Big East Football Preview: Defense Will Be the Word This Season

Jason DuniganCorrespondent IJuly 28, 2009

MIAMI - JANUARY 01:  Head coach Brian Kelly of the Cincinnati Bearcats looks on against the Virginia Tech Hokies during the FedEx Orange Bowl at Dolphin Stadium on January 1, 2009 in Miami, Florida.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

The Big East has largely been an offensive-minded conference since restructuring in 2004. High-scoring games have been the norm with offensive stars such as Steve Slaton, Pat White, Donald Brown, Brian Brohm and Ray Rice.

This season, with all those former stars now earning NFL paychecks, the conference is taking on a different look, and that look will be one of stout defenses nearly across the board.

Unlike a few years ago, when talking heads such as Kirk Herbstreit slammed the conference for not playing defense (Herbstreit, being true to form, went on to applaud the high-scoring shootout between Ohio State and Michigan later that same season), this season Herbstreit and his cronies will probably be slamming the league for not playing offense.

Last year's conference champion, Cincinnati, will have the most to prove as it tries to defend its title, but it will be playing with a defense as green as the turf it plays on. The Bearcats will be replacing 10 starters from a stellar defensive unit that helped carry them to the Orange Bowl.

Likewise, Syracuse and Louisville will have to pretend they want to play defense after their atrocious performances from a year ago if they want to even think about a possible bowl invitation.

Last season, every team in the Big East except Syracuse and Louisville had defenses that finished the year ranked in the top 30 in at least one of the four main defensive statistical categoriesscoring defense, pass defense, run defense, and total defense.  Several of the teams ranked among the top 10 in some of those categories.

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This year should be even better defensively for the league, but the high-scoring excitement of the past several seasons might not be a common occurance. League fans should probably get used to scores resembling 21-17 as opposed to 42-35.

Predicting the order of finish for the Big East this year is akin to drawing straws. At least five teams should have a shot at winning the conference championship and earning the league's automatic berth into a BCS bowl.

Still, like all good fans of college football do at this time of year, we will attempt to predict the order of finish for what could be a very rugged league to navigate this fall.

1. West Virginia (predicted record 10-2)

This probably surprises some and doesn't surprise others. 

However, looking at WVU across the board, it has the fewest question marks of any team in the league. Yes, the Mountaineers lose Pat White. But White's replacement, Jarrett Brown, has seen a lot of action and has a 2-0 record as a starter with wins over Rutgers and Syracuse. 

Brown will also be throwing to what should be the best group of receivers WVU has fielded since the days of Marc Bulger and his impressive cast of receivers.

On the ground, look for Noel Devine to rush for over 1,500 yards if he stays healthy.  Coach Bill Stewart made short yardage pick-ups a priority during spring ball, and offensive coordinator Jeff Mullen now has several big bodies to choose from to pick up that oft-elusive first down from a year ago.

The offensive line will be green, with a combined start count of just under 30 for the unit. However, what the linemen lack in quantity time on the field, they make up for in quality time, as each member that figures to start this season has seen live action during games.

West Virginia's defense was better last season than most were aware of, as it ranked No. 1 nationally in red zone defense and No. 11 nationally in scoring defense. Both numbers led all league teams in those categories.

If WVU has a weakness, it will be on special teams, where they replace do-it-all man Pat McAfee, who was solid in kicking and punting, if not consistent.  Kickoff coverage cost WVU a couple of games last season, and that must be corrected if the Mountaineers do not want to spot opponents half the field on offense as they often did last season.

2. Cincinnati (predicted record 9-3)

Cincinnati had an amazing season last year, and what made it amazing was how Brian Kelly managed to keep plugging bodies in at quarterback despite having about 3,000 injuries at the position. 

Finally, Tony Pike put the starting position in a headlock and never let go of it, making Bearcat opponents tap out and submit.

Despite the success of the passing game last season, Kelly's offense ranked only 55th nationally in scoring. Look for that to change this year, with an entire season for Pike to throw touchdown passes to superstar receiver Mardy Gilyard. Last year's 26th-ranked passing attack should break the top 15 in that category this season.

Cincy's running game should be adequate with some experience in the backfield, but no proven game-breakers to speak of. Although, some younger backs have Kelly excited about their potential.

Defensively, there isn't much to say about Cincinnati. As has been repeated everywhere about a million times over, the team must replace 10 starters. 

The good news for Bearcat fans, though, is that the defense will have about nine seniors filling holes and competing for time on the field. What they lack in game time, they make up for in time-in-rate.  Fifth years seniors are not rattled easily, and if they can gel by mid-season, they might be playing for Kelly's second Big East title in a row.

3. Pittsburgh (predicted record 8-4)

Last season, Dave Wannstedt finally got the bowl drought monkey off the Panthers' back, and in doing so went on to produce a nine-win season for his Alma Mater.

Pittsburgh had a woeful offense at times last year, with only LeSean McCoy playing with urgency at all times. Quarterback Bill Stull was adequate, but he never performed at a level that made Wannstedt comfortable. 

Last year, Pitt's offense ranked 77th nationally. If the Panthers want to take another step forward and possibly win the conference, they need that number to improve drastically. If Stull continues to be the team's gunslinger, it will be his respnsibility to carry the team on offense until a proven successor to McCoy can be found to carry the ball.

Defense will be what wins the games for Pittsburgh until their offense finds its rhythm.  Last season's 27th-ranked unit in total defense will be a handful for opposing offenses, especially with a seasoned defensive line that looks to keep opponents on their toes and offensive lines banged up and bruised.

Pittsburgh's secondary will be a strength, as they return both corners and their strong safety to give them experience and leadership on the field.

4. South Florida (predicted record 8-4)

Like Pittsburgh, USF will have to rely on defense to win games for them early until their offense hopefully gels at some point during the season. 

Returning only three starters on offense, senior quarterback Matt Grothewho seems like he has been playing for the Bulls since 1972will have to use his arm and his legs to make things happen. 

Fortunately for head coach Jim Leavitt, the Bulls open their season visiting a pastry shop, facing cream puffs Wofford, Western Kentucky, and Charleston Southern. If USF isn't 3-0 with an average margin of victory of 45-0 after those three games, Leavitt needs to rethink his career choice.

Still, having those three warm-ups to start the season could be a move of sheer brilliance by the Bulls athletic department. Those three contests should give South Florida ample time to work out their kinks and also time to start the ground work for an offense hitting on all cylinders. South Florida's inexperienced offensive line will appreciate the breaking-in period as well.

For USF, facing Florida State and Miami makes up for the weak opening in their nonconference slate.

Defensively, the Bulls are always a tough out for anyone they face, especially with George Selvie back for another go-roundhe has also seemingly been playing for the Bulls since 1972. Selvie should have at least eight sacks after the first three games of the season, and he will be helped along by his defensive tackles to form a seriously stout defensive line.

For USF to make a run at the Big East title may be asking a bit much, but if Grothe can make plays and limit his turnovers, and if Selvie and his crew on defense can keep the Bulls in their games, then we could see the Bulls right in the thick of the Big East race come November. One thing is for certain, the offense and defense will have solid senior leadership.

5. Rutgers (predicted record 7-5)

If Mike Teel and Kenny Britt were coming back this year for Rutgers, the Scarlet Knights would be the hands-down favorite to win the conference. 

But those two former stars are just that, howeverformer stars.

What Rutgers did last year in turning around their season and winning their final seven contests, including their bowl game, was incredible. This year, without Teel and Britt, and with a running attack that ranked only 80th in the nation last season, points may be few and far between for the State University of New Jersey.

Even though Rutgers has a fifth-year senior in the fold to try his hand at the starting quarterback position, unlike West Virginia, who is also putting a fifth-year senior on the field, coach Greg Schiano doesn't have anyone who has proven themselves as a starter. Do not be surprised if we see true freshman Tom Savage running the offense by mid-season.

For Rutgers to contend for a Big East titleas many are predicting around the countrySchiano is going to need a superstar to emerge at the quarterback position. And it will have to emerge on day one, as the Knights open their season against what should be a high-octane scoring machine called the Cincinnati Bearcats.

Much has been made about Rutgers' weak schedule, but opening the season facing a passing attack like Cincinnati's is a lot to ask of any team, let alone one breaking in a new passer and utilizing a less-than-exciting running game.

The good news for Rutgers is that it is one of the teams in the Big East this season with a proven defense, fielding a group of stoppers that ranked 19th in scoring defense last season. That defense, coupled with the league's best offensive line, should be good enough to give the Scarlett Knights another bowl season.

6. Connecticut (predicted record 7-5)

UConn will miss Donald Brown as much as any team will miss any player this season. If you were to have asked Randy Edsell what type of offense he ran last season, he would have probably told you he ran the "Donald Brown Offense." And he would be right.

UConn ran Brown early and often, and then ran him some more. Now, however, Brown is getting paid for his efforts, and Randy Edsell has to find another stallion to carry the load for his Huskies this season.

Breaking in a new offensive coordinator and a new scheme will not be an easy transition for the Huskies. There are always growing pains with any new scheme, and there will be some at UConn this season.

What separates UConn from Louisville and Syracuse this year is their defense, and it is a good one. Connecticut may have the league's best defense from top to bottom, despite losing a couple of defenders to the first two rounds of the NFL draft.

Want to see some freaky numbers? Last season, UConn ranked 22nd in scoring defense, 16th in rushing defense, ninth in passing defense, and sixth in total defense. Raise your hand if you knew that about Edsell's team.

A manageable schedule, coupled with a great defense and a lack of offensive firepower in the conference should help UConn go bowling again. However, offensively the Huskies are not quite up to the task of competing for their second-ever conference championship this season.

7. Syracuse (predicted record 4-8)

Syracuse and Louisville are essentially interchageable at the seventh and eighth positions, but someone has to win when these two face off, and Syracuse has won the last two meetings with the Cardinals. 

Even though the game will be played in Louisville, the confidence factor will be on the side of the Orange, and by the time the game takes palce in mid-November, Louisville fans will hoping for a new head coach and concentrating on basketball season.

Syracuse will have the benefit of euphoria that often comes with a fresh start, and it has a decent number of lettermen returning as well. The offense and defense that new coach Doug Marrone will install will be better suited to the personnel that the Orange already have on their roster, and running a form of the spread will help take advantage of some of the speed the team has at the skill positions.

Syracuse had the worst group of defenders in the conference last season. In order for the "'Cuse" to start winning again, they need to be able to get opposing offenses off the field and stop runners from slicing through their line into the secondary for big gains on the ground. Marrone will be utizing a four-man front on his defenses, and that should help in slowing down the running attacks of opponents as they face the Orange.

Overall, it will still be a long season for Syracuse fans, but help is on the way. Look for improvements across the board in key statistical categories, but not in the form of many wins. The bottom line is that Orange players will begin playing with passion again, and that will be what ignites the turnaround for this once proud program.

8. Louisville (predicted record 3-9)

It is not going to get any better for Cardinals fans this year. In fact, it will probably get worse. 

Louisville has holes to fill on both their offensive and defensive lines, and that is not a good way to start a successful season. The Cardinals also have to break in a new quarterback, which does not bode well for them either.

The bright spot for Louisville is their running game, and more specifically Victor Anderson. Anderson ran for just over 1,000 yards last season as a freshman and was named the conference's Rookie of the Year for his efforts. If Louisville has any chance at looking respectable this year, they are going to have to get about 1,800 yards out of Anderson on the ground.

If Anderson can carry the weight of the team on his shoulders long enough for the passing game to start taking shape, there is a slight chance that Louisville could break even and flirt with a bowl game. The Cardinals are going to have to upset either Utah or Kentucky to do that, however, and those are not likely wins.

Defensively, Louisville wasn't bad when stopping the run last year, but that is where the positives end on defense. A new defensive coordinator likely means an adjustment period for the players this season, and that does not bode well for a head coach trying to put out the fires under his seat.

I will not be shocked to see Steve Kragthorpe receive a fourth year in Louisville, as he appears to be close friends with athletic director Tom Jurich. But Jurich's hands may be tied if the season plays out as poorly, as many believe it will.

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