Andrew Skwara Rivals.com College Football Staff Writer
How they'll finish
1. West Virginia
5. South Florida
An inside look at what to expect in the Big East this season:
Best offensive player:Michael Bush, RB, Louisville. A strong argument can be made for West Virginia's Steve Slaton, who has more speed and put together bigger games (see the meeting between Louisville and WVU or the 2006 Sugar Bowl) last season. But Bush is the back who can do everything an offense needs. The senior can bust free for long gains ? he had at least one 20-plus yard run in seven games last season ? and at 6-3, 250 pounds he can grind out tough yardage. He's also got a great feel for the goal line, scoring a nation-high 24 touchdowns last season despite missing two games. Still not sold? Bush also has good hands. He caught 21 passes for 253 yards in 2005.
Best defensive player:H.B. Blades, LB, Pittsburgh. You can insert a few different names here, but you can't change the position. The Big East features a good crop of linebackers. Just about every team returns a veteran with gaudy tackle numbers and a highlight reel of spectacular hits. South Florida's got two in Stephen Nicholas and Ben Moffitt. West Virginia's Kevin McLee and Louisville's Nate Harris also fit the description. Blades is the most consistent performer of the bunch. He has racked up 229 tackles in the last two seasons, including 121 in 2005.
Best player you don't know yet:Haruki Nakamura, S, Cincinnati. Unless you are a Bearcats fan or put together a preseason football magazine the chances are very slim you have heard of this junior free safety. It's unfortunate because the veteran from Elyria, Ohio, would be one of the league's biggest names if he played at West Virginia or Louisville. He is fearless and makes plays all over the field. Last season he had a team-high 76 tackles, two interceptions and finished among the league leaders in punt returns.
Impact newcomers: Louisville receivers Patrick Carter and Chris Vaughn. Both transfers are eligible this season, and their timing is great. The Cardinals lost their top two pass catchers, Joshua Tinch and Montrell Jones, leaving room for Carter and Vaughn to join the Cardinals' deep rotation of wideouts. The 6-3, 200-pound Carter, who left Georgia Tech, is extremely athletic and the little brother of New York Giants receiver Tim Carter. Vaughn, who left Notre Dame, is slightly bigger at 6-3, 223 pounds.
Sleeper recruit:UConn receiver Terence Jeffers. Despite playing in the recruiting hotbed of metro Atlanta, most Division I-A schools ignored the 6-0, 190-pound wideout. It's a move many will end up regretting. Jeffers ran an electronically-timed 4.4 in the 40-yard dash at a Nike camp. That type of speed will allow him to make several big plays.
Assistant coach on the rise:Rutgers offensive coordinator Craig Ver Steeg. Quarterbacks seem to thrive with Ver Steeg calling the plays, and he has turned a handful of two-star recruits into major weapons. The Scarlet Knights finished second in the league in total offense and pass offense last season. True freshman running back Raymell Rice broke the 1,000-yard barrier, fullback Brian Leonard had more than 500 yards receiving and rushing, and quarterback Ryan Hart had the second-best passing efficiency rating (148.1) in the league.
Assistant coach on the hot seat: Everybody on Syracuse's staff. The Orange dropped to staggering new lows last season, going 1-10. There were plenty of places to point the blame, but offensive line coach Bob Wylie and defensive line coach Tim Cross should feel particularly uneasy. The Orange finished dead last in the league in rushing offense and rushing defense.
Etc.: While many of the other major conferences are full of programs breaking in new quarterbacks, the Big East is loaded with experience under center. Rutgers is the only school in the league that doesn't return the QB who started the season opener last year. That said, Scarlet Knight sophomore Mike Teel started three games last season. The experience returning doesn't mean the league is void of quarterback controversy. Injuries forced UConn to start three different quarterbacks ? D.J. Hernandez, Matt Bonislawski and Dennis Brown ? last season. Coach Randy Edsall says they all will get a chance to earn the starting job, along with redshirt freshman Billy Cundiff. Hernandez is the slight front-runner ? West Virginia might play the softest non-conference schedule of any of the national title contenders. All five of their opponents ? Marshall, Buffalo, Maryland, East Carolina and Mississippi State ? are coming off losing records and combined to go 18-37 last season ? The Big East has added two more bowl tie-ins with the Birmingham (Ala.) Bowl against a Conference-USA team and the International Bowl in Toronto versus a MAC team. That means as many as six teams from the league could go to bowls if they finish the regular season with records of .500 or better. The Birmingham Bowl will be played Dec. 23 at Legion Field. The International Bowl kicks off Jan. 6 in the Rogers Centre ? If No. 7 WVU and No. 13 Louisville can both win their first seven games they would meet for one of the biggest Thursday night games ever at Louisville on Nov. 2.