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.