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OFD 2010 Preseason Preview- Big East

And so we have worked our way to the last of the BCS Conferences. Like the SEC, Big 12, ACC, Big Ten and Pac 10 the Big East also looks like it is going to be a wild ride with a handful of teams in the mix to represent the conference in the BCS.

There is little separation between the top 6 teams and I think they are all capable of beating each other on any given Saturday. As a result I will be very surprised if the Big East Champ is able to get through the season with less than 2 losses.

The Big East survived realignment mania for the time being and is hungry to prove that it is a viable player in the BCS mix. While I don’t expect the Big East Champ to sniff a shot at the BCS Championship game the conference should be a little bit stronger than it was in 2009 and might be able to ease the perception that they should not be a BCS Conference. If nothing else the Big East should provide us with some entertaining football games this fall.

UCONN- The Huskies will have a good enough football team to push Pitt and West Virginia this fall. UCONN returns 8 starters on both sides of the ball after putting up 31.2 pts/gm on offense and giving up 23.6 pts/gm on defense in 2009. The Huskies should improve on both fronts in 2010 and have both West Virginia and Pitt at home. They lose RB Andre Dixon who gained 1115 yards in 2009 but Jordan Todman actually bested Dixon with 1237 yards and returns.

The Huskies open with a highly interesting game at Michigan then play 4 very winnable games before entering conference play. As such I think they have a better chance than either West Virginia or Pitt of entering conference play with a 5-0 record.

Randy Edsall is a solid football coach and this is essentially the same team that UCONN put on the field in 2009. I think UCONN representing the Big East in the BCS is likely.

Pittsburgh- Dave Wannstedt has the most talented roster in the conference and the Panthers appear to be the consensus pick to win the conference despite having to replace a lot of experience in the trenches. The Panthers return 5 starters on an offense that averaged 32.1 pts/gm in 2009 but has to replace 3 starting offensive linemen and QB Bill Stull. On the up side they return the RB duo of Dion Lewis and Ray Graham who both looked great as freshmen last season. They definitely looked great cutting up the Irish the night I was at Heinz Field. The Panthers also return WR Jon Baldwin who will provide a nice target for whoever wins the QB race between sophomore Tino Sunseri and junior Pat Bostick.

On Defense the Panthers return 6 starters from a pretty solid unit that held opponents to 19.8 pts/gm last season. That unit will have to maintain that level of performance for the Panthers to execute their 3 star recruit version of the Saban formula to run the football and play defense.

The Panthers have three very interesting non-conference games starting with a Thursday night trip to Utah on 2 Sept which will be a solid game to kickoff the season with. They later host Miami on 23 Sept and travel to Notre Dame on 9 October. All three of those games could have BCS implications and will be huge for Pitt and the Big East Conference as a whole. I expect the Panthers to drop at least one of those games and another one in conference play to finish with 9-10 wins.

West Virginia- They might be burning some couches in Morgantown again this fall. The Mountaineers return 7 on an offense that put up a mediocre 26.2 pts/gm last season but those numbers should improve in 2010. The 2009 Mountaineer offense was nowhere near as productive as they were with Dick Rod and Pat White but they were very green on offense last season and will have RB Noel Devine and WR Jock Sanders working behind a much more experienced offensive line this fall.

On defense the Mountaineers return 9 on a respectable defense that held opponents to 21.7 pts/gm last season. That unit should be at least as good this fall and the Mountaineers could be poised for another successful season as a result. West Virginia plays four very winnable non-conference games but do have a trip to Red Stick lined up for 25 Sept. I anticipate the Mountaineers will drop that one to Leslie Miles and company then enter conference play at 4-1. They should also be in the Big East BCS mix with a 9-10 win season.

USF- The Bulls enter 2010 with Skip Holtz at the helm and what should be a very good offense. USF returns 10 starters on offense to include sophomore QB BJ Daniels who showed signs last season that he could develop into a solid dual threat under center. The Bulls will improve on their 26.5 pts/gm they put up last season. The wildcard is whether or not they can maintain their 2009 defensive production with only 5 returning starters. If the Bulls can stay in the ballpark of the 19.8 pts/gm they held opponents to in 2009 it will go a long way towards helping them sneak into the thick of the conference race.

I am a big fan of Skip Holtz for obvious reasons and I think he will ultimately do well at USF. He brought OC Todd Fitch with him from ECU and hired former Marshall HC Mark Snyder as his DC. The Bulls have two scheduled non-conference losses against Florida in September and Miami in November but I see them as a true sleeper in the Big East.

Cincinnati- The Bearcats lost several key elements during the off season most notably new Notre Dame Head Coach Brian Kelly. Thanks! Butch Jones replaced Kelly at Central Michigan and now replaces him again at Cincy. Jones is a flyer that took both of his coordinators with him to Cincy and also snagged former Georgia LB Coach John Jancek to be a Co-DC with Tim Banks.

The Bearcats had a dream season in 2009 putting up sick offensive numbers en-route to a 12-0 record before Kelly left for ND and the Bearcats got blasted by Florida in the Sugar Bowl. Now what? The Bearcats return 7 starters on offense and part time QB Zack Collaros will take over full time. Jones and his staff will be doing all that they can to get LeFevour production out of Collaros. If Collaros can stay healthy the Bearcats offensive production may not experience too significant of a drop off from the 38.6 pts/gm they put up in 2009.

The Bearcats played pretty decent defense last season holding opponents to 23.1 pts/gm and bailed themselves out when they didn’t by outscoring UCONN and Pitt in two November shootouts. This team learned how to win under Kelly and the new staff could prove to be ready for the next level. They have three interesting non-conference games against Fresno State, NC State and Oklahoma. They first two are winnable and all three will be a good litmus test as to where this team is. Regardless of how those go I expect Cincy to be a factor once they enter conference play and ultimately win another 8-9 games.

Rutgers- It looked like the stars were lined up for the Fighting Schianos heading into 2009 but after getting blasted by Cincy on opening weekend it didn’t quite materialize that way. The Scarlet Knights did still manage to win 9 games including the St. Petersburg Bowl but they didn’t quite live up to the preseason hype.

Rutgers does return 6 starters on both sides of the ball to include QB Tom Savage and WR Mohamed Sanu. Rutgers put up 28.8 pts/gm last season and should be able to hover in that same vicinity once again. Their defense held opponents to 17.9 pts/gm last year but lost their top four tacklers. Rutgers has four free W’s plus North Carolina on the non-conference sked so they should enter conference play at 4-1. I don’t expect the Scarlet Knights to float to the top of the heap but they will cause problems as they should be able to compete with everyone else in the conference.

Louisville- The Cardinals have struggled the last couple of seasons but got a major shot in the arm during the off season by hiring former Florida DC Charlie Strong to take over as Head Coach. Strong hired Mike Stanford as his OC which could prove to be a very wise pickup. Stanford was HC at UNLV and previously Urban Meyer’s OC at Utah. So expect the Cardinals to look a lot like Florida schematically.

The new look Cardinals have 8 returning starters on offense and 4 on defense. I expect both units to improve rapidly under the new coaching staff. I won’t be at all surprised if they double their 4 win total from 2009 and have a nice transition year that sets them back up to really compete in the conference again in 2011.

Syracuse- Syracuse enters its second season under Doug Marrone with 5 returning starters on offense and 10 on defense. Both units were below average in 2009 and making a significant improvement on the 4 wins they posted last year will be difficult.

Big East Wrap Up- With all of that taken into account I really think the Big East will be a much stronger conference than it was a year ago which could go a long way towards survival as we continue to wade through realignment mania going forward.