Conference Breakdown: Ranking the Big East

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Conference Breakdown: Ranking the Big East
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Every summer, I make do with the monotony and the boring, college football-less Saturdays by doing my best to scout all 120 FBS teams. Plus, as a gambling man and a rabid college football fan, I like to know what I’m talking about.

In this 12-part feature, I’ll break down each conference, including the independents, ranking the teams in order of how good I perceive them to be heading into the season, complete with last year’s W-L record and my predictions for each team’s 2009 W-L record.

Feel free to comment on what a splendid job you think I’ve done and how my analysis and forecast is dead-on. Or you can disagree, whatever.

Part Six and half way home: The Big Easty

8. Syracuse Orange | Last Year: 3-9 | My 2009 Prediction: 2-10

It’s another rebuilding year in Syracuse this year, which has seemed to be the theme ever since old HC Greg Robinson took over in ‘05, considering he never took the team past four wins.

Last year the three games Syracuse won were against Northeastern, a FCS team, Louisville and a miserably inconsistent Notre Dame team. So, despite an apparent rebuilding year, there’s an opportunity for the Orange fans to see improvements now as it can't get much worse.

New HC Doug Marrone has injected a new attitude of toughness into the players, and will start the rebuilding by addressing all of the costly mistakes of a year ago, such as dropped passes, missed tackles, blown coverages and penalties, which were still prevalent during the spring game.

There’s 14 returning starters to work with, but a redshirt freshman QB leads the OFF. The non-conference schedule will make it difficult to improve the W-L record with three straight games against the Big 10’s MN, PSU and NW to start the season. Of course, since there are only seven other teams in the Big East, each team plays each other every year.

I think Marrone is a good fit for the program and there will be considerable improvements this year as there’s plenty of skill to build around, but it’s a lot to ask to turn it completely around in one year.

7. Louisville Cardinals | Last Year: 5-7 | My 2009 Prediction: 4-8

This very well could be a pivotal year for third year HC Steve Kragthorpe as he has yet to help the Louisville program recapture any competitive significance within the Big East, or nationally for that matter.

If Kragthorpe’s team cannot at least show some semblance of better things to come, his seat may not even have time to get hot.

It can’t be easy to follow former HC Bobby Petrino, who tallied a very respectable 41-9 record in four years, including two one-loss seasons, not to mention the fact that Kragthorpe just doesn’t have the same caliber of talent Petrino once enjoyed.

The Cards do, however, return seven players on OFF, including their 1,000-yard rusher from last year, Victor Anderson, who also scored eight times, as well as all of their top WRs.

N.C. State transfer junior QB Justin Burke has seemed to emerge as starter from a five-way QB battle, although an official starter may not be named until week one. The biggest concern with the Cards this year has to be at both the O-line and D-line, where they have a lot of inexperience.

Louisville looked to be putting together a very good season last year having only lost twice in the first seven games, including a win over then-ranked No. 14 USF, but that’s where it ended as they lost the last five.

The schedule isn’t any easier this year as they’ve managed to schedule nine opponents whom earned a bowl appearance last year. They Cards also catch four of their seven conference opponents on the road.

With so many questions, some new faces in the coaching staff, difficult schedule and their third QB in as many years, it’s going to be awfully tough for Louisville to make it back to a bowl this year.

6. Connecticut Huskies | Last Year: 8-5 | My 2009 Prediction: 4-8

I can’t imagine the Huskies getting considerably better this year, or at least not improving their record from last year, considering they lost RB Donald Brown, who amassed an incredible 2,083 yards and 18 rushing TDs last season, and only return 12 starters on OFF and DEF.

From ‘07 to ‘08, UConn improved their DEF stats considerably, lowering their rush yards allowed/game from 157 to 110 and their pass yards allowed/game from 194 to 168. Despite returning all three starting LB’s this year, the Huskies DEF loses significant experience in the secondary and at the D-line, so don’t expect another drastic improvement in statistics.

The Huskies will look to add more of a vertical passing game and spread to their OFF, so it’s possible to even see some four- and five-WR sets to get the ball into the hands of their young, talented playmakers.

The schedule may be arguably one of the most difficult in the Big East with games against a tricky Ohio team, an experienced North Carolina team, and an offensively potent Baylor team, just to start the season. UConn also catches Pitt, Cincy, WVU, and Notre Dame on the road.

With a new offense attack and several new starters, this Huskies team will experience some growing pains this year, but don’t be surprised if they have it all figured out during the season and “upset” a few teams along the way.

5. Cincinnati Bearcats | Last Year: 11-3 | My 2009 Prediction: 6-6

The Cincinnati Bearcats are coming off their first-ever BCS bowl appearance and a school-record 11-win season. From that record-setting team, the OFF returns eight starters, including their top WR, Mardy Gilyard, who caught 81 passes for 1276 yards and 11 scores, their top three options at RB and even their most accomplished QB from last season, senior Tony Pike.

The DEF, on the other hand, is a real concern as they merely have one starter returning. There are, however, several players returning that saw significant playing time throughout last season.

The fact that the Bearcats have transitioned several players from the OFF side over to DEF points to a serious lack of depth and their biggest question mark heading into the season.

Cincinnati will definitely have the OFF firepower once again to compete in the Big East, but it remains to be seen how effective the DEF can be and if the OFF has enough to carry them.

The difficult schedule of the Bearcats is not going to make it easy on them either, having to face Oregon St., Fresno St., and Illinois, all amongst the best in their respective conferences.

HC Brian Kelly has taken his Bearcats team to an impressive 22-6 mark over the last two seasons, including an ’06 bowl win over W. Mich after he took over for the departed Mark Dantonio. However, with a suspect DEF and a difficult schedule, Kelly may not be so fortunate to match that level of success this season.

4. Pittsburgh Panthers | Last Year: 9-4 | My 2009 Prediction: 6-6

In his fourth year at Pitt, HC Dave Wannstache, I mean Wannstedt finally looked to be making some progress with his Pitt team as they posted, by far, their best season yet (9-4), including his first-ever bowl appearance as a HC.

This year, Pitt will still be good, but they’ll have to manage without two of their top three WRs, their punter and kicker, and most importantly their two best RB’, LeSean McCoy and LaRod Stephens-Howling, who combined for 26 rushing scores and more than 2,200 yards rushing and receiving.

The Pitt DEF loses their top three tacklers including first Team All-American MLB Scott McKillop, who had 137 tackles with 17.5 tackles in the backfield, but they do get back two senior LB’s who missed last year due to injury. The O-line returns four starters and can only get better considering they gave up a Big East-worst 32 sacks.

Pitt will replace both its punter and kicker with players having little-to-no experience, which is a real concern considering how many close games Pitt played in last year.

The non-conference slate will not be easy with games on the road vs. Buffalo, the reigning MAC champs, vs. an experienced and improved NC State team and at home against Navy and Notre Dame, both of whom have a strong chance at beating Pitt.

Even with 15 returning starters on both OFF and DEF, Pitt looks to have several question marks, most importantly on OFF, and while I certainly think Pitt will reach a bowl this season, I think there’s better teams in the Big East that will keep them from a conference title and well south of double-digit wins.

3. West Virginia Mountaineers | Last Year: 9-4 | My 2009 Prediction: 10-2

West Virginia has not finished lower than second in the Big East since 2001, a streak I don’t think will be ending this season as the Mountaineers look to be loaded.

Despite losing their record-setting QB, Pat White, who amassed 4,480 career rush yards at WVU, breaking Missouri QB Brad Smith’s NCAA record, the OFF won’t miss a beat, led by a much better passer in senior QB Jarrett Brown, who threw for 274 yards with four scores in the spring game.

HC Bill Stewart has moved the team away from the wildly successful run option spread to a more traditional passing game, which may explain the 9-4 record last season after three straight 11-win seasons. It’s year two in the Stewart era and WVU has the right players in place to run Stewart’s system and get back to their double-digit winning ways.

RB Noel Devine, the team’s leading rusher, and several solid options at WR are all in place to, once again, give West Virginia an explosive OFF. Believe it or not, the DEF, despite losing their top three tacklers, actually looks to be the strength of the team returning seven starters, lead by sixth-year MLB Reed Williams, who posted 107 tackles in ‘07, but redshirted last season due injury.

The biggest question mark for the Mountaineers this year has to be at the O-line where they lose a few first and second Team All-Big East linemen. The skill players are certainly there, but can the O-line do their part?

The non-conference schedule is manageable with home games against Liberty, E. Carolina, Colorado, and Marshall and one road game at Auburn, who I picked to finish next-to-last in the SEC.

I think WVU will make considerable improvements from last year, especially offensively, and will earn their eighth straight bowl game, but catching three of the other top five Big East teams on the road (at USF, at Cincy, at Rutgers) may keep the Mountaineers from achieving 11 wins again this season.

2. USF Bulls | Last Year: 8-5 | My 2009 Prediction: 10-2

South Florida has certainly had its chances the past two years having climbed as high as No. 2 nationally in ‘07 before losing momentum and then going 2-5 in conference play after starting the season 5-0 last year.

This may be their last chance at something bigger before a possible rebuilding year starts next season as they will lose nearly all of their star power, including four-year starter, QB Matt Grothe, who combined for 22 scores and over 3,500 yards both rushing and passing last season, as well as certain first round draft pick DE George Selvie, leading WR Jesse Hester and FS Nate Allen.

The DEF will be solid with maybe the best D-line in the Big East, but the biggest question mark for this year’s Bulls team is the O-line where four seniors, who combined for 87 career starts, will be replaced by a group to include some junior college transfers, who have combined for only 43 career starts, so they’ll certainly be less experienced.

That many not matter too much for the Bulls as senior QB Matt Grothe is their leading rusher and will move the chains one way or another.

The non-conference schedule is middle-of-the-pack considering USF is one of only seven schools nationwide to play two FCS schools, but they also play in-state games at FSU and at home vs. Miami.

While I expect the Bulls to have a fantastic year and earn their fifth straight bowl bid, it remains to be seen if they can finally live up to their potential and take it to the next level by at least achieving double-digit wins, a feat they’ve yet to accomplish since becoming an FBS team in 2001.

1. Rutgers Scarlet Knights | Last Year: 8-5 | My 2009 Prediction: 11-1

Despite the high expectations heading into the ‘08 season, the Scarlet Knights severely underachieved starting 1-5 and barely squeaking by UConn in their seventh contest thanks to a late missed field goal by the Huskies.

Then Rutgers finally woke up and exploded offensively going from an average of just over 13 points/game to just over 43 points/game as they won their final seven games including their bowl game against NC State.

Gone from the OFF that returns seven are three of the top four WRs as well as QB Mike Teel, who led the offensive explosion during the final six game last year throwing for 343 yards/game with a fantastic 68.5 percent completion rate. Teel’s replacement is still uncertain, but will definitely be inexperienced and won’t be able to match Teel’s numbers of last season.

The O-line returns all five starters and should give whomever wins the starting QB job all the time needed to develop. There’s no real star RB to speak of, but rather a trio of backs all vying for playing time.

The DEF returns six, including two starters at the D-line and a solid LB corps lead by senior LB Ryan D’Imperio, who totaled 93 tackles last year, 12.5 of which behind the line of scrimmage. The secondary, however, loses two stars to the NFL in CB Jason McCourty and FS Courtney Greene.

The schedule is very favorable this year and is the only reason I put them ahead of USF for the top spot. Rutgers is one of the other seven teams in the nation to schedule two FCS teams, and they also catch the other top teams in the Big East at home.

Although Rutgers certainly has some questions to answer, it may be the most balanced team in the Big East. Couple that with a favorable schedule and the Scarlet Knights have a very good chance at winning the Big East crown this year.

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