Big East Conference
Bottom Line: Once an afterthought when compared to the more traditionally elite conferences, even when perennial powers Miami and Virginia Tech were members, the Big East it seems has flourished from addition by subtraction. Four years ago, when much ado was made over conference giants moving to the ACC, many thought it meant the beginning of the end. Little did we know that the trio of South Florida, Cincinnati and Louisville would serve as an ample substitute, quickly experience significant success and, in the process, immediately turn the Big East into a major player in the struggle for supreme national recognition.
South Florida Bulls (9-3): The Bulls charged their way into the spotlight last season, achieving a national no. 2 ranking after beating West Virginia. Quarterback Matt Grothe is an impressive combo of legs and arm, but he’ll need a strong supporting cast if the Bulls want to prove that 2007’s late-season collapse is behind them.
Pittsburgh Panthers (8-4): Surprise, surprise: ESPN’s Mark May, a Pitt alum, is picking the Panthers to win the Big East, which Pitt hasn’t done since former coach Walt Harris’ last season in 2004. With Dave Wannstedt now in his fourth season, and the members of his first recruiting class now seniors, the Panthers may have the talent to rise again.
West Virginia Mountaineers (7-5): Though they might not readily admit it, the citizens of Morgantown are still feeling the burn left by the unexpected departure of Rich Rodriguez. However, another surprisingly solid bowl performance in new coach Bill Stewart’s debut gave the faithful hope that the winning ways at West Virginia can continue long after the man responsible for the program’s resurrection has left.
Cincinnati Bearcats (7-5): After appearing in only three bowl games in 50 years, from 1947-97, the Bearcats have made the postseason six times since 2000. Brian Kelly inherited a program on the rise when he came to Cincinnati to succeed current Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio. But after consecutive double-digit win seasons, Kelly has taken the program to new heights, the likes of which have not been seen in a long time.
Connecticut Huskies (7-5): The mission for Randy Edsall’s team in 2008 will be proving it deserves a seat at the conference’s head table. In 2007, every step forward was met with two steps backward. After beating then eleventh-ranked South Florida last October, Connecticut lost to conference favorites Cincinnati and West Virginia by a combined score of 93-24.
Rutgers Scarlet Knights (6-6): After their breakout 11-2 season in 2006, the Scarlet Knights and highly coveted coach Greg Schiano have had marginal success dealing with inflated expectations. An 8-5 season a year ago was hardly the encore fans in Piscataway were anticipating, especially since the Knights played a majority of their toughest games at home. If there’s to be a bounce-back year, Rutgers will have to get it done without star RB Ray Rice and never-ending rumors that Schiano will leave New Jersey at the behest of the first high-profile suitor.
Louisville Cardinals (6-6): Former Tulsa head coach Steve Kragthorpe’s first season was marred by a leaky defense that ranked in the bottom half of the conference. The play of Brian Brohm’s successor, Hunter Caldwell, and the addition of former Michigan defensive coordinator Ron English will be the difference between a solid sophomore campaign for Kragthorpe or another disappointing four months.
Syracuse Orangemen (3-9): It should be tough sledding once again for Greg Robinson and the Orange. Give Robinson credit, however, for being a beam of light in a dismal first three seasons in upstate New York during which he has won only seven games. Whether he’s a self-trained optimist or a man ridden with denial is unclear, but Robinson’s positive attitude has definitely captured the imagine of the Syracuse student body, who have taken the liberty of coining their coach’s post-game comments as “Gregisms.”
Champion: South Florida
Team on the rise: Pittsburgh
Team on the fall: Rutgers
Player to Watch: Pittsburgh RB LeSean McCoy
Bowlers: South Florida, Pittsburgh, West Virginia, Cincinnati, Connecticut