College Football: Explosive Big East in for Exciting Race

Scott Taylor@@Taylor_SportsCorrespondent IJuly 8, 2008

Seven out of the eight Big East teams may be bowl eligible this year, but it doesn’t make it a top conference.

With no dominant team (sorry, West Virginia) and a bad team (Syracuse), there will be a lot of action all year for the conference title.

West Virginia is the defending champion and favorite in many people’s minds, but there are a bunch of teams with enough talent to contend.


1. West Virginia (10-2, 6-1)

Despite losing coach Rich Rodriguez and running back Steve Slaton, this team still has plenty of weapons to compete for the title.

Pat White is a Heisman Trophy contender at the quarterback position, and Noel Devine showed he has game-breaking potential at running back.

The wide receivers take a hit without Darius Reynaud, but all five starters return on the offensive line.

The defense had numerous question marks last year, and this year should be no different.

Despite a strong showing in the bowl game with Bill Stewart, the coaching department takes a big hit without Rodriguez.

The early and middle part of the schedule is very favorable, with a trip to Colorado followed by three home games and a bye.

After the bye is a fourth straight home game against Auburn, a game I think the Mountaineers will lose.

That is the start of a six-game stretch with no gimmies.

I think the game at Louisville will be the only conference loss, as they will be ready for revenge at Pittsburgh.

This is a team that I don’t see going better than 10-2, but could slip to 8-4.


2. Louisville (10-2, 5-2)

After last year’s train wreck (which I predicted with that brutal defense), I can’t believe I have the Cardinals doing this well.

Look at the schedule, though, and you will see the same thing.

I am expecting a lot of the success based on the high praise for senior quarterback Hunter Cantwell, who has performed well in relief in his career.

The big problem is that all major position players need to be replaced, so this record could still be a stretch.

However, in year two of the Steve Kragthorpe era, I feel they will be more used to the system, and the defense will be improved from last year.

Louisville could easily win its first eight games, with its hardest game at home against South Florida.

The final four will be a big test, but the Cardinals should be able to go 2-2 with West Virginia and Cincinnati coming to UL.

However, trips to Pitt and Rutgers could keep them from a conference title.


3. Cincinnati (8-4, 4-3)

The key to the Bearcats’ season will be if Ben Mauk is granted a sixth year of eligibility.

Even if he isn’t back, Cincy will have a pair of solid replacements in Demitrius Jones and Dustin Grutza.

The Bearcats will be down to their fourth-leading rusher from last year in Jacob Ramsey, but five of their top six receivers will be back.

Defense won the Bearcats some games last year with turnovers, and more could be on the way this year.

An early season showdown at Oklahoma will be tough, but four easy wins should follow.

That sets up a tough four-game stretch where I have Cincy going 1-3, with road losses to Connecticut, West Virginia, and Louisville wrapped around a win over South Florida.

The final three are very winnable, which could lead to a solid bowl.


4. South Florida (9-3, 4-3)

The Bulls were the darling team in the country for a while before losing three straight games.

After losing defensive backs Trae Williams and Mike Jenkins to the NFL, it is hard to see this team being as strong as it was on the defensive end, even though the front seven should be solid.

The offense returns all its skill position players and even most of the offensive line, making them dangerous on offense.

Quarterback Matt Groethe is a proven leader, but I don’t see how they can win the conference.

Even with just three road games in conference play, all three are against the teams ahead of them on this list, making a 1-2 record quite good.

A couple of interesting non-conference games are also on tap with a visit from Kansas and a trip to N.C. State, two games I think they will win.

It just looks like the Big East schedule will be too much to overcome, as I see a trip to a middle bowl game.


5. Pittsburgh (8-4, 3-4)

The Panthers are many people’s surprise team, but I just don’t see how you can base it on one game at West Virginia.

The offense should be much improved with all of their key parts returning, led by running back LeSean McCoy.

Much of their solid defense returns as well, as this no doubt looks like a team on the rise.

However, Dave Wannstedt is still the coach, which means I can’t trust this team.

The schedule sets up nicely through most of the season, as the Panthers could be 8-1 and possibly near the top 10 if they can win at Navy and Notre Dame.

Those last three games look mighty tough though, with trips to Cincy and UConn sandwiching a visit from West Virginia.

That should take Pitt from a BCS game to barely holding onto a bowl bid.


6. Rutgers (7-5, 3-4)

The Scarlet Knights took a big hit losing Ray Rice early, and that will keep them from winning the Big East.

I love this team’s passing offense with Mike Teel and receivers Tiquan Underwood and Kenny Britt.

It takes more than that for an offense though, and the running game will be a big question with a new back and a revamped line.

The defense should be a bit better than last year, but it won’t be enough to shut down the high-powered offenses in the Big East.

Rutgers opens up with three non-conference games that could go either way.

Visits from Fresno State and North Carolina are followed by a trip to Navy, which will go a long way in the team’s confidence for the conference season.

The conference schedule doesn’t get any easier with trips to West Virginia, Cincy, Pitt and USF.

That schedule will make it tough for Rutgers to get to a good bowl game and might even keep it from any bowl game.


7. Connecticut (6-6, 2-5)

I look at what the Huskies have coming back, and I wonder how they could only win two conference games.

One reason is how lucky they got last year, while the other is the four road games they have in conference.

A three-game road trip in the middle of the season (Louisville, North Carolina, Rutgers) will determine their fate.

I have them losing all three, but getting a pair of wins can go a long way for their confidence with Cincy and West Virginia following at home.

Quarterback Tyler Lorenzen and running backs Andre Dixon and Donald Brown will keep them in games, but I just don’t think it will be enough to get them over the hump.

This was a 9-4 team last year that escaped with home wins over the Cardinals and Bulls.


8. Syracuse (3-9, 1-6)

This should be Greg Robinson’s last year, as the Orange will finish in the cellar once again.

They are better than they have been in years past, but there just isn’t any Big East game that they should win.

I have them beating UConn at home simply because I think they will win one conference game like last year.

The non-conference slate isn’t all that easy either, with Northeastern being the only gimmie.

The good news for Orange fans is that their team should be much more competitive with QB Andrew Robinson having some experience.

The pass defense has to get better than last year after giving up over 3,000 yards through the air.

Check back next week for my No. 5 conference predictions.


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