2009 Big East Football Preview
The Big East endured a tough 2008 season, as the success of the Mountain West gave rise to the ‘who deserves an automatic BCS Bowl berth more, the Big East or Mountain West?’ discussion on the national networks. To me, it is shocking how short their memories are. Didn’t the Big East win three consecutive BCS Bowls from 2005-2007, beating the SEC, ACC and Big XII champions? However, the Big East regrouped in time for the postseason, where their teams posted a solid 3-3 record (though they did have their BCS Bowl winning streak snapped) and forced the talking heads to simply praise the Mountain West instead of denigrating the Big East.
2008 was also marked by turmoil. The conference lead was given away seemingly every week, all the way up to the season’s end. Cincinnati emerged from the fray with a 6-1 conference mark to win their first title since joining the Big East. I admit I had written them off after UConn blew them out in the 2nd game of the conference schedule but they proved me wrong, winning their final five conference games, including three against ranked opponents. My preseason pick was South Florida and they disappointed, losing all three conference road games and bumbled their way to a 1-4 finish. They must have been reading their own press clippings.
The other top choice from last year’s prediction was the Pittsburgh Panthers, who I predicted to narrowly lose to USF in the standings. The Panthers fared much better than the Bulls and their late November loss at Cincinnati was a defacto conference title game. Pittsburgh is the only Big East team that consistently recruits top 25 classes and should continue to be a force in the coming years. However, this is the Big East, which has had four different champions in the last five years, so expect an action-packed 2009 season that will surprise even the most knowledgeable fans and commentators.
EXPECTED ORDER OF FINISH
The Panthers had a very successful 2008 season. After rebounding from a shocking loss to Bowling Green in the season opener, Pitt rebounded to go 5-2 in conference play and defeat Iowa and Notre Dame in the non-conference! That gave them a 9-3 regular season record and a berth in the Sun Bowl against Oregon State. Had the Panthers won, it would have been their first ten win season since 1981 when Dan Marino was under center! However, the Panthers lost an old school slugfest 3-0 and finished 9-4. Regardless of the bowl finish, last season was a huge milestone for head coach Dave Wannstedt, whose job was on the line after only winning 16 games in his first three seasons despite bringing in three consecutive top 25 recruiting classes. Needless to say, his job is now safe. Pitt returns a lot of talent and their 15 starters back is tops in the conference.
On offense, the Panthers have a huge hole to fill with the loss of tailback LeSean McCoy, who was a NFL 2nd round draft pick. His backup, LaRod Stevens-Howling, was also drafted so there is a dearth of experience at the tailback position. While the Panthers have some very good talent on hand, there is no question that they’ll take a step back in the rushing attack as McCoy was nothing short of exceptional last year. At times, he carried the entire offense. The good news is that Pitt has two quarterbacks returning who have significant starting experience. However, I’ve said for two years that if the Panthers could just get a passing attack behind McCoy then they’d be unstoppable and they didn’t manage to pull it off. Hopefully, senior Bill Stull or junior Pat Bostick will finally step up and turn the Panthers’ pass offense into a force. Expect sophomore Jonathan Baldwin to be the top target after catching three touchdowns last fall as a true freshman. Baldwin was an absolute physical force last year and with a year of training has the tools to be the conference’s best receiver if he keeps his nose clean. My optimism for Pitt’s offense continues with the return of four starters on the offensive line. Wannstedt’s relentless recruiting has brought in a lot of talented big men and I expect this to be the best line Pitt has fielded in a very long time. The Panthers scored a solid 27 points per game last fall and I actually expect that to improve with a much better passing game and a rushing attack that shouldn’t fall as far as some might think. Pittsburgh will have a good offense this fall.
Defensively, the news is even better. After allowing 21.5 points per game last year, their best since 2002, the Panthers bring back seven starters. The defensive line looks to be one of the conference’s best, led by junior defensive ends Greg Romeus and Jabaal Sheard, who combined for 96 tackles and 11 sacks last year. In fact, the only open spot on the line is expected to be filled by senior Gus Mustakas, who actually started the entire year in 2006 before struggling with injuries the last two years. The Panthers might have the conference’s best defensive line. At linebacker, they will miss the enormous production of departed middle linebacker Scott McKillop. However, there is still a lot of talent, including sophomore Greg Williams, who had 3.5 sacks last fall. Following the injury vein, the other two expected starters, seniors Adam Gunn and Shane Murray, were actually the full time starters at the outside ‘backer positions in 2007 before missing much of last season due to injury. Expect both to be very good if they can stay healthy this fall. The secondary also looks very good, led by junior safety Dom DeCicco, who had 56 tackles and four interceptions in 2008. Both starting corners are returning seniors who combined for five interceptions a year ago and should both be considered among the conference’s best. Expect Pitt’s strong pass defense to continue to give opposing quarterbacks trouble this year. If the Panthers can stay healthy, then I expect that this will the conference’s best defense.
The schedule is fairly challenging. Remember, the Big East’s unbalanced schedule means that some teams have four home conference games while others only have three. This year, the Panthers have four and will be favored in all of them. Their road schedule is tough as all three conference away games are on Friday nights and two of those games are at West Virginia and Rutgers. The non-conference schedule is also solid, as the Panthers travel to NC State and host Navy and Notre Dame. If the Panthers can split the games at WVU and Rutgers then the conference is theirs to lose. Overall, Pitt will have a much more balanced offense after relying almost exclusively on the run the last two years and their defense is the conference’s best. If either Stull or Bostick steps up and takes command this fall, Pitt could be very good. I expect the Panthers to be one of the conference’s best along the line of scrimmage and I expect Pittsburgh to win the Big East title for the first time since 2004.
Big Games: Oct. 2nd @ Louisville, Oct. 16th @ Rutgers, Oct. 24th vs. USF, Nov. 27th @ WVU, Dec. 5th vs. Cincinnati
To say that 2008 was a weird year in Morgantown is an understatement. After the extremely messy divorce with former head coach Rich Rodriguez, the Mountaineers fell in love with interim coach Bill Stewart after he coached WVU to a shocking upset against Oklahoma and decided to give him the job full time. However, his first full season wasn’t a continuation of Rodriguez’s scheme. Despite Pat White returning for his senior season, WVU went to a more pro-style offense and that seemed to hold them back most of the year. However, a 9-4 record was still a very strong outcome, though it was the worst record in White’s career. With only 12 starters back this fall, WVU has a lot of work to do to fill the shoes of one of the school’s greatest players.
Last year the Mountaineers’ scoring average dropped precipitously to less than 25 points per game after averaging well into the thirties during White’s first three years. During Rodriguez’s last season, WVU put up nearly 40 points per game! This fall, senior Jarrett Brown finally gets his chance to play after backing up White for three seasons. I expect Brown to be very good in his only season starting but he is a more physical runner than White so injuries are a concern. With him in the backfield is junior Noel Devine, who ran for 1289 yards and 4 touchdowns last year while adding 35 catches to earn 2nd team All-Big East honors. Again, the concern for injury is paramount as there is next to no experience behind Devine and he is clearly the best fit for the system. Brown’s transition will also be made easier by the return of most of his receivers. Senior Alfric Arnett (466 yards, 6 touchdowns) and junior Jock Sanders (462 yards, 7 touchdowns) should get open early and often for Brown. My only concern for the Mountaineers is the offensive line, which only returns one starter and loses a 2 year starter, two 3 year starters and a 4 year starter! While the Mountaineers do have a lot of players who have experience to go along with senior tackle Selvish Capers, the lone holdover from a year ago, they should have some early struggles. Overall, if the Mountaineers can stay healthy I expect them to improve upon last year’s production but there is no doubt that their health is a concern.
Defensively, things look much brighter. West Virginia has been the most consistently strong defense in the conference since 2002, never allowing more than 23 points per game. Even better, six of last year’s starters are back for another season after allowing a league-low 17 points per game. Up front, the defensive line looks strong and will be led by junior nose tackle Scooter Berry, who was a 2nd team All-Big East selection last season. Expect WVU to field another solid run defense as their line will be stout, though they didn’t develop much of a pass rush last fall. Keep an eye on sophomore defensive end Julian Miller, who is expected to start after nothing 3.5 sacks in a limited role last year. At linebacker there are some losses as their top two tacklers from last season depart. Junior J.T. Thomas is the team’s leading returning tackler and will be bolstered by the return of senior Reed Williams, who redshirted last year after struggling with should injuries. While a lot of production is lost, I expect WVU to be just fine at linebacker. The secondary looks very good as three starters return from a group which allowed less than 200 passing yards per game in 2008. Junior cornerback Brandon Hogan snared three interceptions last fall and could be an All-Big East caliber performer. While the loss of their top three tacklers from 2008 is a concern, I think that the Mountaineers will reload instead rebuild and field their typically tough defense once more.
The schedule is an interesting mix. First, the Mountaineers have four road Big East games, three of which are at Rutgers, USF and Cincinnati. That’s not an easy draw. However, their only Big East game in the first half of the year is at lowly Syracuse, which means that WVU will have plenty of time to work out any kinks with their new lineup before beginning conference play. That’s a big boost. Furthermore, they’ll be challenged in the non-conference portion of the season as they travel to Auburn and host East Carolina and Colorado so they should be well prepared for the conference grind. Overall, the Mountaineers will no doubt miss Pat White. After all, he was probably the best player ever to put on a West Virginia uniform. However, their offense was really not that productive last fall and I think that a 2 nd year in the new system for the returning players will really help. Furthermore, they’re going to field another very good defense this year, which will keep them in every game. I expect WVU to be a very good team this fall and their season will come down to the final two games of the year; Home against archrival Pitt and a road trip to Rutgers on the season’s final day. The conference title could be on the line in both games. While I’m not picking the Mountaineers to win the conference title partly due to concerns about their depth on offense at key positions, I certainly wouldn’t be surprised if they did. Regardless of whether they win the Big East, the Mountaineers have a good chance at a ten win season.
Big Games: Sept. 12th vs. East Carolina, Oct. 1st vs. Colorado, Oct. 30th @ USF, Nov. 13th @ Cincinnati, Nov. 27th vs. Pittsburgh, Dec. 5th @ Rutgers
Rutgers had one of the weirdest seasons in recent memory last fall. The Scarlet Knights began the year 1-5 and their only win was against a D-1AA team! However, an ugly 12-10 win over UConn sparked a 7-0 run to finish the year, including a bowl win over NC State! It was a shocking turnaround to say the least and highly respected head coach Greg Schiano capitalized on that success by bringing in Rutgers’ first top 25 recruiting class during his tenure. The Scarlet Knights bring back twelve starters in their quest to earn Schiano’s first conference crown.
On offense, Rutgers has some big holes to fill. Quarterback Mike Teel was a three year starter and was drafted in the 6 th round by the Seahawks, receivers Kenny Britt and Tiquan Underwood were Teel’s top two targets and they were drafted in the 1 st and 7 th rounds, respectively. That’s a lot of talent and production to lose to the NFL in one season and it won’t be a surprise to see Rutgers’ passing offense take a big step back. The running game is another story. The top three rushers from last year, junior Kordell Young and sophomores Jourdan Brooks and Joe Martinek, all return after combining for 1,474 yards and 15 touchdowns in 2008. Even better, the entire offensive line returns as well to block for them. Look for Rutgers to establish a solid running attack quickly while their quarterbacks get their feet wet. Rutgers should return to Schiano’s favored ground-based attack this fall and I expect their offense to be similarly productive to last year’s unit which averaged 29 points per game, though it will certainly be less explosive.
The defense was exceptional in 2008, allowing less than 19 points per game. However, there are some big losses, including two of the top three in sacks and the team’s leading tackler. Up front, defensive ends George Johnson and Alex Silvestro will need to improve upon their 4 combined sacks from 2008 and there is concern about replacing both defensive tackles. However, the linebackers should be very good, led by senior Frank D’Imperio, who had 93 tackles and 5.5 sacks in 2008. D’Imperio will likely be flanked by a pair of talented but unproven underclassmen, so he will have to lead and perform this fall. The secondary has some big losses, including 6th and 7th round NFL draft picks at corner and safety. Their returning starters combined for only one interception last fall so the Knights will need to improve on their ability to turn the ball over. However, despite my concerns, Rutgers should still have a solid defense. Just don’t expect them to hold opponents under nineteen points per game this fall.
The schedule is extremely favorable to the Scarlet Knights. They have four home conference games and their only three road trips are to all three of my lowest predicted teams in the conference. Even better, they have three weeknight home games against Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and South Florida. That’s a huge home field advantage! In the non-conference, the only major game of note is a road trip to Maryland, a far cry from last year’s slate of Fresno State, North Carolina and Navy. In short, Rutgers is probably not the best team in the conference this year as they lost a lot of talent to the NFL draft, but they definitely have the most favorable schedule to make a run at the conference title. If they knock off Cincinnati in the season opener, they could be 5-0 going into a mid-October showdown with Pitt which could decide their chances at the title. While their conference championship prospects can be debated, there is little doubt that Rutgers will qualify for their 5 th straight bowl game and they have a good shot at their 2 nd ten win season in four years.
Big Games: Sept. 7th vs. Cincinnati, Oct. 16th vs. Pittsburgh, Nov. 12th vs. USF, Dec. 5th vs. WVU
2008 turned out to be a massively disappointing season for the Bulls. A year after rising all the way to #2 in the national rankings at midseason, the Bulls started 2008 with a 5-0 record, including a win over a ranked Kansas team. However, the Bulls then fell off the map, losing five of their next seven games to finish the regular season with a massively disappointing 7-5 record. Perhaps they were anointed too soon, after all this program is only twelve years old. However, this fall will truly be the first test of USF as a viable major program within the state of Florida as they face off against Florida State and Miami for the first time in the same year.
The Bulls’ offensive output dropped by more than a touchdown per game last fall; during their 2nd half streak of ineptitude they only surpassed 21 points in a game once! A major factor in last season’s disappointment was their negative 8 turnover margin; a statistic that quarterback Matt Grothe must improve. While Grothe threw for 2,911 yards and ran for 591 yards while producing a combined 22 touchdowns, he also threw 14 interceptions. That can’t happen this fall and I believe that Grothe’s fourth and final season as the starter will be his best by far. Four of his top five receivers from last year are back as well, led by senior Jesse Hester, who had 54 catches. Expect Grothe to have a plethora of options to throw to. The running game will also continue to be strong as no less than three returning tailbacks had over 300 yards rushing and 3 touchdowns apiece. Expect Grothe and his three headed monster to provide a solid rushing attack, assuming someone blocks for them. The offensive line is really my only concern about the Bulls as only one starter is back from last season. The good news is that there is a lot of talent on the line and I don’t think they’ll take as big of a step back as you’d expect from a line that loses two All-Big East performers. Most notable is the addition of junior Daron Rose, who actually started the entire 2007 season for rival Florida State before running into academic issues. Expect him to start right away at left tackle. Overall, I think that the Bulls will be a much more balanced offense and I expect Grothe to turn the ball over less. That means that South Florida will have a better offense this fall and should improve their results on the scoreboard.
Defensively, the Bulls were actually better in 2008 than they were during their excellent 2007 season. USF only allowed 20 points per game and they bring back six starters from last year’s team. South Florida’s defensive line is led by senior end George Selvie, a two time 1 st team All-Big East selection and a 2007 All-American. One of three starters back, Selvie will lead one of the conference’s best defensive lines and will be a force against both the pass and run. At linebacker, senior Kion Wilson is the only returnee after racking up 66 tackles last fall. With the strength of the line in front of them, the linebackers’ lives will be a lot easier while running to the football. Despite the loss of 1 st team All-Big East ‘backer Tyrone McKenzie, the Bulls will still have a strong linebacking corps. In the secondary, two starters return from a very good unit last fall. Unlike last year, the Bulls don’t have to replace the NCAA’s best cornerback tandem and I expect their secondary to be very good again with the extra experience. Senior cornerback Jerome Murphy is the team’s leading returning tackler with 67 and also had two picks in 2008. Expect the South Florida pass defense to be very good. Overall, South Florida is strong from front to back and the Bulls should have one of the conference’s best defenses.
The schedule is decidedly tougher than last fall. The Bulls have four conference road games and two very stiff non-conference tests. The good news is that two of their home games are weeknight games against defending champion Cincinnati and perennial power West Virginia. Another factor to note is that USF is a much stronger home team than on the road so they’ll have to avoid upsets against the likes of Syracuse and UConn. The non-conference schedule is perhaps just as important as conference play this year as the Bulls will be looking to legitimize themselves as one of the elite Florida schools. Florida State and Miami will have their hands full with a hungry USF team and I wouldn’t be surprised if they won either game despite the fact that I think FSU and Miami are probably more talented teams. Overall, South Florida should be a strong team this fall and if they can win a few key road games (Pitt and Rutgers immediately come to mind) then I would not be surprised to see them challenge for the conference title. With the in state grudge matches on tap as well, 2009 should be the most important season in the program’s young history. Expect nothing less than eight wins this fall.
Big Games: Sept. 26th @ Florida State, Oct. 15th vs. Syracuse, Oct. 24th @ Pittsburgh, Oct. 30th vs. WVU, Nov. 12th @ Rutgers, Nov. 28th vs. Miami (FL)
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Cincinnati is in the midst of the best run in school history. Last season’s 11 wins was a school record and the Bearcats won their first conference title since joining the Big East. Head coach Brian Kelly’s record is now 21-6 in two years at Cincinnati and there has been a lot of pressure in southeastern Ohio to keep him. If the Bearcats can have another ten win season, you can bet that a lot of major programs will come calling for the back to back Big East Coach of the Year, especially considering the massive losses that Cincinnati will have to replace this fall.
The offense isn’t the major concern when it comes to graduation losses. Six starters are back, including senior quarterback Tony Pike, who rose from obscurity last season to earn 2 nd team All-Big East honors. More than half of Pike’s 19 touchdowns were caught by senior receiver Marty Gilyard (also a 2 nd team Big East choice) and he will also augment the return game as he brought back two kickoffs for touchdowns in 2008. The running game should also be strong and will utilize three tailbacks; Senior Jacob Ramsey, who ran for 664 yards and 2 touchdowns last fall, junior John Goebel, who ran for 607 yards and 7 touchdowns last fall and sophomore Isaiah Pead, who was electric in averaging over six yards per carry in limited action. They will run behind a solid offensive line that brings back three starters from last year. Expect the Bearcats to improve upon last year’s 118 yards per game on the ground. Another shocking statistic is that Cincinnati was actually minus eight in turnovers last year but still won 11 games! Look for that number to improve as well and I expect Cincinnati to have a much more productive offense than the group which scored less than 26 points per game in 2008.
The major concern for me on this Bearcat team is the defense, which unbelievably only returns one starter! On top of that, the vast majority of the departed players played significant roles in Cincinnati’s recent success on defense. In the past three years, Cincinnati has allowed 20.1, 18.8 and 19.6 points per game! Only West Virginia has been as consistent. So, that means that Cincinnati is starting from scratch on a defense which has been one of the conference’s best. However, not all is lost. The defense is switching to a 3-4 and the expected starting ends do have some experience. Seniors Curtis Young and Alex Daniels did combine for 40 tackles and five sacks last year and expected starting nose tackle John Hughes did make 20 tackles and 2 sacks as a freshman. Thus it wouldn’t surprise me if the Bearcats fielded a solid defensive line this season but I think they’ll need a little bit of time to get their feet wet. At linebacker, senior Andre Revels has the most experience, having played significant minutes last year and contributed 59 tackles. He will have to be the leader of a linebacking corps which needed augmented by former Notre Dame quarterback Demetrius Jones! When I see a team switching a quarterback to linebacker, I have some huge question marks. The secondary loses three NFL draft picks (the entire defense loses four) and senior safety Aaron Webster is the only starter back. Webster, who notched 60 tackles and an interception last fall, will be relied upon to guide a group which could start three sophomores next to him. To say that Cincinnati’s defense will take a step back this fall is an understatement. However, the pieces for a good group are in place to perhaps step up as the season progresses.
The schedule is also very difficult. The Bearcats only have three home games in Big East play, the biggest of which is a Friday night clash in November against West Virginia. Cincinnati has to start the season at Rutgers and three of their first four conference games are on the road. The non-conference schedule is also very tough. The Bearcats host Fresno State and Illinois but must travel cross-country to face Oregon State. If Cincinnati’s defense doesn’t gel quickly, they could be in a world of trouble. In short, I expect Cincinnati to be a solid team but I’m definitely concerned about their inexperience and their tough schedule. While I don’t expect the Bearcats to miss a bowl game, they’ll be lucky to win more than seven games this fall.
Big Games: Sept. 7th @ Rutgers, Sept. 19th @ Oregon State, Oct. 15th @ USF, Nov. 13th vs. WVU, Nov. 27th vs. Illinois, Dec. 5th @ Pittsburgh
It has been a difficult past seven seasons in upstate New York. When a school with as proud of a history as Syracuse’s falls to twenty six wins in the last seven years, there is a lot of work to do and a lot of angry people to mollify. After four seasons at the helm, Greg Robinson was fired after a 3-9 campaign and former Orangeman Doug Marrone was hired to turn around a program which has won four Big East titles in the conference’s fifteen year history. Shockingly, ‘Cuse actually had two players drafted, which symbolizes how much the Orange underachieved during the previous staff’s tenure. It also shows how desperate Rich Rodriguez is in his 2nd season at Michigan that he actually hired Robinson to fix his defense! With a new system and a new attitude, I think Marrone’s team will be much more competitive than the teams which had a combined three conference wins in the last four years.
On offense, Marrone quickly began changing things as incumbent starter Cameron Dantley was deposed in the spring in favor of redshirt freshman Ryan Nassib. Perhaps Marrone wanted to go with a player he could develop (Dantley is a senior) but that alone signaled that no job was safe. At tailback, Syracuse has to replace 1,100 yard rusher Curtis Brinkley, who also scored seven times last year. The run game will also miss fullback Tony Fiammetta, who was a 4 th round pick in the NFL draft. Returning production at both tailback and receiver are minimal as no player scored more than two touchdowns or accounted for more than 312 yards. The most intriguing player at any of the skill positions is junior receiver Mike Williams, who was suspended the entire season in 2008 but was a star in 2007 as he earned 2nd team All-Big East honors. If he be similarly productive, the Orange become much more dangerous. The offensive line brings back three starters but will be learning a new system so everyone should be starting from scratch. Marrone’s new offensive coordinator is Rob Spence, who guided successful offenses in the last decade at Clemson and Toledo. With a new starter under center and a new system in hand, I think that the Orange will turn a new page and actually produce on offense this fall, even though last year’s 18 points per game was actually the high water mark of Robinson’s tenure. Syracuse’s offense has nowhere to go but up.
Defensively, the Orange got pummeled last year to the tune of 33 points per game. However, there are some pieces back this season which could help stem the bleeding from last year’s beating. Up front, senior tackle Arthur Jones was a 1 st team All-Big East selection and a likely NFL draft choice before deciding to return this fall. However, he and starting end Jared Kimmel were injured in the spring and could miss the start of the season. This is unfortunate because the pair should be the centerpiece of a solid defensive line. At linebacker, juniors Derrell Smith and Mike Mele combined for 145 stops last fall and should be very solid once more, especially if the line gets healthy quick. The secondary was terrible last season, allowing opponents to complete 63% of passes. However, junior safety Mike Holmes did make 68 tackles and grab two picks last fall, so there is some talent on hand. Frankly, they can’t get any worse and should be improved under new defensive coordinator Scott Shafer, whose defense at Western Michigan led the NCAA in interceptions in 2006. Expect Syracuse to improve this fall on defense but they’re still not one of the conference’s better groups.
The schedule is interesting, to say the least. The Orange have four home conference games and eight home games overall! Even better, two of their road trips are to Louisville and Connecticut, both of which are very winnable games. However, their non-conference schedule is Big Ten-centric as their first three games of the year are against Big Ten foes, including home games against Minnesota and Northwestern sandwiching a trip to rival Penn State. Overall, it a good schedule for Marrone’s first season; a lot of home games and a few winnable ones on the road. Despite the optimism around the program, people need to remember two things. 1) This program has been absolutely terrible for the past four years and 2) Coaches don’t turn around most schools in just one year. I expect Marrone to field a competitive team which won’t be a walkover anymore for conference opposition but a bowl game is not in the cards this fall. I think three or four wins is a much more realistic outcome.
Big Games: Sept. 12th @ Penn State, Oct. 3rd vs. South Florida, Oct. 10th vs. WVU, Nov. 14th @ Louisville, Nov. 28th @ UConn
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