Friday, July 28, 2006

College football preview: Big East


1. West Virginia Mountaineers
Don’t try to tell Rich Rodriguez about the weak Big East.

After all, it was Rodriguez and his Mountaineers who did everything they could to erase that perception in 60 minutes, beating mighty Georgia in a scintillating Sugar Bowl in Atlanta.

Now, Rodriguez has to deal with serious expectations. WVU has been tabbed by many as a national title contender this year, and for good reason: The Mountaineers return all their key offensive players. The spread offense has never looked healthier in Morgantown.

The defensive losses are note-worthy (hang on!), but West Virginia has certainly caught the eye of the nation as they prepare for 2006.

In good shape: Offensive backfield. Sophomore QB Patrick White couldn’t have been better a year ago. Sure, he only threw for 828 yards, but that doesn’t matter very much. The Mountaineers averaged over 270 rush yards per game, thanks in large part to White, who was just 48 yards short of 1,000. Joining him in the backfield is sophomore Steve Slaton, whose freshman year was actually more productive than White’s. Slaton ran for over 1,100 yards and 17 scores, on his way to being named Big East Freshman of the Year. Rodriguez has to avoid the sophomore jinx with both his star offensive players, but WVU can’t complain about having them in the backfield for at least two more years.

Needs work: Secondary. The Mountaineers didn’t have a player the caliber of 2004 star Pacman Jones in their secondary, but they were still very good, taking advantage of a relatively weak group of opposing quarterbacks. However, WVU does lose first-team All-Big East FS Jahmile Addae and second-team CB Anthony Mims. This year, WVU expects to start juniors Antonio Lewis and Larry Williams at corner. Can they continue to slow down opposing offenses at the same rate? It’s a huge question mark, because the defense is relatively undersized in the front four, and it might be tough to consistently stop the run or generate pressure on quarterbacks.

Overview: White and Slaton will drive the offense. If they stay healthy, WVU could approach 300 rushing yards per game, though White’s improvement as a thrower might prevent them from doing that. Brandon Myles and Darius Reynaud both return at wideout, and they should improve on the 64 combined catches and eight TDs from a year ago. If the defense holds up, the Mountaineers have a favorable schedule, and they could make a run at an unbeaten record and a second straight Big East title.

2. Louisville Cardinals
When the Big East had to regroup after the departures of Virginia Tech, Miami, and Boston College, and most notably, Temple, no one thought it would be able to recover. However, the addition of Louisville, among others, couldn’t have worked out any better in Year One.

The Cardinals play an exciting brand of football. It’s a relentless offensive attack, both on the ground and through the air. Calling it the “spread” isn’t fair, because Bobby Petrino runs a lot of sets that aren’t a part of a “typical” spread offense. It’s a speed-based system, and the Cardinals have plenty of speed.

In short, they’re a great fit for the Big East, and Louisville proved last year that they can hold their own in a BCS conference.

(In case you haven’t noticed, I’m not a fan of those who dog the Big East. I think it’s interesting that everyone has already dismissed any chance this league has at being competitive, but I’d argue that their top two is very good, and the depth of this league is only going to improve as teams try to catch up to West Virginia and Louisville.)

In good shape: Um…offense? Yeah, the whole thing. The ringmaster, Brian Brohm, is back from a torn ACL. Before he went down, he managed a decent season, with 2,883 yards passing and 19 TDs (oh yeah, he hit a measly 69 percent of his passes). Hunter Cantwell took over for Brohm and led Louisville to a 1-1 record, so he’s got some experience should Brohm have any complications from the knee this summer. Michael Bush is one of the top running backs in college football. He scored 24 TDs (23 rushing) last year and posted 1,150 rush yards. Mario Urrutia and Harry Douglas are the top returning receivers, and Notre Dame transfer Chris Vaughn is a great fit for this offense.

Needs work: Pass rush. Thanks in large part to 20-sack man Elvis Dumervil, the Cardinals posted a whopping 3.7 sacks per game a year ago. With Dumervil gone, along with end Chad Rimpsey and tackle Montavious Stanley, Petrino’s defense staff has the tough task of trying to rebuild a pass rush that is essential to the Cardinals’ success defending the pass. Expect to see at least one freshman starting along the Louisville defensive line, which could spell trouble.

Overview: The offensive line bears watching, as they lost three starters. With Brohm coming off a major knee surgery, it’s very important that they be able to block for Bush so defenses can’t key on the passing attack and try to get after Brohm. If the pass rush is visible, the secondary will be good, especially at safety, where senior Brandon Sharp will roam around and try to decapitate people. All in all, the Cardinals have the horses to challenge West Virginia for the Big East title, and not much separates the two teams. Both should find themselves playing on or after New Year’s Day, and this might even be the year that Louisville knocks off a “big boy” in non-conference play, as Miami visits on September 16.

3. Pittsburgh Panthers
Go ahead. Laugh. I know you want to.

Last year was a hiccup. The 0-3 start was killer, even though two of the teams Pittsburgh lost to (Notre Dame, Nebraska) combined to go 17-7 on the season, and their three Big East losses all came on the road to bowl teams. You just can’t start 0-3. I don’t care how worthless your conference is perceived to be.

This year, Dave Wannstedt will have the Panthers better. I’ll promise you that. Tyler Palko will benefit from an improved running game and better protection in front of him, and the defense will continue to get better as it rounds into form under Wannstedt.

In good shape: Quarterback. Palko certainly could have made more big plays last season, but it’s hard to do that when you’re constantly running for your life. The Panthers overhauled the offense, and Palko had trouble grasping it. Now that he has another offseason of work in, I expect Palko to be more accurate and take even better care of the football. Keep this in mind: Only five of Palko’s nine interceptions last year came in the last nine games of the season. He threw four in two games to start the season off.

Needs work: Running game. I only say this because of the obvious. After all, Pittsburgh has averaged all of 3.2, 2.6, and 3.2 yards per carry over the last three seasons, and they haven’t even averaged 3.5 yards per carry since 2001. That’s some Sun Belt-quality running. Wannstedt expects improvement, and I think he’ll get it. He better get it. Soon. The best chance for improvement this year comes with sophomore LaRod Stephens-Howling, who had one 100-yard game as a freshman but was hampered by an ankle injury.

Overview: Even though leading receivers Greg Lee and Erik Gill are gone, Palko should have a better time finding targets this year. Especially enticing are lanky TE Darrell Strong and freshman WR Dorin Dickerson, who could turn into a huge big-play threat as a freshman. LB H.B. Blades, now in his twelfth year at Pitt, leads the defense, which will be plenty physical and has a ton of talent, especially in the secondary, where the Panthers might have the best starting CB tandem in the Big East (Reggie Carter and Darrelle Revis). With four of the first five games at home, and no Notre Dame on the schedule, Pittsburgh should improve significantly off of last year’s 5-6 finish.

4. Rutgers Scarlet Knights
Yes, that was Rutgers in a bowl game last year.

No, I’m not kidding. Really, you can get off the floor now. It happened.

After four years of near-complete futility in his rebuilding effort, Greg Schiano finally got a richly-deserved payoff in 2005, as the Scarlet Knights won seven games and qualified for the Insight Bowl. Schiano has recruited like a madman at Rutgers, trying to stockpile talent that would make this program a perennial bowl contender.

As Schiano continues to improve the talent level at Rutgers, the Knights will slowly climb the Big East ladder. This season could be difficult, thanks to the departure of record-setting QB Ryan Hart (especially when you consider that new starter Mike Teel threw ten picks in 101 pass attempts while filling in for Hart). But the program is on the rise, and Schiano was rewarded with a seven-year extension on his contract last winter.

In good shape: Running back. Wow. You don’t get much better than the one-two punch of Raymell Rice and Brian Leonard. Rice is a shifty type who went over 1,100 yards as a true freshman, averaging an impressive 5.7 yards per attempt. Leonard is a dual-threat fullback who has the athleticism to make people miss in the open field and the power to run them over if necessary. Leonard ran for over 700 yards and also contributed 55 receptions for over 550 yards, accounting for a team-high 17 touchdowns. His decision to return for his senior season means that Rutgers could end up with one of the top rushing attacks in the conference. Also worth noting is the presence of freshman Kordell Young, who could be good enough to push Rice for playing time.

Needs work: Quarterback. Hart wasn’t ever a consistent playmaker, and he didn’t ever take good care of the ball, so he’s definitely replaceable. But Teel didn’t make a good first impression with his interception-happy performance as a freshman. The talent is there at receiver, with guys like Shawn Tucker, Willie Foster, and talented sophomore Tiquan Underwood. Undoubtedly, the running game will be there, and with two seniors and three juniors along the offensive line, Teel should be well-protected. He’ll have no excuse not to be efficient.

Rutgers needs to shore up their defense. Despite the overall improvement and the bowl berth a year ago, the Knights still allowed 25.6 points per game and permitted opposing quarterbacks to complete 61 percent of their passes. Those numbers were improvements over 2004, and Schiano, who took over as defensive coordinator, deserves some credit for that. But let’s not get too gushy about a team that allowed 679 yards and 33 first downs to Arizona State in the Insight Bowl. Expectations will be especially high for a secondary that includes two senior starters at cornerback (Derrick Roberson and Joe Porter). Despite a tougher schedule and the change at quarterback, the Scarlet Knights should still be good enough to win six or seven games and go bowling again.

5. South Florida Bulls

South Florida’s win totals since 1998. Pretty solid, especially when you consider that the program wasn’t even born until 1997.

Last year marked USF’s first trip to a bowl game. It was a 14-0 loss to North Carolina State in the Meineke Car Care Bowl, and for the Bulls, it ended a long journey that started in Division I-AA. The next step is to improve on their 6-6 overall record, and the personnel might be in place to make that happen.

Well, it might be…if they can overcome the loss of starting running back Andre Hall, who approached 1,400 yards on the ground and carried an otherwise mediocre offense.

In good shape: Pass defense. The Bulls allowed quarterbacks to hit all of 52 percent of their throws a year ago, a pretty solid number. USF also averaged 3.1 sacks per game, and they return many key pieces, especially in the secondary. Junior CBs Mike Jenkins and Trae Williams combined to start 23 games. Sophomore SS Carlton Williams started all 12 games as a FS last year, but moves to make room for sophomore Danny Verpaele, who missed the 2005 season with a broken foot. Outside linebacker Stephen Nicholas also returns, one year after leading the team with 12.5 sacks.

Needs work: Quarterback. Again. Last year, then-junior Pat Julmiste started 11 games and hit just 49 percent of his passes while throwing 11 picks. That won’t work, especially if USF longs to move up the Big East ladder. Coach Jim Leavitt pointed out to Blue Ribbon that Julmiste was the starter when the Bulls beat Louisville and Rutgers last year. What Leavitt conveniently forgot to point out was that Julmiste was a combined 17 of 30 for 230 yards and one interception in those games. Sophomore Carlton Hill could push Julmiste for playing time, but he also is in dire need of work on his throwing accuracy.

Overview: The Bulls have some nice pieces in place. Leavitt likes sophomore RB Ricky Ponton, who takes over for Hall, but no one can possibly expect Ponton to carry the offense like Hall did. I expect junior WR Amarri Jackson to have a very good season if the Bulls can solve the QB situation. As for the defense, it should shine again. USF is a bit undersized along the front, but they are very athletic. The schedule includes non-conference trips to 2005 bowl teams Central Florida and Kansas, along with North Carolina of the ACC. Unless USF gets a quarterback who can be efficient, it will be very difficult for them to win enough games to gain bowl eligibility.

6. Connecticut Huskies
Connecticut completed the transition to Division I-A in 2003, when they reached the full allotment of 85 football scholarships. In 2004, a senior-laden UConn team blasted Toledo 39-10 for the program’s first I-A bowl victory.

A rebuilding year was anticipated last year, and coach Randy Edsall was able to restock some key positions. However, struggles at the quarterback position kept the Huskies from returning to the bowl season, as they lost five of their last six games to finish 5-6.

It’s a young program, but it’s a young program in a BCS conference that has a nice new stadium to play in. The future is definitely bright for Connecticut.

In good shape: Defensive line. The Huskies had to replace four of their top five players from the 2004 team, but the line actually got better. The Huskies averaged 2.5 QB sacks per game and allowed just 3.4 rush yards per carry. Senior DTs Rhema Fuller and Ray Blagman will anchor the run defense, while Edsall and his staff try to find a way to generate more pass rush. Sophomore Cody Brown has tremendous upside as one of the starting ends.

Needs work: Quarterback. When Dan Orlovsky left after the 2004 season, everyone knew it would be a struggle to replace him. It probably wasn’t assumed that things would be this hard. The Huskies used three quarterbacks last year, and the three combined for an ugly 50.8 percent completions for just 149 yards per game. D.J. Hernandez only completed 51 percent in limited duty last year, but he did have six TDs to just one pick. He won the job this spring and will start the opener.

Overview: If Connecticut can solve the quarterback woes that plagued them last year (their passing yardage went from 281 a game with Orlovsky in 2004 to 149 a game last year…that’s bad), they have some nice pieces in place for a bowl run. The schedule, however, is not all that forgiving, with non-conference home dates with bowl candidates Wake Forest, Army, and Navy, along with a trip to improved Indiana, who will probably mention something about the 34-10 waxing UConn put on them in 2003 to open Rentschler Field. The defense looks very good, especially in the secondary, where Edsall has recruited very well (look out for cornerback Darius Butler). However, the questions at QB and a pretty tough schedule will conspire to keep Connecticut from the six wins required for a bowl trip.

7. Cincinnati Bearcats
The Bearcats sat in a pretty good position after eight games last year. In their first Big East season, they were holding up, with a 2-2 conference record (4-4 overall). With two wins in their last three games, the Bearcats would have been bowl-eligible for the fifth time in six seasons – not bad for what had been a “mid-major” program that was trying to make the move up to a BCS league.

Unfortunately for Mark Dantonio and the Bearcats, that was where the roof fell in on them. Cincinnati lost their last three games by an aggregate of 113-25. What had been at least a moderately successful running game fell flat on its face, gaining just 128 yards on 91 attempts, including a ghastly -23 yards against Rutgers. Year Two in the Big East is upon Cincinnati, and they have 17 starters returning for it.

In good shape: Running back. The Bearcats used three different backs last year, with the best of the bunch being junior Bradley Glatthaar. Glathaar totaled just a shade over 600 yards, including a 123-yard effort against Connecticut. He missed spring practice, which gave senior Greg Moore a chance to shine. Moore went for 75 yards in the loss to Louisville, but only totaled 297 yards. Junior Butler Benton is also in the mix after a strong spring.

Needs work: Passing game. For a freshman, QB Dustin Grutza wasn’t bad last year, completing 56 percent of his throws for 11 TDs. But Dantonio and coordinator Don Treadwell are eager for Grutza to take better care of the football (11 picks). The receiver position is in flux. Senior TE Brent Celek is their best target, while junior WR Earnest Jackson has the most upside, but he needs to be a bigger factor in the red zone. Sophomore Dominick Goodman and senior Bill Poland (if healthy) need to step up and provide depth at receiver.

Overview: Cincinnati lost 27 seniors and entered 2005 as one of the least experienced teams in the league. They still had a shot at a bowl game until the disastrous performance down the stretch sunk them to 4-7. The Bearcats will field a very strong defense. After giving up 31 a game last year, the ten returning starters should show massive improvement. UC is especially strong at linebacker, where seven players with starting experience are back. There are still many question marks, however, especially in the passing game and the pass defense. If they can improve in those areas, Cincinnati might sneak towards bowl eligibility.

8. Syracuse Orange
Let’s see. What went right for Syracuse last year?


Um, well, um, well, they beat Buffalo 31-0. Too bad it was the Bulls and not the Bills.

The Orange finished 1-10, the worst record for a Syracuse football team since 1948. The offense was nothing short of embarrassing, and the defense didn’t really come around in coach Greg Robinson’s system, though there were games where they performed admirably, but were simply worn out because the offense couldn’t muster anything better than a three-and-out.

Now, they return just ten total starters (lowest in the Big East), and only four of those are on defense. Robinson told Blue Ribbon that he believes his team was starting to round into form late last season, but unfortunately for them, their last two opponents were Notre Dame and Louisville, meaning it was next-to-impossible to show any real improvement.

Year Two for Robinson will be better than Year One, but that’s not saying much. The Orange still have a long way to go before they can return to bowl contention.

In good shape: Wide receiver? Not much is really “in good shape” in this program. The Orange return WRs Rice Moss (second cousin of some guy named “Randy Moss”) and Tim Lane, and Robinson welcomes (probably with open arms) transfer Taj Smith, who is a crisp route-runner, and will fit in perfectly in the West Coast system. It remains to be seen if Robinson has the quarterback to get these guys the ball, but this position is clearly the best on the football team heading into the season.

Needs work: Secondary. In last year’s disaster, the secondary came the closest to putting together a good season. Opponents, probably too busy picking on Syracuse’s porous run defense, only threw for 186 yards per game. Furthermore, Buffalo, Connecticut, Rutgers, and South Florida all failed to complete half their throws against Syracuse. But the Orange lose safety Anthony Smith, who went in the second round of the NFL Draft, along with starting corner Steve Gregory. Hoping to increase the athleticism at this position, Robinson wants to move QB Joe Fields to free safety. But no one has stepped up to claim Smith’s starting job, and there were too many personnel losses here for Syracuse to overcome quickly.

Overview: Perry Patterson has one more shot as the starting quarterback. After 13 TDs and 21 picks the last two years, he really has nowhere to go but up. He may have to fend off a challenge from redshirt freshman Cameron Dantley or true freshman Andrew Robinson, but it’s hard to imagine either of them being ready to play this season. Unless the defense can hold up heroically while the offense continues to plod along, Syracuse will struggle to win more than three games. Even if the offense comes around, it’s hard to imagine the Orange climbing out of the Big East cellar this year. Hopefully, patience rules the roost, because there should be noticeable improvement this year.

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