2008 Big East Football Preview
The Big East took a step back in 2007 from its excellent 2006 season. After generally finishing 2nd in most conference power ratings in 2006, the Big East fell down to 6th amongst BCS conferences. However, the conference did produce its share of highlight moments, including Pitt’s stunning upset victory over West Virginia on the final day of the regular season to deny the Mountaineers a shot at the National Championship. South Florida also rose to prominence in 2007, peaking at #2 in the polls at midseason. While the Big East is the smallest of all the BCS conferences, it has produced its share of nationally acclaimed teams the past 3 year and it would not be a surprise if another Big East team had a shot at an undefeated season in 2008.
South Florida (Predicted Conference Record: 6-1)
The Bulls entered 2007 as a national afterthought. However that changed very quickly, thanks to an early season upset of Auburn on the road. Soon thereafter, USF upset Big East favorite WVU in front of a national audience and the nation fell in love with the young Bulls team, ranking them as high as #2. However, USF had some struggles down the stretch, losing three in a row after rising to #2. The Bulls are expected to learn from last year, returning 17 starters from their breakout team of a year ago, and are one of the favorites to win the Big East.
USF is led by Matt Grothe, the Big East’s answer to Tim Tebow. Like Tebow, Grothe is a physical runner who is a consummate gamer. Grothe led the Bulls in rushing last season and is entering his 3 rd year as USF’s starting quarterback and he should continue to develop his passing abilities. Looking to help Grothe on the ground will be sophomore tailback Mike Ford, who showed flashes of brilliance last year. Expect him to take on a greater burden this fall in Tampa Bay. Paving the way for USF will be an experienced O-Line which returns 4 starters from last year’s group and is one of the Big East’s best. Grothe also returns almost all of his top receiving targets. USF should have an excellent offense this fall and should be able to score in bunches on any of their Big East foes.
The story for USF during their meteoric rise to #2 was their defense, which held Big East co-champs (UConn and WVU) to less than 2 touchdowns during both matchups last year! The defense was sparked by rising junior defensive end George Selvie, who rocketed to national fame with 14.5 sacks and a monstrous 31.5 tackles for loss last year! Selvie should anchor an improved defensive line this fall which should improve USF’s performance against the run. At linebacker, senior Tyrone McKenzie returns after leading the team in tacklers last fall. He should again be the anchor of an excellent and experienced front seven. The big question for USF this fall will be their cornerback play. USF had one of the best CB tandems last year in Mike Jenkins and Trae Williams, both of which were NFL draft picks this past April. While the return of both starting safeties should help ease the transition, USF’s cornerbacks will be a major factor in the success or failure of USF’s defense this year.
USF has a moderately difficult conference schedule, featuring four home games out of seven on the unbalanced schedule. They welcome Pitt and Rutgers to Tampa and a back to back stretch at Louisville and Cincinnati looms in November. However, the biggest game on USF’s schedule is a December 6 th trip to Morgantown, West Virginia on the final day of the college football season. USF will look to make it three straight wins over the Mountaineers in what could be the unofficial Big East Title Game. USF has a strong returning team and are led by one of the conference’s best quarterbacks. South Florida should be a major threat to win their first Big East Championship in 2008.
Big Games: Oct. 2nd versus Pitt, Oct. 30th @ Cincinnati, Dec. 6th @ WVU
Pittsburgh (Predicted Conference Record: 5-2)
Pitt has suffered through some lean times since Dave Wannstedt was hired after the 2005 season amidst expectations that Pitt was on the verge of becoming a power in the Big East. Since then, Wannstedt has paired consistent recruiting success with consistent failure on the field. However, that might all have changed at the end of last year, when the Panthers knocked off #2 West Virginia to ruin the Mountaineers’ all but booked trip to New Orleans for the National Title Game. Wannstedt followed up that big win by capping off yet another highly touted recruiting class. Another positive for Pitt is that they suffered a huge number of injuries in 2007 and still were only a couple of plays away from finishing with nine or ten wins! 2008 could well be the season that Pitt finally puts it all together.
Pitt had some serious quarterback troubles in 2007, losing starter Bill Stull in the opening game and struggling with true freshman Pat Bostick for much of the season. However, Stull should be fully healthy this season and the Panthers should drastically cut down on their interception total from 2007 whether he regains his job or not. Pitt will also benefit from the return of 2006 All-Big East receiver Derek Kinder, who redshirted last fall after tearing his ACL in camp. Kinder’s presence for his senior year coupled with the return of most of last year’s targets should mean a big step forwards in the passing game. Another big positive for the Panthers is the presence of sophomore LeSean McCoy in the backfield, one of the country’s best tailbacks. McCoy ran for over 1,300 yards last year despite the Panthers’ abysmal passing game and is primed an even better year this year. The Panthers lose three starters from last year’s offensive line, but the unit should still be solid enough to allow the Panthers to be a dangerous offensive team.
Pitt’s defense was very good last year, despite losing a number of players to injuries along the defensive line. In fact, Pitt held Big East opponents to 24 points or less in 5 of their 7 conference games last fall! On the defensive line, the Panthers will look to sophomore DE Greg Romeus to take a step forward after earning his way onto the freshman All-American team in 2007. Another major positive for Pitt is that they return all three starting linebackers from last year, including senior Scott McKillop, who led the NCAA in tackles last fall! Pitt’s secondary will be anchored by senior Eric Thatcher and he should be the biggest name in what could be a solid unit. Another major improvement to this unit is new defensive coordinator Phil Bennett, formerly the head coach at SMU. He should help improve an already solid defense even further this fall.
Pitt has a manageable conference schedule despite having to travel for four games. Luckily, included amongst those trips are visits to Syracuse and Cincinnati, both of which could be very down from last year. Paramount to their season will be an early October trip to USF on a Thursday night which could decide whether Pitt will truly be a competitor for the Big East crown. Pitt has a solid defense and should boast a very improved offense this fall. It would not be out of the question for the Panthers to find themselves in the thick of the Big East race this fall, especially since they host archrival West Virginia late in the season for what is expected to be an especially testy edition of the Backyard Brawl.
Big Games: Oct. 2nd @ USF, Oct. 25th versus Rutgers, Nov. 28th versus WVU
West Virginia (Predicted Conference Record: 5-2)
2007 was perhaps the most bittersweet season in the history of West Virginia football. The Mountaineers ran out to an 11-1 start to the year and were a win away from the National Title Game and a unanimous Big East Title. However, the Mountaineers lost a game in which they were favored by four touchdowns and their National Title dreams were shot. To make matters worse, their head coach, native son and alumnus Rich Rodriguez, was hired by the University of Michigan, sparking a messy and angry divorce. Amidst this chaos, WVU managed to focus for the Fiesta Bowl and they ran Oklahoma out of the stadium. Soon thereafter, interim coach Bill Stewart was named the full time head coach. However, last season’s ups and downs could have a significant impact on 2008 and beyond for the Mountaineers.
West Virginia boasts one of the best dual-threat quarterbacks in all of college football in senior Pat White. In WVU’s only two losses last year, White was injured in both, which should underline his importance to the team. He is the reigning two-time Big East player of the year, after all. White is more of a threat to run than to pass, but he is expected to air the ball out more this fall in their new offensive system. Part of the reason to move towards a more balanced attack is the loss of star tailback Steve Slaton, who was a stalwart for three seasons for the Mountaineers. Replacing him will be talented sophomore Noel Devine, who fits very well into WVU’s spread scheme. What will aid the WVU attack even further is the return of all 5 starting offensive linemen. If White doesn’t struggle too much with the adjustment to more pass plays, then WVU boasts the most dangerous offense in the Big East.
The Mountaineers suffer heavy losses from last year’s defense, perhaps the best defense that Rodriguez ever put together during his tenure in Morgantown. In previous years, the WVU defense was a liability, but last year it was strong enough to keep the Mountaineers in every game, allowing more than 28 points only once. Unfortunately, that unit is now minus seven starters from last year’s edition, so Stewart may have some work to do. The strength of the defense should be at linebacker, where seniors Mortty Ivy and Reed Williams return after finishing 2007 as WVU’s top two tacklers. Unfortunately, the Mountaineers have to replace all of their starters in the secondary and their only returning starter on the offensive line is sophomore DT Scooter Berry. Thus, WVU could be in trouble slowing down other teams, especially early in the season. If the new unit can’t gel quickly, WVU might find itself returning to its old run-and-gun ways.
WVU has the advantage of hosting four conference games this fall. However, they have to travel to Louisville, who always plays them very tough, and archrival Pitt in back to back weeks. These two games are of course followed by a visit from USF on the season’s final day in a game which could determine who wins the conference. The last 3 weeks of the season are a very tough stretch for WVU and it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Mountaineers drop two out of three to close the season. West Virginia returns most of an excellent offense from last year, but could struggle slightly with a philosophical shift towards a passing attack. Furthermore, WVU has to rebuild its defense from the ground up. While it certainly would not be a surprise to see the Mountaineers unbeaten in conference play leading into the final weeks and even win the Big East, it is a daunting task for Bill Stewart in his first full season as head coach. Luckily, he has Pat White to ease the transition.
Big Games: Nov. 22nd @ Louisville, Nov. 28th @ Pitt, Dec. 6th versus USF
Rutgers (Predicted Conference Record: 4-3)
Rutgers has been one of the Big East’s better teams in the past 3 seasons, going 26-12 during that stretch. This success has made Head Coach Greg Schiano one of the most sought-after head coaches at major schools around the country. To his credit, Schiano has turned down both Miami (FL) and Michigan the last 2 off seasons, but this might have as much to do with his desire to succeed Joe Paterno at Penn State as it does with his love of Rutgers. Either way, the Scarlet Knights return 15 starters this fall and should again be a solid contender in the Big East.
Rutgers’ offense is led by senior quarterback Mike Teel, who will have to take on a major bigger role now that 2,000 yard rusher Ray Rice has departed for the green pastures of the NFL. Teel will be aided by the return of his top targets at receiver, led by senior Tiquan Underwood and junior Kenny Britt, both of whom snared over 60 passes last fall. On the line of scrimmage, the Scarlet Knights return only 2 starters from last year’s unit and the expected replacements haven’t played a lot. That doesn’t bode well for Rutgers’ running game, as sophomore Mason Robinson only had 35 carries last fall and will be running behind what could be a porous O-Line. If Rutgers can establish a running game, they could have an excellent offense, but their line is very much a work in progress and could struggle early.
On defense, the Scarlet Knights return a wealth of talent and experience, including senior sack master Jamaal Westerman on the defensive line. Rutgers also returns two of their starters at linebacker, including senior Kevin Malast. Rutgers should have a solid front seven and should see a big improvement against the run. In the secondary, senior safety Courtney Greene returns after leading the Scarlet Knights in tackles last year. Back alongside Greene are both of last year’s starting cornerbacks, so Rutgers should be improved against the pass. The Scarlet Knights could have one of the Big East’s best defenses.
Rutgers runs into perhaps the Big East’s most difficult conference slate, featuring road trips to Pitt, USF, and West Virginia and only three home games. The Scarlet Knights face a tough October, with 3 of 4 games on the road. Rutgers’ 2008 season will depend on the development of the offensive line. The Scarlet Knights’ defense should be a stout unit and if Rutgers can develop a consistent running game, they could be a surprise contender for the Big East Championship.
Big Games: Oct. 4th @ WVU, Oct. 18th vs. UConn, Oct. 25th @ Pitt, Dec. 4th vs. Louisville
Louisville (Predicted Conference Record: 4-3)
Describing 2007 as a disappointment to Louisville fans would be akin to saying that Appalachian State defeating Michigan was only a minor upset. Louisville began the season ranked in the top ten and ended up missing out on a bowl game completely! The culprit in Louisville’s dismal season was the awful play of the Cardinal defense, which allowed over 30 points SIX times last fall, including 38 while being upset by an awful Syracuse team which was a 5 touchdown underdog! Coach Steve Kragthorpe will look to have a much improved 2 nd year at the helm this fall, but he could find himself looking for a new job if Louisville’s defense doesn’t improve. The Cardinals’ 9 returning starters are among the lowest in major college football.
On offense, senior quarterback Hunter Cantwell finally will be given the reigns to the offense. Cantwell has been impressive the last 2 years replacing departed star Brian Brohm and he is expected to immediately become one of the Big East’s best passers. The Cardinals will need to find a lot of new targets for Cantwell, as they lose their top four receivers from last fall. Louisville also will have plenty of new options at tailback, where senior Brent Bolen is expected to take the majority of the carries. The new Louisville offense will enjoy the presence of three returning starters on the offensive line, which should be an improved unit from last season. Overall, the Louisville offense is largely unproven, but with Cantwell under center and an experienced offensive line, the Cardinals should still have a solid attack.
Louisville’s defense was one of the worst in the country last fall and a big shakeup took place during the offseason. Former Michigan defensive coordinator Ron English takes over the same role for the Cardinals and he oversaw one of the country’s best units in 2006; Louisville should improve markedly under his tutelage. The Cardinals return three senior defensive linemen and should be improved against the run. However, the Cardinals must replace their entire linebacking corps, so there are some major questions to be answered. That also applies to the secondary, the biggest culprit in last year’s defense allowing nearly double the points per game that it did in 2006. Look for senior safety Bobby Buchanan to help turn the pass defense around. Louisville is expected to improve greatly on defense this fall, which is not especially difficult considering that they really couldn’t be much worse than they were last season.
The Cardinals are the recipients of a decently favorable conference schedule which features four conference home games, including heavyweights USF and West Virginia. However, the Cardinals’ schedule is back loaded and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see them undefeated at the season’s halfway mark. However, the last six games feature the meat of the conference schedule and if Louisville goes 3-3 through that stretch it would be a success. Louisville will not be the explosive offensive force that it was last season, but the Cardinal defense shouldn’t be one of the nation’s worst units. Thus, its not unreasonable to expect Louisville to rebound from last year’s disappointment and achieve bowl eligibility.
Big Games: Oct. 25th vs. USF, Nov. 22nd vs. WVU, Dec. 4th @ Rutgers
Connecticut (Predicted Conference Record: 3-4)
UConn was the surprise of the Big East in 2007, finishing tied for the conference championship a year after finishing last in the conference! Thus, it bears to ask: Was last year’s run a sign that the Huskies have arrived or was it a fluke? Obviously, with any question dealing in absolutes the answer usually lies somewhere in between. UConn is a far better team than the 8 loss edition of 2006, but it is unlikely that they’ll repeat their Big East Co-championship of a year ago. However, UConn is a dangerous team, returning 17 starters, and they could have a big impact on the Big East race in 2008.
UConn is led by a former Iowa State walk-on wide receiver turned quarterback, senior Tyler Lorenzen. Lorenzen is a gamer and is a threat to tuck the ball and run if the play breaks down. The Huskies also are much deeper behind him, as sophomore Notre Dame transfer Zach Frazier will be eligible this fall and will be an excellent back up option. UConn also returns its double-headed monster at tailback. Juniors Donald Brown and Andre Dixon split the carries last fall and combined for over 1,700 yards on the ground. They should be very successful again this year, as the O-Line returns 4 starters and should improve while playing together for a 2 nd consecutive year. Though losing leading receiver Terence Jeffers will be a blow, UConn spreads the ball around well in the air and returns a plethora of upperclassmen at wideout. The Huskies should be a solid offense for the second consecutive year.
On defense, UConn cut down on opponent scoring by over a touchdown per game last year, averaging only 19 points against in 2007. The front seven from that defense returns nearly intact and is led by sophomore linebackers Lawrence Wilson and Scott Lutrus, both of whom recorded over 100 tackles last fall. The Huskies will face some questions in the secondary, as they have to replace two starters. However, junior safety Robert Vaughn and his seven interceptions return and should anchor the pass defense. Overall, UConn has a very experienced defense and should be a tough opponent to score against.
UConn draws a fairly tough conference schedule, with 4 road games. Their toughest stretch will be the second half of October, a stretch featuring a road trip to Rutgers followed by visits from Cincinnati and WVU. Since the Huskies return so much experience from last fall, why are they predicted to finish sixth in the conference? First of all, UConn was undefeated at home last fall but struggled to a 2-4 record away from Rentschler Field and they only have 3 home conference games this year. Second, UConn had a ton of breaks go their way last year, including the infamous ‘fair catch’ punt return for a TD against Louisville, a play that featured the UConn punt returner waving for a fair catch and then taking off and scoring. This play was unbelievably allowed to stand and provided the margin of victory for the Huskies. While UConn is a fine team, their overall talent level is still behind some of the other conference teams and they face an unfavorable schedule. While a 3 rd or 4 th place finish would not be surprising, the Huskies will not be the class of the conference in 2008.
Big Games: Sept. 26 th @ Louisville, Nov. 1 st vs. WVU, Nov. 23 rd @ USF, Dec. 6 th vs. Pitt
Cincinnati (Predicted Conference Record:1-6)
Cincinnati had a fantastic 2007 season, finishing with ten wins for the first time in over 50 years! The Bearcats began the season 6-0 but struggled down the stretch. UC suffers some significant losses from last year, returning only 12 starters from the best Bearcat team in half a century.
Cincinnati has a big question mark at the quarterback position. Last year’s starter, Ben Mauk, applied for a 6 th year of eligibility, but it doesn’t look like he’s going to get it. Thus, the job will belong to senior Dustin Grutza or sophomore Notre Dame transfer Demetrious Jones. Luckily for whoever wins the job, the offensive line is a veteran unit, returning 4 starters from last year’s group. The Bearcats also bring back their top three receivers from last season. The Bearcats also face significant questions at running back, as only junior Jacob Ramsey has any experience. The job will be wide open this fall. Cincinnati should prove to have a fairly solid offense, but it won’t score 36 points on average like last year’s group.
On defense, UC has to replace both of their starting defensive ends, including Anthony Hoke and his 13 sacks. However, UC is projected to start an all-senior D-Line, so they could still prove to be a formidable unit. The Bearcats bring back two very productive senior linebackers in Ryan Manalac and Corey Smith and they should be the base for a solid group. The biggest loss that Cincy faces from last year’s defense is All-Big East safety Haruki Nakamura, who led the team in tackles last year. Cincy does return two very solid cornerbacks, but Nakamura’s loss will be felt. Cincinnati should have a very good defense, but it won’t reach the level of last year’s unit.
Cincinnati has a decent home schedule this year, featuring 4 home games. Of the top contenders for the Big East title, West Virginia will be the only road test. However, the Bearcats face a five week stretch from October 25 th through November 22 nd which features 3 conference road games and visits from USF and Pitt, the toughest stretch that any team in the conference will face all season. Cincinnati may feature a fairly veteran defense, but there are a few factors working against them coming close to their remarkable 2007. First, Cincinnati was one of the top teams in the country in turnover margin, a difficult statistic to repeat considering a new starting QB and tailback. Second, Cincinnati was one of the healthiest teams in college football last fall, something that cannot be counted on every season. Finally, Cincinnati’s schedule does not do the Bearcats any favors, especially late in the year. With the amount of improvement around the conference, it seems likely that Brian Kelly will take a step back in his second in charge.
Big Games: Oct. 25th @ UConn, Oct. 30th vs. USF, Nov. 8th @ WVU, Nov. 14th @ Louisville
Syracuse (Predicted Conference Record:1-6)
Syracuse was expected to be one of the strongest teams in the conference after the Big East split up in 2004. However, the Orange have struggled mightily under head coach Greg Robinson and finished 2007 with a poor 2-10 record. Simply put, Syracuse has been terrible and they haven’t recruited very well either. Robinson brings back 14 starters this fall and will need a decent performance to hold onto his job.
Junior Andrew Robinson is expected to get the starting nod this fall as Syracuse moves away from the West Coast offense. Robinson was solid down the stretch for the Orange and he might have the good fortune of returning his top receiver, junior Mike Williams. However, Williams has been struggling with academics and could miss the entire season, which would be a huge blow. At tailback, true freshman Averin Collier impressed after enrolling early for the Spring Game and should end up starting this fall. He’ll run behind a decent, but young, offensive line which returns three starters from last year. Syracuse may suffer some growing pains in their new offense but they have the pieces in place to have a decent attack.
Syracuse allowed over 200 yards per game rushing last fall! That about sums up the level of ineptitude that last year’s defense showed week in and week out. Luckily, the Orange can really only get better this fall and they do return most of their front seven. Senior LB Jake Flaherty is the top returning tackler from last fall and he should again be a stalwart on defense for ‘Cuse. In the secondary, the Orange finished near the bottom of the NCAA in pass defense, but the top two corners from 2007 return and Syracuse will likely show some improvement. Overall, the defense can’t possibly be worse than last season. However, it likely won’t be enough to allow the Orange to compete in the Big East.
If being the unanimous choice for last place in the Big East wasn’t enough, Syracuse also will have to struggle against an unfavorable conference schedule. Pitt, Louisville, and UConn all come to the Carrier Dome, while the Orange have to play on the road at WVU and USF in back to back weeks. Syracuse is better than last season, but it would be a surprise if they ended up finishing out of the Big East basement this fall.
Big Games: Sept. 27 th vs. Pitt, Nov. 1 st vs. Louisville, Nov. 15 vs. UConn
The Bottom Line for the Big East in 2008
Simply put, the Big East should be a stronger conference than last fall. USF, Pitt, and WVU are all top 25 caliber teams and Louisville and Rutgers should be on par with or better than last year. UConn should provide solid depth in the conference. Prior to last fall, the only big non-conference wins notched by the new look Big East belonged to WVU. However, with USF’s upset of Auburn in Jordan-Hare Stadium, the Big East took a big step forward. If USF can find some maturity and WVU can find a defense, both could find themselves with a chance at an unbeaten season. The Big East has moved away from a lot of weeknight games this year, perhaps a sign that the conference is beginning to find some confidence in its standing. In short, this should be an exciting year for the conference and look for USF to defeat WVU on the season’s final day to win the school’s first conference crown.
Matt Baxendell is collegesports-fans.com’s newest staff writer. If you’d like to join his college football therapy group, email him at matt.baxendell @ gmail.com with all your questions, comments, and anything else you would like to share.
Also check out Matt's NCAA Football 2009 game review here at CollegeSports-fans.com!
Copyright 2005-2009, CollegeSports-fans.com and the Dash Fans Network of Independent College Sports Fan Sites.