Big East Conference
2. West Virginia
3. South Florida
Stories to Watch in the Big East
Moving on from Brian Kelly. Butch Jones is no slouch. He won 27 of 40 games in three years at Central Michigan, leading the Chippewas to two MAC titles. He did great work with record-setting quarterback Dan LeFevour. Don't count him out at Cincinnati, even if the odds are against him a bit. The Bearcats are missing six starters off a subpar defense that gave up 194 points over their last five games. Cornerback Dominique Battle leads what should be an improved secondary, but the Bearcats have to improve up front. Zach Collaros will start at quarterback with Tony Pike gone, and running back Isaiah Reed returns. Collaros started a couple games in 2009 when Pike was hurt, so this isn't going to be a new dance for him. He hit 75 percent of his throws while filling in, so it's expected that he will play well. Mardy Gilyard is gone, but senior Armon Binns should be able to step in to the No. 1 receiver role nicely. Jones will have a good team, but defensive losses and a tough schedule will cause problems in his first year.
Moving on from controversy. All the years that Jim Leavitt put in at South Florida, and one locker-room incident blew the whole thing up. Allegations that Leavitt struck a player during halftime of a game last season led to his dismissal as USF coach. The school did well, though, as they plucked Skip Holtz from East Carolina to take Leavitt's place. While Leavitt sues the school and tries to get his contract paid off, Holtz will work with a very strong returning group. Last year's knee injury to longtime starting quarterback Matt Grothe might have been temporarily crippling, but it was also eye-opening, because it gave talented B.J. Daniels a chance to shine as the starter before he was expected to. Grothe is gone now, and Daniels is the unquestioned starter. He has to improve as a passer, and leading receiver Carlton Mitchell's departure won't help there. But what USF really needs is a running back to step up. Daniels ended up being the Bulls' leading rusher last year, and that can't happen again. Moise Plancher and Demetris Murray seem the best candidates to run the ball regularly. Holtz also has to replace six starters on defense, including the top four tacklers and leading sacker Jason Pierre-Paul. Look for a big year out of redshirt freshman end Ryne Giddins.
Pitt continues to rise. It's been pretty steady improvement since Dave Wannstedt took over as the head coach at Pittsburgh. The Panthers have won 19 games the last two years, posted double-digit wins in 2009 for the first time in nearly 20 years, and look to be a real favorite in the Big East this fall. Wannstedt is still looking to find a consistent passing game, but he has a real star in the making in sophomore running back Dion Lewis. The short, stocky Lewis ran for nearly 1,800 yards as a freshman, chipped in 25 receptions, and scored 18 touchdowns (17 rushing). Not bad for a true freshman. New starting quarterback Tino Sunseri will try to pick up where Bill Stull left off. The departed Stull greatly improved his completion percentage as a senior, and he threw 21 touchdowns. Leading receiver Jon Baldwin, a big dude who is good in traffic, returns. The defense lost a few pieces, but should still be strong thanks to middle linebacker Dan Mason and safety Jarred Holley. The recent suspension of starting end Jabaal Sheard will hurt, but the Panthers are deep along the defensive line. Non-conference dates with Utah (road) and Miami (home) are daunting, but the Panthers could still hit double digits in wins.
Connecticut looks for a breakthrough. UConn battled through the murder of cornerback Jasper Howard last year, rallying late in the year to make a bowl game after a three-game losing streak that came right after the murder. This UConn team should be even better. 16 starters are back, including emerging star running back Jordan Todman and former Notre Dame quarterback Zach Frazer, who got better as last year wore on and will continue to improve as a senior. On defense, weakside linebacker Lawrence Wilson had 140 tackles and five sacks last year, and the All-Big East player is the leader of this unit. If Blidi Wreh-Wilson and Dwayne Gratz play well at cornerback, the Huskies could be quite formidable on this side of the ball. Their performance in the bowl win over South Carolina last year should be quite encouraging. Top dogs West Virginia, Pittsburgh, and Cincinnati all visit Storrs, and the only daunting non-conference roadie is a date at Michigan to open the season. This could be the year UConn surges in the polls and stays there.
Best of the Rest
Senior running back Noel Devine gets one more shot at a BCS bowl with West Virginia. Devine has been very good, but he needs more out of the Mountaineers' passing attack to give the offense balance. Either that, or he needs Pat White back. WVU's defense could be best in the Big East, and they're a sleeper for the league title. ... Tom Savage was a great find for Rutgers at quarterback. With Joe Martinek and Mohamed Sanu both back, the Scarlet Knights should improve on that side of the ball. The question is whether a defense that lost its top four tacklers, leading sack man, and best defensive back can keep up. ... I expect Syracuse to climb out of the Big East cellar this fall, and it will be much to the credit of new coach Doug Marrone, who won't accept the kind of mediocrity that had settled in under Greg Robinson. Stopgap quarterback Greg Paulus and star wide receiver Mike Williams depart, but sophomore Ryan Nassib looks like a good option at quarterback, where it's not like Paulus was anything special. Delone Carter will easily top the 1,021 yard total from a year ago, as Syracuse runs the ball better. ... Good thing Charlie Strong's background is on defense, because Louisville's new head coach has some serious rebuilding to do there. The Cardinals were a disaster last year, failing to score consistently or stop people. The defense wasn't good and lost its top four tacklers. If he can get them going on that side of the ball, the Cardinals should at least be competitive, but it's hard to see them qualifying for a bowl game.
Preseason Big East Superlatives
Best QB: Zach Collaros, Cincinnati
Best RB: Dion Lewis, Pittsburgh
Best WR: Jon Baldwin, Pittsburgh
Best offense: Cincinnati
Best defense: Pittsburgh
Best coach: Dave Wannstedt, Pittsburgh
Coach in the most trouble: N/A
Best non-conference game: Miami at Pittsburgh, Sept. 23
Worst non-conference game: Indiana State at Cincinnati, Sept. 11