Thursday, September 25, 2008

How the Big East Will Play Out

This has not exactly been a picture perfect season for the Big East Conference. Louisville started the year getting killed by Kentucky, Rutgers and Syracuse cannot beat anyone, Pitt lost at home to a MAC team, Cincinnati lost by 26 to Oklahoma, and perennially Big East power West Virginia has already lost twice. Still Louisville seemed to turn the corner last week in taking care of Kansas State, Cincinnati got great play from quarterback Tony Pike against Miami Ohio, Pitt took care of unbeaten Iowa, Connecticut remains unbeaten and South Florida has already taken care of Kansas and Central Florida. In reality the Big East has been no more down than the ACC or the Pac Ten. Still the question that looms as Big East conference play begins Friday night is: What do we expect from the conference the rest of the way?

I look back at my preseason projections and realize…wow was I wrong about two teams. West Virginia has not played anywhere close to the level they played the last two seasons and Rutgers has fallen completely off of the map. At the same time, much of the Big East has gone as one could have expected: Pitt looks improved from last year, but certainly not at the crazy level that made “experts” pick them to win the Big East and make a BCS bowl. UConn has been the steady team they were all last year…winning their close games. South Florida and Syracuse have picked up right where they left off (one team is happier than the other about that). And the Bearcats have given us no reason to think they cannot be better than last season. So as Louisville and Connecticut get set to open Big East play Friday night I want to take the time to revisit the Big East, ranking them largely based on what they have shown so far this season and dissecting their best and worst case scenarios.

  1. Cincinnati

Best Case Scenario- Tony Pike continues to be the answer at quarterback and runs up the score the next three weeks against Akron, Marshall and Rutgers. The defensive line gains valuable experience and begins to get consistent pressure on the quarterback giving the back of the defense more opportunities to make plays. The Bearcat corners begin forcing turnovers in bunches, making them one of the better defenses in the country. The Bearcats then start their defining three game stretch of the season with another dominating performance at Connecticut. That sets up a Thursday night, nationally televised game against a top ten South Florida Bulls team. The Bearcats look like the better team all game and win by two touchdowns. They take care of business the rest of the way, running through the conference to a 12-1 regular season.

Worst Case Scenario- Tony Pike continues to look good until conference play begins and the pressure heats up. He struggles against the defenses of Uconn, South Florida and West Virginia. The defensive line continues to be a weak spot for the Bearcat defense and as a result the secondary gets exposed underneath game in and game out. The Bearcats have enough talent on both sides of the football to win games, but they finish 4-3 in the conference (9-4 overall) and head back to Birmingham for a second straight season.

My Forecast- I think Tony Pike continues to play well and use the great talent he has all around him. I think the defensive line gets better throughout the year (though never gets the consistent pass rush that Hoke and Craig were able to get). The Bearcats run the table at Nippert, including big wins over USF and Pitt, but lose a road game either at WVU or at Louisville. The Bearcats make their first ever BCS bowl at 11-2 (6-1 in the Big East).

  1. South Florida

Best Case Scenario- South Florida avoids the inconsistency that killed them last season and has shown its face at times in games against Kansas, UCF, and Florida Internationally this season. Matt Grothe wins the conference player of the year and George Selvie wins the defensive player of the year. South Florida sweeps their home schedule. They go into Cincinnati for that huge Thursday night game and beat the Bearcats moving the Bulls to the brink of the top 5. The Bulls eventually lose one, but win the conference and make their first ever BCS bowl game.

Worst Case Scenario- South Florida slips up before conference play and loses a road game at North Carolina State. Road games at Cincinnati, Louisville and West Virginia prove to be a tough hill to climb. The Bulls lose two of those and a home game to Uconn or Pitt to finish 8-4 (4-3) in the Big East.

My Forecast- I think South Florida and Cincinnati are pretty equal in terms of how good they are. However, I think the Bearcats are more dynamic offensively and ultimately more consistent. Grothe keeps the Bulls rolling up until they face Louisville. I think the Louisville game will be a fight with the Bulls ultimately coming out on top. Their reward will be a game 5 days later against a Cincinnati Bearcat team coming off a bye week, at Nippert on national television. I think the Bulls lose that game, beat Rutgers and then lose one more to either Uconn or WVU to finish the season 10-2 (5-2 in the Big East).

  1. Louisville

Best Case Scenario- The Cardinals really have turned the corner since that debacle against Kentucky. Hunter Cantwell shows the promise everyone saw in him when he stepped in for an injured Brian Brohm, while victor Anderson becomes the talk of the Big East as running back. The defense, which seems much improved, continues to play well and limits some really good offenses. Louisville takes advantage of a great schedule which brings Uconn, South Florida, Cincinnati and West Virginia to Papa Johns to go 5-2 in the Big East and tie for a conference championship.

Worst Case Scenario- Kansas State was not very good and the Kentucky game was a better gauge for this Louisville team. The Cardinals revert to their awful play of last season and get swept at home in Big East play. Louisville fans call for Kragthrope’s head and start wishing for the days of Bobby Petrino. After a last place finish in the SEC west at Arkansas Petrino tells everyone that he is not interested in taking the Louisville job, but quietly begins talking to boosters. The boosters convince Jurich to take the Big East commissioner job then hire a new AD who gives Petrino his second chance in Louisville for a ton of money.

My Forecast- Louisville does begin to turn the corner, but still remains a relatively inconsistent team. They beat Uconn in a tough game Friday night to keep the momentum going. They are competitive in all their games, but ultimately lose 3 in the conference to finish 4-3.

4. Connecticut

Best Case Scenario- The Huskies continue to win close game after close game and show that last year’s co-championship was not a fluke. Big East fans on every message board are forced to eat crow. The Huskies take care of business in their next three including wins @ Louisville and @ North Carolina. They lose a tough game at South Florida and one home game to either Cincinnati, Pitt or West Virginia to finish 10-2 and 5-2 in the conference for another share of the conference title. They end up sharing the conference title with one of the teams they beat and represent the Big East in a BCS Bowl.

Worst Case Scenario- The breaks just do not go their way this season. Louisville goes out and wins by two scores starting a streak where the Huskies lose 4 of their next 5 games and 6 of their last 8 to finish 6-6. Uconn does not get invited to a bowl game…every message board non-husky fan is vindicated.

My forecast- Behind good coaching and a strong defense Uconn continues to be a solid big east team. They do, however, come back to earth. I think the Huskies lose 4 the rest of the way, one of those could be to North Carolina. I think they finish 8-4 and either 4-3 or 3-4 in the Big East.

5. Pittsburgh

Best Case Scenario- Pittsburgh’s boring style of play works. Their running game is incredibly successful and helps the Panthers dominate the clock in Big East play. Pitt sweeps their home slate and loses two on the road (and also beats Notre Dame) to finish 9-3 and 5-2 in the Big East. Panther fans still think that Pitt underachieved as Pitt finishes behind Cincinnati or South Florida and does get to play in a BCS game. Dave Wannstedt gets another year and the stupid preseason polls pick Pitt to finish in the top 5.

Worst Case Scenario- Pitt is still a reflection of the 5-7 team from a season ago. They get swept in their conference road games, lose at Notre Dame and lose one to Rutgers or Syracuse. At 6-6 the Panthers once again do not get invited to a bowl game. The 7 football fans in Pittsburgh who do not just care about the Steelers make 7000 different fire Wannstedt websites and spend the next 20 days posting messages on them from different people every ten minutes. It is still 50/50 on whether Wannstedt keeps his job, but either way ESPN picks them to win the Big East the following season.

My Forecast- Pitt is better this year, but still not good enough to compete for a Big East title. They go 4-3 or 3-4 in the league, they beat Notre Dame and they get to go bowling for the first time in the Wannstedt era.

6. West Virginia

Best Case Scenario- The Mountaineers have been merely adjusting to a different style of play and it has taken some time for them to get it together. As Big East play starts all of a sudden it clicks…they get it. West Virginia’s offense becomes the unstoppable force they have been in the past. They run through the Big East taking advantage of a great schedule, go unbeaten, and inflict another beating on a BCS conference champion in a BCS Bowl (this time from the Big Ten or Pac 10).

Worst Case Scenario- West Virginia decides they should not have hired Bill Stewart. The offense continues to struggle and the defense, well, other than last year they were never that good. West Virginia has their first losing season in Big East play. Fans have a large impromptu carwash to buyout Bill Stewart’s contract. They do not raise nearly enough money.

My Forecast- I do not have the slightest idea. West Virginia is the biggest wildcard in the conference. You would think they have far too much talent to just fade into oblivion, but they certainly have not given us any reason to have any confidence in them this year. This is the team that scares me the most as a Bearcat fan… but really my fears could be foolish. I guess we will find out.

7. Rutgers

Best Case Scenario- Mike Teel is benched for someone, anyone. That someone actually puts the ball in the end-zone instead of wasting their talented receivers. Rutgers wins a few games, goes 3-4 in the conference, misses out on a bowl but shows some talent for next year.

Worst Case Scenario- November 9 becomes the official battle for last place in the Big East conference. Syracuse comes into Piscataway and intercepts Mike Teel 5 times. The Orangemen get out of town with a win avoiding another last place season. Greg Schiano’s name does not come up in the off-season for any new head coaching jobs.

My Forecast- Rutgers beats Syracuse and one other team to get two Big East wins.

8. Syracuse

Best Case Scenario- Syracuse beats Rutgers to get to one win in the conference.

Worst Case Scenario- Syracuse goes winless in the Big East.

My Forecast- Syracuse goes winless in the Big East…someone else is coaching the Orange next season.

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