Big East Preview

BIG EAST CONFERENCE TUMBLING THROUGH TURMOIL

We conclude the month of July and our previews of 'major' conferences today with the reeling Big East. A quick review of developments from the past couple of seasons..

*This year's favorite, West Virginia, brought in a 'coach in waiting' to take over for Bill Stewart. Dana Holgorsen ran a very exciting offense at Oklahoma State…but apparently has problems avoiding libations at country clubs and casino's. 'Team Stewart' tried to sabotage the hiring by backchannels. West Virginia was stuck choosing between the party animal and the sneak. The party animal stayed. Great way to start a season!

*This year's projected runner-up South Florida changed coaches last year, and saw their offense plummet to 105th in the country under new leader Skip Holtz.

*Pittsburgh, tired of eking out acceptable records with very boring football replaced Dave Wannstedt with Todd Graham. Graham's teams put on a show…but he's extremely unproven vs. quality opposition.

*Cincinnati is still reeling from seeing a hot young head coach climb the ladder to Notre Dame.

*Connecticut lost its head coach in the offseason to Maryland, and angered a huge donor in the process.

*Rutgers has been falling apart for years under Greg Schiano. ESPN had to stop calling them 'the Michigan of the Northeast' as BOTH Rutgers and Michigan hit hard times. The Scarlet Knights have represented the biggest extreme in recent years between media hype and reality. Something we've documented often here in the NOTEBOOK.

That's not everybody in the Big East. But, it's ALMOST everybody! Syracuse is on the rise under coach Dough Marrone, and shocked the world with a bowl trip and victory last season. Louisville hasn't embarrassed itself under coach Charlie Strong. Right now, not embarrassing yourself makes you a coaching frontrunner in this league.

Can you see why we saved the Big East for last?! No reason to say 'last but not least' here. The Big East is the worst of the major conferences in our view, even if others are giving them more respect. Let's run through the numbers and see how things might play out this season…

BIG EAST

WEST VIRGINIA
Athlon Ranking: 17th
2010 Total Offense: 67th
2010 Total Defense: 3rd
Strength: Rush Defense (2nd)
Weakness: Pass Offense (67th)
Returning Starters: 7 on offense, 4 on defense
Head Coach: Dana Holgorsen (new)
Notebook: There's certainly a chance that West Virginia can ignite under Holgorsen. There's always enthusiasm with an up-tempo offense. Many teams have responded well at first to a new approach, but then hit a snag once defenses adjust. This could easily be a year where Big East defenses are caught flat footed while West Virginia and Pitt fly past them. This definitely should be a point of focus for handicappers out of the gate. West Virginia will have to face Maryland and LSU in September, giving a couple of great early tests. Quarterback Geno Smith brings experience and versatility to the lineup. We don't currently have West Virginia rated as high as Athlon does. Their average stat ranking was 35th, and they sure didn't impress in their 23-7 bowl loss. We'll stay open-minded because the stage is set for a step forward.

SOUTH FLORIDA
Athlon Ranking: 35th
2010 Total Offense: 105th
2010 Total Defense: 17th
Strength: Rush Defense (22nd)
Weakness: Pass Offense (101st)
Returning Starters: 4 on offense, 6 on defense
Head Coach: Skip Holtz
Notebook: It's tough for us to buy South Florida as a top 35 team. How can you have the 100th ranked offense but be a real power? That great defense always gave them a puncher's chance…which helped them in a big upset of Miami of Florida last November, and then in their bowl victory over Clemson. If you look only at the season highlights, this is a contender. If you look at the lowlights, we have a team who struggled to beat Rutgers and Louisville early in November, then couldn't get points on the board in losses to Pittsburgh and Connecticut. There's certainly a chance for things to click with a second year coach and a maturing quarterback (BJ Daniels). Maybe South Florida will knock our socks off in the season opener at Notre Dame. A lot of people thought Connecticut was going to wow the world in a season opener at Michigan last year. It will at least be fun to see a Holtz walking the sidelines in South Bend again. Make sure that West Virginia and South Florida earn your trust.

PITTSBURGH
Athlon Ranking: 41st
2010 Total Offense: 72nd
2010 Total Defense: 8th
Strength: Rush Defense (17th)
Weakness: Pass Offense (73rd)
Returning Starters: 5 on offense, 8 on defense
Head Coach: Todd Graham (new)
Notebook: Sometimes coaching changes like this work out extremely well in the first season. The offense improved immediately. And, the defense (the obvious strength last year) still knows what it's doing even if their coaching leader is gone. Everything falls into place…before the defense eventually crashes in later seasons once the good players are gone and the offensive-minded guru doesn't have any resources to fall back on. So, clearly, as bleak as things looked in the 'turmoil' second at the top…we have exciting potential to this point. That's all it is until the kids get on the field though. Battles with Iowa and Notre Dame in September will tell us a lot about where this team is headed in 2010. You know returning quarterback Tino Sunseri will love playing in a more wide open offense. Is he up to the challenge?

SYRACUSE
Athlon Ranking: 43rd
2010 Total Offense: 97th
2010 Total Defense: 7th
Strength: Pass Defense (7th)
Weakness: Pass Offense (91st)
Returning Starters: 8 on offense, 5 on defense
Head Coach: Doug Marrone
Notebook: Syracuse came to play last year, under a head coach who knows what he's doing. When was the last time you could say THAT?! The feel-good story of the year in the region was tempered a bit by the fact that three of the eight Orange wins came against Akron, Maine, and Colgate. The offense peaked at 19 points in six of the last eight regular season games. And, that strong defensive rating was helped immensely by playing a lot of poor offenses. That became more clear in the 36-34 Pinstripe shootout against a Kansas State team that wasn't bowl caliber. Syracuse won't be catching people by surprise this year. Plus the media is a bit too enamored of Ryan Nassib because quarterbacks get the lion's share of credit when a team improves. We have to say this so far. The Big East is going to be INTERESTING this year…and they certainly have some elements in place that are red flags for improvement. We'll be watching Syracuse's September 17th trip to USC with great interest.

CINCINNATI
Athlon Ranking: 57th
2010 Total Offense: 32nd
2010 Total Defense: 63rd
Strength: Pass Offense (28th)
Weakness: Pass Defense (88th)
Returning Starters: 5 on offense, 10 on defense
Head Coach: Butch Jones
Notebook: We're five teams down the slate, and starting quarterbacks return at all five. That's a very good sign for the league as a whole. But, it might be tough for Zach Collaros to lift the team from last year's 4-4 Big East record as a result. The Bearcats finished the 2010 campaign in a 1-5 free fall. Losses to South Florida, Syracuse, West Virginia, UCONN, and Pittsburgh were by a combined 172-74 margin. That's almost 20 points a game the wrong way! Butch Jones may be in over his head at this level. September battles with Tennessee and NC State will teach handicappers much of what they need to know for the season.

CONNECTICUT
Athlon Ranking: 59th
2010 Total Offense: 96th
2010 Total Defense: 58th
Strength: Rush Offense (35th)
Weakness: Pass Offense (110th)
Returning Starters: 6 on offense, 10 on defense
Head Coach: Paul Pasqualoni (new)
Notebook: Things could get ugly here quick. The players were shocked that Randy Edsall left at the end of the season for Maryland. Paul Pasqualoni didn't end his tenure at Syracuse very well. So, this has the look of 'a classy guy comes in while the program disintegrates' feel to it. The Huskies average stat ranking was in the high 70's…and now they're dealing with a new coach and new quarterback. Sure, this team won the Big East. But, that was a 'name out of a hat' performance that included losses to lowly Rutgers and Louisville, and nailbiter wins over West Virginia, Pitt, and South Florida. The season was bookended by a 30-10 loss at Michigan, and a 48-20 blowout at the hands of Oklahoma. These guys also lost to Temple! Maybe Edsall realized it was time to move on. At least Pasqualoni will have 10 returning starters on the defensive end. Toughness won't be an issue. We'll probably fade this team more than we'll back them this year.

RUTGERS
Athlon Ranking: 71st
2010 Total Offense: 114th
2010 Total Defense: 65th
Strength: Pass Defense (55th)
Weakness: Rush Offense (110th)
Returning Starters: 8 on offense, 5 on defense
Head Coach: Greg Schiano
Notebook: We're talking about a team that barely beat Florida International, lost to Tulane, then went 1-6 in league play. And, it STILL didn't get Schiano fired! Heck, the media was playing up 'Rutgers to the Big 10' rumors because they imagine that the New York market just loves supporting horrible football teams who lose all of their big TV games by large margins. This could be the season that ends the Schiano regime. Quarterback Chas Dodd isn't listed as a returning starter in some publications, but he did see a lot of action last year…for that 114th ranked offense that faced a very easy schedule. Things could get ugly quickly. But, this is a team that usually puts up a few great efforts every year. They did beat UCONN last year, and lost toughies to South Florida, Syracuse, and North Carolina. We've made a lot of money going against Rutgers in recent years…and have picked our spots with them occasionally against flat opponents. Hard to see a change in that approach this season.

LOUISVILLE
Athlon Ranking: 72nd
2010 Total Offense: 71st
2010 Total Defense: 14th
Strength: Pass Defense (9th)
Weakness: Pass Offense (79th)
Returning Starters: 3 on offense, 6 on defense
Head Coach: Charlie Strong
Notebook: The Cards were a pleasant surprise last year, just missing out on a winning record in league play before taking out Southern Miss in the Beef O'Brady Bowl 31-28. Unfortunately, the program was hurt by graduation. Only three starters are back on offense, and none played quarterback. You have to assume a step backwards this season unless the Cards show up well vs. Kentucky and North Carolina before Big East play begins. We like Strong. We may channel that affection into 'Under' plays assuming his motivated defense hangs tough but his inexperienced offense can't score.

That sure ended better than it started! The Big East has been dealing with turnover and turmoil because they realized they were the weak sister amongst the 'major' siblings. West Virginia is trying to get better. Pittsburgh is trying to get better. South Florida and Syracuse may write interesting stories this year too. We look forward to seeing how the 2011 season plays out. Maybe we'll have to pick a new doormat to blast!

That wraps up our July series of weekend previews for the major conferences. We'll study the mid-majors every Saturday and Sunday through August. First up will be the Mountain West (where Boise State now challenges TCU) and the WAC next weekend. We hope you're printing all of these reports out so you have them handy when the season starts. Be sure to check the archives for any of the conferences you may have missed.

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