Tuesday, July 21, 2009

College Football 2009: Big East

This year's College Football Preview uses information gathered from many sources. As usual, my full endorsement goes to Phil Steele and his College Football Preview, which is the most comprehensive publication of its kind available. I also used The Sporting News College Football Preview, along with school websites and local newspapers, in my research for these preview posts. Please contact me ASAP if you have updated information that can be used to make this work more accurate.

1. Pittsburgh
2. Rutgers
3. South Florida
4. West Virginia
5. Cincinnati
6. Louisville
7. Connecticut
8. Syracuse

Fab Four: Top storylines in the Big East

Is this the year? The world has had its fair share of fun with Pittsburgh head coach Dave Wannstedt. Some of it has been deserved, as Wannstedt had "abject failure" written all over him after three years as the head coach at Pittsburgh. The Panthers had gone just 16-19 in those three seasons, failing to attain a bowl bid, losing countless close games, and teasing fans with some stirring performances. None of this was more true than the 2007 season, when Pitt beat Cincinnati and West Virginia but lost at home to Navy and Connecticut on the way to a 5-7 finish.

2008 was a more balanced season, as Pittsburgh shook off an season-opening loss to Bowling Green to go 9-2 over their last 11 games. Wannstedt's team finished 9-4, beat West Virginia again, and appears positioned for a title run this season.

Wannstedt has a potential problem on his hands with quarterback Bill Stull (pictured), who was generally awful a year ago (57 percent, nine TDs, ten picks). Will he pull the trigger on junior Pat Bostick? A quarterback controversy could sink this team, and it's worth watching in summer camp.

The Panthers have the makings of elite offensive and defensive lines, should be improved in the passing game, and they have an experienced and talented secondary. This could be Wannstedt's best chance to make believers out of the more skeptical Pitt supporters.

Senior quarterbacks all over. If Stull holds on to the Pittsburgh gig, it makes five of eight teams in the league who will likely employ a senior starting quarterback in 2009. That level of experience at the most important position on the field should only boost the conference's overall level of play.

Besides Stull, South Florida's Matt Grothe and Tony Pike of Cincinnati return with starting experience. A fourth senior quarterback, Cameron Dantley of Syracuse, has experience, but has been demoted in favor of freshman Ryan Nassib.

Two teams -- West Virginia and Rutgers -- expect to start seniors with no previous starting experience under center.

It's not surprising that the five teams with senior quarterbacks are expected to be in postseason contention at the end of the season. That kind of thing is hardly mandatory, but you can't put a price on a player like Grothe or Pike leading your team's offense.

Trouble for Kragthorpe? Louisville has been an amazing disappointment since Steve Kragthorpe came aboard as head coach in 2007. The Cardinals are just 11-13, have slipped noticeably on offense, and have suddenly stopped playing defense.

2009 could be another rough season. The Cardinals lose quarterback Hunter Cantwell, three starters on the defensive line, and have non-conference road dates with Kentucky and Utah.

If new starting quarterback Justin Burke can use his experienced skill-position talent, and improve on Cantwell's rather scattershot accuracy, the offense should get better. Then it's up to the defense to keep taking the kind of baby steps they took a year ago, when they improved off an embarrassing 2007 season and just weren't good enough to carry the Cardinals.

Louisville is at the crossroads here. One year from now, they'll either be talking about building off a minor bowl appearance, or they'll be breaking in a new coach.

Syracuse starts over ... again. When they hired Greg Robinson, there was talk of modernizing the offense. Apparently, Paul Pasqualoni's option-based, run-first attack was boring everyone to tears with winning seasons and bowl bids. Failure followed, even though the Orange did manage to beat Notre Dame in South Bend last year. Now, Robinson is gone, taking his 10-37 record and moving on with his life.

The new coach is Doug Marrone, who played at Syracuse and understands that there was some tradition with this program before Robinson came in and tried to change everything.

Well-traveled offensive coordinator Rob Spence was hired to bring life to an attack that hasn't averaged 20 points a game since Pasqualoni was still employed there. In fact, last year's 18.1 points per game was the highest a Robinson-run Syracuse team attained. Ouch.

As for the defense, after two years of respectable play, the last two years under Robinson were cover-your-eyes bad. Syracuse needs to find a way to slow opponents down a bit, because giving up around 200 yards rushing per game is not a key to success. There are 45 returning letterwinners to help Marrone lead this program back in the right direction in 2009, but there's just too much ground to make up on a league that has dominated the Orange for the better part of four straight years.

Best of the rest

Jabu Lovelace takes over as the quarterback at Rutgers, unless fellow senior Domenic Natale beats him out. The Scarlet Knights lost top receivers Kenny Britt and Tiquan Underwood, but do return senior speedster Tim Brown and should have a much-improved running game led by Kordell Young. ... Grothe's (pictured) presence should solidify the South Florida offense. But what about a defense that lost leading tackler Tyrone McKenzie? Senior defensive end George Selvie could solve much of that, if the Bulls can get some help for him along that line. Selvie was worn down a year ago by double teams, and the Bulls really couldn't do anything to help him. ... No more Pat White at West Virginia, as Jarrett Brown takes over at quarterback. Luckily, he'll have Noel Devine to hand off to, and he'll still have Jock Sanders available to catch passes. ... Cincinnati won the Big East last year, but they lost some huge pieces of the defense, as ten starters depart. The Bearcats have quarterback Tony Pike back, and Brian Kelly's spread offense has to step up this year to support the young defense. ... There may not have been a more valuable player in the Big East last year than Connecticut running back Donald Brown, who topped 2,000 yards and scored 18 touchdowns. It makes sense that it would take a couple players to replace Brown, and that may happen at UConn, as senior Andre Dixon and sophomore Jordan Todman battle for playing time.

Big East Preseason Honors and Notables
Offensive Player of the Year:
Noel Devine, RB, West Virginia
Defensive Player of the Year: George Selvie, DE, South Florida
Coach of the Year: Dave Wannstedt, Pittsburgh
Coach on the Hot Seat: Steve Kragthorpe, Louisville
Best Non-Conference Game: Pittsburgh at North Carolina State, September 26
Worst Non-Conference Game: Southeast Missouri State at Cincinnati, September 12

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