Connecticut has come a long way since joining what was called Division I-A in 2000 and the Big East in 2004.
The Huskies have won at least eight games in each of the past three seasons and capped the past two seasons with bowl wins. After several close calls in 2009, Connecticut hopes 2010 is a chance to reach another benchmark with perhaps the best team Randy Edsall has had in Storrs.
With 16 returning starters, the Huskies have a legitimate chance to win their first outright Big East title. Connecticut's five losses in '09 came by a combined 15 points, and none were by more than four points.
A few of the close losses are understandable; three came immediately after the death of cornerback Jasper Howard. Connecticut turned the tide Nov. 21 with a double-overtime win at Notre Dame. The Huskies rallied to win the next three games to enter 2010 with plenty of momentum.
Here's a closer look at the Huskies.
THE SCHEME: While many teams have transitioned to some version of the spread, Connecticut retains a run-heavy, pro-style offense. New coordinator Joe Moorhead tweaked the scheme last season by installing some no-huddle plays.
STAR POWER: Connecticut divided its carries last season almost equally between Jordan Todman and Andre Dixon. Now that Dixon is gone, Todman (1,188 yards, 14 touchdowns) could have an opportunity to be a true feature back. Still, given Connecticut's depth at running back and Randy Edsall's preference to use several running backs, Todman should be productive but not the workhorse back Donald Brown was in '08.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: The Huskies benefitted from USC's troubles by adding RB D.J. Shoemate, who will be eligible immediately. A Rivals100 prospect in 2008, Shoemate played receiver and fullback for the Trojans, but he'll be a tailback for Connecticut.
STRONGEST AREA: Even beyond Todman and Shoemate, Connecticut has some intriguing pieces at running back. Kelemtrus Wylie is a power back and Robbie Frey is a speedster. The backs also benefit from playing behind an experienced line. The Huskies are especially strong on the right side with T Mike Ryan and G Zach Hurd.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: Connecticut fielded a more balanced offense last season thanks in part to the development of Marcus Easley at receiver. With Easley gone, the Huskies again lack a true No. 1 receiver. Kashif Moore, Isiah Moore (no relation) and Michael Smith contributed last season, but none caught more than 27 passes. One receiver with potential to contribute in a big way is sophomore Dwayne Difton, a former four-star prospect out of powerhouse Fort Lauderdale (Fla.) St. Thomas Aquinas. Quarterback continues to be a question mark, though Zach Frazer appears to have a firm hold on the starting job.
THE SCHEME: Connecticut runs a 4-3 base defense. Edsall is a former NFL defensive assistant, and as such, his teams are known for employing a physical style geared toward shutting down the run.
STAR POWER: Senior LB Lawrence Wilson has 326 career tackles, but the best player on the defense might be LB Scott Lutrus - when he's healthy. Lutrus missed five games last season with a pair of stingers, but he still finished the season with 69 tackles. He's a big-play middle linebacker who had nine tackles for loss as a sophomore in 2008 and four interceptions as a freshman in '07.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: Connecticut hasn't played many true freshmen in recent seasons, but LB Andrew Opoku could mean a break with tradition. Opoku isn't a traditional true freshman. He played a post-graduate year at a prep school and enrolled in the spring. He ended spring drills as a backup at outside linebacker, and he also could fill in at strong safety.
STRONGEST AREA: Wilson and Lutrus are unquestionably the top two playmakers on the defense. If both are healthy all season, Connecticut's defense could closely resemble the one that led the Big East in total defense in 2008. The other projected starter at linebacker is sophomore Jory Johnson, a part-time starter last season had recorded five tackles for loss. The line should be strong enough to absorb the loss of E Greg Lloyd. He moved from linebacker but could miss the season with a knee injury. A positive is that E Marcus Campbell returns after missing last season because of academics. Starting Ts Kendall Reyes and Twyon Martin return.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: Connecticut ranked 85th nationally in pass efficiency defense last season. Clearly, the loss of Howard was part of the reason. Youth was a problem, too, with two redshirt freshman starters. Sophomores Blidi Wreh-Wilson and Jerome Junior should be improved, but this remains a young group. Free safety is wide open heading into the fall.
Connecticut's special teams took a big hit with the departure of Desi Cullen, a four-year starter at punter and a kickoff specialist. After claiming the kicker job as a freshman, Dave Teggart struggled as a sophomore. He was 14-of-23 last season, including two misses of 27 yards and two that were blocked. Three Huskies returned a kickoff for a touchdown; Frey led the group with a 29.5-yard average. The new punt returner likely will be backup CB Gary Wilburn. Kick coverage was bad last season, punt coverage OK.
After defeating Notre Dame in South Bend and South Carolina in the bowl game late last season, Connecticut has a chance for another landmark win in the opener. The Huskies play at Michigan on Sept. 4. If Connecticut can win that one, it could start 5-0 before opening Big East play at Rutgers on Oct. 8. Connecticut plays four league road games, but the Huskies get perhaps their toughest conference games - West Virginia, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati - at home.
Connecticut has finished with a winning record in Big East play just one time (2007, when the Huskies shared the Big East title with West Virginia). The Huskies will look to build on their late-season momentum and turn all those narrow losses to close wins. With 16 returning starters, the Huskies are poised to make a run at the Big East title.