Aug. 12, 2009

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By Adam Caparell

Wide open.

Those are two words almost everyone is using to describe the Big East this season. With many of its marquee players from the past few seasons gone, the conference has reached a transitional phase where it's waiting for a program to step to the forefront.

For the last few seasons, the most recognizable program in the conference has been West Virginia. Led by Pat White, the Mountaineers made a few BCS bowls and even flirted with a BCS Championship game berth two years ago. But now with White gone and the conference looking for its next star to emerge, it seems like the league is anyone's for the taking.

Cincinnati surprised many by winning the conference last year while Rutgers and Pittsburgh appear ready to make a run at the league's automatic BCS berth. But don't rule out South Florida or even a White-less West Virginia.

Some call it parity. West Virginia coach Bill Stewart calls it competitive. Whatever you want to call the Big East race this season it doesn't figure to be boring.

2008 Record: 11-3 (6-1), Big East Champs, Orange Bowl
Returning Starters: 7 offense, 1 defense
Offensive Keys: Tony Pike is healthy - something that hasn't always been the case for the Bearcats QB, especially last year - and he's going to be among the Big East's top passers, if not the top. He's tall, he's got a great arm and he's got one of the best receivers in the conference in Mardy Gilyard. Pike's offensive line returns four starters and the running game should be respectable. From the look of things, the Bearcats should average more than the 25.7 points per game they put up last season.
Defensive Keys: As Cincinnati has risen in the Big East, most of that was predicated on an underrated defense. But with only one starter back and the unit's biggest stars gone - most notably CB Mike Mickens - it could be rough sledding for the Bearcats. Head coach Brian Kelly has decided that with all the new faces that a scheme change might not be such a bad idea. In comes the 3-4, out goes the 4-3, and hopefully Cincinnati can overcome the many personnel losses. Keep an eye out for Demetrius Jones. College football fans might remember him as a once promising QB at Notre Dame. He's making the transition this summer to linebacker after transferring to Cincinnati almost two years ago.
Keep An Eye On: RB Isaiah Pead, WR D.J. Woods, CB Marcus Barnett
All In The Numbers: 5, number of quarterbacks the Bearcats used last season.
Deciding Game: Dec. 5 at Pittsburgh
Outlook: Offensively, there might not be a more productive or explosive team than Cincinnati this fall in the Big East. But with just one starter back on defense everyone wonders who the Bearcats can count on? Kelly has shown that he's a winner on every level of coaching he's been at and Cincinnati has done a great job of sneaking up on people over the past few years, most notably last year. Maybe they can do it again this fall if teams automatically dismiss them because of the revamped defense. But that offense isn't going to surprise anyone.

2008 Record: 8-5 (3-4), International Bowl
Returning Starters: 6 offense, 6 defense
Offensive Keys: The Huskies are going to miss Donald Brown about as much as any program could miss one player. All he did was lead the nation in rushing and was the Huskies go-to player when they needed a first down - or a big play for that matter. But the first round NFL Draft pick is getting paid and the Huskies hope Andre Dixon can step up in his place. With new offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead on board, UConn will feature a more up-tempo, at times no-huddle, offense with a quarterback-to-be-named-later under center. The Huskies were oftentimes very predictable last season and decidedly one dimensional because of Brown. Moorhead wants to make them more balanced.
Defensive Keys: The Huskies will feature one of the conference's top linebacking units this season with Scott Lutrus leading the way at outside linebacker. UConn, however, loses 18 sacks from last year's front four and replacing that will be a tough challenge for head coach Randy Edsall. Depth is a concern in the secondary for a defense that finished No. 6 overall last fall.
Keep An Eye On: QB Zach Frazer, LB Lawrence Wilson, FS Robert Vaughn
All In The Numbers: 216.4, rushing yards per game for UConn last year. The Huskies averaged 76.7 yards more per game on the ground than they did in the air.
Deciding Game: Oct. 31 vs. Rutgers
Outlook: As a program, UConn continues to rise. Last year saw four Huskies taken on the first day of the NFL Draft, more than the combined total of Florida, Texas and Oklahoma. That was a quite an accomplishment for a program that 10 years ago just became a member of what is now the FBS. But the Huskies still have a long ways to go. And without Brown, their offensive stalwart, and a new QB, it could be tough for the UConn offense this fall - and they're trying to absorb a new offensive scheme. Expectations are high after last season's eight wins, but they may have to be tempered with all the changes on offense.

2008 Record: 5-7 (1-6)
Returning Starters: 9 offense, 7 defense
Offensive Keys: The days of Brian Brohm and/or Hunter Cantwell are officially over in the `Ville after Cantwell's final season featured a five-game losing streak to close out a disappointing 2008. Steve Kragthorpe, who took over coordinator duties last fall, will now look to find the program's next signal caller. Who that exactly will be remains to be seen with a number of candidates looking to impress Kragthorpe. The coach may wait until right before the opener against Indiana State to announce who has won the competition, but Louisville fans should expect the unexpected: Kragthorpe is not against switching things up as the season rolls along. Whoever is the QB will have 2008 Big East Rookie of the Year Victor Anderson to hand off to.
Defensive Keys: Despite being a good defense against the rush, Louisville gave up way too many points last season. The linebacking unit should be a strength with all three starters returning while the front four will be without its top two tackles from a year ago and will feature two sophomores manning the ends. Gone are the two starting corners from a unit that was 92nd against the pass last year.
Keep An Eye On: WR Trent Guy, WR Josh Chichester, LB Jon Dempsey
All In The Numbers: 9, games against 2008 bowl teams for the Cardinals this season. 
Deciding Game: Nov. 14 vs. Syracuse
Outlook: There has been speculation that Kragthorpe could be on the hot seat this fall. With a record at Louisville in two years that is two games under .500, the Cardinals haven't been the same since Bobby Petrino left for the NFL. But with a slew of new coaches and a new quarterback, it won't be easy for Kragthorpe to just flip a switch and have the Cardinals in a bowl game at the end of the season. Many will be watching to see how patient Louisville officials will be if the Cardinals struggle again down the stretch.

2008 Record: 9-4 (5-2)
Returning Starters: 7 offense, 7 defense
Offensive Keys: The quarterback situation is very much up in the air in Pittsburgh with Pat Bostick and Bill Stull still looking to distinguish themselves under center. Whoever wins the job will be without the services of LeSean McCoy. No one on the Pitt roster can come close to matching the numbers McCoy put up during his time as the Panthers go-to running back. The offensive line will feature two new starters while the receiving corps should be strong.
Defensive Keys: It's tough to argue that anyone has a better line in the Big East than the Panthers. With the likes of Greg Romeus and Jabaal Sheard rushing the quarterback for a combined 13 sacks last year, the two ends will be looking to add to that total this year. A very good secondary returns three of four starters while at linebacker the loss of Scott McKillop will be felt, it shouldn't preclude the Panthers from having one of the strongest defenses in the conference, if not the strongest.
Keep An Eye On: WR Jonathan Baldwin, DT Mick Williams, CB Aaron Berry
All In The Numbers:  9.69, points per game produced by McCoy last season, second best in the nation.
Deciding Game: Nov. 27 at West Virginia
Outlook: The Panthers are going to have a very good defense. But the uncertainty at quarterback is a major cause for concern. If Dave Wannstedt can get some consistency out of the position - or even better, find a reliable starter for the entire season - then the Panthers are going to be a tough team to beat. Defense wins championships and the Panthers definitely have a championship caliber defense. At the absolute worst it appears that Pitt will be bowling yet again. But the mantra out of Pitt seems to be that anything short of a Big East title will be viewed as a disappointment.

2008 Record: 8-5 (5-2), Bowl
Returning Starters: 8 offense, 6 defense
Offensive Keys: Replacing Ray Rice turned out to be tougher than expected for Rutgers last season when they struggled out of the gates. This fall, the Scarlet Knights have two glaring holes at quarterback and wide receiver after losing two of the most productive players in program history. QB Mike Teel and WR Kenny Britt will be sorely missed in Piscataway, but head coach Greg Schiano will look to rely on an offensive line that returns everybody and a running game that will feature a bevy of runners, including Kordell Young. Tim Brown will take over for Britt, but as for quarterback it appears to be between Jabu Lovelace and Dom Natale.
Defensive Keys: There are whispers that the Scarlet Knights could have the league's best defense this season. With six starters back and experienced replacements waiting in the wings, it certainly seems plausible. Cornerback depth is one area that could be an issue this fall, but if the defense plays like it did down the stretch of last season then there will be little argument over who is indeed the Big East's best.
Keep An Eye On: OT Anthony Davis, DE George Johnson, CD Devin McCourty
All In The Numbers: 114.3, receiving yards per game average for Britt last season, second in the nation.
Deciding Game: Dec. 5 vs. West Virginia
Outlook: In the wide open race for the Big East, that home game against the Mountaineers to close out the season could be for the conference crown and a BCS berth. And it'll come in front of a newly renovated Rutgers Stadium that should now sit 55,000 faithful. With a strong offensive line and a solid defense, Rutgers may not have to depend that heavily on its inexperienced quarterback. But if they can get above average play from the position then the Scarlet Knights have the potential to be very good. At the least they are bowl material for a fifth straight season.

South Florida
2008 Record: 8-5 (2-5), St. Petersburg Bowl
Returning Starters: 5 offense, 6 defense
Offensive Keys: It only seems like QB Matt Grothe has been in college for the last 10 years, but the senior enters his final season at USF looking to regain the form he showed in 2007. Grothe will be looked upon as one of the top - if not the top - quarterbacks in the Big East this season, but the Bulls will need him to cut down on the turnovers. Grothe is still one of the better dual-threat QBs in the country and he can make something out of nothing. But sometimes he tries to do too much. Head coach Jim Leavitt will rely on his maturity heavily since the offense only returns four other starters. His receiving corps is deep, but the offensive line will be USF's biggest concern this fall.
Defensive Keys: The name everyone knows is George Selvie, and for good reason. The defensive end was a beast two seasons ago when he had 14.5 sacks. 2008 was a bit of a disappointment, but injuries and double teams did play a role in his decreased production. He's going to be let loose this fall thanks to a very talented defensive line. The linebacking corps could have some depth issues for new defensive co-coordinators Joe Tresey and David Blackwell.
Keep An Eye On: WR Jessie Hester, RB Mike Ford, LB Kion Wilson
All In The Numbers: 2.23, sacks allowed by USF last season, good for 83rd in the nation. 
Deciding Game: Oct. 30 vs. West Virginia
Outlook: The progress of a rebuilding offensive line could very well be the key to the USF season. How they are able to protect Grothe will bear watching. The window of opportunity for Selvie and Grothe to finally get USF to that next level as a program - mainly to a BCS bowl - is about to close so the pressure will be on. The Bulls will once again be in the thick of the Big East race thanks in large part to those two. But it's how USF's unheralded players handle their new roles that will ultimately determine whether 2009 turns out to be as successful as many of the Bulls believe it can be.

2008 Record: 3-9 (1-6)
Returning Starters: 6 offense, 7 defense
Offensive Keys: There's excitement surrounding the Orange that this year's offense could be one of the most dynamic in years. New head coach Doug Marrone, the former offensive coordinator for the New Orleans Saints, takes over at his alma mater with some talented pieces to work with. QB Ryan Nassib looks to be the Orange's man under center this year unless former Duke PG Greg Paulus unseats him midway through the season or former starter Cameron Dantley. Syracuse will have quality running attack with Delone Carter take handoffs. Most importantly for the offense is the return of WR Mike Williams.
Defensive Keys: The numbers aren't pretty from last season as Syracuse finished 101st in overall defense. The big culprit was a porous run defense that hopefully will be better this season with two of three starting linebackers returning. The pass rush should be among the league's best with nose tackle Arthur Jones wrecking havoc on opposing quarterbacks. He's already among the Orange's all-time leading sackmasters. The secondary is going through some changes while the defense as a whole looks to become more aggressive. Expect the Orange to become a big blitz team.
Keep An Eye On: KR Max Suter, LB Derrell Smith, DB Mike Holmes
All In The Numbers: 10-37, record under former coach Greg Robinson in four seasons.
Deciding Game: Nov. 14 at Louisville
Outlook: Health has been a problem for the Orange over the past few years so if their stars can stay in the game then improvement seems inevitable. Marrone takes on a big challenge in upstate New York as the Orange have truly fallen on hard times and down from the ranks of one of the Big East's best programs. The rebuilding effort will be spurred on this season by eight homes games including matchups with two Big Ten schools (Minnesota and Northwestern) along with South Florida, West Virginia, Pittsburgh and Rutgers.

West Virginia
2008 Record: 9-4 (5-2), Meineke Car Care Bowl
Returning Starters: 7 offense, 7 defense
Offensive Keys: The Pat White era is over. One of the most dynamic quarterbacks in NCAA history is playing for the Miami Dolphins and the Mountaineers must now turn to Jarrett Brown. Brown filled in intermittently for White over the past few seasons and he's in the mold White in that he's a dual-threat, perfectly suited for West Virginia's offense. Brown also can throw the ball - some would say better than his predecessor - but no one can match the total package that was White. The only one who can come close matching White's speed is Noel Devine who will take his spot in the backfield as the leading returning rusher in the Big East. He's a threat to score every time he touches the ball. The offensive line, however, is a big cause for concern this fall in Morgantown.
Defensive Keys: One thing about this West Virginia defense is that it's pretty deep. And it's probably a little underrated as well after finishing 2008 11th nationally in total defense. Scooter Berry is the big name on this unit as he anchors the front three of the Mountaineers 3-3-5 set. They'll allow some yards from time to time, but when it matters most the Mountaineers usually make a stand. And they are opportunistic. West Virginia led the league in turnovers gained last year.
Keep An Eye On: WR Alric Arnett, LB Reed Williams, CB Brandon Hogan
All In The Numbers: 34-8, White's record in four seasons at West Virginia 
Deciding Game: Nov. 27 vs. Pittsburgh
Outlook: We'll see how life without White goes for the Mountaineers. A lot will be expected of Brown, but it's going to be awfully tough filling those shoes. Regardless, the Mountaineers once again appear to be a Big East title contender. The out-of-conference schedule is not kind, however. With a trip to Auburn sandwiched between home games against East Carolina and Colorado, West Virginia will not have it easy in '09. And for all the talk about White, don't overlook the loss of kicker Pat McAfee, either.