Big East Football Preview

July 29th, 2009

No runaway favorite here…and that’s a good thing

By Raphielle Johnson


The lack of a true favorite is just another item that national naysayers will choose to hold against the Big East, a conference that has been lightly regarded and disrespected since expansion in 2005. But to simply focus on the lack of a national title contender (on paper) would be done at the detriment of this development: the race for the Big East title is the most wide-open among all eleven conferences this season. The conference looks to replace headliners such as Pat White, Donald Brown and LeSean McCoy, and their departures to the NFL has turned this race into one that analysts can attempt to forecast at their own peril.


Louisville and Syracuse may be the only teams counted out of the race this early, with the Orange welcoming a new head coach in Doug Marrone and the Cardinals looking to shake things up after a disappointing second season under Steve Kragthorpe. Louisville is fortunate to have one of the better running backs in the conference in sophomore Victor Anderson, but how much they improve on both sides of the football this season will tell the story in regards to how much heat fans put on Kragthorpe by season’s end.


Syracuse goes into fall camp with a quarterback battle to resolve. Ryan Nassib ended spring camp with the edge on Cameron Dantley, who was the starter a season ago. But they aren’t the only two in the running with Syracuse native and former Duke basketball player Greg Paulus on the team for a fifth season of collegiate athletics. Paulus was an All-American quarterback coming out of high school at Christian Brothers Academy.


Three starters also return up front, and wide receiver Mike Williams is back for a final campaign after missing last season due to academic issues. Arthur Jones and Derrell Smith will lead the way on defense for a team that looks to change the culture under the hard-nosed Marrone, who played four years a the school under the great Dick MacPherson.


As offensive coordinator for the New Orleans Saints a season ago, Marrone led a unit that was the NFL’s top offense. And after watching the futility in the West Coast system favored by former head coach Greg Robinson, fans should be excited about what Marrone can bring to the table.


As for the other six conference teams there’s a reason why Big East schedule makers have them all playing each other on December 5th: it wouldn’t be a surprise if any of them won the league. Not only does Connecticut have to replace their 2,000-yard rusher in Brown, they’ve got to find a consistent answer under center. Husky quarterbacks threw five touchdown passes all season, which makes Donald’s achievement all the more impressive.


Head coach Randy Edsall watched four players go in the first two rounds of the NFL Draft, an unprecedented day for the program. Whether or not the Huskies can compete for a Big East title will depend upon their navigation of the toughest non-conference schedule they’ve had since joining the FBS ranks (at Ohio, at Baylor, North Carolina and at Notre Dame) and the play of QB Zach Frazer. The defense will once again be solid, and backs Jordan Todman and Andre Dixon have the talent needed to make big plays on offense.


Rutgers has a non-conference schedule that has earned it some heat (two FCS opponents), but you won’t have to wait long to figure out whether or not Greg Schiano’s team can win the league. Labor Day brings the defending champion Cincinnati Bearcats to town, with the Scarlet Knights looking at either Domenic Natale or Jabu Lovelace as the man to replace Mike Teel at quarterback. Receivers Kenny Britt and Tiquan Underwood are both gone, which means that Tim Brown will need to become the big-play man on the outside.


Defending champion Cincinnati needs to replace ten starters on defense, but the offense is in very good shape behind the capable Tony Pike at quarterback. Big East Coach of the Year Brian Kelly extended his contract; something that fans must hope keeps him in town for many years to come. How well the Bearcats fill those defensive holes will determine how good their chances of repeating are, but expect them to be a part of the race all season long.


The last time you saw Pittsburgh the Panthers were losing to Oregon State in the Brut Sun Bowl 3-0 on New Year’s Eve. LeSean McCoy is now a Philadelphia Eagle, and Frank Cignetti comes to town in hopes of revamping the offense that many thought was too conservative last season. Bill Stull goes into fall camp as the starter, but look for Pat Bostick and Tino Sunseri to fight for the job as well. Defensive starters T.J. Porter and Tommy Duhart were expected to help out this season with Scott McKillop graduating…they’ve left the program. But defense has never been a huge concern under Dave Wannstedt; whether or not they can score enough points is the issue for Pitt.


Jim Leavitt’s USF team will be in the running for the Big East crown again; the question is whether or not the traditionally fast starters will have anything left in the second half of the season. Back to back seasons the Bulls have ascended to the top of the league in the first two months of the season, only to nosedive and lose out on a possible BCS berth. With this being the last hurrah for team leaders Matt Grothe and George Selvie, expect the hunger for a conference title to reach a new level. Also on their plate are games against Miami and Florida State, platforms on which USF can stake claim to being a power within the Sunshine State while earning some respect for the Big East.


Finally we come to West Virginia, and despite what the Mountaineers may have lost in terms of personnel the argument can be made that the road to the Big East title goes through Morgantown. Cincinnati won at West Virginia last season, so it should be of no surprise that the Bearcats ended up in the FedEx Orange Bowl. Looking at the history of the reconfigured Big East this much is certain: if you don’t beat West Virginia you’re not going to win the league.


Bill Stewart now turns to Jarrett Brown at quarterback; while he may not have the legs of Pat White his arm could add a dimension to the Mountaineer attack. Noel Devine is a likely challenger for Offensive Player of the Year, and the WVU defense returns seven starters to their 3-3-5 stack. Those predicting the demise of the program beware; the Mountaineers aren’t considered to be the flagship program of the conference for no reason.


Storyline: Six teams have a realistic shot on paper to win the Big East. Each team also has a glaring hole to fill, so whoever does the best job of solving their particular riddle will win the conference.


Players of the Year: QB Matt Grothe and DE George Selvie (USF)


How they’ll finish:

  1. USF
  2. Pittsburgh
  3. West Virginia
  4. Rutgers
  5. Cincinnati
  6. Connecticut
  7. Louisville
  8. Syracuse


Next: Big East Ultimate Schedule