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The SB Nation Big East Football Preview

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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 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 ?

Card Chronicle: Louisville . They have better players, and if they don't go bowling this year they'll have a coach who just may be more equipped to properly mold that talent.

Protect R Turf: Syracuse.  For as bad as Syracuse has been, they own wins over Louisville in the last 2 seasons.  Plus, the Cuse seems to have turned a corner with the hiring of Doug Marrone, and putting the Greg Robinson era to rest.  SU showed me something last season while rallying around Robinson to beat ND, while the lasting image from Louisville’s season in my mind is the historic thrashing they took in Piscataway for the season finale.  Steve Kragthorpe better get it turned around quick in 2009, or in 2010 he won’t have a team to turn-around. 

The Smoking Musket: This is an easy question to answer because Kragthrope is going to fired after another disappointing season which means Louisville will be back in rebuilding mode for another 3 or 4 years.

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.

TNIAAM: Call me biased but I'll say Syracuse.  If for no other reason than that they have a head start.  The Orange have already dumped their lame duck coach and replaced him with a guy who not only knows the program inside and out but also has made returning Syracuse to glory his mission in life.  Marrone has said "I cannot fail," not just because he wants to be successful but because the success of the program is that important to him. 

Louisville still another season of Kragthorpe to suffer through before they shuffle him loose.  They're a year behind.

Which Big East team has the widest win/loss margin (i.e. could finish 10-2, could finish 3-9, no one knows...)?

Card Chronicle: Because of the unknowns at quarterback and running back, I'll go Rutgers . Again, they have the best O-line in the Big East, but that alone won't put points on the board. I wouldn't be surprised to see the Scarlet Knights finish first or seventh.

Protect R Turf: I’ll go with Pittsburgh.  I just don’t see the hype surrounding the Panthers this season.  Maybe I’m swayed by that UGLY sun bowl loss to Oregon State last year, or the fact that they still don’t have a dependable QB, but I just don’t see the Panthers in the top half of the Big East this year.  I’d think differently if they had Shady McCoy to touch the ball 30 times a game, but that’s not the case anymore.  I’ve seen numerous publications select the Panthers as the Big East Champs, and I’m putting them in the bottom half of the league, so I’d say that qualifies as a pretty wild win/loss margin.  Would it honestly surprise you if you turned on ESPN Saturday afternoon and saw that Pitt had lost to ___________________(fill-in-the-blank with Youngstown State, Buffalo, or NC State)?

The Smoking Musket: Cincinnati is the team with most questions marks because it basically has to replace the leagues best defense from a year ago.  While the offense has some fire power a young and inexperienced defense could lead to a lot of trouble.

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?

Card Chronicle: Grothe on the football field, Pike if we're spending a quiet Wednesday evening at home.

Protect R Turf: Matt Grothe, everyday of the week.  I’m not a Tony Pike hater (hey, the guy got the team to the Orange Bowl), but the team played several different guys when he was hurt last year and still won.  If Pike repeats last year’s performance, maybe I change my mind, but in regards to talent and playmaking ability, I gotta go with Grothe. 

The Smoking Musket: Tony Pike for the simple fact that he will be throwing to the best receiver in the Big East, Mardy Gilyard.  Grothe may have more mobility but Pike has the weapons and is finally healthy enough to truly show what he is capable of.

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?

Card Chronicle: Louisville going down at Utah is pretty much a given and Syracuse/Akron might be a toss-up, but as far as losses that might actually surprise people, how about Pitt/Navy? Yes, the Panthers are the preseason pick to represent the league in the BCS, but they went 9-3 a year ago and still lost to Bowling Green at home.

If you're not buying that, then pretend I said Cincinnati/Fresno State.

Protect R Turf: Let’s get this out in the open:  Louisville is going to lose to Utah.  No ifs, ands, or buts about that one.

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   

The Smoking Musket: Southern Miss and Utah will destroy Louisville.

TNIAAM: Utah over Louisville in a very easy answer to that question.  Southern Miss probably has a pretty decent shot as well at beating the Cardinals.  Last season Akron put a whooping on Syracuse so there's always a chance that could go down again.  Finally, you've got frisky East Carolina against West can't ever count the Pirates out in that match-up.

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?

Card Chronicle: Yes, because I think right now the alternatives all involve games with "dot com" in the titles.

Protect R Turf: Your right, its not ideal at all.  But what are the alternatives?  There’s not too much out there right now (and with the economy down, not sure there will be too many new bowls added in the near future). 

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, 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. 

The Smoking Musket: No, Notre Dame needs to get in or get out.  They have not been relevant since they beat WVU for a national championship in ’89.  They keep all their bowl money and steal good bowl trips from deserving Big East teams.

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?

Card Chronicle: All options? Then let's take Notre Dame and another pair of perennial powerhouses and roll with 11 teams.

Since that's not going to happen, the league needs to take the best available option (East Carolina, Florida International, Phoenix University) and then drop either Seton Hall or DePaul in basketball because having an eight-game conference schedule in football is just more important than watching the Blue Demons or Pirates get thrashed once a year on the first day of the Big East Tournament.

Plus, no more Bobby Gonzalez.

Protect R Turf: Personally, I’d take the Big East to a 10 team conference.  I know that 12 teams are needed for a conference championship game, but I don’t think that the BE necessarily needs that. 

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 Smoking Musket: The league needs 12 teams and to hold the championship game in New York City at the new Giants stadium.  I think it is highly relevant to talk expansion and conference shake-ups.  In the next 10 years the landscape of college sports will look completely different than the way it does now.

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.

TNIAAM: I don't think the Big East necessarily needs to go to the whole 9 yards here and expand to 12 teams.  But I think it's reasonable for expect every BCS team to be at least ten teams.  The best solution for the Big East involves maintaining some semblance of balance with the basketball counterpart, so ideally you want the new teams to already be a part of the conference. 

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?

Card Chronicle: I foresee the Steve Kragthorpe era at Louisville coming to a merciful end, but that will probably be the only casualty. There's a little pressure on Jim Leavitt, but South Florida would have to implode even more than usual for him to get the boot.

Protect R Turf: Sorry Mr. Kragthorpe, please pack your bags and hit the road.  Without a .500 season (at least) at Louisville I don’t see Steve returning for the 2010 season.  The fans at UL have turned on Kragthorpe after last year’s debacle (and why shouldn’t they), and it won’t be too long before the administration does as well.

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).

The Smoking Musket: Steve Kragthorpe will be gone before the end of the season.  It is sad and really hurts the Big East that Louisville has fallen so hard so fast but oh well.

TNIAAM:  Just like Greg Robinson at Syracuse last season, there aren't very many people who expect to see Steve Kragthorpe survive this year at Louisville.  It's shocking how quickly that program evaporated and the Big East can't afford to have too many teams down in the dumpster like them. 

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)?

Card Chronicle:
West Virginia - Orange Bowl
South Florida - Meineke Car Care Bowl
Cincinnati - Bowl
Pittsburgh - International Bowl
Connecticut - Wild card in a bowl game I don't watch
Rutgers - St. Petersburg Bowl

Protect R Turf: Projecting bowls a month ahead of time is difficult, projecting bowls a season before is near impossible.  There are too many variables (since bowls can select on a "drawing" basis, rather than a performance basis), and too many different scenarios.  Here you go, though I know I probably left out/misaligned/added bowls:

Meineke- USF
International- Cincy
Papajohns- WVU
St. Petersburg- Pitt
At-Large- UConn

The Smoking Musket:
WVU v Florida – Sugar Bowl
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

TNIAAM: I've got Rutgers winning the conference and representing in the BCS Bowl.  Then I've got USF in the Gator Bowl, Pitt in the Meineke Car Care Bowl, Cincy in the Bowl, UConn in the International Bowl and West Virginia in the St. Petersburg Bowl.  Sadly for Syracuse and Louisville, another season on the outside looking in.