In this the tenth year of the Bowl Championship Series, you have to think back to where the Big East was five years ago to appreciate its growth. The spring of 2003 should have been a happy time for the conference due to its success on the basketball court, but the departure of Miami and Virginia Tech (with Boston College to follow a year later) was thought to be the kiss of death. After some growing pains, a funny thing happened: the Big East could play some football. From West Virginia beating Georgia in the 2005 Sugar Bowl to South Florida getting to #2 in the first BCS standings last year and everywhere in between, the Big East has never been better.
And despite the designation of West Virginia as the clear favorite to win the conference again this season, the Big East only stands to get tougher this year. Two-time Player of the Year Pat White is back at quarterback and Noel Devine slides into the spot left open by Steve Slaton in the backfield. There are some questions for the Mountaineers, starting at the top with new head coach Bill Stewart. Can he continue to build upon their Tostitos Fiesta Bowl win over Oklahoma? How successful can defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel be in filling in some holes in the defense? Linebackers Mortty Ivy and Reed Williams are two of the mainstays, but they will miss Keilen Dykes and Johnny Dingle up front.
Challengers? You'd probably be best served to start off with South Florida, who didn't finish well after their overtime win at Auburn. From #2 in the initial BCS poll to a blowout loss in the Sun Bowl to Oregon, and you'd have to imagine that they've still got a bad taste in their mouths. DE George Selvie is one of the nation's best at getting to the quarterback, and he may have to be even better with both corners (Trae Williams and Mike Jenkins) moving on to the NFL. On offense, Matt Grothe remains one of the conference's best and RB Mike Ford should be even better as a sophomore.
Connecticut has been ignored by many heading into the season, despite returning nineteen starters and winning a share of the Big East crown. If they are to prove the experts wrong again (picked to finish 6th on Big East Media Day), the passing game (97th in the country in 2007) must improve so defenses don't stack up to stop the run. Cincinnati has also been overlooked by some, due mainly to the fact that QB Ben Mauk wasn't granted another year of eligibility. Either Dustin Grutza or Demetrius Jones will have the opportunity to throw to one of the conference's best receiving corps. Pittsburgh is the buzz team, even receiving a first-place vote on Media Day. LeSean McCoy is back at running back after running for 1,328 yards (breaking Tony Dorsett's freshman record in the process), along with the league's best recruiting class.
Rutgers stands to have the best passing offense in the conference, with senior QB Mike Teel throwing to the tandem of Kenny Britt and Tiquan Underwood. But they do have to replace Ray Rice at running back, a task that this season will most likely be handled by committee. And don't underestimate the loss of DT Eric Foster, a key team leader as well as contributor. Louisville has revamped their defensive staff after last season's embarrassing performance, and Hunter Cantwell gets the chance to run the offense full-time with the departure of Brian Brohm. Don't expect much of a drop in production from that position. Lastly, Greg Robinson enters this season as the only league coach on the "hot seat" at Syracuse and it doesn't look like things will get any better due to the strength of the league. But Delone Carter is back after missing last season with a serious hip injury, and he should help their offense. Now here are some honors for the upcoming season.
Players of the Year: QB Pat White (West Virginia) and DE George Selvie (South Florida)
Coach of the Year: Bill Stewart (West Virginia)
Newcomers of the Year: WR Jonathan Baldwin (Pittsburgh) and DE Tevita Finau (West Virginia
Three Best Non-Conference Games
1. Auburn @ West Virginia (October 23rd): Mountaineers get one of the SEC's best in Morgantown.
2. Kansas @ South Florida (September 12th): Bulls host the Orange Bowl champions, a good lead into the second weekend of the season.
3. Fresno State @ Rutgers (September 1st): Labor Day opener will tell the nation quite a bit about both teams; Fresno has designs on snagging a BCS bid at season's end.
Conference Game of the Year
South Florida @ West Virginia (December 6th): The Bulls have won the last two meetings in the series, yet WVU still won the league last season. With this being the regular season finale, all the chips may be on the table should both take care of business leading up to the final Saturday.
How they'll finish
1. West Virginia
2. South Florida