August 5, 2011

West Virginia poised to top Big East

MORE: All-conference team | Unit rankings | Expert predictions

This sums up the state of the Big East: Third-year Syracuse coach Doug Marrone is one of the league's elder statesmen.

He's not the longest-tenured Big East coach (that would be 10-year Rutgers coach Greg Schiano), but Marrone has at least a year on every other Big East coach.

This season brings new coaches at each of last season's tri-champs: Connecticut (Paul Pasqualoni), Pittsburgh (Todd Graham) and West Virginia (Dana Holgorsen). They join second-year coaches at Cincinnati, Louisville and USF.

With that kind of turnover, it is not shocking Big East teams struggled to find their footing last season. When West Virginia lost its bowl game to North Carolina State, the Big East found itself without a 10-win team for the first time since 1998.

If only the lackluster numbers ended there. The league's BCS representative, Connecticut, lost 48-20 to Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl, then lost longtime coach Randy Edsall to Maryland. The league's 60.9 non-conference winning percentage was its worst since 2005. And no Big East team finished the season ranked.

That's the bad news.

The good news is the league should be improved this season thanks to experienced quarterbacks. Big East teams returned only two starting quarterbacks in 2010, and one of those (Rutgers' Tom Savage) lost his job and transferred after the season. In 2011, only Connecticut and Louisville do not return their quarterbacks.

Perhaps this was a by-product of shoddy offenses, but the Big East featured some of the country's best defenses, at least statistically. West Virginia, Syracuse and Pittsburgh finished in the top 10 nationally in total defense. Louisville and USF finished in the top 20. If offenses are going to catch up, the movement likely will be led by Pittsburgh and West Virginia, who hired coaches used to leading prolific offenses.

Here's a look at the Big East in its final season as an eight-team conference before TCU joins the conference in 2012.

THE PLAYERS

BEST OFFENSIVE PLAYER: Connecticut T Mike Ryan. A major reason the Huskies were able to reach the Fiesta Bowl was the play of the offensive line, which was the best in the Big East. Connecticut led the league in rushing (thanks to since-departed TB Jordan Todman) and allowed the fewest sacks in the conference (15). Ryan is a left tackle with good size (6 feet 5/333 pounds), but he'll be put to the test this season blocking for an unproven backfield.

BEST DEFENSIVE PLAYER: Pittsburgh E Brandon Lindsey. The injury to Greg Romeus in the 2010 season-opener could have been debilitating to the Panthers' defense, but Lindsey became one of the best defensive players in the league. He finished with 10 sacks last season and will be an intriguing piece in Todd Graham's 3-4 defense. He is listed as an end, but Pitt also will use him as a pass-rushing linebacker. He has shown up on some NFL draft watch lists, but he still has a few things to prove, mainly whether he can be a force without fellow end Jabaal Sheard taking some of the attention. And can he put up big numbers against every opponent (half of his sacks came in two games, against Rutgers and New Hampshire)?

OFFENSIVE PLAYER ON THE SPOT: Louisville RB Victor Anderson. Anderson was the top freshman in the Big East in 2008, with 1,047 rushing yards and eight touchdowns, but he has struggled since. He has missed seven games in the past two seasons with injuries, and his playing time further dwindled last season because of the emergence of Bilal Powell. But with Powell gone and an untested quarterback, Anderson will need to top the 759 yards and five touchdowns he has produced the past two seasons combined.

DEFENSIVE PLAYER ON THE SPOT: Pittsburgh LB Greg Williams. The Panthers' linebackers as a whole underachieved last season, but the player who most needs to play to his potential is Williams. He looked like a future all-conference player when he was pressed into starting duty as a freshman (47 tackles, 6.5 tackles for a loss, two interceptions). He has shown flashes of playmaking ability, but he hasn't put together the career year he hinted at three years ago.

BREAKOUT OFFENSIVE STAR: West Virginia QB Geno Smith. Smith was Rivals.com's first-team All-Big East quarterback last season, his first as a starter, but his ceiling looks to be quite high in WVU's new offense. He led the Big East in pass efficiency and kept the interceptions down (seven in 372 attempts, though three came in one game against Syracuse). In Dana Holgorsen's offense, Smith appears to have the tools and the receivers to become one of the nation's most prolific passers and a potential candidate for national honors.

BREAKOUT DEFENSIVE STAR: Syracuse E Chandler Jones. His brother, Arthur, was a standout tackle at Syracuse. Another brother, John, is a UFC fighter. So Chandler Jones has some good genes. All he needs is the breakout season that appears to be inevitable. He had 9.5 tackles for loss and forced three fumbles last season. With star LBs Derrell Smith and Doug Hogue gone, Syracuse is looking for a disruptive player in the front seven. Jones shows the signs of becoming that kind of force as a junior.

BEST OFFENSIVE NEWCOMER: Rutgers RB Savon Huggins. No position group in the Big East has more important newcomers than tailback. The list includes true freshman Vernard Roberts at West Virginia and Colorado transfer Darrell Scott, a junior, at USF. The one who may be most critical is Huggins, the highest-ranked recruit to sign with a Big East school (No. 58 in the Rivals100). Huggins also arrives at a position of dire need for the Scarlet Knights. Rutgers rushed for a total of 633 yards in conference games last season, nearly 200 fewer than the next-worst team. If Rutgers' offensive line recovers from a dismal 2010, Huggins could be the league's freshman of the year.

BEST DEFENSIVE NEWCOMER: Syracuse LB Dyshawn Davis. Syracuse is paper-thin at linebacker, so Orange coaches need Davis to make an impact rookie as a redshirt freshman. He arrived at Syracuse as a receiver, but he's needed at outside linebacker. Marquis Spruill played admirably as a freshman linebacker last season and will start in the middle this season. Coordinator Scott Shafer seems to have a knack for getting the most out of his linebackers.

MOST OVERRATED PLAYER: West Virginia DE Bruce Irvin. He is receiving plenty of preseason attention for his 14 sacks last season, but he still has work to do to become a postseason All-American. His sack numbers are great, but he was a pass-rush specialist who didn't start a game last season. This season, he will start. And though he has bulked up to 235 pounds, his ability to stand in against the run is a big question. In addition, opposing blockers now can concentrate on Irvin because of a weakened supporting cast. Just two starters in WVU's front six (the Mountaineers run a 3-3-5) return, and one of those is 268-pound Julian Miller, who will move to tackle from end.

THE COACHES

COACH ON THE HOTTEST SEAT: Rutgers' Greg Schiano. Schiano is the only coach in the league with more than three seasons at his current stop, so that makes him the default pick in this category. Well, that and a 4-8 season in 2010 in which the Scarlet Knights ranked last in the league in total offense and total defense. After enduring his first losing season since 2004, Schiano replaced his offensive coordinator and made some other staff tweaks. If those don't pan out, Schiano really could be on the hot seat next fall.

BEST COACHING STAFF: Louisville. A year ago, Charlie Strong brought a long resume as a rock-star defensive coordinator to his first head-coaching job. The question was how he would fare as a head coach. There are no such questions anymore. Strong has Louisville thinking Big East titles again after a 7-6 season in which all but one of the Cardinals' losses was by eight or fewer points. Running back coach Kenny Carter helped turn Powell into a 1,400-yard rusher. Louisville signed the top recruiting class in the Big East. Under Strong and coordinator Vance Bedford, Louisville also had a top-20 defense last season.

BEST OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Louisville's Mike Sanford. The Cardinals' offense wasn't dominant by any stretch of the imagination; the Cardinals averaged ranked 71st in the nation. But despite starting two serviceable-at-best quarterbacks, Louisville improved its scoring output by more than a touchdown per game. How did Louisville achieve such improved results with many of the same personnel? One reason was Powell's emergence. The other was a dramatic decrease in turnovers. The Cardinals threw single-digit interceptions (eight) for the first time since 2006 and committed the fewest turnovers (16) since 2004. Louisville averaged 14 interceptions and 24.7 turnovers per season during the Steve Kragthorpe years.

BEST DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: West Virginia's Jeff Casteel. Casteel runs an unorthodox 3-3-5 system, but no one can argue with the results. The Mountaineers have allowed more than 20 points per game only once in the past six seasons. Big East opponents have averaged only 16.3 points per game against WVU since 2007. Last season's defense was his best - the Mountaineers ranked in the top three nationally in total defense, scoring defense, rush defense and sacks while holding every team to 23 or fewer points.

BEST POSITION COACH: Connecticut OL coach Mike Foley. Without the benefit of highly touted recruits, the Huskies routinely have had one of the best offensive lines in the Big East since Foley arrived from Colgate in 2006. Will Beatty and Donald Thomas became draft picks under Foley, and Zach Hurd, Mike Ryan and Moe Petrus followed as All-Big East selections. Foley's lines especially excel at run blocking.

THE OTHER STUFF

USF at Notre Dame, Sept. 3

LSU at West Virginia, Sept. 24

Notre Dame at Pittsburgh, Sept. 24

USF at Pittsburgh, Sept. 29

West Virginia at Syracuse, Oct. 21

Syracuse at Connecticut, Nov. 5

Miami at USF, Nov. 19

Pittsburgh at West Virginia, Nov. 25

West Virginia at USF, Dec. 1

Syracuse at Pittsburgh, Dec. 3

TEAM THAT WILL SURPRISE: Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights were simply awful last season, especially in the second half of the season. Opponents outscored Rutgers by more than 17 points per game during a six-game losing streak to end the season. Rutgers may not get to eight or nine wins, but the Scarlet Knights can't be as bad as they were last season. First, the Tom Savage-Chas Dodd quarterback quandary has been settled. The heavy use of the "Wildcat" formation is gone, meaning players such as Mohamed Sanu and Jeremy Deering can be used to their full potential. Schiano hired Frank Cignetti as offensive coordinator to return Rutgers to its power-running roots. Schiano believes a functional offense will boost the defense, too, which was just as ineffective as the offense late last season.

TEAM THAT WILL DISAPPOINT: Louisville. Normally, a team that loses a handful of close games looks as if it's nearing a turnaround. For all the optimism surrounding Louisville, though, this season could be a transitional one. The Cardinals return just one starter on the offensive line, and their backfield presents questions. Anderson has battled injuries the past two seasons, and the quarterback will be a former walk-on (Will Stein) or a true freshman (Teddy Bridgewater). No one would be shocked to see Louisville back in a bowl, but the Cardinals remain a season or two away from seriously contending for a BCS bid.

GAME OF THE YEAR: Pittsburgh at West Virginia, Nov. 25. "The Backyard Brawl" always is on the short list of must-see games in the Big East, but this season's game will have even more of an edge. Once both schools sorted out their coaching situation, they ended up with coaches who aren't particularly fond of each other. When both were in Conference USA, West Virginia's Dana Holgorsen and Pittsburgh's Todd Graham traded some verbal barbs. Graham, offensive coordinator Calvin Magee and secondary coach Tony Gibson were assistants at West Virginia under Rich Rodriguez (Magee and Gibson followed him to Michigan). The game almost certainly will play a major role in the Big East race as well.

TOUGHEST SCHEDULE: USF. The season begins with a difficult road test at Notre Dame - especially difficult for a team used to playing Stony Brook, Wofford, UT Martin and Elon in openers. The next three weeks will be easy, but the Bulls have some challenges on the conference schedule, including road trips to Pittsburgh, Connecticut and Syracuse and four non-Saturday games. Miami visits Nov. 19 to interrupt the Big East schedule, too.

EASIEST SCHEDULE: Connecticut. The Huskies' non-conference schedule consists of Fordham, Vanderbilt, Iowa State, Buffalo and Western Michigan. If Connecticut sweeps that non-conference schedule, the Huskies only have to win one conference game to become bowl-eligible. They have a conference schedule that includes four league games at home. Connecticut may need time to get used to new coach Paul Pasqualoni, a new quarterback and a new tailback, but the Huskies' schedule means there is some room for error.

BIG EAST EXPERT PICKS

We asked our five football writers to answer a few questions about the Big East. Here are their responses:

WHO WINS THE LEAGUE?
Olin Buchanan: West Virginia
Tom Dienhart: West Virginia
David Fox: West Virginia
Mike Huguenin: West Virginia
Steve Megargee: West Virginia

WHICH TEAM WILL BE THE BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT?
Olin Buchanan: Louisville
Tom Dienhart: Connecticut
David Fox: Pittsburgh
Mike Huguenin: Connecticut
Steve Megargee: Connecticut

WHERE DOES THIS LEAGUE RANK IN RELATION TO OTHERS?
Olin Buchanan: Sixth
Tom Dienhart: Sixth
David Fox: Sixth
Mike Huguenin: Sixth
Steve Megargee: Seventh

THE BEST PLAYER IN THE LEAGUE?
Olin Buchanan: West Virginia QB Geno Smith
Tom Dienhart: Pittsburgh DE Brandon Lindsey
David Fox: West Virginia QB Geno Smith
Mike Huguenin: West Virginia CB Keith Tandy
Steve Megargee: Pittsburgh DE Brandon Lindsey

WHO WILL LEAD THE LEAGUE IN RUSHING?
Olin Buchanan: Cincinnati TB Isaiah Pead
Tom Dienhart: Cincinnati TB Isaiah Pead
David Fox: Pittsburgh TB Ray Graham
Mike Huguenin: Syracuse TB Antwon Bailey
Steve Megargee: Pittsburgh TB Ray Graham

WHO WILL LEAD IN PASSING?
Olin Buchanan: West Virginia's Geno Smith
Tom Dienhart: West Virginia's Geno Smith
David Fox: West Virginia's Geno Smith
Mike Huguenin: West Virginia's Geno Smith
Steve Megargee: Cincinnati's Zach Collaros
WHO WILL LEAD IN RECEPTIONS?
Olin Buchanan: West Virginia WR Tavon Austin
Tom Dienhart: West Virginia WR Tavon Austin
David Fox: Cincinnati WR D.J. Woods
Mike Huguenin: Pittsburgh WR Devin Street
Steve Megargee: Cincinnati WR D.J. Woods

WHO WILL LEAD IN TACKLES?
Olin Buchanan: Cincinnati LB JK Schaffer
Tom Dienhart: Cincinnati LB JK Schaffer
David Fox: Connecticut LB Sio Moore
Mike Huguenin: Connecticut LB Sio Moore
Steve Megargee: Connecticut LB Sio Moore

WHICH SCHOOL HAS THE BEST-LOOKING UNIFORM?
Olin Buchanan: Pittsburgh
Tom Dienhart: Louisville
David Fox: Louisville
Mike Huguenin: Cincinnati
Steve Megargee: USF

WHICH SCHOOL IN THIS LEAGUE IS THE BEST JOB?
Olin Buchanan: Pittsburgh
Tom Dienhart: USF
David Fox: West Virginia
Mike Huguenin: USF
Steve Megargee: West Virginia

THE WORST?
Olin Buchanan: Connecticut
Tom Dienhart: Connecticut
David Fox: Connecticut
Mike Huguenin: Connecticut
Steve Megargee: Connecticut

FIRST TEAM OFFENSE
QBGeno Smith, West Virginia (6-3/214, Jr.)
RBRay Graham, Pittsburgh (5-9/195, Jr.)
RBIsaiah Pead, Cincinnati (5-11/198, Sr.)
WRTavon Austin, West Virginia (5-9/176, Jr.)
WRMark Harrison, Rutgers (6-3/230, Jr.)
WRD.J. Woods, Cincinnati (6-0/178, Sr.)
TJustin Pugh, Syracuse (6-6/299, Jr.)
TMike Ryan, Connecticut (6-5/335, Sr.)
GChaz Hine, USF (6-4/296, Sr.)
GJeremiah Warren, USF (6-4/327, Sr.)
CMoe Petrus, Connecticut (6-2/302, Sr.)
FIRST TEAM DEFENSE
EBruce Irvin, West Virginia (6-3/245, Sr.)
TKendall Reyes, Connecticut (6-4/295, Sr.)
TScott Vallone, Rutgers (6-3/270, Jr.)
EBrandon Lindsey, Pittsburgh (6-2/250, Sr.)
LBSam Barrington, USF (6-1/236, Jr.)
LBSio Moore, Connecticut (6-1/232, Jr.)
LBJK Schaffer, Cincinnati (6-1/232, Sr.)
CBKeith Tandy, West Virginia (5-10/199, Sr.)
CBBlidi Wreh-Wilson, Connecticut (6-0/192, Jr.)
FSJarred Holley, Pittsburgh (5-10/180, Jr.)
SSHakeem Smith, Louisville (6-1/183, Soph.)
FIRST TEAM SPECIALISTS
KRoss Krautman, Syracuse (5-7/155, Soph.)
PPat O'Donnell, Cincinnati (6-5/217, Jr.)
KRLindsey Lamar, USF (5-8/161, Jr.)
PRCameron Saddler, Pittsburgh (5-7/170, Jr.)

Offensive backfield

1. Cincinnati: The Bearcats led the Big East in pass offense by a wide margin behind QB Zach Collaros. He didn't run as much as he did in limited duty in 2009, but TB Isaiah Pead had a career year with 1,029 yards and six touchdowns in 10 games.

2. West Virginia: The efficient Geno Smith could put up monster numbers in the new offense, but the Mountaineers lack depth behind him. A youth movement could replace Noel Devine at tailback. Freshman Vernard Roberts impressed in spring, and freshmen Andrew Buie and Trey Johnson also could be factors. Ryan Clarke rushed for eight touchdowns last season.

3. Pittsburgh: TB Ray Graham could flourish in the new offense. The arrival of TB Zach Brown from Wisconsin gives Graham a solid backup. Returning QB Tino Sunseri must learn how to take shotgun snaps full-time and run the no-huddle offense.

4. USF: B.J. Daniels must cut down on his interceptions (13). The Bulls will have depth at tailback with Demetris Murray returning, joined by transfers Darrell Scott and Dontae Aycock.

5. Syracuse: QB Ryan Nassib was solid in his first season as a starter, passing for 2,334 yards and 19 touchdowns. Syracuse will need more from him this season with Delone Carter gone. RB Antwon Bailey steps into the limelight after two years as a backup.

6. Louisville: True freshman Teddy Bridgewater may be the quarterback of the future, but he'll have to contend with the plucky Will Stein this fall. If he can stay healthy, TB Victor Anderson will try to be the 2011 version of Bilal Powell.

7. Rutgers: Once he took over the job, QB Chas Dodd performed admirably, especially considering the sorry state of Rutgers' line. The running game was pitiful last season, but freshman Savon Huggins could be the most talented player Rutgers has had at the position since Ray Rice.

8. Connecticut: The Huskies' quarterback will be young, whether it's Michael Box, Michael Nebrich, Scott McCummings or Johnny McEntee. Jordan Todman's departure leaves a major void at tailback, but at least D.J. Shoemate, a former fullback with fumbling issues, and/or Lyle McCombs will have the luxury of running behind the league's best line.

Receivers

1. Rutgers: This group has yet to reach its full potential, in part because of the Scarlet Knights' liberal use of the "Wildcat" last season. Mark Harrison returns after averaging 18.8 yards per catch; he had nine touchdowns. Mohamed Sanu could be the team's best receiver, but he was beat up from taking direct snaps last season. The Scarlet Knights are also waiting for talented TE D.C. Jefferson to break out.

2. West Virginia: Tavon Austin could be poised for a breakout season in the new offense. Stedman Bailey and Ivan McCartney were high school teammates with QB Geno Smith, so that should help chemistry. Brad Starks may end up as the deep threat.

3. Cincinnati: As with Armon Binns before him, D.J. Woods must make the transition from productive No. 2 receiver to the top guy. As usual, Cincinnati has depth at the position. Four-star junior college transfer Kenbrell Thompkins (a former Tennessee commitment), four-star redshirt freshman Dyjuan Lewis and TE Travis Kelce are available after being inactive last season.

4. Pittsburgh: The Panthers must replace Jon Baldwin, but they have high hopes for WRs Mike Shanahan and Devin Street. After those two, the Panthers lack experience at the position. TE/H-backs Brock DeCicco and Hubie Graham could play active roles.

5. Syracuse: With Van Chew, Marcus Sales, Alec Lemon and TE Nick Provo, Syracuse doesn't have a superstar, but it's a solid group. The Orange would love to see Sales perform as he did in the Pinstripe Bowl (172 yards, three touchdowns).

6. Louisville: No receiver last season topped 500 yards, and Josh Bellamy is the only returnee who topped 400 yards. Josh Chichester has found a home at tight end. Louisville hopes the position group will get a boost from redshirt freshman Michaelee Harris and perhaps true freshman Eli Rogers, who were teammates with true freshman QB Teddy Bridgewater in high school.

7. USF: Getting back A.J. Love and Sterling Griffin from injury will be huge. Terrence Mitchell was a four-star cornerback in the 2010 class before becoming a standout punt returner last season. He'll be a full-time receiver now.

8. Connecticut: This has not been a strong position in recent seasons for UConn (in part because quarterback hasn't been a standout position, either), but the group took a big hit with the ineligibility of leading returning receiver Michael Smith. Isiah Moore and Kashif Moore (no relation) have experience, but they're not particularly flashy. TE Ryan Griffin could end up as the team's leading receiver.

Offensive line

1. Connecticut: No Big East team does a better job of finding and developing offensive linemen than the Huskies. C Moe Petrus and T Mike Ryan, two of the league's best at their positions, were two-star recruits.

2. Syracuse: Four starters return but the Orange must replace standout C Ryan Bartholomew. Doug Marrone, a former Syracuse lineman, has remade the Orange's offensive line.

3. West Virginia: The season-ending knee injury to G Josh Jenkins has caused some shuffling, with returning starter Jeff Braun moving from tackle to guard. T Don Barclay and C Joe Madsen will be among the best in the league at their position. New line coach Bill Bedenbaugh arrives from Arizona with a good resume.

4. Pittsburgh: The Panthers had trouble finding a center during spring ball before G Chris Jacobson was moved. Lucas Nix returns to tackle after playing guard last season.

5. Cincinnati: C Jason Kelce, the best lineman last season, is gone. The Bearcats return G Randy Martinez and T Alex Hoffman, who should be candidates for postseason honors. The line improved as last season went along, but it can't allow 2.8 sacks per game again.

6. USF: Seniors Jeremiah Warren and Chaz Hine form the best guard tandem in the Big East. The Bulls have big expectations for redshirt freshman T Quinterrius Eatmon.

7. Louisville: C Mario Benavides is a three-year starter, but he's surrounded by inexperienced players.

8. Rutgers: The Scarlet Knights allowed 61 sacks (10 more than anyone else in the country and 28 more than anyone else in the Big East) and blocked for a dismal rushing attack. Four starters are back, but the Scarlet Knights are looking to sophomores Andre Civil (at left tackle) and David Osei (at center) to turn the line around.

Defensive line

1. Connecticut: T Kendall Reyes, a former linebacker who also has played end, is a pro prospect. Fellow T Twyon Martin could be poised for the best season of his career. Es Jesse Joseph and Trevardo Williams combined for 13 sacks last fall.

2. West Virginia: E Bruce Irvin and T Julian Miller - who played end last season - can get to the quarterback as well as any duo in the league. The question is how West Virginia will replace its outstanding tackle duo of Chris Neild and Scooter Berry.

3. Pittsburgh: Brandon Lindsey could be Pitt's next star end. Chas Alecxih and Myles Caragein are a formidable tackle tandem.

4. Louisville: This was a young group last season, with E B.J. Butler and T Brandon Dunn earning more playing time over the second half of the season. T Roy Philon could be another sophomore who becomes an impact player. Greg Scruggs is a veteran who can play either end or tackle.

5. Syracuse: Es Chandler Jones and Mikhail Marinovich - Todd's half-brother - are poised for breakout seasons, but Syracuse is thin and inexperienced at tackle.

6. USF: A long-time strength for the Bulls, USF lost mainstay Terrell McClain last season. It's time for E Ryne Giddins and T Cory Grissom to deliver.

7. Cincinnati: T Derek Wolfe is the star here. He should benefit from greater depth. Dan Giordano and Brandon Mills have been productive, but Cincinnati is looking to bulked-up former LB Walter Stewart to become a playmaker off the edge.

8. Rutgers: NT Scott Vallone could be an All-Big East player but there are questions elsewhere on the line. Manny Abreu was a highly touted recruit at linebacker, but he will look to finish what has been a disappointing career on a high note at end.

Linebackers

1. USF: Sam Barrington and DeDe Lattimore form the best linebacker duo in the league. OLB Richard Cliett and MLB Michael Lanaris give the Bulls some flexibility.

2. Rutgers: Steve Beauharnais is back at strongside 'backer, where he flourished as a freshman. The Scarlet Knights also hope the defense will be faster with former S Khaseem Greene at weakside linebacker.

3. Connecticut: Lawrence Wilson and Scott Lutrus are major losses, but Sio Moore (110 tackles) was one of the league's breakout players last season.

4. Pittsburgh: This group has experience, but it underachieved last season. In the new scheme, the linebackers will be asked to do something they rarely did under Dave Wannstedt: blitz.

5. Louisville: Daniel Brown was productive in his first season as a starter, with 55 tackles and 11 tackles for loss. Overall, this group lacks depth and experience.

6. Cincinnati: With 211 tackles in two seasons, JK. Schaffer may be underappreciated because he has played on some lackluster defenses, but he's the real deal. Maalik Bomar (70 tackles) is back, too. But Cincinnati is relying on some freshmen to contribute.

7. West Virginia: The Mountaineers are hurting here. Najee Goode must step into the spotlight and guide the way for junior college transfer Josh Francis and sophomore Doug Rigg.

8. Syracuse: The Orange will rely heavily on returning starter Marquis Spruill. He'll be joined by freshman Dyshawn Davis and seldom-used junior Dan Vaughn.

Secondary

1. West Virginia: CB Keith Tandy led the Big East with six interceptions last season. He's back along with leading tackler Terence Garvin, who is the strong safety. FS Eain Smith is poised for a breakout season after biding his time for a starting job.

2. Pittsburgh: FS Jarred Holley had five interceptions last season. Pitt feels good about its cornerback duo of Antwuan Reed and K'waun Williams. Jason Hendricks (42 tackles last year) replaces Dom DeCicco, the backbone of the secondary for the past few seasons.

3. Syracuse: Ss Phillip Thomas and Shamarko Thomas (they are not related) are a productive duo who combined for 159 tackles last season. The potential starters at cornerback have struggled with injuries throughout their careers.

4. USF: Three starters return, and new CB Kayvon Webster has 10 career starts under his belt. S Jon Lejiste tied for the team lead with four sacks.

5. Louisville: Hakeem Smith and Shenard Holton are a hard-hitting duo at safety, but cornerback is a question. Johnny Patrick is gone, and Darius Ashley has been suspended indefinitely.

6. Connecticut: Blidi Wreh-Wilson, Dwayne Gratz and Jerome Junior struggled when they were pressed into duty as freshmen. Now juniors, they're starting to see better results.

7. Rutgers: This group has far more potential than starting experience. David Rowe, moving from cornerback to free safety, is the only returning starter. Last season's leading rusher, Jordan Thomas, is in the mix at cornerback.

8. Cincinnati. The Bearcats have been in the bottom three in Big East pass defense for four consecutive seasons. All four starters return, joined by 2009 starting CB Dominique Battle and junior college transfer Malcolm Murray, a one-time Oklahoma State commitment.

Special teams

1. Connecticut: The Huskies have the best tandem of specialists in the league with Dave Teggart (25-of-31 on field goals) and Cole Wagner (41.3 yards per punt). Nick Williams led the nation in kickoff returns at 35.3 yards per attempt, with touchdowns against Rutgers and Pittsburgh.

2. Louisville: Chris Philpott is back after averaging 40.5 yards per punt and converting 14-of-18 field-goal attempts. TBs Victor Anderson and Jeremy Wright were an effective kick-return duo, helping Louisville rank in the top 10 nationally in that category.

3. USF: Lindsey Lamar is the best return man in the Big East, and Maikon Bonani is a reliable kicker. The Bulls need to improve their punting, which was among the worst in the nation (net 34.2 yards per kick) last season.

4. Syracuse: Ross Krautman is the league's best kicker (18-of-19 on field goals last season), but he wasn't much as a kickoff man. Syracuse will miss P Rob Long and punt returner Mike Holmes.

5. Rutgers: K San San Te is steady from inside 40 yards (38-of-44 in his career), but he struggles from long range. Freshman Anthony DiPaula is projected to replace P Teddy Dellaganna. Mason Robinson, who returned a punt for a touchdown against USF, is back.

6. Cincinnati: Pat O'Donnell was second in the Big East in punting (41.9 yards per game), but the Bearcats must replace four-year starting K Jake Rodgers. For a team with so much skill-position talent, the Bearcats were pedestrian in the return game.

7. West Virginia: K Tyler Bitancurt regressed last season after a standout freshman year. The Mountaineers must replace their punter, but that traditionally has been a position of strength. The Mountaineers will hold auditions for new return men.

8. Pittsburgh. Dan Hutchins, who was the kicker and punter, is gone. Cameron Saddler is a standout punt returner, but Pitt was the only team in the Big East that allowed a punt and a kickoff to be returned for touchdowns last season.

Coaching staff

1. Louisville: Charlie Strong got Louisville to a bowl in his first season. His staff got more out of Steve Kragthorpe's players than Kragthorpe ever did. Now that the Cardinals are recruiting at a higher level (thanks to Big East recruiter of the year Clint Hurtt), Louisville has the coaching staff to return to the top of the league - maybe not this season but eventually.

2. USF: The Bulls didn't miss a beat after the only coaching change in school history, as Skip Holtz took USF to its sixth consecutive bowl. Defensive coordinator Mark Snyder, coordinator for Ohio State when it won the 2002 national championship, was a home-run hire. The Bulls also are starting to be more competitive in in-state recruiting.

3. Syracuse: Doug Marrone turned around the culture at his alma mater, turning the former doormat into an eight-win team in two years. Scott Shafer led a top-10 defense. After some staff tweaks, Marrone relinquished play-calling duties and elevated quarterback coach Nathaniel Hackett to offensive coordinator.

4. West Virginia: Dana Holgorsen took over as coach a year earlier than planned, but that might not be a bad thing. He brings a staff with a good offensive pedigree. Defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel is one of the best in the business, and his entire staff is back.

5. Pittsburgh: Todd Graham, who won at Rice and Tulsa, brings a cultural change to Pittsburgh. He helped make Gus Malzahn and Chad Morris wealthy offensive coordinators; can he do the same for former Rich Rodriguez assistant Calvin Magee? The defensive staff, though, is made up of guys who were at Michigan and Tulsa - which were 110th and 111th, respectively, in total defense - last season.

6. Rutgers: Greg Schiano still deserves heaps of credit for turning Rutgers into a legitimate program, but last season's 4-8 performance necessitated changes on the staff. New offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti should return Rutgers to its pro-style roots. He was one of three former Dave Wannstedt assistants to land at Rutgers this offseason.

7. Connecticut: Paul Pasqualoni has been out of college football for seven years, but he had a good resume at Syracuse - although Syracuse began its slide in the final years of his tenure. He brought his right-hand man from Syracuse, George DeLeone, with him as offensive coordinator. The transition will be helped with six Randy Edsall assistants remaining on staff.

8. Cincinnati: Brian Kelly won at least 10 games in each of his three seasons with the Bearcats. In one season under Butch Jones, the program slipped to 4-8. Jones hopes his second season with the program will have better results.

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




 

Rivals.com is your source for: College Football | Football Recruiting | College Basketball | Basketball Recruiting | College Baseball | High School | College Merchandise
Site-specific editorial/photos Yahoo! Inc. All rights reserved. This website is an officially and independently operated source of news and information not affiliated with any school or team.
About | Advertise with Us | Contact | Privacy Policy | About our Ads | Terms of Service | Copyright/IP policy | Yahoo! Sports - NBC Sports Network

Statistical information 2007 STATS LLC All Rights Reserved.