If anybody tells you they picked UConn to win the Big East last year, either call them what they are—a liar—or ask for this weekend’s lottery numbers. I picked the Huskies to finish fifth in their conference before last season, but noted an “opportunity for Connecticut to make a splash” last year. Not exactly Nostradamus (or was it?), but I guess it’s something.
Shortly before last season, Brian Bennett of ESPN.com prophesized, “UConn will win at least nine games — in Randy Edsall’s last season.” In the end, the Huskies won eight games and Edsall left for the head coaching job at Maryland.
In fairness, there were a lot of people who called UConn the sleeper in the Big East last year and most called Pitt the favorite (including myself). This year, West Virginia is the preseason favorite and Syracuse is the sleeper. Yet, South Florida, Pittsburgh and even Connecticut could be heard from by the end of the year.
The Favorite: West Virginia. The Mountaineers did not see anybody rush for more than 1,000 yards last year, yet they had one of the most explosive running backs in all of college football, Noel Devine. New offensive coordinator—and future head coach—Dana Holgorsen, on the other hand, saw Kendall Hunter rush for over 1,500 yards last year at Oklahoma State and coordinated the second most productive passing offense and third most productive total and scoring offense. All three Mountaineers regular season losses last season came by six points or less, and the added offensive firepower expected from Holgorsen’s system should benefit a youthful defense looking to continue the Mountaineers’ defensive prowess. West Virginia should be ranked somewhere in the preseason top 25 and their September 24 matchup with LSU should be a telling indicator as to where this team stands.
Next in line: South Florida, Pittsburgh. Most would agree that West Virginia is the preseason favorite, but then it gets muddy. The South Florida offense finished 105th in the country last year, but is led by a veteran quarterback in B.J. Daniels. The defense should be strong again, but finding playmakers on offense will be key to competing against the tougher defenses in the conference.
Pitt sputtered out of the gate last season and never really found its footing. Dion Lewis, Jonathan Baldwin and Jason Pinkston are gone on offense, and Greg Romeus, Jabaal Sheard, Dom DCicco and others need to be replaced on defense. The good news is that Ray Graham should pick up the slack left by Lewis, and linebacker Brandon Lindsey brings a playmaker’s presence to the defensive side of the ball. An up-tempo offense and more aggressive 3-4 defense are being implemented in the offseason, so a lot will depend on how the players adapt.
Sleepers: Syracuse, Connecticut, Cincinnati. The Orange fielded the seventh-ranked defense in the country last year, but there are plenty of holes left by departed starters that need addressed. That’s not even mentioning the departure of Delone Carter, who rushed for over 1,000 yards in each of the last two seasons. Most of the offense is back, however, and quarterback Ryan Nassib is expected to be better, so if the defense steps up Syracuse could be a team to watch.
Once again, the Huskies are a sleeper in the Big East. There’s a new head coach, a new running back and a new quarterback this year and with so much uncertainty around key areas, prospects for a successful conference title defense have not been overly optimistic. Nevertheless, the defense should be strong with the secondary returning and a very good defensive line ready to take the field. The Huskies start with five relatively easy non-conference opponents before moving into league play and could be 5-0 to start the year. They’ll face West Virginia, South Florida, Pitt and Syracuse to begin Big East play, so any confidence from the non-conference slate would be great.
The Bearcats fell off big time last year after finishing the regular season undefeated in 2009. Butch Jones successfully took over for Brian Kelly at Central Michigan and the pieces are in place for a much better campaign this year. The defense gets everybody back and the offense has a lot of talent returning in running back Isaiah Pead, receiver D.J. Woods and quarterback Zach Collaros. Wide receiver Kenbrell Thompkins could be in for a breakout year, while others such as Anthony McClung have stepped up as well.
That leaves Louisville and Rutgers as the favorites to occupy the Big East basement. Louisville is probably a year or two away from making a splash of its own and has been plagued with injuries in the spring. Rutgers has some talent from some good recruiting over the past few seasons, but needs to figure out how to put it all together.
Big East football gets underway Thursday, September 1 when Connecticut, Cincinnati, Louisville and Rutgers open their seasons against non-conference opponents.