Big East Preview
A YEAR OF TRANSITION FOR
BELEAGURED BIG EAST
by Mathew Hurley, Managing Editor
Just when it looked like the Big East might earn some respect on the national stage, 2009 champion Cincinnati got OBLITERATED by Florida in the Sugar Bowl. Any illusions about the 'best in the Big East' being able to play with the best in 'real' conferences were thrown out the window.
Rutgers had been sending this message for a few years by getting embarrassed at home in September TV games by non-conference opposition. Cincinnati's loss drove the point home in no uncertain terms. There are some nice teams here. There are no national powers here. The Big East is barely a 'major' conference any more, particularly in terms of playing championship caliber football.
2010 finds the league in transition. Cincinnati must replace the head coach that brought them to national respectability. Pittsburgh has to find a new quarterback. South Florida fired it's firebrand head coach and replaced him with Skip Holtz. Louisville has a new coach as well. Nobody has a quarterback who can be called a 'sure thing' for stardom this year...though it's easy to create the illusion of stardom when the East Coast media doesn't penalize you for playing in a soft conference.
You'll note that the Athlon publication has a lot of respect for the Big East this year. The media generally does in the summer for some reason. Let's run through the league and see if we can find any blatant errors.
Athlon Ranking: 18
Last Year's Stat Rankings: 52nd on offense, 23rd on defense
Returning Starters: 5 on offense, 6 on defense
2010 OUTLOOK: It's very hard for us to think of Pittsburgh as a top 20 caliber team. Last year's group may have legitimately snuck in with a 10-3 record and some decent non-conference wins (including a 19-17 victory over North Carolina in a bowl). But, that was with a veteran quarterback, and some fortune in close games. Note that last year's team averaged out to about 37th in the rankings for offense and defense. This year's team should be worse!
The season opener at Utah will be a good test, as will a September 23rd home game against Miami of Florida. Give Pittsburgh credit for scheduling some people. They can talk us into a top 20 ranking with good efforts in those games. For now, we're bullish on a team that has trouble scoring enough to cover vs. quality opposition. Remember, this is a CONSERVATIVE head coach breaking in a new quarterback. That's going to be some ugly football.
Athlon Ranking: 20
Last Year's Stat Rankings: 57th on offense, 62nd on defense
Returning Starters: 8 on offense, 8 on defense
2010 OUTLOOK: The Huskies are a popular darkhorse team this year because they closed the season well, return a lot of people, and...well...the media has to put the top two Big East teams somewhere! Look at the stat rankings from last year. UCONN was about the 60th ranked team in offense and defense. They had a knack for playing nailbiters against 'decent' but not great teams. It's a group we love taking as value underdogs. We're not going to fall in love with them if Vegas or the media has unrealistic expectations.
We have to admit though that this is a team that should be on everyone's radar. Stability is a prized perk this year in the Big East and all over the nation. The players bonded through tragedy last year...and really do bring the right kind of attitude to the field under Randy Edsall. Don't go overboard in terms of where UCONN stands in the 'true' national picture right now. They are positioned for a nice Big East run in 2010. A season opening win on the road at Michigan could set the stage for a memorable season. A loss could suck the wind out of the wails until late October.
Athlon Ranking: 29
Last Year's Stat Rankings: 61st on offense, 36th on defense
Returning Starters: 6 on offense, 10 on defense
2010 OUTLOOK: Offense is the big concern here, with a backup quarterback taking over for a squad that was pretty mediocre to begin with. The defense is going to be a handful, with almost everyone back on the strong side of the team. Remember all the big numbers Cincinnati was putting up on offense last year? West Virginia held them to 24 points at Cincy.
We'll definitely be looking at Unders with this team in September as the new offensive players learn the ropes. The first big test comes September 25 at LSU, in what could be a defensive war. We end up saying this about a lot of Big East teams every year. We don't think they'll be as good as their won-lost record suggests. But, there will be spots where they make sense for value Las Vegas betting.
Athlon Ranking: 36
Last Year's Stat Rankings: 97th on offense, 18th on defense
Returning Starters: 6 on offense, 6 on defense
2010 OUTLOOK: Rutgers finally stopped scheduling non-conference home games for early season TV last year, but instead got routed by Cincinnati 47-15 in a game they thought they were going to win. A very easy schedule helped them get back on track (except for an inexplicably horrid loss at Syracuse). They did play well vs. Central Florida in a bowl, reminding everyone that the Big East is better than CUSA even if they don't measure up well to the other BCS leagues.
The Scarlet Knights are in good shape to make a run this year because Tom Savage has some games under his belt at quarterback...and because season openers with Norfolk State and Florida International should help them avoid the punch in the stomach that took them down in recent early Septembers. The first tester is Sept. 25 vs. North Carolina. That's the only non-conference tester...and a lot of conference teams have question marks. Stick Rutgers in the Big 10 or ACC, and they won't jump out as anything that matters. This year, they'll be in position to post a strong record and go to a decent bowl.
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Athlon Ranking: 43
Last Year's Stat Rankings: 11th on offense, 67th on defense
Returning Starters: 6 on offense, 5 on defense
2010 OUTLOOK: Butch Jones moves over from Central Michigan, following in the path of his predecessor Brian Kelly (now at Notre Dame). He's hoping to keep the things in gear as best as possible. Zach Collaros picked up some needed experience last year with four relief starts. He didn't embarrass himself, and has the chance to be a Big East star.
You just never know with a team like this. Cincinnati was supposed to fall apart last year because they returned so little talent on defense. Instead, they won the conference. We wouldn't be surprised if there's too much preseason pessimism for this program. Make them show you there in trouble before you assume it's going to happen. Early season tests at Fresno State, at NC State, and home against Oklahoma will tell us a lot before league play begins.
We like what we've seen out of the Central Michigan coaching line. We're optimistic until results talk us out of it.
Athlon Ranking: 45
Last Year's Stat Rankings: 71st on offense, 24th on defense
Returning Starters: 7 on offense, 3 on defense
2010 OUTLOOK: You've probably noticed that the Big East has a lot of teams that grade out fairly well on defense, but poorly on offense. That's largely a result of BAD offenses (outside of a few), conservative play, and weather that doesn't particularly help scoring part of the year. South Florida was a big disappointment on offense last year, turning experience and talent into a stunning disaster.
Jim Leavitt was fired, because guys that volatile can only keep their jobs if everything is clicking all the time. Skip Holtz moves over from East Carolina. Is he ready for the big time? We thought so 2-3 years ago, but then gradually started to see more blemishes in the EC program. Holtz will certainly be tested this year with a September 11th visit to Florida. How you going to thrive in Gainesville with only three returning starters on defense?!
B.J. Daniels is ready to step up and be a big time quarterback. His volatility can be a negative though. Trying to be superman when you're a mere mortal will help you beat the worst teams on your schedule, but will help the best teams beat you.
South Florida has a ridiculously easy first half schedule outside of the Florida game. It may be tough to get a true read on the Bulls until November.
Athlon Ranking: 74
Last Year's Stat Rankings: 94th on offense, 37th on defense
Returning Starters: 2 on offense, 10 on defense
2010 OUTLOOK: It may be good news that only two starters are back from a horrible offense. At least you can start fresh and hope something good happens! Doug Marrone will be offensive coordinator this year in addition to head coach. He knows he HAS to get the offense turned around or his time with the program will be relatively short. It's not a good sign that scoring was so dismal last year when he was expected to help fix the problem.
Our sympathies to you season ticket holders. Your September home games are Maine and Colgate. A road game at Washington on September 11th will either be a breakout game for Coach Marrone, or a showcase game for Jake Locker of the Huskies. For now, we're guessing the latter.
Athlon Ranking: 79
Last Year's Stat Rankings: 91st on offense, 65th on defense
Returning Starters: 7 on offense, 5 on defense
2010 OUTLOOK: You know expectations are low if you're supposed to be worse than Syracuse. Charlie Strong was an assistant at Florida. That right there provides reason for optimism because knowing how to win is something that translates well in coaching moves. He takes over a team that played with fire about once a month last year. Maybe that changes this year. Maybe he needs a year to weed out the non-players so he can recruit some athletes for 2011.
We'll watch the season opener with Kentucky very closely (with an eye on BOTH teams actually). A road game at Oregon State two weeks later will be an interesting challenge for this upstart program.
We may end up saying this about most conferences this year. The preseason expectations may be 10-15 spots too high for all of them! When the worst Big East teams are bad, they play down at the level of 90 or so. You saw what happened when the best team played Florida.
The good news is that the new coaches aren't likely to be disasters, and the leaguewide emphasis on defense gives them a puncher's chance in any big game (especially against the spread, as long as it's not against a true superpower). Keep an eye on Connecticut, particularly at affordable prices. Be sharp with Cincinnati. Just don't let the East Coast media trick you into thinking this is a big time conference.
Back tomorrow with a one-day baseball oasis to review the first half of the 2010 Major League season. We'll pick up again this weekend with BCS conference previews, looking at the ACC Atlantic, the ACC Coastal, and the Big Ten.
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