1.) WEST VIRGINIA (11-0, 6-0 in conference) - In the last two seasons, the Mountaineers are 12-2 in Big East play and 12-0 against any team that doesn't happen to be Miami. Coming off of a shared Big East Championship in 2003 and returning all of the offensive firepower that Rich Rodriguez could ask for, expectations are high in Morgantown. Despite losing Quincy Wilson to graduation, the WVU running attack shouldn't lose any steam with senior quarterback Rasheed Marshall returning for his third season as starter, along with RB Kay-Jay Harris and Jason Colson running behind a veteran offensive line that is ranked among the best in the country. While the defense loses All-America LB Grant Wiley, the 3-3 Stack defense is poised for a dominant season led by a talented defensive line blazing speed across the board. With the most key games coming out of conference, hosting Maryland on September 18 and traveling to Virginia Tech on October 2nd, WVU has put itself in prime position for a BCS bid and the first unbeaten season since 1993. Look out college football, this could be the best West Virginia team since the days of Major Harris.
KEY GAME: Maryland at West Virginia (September 18th)
POTENTIAL TRIP-UP GAME: West Virginia at Rutgers (October 30th)
T2.) BOSTON COLLEGE (8-3, 4-2 in conference) - For many years, the Boston College Eagles have had an offense based on a big offensive line and running the football between the tackles. With the graduation of Derrick Knight, who left BC as their all-time leading rusher, the running game becomes somewhat of a question mark as the backfield duties are left to a trio of relatively inexperienced backs, Andre Callender, LV Whitworth, and Jeff Ross, none of whom were among the top 4 rushers for BC last season. BC returns two of five starters on the offensive line from last season. Defensively, the BC pass rush should be strong with one of the best defensive ends in the country in Mathias Kiwanuka. Last year, Kiwanuka led the Big East with 13 sacks and also registered 83 tackles. Star recruit LB Brian Toal could push for a starting role as a true freshman, as only 1 of 3 starting linebackers return from 2003. Mike Fassel, son of former Giants coach and current Ravens consultant Jim Fassel, will handle the kicking duties while true freshman Johnny Ayers is expected to be the new BC punter.
KEY GAME: Penn State at Boston College (September 11th)
POTENTIAL TRIP-UP GAME: Boston College at Wake Forest (September 25th)
T2.) SYRACUSE (7-4, 4-2 in conference) - Syracuse head coach Paul Pasqualoni has been on the hot seat for a couple of seasons now, but the 2004 season provides him and the Syracuse program with its best chance of turning things back in the right direction that has come along in several years. The starting quarterback job is far from stable, as Perry Patterson, Xzavier Gaines, and true freshman Joe Fields have all shown signs of promise. Donovan McNabb started as a freshman, so don't count any of them out. Star running back Walter Reyes is back for his senior season and will clearly be the go-to guy offensively, especially in the early games of the season, which shows games at Purdue and at Virginia in the four weeks! Defensively, a veteran secondary will be the strength of the defense, led by senior strong safety Diamond Ferri. The most surprising offseason moves at Syracuse came without any involvement of the players. Head coach Paul Pasqualoni will handle offensive coordinator duties this season after demoting long time OC George DeLeone. Last year's defensive coordinator Chris Rippon is now head of the special teams, and DC duties fall to Steve Dunlap, who was the DC at West Virginia for ten seasons before coming to Syracuse for the 2001 season. As for the other change, how tough will it be to call 'Cuse the "Orange" instead of the "Orangeme?". Oh the beauty of political correctness!
KEY GAME: Syracuse at Virginia (September 25th)
POTENTIAL TRIP-UP GAME: Connecticut at Syracuse (October 30th)
4.) RUTGERS (8-3, 3-3 in conference) - Since the arrival of Greg Schiano in 2001, the talk surrounding the Scarlet Knights has always been about Rutgers being the team to watch. This year, it could finally be true. I know what you're thinking. Brad, are you saying that RUTGERS could be bowl bound? Yes, that's exactly what I'm saying. Schiano, a former assistant coach at Miami, has finally brought all the pieces together for what could add up to the first Rutgers bowl bid since 1978 (a 34-18 loss to Arizona State). The key player on offense is one of the best yet most unheralded players in the Big East, RB Brian Leonard. Built like a fullback with the speed of a tailback, Leonard gave opposing defenses problems all season long. Ryan Hart returns for another season behind center and has done well at times managing a Rutgers offense that averaged nearly 28 points per game last season. With 9 starters returning on offense, this could be a very good Rutgers unit. Defensively, 7 starters are back from a defense that, while not overpowering, became a rather reliable unit late last season. With a great season opener at home against Michigan State, we should get a good idea of what Rutgers will be bringing to the table for 2004.
KEY GAME: Michigan State at Rutgers (September 4th)
POTENTIAL TRIP-UP GAME: Rutgers at Vanderbilt (October 9th)
5.) CONNECTICUT (6-5, 2-4 in conference) - For years, Connecticut has been one of the front runners in the Big East Conference...in basketball. After much anticipation and a successful 2003 campaign as an independant, the Huskies enter the 2004 season as a newcomer to the retooled Big East. The leader of the UConn offense is quarterback Dan Orlovsky, who could be the top QB in the conference. The Huskies expected the return of last year's starting running back Terry Caulley (who was injured in last year's loss at Virginia Tech) but were disappointed to learn just recently that Caulley would be out for the season due to another surgery to repair his injured knee. In his place again this season will be Cornell Brockington and Chris Bellamy, who combined for 1,232 yards last season in Caulley's absence. Senior Keron Henry is the top returning wide receiver for UConn. Defensively, UConn returns 6 starters, but only one defensive lineman is back from a 4-3 base defense that was quite good against the run last season (139 rush ypg). The player to watch on the defense is LB Maurice Lloyd, who totaled 122 tackles last season, 94 of them solo. Special teams will be an area to watch throughout the year, as both the place kicker and the punter will be freshmen. With the money, attention, and resources being poured into the Huskies' football program, it's only a matter of time until Connecticut becomes a force to be reckoned with in the Big East...but that time isn't here yet. A winning season is likely, but contention is at least a season away.
KEY GAME: Duke at Connecticut (September 11th)
POTENTIAL TRIP-UP GAME: Pitt at Connecticut (September 30th)
6.) PITT (3-8, 1-5 in conference) - Coming into the 2003 season, expectations were high in Pittsburgh. With a veteran offensive line, a veteran quarterback, and a wide receiver named Larry Fitzgerald, Panther fans had visions of a BCS bowl dancing in their heads. What they got was a loss at home to Toledo, a pourous run defense, and 52 points scored on them by West Virginia for the 3rd time in six games. With many of their key players from last season graduating, Pitt fans were well aware that this could be a rebuilding year for Walt Harris' Panthers. This was before the latest events took place. Jawan Walker, projected as this season's starting running back, is likely out for the season due to academics. Wide receiver Princell Brockenbrough is out for the season due to an injury, and other injuries and academic problems have further depleted the Panther depth. More important than what Pitt returns is what Pitt does not return. The Panthers are now without a QB with any starting experience, a RB with any carries last season, and only one WR with any significant time last year (Greg Lee). Both deep safeties return on defense, and the star of the defense is defensive tackle Vince Crochunis. In addition to the aforementioned losses, kicker David Abdul is also out for the season with a broken leg. Pitt fans were already losing patience with coach Walt Harris, but the problems this season are far beyond anything that Harris alone could overcome. All things considered, including a rough opener on Labor Day at South Florida, if the Panthers could somehow muster a winning season, it would be quite an accomplishment.
KEY GAME: Pitt at South Florida (September 6th)
POTENTIAL TRIP-UP GAME: Pitt at Temple (October 9th)
7.) TEMPLE (1-10, 0-6 in conference) - 2003 was supposed to be the last season in the Big East for Temple, but following the defections of Miami and Virginia Tech, the Owls were retained for another season to fill the void until new members Louisville, Cincinnati, and South Florida enter conference play for the 2005 season. Temple's first two games of the year are quite the 1-2 punch, as the Owls will host Virginia then travel to Maryland. Head coach Bobby Wallace has had much success at other levels of collegiate football and has tried everything imaginable to make things work for Temple, from changing offensive schemes to loading up on junior college players, but there is only so much for him to work with. QB Walter Washington, who was impressive in the final three games of last season (Virginia Tech, Pitt, at West Virginia), is back for another season under center and has six other starters returning with him on offense. Seven starters return on defense, but the Temple defense was a major disappointment last season, giving up 429 yards and nearly 33 points per game. Washington is himself a playmaker on the ground but has lacked consistency through the air. It was apparent in Temple's offensive futility, averaging just 19.6 points per game last season. Despite the effort, there aren't any indications that the Owls' final season in the Big East will differ much from the rest of them. At season's end, look for Temple to fill one of the Conference USA openings. Hopefully, for Temple's sake and college football's sake, they can be more competitive there.
KEY GAME: Temple at Toledo (September 25th)
POTENTIAL TRIP-UP GAME: Florida A&M at Temple (September 18th)
BIG EAST BESTS:
Best Team - West Virginia
Best Coach - Rich Rodriguez, West Virginia - After a 3-8 season in 2001, Rodriguez has brought the Mountaineers back to national prominence, including a Big East Championship last year.
Best Player - Chris Henry, West Virginia - There isn't a bigger homerun threat in the country than the B-5 Bomber Chris Henry.
Best Stadium - Mountaineer Field , West Virginia - A toss-up between Mountaineer Field and the Carrier Dome in Syracuse. For football the tie is awarded to the stadium that is outdoors. There isn't a tougher place to play in the Big East...ask Virginia Tech.
Best Conference Game of the Upcoming Season - Boston College at West Virginia , November 13th - The top two teams in the Big East do battle in Morgantown to likely determine a BCS bid. Boston College has only won twice at Mountaineer Field, in 1986 and 1990.
Best Non-Conference Game of the Upcoming Season - West Virginia at Virginia Tech, October 2nd - West Virginia wants to send a message to the defecting Hokies, while Virginia Tech wants payback for last year's beating in Morgantown and the 2002 heartbreaker in Blacksburg. It has the makings of a classic.
Best Fans - West Virginia
Best Tradition - (tie) Number selection at Syracuse , Country Roads at West Virginia - The Mountaineer faithful gather around the field to sing John Denver's "Country Roads" following every home win. Syracuse seems to think a lot of number assignments, namely #5 and #44. Legendary 'Cuse alumni Jim Brown, Floyd Little, and Ernie Davis all wore #44. In fact, the university's zip code was changed to 13244 and the phone prefixes are now 442 and 443! The #5 has been worn by quarterbacks, most notably Don McPherson in the late 80s, Marvin Graves in the early 90s, and the most famous Orange QB, Donovan McNabb.
Best Bet to Under-Achieve - Syracuse - Even with Walter Reyes returning, the QB position is up for grabs. Without consistent play under center, things could get bad for the Orange .
Best Bet to Over-Achieve - Connecticut - If the Huskies are able to stay injury-free and can handle a rather rough schedule, the offense is good enough to hang close in almost every game and maybe eke out a couple of close ones.
Preseason All-Big East Team:
While many speak of how watered down and unworthy of the BCS the new Big East is, that may not necessarily be true...once the new members make their way in. As of late, Louisville has been on the same level as Virginia Tech (as a result of the late season Hokie declines, or 'Hokie Chokies' if you will), and South Florida is clearly working their way up the college football ladder. It's widely recognized that West Virginia is the class of the conference with Boston College not far behind, but with Rutgers and UConn on the rise, Pitt and Syracuse remaining consistent, and Louisville and South Florida coming in, the future of the Big East could be much brighter than many seem to think.
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