Sunday, August 3, 2008

2008 Big East Preview

The last two years have been great for the Big East Conference. Two seasons ago Rutgers, WVU and Louisville all went late into the season unbeaten. In back to back weeks the Big East had memorably great football games with Louisville beating West Virginia to put them firmly in the Big East driver’s seat and in the National Title picture. The following week Rutgers pulled off their biggest win in school history defeating Louisville in Piscataway on a last second field goal. Three Big East teams finished in the top 15 nationally that season and the Big East went on to post a 5-0 Bowl Record.

Despite that the Big East was not without skeptics. Many viewed the Big East’s success in their bowls only as the result of favorable Bowl Match-ups. There was also a strong belief that the Big East was merely a top heavy conference where teams like Louisville and West Virginia just beat up on also-rans. I would argue that was a completely asinine belief even then. South Florida went into West Virginia late in the season and crushed the Mountaineers BCS hopes. The University of Cincinnati played 5 games against top 10 teams that season with a very young team and was competitive in nearly all of them (though eventually letting the game get away against WVU and OSU). Cincinnati capped off those 5 games (the first four on the road), with a 30-11 spanking of Rutgers, costing the Scarlet Knights any National Title dreams they may have had.

For all those skeptics 2007 really highlighted the emerging depth of the Big East conference. The Big East continued to establish itself both inside and outside of the conference. Eventual third place Pac Ten finishing Oregon State traveled to Cincinnati for an early Thursday night battle. They left that night on the wrong end of a 34-3 beating from Brian Kelly’s Bearcats. South Florida traveled into SEC runner up Auburn in a much hyped game. Leading up to the game the national media talked about South Florida as a team ready to step up onto the national stage…this was not the case of an Auburn team over looking a small Big East squad. South Florida had been talked about ad nausea, by much of the National Media. South Florida walked out of Auburn with a big victory and eventually made it as high as number 2 in the national polls.

A conference viewed by many as dominated by WVU and Louisville suddenly had other emerging powers. Rutgers had emerged the prior season. South Florida and Cincinnati emerged early in the season and by the end of the season it was actually the Uconn Huskies who would share the Big East Title with West Virginia. The Big East went 3-2 in Bowl games last season improving to 8-2 over the last two seasons. The Big East Bowl season was highlighted by West Virginia’s 48-28 shellacking of Oklahoma. The Big East Champion has now beaten the SEC, ACC, and Big 12 conference champion in their last three BCS Bowl games. In the end 6 of the 8 (75%) Big East teams were ranked at some point in the 2007 season. In 2008 the Big East looks to continue the upward trend that has erased many of the doubters across the country. With its lack of traditional powers the Big East still has many skeptics, but the results on the field have spoke volumes for the conference. West Virginia is once again a National Title Contender, while South Florida and Cincinnati could be poised for top 15 seasons. Last year’s Big East co-champion Connecticut Huskies return 19 starters, the Pitt Panthers hope to finally cash in on the promise of multiple top recruiting classes, Rutgers returns their QB and top 3 wide receivers, and Louisville hopes to show that last season was merely a bump in road on their way to being a national power. This is an exciting seasons for the Big East and has the potential to boast even more accomplishments than the previous two seasons.

Best Non-Conference Games:

The Big East has several excellent opportunities to showcase their talents out of conference this season.

Louisville vs. Kentucky (Saturday August 31 @ 3:30 pm) - If Louisville wants to get back to national prominence they need to win this game.

Cincinnati @ Oklahoma (Saturday September 6 at 3:30) - The Bearcats take their fast paced offense and fast, talented, experienced defense to Norman for a nationally televised early season battle. This game will be a great measuring stick for where the Bearcats are on a national level.

South Florida vs. Kansas (Friday September 12 at 8pm) - A second major non-conference game the Big East gets against a BCS team from the prior season. South Florida has a ton of experience back on offense and a knack for performing in these Big Games.

Uconn vs. Virginia (Saturday September 13 at 7:30 pm) - This is an important game for the Huskies to get. They were the Big East Co-Champions last season; they are home against a middle of the road ACC team. They should win this game.

Louisville vs. Kansas State (Wednesday September 17 at 7:30 pm) – Another home game against a BCS team for Louisville to show last year was a mere aberration.

Pitt vs. Iowa (Saturday September 20) – The Panthers are to me the biggest question in the Big East this season. I could see their season going so many different ways. If they are ready to live up to their potential this is a game they should win.

West Virginia vs. Auburn (Thursday October 23 at 7:30 pm) - For the second straight season Auburn is involved in a marquee game for the Big East Conference. This will be a Thursday night game on ESPN and is huge for a team in West Virginia with National Title aspirations.

Cincinnati @ Hawaii (Saturday December 6) – The Bearcats do what they never should have done and go back to Hawaii. This is the third and final non-conference game for Big East teams against BCS teams from last season. It is also the final game of the season. I would love to see an absolute beat down.

Projected Order of Finish:

  1. West Virginia - Let me be clear there are a number of questions for this year’s West Virginia Football team. They lost 7 defensive starters from a defense that was the best seen at WVU in recent years. That defense really allowed WVU to be as good as they were. The secondary for their 3-3-5 defense will have to completely reinvent itself this season having lost all of their starters. For a conference that boasts some dangerous passing attacks that could be troubling for the Mountaineers. The Mountaineers have enough experience with the defensive line and linebackers that they should at least be able to get pressure on the QB giving the secondary a better opportunity to succeed.

We also only need to look back to Louisville last season and see how hard it can be to replace a successful and talented college football coach. Rich Rodriguez was taking the WVU program to new heights. He had established them as the power in the Big East conference. Bill Stewart, a man with no successful head coaching experience, takes over. In one sense this could really help this year’s team. He will have a strong knowledge of the players and personnel. He will understand the strengths and weakness and I cannot see him messing up this incredibly talented offense.

In the end it is that offense that makes me stick with West Virginia as the pre-season favorites to win the Big East Conference. When they are clicking there is no one that can stop Pat White and this offense. They are incredibly frustrating for opposing teams as they can methodically move the ball down the field on 6 and 7 yards runs and continually break long runs throughout the course of every game. The offensive line returns 8 men with starting experience, so they have the guys to protect Pat White and open up holes for this running game. West Virginia really should not miss Steve Slaton much because Noel Devine is an absolute burner. But clearly, the key to this offense is Pat White. He has to be a favorite (along with Florida’s Tim Tebow) to win the Heisman Trophy this season. I cannot see an offense with this much experience not performing at a top level again this season. Bill Stewart knows their strengths and he’ll have them ready to pick up where they left off.

So while I worry about the defense and you never know what can happen when a new coach steps in…the Mountaineers still have too much talent to ignore. I have the range of West Virginia projected records anywhere from 8-4 to 12-0. That’s a Big Range My official projection: 11-1 (6-1 Big East), Conference Champion.

  1. Cincinnati- The Bearcats have made the jump the last two seasons. They gained valuable experience two years ago as a very young squad playing 4 top ten teams on the road and eventually beating number 6 Rutgers at Nippert. They quickly learned new systems on offense and defense last season and put together their first 10 win season since the 1960s. This Bearcat squad is the best of the bunch.

Defensively the Biggest concerns for the Bearcats come from having to replace both starting safeties, particularly Haruki Nakurmura and both starting defensive ends. The strength of the Bearcats other positions should allow them to do so. Terrill Byrd and Adam Hoppel are as good a set of defensive tackles as there are in the Big East, maybe the country. Their ability will really allow the inexperienced ends a chance to rush the quarterback. There is a ton of optimism concerning the Bearcat defensive ends this season. In is transfer Alex Daniels from Minnesota who should have the athleticism and skill set to be a force early on. Lamont Nelms played a significant amount at defensive end last season and was very effective, often every bit as effective as Anthony Hoke and DeAngelo Craig. Conner Barwin and Craig Carey have made the switch from offense to defensive end and their athleticism should offer a different look from the end position. The experience the Bearcats have at linebacker and the skills they possess at CB should allow the safeties great opportunities to make plays. The Bearcats expect to give All Conference cornerback DeAngelo Smith ample time at safety this season in order to get he, All American CB Mike Mickens, and OSU transfer Brandon Underwood on the field as much as possible. This is an even more experienced and skilled defense than the Bearcats had last season. Simply put the 2008 Bearcat defense should be even better than the 2007 version.

On offense, everything is set for the Bearcats to be even better than they were last year. They are now in year two of Brian Kelly’s spread attack. Last year was a big switch for the Bearcat offense, going from Mark Dantonio’s three yards and a cloud of dust I-formation power attack, to Brian Kelly spread it out, play fast, run a bunch of plays and create mismatches attack. Perhaps the biggest strides this Bearcat team will make should be with the offensive line. Last season the offensive line was asked to play a completely different brand of football than they had been brought here to play. They were asked to slim down, to play fast, to learn different blocking schemes and get comfortable blocking in a more athletic, faster offense. This season the offensive line should be far ahead of where they were at this time last year. This should allow for whoever the UC QB is to have more time to throw the football and allow the younger, more athletic Bearcat running backs a chance to make more plays. The Bearcat’s wide receivers should be the strength of the unit, returning senior Dominick Goodman and a pair of exciting sophomores in Marcus Barnett and Marty Gilyard. The Bearcats also will see the return of the immensely talented Tight End Kazeem Ali. He should add yet another threat to an already dangerous offense. So the stage is set for the offense, but they will need a quarterback. It looks like 5th year senior Dustin Grutza is the guy, unless Ben Mauk is granted a 6th year of eligibility. Grutza looked good in limited action last season, but has often had a problem with making quick decisions. This did not hurt him against Marshall and Miami (Ohio) last season, but he’ll need to be decisive against teams like Oklahoma, WVU and the rest of the Big East.

I have the Bearcats predicted to go anywhere from 9-4 to 12-0. The 12-0 would be a Big Time stretch because I cannot see them beating both Oklahoma and WVU on the road. I just do not see that. With good production from the quarterback position this Bearcat team should be better across the board than last years 10-3 team. With that in mind my prediction for the Cincinnati Bearcats: 10-3 (5-2 Big East 2nd place). My more detailed preview for this years Bearcat team is available here and here.

  1. South Florida- The Bulls are back and they have staying power. Jim Leavitt continues to bring talent into South Florida and perhaps has the most experienced, diverse offense in his tenor at the university. Matt Grothe is back for his junior season. He ran for over 800 yards last season and threw for over 2500. He will be aided by a very deep running back position that includes sophomore Mike Ford (4.7 yards per carry and 12 TDs last season) and senior Ben Williams (425 yards and 6 TDs). The South Florida offensive line is anchored by three senior starters. Needless to say there is experience across the board for the USF offense, which should be improved from last season.

Probably the biggest question for the Bulls is how do they replace the defensive backfield of Mike Jenkins and Trae Williams. Mike Jenkins was a first round draft pick of the Dallas Cowboys and was first team All Big East last season. The corners will be aided by a fairly experienced front seven. All Big East performer George Selvie and leading tackler Tyrone McKenzie are back and should allow the front seven both stop the run and get pressure on the quarterback. If South Florida gets good production from the corner back position this defense should be one of the Big East’s best.

I believe South Florida should be the Big East’s third best team and are one of four teams I could see potentially winning the Big East title. They are experienced and have won big games in the past. The biggest snag I see for the Bulls is that they must face the teams they are competing with for a Big East championship on the road. They travel to Cincinnati on October 30 and then to West Virginia for the potentially freezing December 6 match-up (this match–up could very well be for the conference title). I have South Florida projected to finish anywhere from 7-5 to 10-2. My official projection: 9-3 (4-3 Big East, 3rd Place)

T-4. Pittsburgh- Here is to Pittsburgh the hardest team to figure in the Big East conference. They are getting a bunch of preseason love this season from the National Media. Here is what we know about Pittsburgh that is cause for optimism:

1. They have recruited amazingly well under Dave Wannstedt. In fact they have recruited better than anyone else in the Big East.

2. Last season they had victories over 10-3 Cincinnati and most memorably a road victory over Big East co-champion West Virginia. That win prevented West Virginia from getting a national championship game match-up with “one of the” Ohio State Universities (the Columbus branch if you were wondering), a game I could have seen them dominating.

3. They are bringing back the immensely talented LaSean McCoy at running back. McCoy gave Big East defenses fits. He is probably the top NFL prospect among Big East running backs having broken Tony Dorsett’s freshman record for TDs and points and he did all this with little production from the passing game.

4. The Panthers get Bill Stull back, the projected starter from last year, whom Pittsburgh views as the guy to lead their team. Ultimately Stull has little real experience as a college QB so it will be interesting to see how he does.

All that being said it is hard for me to predict the meteoric rise of Pitt Panther football this season, because I have not seen enough evidence to warrant it. Pitt admitted looked legit against Cincinnati and West Virginia last year, but their other wins were against Eastern Michigan, Grambling State and Syracuse. Here is what the Panthers did against everyone else:

@Michigan State- 17-14 LOSS

Uconn- 34-14 BIG TIME LOSS

@Virginia- 44-14 ABYSMAL LOSS

Navy- 48-45 Loss to a not very good Navy team

@Louisville- 24-17 Loss

@Rutgers- 20-16 Loss

USF 48-37 Loss

I guess my point is that Pitt had 2 wins last year against reasonably good competition (actually very very good competition), but in their other 7 games against reasonably good competition they lost every time. 2 for 9 against good teams does not show me much. On top of that, they were absolutely destroyed twice, and beat handily another time. I guess you can look at the Cincinnati game and say that starting with that game they played better, but did they really play well enough to warrant all this optimism. I am at a loss on Pittsburgh. I do not know where to pick them. I do not trust Wanny, I am not sold on their ability to play consistently good football, and yet I, like everyone else have seen the highs. I watched them against WVU and Cincinnati last year and they have the players to compete for a conference title.

In the end Pitt is one of four teams I could see winning a conference title, but the one I have the least confidence in. I have their range of records anywhere from 5-7 to 10-2. My official prediction: 7-5 (3-4 Big East Tie for 4th place)

T-4. Rutgers- Last season was a bit of a disappointment for the Scarlet Knights. They were projected to compete for a Big East Championship (Kurt Herbstreet had them winning it) and yet that never materialized. An early loss to Maryland really set the tone for a season full of missed opportunities. Rutgers took a 17-7 halftime lead into the locker room against Cincinnati only to have the Bearcats explode for 21 third quarter points and leave Piscataway with a win. They then recovered by beating Syracuse and then number 2 South Florida only to be beaten pretty badly by Uconn and West Virginia.

I think Rutgers’ offense is going to be awfully good this season. Mike Teel and his top 3 receivers from last year all are back. Last season both Tiquan Underwood and Kenny Britt had over 1000 yards receiving, so though replacing a player as good as Ray Rice should be tough, this offense will not lack for big play ability. There are questions on the offensive line that need to be resolved, but Rutgers should be able to put up some points.

The defense has continually been one of the best in the Big East. Schiano’s teams seem to always get pressure on the QB and make it hard on opposing running backs to gain positive yards. The secondary and defensive line figure to be strong, while the biggest question marks for the defense are at the linebacker position. Rutgers struggled against the run last season and will need better performance in that area if they are to compete for a Big East title.

In truth I believe too much is going against Rutgers to be much of a factor in the Big East this season. First, they play much of the top of the conference on the road. The Scarlet Knights travel to West Virginia, Cincinnati, South Florida and Pittsburgh. That is a tall order for any team wanting to compete for a conference title. Even 2-2 in those games could prove difficult. In the end there are just too many questions for this Rutgers team. I have their projected record anywhere from 5-7 to 9-3. My official prediction: 8-4 (3-4 Big East, Tie for 4th place).

T-4. Uconn - Adding to my jumble of Big East teams at 3-4 in the conference are the Uconn Huskies. The Huskies were the Big East co-champions last season and return 19 starters from that team if you include the kicker and punter. Much of last season was marked by the Huskies playing good, smart, field position football and making the plays they needed to win games (they also had a few breaks against Temple and Louisville). The Huskies also took advantage of home field last season. The Huskies were 7-0 at home and 2-4 away from home. If they are going to compete for a Big East tile this season they must find a way to win outside of Storrs, Connecticut.

My impression from watching the Huskies last season was that they were a solid, well coach team that the national media underestimated (there were people picking them to finish last in the conference). That being said, I believe the Huskies overachieved last year. When I watched them against Cincinnati and West Virginia they just did not seem to have the team speed some of the other Big East Teams had. They lacked true playmakers on offense and game changers on defense. I think they are a solid team that will come to play every game and win some games in the Big East, but I do not see them repeating last year’s performance. They lost their last 3 games away from Storrs by a combined score of 117 to 34, never coming with two touchdowns. This year they do have the advantage of playing Cincinnati and WVU at home, but still have road games against UNC, Rutgers and South Florida.

I firmly expect the Huskies to take a step back this season. My range for the Huskies is anywhere from 5-7 to 8-4. My official prediction: 7-5 (3-4 Big East, Tie for 4th place)

T-4. Louisville - Like Pitt, Louisville is another team I am having a hard time getting a feel for. Louisville was dreadful on defense last season and as a result wasted one of college football’s most talented offenses lead by QB Brian Brohm. Brohm is now gone, replaced by Hunter Cantwell. Cantwell is more than capable of leading this Louisville offense forward. I do not expect them to be as dynamic as they were with Brohm at the helm, but they should still be a very good offense.

Because of this it comes down to the defense. Can Ron English get production from defense? I suspect you will see improvement from last year’s defense, but not drastic improvement. Louisville seemingly has a long way to go before they are back to competing for Big East titles. It really is hard to believe that just two seasons ago they won their BCS game.

With all of these 3-4 teams I put them in order by who I believe is most likely to finish highest. I believe Pitt has more upside potential than Rutgers, Uconn and Louisville. I had Louisville lowest, because I could potentially see them doing even worse than last year, but I have to believe there is talent at a school two years removed from a BCS bid. Maybe a second year under Kragthorpe’s tutelage and a new defensive coordinator will make Louisville a better football team. My range for Louisville is anywhere from 3-9 to 8-4. My official prediction: 6-6 (3-4 Big East, Tie for 4th place)

8. Syracuse- They are bad. Can they win one conference game again? I say yes. My range prediction 1-11 to 4-12. My prediction: 3-9 (1-6 Big East, Last Place)

Get stoked everyone Big East football is coming. This promises to be an exciting year for the Big East as they try to continue to improve on their recent successes. WVU has National Title aspirations. I believe Cincinnati, USF, and Pitt all have top 15 upside. The middle of the league is very muddled in my predictions. I believe someone is going to probably emerge from that pack and be better than 3-4 (Pitt is the most likely candidate) and someone is likely to do worse than the 3-4 (Louisville the most likely candidate), but these projections are based on where I see each team most likely to finish. Anyways… I am ready for some football. Go Bearcats!!!

1 comment:

Chris said...

I think Pittsburgh is a dark horse team to keep an eye on this year. I don't think they'll challenge for the title, but they will be better. After all, they beat West Virginia last year.