The Big East, despite being much maligned about being the raided small conference in the BCS conferences, continues to put up some of the best numbers against other BCS schools as well as in bowl games. With 3-4 solid contedners every single season rising to the top of the 8 team league, it has become very rare for a team to run away to an undefeated season like Cincinnati did last year. However, it took last minute touchdowns against Pitt and WVU to go undefeated, and with Butch Jones taking over the helm in the 'nati, the top 3 will again be right there at the end of the season. South Florida and Connecticut also have teams just as talented as the top tier and could find themselves in the mix late into the season in 2010. Three new coaches in an 8 team league means there will be a lot of new schemes and different nuances this year, so let's jump right in and see what will happen to the Big East.
West Virginia Mountaineers
Just like Pittsburgh, WVU had their chance to beat Cincinnati last season and watched it slip away in the last minute of regulation. Coach Bill Stewart has not reached the levels of success of his predecessor Rich Rodriguez, but the Mountaineers have stayed in the mix and will be the most experienced team in the conference this year. One big hole to fill is at quarterback, where Gino Smith will take over full time after some very limited action behind Jarrett Brown a year ago. The Mountaineers offense has had more of a passing focus under Stewart, which could be problematic here as Smith is also dealing with two new receivers in Brad Starks and Tavon Austin, although Starks was in the mix a year ago. This looks like a year where Stewart should go back to the run and gun offense as RB Noel Devine turned down millions of dollars to play for one more title shot in Morgantown. While the offense has struggled under Stewart, the defense has remained rock solid and nine returning starters make WVU the best defense in the conference. One of the "new" starters is MLB Anthony Leonard, who started two seasons ago and thus makes this the best linebacker corps in the conference. Wide open offenses may find a little success against the Mountaineers but rush-happy teams will be stuck in mud. The season boils down to November with Cincinnati and a road game at Pittsburgh. Win at least oen and WVU is likelu back in the BCS.
The Panthers had a great season last year statistically, but two close losses to WVU and Cincinnati put Dave Wannstedt's best team back in third place in the conference. With two-time champion Cincinnati moving on without their coach, the door is open for Pittsburgh to finally take a Big East championship. The offense will likely take a step back with new QB Tino Sunseri and three new offensive linemen. However, both tackles are back in Lucas Nix and Jason Pinkston and they could help contain the ends of the line for star RB Dion Lewis, who will be the primary focus of the offense this season. Lewis had nearly 1800 yards as a freshman, and even with the spotlight on him in 2010, he'll probably top 2000 yards and be a true Heisman candidate. The defense replaces five starters but LB Max Gruder and DB Dom Decicco are back after leading the team in tackles a season ago. Pittsburgh had a nasty front seven last year that held opposing running games to poor numbers, and the same performance should be expected this year. The only problem is that the same two games await them at the end of the year vs. WVU and at Cincinnati, both of which have passing games good enough to knock Pittsburgh out again.
After two seasons atop the conference and a wild ride to 12-0 last season, Cincinnati now must reload under new coach Butch Jones, who actually takes over a second program on the rise from Brian Kelly (he also took over Central Michigan from Kelly 3 years ago). Thus, there will not be a huge change in scheme with the new coach, and there's enough talent returning to make the Bearcats a legitimate threat for a third straight Big East title. Although an offense certainly does not get better by losing Tony Pike and Mardy Gilyard, new QB Zach Collaros stepped in for five games a year ago when Pike was injured and Collaros showed serious dual-threat skills with a 10-2 touchdown-INT ratio and 344 yards rushing as well. Even without Gilyard, every other receiver of note is back on offense and Collaros will benefit greatly from the half-year of starting last year. The defense has to plug in six new starters including three new linemen, which could be a blessing as UC's defense fell apart against the stiffer competition a year ago. LB JK Schaffer will anchor the defense and must lead his unit to better performance if Cincinnati is to flirt with the BCS again. Cincinnati plays the toughest non-conference schedule in the Big East with Oklahoma and Fresno State, which could battle test them for another title run.
IN THE MIX
South Florida Bulls
Although Butch Jones may be moving into a great situation at Cincinnati, Skip Holtz could actually be stepping into a better situation in Tampa. The Bulls have had a great first decade in I-A football thanks to departing coach Jim Leavitt, and Holtz could take this team to the next level with all the talent available in Florida. The offense returns 10 starters including sophomores QB BJ Daniels and receivers Evan Landi and Sterling Griffin. Daniels led the team in rushing and passing a year ago and must take advantage of having all five offensive linemen back this year no matter which type of attack he leads. Although USF should be able to keep up with anyone offensively, Daniels must stay healthy or else the offense will likely sputter. The defense will be key to moving up into the title mix, as each level of the unit must replace two starters. LB Sabbath Joseph is the only returning starter that was in the top 7 tacklers from a year ago, and one would figure that the defense will have some problems in the first month or so until the new players find leadership and their football instincts. USF has brutal roadtrips to Florida, Miami, WVU, and Cincinnati, but the home schedule could be swept which would put the Bulls in the mix.
Rutgers Scarlet Knights
The past four seasons, Rutgers has jumped right into the conference title mix, but Greg Schiano still has not broken the program through to be a consistent top-tier Big East team. Nevertheless, with a nasty defense, Rutgers is never out of any game. The defense must replace five of the top six tacklers from a year ago, but some of the replacements are top recruits in LB Manny Abreu, CB Darrell Givens, and LB Steve Beauharnais. Opposing offenses will find trouble running against the strong middle of the defensive line led by tackles Eric Legrand and Scott Vallone. Like seemingly every other team in the conference, the key to jumping into title contention will be improving against opposing passing games. On the offensive side of the ball, sophomore QB Tom Savage should be improving more from a great first year at the helm with 14 touchdowns and 2200 yards. Top running back Joe Martinek is also returning, but he may find tougher sledding with new receivers and a new offensive line slowing down the passing game. Rutgers has a brutal league schedule with all the previous four teams dicussed as road games, which will likely keep Rutgers in the second-tier despite having a very nice team in 2010. Another bowl season in New Brunswick.
Despite pulling the top three Big East teams on the road last season, the Huskies had a good season and finished with 8 wins and another bowl victory. This year the schedule flips so that the top three teams come through Storrs while UCONN visits the other 4 conference opponents, which means every game is winnable but every game is also a toss-up. Eight starters return on each side of the ball and that means UCONN could finish anywhere from first to sixth in the conference. QB Zach Frazer and QB Cody Endres will likely split time again, although Frazer appears to be the starter coming into the season. No matter who is throwing the ball, mistakes must be eliminated after 13 interceptions last year, and that may be tough as no receiver with more than 400 yards a year ago comes back. RB Jordan Todman should have another quiet 1000 yard season behind an experienced offensive line, but that will not be enough in the offense-happy Big East. The defensive front mostly returns intact with one new linebacker Jory Johnson stepping in for Greg Lloyd, who moves to the line this year. The Huskies need to improve against opposing passing games, so look at new backfield starters Dwayne Gratz and Kijan Dabney to make an immediate impact if UCONN is to win the big games.
ALL THE REST
Although the Orange really struggled under Greg Robinson, Doug Marrone instilled a little bit of hope a year ago with 4 wins and better play against conference opponents. The offense appears to be slowly improving, but one huge issue in 2010 is replacing three offensive line starters and the quarterback. Ryan Nassib will likely take over behind center after Greg Paulus held the line a year ago. Nassib will need to limit mistakes as Syracuse has a very thin margin for error if bowl eligibility is to be achieved in 2010. RB Delone Carter may struggle to reach 1000 yards again, and look for backup Antwon Bailey to see more playing time this year. The defense improved dramatically in Marrone's first year at the helm and with 10 returning starters, this unit will be the most improved in the conference. The only new starter is Deon Goggins on the line, who is a great junior college recuit. Thus, every single player brings experience and should produce more interceptions to keep the Orange in some games. syracuse plays the top 4 teams in conference on consecutive weeks to start the conference play (3 on the road), but there could be a rebound at the end of the year and a bowl season in Syracuse is not out of the question.
Under Steve Kragthorpe, Louisville went from a perennial conference contender to three straight losing seasons and the bottom of the Big East. charlie Strong comes in from Florida and will likely focus on his defense as the first step in returning the Cardinal to the upper echelon in the conference. The defense only brings back 4 starters, and none of these seniors is really safe as Strong will want to bring in some of his new players right away. Although the defense should improve by the end of the season, one would expect a big step back for at least one year. Look for DE BJ Butler to compete for one of the spots on the line and perhaps become the best defensive lineman on the team before mid-season. The defensive backfield will likely be shredded by all the good quarterbacks in the conference, but the only way to get better is play against the best. On the offense, 8 starters return including QB Adam Froman who needs to do better than six touchdowns this season. The star on offense will be RB Victor Anderson, who was freshman of the year two years ago and missed most of last season with injury. Expect a tough year for the cardinal.
Although there are always scheduling quirks with 7 conference games, the Big East top three from the past 2 seasons have a nice December round-robin set up where the BCS berth will likely be decided. Each of the games between UC-WVU-Pitt were decided in the last possession by less than 4 points, and the teams appear evenly matched again this season. The deciding factor in the race will almost certainly be which of the top three teams drop an extra game or two outside that round robin, and I believe only West Virginia will come out of the remainder of their Big East games unscathed. As such, WVU will be back in the BCS for the first time since 2007. Look for the middle of this league to have some of the best conference games to watch in 2010, and even Syracuse may be back on the rise. These are indeed exciting times for the smallest BCS conference.