It was only three years ago that the future of the Big East as a BCS conference seemed bleak as the ACC ripped two of the best Big East football teams away in Miami and Virginia Tech, as well as a solid program in Boston College. The Big East was the joke major conference, what with needing to expand just to stay at eight teams while giving away their second place bowl berth to Notre Dame by agreement. But then things settled down in a hurry in 2006.
While many experts had predicted the Big East would be top-heavy with Louisville and West Virginia, nobody could have anticipated the conference having 3 of the 6 remaining undefeated teams in college football late in 2006. With Michigan and Ohio State slated for a November collision and Boise State not in a BCS conference, the stars appeared aligned for whichever team escaped the Big East unscathed.
National attention and prominence quickly turned to West Virginia, Louisville, and Rutgers, but each team was eliminated from the ranks of undefeated in consecutive weeks. West Virginia and Rutgers even lost games to the rising middle stock teams Cincinnati and South Florida. The Big East enjoyed their moment in the spotlight going into bowl season, but 2006 was not over yet. The 5 representatives from the conference amazingly posted a 5-0 bowl record, easily outpacing all the other major conferences. The Big East proved that even though they look like a basketball conference, their 8 schools that play football are just as formidable as those from other BCS conferences.
Looking to 2007, not too much has changed in the pecking order and expectations. Again West Virginia and Louisville are realistic BCS Championship contenders while Rutgers, Cincinnati, South Florida, and Pittsburgh will all have something to say in the middle of the conference. Connecticut and Syracuse have been held down recently, but both are certainly capable of catching fire and going to a bowl game. Bowl success typically brings good tidings for the following season, so we should be able to expect big things from the Big East in 2007.
1. Key #1 is how will conference teams handle the national spotlight? West Virginia has dealt with this ever since Miami and Virginia Tech left for other pastures, but the boys from Morgantown have not risen to the challenge yet and made the national title game. Louisville and Rutgers are just getting used to having national expectations placed on them again, so it will be interesting to see if there are any growing pains, especially in New Jersey. Cincinnati and South Florida, as well as the other three teams, would certainly like to step up as spoilers for the top three teams, and national spotlight games have a tendency to cause crazy outcomes.
2. Key #2 is the coaching carousel of last season and how it will affect the teams involved. Louisville certainly has Brian Brohm and plenty of talent back to defend the conference title, but their field general has moved on to the NFL. Meanwhile, Mark Dantonio was one of the brightest young coaches after leaving Ohio State for Cincinnati, but his dream job came along at Michigan State and he’s back to the Big Ten. Cincinnati was budding into a beautiful program that was beginning to truly rival the Buckeyes for Ohio recruiting dominance, but now the Bearcats have to transition to a new coach and a new way of thinking. Even West Virginia had a lot of drama as Rich Rodriguez left for Alabama and then decided (as he’s said for years) that money couldn’t buy the happiness he has in Morgantown. Even though I suspect West Virginia is no different from the drama, his real deliberation may hurt in some unseen ways. In any event, coaching transitions in the top half of the conference will play a big role as even veteran coaches must adjust to new opposition and coaching styles.
3. Key #3 is the Heisman race and how it will affect the top teams in the conference. No matter how many times we hear Heisman candidates say that all they want to do is help the team, you cannot help but notice many contenders can make mistakes trying too hard to gain more stats or carry the team. The four gentlemen seriously contending for the Heisman from the Big East this season, namely West Virginia QB Pat White, West Virginia RB Steve Slaton, Louisville QB Brian Brohm, and Rutgers RB Ray Rice, will need to ignore the Heisman hype as much as possible in order to help those three teams try to win the conference and reach the BCS.
OFFENSE: The offense was capable under Mark Dantonio last season, using many of the formations and plays that safely lead Ohio State to success. The Bearcats were relatively inexperienced last season, but this year they are a veteran unit led my many juniors and seniors. The only hitch will be a completely new style of one-back offense to learn under new coach Brian Kelly. QB Dustin Grutza threw more interceptions than touchdowns last year and it was RB by committee, but both of those might change with the new system and Wake Forest QB transfer Ben Mauk. The offensive line is a solid unit, and whoever is throwing the ball will have solid receivers to throw to in junior Dominick Goodman and Jared Martin. The offense needs to put more points on the board, and this fresh start might be just what the doctor ordered.
DEFENSE: The defense determined the outcome of many games for the Bearcats last season, as the offense was slow and steady. The 2007 campaign should be no different as the Bearcats return all 4 defensive linemen and both outside linebackers. The loss of MLB Kevin McCullough is a big loss, but DT Terrill Byrd will take over the leadsrship roles for the defensive front. The backfield has a lot of talent but not a lot of experience, so expect the quality quarterbacks in the league to test the Bearcats here.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Trouble is brewing in this department as both the kicker and the punter need to be replaced. Freshman Jake Rogers and junior Brandon Yingling appear equally capable at placekicker, while Kevin Huber likely takes over at punter. The return game is not great either, but Goodman could improve this season with his speed.
COACHING: This was spoken about above, but coaching plays a big role this season as a veteran team tries to adjust to a completely different coach and his style. Coach Kelly led an absolutely dominant Central Michigan team which is remarkable even in the MAC in 2006. Cincinnati may lose an early game or two on special teams and coaching mishaps before everything falls into place, but the Big East still needs to beware and adjust to this new Bearcat attack.
SCHEDULE: The September schedule sets up nicely with Oregon State being the toughest challenge coming in for week 2 at home and a tricky west coast trip to San Diego State in week 5. Cincinnati will need to be in top shape come October, as following the SDSU roadtrip is a tough game at Rutgers and then it's back home against Louisville. With West Virginia coming into town late in November, the Bearcats might have chance for a BCS-changing upset at home just like last season. Nevertheless, the schedule sets up fairly well by Big East standards.
IF EVERYTHING GOES WELL.... The Bearcats will make a couple of big upsets and be a surprise contender for the conference title. It will probably take a couple of years for the recruiting to catch up with coaching style, so Cincinnati at best is bowl bound at 9-3.
IF THINGS DON'T GO SO WELL.... The Bearcats could drop near the cellar of the conference in a hurry with the solid top and middle tier teams contending with them. A surprise loss to Syracuse or Connecticut means Cincinnati could end up 4-8 or 3-9 with a 1-6 Big East mark.
MAKE OR BREAK: The team has enough talent to be a conference contender, but that was under Mark Dantonio. Brian Kelly should keep the program in the right direction, but I suspect between style changes and new special teams units it will be a tough year for Cincinnati. If those units progress faster than expected, then it will be the difference in determining bowl eligibility and conference contention.
OFFENSE: This unit will be a young one in 2007, but there is only room for improvement from last year’s 4-8 squad. There is returning quality in RB Donald Brown, WR Terence Jeffers, and WR Brad Kanuch (all sophomores who saw serious playing time last season), but a new QB and a beat-up young offensive line will make the difference this season. The line will need to improve quickly to compete with the tough defensive veteran units in the 2007 Big East.
DEFENSE: The strength of the Huskies' defense will certainly be at linebacker, where Danny Lansanah and Ryan Henegan are back to lead the unit. Cornerbacks Tyvon Branch and Darius Butler are also returning, but the key like the offense will be adjusting to a new center (defensive line and safeties). The Huskies will need to improve quickly against the running game, or they will be hard-pressed to get off the field.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Just like Cincinnati, the Huskies have a new kicker and punter to deal with. Tony Ciaravino kicked a couple of quality field goals last season but will be dealing with starting for the first time this season. Desi Cullen will need to learn the punting ropes quickly to keep Connecticut in games where field position is important.
COACHING: Randy Edsall brought Connecticut into Division I-A and posted three straight winning seasons remarkably before last year’s 4-8 mark. There is no weakness in the coaching slot at Connecticut, but even Edsall needs some experience on the field to turn this program back in the right direction.
SCHEDULE: There’s nothing a young team needs more than a cupcake September, and that’s what the schedule provides in 2007. Duke, Maine, and Temple should not be heavy challenges going into a road game at Pittsburgh (which is the only team UConn has a winning record against in 3 seasons of Big East play). The last two months are very tough though, with the only real winnable games at home against USF and Syracuse. The schedule may allow Connecticut to get off to a good enough start so that one big upset will get them another bowl berth, but it’s going to be tough.
IF EVERYTHING GOES WELL.... Just as mentioned above, UConn could run the September slate and then hold serve against USF and Syracuse at home for seven wins. Louisville and Rutgers come into Storrs, but both have strong running games, and the Huskies will have trouble even at home against those two. 8-4 is probably the best UConn could hope for this season.
IF THINGS DON'T GO SO WELL.... An early season loss at Duke could really derail the confidence of this youthful unit and the Huskies may struggle even in September. Syracuse should still be a win at home, but 3-9 is not out of the question if things snowball.
MAKE OR BREAK: The September road games at Duke and Pittsburgh should determine how much confidence UConn has going into the tough Big East slate. There might be extra motivation to spur an upset if things are going well and a second ever bowl berth is in sight after September. The defense must grow up quickly against the run to get off the field and give the mediocre Huskies offense a chance to win some games.
OFFENSE: The Cardinal offensive unit that was so dominant in leading Louisville to its first conference title will come back almost intact. QB Brian Brohm is a legitimate Heisman contender who has plenty of talent at WR, led by Harry Douglas and Mario Urrutia. The loss of RB Michael Bush looked fatal last season, but Louisville proved they have 4-5 good backs to fill the hole left by Bush. The offensive line is replacing a couple of members but appears just as strong as ever. This unit is on the whole the most scary total unit on either side of the ball in all the Big East.
DEFENSE: The Cardinals were carried by their offense last season, and with a slew of defensive graduations, including first round draft pick Amobe Okoye, this formula will continue. The leaders will undoubtedly be returning LB Malik Jackson and Latarrius Thomas, but there’s not much here but youth and raw talent. We’ll see if new coach Steve Kragthorpe can turn things around.
SPECIAL TEAMS: This is yet another strength of the Cardinal in 2007, with last year’s Lou Groza award winner Art Carmody and senior punter Todd Flannery are back for another season. The return game is also a strong unit with all the talent at the offensive skill positions coming back. If Louisville’s high-octane offense gets into stumbles and troubles, the special teams should help them tremendously.
COACHING: Steve Kragthorpe was a quarterbacks coach in the NFL before turning around the Tulsa program in 5 seasons, and his offensive prowess will work well at Louisville. Expect a lot of shootouts given the talent and the coach running the sidelines this season.
SCHEDULE: No problems face the Cardinal until late September at NC State, but really no team on the schedule until November should be able to run with Louisville. WVU and Rutgers are two of the last three games, and both are on Thursdays so there will be 11 days to prepare for both, but those games will still test a Cardinal team who should be in the national title race through October.
IF EVERYTHING GOES WELL.... We will see Louisville in the BCS Championship game sitting at 12-0 with a second straight Big East title. There’s nothing stopping this team except the defense, and Louisville proved a good offense can be a decent defense in this league.
IF THINGS DON'T GO SO WELL.... Louisville loses a game or two they should not leading into November and then gets hammered by WVU and Rutgers. Brian Brohm getting injured is seriously more likely than this team missing a bowl berth, and 8-4 is the absolute worst that will happen this season.
MAKE OR BREAK: The defense will be tested just like last year in New Jersey. There’s always one or two times in a season where you need a defensive stop, and those times will determine if Louisville will be playing for a national title or not. Of course, to win a national title you need luck, and I think that luck will have to come in a clutch defensive play.
OFFENSE: The Panthers lost one of the best signal callers in the nation at QB to graduation, and Bill Stull or Kevan Smith will need to be brought up to speed quickly on this unit. Eight other starters out of ten return, including all the skill positions and four members of the offensive line, so even with a new general behind center, the Panthers should improve as a unit this season. Look for RB LaRod Stephens-Howling to carry the load behind an experienced line in 2007.
DEFENSE: Six starters return including the entire defensive line. Unfortunately for the Panthers, all three linebackers need to be replaced, and this could open up problems stopping the prolific passing games in the conference. DE Joe Clermond should earn all-conference honors again to anchor the line, and CB Kennard Cox will be a key to shutting down opposing wide receivers. This defensive unit is not the best in the league, but it will be serviceable with the improving offense taking some pressure off them.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Kicker Connor Lee was one of the best in the conference last season and should not let down the Panthers in 2007. Dave Brytus will take over the punting, but a solid return game will help the special teams succeed. Look for explosive Lowell Robinson to lead the Big East again in kick return yardage and touchdowns. This will be the strength of Pitt in 2007.
COACHING: Dave Wannstedt may not have a bowl game in two seasons at his alma mater, but he finally has Pittsburgh heading in the right direction as a program. He still is one or two years away from having enough quality recruits in the system to compete for a BCS berth, but the Panthers will be more of a factor in the race than they were in 2006.
SCHEDULE: The schedule is actually very interesting for the Panthers. While some may see road games at Louisville, Rutgers, and WVU as a bad draw, the Panthers may actually benefit from having all the truly winnable Big East games at home. All the road games are very tough so Pittsburgh will have to defend the home turf if they wish to go bowling in 2007.
IF EVERYTHING GOES WELL.... Pittsburgh might get a couple of surprise road wins this season and the home games are all winnable, so 9-3 would be the best Pitt should expect.
IF THINGS DON'T GO SO WELL.... With a couple of stumbles at home, the young team Dave Wannstedt puts on the field may lose confidence and not be a threat at all in the Big East. They could fall as far as 4-8 if the returning starters do not step up in a big way.
MAKE OR BREAK: The offense needs to protect the new QB and use their 8 returning starters to produce many more points than the 2006 unit. In a league where teams need to keep with the likes of Louisville and WVU offenses, Pittsburgh needs to put it together on the offense to be successful. A few good bounces on the road wouldn’t hurt either, but the offense is where the season lies.
OFFENSE: The offense was really not much to speak of apart from RB Ray Rice, who will be contending for the Heisman Trophy this season. Experience can cure a small lack of talent, and coach Greg Schiano will have talent coming in droves after the 2006 11-2 finish. QB Mike Teel was very good at the end of last season and will have plenty of time with a good offensive line this season. Rutgers may end up being one of the better offensive units at the end of the season, as any team with decent receivers and a national-caliber threat of a running back will put up some points. Limiting the mistakes should be the motto of this unit.
DEFENSE: Certainly the best defense in the Big East in 2006, the Scarlet Knights return enough talent to possibly give all offenses fits again this season. The defensive line is led by two returning starters in Eric Foster and Jamaal Westerman. The linebacker unit will need revamping with only Brandon Renkart back, but the strength of the defense is certainly the secondary this season. All in all, the defense does not lose much while the offense gains plenty, so look for another successful season.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Although the Lou Groza winner is back in the Big East, the best clutch kicker may be Jeremy Ito coming back for his senior season. A couple of new players and Ito will split the punting duties, and that will be crucial given Rutgers’ style of play. The return game is also a job by committee, but a leader may emerge to take control of that unit by mid-season.
COACHING: The rebuilding job is complete in New Jersey. Greg Schiano came home to his dream job for his first head coaching gig, and Rutgers should stay very competitive in the Big East for years to come. You cannot complain when you have the 2006 coach of the year coming back for another try at a conference title.
SCHEDULE: Another Big East team, another cupcake of a September. Maryland is a tough last game of the month, but Rutgers plays very well at home and they have a bye week before the Terrapins. The Scarlet Knights should be 7-0 going into a big showdown with WVU at home. If Rutgers manages a minor upset there, then the road is clear to an end-of-season showdown at Louisville.
IF EVERYTHING GOES WELL.... Rutgers will be sitting at 11-0 going into Louisville, and I just cannot anticipate them getting a win there with Louisville’s awesome offense negating the good defense of Rutgers. Of course Louisville will be bloodthirsty for revenge for their only loss from last season as well, so 11-1 is tops for Rutgers.
IF THINGS DON'T GO SO WELL.... Then maybe Rutgers drops back into the middle of the pack in the Big East. When your road schedule reads Syracuse, Army, UConn, and Louisville, there’s not much to worry about there. If Rutgers collapses, it will be at home, and I cannot see much worse than 8-4.
MAKE OR BREAK: The defense will be solid, the special teams will be good, so that leaves the offense. The offense should be better than last season which will help the defense get back up to speed and perhaps stay among the elite units in the country. The schedule plays perfectly for Rutgers if they get started well, and you never know when a team like this will make the national title game unexpectedly. They certainly have the talent; they just need to put it together on offense.
OFFENSE: Although the Bulls were not the offense that the top teams boasted last season, they held their own. The great news is that USF brings back almost every starter from this capable 2006 unit, including QB Matt Grothe and RB Benjamin Williams. The entire starting offensive line returns, and this can only mean good things for 2007. Look for Grothe to lead a well-balanced grind it out attacking unit.
DEFENSE: USF was second to Rutgers is defensive prowess last season, and the experience carries over for this unit as well. Richard Clebert and Allen Cray are seniors anchoring a good D-line, and Ben Moffitt will lead a new batch of linebackers. The backfield brings back three out of four in a great unit, including CB Trae Williams who is almost certainly a lock for all-conference.
SPECIAL TEAMS: The kicking game should be fine with Delbert Alvarado kicking with an absolute cannon of a leg and Justin Teachey punting again this season. The kick return game needs to field a couple of new leaders, but this is not too tough to fill in for most teams.
COACHING: Jim Leavitt is the longest standing head coach in the Big East, having been with USF since 1995 and their I-AA years. He has kept USF competitive in a tough conference, breaking even with every team over the past two years except for Syracuse (2-0). The Bulls can stop any of the top teams and are the true spoiler in this conference.
SCHEDULE: Unlike many of their counterparts, the Bulls have a tough September schedule. A road game at Auburn followed by home games against North Carolina and WVU in weeks 2-4 make for a very tough stretch. USF only gets 4 days of rest to prepare for the game at Rutgers, but they might catch the Knights sleeping and looking ahead to WVU. The schedule seems to favor the Bulls making a similar run as in 2006, but it’s very hard to tell which of the top teams they will knock off.
IF EVERYTHING GOES WELL.... Experience will lead USF to heights unseen before, much like Rutgers in 2006. USF could steal one of the two home games against Louisville and WVU and the road game at Rutgers, ending up with a dream 10-2 season.
IF THINGS DON'T GO SO WELL.... Given all the experience and returning starters from a good spoiler team, you’d have to think the Bulls are going bowling again in 2007 even at their worst. If USF cannot pull any upsets in conference play, then perhaps they'll fall to 7-5 or 6-6.
MAKE OR BREAK: This team just needs some breaks, as they have all the materials there to pull major upsets over the top tier of the conference. The talent level is not high enough to justify saying they could win the conference, but stopping turnovers would put this team in a much better place than in 2006.
OFFENSE: Well the only bright points in this unit are the skill positions. RB Curtis Brinkely will need to learn to carry the entire rushing load as his mate Delone Carter is injured and out for the season. WR Taj Smith and WR Mike Williams are the offense’s go-to guys, but with a weak offensive line still learning the ropes and a new quarterback to break in, don’t look for much out of this unit.
DEFENSE: The defense is even more in shambles as far as returning starters, but this unit actually has more talent and experience overall. DE Jameel McClain and DT Tony Jenkins will have to lead the front lines as no other linemen or linebackers return from a good unit of 2006. Safeties Dowayne Davis and Joe Fields will need to step up big again this season to stop the big gains in both the rushing and passing games. The learning curve will be tough, but there should be a lot of youthful energy and excitement on this squad.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Patrick Shadle actually had the best field-goal percentage in 2006 in the Big East, so the Orange should be fine in the kicking game. They must replace the best punter in the league though, and Kyle Muir will try to fill those huge shoes left. The Syracuse return men are back for another season and hopefully will improve what was a woeful return game in 2006.
COACHING: Greg Robinson is going into his third year at Syracuse and seems to have the program headed in the right direction. Robinson is a defensive minded coach who knows how to win with defense, but it will take some years to get Syracuse competitive again. Unfortunately, the improvements from last season will not continue this season, looking at all the inexperience and intangibles.
SCHEDULE: You have to give Syracuse credit, as they are willing to go face the big boys to start the season. Washington, at Iowa, and Illinois is the toughest opening three games in the conference, and it gets no easier with roadtrips to Louisville and Miami (OH) leading to home games against WVU and Rutgers. The last five weeks of the season are where Syracuse will need to create some wins if possible.
IF EVERYTHING GOES WELL.... Let’s say Syracuse steals one of the opening three games and two in the Big East. Even at best the Orange are looking at 4-8.
IF THINGS DON'T GO SO WELL.... The only easy game is against Buffalo at home and that comes after that tough stretch of 7 weeks to start the season. Even Syracuse cannot lose that game, though, so I’ll say 1-11 is the bottom.
MAKE OR BREAK: Making it through the first seven weeks of the season without too many injuries or too many demoralizing losses will be key to getting some wins on the back part of the schedule. This season just looks too tough though, and everybody will need to step up just to be competitive.
OFFENSE: Nine starters return on the most intact unit outside of Tampa, including two Heisman hopefuls in QB Pat White and RB Steve Slaton. The only weakness is the two graduates off the offensive line, but assuming the new line is serviceable, then this offense will be explosive. White and Slaton will rack up tons of yards on the ground, and White will also have great WR Darius Reynaud to throw to in key situations. Look for a lot of option and quick set plays designed to get to the outside such as screens.
DEFENSE: DT Keilen Dykes leads a solid returning defensive line, but the linebackers all need replaced in the center of the defense. The new linebackers should have plenty of time to adjust in September with such a good line in front of them and a great secondary behind them, led by S Eric Wicks and CB Antonio Lewis. The defense is not going to be a lockdown unit like Rutgers, but the Mountaineers only need a serviceable unit with their solid offense. Eight returning starters on defense should be enough.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Pat McAfee will be back as kicker and will be looking to improve his field goal game in case the Mountaineer offense needs some help. McAfee is also tabbed to lead the punting unit, much like Jeremy Ito at Rutgers. The return unit is explosive and fits in well with the quick-strike WVU offense.
COACHING: Rich Rodriguez has not led WVU to national title games as some predicted in the first two post-defect Big East years, but he has led them to a 22-3 record, two bowl wins, and two top-10 national rankings. Rodriguez stayed at his alma mater despite Alabama trying to allure him away with big money, so expect Rich to prove his point by leading the Mountaineers to another BCS bowl this season.
SCHEDULE: The schedule actually sets up a little tough for the Mountaineers, and that may trip them up from a national title game berth. Rutgers and Louisville are back-to-back, but the Mountaineers do have 11 days between those games. The road trips to USF and Maryland could be very tricky in September. You can also never discount a rivalry game, and Pittsburgh is very capable of going into Morgantown and pulling a colossal upset. Nevertheless, the schedule is okay for WVU.
IF EVERYTHING GOES WELL.... A 12-0 record, another BCS selection, National title game appearance, Rich Rodriguez laughing at the idea that he would ever leave his alma mater for Alabama, a real chance of the Heisman ending up in Morgantown, etc. It could be fun!
IF THINGS DON'T GO SO WELL.... West Virginia, at most, could lose four games this year, and that’s counting an upset at USF as well as one loss against Maryland or Pittsburgh. 8-4 is as low as they will go, and that would be devastating to the Heisman hopefuls.
MAKE OR BREAK: If there’s a make or break on this team, it has to be the new linebackers. While an experienced and talented defensive backfield and front line can solve a lot of problems, the linebackers hold every play together and must read offenses for defenses to do well. The WVU offense is good, but just like Louisville, the Mountaineers run the risk of losing a shootout or getting into a defensive struggle with Rutgers. The playmakers on offense must stay healthy too, but the linebackers are the breaking point.
The Big East conference had one amazing 2006, and the conference can only hope to achieve a similar record in 2007. West Virginia is certainly the favorite again going in, but they have the hardest schedule of the three primary contenders. Louisville has a scary good offense, and the battle between those teams in Morgantown will be one to watch for offensive fireworks. South Florida is bringing back so much talent that they might compete for the title as well, moving away from their spoiler role of years past. The bottom three teams in the conference will have some growing pains with young teams and a new coach in Cincinnati, so look for the other five teams to step it up and represent the conference in the 2007 bowl season. We can only hope for as much compelling drama as last season.