QB Tino Sunseri who sounds like he right out of a Soprano's episode. The defense begins and ends with DE Greg Romeus whose name is right out of Star Trek. The Wannstache has always been a great at getting his teams tough on defense, and Pitt seems to be right at he cusp but somehow I feel they will fall short.
Pitt travels to Utah to open the season which might set the tone for when they get to Big East season. If not then, Miami comes to town in week 3. They end again with Cincinnati in another contest that very well may again decide the Big East title.
Greg Schiano is entering his 10th year at Rutgers. Now I don't know about you but that makes me feel old. In a record the Neutral Planet would be proud of, he is 55-55. Rutgers was 9-4 overall but 3-4 in conference. Tom Savage and Mohamed Sanu should be one of the best pass and catch combos in the country that most people don't talk about. The biggest strength to this team may be their defensive line. If they're able to stop the run and get to the opponents QBs, it will be a productive season in Piscataway. But will another 8 or 9 wins be satisfying for the Scarlet Knights or will it ring hollow? Who cares, it's New Jersey.
Okay, that was a little mean and Jersey jokes are far from original these days. Rutgers out of conference schedule is far from daunting with the only BCS contest being North Carolina at home and now who knows what state they will in.
4. West Virginia
Many drew parallels to Larry Coker when Bill Stewart took the helm. I had to say I concurred with it but that was perhaps unfair. Yet a few years later Stewart's seat is getting warmer despite getting the Mountaineers to back-to-back 9 win seasons. The people in Morgantown are not exactly rational and they want results now. Noel Devine is one of the most dynamic backs in the country, but he is going to need the O-line's help. That's where big Josh Jenkins and Don Barclay come in. Geno Smith will attempt to take the place of Jarrett Brown taking the place of Pat White.
The big game for WVA will be in Death Valley (yeah that one) against LSU before they get to the conference game. The last four games for the Mountaineers will be a challenge as they get Cincinnati, Louisville, Pitt and Rutgers. Ultimately I see regression instead of progression for Stewart and a lot of unhappy rednecks come January.
It was a very emotional year for UCONN last year. After losing Jasper Howard to a tragic death, the team pressed on the best they could. A couple of close losses on the field could not stop their determination as they finished up strong with a bowl win. Losing Lindsey Witten hurts the Huskies defense but Edsall has made his bones at UCONN so far by making something out of nothing. Greg Lloyd, no not that one, returns from a leg injury at linebacker and should add to the defensive effort. It is what you would expect from a team that is not able to recruit the biggest star guys out there; a lot of effort and speed in the place of mass.
UCONN's most intriguing match-up happens week 1 as they travel to the Big House. It will be a great measuring stick for both programs. I have nothing but admiration for Edsall and his team's heart, but it is likely another 7 to 8 wins and a bowl appearance for the Huskies, a Big East title remains just out of reach.
6. South Florida
Jim Leavitt created something out of nothing. Literally. He was the first and only coach at USF until this past offseason where allegations of player-smacking and non-cooperation with the administration ousted him. It was a messy affair and it was a knee-jerk reaction by the suits in my opinion. No one would even know about the Bulls existence if it were not for Leavitt and he deserved another chance. However, no time to lament Skip Holtz left his cushy pirate ship in Green-vegas to take on the Big East. Holtz has proved he can spar with the big boys, and now that he will be dipping into the Florida high school talent pool, he will have South Florida to the level Leavitt took them to, and maybe higher.
Yet it will not happen this year. A trip to Florida in week 2 will be a sober reminder of that. A horrid bowl trip will be the best Holtz can salvage from the season.
Another new coach takes over a previously overachieving program. Charlie Strong, who was denied head coaching jobs in the SEC for "unknown reasons" was a hell of a snag for Louisville. Strong is one of the up and coming stars in the college game. The Cardinals have been decimated for personnel after successful coaches bolted and the previous coach, Steve Kragthorpe mortgaged the program on gambles that did not pan out. The Cards most likely will not make a bowl but the future is bright.
While other teams welcome new coaches, Doug Marrone tries to claw Syracuse back to respectability. It really is head-shaking to see the Orange in this plight. They have just as much and pretty much more tradition of any program in the conference yet they have been relegated to second fiddle status behind their basketball team. Marrone will need to get the offense going, and how will they ever do that without Ron Paulus? (/end sarcasm) On defense he's got a pair of stud linebackers in Darrell Smith and Doug Hogue but the corner needs to be turned on points scored this year. Marrone has plenty of time to make it happen, no one is pressuring him to win now, because no one else would want the challenge if they let him loose.
Player to watch: Greg Romeus
Exceeds Expectations: Cincinnati
Fails Expectations: West Virginia
In-conference game to watch: Pitt at Cincy, Dec. 4
Out of conference game to watch: Miami at Pitt, Sep. 23