Welcome to the BCS conference version of the parity case study. While the Big East has been open to attacks on the conference crown since the ACC departures, West Virginia has been a steady favorite and national title contender. Now in year two post-Rich Rodriguez, the Mountaineers have fallen back to earth and made this conference a full on battle between six teams. Although there may not be much national title attention paid to the conference, this is a BCS conference and the winner will find themselves on the biggest stage in January. So let's see who will take the Big East crown in 2009.
South Florida Bulls
Although the craziness of the 2007 season let this team rise to #2 in the nation in October, that set expectations too high in Tampa. South Florida has just as much or more talent as the rest of the conference, which is not much of a surprise with the rich Florida recruiting grounds for a quality coach like Jim Leavitt. The offense should be going for the long bomb a bit more this season in QB Matt Grothe's final season, and he has WR Jessie Hunter back for one more go. The defense is anchored by DE George Selvie, who will be a big first-round pick in the pros next year. The Bulls derailed in a tough road contest in October last year at Cincinnati, but the schedule is quite a bit nicer now with late games at Rutgers and UCONN the only real conference toughies in a 4 game road slate. This could finally be the year the Bulls break through to January.
Rutgers Scarlet Knights
Just like South Florida, Rutgers has been a program on the rise that either has hit a high mark plateau or is just pausing on the breakthrough to the BCS ceiling. The offense will need some new leadership pretty much everywhere, as the departures of the quarterback and the receivers will be tough. There are legitimate position battles even now three weeks out from the regular season for starting QB and RB, and leadership by committee is really not what Rutgers wants to do. The defense should be the strength of the team, holding almost as much returning talent as South Florida. Look for Rutgers to succeed if the defensive backfield forces more interceptions than thepast two seasons. Rutgers also has the easiest schedule in the league, and could take a big step towards a conference crown in the Labor Day opener at home against defending champ Cincinnati.
Surprise champions really should not be much of a surprise in this conference, but last year WVU was still a legitimate favorite and the Bearcats usurped them. Coach Brian Kelly will be happy that QB Tony Pike is starting the season uninjured this time around, and with WR Mardy Gilyard to throw to, watch out for explosive plays on offense. RB John Goebel should turn into a NFL prospect thanks to the distractions Pike and Gilyard will have for the linebackers of the Big East. The defense replaces 10 starters and will be the defining factor of whether Cincinnati is a new real powerhouse in the conference. With a wide-open league, powerhouses reload in these situations and Cincinnati has recruited just enough pro-caliber talent to perhaps get the job done. The schedule is not very kind with the opener at Rutgers and road games at South Florida and Pitt, but it could be overcome for a second straight title.
IN THE MIX
West Virginia Mountaineers
Oh how the mighty have fallen from grace, your 2009 West Virginia Mountaineers. However, Bill Stewart now has more guys who fit his more conservative, hard-nose play calling style and that should keep WVU in the mix for another Big East crown. The offense has a legitimate superstar in RB Noel Devine, but he will need some help from senior QB Jarrett Brown to see his full potential. The defense looks rock solid on paper, and could push the Mountaineers back up the Big East charts where the Morgantown fans are accustomed to being. The schedule is easy until November, when Cincinnati, Pitt, and Rutgers come calling, but the Mountaineers will win the conference if they take 2 of 3.
Pittsburgh finally showed some true signs of life in the Dave Wannstedt era by going 9-4 last year, losing the conference title like so many others in a late battle at Cincinnati. The offense no longer has LeSean McCoy, but a stable of blue-chip replacements are ready to step in and find their own pot of gold, including freshman Dion Lewis. The defense is very good and brings back most of the starters that kept Pitt in games last season. Look for the defensive line to be the best in the conference. The schedule all builds up to consecutive games at West Virginia and versus Cincinnati. The league title could very well be on the line at the most entertaining time for this pro champion city of 2009.
The Huskies went out and nabbed Akron offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead to revamp the offense and attack the conference with another spread attack. Now that West Virginia is not as prolific an offense as they used to be, UCONN could be poised to become the new juggernaut on that side of the ball. There's not a lot of star power, but Coach Randy Edsall instills his young men with a blue-collar sense that makes them relevant in this conference. The only problem is that Connecticut drew the worst conference schedule possible, with road games at Pitt, Cincinnati, and WVU. You cannot count the Huskies out yet though.
ALL THE REST
If it does not seem like a long time since this program was relevant, well it was only two years ago. Then coach Steve Kragthorpe took over and squandered all the Petrino talent while not really filling the shelves with much talent to replace them. There's just not much to be optimistic about with both lines hurting and a new quarterback at the helm.
Two words for new coach Greg Maronne and the Orange fans: good luck. The Greg Robinson era is over and things could not be worse for the program. It honestly says something about your current state when one of the absolute best players on the team is the punter.
Outside of Syracuse and Louisville, anybody could end up in the January spotlight this season. Will the defenses lead WVU and Pittsburgh to brawl for the title? Cna Cincinnati reload like a powerhouse, or will Rutgers or South Florida finally take the conference hanging out there for the taking? So many questions and nothing will likely be answered until late November. Friday we tackle the wild west and the Pac-10, and we'll see you then.