The Big East is going to be mediocre this season.
I know, we're not supposed to say that. That's supposed to be the dirty, little secret that no one discusses despite the evidence to the contrary. However the closer we get to the start of the 2009 season the more undeniable it becomes. No Big East teams will begin the season in the major Top 25 Polls. Certainly, no Big East teams are being pegged for national title consideration. And try to find many Big East players on the All-American lists...you won't see many.
That said, this has the potential to be a defining season for the league. Cincinnati blew the doors off the notion that only old standbys such as Pitt and West Virginia could win the conference. Programs such as Rutgers as South Florida have the perfect opportunity to make the leap into the national picture. We might not see a 12-win team emerge from the conference but there is the possibility of seeing four or five 8-9 win teams when it's all said and done. Not to mention Syracuse's new era on their road back to respectability, every team has a chance to make this a season that will redefine their program.
The SbN Big East football bloggers (Louisville's Card Chronicle, Rutgers' Protect R Turf, West Virginia's The Smoking Musket and yours truly) wanted to delve deeper into the stories that will make up the Big East season. I posed some questions for them and here's what everyone had to say:
No one seems to have any idea who will win the Big East. In your mind, who are the top three teams and who's going BCS Bowling?
Protect R Turf: Can we just put everyone into a hat and decide that way (well, minus Syracuse and Louisville)? For the first time in a long time there’s no clear-cut favorite in the Big East (mostly thanks to the departure of Pat White) , and any one 5 teams could be headed to the BCS (6 if you really believe in UConn). With a conference this bunched together, you need to look for subtleties that could differentiate one team from another. And one of those subtleties is schedule….
That’s why I’m going with Rutgers as my 2009 Big East Conference Champion, heading to their 1st BCS game after 140 years of playing football. RU gets the top 4 other contenders (Pitt, WVU, Cincy, USF) at home, and travels to the lesser of the Big East teams (Louisville, UConn, Cuse). Yes, Rutgers has some glaring holes (mainly QB and WR), but so does every other team in the BE, and none of them have the schedule that RU has. I think that USF will be a close 2nd, and will avoid a late season meltdown (like the last 2 years), riding the hot hand of Matt Grothe. And even after losing Pat White, Jarrett Brown and Noel Devine will lead WVU to a respectable 3rd place finish in the conference.
The Smoking Musket: The top three teams in any league normally consist of the teams with the best defense, unless you’re in the Big 12. The top three teams and defenses in the Big East will be West Virginia, Pitt and South Florida. What will separate these teams and ultimately decide the Big East champ is the team that can step up and move the ball on offense.
While West Virginia struggled to find an offensive identity during the ’08 regular season. They emerged from the Car Care Bowl with an offensive attack that should put fear in the only two teams in the Big East that have been able to stop West Virginia in the past. West Virginia will emerge from the Big East schedule undefeated and go BCS bowling.
Card Chronicle: I'll take West Virginia , South Florida and Cincinnati . In a league painfully absent of offensive superstars, I'll pick the squad with the conference's most explosive player (Noel Devine) and a relatively proven quarterback (Jarrett Brown) to bring home the title, and that's the Mountaineers.
Troy Nunes Is An Absolute Magician: First off, I just don't see how anyone can discount Rutgers. Not that I think they're the most talented team in the conference (I don't), but there's just no way this team comes away with less than 10-wins this year. Their schedule could not possibly be better. The OOC schedule is as much a cakewalk as I've ever seen. Plus, they get every break imaginable in the conference schedule in terms of who they play at home. In a season where there is no elite team in the conference, it's the team with the easiest road that has the advantage.
I think South Florida finally breaks through as well this season. Last year was a disappointment for the Bulls and they have a collection of stars who are desperate to prove themselves (Grothe, Selvie) on the national stage. Finally I'll go with Pitt over West Virginia as my third team. The Panthers seem set up to be a perennial 8-win team for the next couple seasons. Maybe it's Wannstadt but I just see them as a good-not-great team.
Who is the most valuable player in the Big East this season? Not the best statistical player but the one who will impact how well or poorly his team will do?
Card Chronicle: I feel like it's been Grothe for the better part of the last decade, so give me whoever wins the QB job in Piscataway . Lovelace, Natale or whoever is going to have the best offensive line in the conference in front of him as well as a stud playmaker in Tim Brown and a solid defense, so performance at that position could easily be the difference between a league title and finishing somewhere in the middle of the pack.
Protect R Turf: Matt Grothe. Somehow Grothe gets overlooked game-in and game-out as one of the better QB’s in college football. For my money, Grothe is the QB I’d least like to see on the opposing team on Saturday afternoon. As Grothe goes, so will USF.
Case in Point: During USF’s 5-0 start to last season, Grothe had a total of 2 interceptions (and 8 TD’s). During USF’s 2-5 slide to finish the regular season Grothe threw 12 picks, compared to 7 TD’s. For the Bulls to have hopes of finishing the season on top in the Big East, Grothe needs to take the leadership role on his shoulders, play within himself (his sack-count rose right along with his INT rate during the slide), and avoid giving up the big plays.
The Smoking Musket: Jarrett Brown’s health and ability to throw the ball down field will make or break West Virginia’s season. Brown’s health is more important than his ability to throw the ball because of WVU’s lack of depth at the QB position. If he goes down with an injury WVU will be lucky if it makes it to a bowl game at the end of the season.
However, If Brown can prevent teams from stacking the box, Noel Devine will run circles around Big East defenses. West Virginia will be praying every night that Brown stays healthy and throw the ball down the field with some efficiency.
TNIAAM: I have to go with Grothe. His success and failures seem to mirror the direction of the entire program. The problem for USF is that he's got a little bit of older Bretty Favre in him. For every game he wins you, he also loses you one. He's as capable of a 4-TD performance as he is a 4-INT one. Whether or not he's gotten his game where it needs to be is going to be the key storyline for the Bulls and possibly the Big East.
Who has a better chance of getting back to a bowl game in the next 2-3 years... Syracuse or Louisville ?
Syracuse made an excellent hire with alum and fellow tough guy, Doug Marrone. Marrone has a lot of work ahead of him but the tradition and lure of playing early should get him a lot of talented recruits in the next 2-3 years.
If they pull together as a unit this Cincinnati has enough talent to win the league. However, if they falter early and lose confidence they could finish just slightly ahead of Syracuse and Louisville.
TNIAAM: I'll go with Cincinnati as well. I do not know what to make of them. Last year's defense was among the best in the league. Guess what...that entire defense is gone. Sure, the offense still has some solid weapons, such as Tony Pike and Marty Gilyard, but its the defense that's going to missed sorely. They could win 8-games, they could wn four...I wouldn't be shocked either way.
Tony Pike or Matt Grothe?
TNIAAM: I like Grothe's potential, which is probably much greater than Pike's. But Pike's the guy who actually proved he came come through so far. If I'm building a long-term team, I think I want to take a chance on Grothe. If I'm picking a QB to win me one game...I'm going Pike.
What are the most likely games a Big East team will lose against a non-BCS opponent?
Other then that there’s a handful of games that the Big East teams better bring their A-games for. Here’s my top 3 potential upsets:
1. Pittsburgh at Buffalo: The Panthers struggled with the Bulls last year, and that was at home
2. Cincy vs. Fresno State: Just ask Rutgers how difficult the Bulldogs can be
3. WVU vs. East Carolina: Could Lightning strike twice for the Pirates
It might not be ideal, but is the Gator Bowl & Sun Bowl's Big East + Notre Dame arrangement still a better deal for the Big East than the alternatives?
I think the best case scenario for the Big East would be to establish a firm tie-in with the Gator Bowl, and drop the Sun. The 2nd place BE team/or ND would then play on New Years Day in the Gator Bowl, while the 3rd place team went to another "lesser" bowl, (say the Eagle Bank Bowl in DC). Then you could keep 2 or all 3 current ties with the Papajohns.com, International, and Meineke Bowls. The bowl situation in the BE is a mess and there’s no easy way to fix it. Hopefully with ND as some leverage, Commissioner Marinatto can institute some changes in the next few years.
Plus, Jacksonville is a terrible bowl destination. Lets sign up with the Champs Sports Bowl and tell Notre Dame to find another conference to leach off of.
TNIAAM: I think that unfortunately, until the conference proves itself worthy of a better setup, the Notre Dame arrangement is going to have to work. If it's the difference between our teams mostly playing third tier bowls every year or having a shot at quality bowls with the understanding that Notre Dame might take a spot every so often, you have to make that sacrifice...for now. Once we establish more of a pecking order and get some teams into a consistent, elite level, then we can break off on our own.
Big East expansion talk is boring and ultimately fruitless. That said, if all options were on the table, what teams would you want to join the conference and how big would you make it?
I’d take Maryland and Boston College from the ACC and have them pick up Memphis (making them even better in basketball) and USF (for geographical purposes). That makes 9 for the Big East, plus ND would make 10. Tell ND to either join in football, or they can geeeeeettttt outttttttttttt in the other sports. Maryland and BC bring some good stuff to hoops too, though you’d probably have to let Depaul go (Boo-hoo) to make room in basketball.
That’s my plan and I’m sticking to it.
The Big East needs to add Penn State, Ohio State, Notre Dame, and Michigan. While I would like to kick out USF a trip to Florida is a great recruiting tool for all league schools. The money and attention this league would generate would be somewhat competitive with the SEC.
So for me, the first step is to get Notre Dame in. The credibility of having that program would be better than anything else we could do. Second, I would put whatever resources were available into turning Villanova in to a 1-A football program. The Big East needs to have a team in the Philly area, it's a huge city and a hub for the conference. Plus, any concerns about how long they'll be in the basement can be squashed by pointing to USF and UConn, who made the jump to respectability in seemingly-record time.
Will every Big East head coach still be roaming the sidelines in 2010? If not, who's out?
Keep an eye on Bill Stewart as well. If things go horribly wrong in Morgantown he could very well be looking for a new job come 2010 (though I don’t foresee that happening).
A bad season could put Bill Stewart on the hot seat, but he won't get fired this year, short of an 0-12 finish.
Give me your Big East bowl line-up at the end of the season (i.e. who's playing where)?
St. Petersburg- Pitt
Cincy v Ball State – International
Pitt v ECU – St. Petersburg
USF v Georgia Tech – Gator
Rutgers v. Central Michigan – Papa Johns
UConn v NC State – Car Care