1. West Virginia Mountaineers
Projected Record: 11-1 (6-1)
Loss: at Rutgers (10/27)
Key Players: QB Pat White, RB Steve Slaton, FB Owen Schmitt, WR/KR Darius Reynaud, T Ryan Stanchek, T Jake Figner, DT Keilan Dykes, LB Reed Williams, CB Antonio Lewis, S Eric Wicks, S Quinton Andrews
Newcomer: RB Noel Devine
The best move the Mountaineers made this offseason was re-signing Rich Rodriguez to a long-term deal...after the coach had been mentioned in connection with more prestigious positions at Alabama and Miami.
With an established coach in place, West Virginia should be able to attract top-notch talent down the road. In the meantime, the 2007 squad has its eyes on a national title.
Pat White and Steve Slaton return for their junior seasons, with each vying for the Heisman spotlight. Last year, the Mountaineers were second in the nation with over 300 rushing yards per game. This year, they should be even better.
Rimington Trophy-winning center Dan Mozes graduated, but stud tackle Ryan Stanchek should help pick up the slack on the O-line. White’s improved throwing arm will help the offense, as an aerial attack would prevent opposing defenses from stacking the box.
Coach Rodriguez’s 3-3-5 defensive scheme, meanwhile, is one of the best in the country—every year, unheralded players step up and produce results.
In 2006, the Mountaineers were tough against the run (93.3 yards per game; 13th in the country) but porous against the pass (243.3; 109th). That weakness was mostly a product of inexperience. In 2007, West Virginia returns four seniors in the secondary, along up with-and-coming sophomore free safety Quinton Andrews.
Final verdict: Assuming an improving South Florida squad doesn’t pull an upset, the potential slips for the Mountaineers are a road game at Rutgers and home matchups against Louisville and archrival Pittsburgh (in the 100th edition of the “Backyard Brawl”). An undefeated season would likely put West Virginia in the national championship game.
2. Louisville Cardinals
Projected Record: 11-1 (6-1)
Loss: at West Virginia (11/8)
Key Players: QB Brian Brohm, RB Anthony Allen, RB George Stripling, WR Harry Douglas, WR Mario Urritia, TE Gary Barnidge, T George Bussey, C Eric Wood, DE Peanut Whitehead, LB Malik Jackson, S Latarrius Thomas, K Art Carmody
Newcomers: LB Willie Williams, CB Woodny Turenne (JUCO Transfers)
After beating ACC champ Wake Forest in the Orange Bowl, and with star QB Brian Brohm returning for his senior year, Louisville would seem a logical candidate for the national title.
However, the Cardinals have a new coach, their defense is young, and Big East foe West Virginia has only gotten better.
With his size, accuracy, and poise, the All-American Brohm is an NFL-ready passer who will look to have a dominant (and more importantly, healthy) season in ’07.
Louisville has a nice insurance policy in junior Hunter Cantwell, who’s arguably the best backup quarterback in the nation and who proved his worth when Brohm went down with a wrist injury last year.
Running backs Anthony Allen and George Stripling will build on the successes they had a year ago spelling the injured Michael Bush, while senior Harry Douglas and junior Mario Urrutia are as good as any receiving duo around. The Louisville O-line, which returns all-conference players George Bussey and Eric Wood, will once again be one of the best in the Big East.
On defense, Louisville returns only four starters, including tackling leader Malik Jackson. While the D is relatively young, it has a few wild cards in JUCO transfers CB Woody Turenne and LB Willie Williams—a former Miami prospect.
Final verdict: Bobby Petrino left the cabin full of talent for Steve Kragthorpe. This Louisville team is more than capable of going 12-0, as they have a relatively weak out-of-conference schedule (the only games of interest are at Kentucky and at home against Utah) and plenty of offensive firepower. Chris Peterson went 13-0 for Boise State in his first season. Louisville hopes for a similar result in 2007.
3. Rutgers Scarlet Knights
Projected Record: 10-2 (5-2)
Losses: Pitt (11/14), at Louisville (11/29)
Key Players: RB Ray Rice, WR Kenny Britt, WR Tiquan Underwood, T Pedro Sosa, T Jeremy Zuttah, DE Jamaal Westerman, DT Eric Foster, LB Brandon Renkart, S Courtney Greene, S Ron Girault, K Jeremy Ito
Newcomer: G Anthony Davis
After a dream season, head coach Greg Schiano looks to prove that his Scarlet Knights belong amongst the ranks of elite programs—at least in the Big East.
The Rutgers offense returns seven starters, including star running back Ray Rice. Rice will run behind a talented group of linemen led by all-Big East tackles Jeremy Zuttah and Pedro Sosa.
Receivers Kenny Britt and Tiquan Underwood should help QB Mike Teel in the passing game. Rutgers hopes Teel can match his effectiveness from the last three games of 2006, in which he completed 62.5 percent of his passes for 714 yards, five touchdowns, and no interceptions.
On defense, the Scarlet Knights return six players, including standout D-linemen Jamaal Westerman and Eric Foster and safeties Courtney Greene and Ron Girault. The key for the Rutgers D, which was the fourth-best in the nation in 2006, will be replacing two experienced linebackers.
On special teams, Jeremy Ito is one of the best kickers in the Big East.
Final verdict: Schiano’s 2007 recruiting class has created a solid foundation for years to come. Presently, this Rutgers team has enough talent to prove that last year’s 11-2 season was no fluke. The consistent play of Teel is essential to the Knights’ continued ascension in the Big East.
4. South Florida Bulls
Losses: at Auburn (9/8), West Virginia (9/29), at Rutgers (10/18), Louisville (11/17)
Key Players: QB Matt Grothe, RB Benjamin Williams, WR/KR Taurus Johnson, WR Amarri Jackson, C Nick Caponga, DE George Selvie, LB Ben Moffitt, CB Trae Williams, CB Mike Jenkins, P Justin Treachey
Newcomer: RB Mike Ford
After spending years in the shadows of Florida’s powerhouse programs, USF notched a 9-4 record last season behind the leadership of freshman QB Matt Grothe and head coach Jim Leavitt.
In 2007, Grothe and 14 other starters return with high hopes and higher expectations.
The Bulls will have to be more consistent on the ground (Grothe led the team with 622 rushing yards in 2006), but the offense will be helped by an extremely athletic D.
The USF defense boasts two All-America candidates in cornerback Trae Williams (seven interceptions in ’06) and linebacker Ben Moffitt (112 tackles). Linemen George Selvie and Aaron Harris are two promising sophomores who should make names for themselves.
Final verdict: South Florida will be tested early with games at Auburn and against West Virginia. An upset over one of those teams would give USF a great deal of momentum. The Bulls could win the conference, but they have a steep hill to climb.
5. Pittsburgh Panthers
Projected Record: 8-4 (3-4)
Losses: Cincinnati (10/20), at Louisville (10/27), South Florida (11/24), at West Virginia (12/1)
Key Players: RB LaRod Stephens-Howling, WR Oderick Turner, WR Derek Kinder, T Mike McGlynn, T Jeff Otah, G Joe Thomas, DE Joe Clermond, DT Gus Mustakas, DT Rashaad Duncan, K Conor Lee
Newcomer: RB LaSean “Shady” McCoy
After the departure of three-year mainstay Tyler Palko, Pitt is looking for a new quarterback.
Freshman Pat Bostick was competing for the job with Bill Stull, but unexpectedly left school to attend to a personal matter. Whoever ends up starting will have a pair of experienced receivers and two solid running backs in LaRod Stephens-Howling and freshman “Shady” McCoy, who has been compared to Pitt legend Tony Dorsett.
On defense, Pitt returns an experienced line and secondary but is very young at linebacker. The departures of LBs Clint Session and H.B. Blades, along with CB Darrelle Revis, hurt the D substantially. Veterans Joe Clermond and Gus Mustakas will have to step up to guide this unit.
Final verdict: With 15 starters returning, Dave Wannstedt’s team will improve on their 6-6 mark from a year ago. The main issues for Pitt are maintaining a consistent passing attack and stopping the premier ground games of schools like West Virginia and Rutgers. If they can do that, expect the Panthers to make a run for a BCS bid.
6. Cincinnati Bearcats
Projected Record: 6-6 (2-5)
Losses: Oregon State (9/6), at Rutgers (10/6), Louisville (10/13), at South Florida (11/3), West Virginia (11/17), at Syracuse (11/24)
Key Players: QB Ben Mauk, WR Derrick Stewart, WR Dominick Goodman, G Trevor Canfield, DE Trevor Anderson, DT Terrill Byrd, S Haruki Nakamura, CB Mike Mickens
Newcomer: WR Armon Binns
After transferring from Wake Forest, QB Ben Mauk will try to resurrect his career in his home state.
Ohio’s 2002 Mr. Football will likely be used in a dual quarterback system with junior Dustin Grutza, and has two formidable targets in wideouts Derrick Stewart and Dominick Goodman. On the ground, the Bearcats’ caravan of running backs makes up for in depth what it lacks in physical ability.
Defensively, Cincinnati returns eight starters, including skilled veteran linemen Anthony Hoke, Trevor Anderson, and Terrill Byrd and defensive backs Mike Mickens and Haruki Nakamura. The defense’s experience will help the Bearcats stay in games.
Final verdict: Cincinnati isn’t very good, but the team has enough experience and hunger to upset one of the Big East powers—as they did against Rutgers last year.
7. Syracuse Orangemen
Projected Record: 5-7 (2-5)
Wins: Washington (8/31), at Miami (9/29), Buffalo (10/20), at Connecticut (11/17), Cincinnati (11/24)
Key Players: QB Andrew Robinson, RB Curtis Brinkley, WR Taj Smith, WR Mike Williams, G Carroll Madison, DE Jameel McClain, S Joe Fields, S Dowayne Davis
Newcomer: LB Jermaine Pierce
Highly-touted sophomore Andrew Robinson steps in at quarterback for the departed Perry Patterson, with a good supporting cast around him.
WR Taj Smith returns after being injured early in the ’06 season, and is complemented by sophomore standout Mike Williams. Junior tailback Curtis Brinkley, meanwhile, gets to run behind a veteran O-Line.
The defense is young, but features a Dwight Freeney-type in defensive end Jameel McClain. Safeties Joe Fields and Dowayne Davis should excel in deep coverage. The biggest enigma for the Orangemen is their trio of inexperienced junior linebackers, who could step up and have big seasons.
Final verdict: Syracuse is in the predicament of being plenty old (20 out of the 22 starters are either juniors or seniors) but not so experienced. If their veterans can step up, Greg Robinson’s program could go places. If not, Robinson will struggle to keep his job after going 5-18 in his first three years.
8. Connecticut Huskies
Projected Record: 2-10 (0-7)
Wins: Maine (9/8), Temple (8/15)
Key Players: RB Donald Brown, WR Terrence Jeffers, DE Cody Brown, DT Dan Davis, LB Danny Lansanah, LB Ryan Henegan, CB Darius Butler
Newcomer: QB Tyler Lorenzen (JUCO Transfer)
With several freshmen and sophomores starters, it could be a long season in Connecticut.
Running back Donald Brown has shown promise, but the Huskies have had good backs for the past few years (Terry Caulley, Cornell Brockington) while managing to do nothing but lose.
Brown’s supporting casting is a weak one. A few individual players—Danny Lansanah, Darius Butler—will show flashes of greatness, but it won’t be enough to help the team.
Final verdict: Connecticut will likely endure another year of futility in the Big East. The Huskies do have a solid young nucleus, but UConn is in rebuilding mode (as if they were ever not in rebuilding mode).
All-Big East Conference Team
QB – Brian Brohm, Sr., Louisville
QB – Pat White, Jr., West Virginia
RB – Ray Rice, Jr., Rutgers
RB – Steve Slaton, Jr., West Virginia
WR – Harry Douglas, Sr., Louisville
WR – Derek Kinder, Sr. Pittsburgh
OL – George Bussey, Jr., Louisville
OL – Ryan Stanchek, Jr., West Virginia
OL – Jeremy Zuttah, Sr., Rutgers
OL – Mike McGlynn, Sr., Pittsburgh
OL – Eric Wood, Jr., Louisville
DE – Jamaal Westerman, Jr., Rutgers
DT – Eric Foster, Sr., Rutgers
DT – Terrill Byrd, Jr., Cincinnati
DE – Jameel McClain, Jr., Syracuse
LB – Malik Jackson, Sr., Louisville
LB - Danny Lansanah, Sr., Connecticut
LB – Ben Moffitt, Sr., South Florida
CB – Trae Williams, , South Florida
CB – Mike Mickens, Jr., Cincinnati
S – Eric Wicks, Sr., West Virginia
S – Joe Fields, Sr., Syracuse
K – Jeremy Ito, Sr., Rutgers
P – Justin Teachey, Jr., South Florida
KR – Darius Reynaud, Sr., West Virginia
Big East Offensive MVP: QB Pat White, Jr., West Virginia
Big East Defensive MVP: LB Malik Jackson, Sr., Louisville
Big East Newcomer of the Year: RB Noel Devine, Fr., West Virginia