by Jason K Ferris - 08/12/2005
To say that the Big East is in a transitional period would be the understatement of the year. Perennial powerhouses like Miami and Virginia Tech have been replaced by South Florida and Cincinnati, bottom feeders in most leagues. Also, Boston College has been replaced by Louisville. Many see this as an upgrade, but excusing the last two years, I call it a wash. Louisville wouldn't produce many more wins in the ACC than the Eagles will this year.
Many articles are focusing on how the Big East will come together now that the realignment has come full circle. I say, "What, a better year?" Louisville is at the peak of its success. Also, Brian Brohm takes control of the helm for the Cardinals. Pitt has a number of potential post-season award winners, including a true Heisman candidate in Tyler Palko. Not to be overlooked is the insertion of new coaching blood. Dave Wannstedt will have the Panthers defense playing like the teams when he played there, and Rick Minter, head coach of the Cincinnati Bearcats, is in his second year. Minter has an impeccable pedigree. He has been the man behind Nick Saban's defenses and won a National Championship with the Ohio State Buckeyes. I expect him to bring a bit of the Big Ten style to the Big East.
After a 2004 season that saw four teams tie for the conference championship, I ask, "Will the real 'Champion' please stand up?" Louisville goes into the preseason as the favorite, but Pitt will be nipping at their heels. Not to be discounted are West Virginia and Syracuse, both finished tied for the Conference Championship last year. Syracuse notably finished the season the strongest; averaging 36 points per game in their final four games. Connecticut may be the sleeper in this conference again. I don't see them pushing for the championship yet, but they could score another good Bowl Game. The bottom of the Big East is much clearer than the top. Rutgers, USF and Cincinnati each have their good points, but have no chance to compete for the title.
Here is how I predict the standings will look like in late December:
2005 Doc's Big East Preview -- Projected Standings
|TEAM||Big East Record||Overall Record|
2005 Big East PreviewThe following is Doc's detailed analysis of each Big East team highlighting their strengths, weaknesses, and strength of schedule.
Pittsburgh Panthers (8-4, 4-2)
Pitt is a humbled team after its shellacking in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl last year against Utah. Quarterback Tyler Palko is a serious contender for the Heisman Trophy, and is the leader of the team. Palko has some major weapons.
With the likes of Antonio Bryant and Larry Fitzgerald recently grabbing passes and post-season awards in the Steel City, Pitt has been recognized as Wide Receiver University. Pitt is the only school to have two Biletnikoff Award winners, and they have a very good shot at number three. Greg Lee was a contender last year in his sophomore year. Considering that he and Palko have another year of tutelage under their belts, he should put up award winning numbers. Don't discount that Pitt will have a decent running game for the first time in years under first year Head Coach Dave Wannstedt.
Brian Brohm, Louisville QB, may be getting all the hype as the person who is going to make the biggest splash in the Big East this year, I think it will be Wannstedt. Pitt tended to lose games they should have won the last few years under former Head Coach Walt Harris. He sometimes out-coached himself and his players. I don't see Wannstedt doing that.
Strengths: This team may focus more on the run than it has since the early 1990's, but the truth is the team will go as far as QB Tyler Palko takes them. Pitt is returning their two starting WR's in Greg Lee and Joe DelSardo. Everyone expects Lee to put up big numbers, but I look for DelSardo to continue to grow and look for more games like the Fiesta Bowl from him, where he had nine catches for 109 yards. Also, a seldom-acknowledged strength is their special teams. Pitt returns Punter Adam Greassle and PK Josh Cummings, both who garnered first team All-Conference selections last year.
Weakness: I wouldn't say that Pitt has any glaring weakness, but two large question marks. A logjam of mediocre talent at RB may be split open by freshman Rashad Jennings. He's quick and has excellent vision. If he can continue his strong camp, he will be the starter and possibly Freshman of the Year. But that is a lot to ask of a freshman. The second question mark is the defensive line. This has been an Achilles heal for the Panthers for several years, and the loss of two three-year starters will be difficult to replace. Vince Crochunis and Dan Stephens both graduated and were the center point of an already weak line. Pitt will be changing the positions of nearly all of their starting D-lineman. There will definitely be a learning curve here.
Best Bet: Nov. 3, 2005 at Louisville. I expect Louisville to be undefeated and untested coming into this game. Pitt very well could have a loss. That equals a favorable line for Pitt even though I expect them to win outright.
Key Games: Pitt has several key games, starting with their opener Sept. 3, 2005 vs. Notre Dame. This will be a dual between two highly touted QB's and new head coaches. Nov. 3, 2005 at Louisville. This will likely be for the right to go to a BCS game. These two teams are on a separate tier from the rest of the Conference.
Louisville Cardinals (10-1, 8-0 (Conf. USA))
Very rarely can you say that a team is better when loosing their All-Conference quarterback, who was also arguably their best player the last two seasons. But, rarely does a player like Brian Brohm take over. He was the highest-rated prospect coming out of high school two years ago, and last year he won the Freshman of the Year in Conference USA as a backup. Brohm is a great player who has the ability to lead his team to a BCS game in his first year.
Strengths: In the trenches is where the Cardinals are the strongest. On the O-line they return four starters from last year, and five total starters as one returns from an injury. This is important for the Cardinals as Brohm will be the key to their success, and protection will give him time to work his magic. On the other side of the trenches, the Cardinals are equally strong. The Cardinals graduated all-conference ends, but have adequate replacements. Adam Roberts will be moving from tackle to end, paving the way for their young talent to take over in the middle. Experts say that games are won in the trenches, if that is so, the Cardinals will have no problem winning games.
Weakness: The Cardinals have two glaring weaknesses. The biggest weakness is the defensive backfield. The Cardinals loose three of their four starters, and Pitt's Tyler Palko will take full advantage of this in their meeting. The other is the running game. The Cardinals lost their two top performers last year, including the surprise of junior RB Eric Shelton to the NFL Draft. The Cardinals also lost their top wide-out talent, but look for Brohm to find anyone he wants.
Best Bet: Sept. 4, 2005 vs. Kentucky. The Cardinals have been the right bet in this match-up in five of the last six years. It is the opening game and I look for Louisville to put up big numbers to help boost Brohm's confidence.
Key Games: Nov. 3, 2005 vs. Pitt. Louisville's schedule reflects that they are in transition from a lower level conference to a top tier conference. The Cardinals non-conference schedule is weak to say the least, which may come back to haunt them. When the Cardinals meet Pitt on a chilly Thursday night in November, the team will be virtually untested. There record will look good, but how will the team look?
Syracuse Orange (6-6, 4-2)
Syracuse is definitely doing a good job of changing its look. The nickname and the Logo were switched last year, but obviously that wasn't enough. This year they are changing their uniforms and turf. Oh, they changed their coach too. Greg Robinson takes the helm of a team stuck in mediocrity. That's something he is not used too. He most recently was the defensive coordinator for the Texas Longhorns, and that was just one stop in a prominent 30-year career. He will move Syracuse to the next level, just not this year.
Strengths: The front seven is definitely what will determine the success of the Orange in 2005. This is where they have the most experience and talent, and it is where Robinson's teachings will excel. The front line consists of three seniors and a junior, all with game experience, led by James Wyche who was a second team All-Big East DE. The linebacker position is equally as strong as the front four. You Orange fans may not see the linebackers playing the same position this year, but that's only to utilize their natural abilities.
Weakness: The already depleted wide receiver corps took another hit when Stephen Gregory was moved to cornerback. The Orange's two most experienced WR's have a total of 19 catches and zero touchdowns. Funny thing is that neither will be starters. Instead, Rice Moss and Tim Lane will get the start, and they have a whopping 4 total catches.
Best Bet: Oct. 22, 2005 at Pitt. The Orange match-up well against Pitt and Pitt will be looking forward to their game against Louisville. Syracuse has also beaten the handicap eight of the last 12 times against Pitt.
Key Games: Sept. 4, 2005 vs. West Virginia. This will be a battle between two young teams that need to start the season of on the right foot. This game could be the catalyst for a productive season for the winner and the start of a downward slide for the other.
West Virginia Mountaineers (8-4, 4-2)
Head Coach Rich Rodriguez has been the best coach in the conference for the last three years, and he has got his hand full this year. WVU lost 14 of their starters from last year including the Big East Offensive Player of the Year in Rasheed Marsall. Also gone is first-round draft choice Adam "Pacman" Jones and standout WR Chris Henry. Rodriguez has dealt with this successfully before, but I don't see it happening again.
Strengths: Is it allowed to say that the strong point is the coaching? I say yes. In 2003 West Virginia graduated 22 seniors, 11 of which were starters, and Rodriguez led the 2004 team to a share of the Big East Championship. The loss of Kay-Jay Harris at running back may seem like a big hit to an already shaky team, but junior Jason Colson is ready to handle the load. He split time with Harris last year and should make everyone forget who Harris was.
Weakness: To pinpoint the weakness of this team is pretty difficult considering it is a weak team overall. QB is an obvious choice. There are a load of players with potential ready to lead the team, but you know what they say about potential, "It gets coaches fired." Sophomore Adam Bednarik should be the starter if he is healthy after shoulder surgery last spring. Not helping the QB situation is that the two most experienced WR's totaled seven catches last season. The defensive backfield also took a huge hit in the loss of Pacman Jones. Certainly Miami and Florida State can replace a talent like Jones, but WVU is a far way from that caliber. There are players that will fill his slot, but not his shoes.
Best Bet: Oct. 8, 2005 at Rutgers. This game falls between two of WVU's toughest games. They will be reeling after taking a thumping from Virginia Tech. They will need to tune things up for the Louisville game the following week. Rodriguez will not overlook this game, and WVU has covered eight times in the last 12 games vs. Rutgers.
Key Games: WVU's two key games would be the opener at Syracuse on Sept. 4, 2005. This game could decide the season for WVU. Syracuse was the hottest team in the Big East over the last four games. Nov. 24, 2005 at Pitt. The Backyard Brawl is always the game that WVU and Pitt circle on the calendar. If your season has tanked, you can always leave on a high note with a win here.
Connecticut Huskies (8-4, 3-3)
No one could have predicted the success that Connecticut had in its first three seasons in D-1 football. Certainly timing was a huge factor in that. Connecticut has the best record over the last three seasons of any team entering D-1. But, the past is the past, and the future is now, and without standout QB Dan Orlovsky. Now we shall see if the program is that good, or was Connecticut just fortunate to have a dominant college QB.
Strengths: Running back is by far the strength of this team. The Huskies return two backs that have rushed for more than 1,000 yards in a season. Cornell Brockington, the returning starter, rushed for 1,218 yards and 11 touchdowns last year en route to a first team All-Big East selection. Competing with Brockington is 2002 freshman standout Terry Caulley. As a freshman Caulley ran for more than 1,200 yards and 15 touchdowns. He was well on his way in 2003 when he suffered a season ending knee injury. This duo should be a dangerous two-headed monster.
Weakness: Quarterback. Quarterback. Quarterback. Even a team with a storied tradition and a deep recruiting pool would have a hard time replacing Orlovsky, so what are the Huskies supposed to do. The leading candidate, Matt Bonislawski, has completed a total of four passes. Another option would be D.J. Hernandez. He was the 2003 Connecticut Player of the Year. He is a threat to throw the ball as well as run it. If he ends up in the backfield with the corps of good running backs, that could be a challenge for opposing defenses.
Best Bet: Nov. 12, 2005 at Pitt. This game is squashed between Pitt's two biggest games, Louisville and WVU. Connecticut beat Pitt last year with a strong second half, and I could see an upset here.
Key Games: Nov. 2, 2005 at WVU. This could be the game that gets them over the hump and into a lesser Bowl. This is a game where the Huskies should run the ball 60 times straight at the young defense.
Rutgers Scarlet Knights (4-7, 1-5)
Rutgers has been the bottom feeder of the Big East for as long as I can remember. They will not end up there this year. I don't say that because the team is significantly better, but the additions of USF and Cincinnati will compete for the bottom spot.
Strengths: Offense. Rutgers returns the key components to one of the most potent offenses in the country last year. They are lead by senior QB Ryan Hart, who broke or will likely break every Rutgers passing record. Behind him is a reliable corps of backs including All-American FB Brian Leonard. Last year he led the Big East in yards from scrimmage with 125 yards per game.
Weakness: Defense. Its great to have a potent offense, but it doesn't really mean anything when your defense couldn't stop a Pop Warner team. Sometimes you have addition by subtraction, but not enough players left on this defense that allowed an average of 38 points per game last year.
Best Bet: Nov. 26, 2005 vs. Cincinnati. This is there final game of the season and both teams will be towards the bottom of the conference. This will be Hart's senior day and he will put up huge numbers.
Key Games: Oct. 22, 2005 at Connecticut. If Rutgers can pull this one out, they have a change for a Bowl game. An outside chance, but a chance nonetheless.
South Florida Bulls (4-7, 3-5 (Conf. USA))
The past ten years have been one of change for the Bulls. A powerhouse in the D-1 AA ranks in the late 1990s; the Bulls have struggled at the next level. Now that they have a permanent home in the Big East, after two years as an independent and two years in Conference USA, the team should get better. The question is how long will it take?
Strengths: There is no doubt who is the best player on the Bulls. Senior Andre Hall is back and will have to take the team on his shoulders and run them to the end zone. Last year Hall ran for 1,357 yards and 11 touchdowns, including two 200-plus yard games.
Weakness: Offensive line is the clear cut weakness of this team. Three of the five starters have moved on, and that doesn't bode well for a team that needs to open holes for there star running back. Couple that with the fact they are competing against much better talent in the Big East this year and I see disaster.
Best Bet: Nov. 5, 2005 at Rutgers. The Bulls should be a significant dog here and if they run the ball and control the clock, they may be able to cover.
Key Games: Sept. 10, 2005 vs. Florida A&M. Sept. 17, 2005 vs. UCF. These are non-conference games but important for recruiting purposes.
Cincinnati Bearcats (7-5, 5-3 (Conf. USA))
The Bearcats are the third team rounding out the new look Big East. They had a good season in Conference USA last year, but don't look to see them have similar success this year. The season started slow but turned around in conference play, that won't happen against the better competition in the Big East.
Strengths: Head Coach Mark Dantonio thinks that the running back position is his strongest. I think that is just trying to find something good when your "dumpster diving." They lost 1,000-yard rusher Richard Hall, but believe the young group behind him will produce. I question if the O-line can open holes for them.
Weakness: The trenches. The O-line lost four starters, including All-C-USA guard Kyle Takavitz. Replacements are few and far between, which will hurt the run game. The D-line also lost two of there four starters, including to all conference ends. This is not the perfect scenario for a team moving into a tougher conference.
Best Bet: Nov. 19, 2005 at South Florida. The Bearcats could easily be coming off five consecutive blowouts, allowing for a hefty line.
Key Game: Sept. 28, 2005 at Miami OH. This is another recruiting game. Also, the Bearcats need to show that they are a Big East team and they need to beat teams from lower conferences.
The whirlwind turnover of the Big East is finally over and the teams can begin to steady themselves. I look for this to be one of the most exciting years in Big East history. There are several players who will win post-season awards. There are three quarterbacks that have star quality and pro potential. Tyler Palko leads the group that will garner many looks for the Maxwell Award. Greg Lee is a viable candidate for the Biletnikoff Award, Josh Cumming is a leader for the Lou Groza Award, and those guys are just from Pitt. This conference is loaded with talented teams and they will make a statement this year.
There will be no four-way tie for the Conference Championship this year. Louisville and Pitt are the tops in the league and they will fight it out for the top spot. Louisville's non-conference schedule is a cakewalk. Pitt has made the attempt to strengthening their schedule with the addition of Nebraska, who happens to be rebuilding. They also have Notre Dame on the docket. It will inevitably come down to who wins on Nov. 3 in Louisville.
There are plenty of teams rebuilding in the Big East. WVU, Syracuse and Connecticut each have lost prominent players, but should still hold on to the middle spots of the conference. USF and Cincinnati will get better and compete, the question is, how long will it take?
If you enjoyed Doc's 2005 Big East preview, check back throughout the week for more college football conference previews.
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