September 2, 2010

Week 1 preview in the Big East

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THE SCHEDULE
Thursday
Norfolk State at Rutgers, 7:30 p.m.
Pittsburgh at Utah, 8:30 p.m.
Saturday
Connecticut at Michigan, 3:30 p.m.
Coastal Carolina at West Virginia, 3:30 p.m.
Kentucky at Louisville, 3:30 p.m.
Syracuse at Akron, 6 p.m.
Stony Brook at USF, 7 p.m.
Cincinnati at Fresno State, 10 p.m.

Scheduling five non-conference games can be a nightmare for an athletic director. Pittsburgh coach Dave Wannstedt understands that much. He just wishes the other schedule-makers in the league took a consistent approach to scheduling.

Pittsburgh opens the season Thursday against Utah, ranked 24th in the coaches' poll, for the highest-profile game involving a Big East team this week. The Panthers are one of four Big East teams opening the season on the road. Meanwhile, three Big East teams open with an FCS opponent.

After facing Utah, Pitt plays host to No. 13 Miami on Sept. 23 and travels to Notre Dame on Oct. 9. By that point, Wannstedt expects the Irish to be the third ranked team Pitt faces in its non-conference schedule.

The Panthers, the preseason favorite in the league, will get plenty of TV exposure, but the challenging schedule could come at a price in December and January.

"It's great for the fans," Wannstedt said. "Everybody cheers and wants you to play Miami every week. But at the end of the year, one team has nine wins and one has eight, and you go to a better bowl game even though you haven't played a better schedule.

"The only thing that matters is wins. All they care about is how many games you won."

Every Big East team - including Pitt - plays at least one FCS opponent this season. That's not what bothers Wannstedt. The coach said he and athletic director Steve Pederson plan for Pitt's regular schedule to include two Big Six teams (Miami and Notre Dame this season), two lower-conference teams (FCS member New Hampshire and FIU) and one in the middle (Utah).

Not everyone in the Big East shares a comparable philosophy.

Traditionally, Rutgers and Connecticut have been the biggest offenders. In each season since 2007, Rutgers hasn't played more than one non-conference game against a Big Six opponent. This season, the Scarlet Knights will face just one program coming off a bowl last season - North Carolina.

Even though Connecticut opens at Michigan, the Huskies face only one team that had a winning record last season (Temple).

Some other league teams also have carved out scheduling trademarks of late. West Virginia has played an SEC team every season since 2006 (this year, it's at LSU). The Mountaineers also play in-state rival Marshall each season along with a mid-level team from another Big Six conference (Maryland this season).

And in the past two seasons, USF has attempted to take on the top teams in its state. This year, the Bulls face Florida and Miami on the road. Last season, USF was at Florida State and played host to Miami.

Cincinnati will play a game west of the Mississippi for the third consecutive season - the Bearcats are at Fresno State on Saturday - and get a game with Oklahoma at the Bengals' Paul Brown Stadium. Cincinnati also has a traditional rivalry game with Miami (Ohio).

Syracuse begins the season with a challenging schedule for a team that hasn't had a winning record since 2001. A year after opening the season with three consecutive Big Ten opponents, the Orange face Akron and Washington on the road before back-to-back games against FCS teams.

The 2010 season opened once again with the Big East coaches being asked to defend the legitimacy of the league. But Wannstedt wouldn't say if soft scheduling has anything to do with the perception that the Big East is the sixth- or seventh-best conference.

"It may have something to do with [that]," Wannstedt said. "I'm not sure. I'll leave that for the authorities to evaluate."

Best matchup: Cincinnati DT Derek Wolfe vs. Fresno State G Andrew Jackson. Wolfe, a sophomore, may be the Bearcats' best prospect on defense after recording 41 tackles a year ago. He'll face one of his stiffest tests of the season right away when the Bearcats go to Fresno. Jackson is one of the nation's best linemen, and he helped pave the way for Ryan Mathews to lead the nation in rushing last season. The Bulldogs don't have Mathews anymore, but they expect 5-foot-7 sophomore Robbie Rouse to be productive. Cincinnati's porous pass defense will be tested later in the season, but its run defense statistically was worse last season, ranking seventh in the Big East. The Bearcats are retuning to a 4-3 scheme after spending last season in a 3-4.

Player on the spot: Pittsburgh QB Tino Sunseri. Coach Dave Wannstedt and offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti's game plan will include a heavy dose of runs from TB Dion Lewis, but Pittsburgh needs a solid season from Sunseri to win the Big East. Wannstedt likes Sunseri's intangibles, but the sophomore has completed only 10 career passes. His first career start will be a tough one against Utah, which has won 17 consecutive home games. With Lewis and WR Jon Baldwin to work with, he will need to be an effective game manager, as departed QB Bill Stull was last season.

Numbers game: Connecticut's projected starting linebacker trio of Scott Lutrus, Greg Lloyd and Lawrence Wilson combined for 100 tackles last season. Lloyd was expected to redshirt this season following a knee injury late last season. But Lloyd is listed as Connecticut's starting middle linebacker, with Lutrus now at strongside linebacker. Wilson was the only linebacker to play every game last season. Lloyd missed two games and Lutrus missed five.

What they're saying:

"We had scrimmage one day and I saw him do some things that showed me he was ready. He brings that leadership, mentality and cohesiveness, with Lawrence [Wilson] and Scott [Lutrus] on either side of him. He has to wear a brace on his knee. He was totally cleared by the trainer; if he wasn't cleared, he wouldn't be out there." - UConn coach Randy Edsall, on Lloyd's surprising return to the starting lineup

"The pressure now is we have to go out and win. We've got to get to a bowl. We just have to get to it. We haven't been in one in a long time. We have to do it. Once we pass that hurdle, I think great things could happen." - Syracuse coach Doug Marrone, to the Syracuse Post-Standard

"I don't want to take away B.J. [Daniels]' playmaking ability with his feet. I have met with him a couple of times to talk about how important it is to play within the system fundamentally and to understand the reads and what we're trying to do with each play and where we're trying to attack. Then when things break down, you can use your natural ability to get yourself on the perimeter and make some things happen with your feet." - New USF coach Skip Holtz, on his dual-threat sophomore quarterback

"This is a team that for the last three years has struggled and a team that is lacking in confidence. We have to find an identity with this football team." - New Louisville coach Charlie Strong

Etc.: New Cincinnati coach Butch Jones expects RB Isaiah Pead to be ready to carry the ball 20-30 times per game while playing in the slot. Pead, a junior, hasn't carried the ball more than 18 times in a game in his college career and has had just two games with more than 15 carries. ... Rutgers coach Greg Schiano expects an open competition to continue for the wide receiver spot opposite sophomore Mohamed Sanu, especially with a season-ending knee injury to Tim Wright. Sophomore Mark Harrison, former running back Mason Robinson and freshman Jeremy Deering will be in the mix. ... Strong was 17-1 as an assistant against Kentucky, facing the Wildcats while at Florida, South Carolina and Ole Miss. Strong's only loss to UK came during South Carolina's winless 1999 season. Louisville has lost three in a row to Kentucky... Syracuse RB Delone Carter, who was suspended after an off-field incident in February, was reinstated in early August and will start against Akron. ... Michael Box will be Connecticut's backup quarterback while Cody Endres remains suspended for an unidentified violation of team rules. ... Syracuse backup RB Averin Collier returned to the team after an absence because of academic issues. He will practice, but he is not eligible to play. ... Rutgers RB Kordell Young will miss the opener for personal reasons. ... West Virginia LB J.T. Thomas (knee) is expected to play against Coastal Carolina. Fellow LB Pat Lazear (neck) remains questionable.

David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dfox@rivals.com.



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