Continuing our College football preview series is BigLeagueClew, our resident college football expert. Today, he brings you a preview of the Big East Conference!
1. West Virginia Mountaineers
Last Season: 9-4 (5-2) – Tied for 1st in the Big East (lost Champs Sports Bowl to North Carolina State)
Between the ugly departure of Coach Bill Stewart and NCAA infractions leading to probation, West Virginia had a difficult off-season this year. They look to be in good shape on the field, and it all starts under center. Taking the reins at QB is Geno Smith, probably one of the most feared QBs in the Big East and considered one of the conference’s most efficient passers. Of the 48 quarterbacks who attempted at least 350 passes last season, only Boise State’s Kellen Moore, & Southern Miss’ Austin Davis threw less than 8 INTs (Smith had seven). WVA fielded one of the best defenses in the nation last season. they ranked in the top three in scoring defense, rush defense and sacks. No opponents scored more than 23 points on them and, in the Big East, no opponent scored more than 20. There are a few early season tests for WVA in back to back weeks vs. Maryland & LSU, and two key conference match ups against Syracuse & Pittsburgh. Outside of that, their schedule looks to fair pretty average.
My Prediction: As an avid WVA mountaineer hater I would love nothing more than to see this team go 0-12, but they won’t. 9 Wins and probably the Big East championship.
2. Syracuse Orange
Last Season: 8-5 (4-3) – 3rd in the Big East (Won Pinstripe Bowl vs. Kansas State)
After a decade of atrocious football under the Greg Robinson era, the Syracuse Orange seem to be on the right path under 3rd year head coach Doug Marrone (who happened to be voted by ESPN as the most likable college football coach in the country, what a guy!). On Offense, Syracuse has made drastic improvements. Just How bad was Syracuse’s offense near the end of the Greg Robinson era? Well for the most part, succeeding in basic formations and offensive statistics became a major improvement when Marrone. The Orange only averaged 322.9 ypg (thanks in large part to Delonte Carter) but that was better than Rutgers and USF in the Big East. It also was good enough for Syracuse to win 8 games and their first bowl win since 2001. Syracuse’s offensive line was the laughingstock of the league four years ago, but with four upperclassman starters returning, the line will be an asset this season. They also finally had their first serviceable QB since Donovan McNabb! Welcome in Ryan Nassib. In his first season as a starter, Nassib (2334 yrds, 19 TDs & 8 INTs) had the best performance of his career against Kansas State in the Pinstripe Bowl with 239 yards & 3 TDs. He will have an experienced wide receiver group to work with in Van Chew, Marcus Sales, and Alec Lemon (Don’t forget to add TE Nick Provo to that list). Syracuse should fare to pretty well on the offensive side of the ball too. The Defense has improved in each of the past four seasons, and last season’s unit was the best defense at Syracuse statistically since 1999, They will have to replace their leaders at LB but can still do some damage as they keep building stronger and stronger recruiting classes. The Orange have a more challenging schedule because they traded one of its FCS opponents for a trip to Southern Cal to play USC. That might be one of their most watched games all season long, and they will most likely get destroyed by the Trojans, but still, the bar has been raised. If the offense continues to improve and the defense can find a way to absorb the departures at linebacker and tackle, Syracuse might actually contend for its first Big East title in ten years.
My Prediction: LET’S GO CUSE! 9 WINS!!
3. Pittsburgh Panthers
Last Season: 8-5 (5-2) Tied for 1st in Big East (Won BBVA Compass Bowl vs. Kentucky)
As Dave Wannstedt departs, he takes with him the pro offense system, leaving the new staff to usher in a new era of football at Pitt. New coach Todd Graham is installing a no-huddle spread offense, which he wants to run at a fast pace. He did this during his time at Tulsa, where his team finished in the top ten in total plays in three of his four years as coach. Even though the Big East has Pitt picked to finish number 2 behind West Virginia, I think there are too many flaws with their overall team. QB Tino Sunseri showed that he has intangibles and leadership qualities, but he was uneven in his first season as the starter in 2010. Defensively Graham is looking to replace Wannstedt’s 4-3 defense with a base 3-4. Unlike with Wannstedt, Pitt is set to become a blitz-heavy team under the new staff, which means they better start getting some better players in the secondary or that will be short lived. The Pitt players do seem to be better suited to the new scheme, as Wannstedt liked to recruit undersized defensive ends and big linebackers. I still feel that this could transition year for the Panthers but, because this is the Big East, they should still be able to handle their own.
My Prediction: 7 Wins
4. Rutgers Scarlet Knights
Last Season: 4-8 (1-6) – 8th in Big East
After five consecutive winning seasons, Rutgers slipped back to the Scarlet Knights of old last season with a 4-8 record. That should change with a new year as Coach Schiano has some major changes on offense and defense in this year. No one will accuse Rutgers of being losers for much longer. The best news of all, Rutgers will not be using their installment of the Wildcat this year, which should make Rutgers skill-position playmakers more versatile as they now go back to their natural positions. Two big names to look out for is Jeremy Deering, who has what it takes to be a top running back, and WR Mark Harrison (44 passes, 829 yards and nine TDs last season) will most likely benefit from the consistency of a normal offensive scheme. The major issue will be the offensive line, which allowed 61 sacks last year, the most in the country. The question for the Scarlet Knights is if all the personnel tweaks on the field, coaching staff and play schemes will pay off. If not, will this be another down year for Rutgers? They open the season with a gimme against FCS member North Carolina Central, which I have never even heard of, but after that it gets tough when they host NC Central and then pick on someone their own size by heading to Chapel Hill to play University of North Carolina, where they probably don’t stand a chance. Conference play opens at Syracuse on Oct. 1 (you can bet your sorry ass that I will be watching that) and it is a big game for both schools if they want to establish themselves as front runners in the Big East this year.
My Prediction: Rutgers has been winning a lot in the past few seasons, I look for this trend to continue, 7 Wins.
5. South Florida Bulls
Last Season: 8-5 (3-4) – Tied 5th in Big East (Won Meineke Car Care Bowl vs. Clemson)
Let’s switch it up a little with USF and talk about how they have started their seasons since 2006. USF’s season openers have been little more like warm ups as the Bulls have faced McNeese State twice, Elon, UT Martin, Wofford and SUNY Stony Brook (Really?)! This year they break that streak when they head to South Bend to face Notre Dame in the opener. They are looking to show us that they’re not pretenders on opening day but then, they go right back to their old ways with three straight home games against sub par football programs (Ball State, Florida A&M & Texas El Paso). They should to be 3-1 by the time they start Big East conference play where they will need to show more potential and better depth at tailback. The good news here is that they boast a talented receiving corps that hopes to be healthier than a year ago, but major issues will lie in the O-line, where they have to replace three starters including standout C Sampson Genus. The Bulls averaged just 309 yards per game on offense, which was second-fewest in the Big East. Skip Holtz and USF have a handful of reasons to believe the offense will improve but it will all depend on how much.
My Prediction: 6 wins
6. Cincinnati Bearcats
Last Season: 4-8 (2-5) – 7th in Big East
In Cinci it is all about offense offense offense. Last season, QB Zach Collaros (deemed the
“super sub” for Tony Pike in 2009), helped the Bearcats to prolific numbers in total offense, scoring and passing. Moreover, he had RB Isaiah Pead, WR Armon Binns and D.J. Woods at his disposal. Despite the numbers, the offense couldn’t get out of its own way at times, leading the Big East in turnovers with 29 (15 interceptions, 14 fumbles), and allowing the second-most sacks. On the other side of the ball, Cinci isn’t that great to begin with, as they forced the fewest turnovers in the conference last year with 14. They have also ranked either last or next-to-last in total defense in the Big East in the past two seasons. In one season, Cincinnati went from +9 in the turnover margin to -15. For any team, that is a sure fire way to go from 12-1 to 4-8. Four of the first six games are at home this season, and the schedule as a whole isn’t that daunting, but in order for them to get back to their winning ways they will need to execute the little things that they lacked all last season. On offense, they will need to protect the ball better, and on defense they will need to force more turnovers.
My Prediction: 6 wins if they can find a way to put together a defense! Coach!! Put me in coach!
7. Louisville Cardinals
Last Season: 7-6 (3-4) – Tied for 5th in the Big East (won Beef ‘O’ Brady’s Bowl vs. Southern Miss)
After one full season with Charlie Strong as head coach, The Cardinals defense is in good hands and could turn out to be one of the best in the Big East for the next few years. They are a very young team that will have five sophomore starters, including SS Hakeem Smith who led the team with 88 tackles and earned freshman All-America honors in 2010. There only issue is that Strong’s recruits, who are freshmen and sophomores now, are going to start to making their way onto the starting depth chart. They lack game experience against some tough competitors in the Big East who have many upperclassmen starters. They will need to come together as a group if they want to establish themselves as a team to beat. With a weak schedule, Louisville could get off to a 4-0 start, but they better hope for that early season success if they want to make a push for a bowl bid, because three of their last four games are on the road (West Virginia, Connecticut and South Florida).
My Prediction: Sorry Charlie! No postseason for you, only 5 wins for the Cards.
8. Connecticut Huskies
Last Season: 8-5 (5-2) – Tied for 1st in Big East (Lost Fiesta Bowl vs. Oklahoma)
Fresh off the Huskies first trip to a BCS game, UCONN has been chosen to be picked dead last in their conference. With former Syracuse coach Paul Pasqualoni taking over the reins as coach Randy Edsall booked it to Maryland, many questions remain. First is the Huskies’ quarterback. The starter this season will be untested, whether it’s sophomore Mike Box, redshirt freshman Scott McCummings, true freshman Mike Nebrich or junior Johnny McEntee (another 4 headed QB controversy). The QB will work with a questionable group of receivers after WR Michael Smith (46 catches, 615 yards, and 2 TDs ) was declared ineligible. Now, the good news: The Huskies have one of the best lines in the Big East with T Mike Ryan and C Moe Petrus both coming back. Ryan alone has All-America potential. Last season, the offense was mostly a one man show starring RB Jordan Todman (the show has since been cancelled, as Todman entered the NFL). Given all the unpredictability of this year’s offense, coach P has to be thrilled with the experience and talent returning to the defense. The D-line and secondary have eight returning starters, and all are juniors and seniors. Defensive Tackle Kendall Reyes is the star here. Reyes was arguably one of the top defensive players in the Big East over the second half of last season (5.5 TFL and 2 INTs in UCONNS last four conference games). If the secondary can continue its improvement, the defense could be one of the best in the Big East.
My Prediction: A Bowl bid is possible since they have a weak schedule, but it more than likely will not happen this year. 5 Wins and a welcome back to the realm of coaching in college football to coach P!!
Smith image courtesy of: http://couchfiresports.com
Sunseri image courtesy of: http://www.pghsports.com
Daniels image courtesy of: Dale Sparks/photo
Nassib image courtesy of: Dale Sparks/photo
Deering image courtesy of: http://www.scarletreport.com
Collaros image courtesy of: Associated Press
Smith image courtesy of: http://cardinaldominance.ning.com
Reyes image courtesy of: Brad Horrigan/New Haven Register
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