Big East Preview

Mountaineers favorites once again

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Aug. 13, 2007

By Adam Caparell



Adam is's football editor and national football writer.
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CSTV's Big East Preview

Once lightly regarded and often referred to as the "Big Least," the Big East is no longer the laughing stock of the BCS - not with three top 25 teams and four Heisman Trophy candidates.


With West Virginia, Louisville and Rutgers all ranked heading into the season and South Florida right on the cusp of cracking the rankings, the Big East is no longer considered the weak step-child of the BCS. They're a formidable force on the national scene.


With two new coaches in Louisville's Steve Kragthorpe and Cincinnati's Brian Kelly, the conference attracted two of the more highly regarded coaches in the country who weren't at a BCS school.


West Virginia and Louisville are still the class of the conference, with Rutgers right behind them, but one thing seems certain about this league - there's a whole new level of confidence and a little bit of a swagger after a widely successful 2006 season. The prospects of two teams earning BCS berths have never looked better and national championship talk is readily being thrown around the Cardinals and Mountaineers.


All the talk about the new look Big East, after three schools joined in 2004, and its future as a viable commodity on the BCS scene have gone away.  


"It's not an issue anymore," Rutgers coach Greg Schiano said. "Three years ago it was an issue. Now the on-field results are speaking well for the Big East. What's happened is it's gone away."


It probably doesn't get enough credit for how good it is, or how physical games can be, or how it's weathered the storm that questioned its ultimate survival, but the Big East is alive and well.


"It's a tough league," Schiano said. "Every single team in the league plays every down and people who play inter-conference games against us would say that when you go up against a Big East team it's going to be a physical game. Win or lose, you're going to be sore. And that's a pretty good reputation to have as a league."



West Virginia - 2006: 11-2 Overall, 5-2 Big East


In Morgantown this fall, it all starts with the best quarterback/running back duo in the nation. How good it is to be Rich Rodriguez.


After nearly taking off for Alabama, the highly regarded and highly successful coach will feature two Heisman Trophy candidates on offense who are as dynamic as it gets.


With Pat White behind center and Steve Slaton taking the hand-offs, the Mountaineers feature two of the fastest players at their position in the game. And if there's one thing we know about college football, it's that speed kills.


Not only can White run with the ball as effectively as Slaton, but he can throw it, too, something he doesn't get nearly enough credit for. He's got a stronger arm than advertised and makes some sensational plays on the run. He's not physically imposing, just a ridiculously gifted athlete who leads Rodriguez's spread-offense with great success. However, West Virginia's corps of wide receivers will leave White with something more to be desired.

The Mountaineers finished third nationally in scoring last year and second in rushing and they figure to be just as good this year. With West Virginia and its two superstars, it's going to center around running the ball. Amassing over 300 yards per game on average shouldn't be much of a problem this year. The Mountaineers return three offensive linemen, although they do lose one of the best centers in the nation, Dan Mozes, along with highly regarded offensive line coach Rick Trickett. But White believes the Mountaineers will be just fine.


"We have athletes, from center out to receiver, we have a team full of athletes," White said. "We have not only one or two or three playmakers, but five or six."


And if that thought isn't scary enough, how about Slaton's competitiveness.


"I think he hates losing more than he likes winning," White said of his teammate.



When comparing West Virginia's offense to its defense, it's the offense that trumps the D. But it's not like the 3-3-5 defense can just be readily dismissed.


The Mountaineers will feature a veteran defensive line that was one of the nation's better units against the run last season. Keilen Dykes returns and should make his presence felt in the backfield.


The linebacking unit lost some talent - it's by far the weakest of the three defensive units - but the losses are nothing the Mountaineers feel they can't address. The secondary has a bunch of gifted athletes who can fly to the ball. But a marked improvement will be needed out of the unit after giving up 243 yards per game through the air last season. Eric Wicks, the team leader in sacks last season, is back as one of the Mountaineers' three safeties.


The Skinny

It's going to be nothing but White and Slaton talk the whole season, and for good reason. The two are unbelievable talents who give defensive coordinators nightmares. But the ultimate success of this team will be predicated on the defense. Can they make the big stops when needed? They haven't always in the past, but if they want to return to their familiar role atop the Big East they're going to need to hold some teams in check.


The Mountaineers once again feature a relatively easy schedule - especially their non-conference slate that features Western Michigan, Marshall, Maryland, East Carolina and Mississippi State. It's the conference schedule that doesn't take it easy on the Mountaineers with road trips to Rutgers and South Florida.


But this is a team that should be a national championship contender. We've been saying it for the past few seasons and every year the Mountaineers fall short, but there's just too much talent - White and Slaton talk again - for West Virginia not to be there all season.


Regular Season Prediction: 11-1 Overall, 6-1 Big East


Louisville - 2006: 12-1 Overall, 6-1 Big East


Bobby Petrino is gone, but in comes equally offensive minded, and quarterback-friendly, Steve Kragthorpe from Tulsa to take over this top 10 team.


Despite the coaching change, the offense is pretty much the same. Kragthorpe has kept parts of Petrino's system while bringing over some of his own schemes from Tulsa. There's new terminology, but it's still the same pro-style offense, with a focus on drop back passing, that's made Louisville and quarterback Brian Brohm a national contender these past few seasons.


"There're a few new wrinkles," said Brohm, a Heisman Trophy candidate, but nothing the senior can't handle.


Brohm will work with George Stripling and Anthony Allen after Kolby Smith and Michael Bush departed, but this offense really clicks when Brohm's able to get the ball to his receivers - one of the best tandems in the country.


"I think we'll be very explosive on offense this year," Brohm said. "When you have the kind of speed that we have at wide receiver in Harry Douglas and Mario Urrutia, we just have a lot of opportunities to have big plays."


The offensive line has two holes that need to be filled, but Brohm should have good protection all year long. If he doesn't, then the Cardinals will fail to live up to expectations. In their only loss last season at Rutgers, the Cardinals pass protection broke down in the second half and was a big reason why their national championship dreams were shattered.



For all the accolades thrown upon the offense, it was the defense that actually won the spring game. And they're not going to be half bad this year with only four starters returning.


Amobi Okoye, one of the top defensive players in the Big East last season, is playing professionally now so the defensive line must pick up his lost production and that will fall heavily on Deantwan "Peanut" Whitehead and Earl Heyman.


The linebacking unit should be solid and just might feature Willie Williams, the highly heralded recruit and former Miami Hurricane who will be looking to finally make an impact in college. Secondary is something of a concern as top corner William Gay is gone. The Cardinals are going to feature new faces and may even rely on a junior college transfer, Woodny Turenne. Pass defense was the weak spot of this unit last year, and it doesn't figure to improve that much.


The Cardinals fielded a pretty respectable defense last season, only allowing 16 points per game, but logic says they're going to take a step back this season. They have the potential to be pretty good, it's just that they've lost more than some people might realize.


The Skinny

Much will be expected out of Brohm and the offense, including staying healthy. He's battled injuries the past two seasons that have caused him to miss games. Hunter Cantwell is still around to back him up, and he filled in admirably last season, but the Cardinals and Kragthorpe are banking on Brohm to be there all season and lead his team back to a BCS bowl game after last year's Orange Bowl win.


But the Cardinals know they could have very easily had more if it weren't for their worst half of football against the Scarlet Knights. To say it still eats at the Cardinals might be an understatement.

"We also know we were three points away from a national title," Brohm said. "You try not to look back and just look toward the future. But anytime you're in the weight room and you need motivation you just think back to that game."


Art Carmody, one of the top kickers in the nation, is the reigning Lou Groza Award winner and is as reliable as it gets in the game. And he's going to have plenty of chances to kick it through the uprights. With a relatively manageable schedule, there's a high ceiling for Louisville. It's all going to come down to the final stretch of the season when they finish out at West Virginia, at South Florida and Rutgers at home.


Regular Season Prediction: 11-1 Overall, 6-1 Big East


Rutgers - 2006: 11-2 Overall, 5-2 Big East


With their dream season behind them, Greg Schiano has ratcheted up the expectations to an unprecedented level at Rutgers. And with super back Ray Rice returning for his junior season, and Mike Teel a year wiser, there aren't going to be any excuses for the offense this fall.


But it's all going to start with Rice. He was a workhorse for the Scarlet Knights last season and he'll reprise the role this fall after rushing for almost 1,800 yards and 20 touchdowns. He's yet another legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate in the Big East, one of those guys who get stronger as the game goes on. There's no mention of a specific numbers of carries to expect out of Rice per game, but he's going to get a lot of looks.


"He'll be angry with me if he's not getting enough touches," Schiano said. "Ray trains like a man."


Teams will be stacking the line to stop Rice and dare Teel to beat them with his arm. Last year, that was sort of a scary proposition for Rutgers. Teel was inconsistent, to say the least, and had trouble taking care of the ball. He completed only 55 percent of his passes and threw one more interception (13) than he did touchdowns. He's going to have to improve on those numbers dramatically because until he shows otherwise, Rutgers will be mostly a one-dimensional offense. But Teel will have some talent to work with at wide receivers, namely Kenny Britt.


Fortunately for all parties involved, the Rutgers line will be deep and talented. Three starters are back from a unit that allowed the fewest sacks in the nation. The highly touted and equally mammoth Anthony Davis should see significant time at guard or tackle and his choosing Rutgers over the likes of Ohio State, USC, Florida and Florida State shows you how far Schiano has taken his program in just a few short seasons.



Rutgers is an old-school team. They do it with the running game on offense and a hard-nosed, no-nonsense defense that Schiano leads.


The unit really came together last season and posted some impressive numbers against the run and the pass. They finished as the sixth best defense in the nation and only allowed 14 points per game. Now granted, some of those low scoring games came against inferior competition, but the Scarlet Knights bore down when they needed to, shutting out Louisville in the second half of their upset win last November.


Rutgers will feature a strong secondary with three starters returning, but it's going to start up front with Eric Foster and company. If they can pressure the quarterback like they did a season ago and force turnovers (+11 turnover margin), then they're going to be the best unit in the Big East. The only glaring weakness could be at linebacker where Schiano will insert two new starters.


The Skinny

The Scarlet Knights once again will feature an easy schedule, one they can really take advantage of. With the likes of Buffalo, Navy, Norfolk State and Army on the schedule, Rutgers will pick up some easy wins along the way before they hit the meat of their schedule in late October/early November when South Florida and West Virginia visit Piscataway. And the regular season closes with a trip to Louisville.


But the prognosis is good for the Scarlet Knights. They also return Jeremy Ito, the best kicker behind Louisville's Carmody in the conference, and will be in the hunt for the Big East Championship for the second straight year.


Regular Season Prediction: 10-2 Overall, 5-2 Big East


South Florida - 2006: 9-4 Overall, 4-3 Big East


Last year's surprise team of the Big East won't be surprising anyone this year. Not with reigning Big East Rookie of the Year Matt Grothe back behind center for the Bulls and seven other starters back.


Grothe did it all for South Florida last season, throwing for over 2,500 yards and leading the team in rushing with 622 yards. The biggest knock on Grothe is his decision making. He threw one more touchdown (15) than interceptions, but with another year of maturity should come fewer turnovers. He already featured a 63 percent completion percentage, so he clearly has the tools to be much more careful with the ball. Opposing coaches seem to really like what they've seen out of Grothe and will be extra wary of him this coming season. Grothe will have three of the four leading receivers from last year to work with this fall, most notably Marcus Edwards and Amarri Jackson.


The Bulls are going to need a boost from the running game that didn't do much in the way of production from its backs. Mike Ford, the highly heralded recruit, who at one time was heading to Alabama, should be a factor in his freshman season, but Ben Williams, all 5-foot-7 and 190 pounds of him, will be the featured back for now until he shows he can't be the Bulls' man.


The offensive line should be solid, returning nearly everyone from last year's squad. 



If anything, the Bulls did it with their defense last season and they're going to feature yet another stealthy athletic squad. They're not blessed with huge size, rather with guys who can get to the ball faster than you'd expect.


Three starters are back on the defensive line that will feature three impact players - Woody George, Aaron Harris and George Selvie. The linebackers will be lead by Ben Moffitt, the team's leading tackler last season, and a three-year starter. 


But the real strength of this unit stems from the secondary. The Bulls probably have the two best cornerbacks in the Big East with Mike Jenkins and Trae Williams, who led the team with seven picks last year. The Bulls weren't phenomenal against the pass last year, allowing 217 yards per game through the air, but that number figures to come down with the experience-heavy unit that features two seniors at the corners and two juniors at the safety position. This unit is good enough to take some gambles and get away with it, so figure on their turnover margin creeping back up to the positive after last year's minus-4 mark.


The Skinny

The ultimate success of the team is really going to rest on the offense's ability to improve. If they can get better production out of their running backs and keep Grothe from running as much as he did last season, then the Bulls figure to be in good shape, especially considering the defense's potential to be even better than last season.


They've got an early game at Auburn, but other than that their non-conference games are extremely winnable. Big East-wise, the Bulls get West Virginia and Louisville at home with Rutgers on the road.


"It is as tough a schedule as we've ever had," head coach Jim Leavitt said. "It's the real deal."


They're now considered a contender for the Big East title so it could be interesting to see how they handle the biggest expectations in the program's decade long history and Leavitt's overseen all of it.


Regular Season Prediction: 9-3 Overall, 5-2 Big East


Cincinnati - 2006: 8-5 Overall, 4-3 Big East


There figures to be a big change in offensive philosophy now that Brian Kelly is the new man in charge of the Bearcats.


Those run-first days seem to be behind Cincinnati as Kelly will look to open up the offense and throw the deep ball with a lot more regularity than former coach Mark Dantonio, who is now coaching Michigan State.


But as for who will be throwing the ball around, it remains to be seen. Ben Mauk, Wake Forest's starting quarterback last season, transferred to Cincinnati. He's a graduate student, thus avoids the one season sit-down mandated by all other transfers by the NCAA.


Mauk, who is coming off a broken arm and dislocated shoulder suffered early in Wake's magical 2006 season, will battle incumbent Dustin Grutza for the job. Grutza was inconsistent, to say the least, last year, throwing nine touchdowns, but 13 interceptions before sitting out the final three games of the season injured. However, Grutza may have the inside edge considering Mauk isn't yet 100 percent. The battle figures to last right up until the final week of camp.


Whoever wins the job will be able to rely on a steady line that brings back some experience and a respectable running game. But the offense could very well struggle early on.



There won't be much change with this unit as eight starters return from last year's squad.


A tough team to run the ball against in 2006, things don't figure to change a whole lot for the Bobcats with the entire starting front four back and both outside linebackers.


The secondary features one of the best hitters in the Big East in safety Haruki Nakamura, who is a tackling machine. Alongside him at cornerback is Mike Mickens, one of the better defenders in the conference.


Although they weren't nearly as good against the pass as they were against the run last season that should change if Cincinnati can find ways to get to the quarterback more often.


A turnover margin of minus-6 was pretty poor last season, but that was largely a product of the offense.


The Skinny

This offense could very well struggle early on trying to grasp Kelly's new schemes, but fortunately, the Bearcats have a manageable schedule in September. Aside from their Week Two matchup with Oregon State, every game in the season's first month is winnable. And plus, Cincinnati has done it with defense, an underrated and often overlooked unit. Their stats aren't impressive, but they just seem to get the job done as evidenced by wins over Rutgers and South Florida last year.


Bottom line, the Bearcats could rip off a few surprise wins, just like last year. Plus, they get West Virginia and Louisville at home. It'd be a surprise if they won either game, but there's plenty of upset potential in this team. This is the third time in five seasons Cincinnati has a new coach, but they should be a bowl team once again.


Regular Season Prediction: 7-5 Overall, 3-4 Big East


Pittsburgh - 2006: 6-6 Overall, 2-5 Big East


Priority No. 1 for coach Dave Wannstedt as he enters his third season at his alma mater is to find a replacement for the departed Tyler Palko.


That, of course, will be easier said than done. Bill Stull and Kevan Smith are light on experience, but Stull has been anointed the favorite after freshman Pat Bostick abruptly left the team temporarily last week. But whoever Wannstedt ends up going with, he figures to be handing the ball off a lot.


Wannstedt has stated in the past that he'd like the Panthers to become a run-oriented team and it looks like he'll get his wish this year with an unproven quarterback taking the snaps.


Pitt is going to feature a veteran offensive line that will open holes for LaRod Stephens-Howling and freshman LeSean McCoy who very well may be the Big East's Rookie of the Year when it's all said and done.


When the Panthers do throw the ball, look for lots of Oderick Turner on the other end. With senior Derek Kinder, the Panthers' leader in receiving yards and receptions in 2006, forced to redshirt the season with a torn ACL, Turner becomes the top threat, having tied for the Big East lead in touchdown catches as a freshman. Freshmen Maurice Williams and Aundre Wright look to fill the gap caused by Kinder's injury.



While Wannstedt wants to stop the run, he'd settle for slowing it down after his unit let up an astounding 181 yards per game on the ground last season. That's priority No. 1 on defense this season, and with the defensive line coming back intact, there figures to be marked improvement.  


But the bottom line for this unit is its two top players, and two of the top defenders in the Big East from last season, are playing professionally now in Darrelle Revis and H.B. Blades.


The Skinny

Lowell Robinson is back to return kicks for the Panthers and that's going to bode well for Wannstedt, especially in light of the new rules change on kickoffs.


Unbeknownst to many, Wannstedt has quietly brought in the top recruiting classes in the Big East the past few seasons. One of these years he's going to have to show something for it. Expectations were high when Wannstedt came aboard and the Panthers haven't really sniffed a Big East Championship since he's been back in town. A bowl's not impossible, but unlikely.


Regular Season Prediction: 4-8, 2-5


Syracuse - 2006: 4-8 Overall, 1-6 Big East


This could be the first year under Greg Robinson that the offense, which essentially runs the West Coast system, shows some real life. Robinson could very well have a competent quarterback.


Andrew Robinson seems deft enough to move the offense down the field. He's light on experience having thrown only eight passes last season, but seems to be a much better fit than Perry Patterson. Plus, there are plenty of receivers and tight ends


The coach and the quarterback hope they can rely on Curtis Brinkley, who has had knee issues in the past, but should be healthy for this season and is more than capable of turning out a 1,000 yard season.


The biggest issue for the offense will be how effectively the offensive line can defend the pass rush, something it struggled with last year.



With three seniors and a junior expected to make up the staring defensive line, Robinson should bank on a considerably better 2007 than 2006.


After all, Syracuse was dreadful against the run last season, letting up 185 yards on the ground and 399 yards total per game. Defensive end Jameel McClain actually led the conference in sacks last year with 9.5, but he was one of the few bright spots for the Orange.


The pass defense was mediocre at best, giving up 214 yards per game last fall, but Syracuse will feature two veteran safeties in Joe Fields and Dowayne Davis.


The big holes on this unit come at linebacker, where three new starters get inserted into the lineup. 


The Skinny

The Orange has really fallen on hard times as of late, having won just one Big East game over the past two seasons. Not much is going to change in the conference, where they're light years behind Louisville and West Virginia and severely lagging behind Rutgers and now South Florida. The schedule isn't all that kind to the Orange this year, but there are winnable games out there with Washington and Illinois being two of the first three opponents of the season. Three of the four conference powers head to the Carrier Dome while their matchup with Louisville comes on the road.


Regular Season Prediction: 3-9, 1-6 Big East


Connecticut - 2006: 4-8 Overall, 1-6 Big East


Another team, another quarterback quandary. Connecticut featured the worst passing game in the conference in 2006 and unless things change drastically, the Huskies could spend another year in the basement.


The job will be between Dennis Brown and Tyler Lorenzen, who will battle through camp before coach Randy Edsall makes his final decision. Both have no experience at this level of football.


Last year's starting quarterback, D.J. Hernandez, has been converted to wide receiver. He's a great athlete and should have no problems at the new position. But the real production out of this offense will come from the running game, once again.


Donald Brown is back for his sophomore season after a scintillating freshman campaign where he ran for over 800 yards in 11 games, even putting up 199 against that tough Rutgers defense. He'll be one of the better backs in the Big East and will get to run behind an offensive line that should be solid. 



The feeling around the Huskies is that this could be one of the better defensive units, if not the best, since they joined the Big East in 2004.


Dan Davis will be their disruptor up in the middle after moving from end to tackle. Cody Brown, the team's sack leader last season, will take his place on the end and form a nice pass rushing duo with Davis.


The Huskies were actually 25th against the pass last season and with two starting corners back and an experienced linebacking corps, they figure to be solid once again in that category. The biggest area of concern comes at safety where the Huskies will insert inexperienced freshmen and sophomores.


The Skinny

After the banner season in 2004 that saw UConn reach its first and only bowl game, Edsall hasn't won more than five games in a season. He should start to feel a little pressure this year to get things turned around. In the college game you win with talented players and the consensus seems to be that UConn is continuing to attract better and better athletes each year. Unfortunately, they don't have enough of them yet.


But having an easy non-conference schedule where they can rack up four wins certainly helps this season's outlook.


Regular Season Prediction: 5-7, 1-6 Big East