Tuesday, August 31, 2010

2010 Bearcat Football Preview

How do you top back to back outright Big East Championships? How do you top a 12-0 regular season and a top ten finish? How do you replace a coach who went 34-7 in his three seasons and 4 Bowl games at the University of Cincinnati? These are the questions Bearcat fans and Butch Jones are going to be thinking about heading into 2010.

This has been an incredible run for University of Cincinnati football. On November 28, 2006 the University of Cincinnati Bearcats took the field vs. the #6 Rutgers Scarlet Knights. The Bearcats were sitting at 5-5 on the season. To that point they had been 9-12 over the past two seasons and 28-31 over their past five seasons. The Bearcats went on to beat the #6 Rutgers Scarlet Knights and since they took the field that day are 36-7. Since that day they have been to 4 bowl games, 2 BCS games, had 3 top 20 finishes, won back to back outright Big East Championships, had an undefeated regular season and a top ten finish. This is a run that would have been hard for the most ardent Bearcat fans to see coming and it is a level of success fans now not only want to see continue but are starting to expect.

These are the stakes for the 2010 edition of the University of Cincinnati football team. Anything short of another Big East title will be a disappointment to them and to many fans. None of the past two Bearcat teams have been perfect but they have achieved their success by constantly making plays when the stakes were high late in games. They have achieved their success by finding ways to win games. Make no mistake there is talent across the board, but there are clear holes too and it has been an ability to pick each other up despite their flaws that has been the true brilliance of the Bearcat's run of success.

On Defense:

Last season the Bearcats had to replace ten starters from an experienced defense that had carried the Bearcats at times the prior three seasons. At times they performed very well, particularly early in the seasons. They slowed down Rutgers, they held what turned out to be a very good Oregon State offense to 18 points, they frustrated South Florida in the second half and made life tough for West Virginia for much of that game. The defense was clearly not the strength of the team, but for much of the year they were not a huge liability either. Still there were times, particularly late in the year when the Bearcat defense looked downright dreadful. A defense that was designed not to give up big plays gave up a ton of big plays against both UCONN and Florida. And for much of the first half against Pittsburgh the defense was nonexistent.

The hope from Bearcat fans is that many of the problems the Bearcats had were not just personnel related but also scheme related. The Bearcat defense was a 3-4 and much of the talent probably was not suited for the 3-4. The 3-4 defense also left their smaller linebackers more vulnerable to being blocked by big offensive lineman. So there hopefully is some truth in that, but ultimately the Bearcats issue this year is going to be inexperience and depth.

This year's defense at least in terms of senior leadership is less experienced than last year's. Gone are key senior leaders like Aaron Webster, Andre Revels, Alex Daniels and Curtis Young. The Bearcat 2 deep this year features only 2 seniors and that includes no seniors among the projected starters. On the plus side the Bearcats do returns 6 starters from last season (or at least players who started a significant amount of games last season). Derek Wolfe begins his third season (second as a full time starter) and should be poised for a huge year. Wolfe was forced to be the lone defensive tackle last year in the 3-4 defense and still managed strong numbers with 41 tackles, 5 sacks and 8 tackles for loss. The switch back to the 4-3 should free up Wolfe to make more of an impact in the backfield. The Bearcat defensive line as a hole lacks ideal size (outside of Wolfe and Hughes), but have some explosive players who do get into the backfield. I think the defensive line will continue to be very good about getting after the quarterback (something Bearcats teams have done going back to the Minter era), but the major question for the group will be do they hold up against the big, strong offensive lines from teams like Oklahoma, UCONN, Pitt and to a lesser extent Fresno State?

I am hoping that though Walter Stewart is listed as a starting linebacker that Bearcat fans will get to see him line up at end on some passing downs as he is great when attacking the quarterback. To me Walter Stewart is the Bearcat whose progress I am most excited to see this year. I was incredibly impressed with what Stewart was able to do last year filling in for Curtis Young. All indications are that Stewart has had a great off-season. Like much of the defense he will be shifting his role some, specifically for him to an outside linebacker in the 4-3 where his ability to cover and support in run defense will be a factor. I think Walter is a talented guy and should excel, so I am anxious for play to start. The Bearcat linebackers are a bit small as a group particularly on the weak side with Maalik Bomar getting the nod. Still I think this can be a position of strength for the Bearcats as Stewart is incredibly gifted and JK Schaffer has shown very good instincts in his two years as a linebacker for UC. Plus I think moving back the the 4-3 you can get away with having smaller faster linebackers as long as the defensive lineman are disruptive.

The Bearcats are replacing two starters in their secondary, the biggest loss being Aaron Webster who had a great senior season. With two starters returning this is seemingly a reasonably experienced group and yet the 2 deep features 5 sophomores, 2 juniors and a freshman. Drew Frey though is not your ordinary Sophomore. By the time he leaves he will seemingly have been a Bearcat for a decade. Frey and Battle are two relative knowns for the Bearcat defense, so the key to the secondary will be how young players like Reubon Johnson, Camerron Cheatham, Adrian Witty and Chris Williams fair. Getting good play from Wesley Richardson in his first year starting at free safety will be key as well. Overall I think there is some good talent back there and am anxious to see how they perform.

The area of concern that everyone who follows the program closely seems to harp back on when they talk about the 2010 Bearcat defense is finding quality depth. As noted earlier much of the two deep is very young and though the Bearcat defense in general is somewhat undersized the backups are considerably undersized at certain areas. If somehow the Bearcats can get really solid years from the likes of Jordan Stepp, Rob Trigg, Colin Lozier, Obadiah Cheatham and Robby Armstrong than maybe the defense can hold up better throughout the season this year. The thought is that the Bearcats may once again have to win some shootouts this year, if this defense can take a big step forward this season and become not necessarily a strength but at least a positive this could be yet another banner year for Bearcat football.

On Offense:

On the first drive of the season against Rutgers last year the Bearcat offense set the tone for what they would be. The Bearcats went 81 yards in 9 plays taking just over 2 minutes to score. It was play after play for positive yards, in quick succession and they were in the end zone. For much of the year the Bearcats were unstoppable on offense, playing at a breakneck pace with ruthless efficiency. They seemingly scored every time they wanted to and they had weapons all across the field When Tony Pike went down with a broken arm, the offense made some subtle adjustments to their style and Zach Collaros continued the trend of ruthless efficiency.

The 2010 Bearcat offense has the potential to be every bit as good as the 2009 offense, though at times slightly different in their style. The Bearcats will still primary be a shotgun spread offense. They will still come at you with multiple receivers, tight ends and running backs. This season though there seems to be a more a focus on running the football. In fact when I look at what Bearcat offense I expect to see, the West Virginia game sticks out in my mind from last season.

Zach Collaros will begin his first full season running the show. Zach was absolutely brilliant in his 4.5 games last year. He completed 75 percent of his passed throwing for 1434 yards and 10 touchdowns. He also ran for 334 yards and 4 touchdowns giving Butch Jones a duel threat quarterback much like he had at Central Michigan. I know the general consensus has been that it seems unreasonable to expect Zach to be as brilliant as he was in those 4.5 games...but why not? Indeed what is there to make us think he cannot be even better?

Last offseason Zach was splitting the second string reps with two other backup quarterbacks while Tony Pike was being prepared to start. This offseason Zach has been getting the first string reps, he knows he is the quarterback and he is getting to work more and more extensively with the rest of the first team. I have to believe that counts for a whole lot.

Last season the offensive line was a big strength for the Bearcats. Pike and Collaros both had time to throw and when UC ran the ball they almost always ran it effectively. The line also gave up very few sacks despite passing a high percentage of the time. The Bearcats return three starters on the offensive line in Griffin, Kelce, and Hoffman. If the offensive line can continue to be a strong as it was last season this offense should once again have a chance to put up huge numbers. Griffen slides over to Left Tackle to take over for Linkenbach. While Kelce slides back to center to take over for Jurek. Alex Hoffman and Evan Davis will be the guards while CJ Cobb plays right tackle. All these guys were key parts of the offensive line productivity last season. It will be very important to get good production from guys like Hoeey, Martinez and Cuerton. If the offensive line can open holes and protect Collaros that will open up opportunities for the abundance of talent and athleticism the Bearcats have at their skill positions.

With the stated focus on running the ball we can expect Isaiah Pead to have a very big season. Pead averaged a stellar 6.7 yards per carry last season though he only carried the ball 121 times. With the increased workload it may be unrealistic to expect that type of yards per carry (as teams will be more aware of run), but because of all the Bearcats weapons teams really will never have the chance to simply key on Pead. As long as Pead stays healthy I think we can expect to see a 1200-1400 yard season. A couple reasons I don't think Pead will go much over that are that I think we'll see Zach getting some runs on the read option and I expect to see the other running backs get in on the action as well.

Most importantly, though the Bearcats will be more committed to the run this year, I still think they will throw more than they run. In the end this team is at its best when they are putting pressure on teams by getting the ball in the hands of their playmaking wide receivers. That will be just as much the case this season as last season. Despite the loss of Mardy Gilyard the Bearcats may be as good as any team in the country at the skill positions. The Bearcats will look to Vidal Hazelton to take over for Gilyard as the explosive playmaker and will once again be strengthened by Armon Binns (a premier down field threat) and DJ Woods another big time receiver with explosive playmaking ability. Ben Guidugli is back for his senior year after a very good junior campaign and anything the Bearcats get from talented guys like Marcus Barnett and Adrien Robinson is gravy.

It will be very, very difficult for opposing defenses to match up with the depth of talent UC can run at them if Collaros has time to throw the football. If I had to guess I would still bet on UC throwing the ball close to 60 percent of the time when the game is in doubt (now in blowouts we may run more and kill clock) simply because I firmly believe that is where this team has its biggest strength (this is obviously with know inside knowledge, I'm sure those closer to the program may know better). My hope is that this offense can control the ball a bit more, keep the defense fresh and be just as ruthlessly efficient as last years squad.

Special Teams (and intangibles):

And here is where the question of how do you replace Mardy Gilyard comes full circle? How do you replace the three absolutely enormous returns Mardy had to set up touchdowns against Pittsburgh (most notably the one down 21 at the end of the half, but lets not forget the field position he gave them on the game winning drive)? How do you replace a guy who continually did it on the biggest of stages? I have to admit I have never enjoyed watching anyone on any team more than I enjoyed watching Mardy the past couple of years and it all came down to just his unreal ability to do it when it mattered most.

The Bearcats might be better this year at wide receiver, but will they have that hidden something Mardy gave them. In general I am pretty confident in the return game. I think there are a number of guys the Bearcats could put on special teams who would consistently give them great field position and pose a threat to opposing teams. It sounds like that duty is going to fall in the hands of Vidal Hazelton and DJ Woods. Woods we have seen do it in the past, Hazelton is the guy all Bearcat fans are aching to see. I think once again we will see the return game be a huge plus for the Bearcats, but it is hard to imagine it being better without Mardy.

I also expect big things from Jake Rogers who has just gotten better every year for the Bearcats. Jake's powerful leg gives the Bearcats a huge advantage in kickoff coverage and it was an advantage we saw time and time again last season. To me Jake was very impressive last year in that he was asked to punt (all be it not that often) and asked to kick field goals. I have grown in confidence when Jake kicks every year and though I hope he does not have to kick too many field goals I think we will have one of the better kickers in the nation when he does,

Punter to me is an unknown commodity. What I have heard of O'Donnell is he has a huge leg and just has to get his consistency in order (reminds me of Adam Wulfeck in that he could boom a seventy yarder and a 25 yarder on back to back punts). UC has really been good in their punt games the past few seasons first with Huber and then to a lesser extent with Rogers last year.

I think special teams has been one of those things that has really put UC over the top and allowed them to win some of those tossup games that got them to a conference title the past couple of years. Can that continue to be a huge strength? That will go a long way to determining if UC can win a third straight Big East title.

Season Projections:

Saturday, September 4 @ Fresno State- This is a game that really worries me. Fresno State returns their entire offensive line, an offensive line that could potentially give the Bearcats smallish defensive line trouble. I think the shift back to the 4-3 will help the Bearcats deal with them better this year. Fresno State, however, is more than the smash mouth run team we saw last year. They have an experienced, capable quarterback and talent at wide receiver. They will probably score some, but I think the defense holds and their defense has a hard time stopping us. WIN

Saturday, September 11, Indiana State- Nothing to say here... UC will dominate a wretched team. WIN

Thursday, September 16 @ NC State- The good thing about playing Indiana State is that UC can probably start looking at NC State a little early for the short week. NC State will be a big test for UC's secondary. Russell Wilson is one heck of a quarterback and he will put pressure on UC with his feet and his arm. Ultimately I think UC will be able to put enough pressure and score enough to win, but this is another scary game. WIN (But Worries Me)

Saturday, September 25, Oklahoma- A day many of us Bearcat fans have really looked forward to as the Sooners make the return trip to Cincinnati (I know we are planning an all out tailgate and will flag down all OU fans to join us because of the hospitality they showed a couple years ago). Oklahoma has the type of offensive line that could give this defense trouble. Still there is a reason Oklahoma struggled at times last year and I do not know if they are as dominate as they were two seasons ago in Norman. UC will be really up, it will be in Cincinnati... who knows... That said. LEANING TOWARDS LOSS

Saturday, October 9, Miami (OH)- The Bell Stays in Cincinnati... now and forever. WIN

Friday, October 15 @ Louisville- I think this will be a tougher game than last year. It's never easy to go down there and win especially in a rivalry game. That said UC is just a much better team. WIN

Friday, October 22, South Florida- We had their number when Grothe was in charge and frankly I just do not think they are good enough to come up here this year and win. They are going to be vulnerable on defense and not consistent enough on offense. WIN

Saturday, October 30, Syracuse- Our first three games in conference come against what I think will be the bottom three teams in the Big East this season. The schedule makers certainly are giving the Bearcats plenty of time to get their game in order this year, but they are setting up one hell of a difficult finish. WIN

Saturday, November 13 @ West Virginia- The last bye week comes before the start of the four game stretch that will decide the conference. Two years ago Cincinnati went into West Virginia and got the big win they needed to win the conference. This year we get an extra week to prepare and that will be huge (of course WVU gets the extra week as well). WVU returns more starters than any team in the conference and they will be hungry after the last two seasons. I think UC matches up better against the WVU running attack than they do the Pitt/UCONN running attacks. If it was at UC I would favor the Bearcats, but it is on the road... what the hell I still favor the Bearcats. LEANING TOWARDS WIN (barely)

Saturday, November 20, Rutgers- The other team the Bearcats have seemingly owned the past few seasons. I think by this time Rutgers will really be playing good football. Savage will have been the quarterback for nearly two seasons and the defense will be clicking. That said...it is at Nippert and I just do not think Rutgers is coming here and winning (night game please). WIN

Saturday, November 27 @ UCONN- Finally the Bearcats get the chance to avenge their last loss in the Big East and what a game this could end up being. UCONN has the advantage of playing WVU/PITT/UC all at home and will already have played WVU/PITT at this point. We will know then if UCONN has lived up to their hype coming into the season. I think the balance of UCONN's power blocking offensive line and their late found passing game could give UC trouble again this year. Still it is hard to shake the big lead UC had last year. UC will be coming off back to back very tough games. I keep playing this game in my head and have a harder time figuring out the result every time. TOSSUP

Saturday, December 4, Pittsburgh- Could the Big East title come down to a game with Pittsburgh for the third straight season? I would say the odds are are fairly decent of that happening. Pittsburgh could give UC trouble in many of the same ways they gave UC trouble last year, but this year I do not know that Pittsburgh's offensive line will be as good and I my hope is UC will have developed enough depth that their defense will be playing much better by this game. In the end playing at Nippert Stadium at the end of the year, in what I hope will be another prime time Big East game... I have to take the Bearcats. LEANING TOWARDS WIN

Looking back at my projections I have 7 solid wins. I have the NC State game as a win, but it does worry me a bit. I have two games (WVU and Pitt) where I am leaning towards a Bearcat win, one true tossup game against UCONN, and the Oklahoma game where I am leaning towards loss. That puts my range of record anywhere from 7-5 to 12-0 (yeah, unlike last year when I idiotically made 11-1 my best case scenario...never doing that again). In all honesty I have this team losing 2 of those 5 games to finish 10-2... and I have them as the team with the Best chance to win the Big East title. The last three years I have had the Bearcats predicted for 9-3 (2007, dead on), 11-2 (2008, dead on) and 10-2 (2009, two games below actual). Lets hope the trend of me being right or undervaluing the Bearcats continues...because I still want to dream National Championship. All in all very excited for football to begin.


Go Bearcats!

Monday, August 30, 2010

2010 Big East Preview

2009 was supposed to be about rebuilding in the Big East, but we really did get to see some teams turn in great season (particular Cincinnati). The top 6 teams turned in very good years and though it was not great year for the conference as a whole 2010 seems like it could be a year that really capitalizes on the building momentum for the conference. Nearly all of the teams at the top of the Big East return key experience on both sides of the football. If there ever was a year for the Big East to showcase its talent this could be it.

In the Big East the perception from the outside (that it is a lesser conference among the BCS conferences) has continued to not be matched by objective reality. In 2009, despite it being a year of relative inexperience for the league, the Big East finished the season second to only the SEC in the Sagarin's. In fact since 2006 when the Big East was first unveiled as it is today the conference has finished 2nd twice in the Sagarin's (2006 and 2009) and finished 4th in 2007 and 5th in 2008. The reality is the Big East continues to not only show it's legitimacy as a BCS conference, but it continues to show it is a serious player on the national stage.

The Big East will get plenty of chances to build on their success against other BCS conferences and in the rankings with several big out of conference games:

Pittsburgh at Utah (Thursday, September 2) – Soon to be Pac Ten member Utah gets to host last years second place Pitt Panthers. Not an easy task for Pittsburgh who will be breaking in a new quarterback, but a game they should be able to win.

Kentucky @ Louisville (Saturday, September 4)- Louisville is still likely at least a year away from breaking out of the bottom of the Big East, but it would be a nice win for the conference if they can take down their rivals from the SEC.

Syracuse @ Washington (Saturday, September 11)- Another Big East team traveling across the country for a game against a solid opponent. Though their record did not reflect it that well the Orangemen were significantly more competitive last season.

South Florida @ Florida (Saturday, September 11)- Cannot see South Florida stealing one in the swamp, but it would be nice.

Cincinnati @ NC State (Thursday, September 16)- Another Big East team hitting the road against BCS competition (take notes Big 10 and SEC). This is a game the two time defending champions from the Big East really should win.

Louisville @ Oregon State (Saturday, September 18)- Probably unlikely but this would be a huge win for the conference.

Miami (Fl) @ Pittsburgh (Thursday, September 23)
- The first of the really marque match-ups for the Big East. These ACC/Big East showdowns are always interesting and it is always nice when the Big East comes out on top.

Oklahoma @ Cincinnati (Saturday, September 25)- Been waiting for this game for two years. This is an enormous chance for the Big East against a team picked by many to compete for a national title.

WVU @ LSU (Saturday, September 25)- Really a huge week for the conference as it's top three programs over the last few years play top programs from the Big 12, SEC and ACC.

Pittsburgh @ Notre Dame (Saturday, October 9)- Any game against ND is going to get people's attention regardless of how good they are and I cannot help but believe Brian Kelly will have them playing good football by this point.

South Florida @ Miami FL (Saturday, November 27)- Another big interstate matchup for South Florida against one of the favorites in the ACC.

With the experience returning in the Big East the league has the opportunity to get a bunch of really strong out of conference wins and once again show they are a strong BCS conference. I really believe this could be a banner year for the conference.

Projected Order of Finish-

1. Cincinnati Bearcats- The champs stay the champs until they are no longer the champs, to me this pick is really that simple. I know Pittsburgh is the fashionable pick and West Virginia returns the most starters, but the Bearcats are the two time defending champions in the conference and they have beaten both the Panthers and Mountaineers each of the past two seasons. The Bearcats bring to the table perhaps the best wide receiving group in the country. They have experience on the offensive line and have experience and depth at running back. In fact it is the Bearcat running game where I expect to see the biggest improvement this year as Pead starts getting more touches (he was great when he was given the ball last year) and Zach Collaros adds to the running threat as the starting QB. This was shaping up to be a year where Cincinnati would have to break in a new quarterback, but with the emergence of Zach Collaros last season while Tony Pike was injured I think those concerns have been largely silenced. In 4.5 Big East games Zach threw for 1434 yards, completing 75 percent of his passes with ten touchdowns for a spectacular quarterback rating of 195. He also ran for 334 yards and 4 touchdowns. Bearcat fans are rightfully excited about what he can bring to the offense.

One concern for the Bearcats is a defense which was lit up pretty well late in the season. Most close to the program have pretty good confidence in the starters who have experience and played fairly well last season for most the year. The big concern for the Bearcat defense is do they have the depth to be strong through injuries and not fatigue at the end of the season.

There are two other major concerns for this Bearcat team. 1. Can they replace the greatness that was Mardy Gilyard? And 2. Can Butch Jones get the Bearcat talent to perform at the level Brian Kelly consistently achieved. I already mentioned that the Bearcat's biggest strength will be at the wide receiver position and I very much believe that, but Mardy Gilyard was far more than a wide receiver. His ability to make huge plays both on offense and in the return game was absolutely critical to the Bearcat's success over the last two seasons. They do not necessarily need someone to duplicate everything Mardy did, but there is no doubt that his production on the biggest of stages was an enormous part of pulling out some tight games. The second major question can only be answered with time. Brian Kelly's offense was almost unfathomably efficient throughout most of last season. This season the Bearcat offense has enough talent to be even better, but how much will the loss of Brian Kelly effect that. The hope from most Bearcat fans is that the offense will not miss a beat, and Butch Jones has certainly shown impressive offensive credentials in his own right, but you never know. The other hope is that Butch Jones and company can make the defense tough in ways that seemed lacking last year under Brian Kelly. Any improvements on defense will be an enormous step forward in the Bearcat's hopes of winning another Big East title.

There are certainly more questions this year, but the potential is there for the Bearcats to be even better this season. In the end I cannot pick against the two time defending Big East Champions. There is a reason they have won 18 straight regular season games and that reason will come front and center once again.

2. Pittsburgh Panthers- The Pitt vs. Cincinnati defacto Big East championship game worked out so well last year that it looks like the Big East conference wants to try their luck again. The Panthers bring back key talent on both sides of the ball. They have tall athletic receivers including the all-Big East Jonathan Baldwin. Most importantly on offense all everything Dion Lewis starts his second year. Lewis was absolutely sensational as a freshman. With Lewis and a strong offensive line (particularly on the edges) the Panthers should be in good shape running the football. Pitt's biggest concern on offense will be replacing Stull at quarterback. In steps Tino Sunseri who only threw 17 passes all last season. The good news for Tino is there will be plenty of weapons in his offense. Still Pittsburgh's difficult non-conference schedule will mean Tino gets thrown into the fire very early.

Pittsburgh's defense should also be among the best in the conference. Pittsburgh was very solid against the run last season, but struggled at times against strong passing attacks. The two dreadful second halves against Cincinnati and North Carolina State were the most glaring examples of this. Pitt probably will not face any teams with quite as dominate a passing game as Cincinnati and NC State had last year (though Cincinnati's passing game should be very good again), which will be to their benefit, but a huge key to them breaking through will be getting more consistent in pass defense.

T-3. West Virginia- West Virginia and UCONN are probably the two most experienced teams going into the 2010 Big East season. The Mountaineers return 18 starters from a team that finished tied for second in the conference. They get the defending champion Cincinnati Bearcats in Morgantown, however they have to travel to both Pitt and UCONN. Like Pittsburgh, WVU will be breaking in a new quarterback in 2010. Geno Smith seems to have the talent to get this Mountaineer team to compete for a Big East title and this could be the best WVU defense of the past five seasons.

Ultimately the success of the Mountaineers will come down to their running game. Noel Devine has consistently been one of the best backs in the Big East and one of the more explosive backs in the country. WVU always seems to have one of the nations best rushing attacks. Despite that West Virginia has had some trouble converting third downs the past couple of years and those troubles have no doubt cost them some chances at winning a Big East title.

T-3. Connecticut- The UCONN Huskies have seemingly become the trendy pick in the Big East conference this year. Much of it comes down to the fact that the Huskies finished the season winning their last 4 games, including a bowl game against South Carolina (from the vaunted SEC). I still do not think we can look past the fact that those 4 wins were against teams that finished a combined 25-25. UCONN's five losses were all close, but they were also all to the best five teams on their schedule. I think sometimes we get too caught up on the finish without looking at it in context.

That said this Husky team dealt with a bunch of issues last year and were playing their best ball down the stretch (particularly on offense). They return 16 starters who were in every game last year. UCONN also gets their three chief rivals for the conference title (Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and West Virginia) at home in 2010. The Huskies actually finished as one of the better offensive teams in the conference last season and there is no reason not to expect the offense to be very good again this year. The offensive line is big and strong and their running backs (Particularly Jordan Todman) are explosive. Their passing game seemed to get its act together late last season, if Zach Frasier and company can maintain that success UCONN will be dangerous.

To me the biggest concern for the Huskies is going to be their defense (which seems strange for a Randy Edsall coached team). The Huskies will not win the conference without significant improvement on that side of the ball, particularly in pass coverage. If UCONN can get their pass defense together and can continue to be balanced offensively they will have a chance to win the Big East and earn their first BCS bid.

5. Rutgers- I believe any of the top 4 teams have the chance to win the Big East this season... Rutgers is the first of 2 teams I do not think are quite good enough to win the league, but could easily finish above a couple of the teams projected ahead of them. Since the Scarlet Knight's real breakout year in 2006 Rutgers has strung together 3 good, but not great seasons. Indeed from where they were in 2006 they have been a bit of a disappointment. I think much of that comes down to the fact that the Big East has gotten much deeper since that year. Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and South Florida are much more established and playing at a much higher level than they were in 2006. It is far more of a grind to get through the Big East now than it was then.

This season Rutgers brings back sophomore quarterback Tom Savage, who essentially was the starter all season for the Scarlet Knights as a freshman. Savage showed a ton of potential in what could be a great four years for him at Rutgers. Savage also gets back Mohamed Sanu one of his favorite targets, and the man who will likely be the go to receiver this season. Rutgers has some questions on the offensive line; they also have a fairly difficult conference schedule having to travel to Cincinnati, to Pittsburgh and to West Virginia. If the offensive line can protect Savage and open wholes for Joe Martinek than the Scarlet Knights could be right in the thick of the conference race (though ultimately I do not think they are quite ready to win it).

6. South Florida- The Bulls have been a team that represents the Big East very well out of conference, but never quite seems to get everything together in the conference. Last years injury to Matt Grothe probably set them back a little, but it also offered a chance for B.J. Daniels to show what could be on the horizon. Like the Bearcats and the Cardinals, South Florida is going through a coaching transition having parted ways with Jim Leavitt. Skip Holtz comes in as the second coach in South Florida history. He had a nice track record at ECU and should be able to build on the success South Florida has already had in their short history.

The South Florida offense should be dangerous at times, with Daniels explosiveness and some skilled players in the running game, but I am not sure they will have the consistency of the five teams I have above them. The defense, which has always seemed to have playmakers, only returns four starters from last season. Most notably it will be incredibly difficult to replace the production of defensive ends George Selvie and Jason Pierre-Paul. South Florida also lost their two best players in the secondary in safety Nate Allen and cornerback Jerome Murphy. The losses on defense, the young quarterback and the coaching change make this sort of a transition year for South Florida. In the end I think they will certainly be a good team, but they may be a few steps behind the top of the league.

7. Syracuse- Syracuse was noticeably more competitive in their first year under Doug Marrone but they were still a good ways behind much of the rest of the league. They return ten starters on defense so they have that going for them. They must replace noted Duke flopping point guard Greg Paulus after his one year as the starting quarterback. To that end they will turn to Ryan Nassib. Look for Syracuse to be a very run focused offense this year. I still believe Syracuse and Louisville will be fighting for that last place spot once again in 2010.

8. Louisville- It is kind of nice to pick Louisville for another last place finish in the Big East. Really the best hope for the Cardinals is that every team they play at home comes and tries to stand on their logo before the game, because this team is still likely a year or two away from getting away from the bottom of the Big East. Charlie Strong has certainly brought some needed optimism to a program that severely lacked it throughout the Kragthorpe era. Strong has a very good recruiting class and seems to be moving Louisville in the right direction, but ultimately Louisville just does not have enough this season to escape the bottom of the conference. I look for Louisville to be much like Syracuse last season. They will be more competitive throughout Conference play and at the end of the year everyone will agree they are moving in the right direction, but ultimately it will be another tough season. I am picking Syracuse above Louisville only because they are a year ahead in the rebuilding process.