Big East Season Preview: It's All About R-E-S-P-E-C-T

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Big East Season Preview: It's All About R-E-S-P-E-C-T
(Photo by Frank Micelotta/Getty Images)

Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” should be the anthem played at every Big East football game. Despite a 12-4 Bowl game record the last three seasons and a respectable 3-2 in the last five BCS Bowl games, the conference still gets little R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

No Big East team is currently ranked in the top 25. That will change during this season. As soon as there is separation in the conference, I think the Big East can have three teams in the top 25.

The only thing for certain in the Big East conference this season is that there is plenty of uncertainty. This conference has no clear-cut favorite.

I love Big East football, and I want you to love it as well. The competition is better than you realize. The coaching around the conference is solid. The conference sends productive players to the NFL and it did have three players taken in the first round of the 2009 NFL Draft.

This is not the SEC, the Big Ten, or Big XII. This league plays every team in the conference every season. There is no show-me-the-money conference championship game.

The offenses and defenses are run mostly pro-style. You will not really find any jump passes or old ball coaches up here.

The following are my picks in the Big East in terms of conference record:

 

West Virginia—10-2, 6-1 Big East

Give kudos to Bill Stewart for putting together the best non-conference schedule of any school in the Big East. The Mountaineers will open at home against Liberty, and then home against perennial troublemaker East Carolina.

Last year ECU thumped West Virginia 24-3. This was a week after the Pirates knocked off No. 7 Virginia Tech 27-22 to open the 2008 season.

West Virginia then travels to Auburn, and will host Colorado before starting Big East play at Syracuse.

Player to Watch: Jock Sanders, Wide Receiver/Running Back

Sanders is a playmaker. He can run, and he can catch. Sanders had 712 combined yards and nine touchdowns last season. If he can keep himself out of trouble he could be the difference in West Virginia’s season.

The loss of Pat White, who was the only quarterback to start and win four bowl games, will be tough at first for the Mountaineers. But, WVU has a very capable quarterback in Jarrett Brown.

Just ask Rutgers coach Greg Schiano about what Jarrett Brown can do for WVU. Brown’s career record is 2-0, and both wins came against Rutgers. That included the 2006 game, where West Virginia beat Rutgers in three overtimes to knock Rutgers out of the Big East championship.

Trap Game: Friday, October 30 at USF

This game will be the fifth straight for the Mountaineers and they will have one less day of rest after playing Connecticut on October 24. Plus, it is mischief night and something strange in the Tampa air will give West Virginia its first Big East defeat.

Analysis: I think The Mountaineers' difficult early schedule will help them and they will win the Big East. Their road schedule is not difficult in the Big East. They play at Syracuse, at Cincinnati, at USF and at Rutgers.

I think they will lose at USF on October 30, but win the remaining four games including the last two—the Backyard Brawl against Pittsburgh and at Rutgers.

West Virginia has not lost to Rutgers since 1994. The combination of Jarrett Brown, Noel Devine and Jock Sanders may be too much for any Big East defense to defend.

 

Rutgers—9-3, 5-2

Rutgers returns the best offensive line in the Big East. Rutgers does not return its quarterback, two starting wide receivers, and much of its secondary.

They open with Cincinnati at home on Labor Day. That game is considered to be the make or break game for Rutgers.

Player to Watch: Quarterback Position. Currently it is a battle between fifth-year senior and Michigan State transfer Dom Natale and true freshman Tom Savage.

Mike Teel, the New Jersey native, had been part of the Rutgers offense since 2005. In 2006, he became the full-time starter.

For Rutgers fans, it will be a little strange not seeing Teel as the man under center. Teel was maligned for his start of the 2008 season where he threw seven interceptions in his first four games. But, the resilient Teel only threw six picks in his final nine games.

Teel did have a penchant for throwing some odd mid-range interceptions, but he threw a very good deep ball and was a big reason why three of his targets from a year ago, Kenny Britt, Tiquan Underwood and Kevin Brock are currently on NFL rosters.

Teel is now with the Seattle Seahawks.

Trap Game: Friday October 16 vs Pittsburgh

I say it is a trap game because it will be Rutgers' first Big East game since Labor Day against Cincinnati. After the Cincinnati game, Rutgers hosts Howard and Florida International. They travel to Maryland to take on the Terrapins on September 26 and then return home to face Texas Southern on October 3.

Pittsburgh will have played back-to-back Big East games before coming to New Jersey that Friday. The Panthers will be knee deep in conference football by then, while the Scarlet Knights will be learning to get their feet wet again.

Analysis: The Scarlet Knights have a golden opportunity to win the Big East. Their road games are at Maryland, at Army, at Connecticut, at Syracuse, and at Louisville. The big games for Rutgers are all in Piscataway.

If the play at quarterback is very good, then Rutgers will be playing for the league championship against West Virginia on December 5. I think the play will be good, but not good enough to punch a BCS ticket.

 

USF—9-3, 5-2

South Florida has a nice opening stretch where the Bulls should be 3-0 after wins over Wofford, Western Kentucky and Charleston Southern.

Two big games for the Bulls happen in their home state, but are not Big East games. On September 26, South Florida travels to Tallahassee to take on Florida State. On November 28, the Bulls drive south to take on Miami.

Should USF beat both of those legendary college football schools, does USF truly move up to number two in the state of Florida behind the Gators? Those two games will be Rodney Dangerfield moments for Jim Leavitt and his Bulls.

USF is feeling quite confident about their season that on their website Game 13 is listed as a bowl game.

Player to Watch: Matt Grothe, Quarterback—Yes, he can run, he can pass, he can sell popcorn in the stands, but can he cut down on his turnovers?

I want to see Grothe play more consistently and put together a streak of four or five really solid games. For now, the consistency in his game is that in each of his three seasons with USF he has thrown for 14 interceptions.

He has never thrown for more than 18 touchdowns in a single season.

This is his last chance to really put his stamp on the conference and move his draft position and rookie pay-level in the NFL.

Trap Game: Thursday, November 12 at Rutgers

This is the final game of a brutal four game stretch for the Bulls that will first have them home to Cincinnati on Thursday, October 15, at Pittsburgh on October 22, and home to West Virginia on October 30.

If they survive those three games successfully there is still one more, and it is at Rutgers on a Thursday night. Two years ago on a Thursday night, USF was ranked No. 2 in the country and got knocked off by Rutgers, 30-27. 

That is the toughest stretch that any contending Big East team will face. If the Bulls end up 3-0, they win the Big East.

If they go 2-1, they are contenders, and if they are 1-2, they will be contending for a bowl that does not have three letters associated with it.

Analysis: South Florida has two of the best players in the Big East in Matt Grothe and linebacker George Selvie, but this schedule is an absolute gauntlet.

Give credit to Jim Leavitt for wanting to play Miami and Florida State in the same season, but pile that on with the stretch that I mentioned above and the Bulls will be running themselves out of the Big East race by early November.

 

Pittsburgh—8-4, 4-3 Big East

If there was a favorite to be found in the Big East, it is Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh returns the most starters of any school in the conference.

But, the last time the Panthers took the field was the 2008 Sun Bowl where they were beaten by Oregon State, 3-0. Quarterback Bill Stull had a miserable day. He threw for just 52 yards and was intercepted.

Player to Watch: Bill Stull, Quarterback—Stull will need to find a way to play better if this team is going to go anywhere this season. He threw for only nine touchdowns in 2008. He only had one game where threw more than one TD pass.

He will not have LeSean McCoy in the backfield to rely on this season. Pitt does not currently have a true No. 1 starting tailback. The position currently is split between Dion Lewis, Ray Graham, and Chris Burns.

Someone may step up during the season and become the feature back, but for now, a lot rests on Stull’s right arm.

Trap Game: Saturday, October 10 vs Connecticut

Pitt will return home after games at North Carolina State and at Louisville to face Connecticut. I think Pitt may slip up here because they may be looking ahead to a game in six days at Rutgers, and a game the following Saturday at USF. 

Analysis: This should be Pittsburgh’s year to go back to the BCS, but for some reason, it just will not happen. Until Dave Wannstedt proves he can move this team into the upper echelon of the conference, I cannot give the Panthers the Big East.

This team will lose a game it was probably supposed to win somewhere down the road. I just cannot shake that. I am sure there are many Panther fans that feel the same way.

Also, West Virginia will not let Pitt forget that Pitt’s win in last year’s Backyard Brawl cost them a share of the Big East title. 

 

Cincinatti—7-5, 3-4 Big East

The defending champions of the league have some very good news on offense. Eight starters return including their two stars from last year. Quarterback Tony Pike and wide receiver Mardy Gilyard are back and should wreak havoc on defenses throughout the season.

The bad news for the Bearcats is only one returning starter is on defense in safety Aaron Webster.

One thing I will say for certain is that barring a perfect season Cincinnati’s head coach Brian Kelly will not be the Big East Coach of the Year. Kelly won this award in 2007 and in 2008.

Player to Watch: Mardy Gilyard, wide receiver—Gilyard set a school record with 1,276 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2008. He could have left early to enter the NFL draft, but I am interested to see what he does for an encore in his final season as a Bearcat. He may be the best overall player in the Big East.

Trap Game: Monday, September 7 at Rutgers

It is hard to call the first game of the year a trap game, but this one truly is a trap. College football is not as rigid when it comes to scheduling as the NFL, so why do you have your defending conference champion open on the road against a conference opponent? You can read more about that here.

Analysis: The overall offense should still be one of the best in the conference, but there is no standout at running back.

The lack of returning starters on defense is a little frightening. Brian Kelly is a very good coach and will find a way to keep this team in bowl contention come November, but a return trip to the BCS will not happen this season.

 

Connecticut—6-6, 3-4 Big East

Connecticut has a chance to either make a big splash in the standings or finish just ahead of Louisville and Syracuse.

The Huskies' biggest problem is that most of their Big East games against the top section of the league are on the road. The Huskies will be at Pittsburgh, at West Virginia, and at Cincinnati.

The Huskies will certainly miss their all-time leading rusher Donald Brown who skipped out on his senior year to become the first-round draft pick of the Indianapolis Colts.

Player to Watch: Andre Dixon, Running Back

Dixon is an interesting story and will definitely be a big factor in where the Huskies finish in the Big East in 2009.

Dixon’s injured ankle in last year’s preseason allowed Donald Brown to take over, and Dixon was left behind. But Dixon had a very strong 2007 in which he ran for 828 yards and averaged an impressive 5.0 yards per carry.

Trap Game: Saturday, November 28 vs. Syracuse

Normally, this should be a game where UConn should roll, but the team will make its first trip to South Bend the week before and you cannot help but think that should be an emotional week for the Huskies.

UConn may still win the game, but I think there will be a little bit of a hangover. It will also be Syracuse’s final game of the season and they may not have any conference wins at this point.

Remember, Connecticut just a decade ago was playing in Division I-AA. For their only head coach at the Division I-A/FBS level, Randy Edsall, I am sure that will be a special day for him in South Bend—even more so if the Huskies beat the Irish.

Analysis: This team lost more than just Donald Brown last year. While, Dixon should fill in nicely for Brown, the quarterback situation and in the secondary is not as easy to fill.

Zach Frazer will take over at quarterback for Tyler Lorenzen. The team also lost cornerback Darius Butler to the NFL and safety Dahna Deleston. The two had combined for 88 starts with the Huskies.

This team will be competitive, but it has three tough conference road games at Pittsburgh, at West Virginia, and at Cincinnati. I just do not see them winning more than one of those three. If they do, then they are right in the race. But, for now, I see them fighting for the last Big East bowl berth.

 

Louisville—3-9, 1-6

The University of Louisville will be in the sports pages on a regular basis during the fall. Unfortunately, it appears that the stories will be about basketball coach Rick Pitino rather than the success of the football program.

Louisville’s football head coach, Steve Kragthorpe, may be the Big East coach on the hot seat this season. But, as long as Pitino keeps staging these mock press conferences, Kragthorpe’s job may not be in that much jeopardy.

It seems like forever ago that Louisville was 12-1 and won the Orange Bowl. But that was just three seasons ago in 2006.

Player to Watch: Victor Anderson, Running Back

Anderson is just a sophomore and was named the Big East Rookie of the Year last season. He was fifth in rushing in the conference in 2008. He averaged 5.7 yards per carry.

With some very talented backs in the Big East moving to the NFL, Anderson could very well crack the top three this season.

Louisville, which has been known for producing stability at the quarterback position, finds itself in a rare competition for the spot. Redshirt freshman Zach Stoudt should be the long-term solution, but he will battle juniors Justin Burke and Adam Froman for the spot. 

Trap Game: Friday, November 14 vs Syracuse

In what should be a battle for each team’s first and possibly only Big East win the Cards will only have six days to prepare for the Orange. Last season, Syracuse beat Louisville in Syracuse 28-21.

Analysis: Someone seems to have eaten most of the tasty slices at Papa John’s Stadium. Maybe one of the quarterbacks will step up and be the future of what has been a very good past at the U of L.

 

Syracuse—2-10, 0-7

The good news for Syracuse fans is that only three senior starters will be lost after this season. Also, they do not have head coach Greg Robinson to pick on anymore.

Syracuse will be the only member of the Big East with a new head coach for 2009. He is Doug Marrone. Marrone does not inherit much, but he can certainly build the right pieces.

The Big East needs Syracuse to be competitive again. Syracuse has a great tradition

How many other schools had a movie made about them? If you saw last year’s film, "The Express," the story of Ernie Davis, you will know what Syracuse University means to college football.

Can he lead the once-proud Orange and Blue down the field and back to prominence? Time will tell.

Player to Watch: Arthur Jones, Nose Tackle

Jones was an All-Big East selection last year, and is projected to be in the running for an All-America selection this season. Jones tore his pectoral muscle and has spent most of the offseason healing. If he is healthy, he should be the best player on the field for the Orange.

At quarterback for the Orange, will be someone recognizable to most as a Dukie. Former Duke point guard Greg Paulus will be under center and will draw the attention of the media.

Unfortunately, it will not be Otto the Orange taking the snaps.

Trap Game: Saturday, October 24 vs. Akron

The Akron Zips just a season ago beat Syracuse 38-24 at the Carrier Dome in Syracuse’s home opener. This is a game that Marrone needs to win to at least do one better than his predecessor.

Analysis: The Cuse will gather more attention with Paulus, but they will not gather any more victories. This program will be about the next decade in the Big East.

 

Enjoy the football. My predictions are probably way off and that is the beauty of college football and especially being a fan of a very competitive conference. Just give the league its propers if you like the football that is played every week in the Big East Conference. Just a little bit.

 

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