With football season finished, it's never too early to take a look at next year, right? Obviously, preseason predictions at this stage are dependent on schedules and early entrants to the NFL Draft. But for the sake of argument, let's assume that the Hoopies, Pitt, and Syracuse are all playing Big East football in 2012. Here's how I see the conference shaping out.
I'm going on the record right now. Louisville has my vote to represent the Big East in the BCS (aka the Sugar Bowl). The Cardinals had an extremely young team in Charlie Strong's second season, yet still won a share of the Big East. They snared a win over West Virginia in Morgantown and return 16 starters in 2012. Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater returns after a solid freshman season where he threw for 14 touchdowns and more than 2,000 yards. He threw 12 picks, but you can chalk that up to inexperience at the collegiate level. The Cardinals posted a top 25 defense as well, finishing 10th in rushing defense. In addition, the Cardinals will get two of the top competitors for the Big East crown, West Virginia and Cincinnati, at home.2) West Virginia
The Mountaineers could easily repeat as BCS representatives in 2012, but something that West Virginia has had a nasty habit of doing recently is playing to the level of their competition. It showed up in a near loss to a 2-10 Maryland team and in losses to Syracuse and Louisville. WVU will return 15 starters from 2011, but their defense will lose a bunch of talent and maybe even defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel as well. The offensive side of the ball should be strong, though, with Geno Smith, Tavon Austin, and Stedman Bailey all returning and the line returning four of five starters. West Virginia must go to Louisville and Pitt, but gets Cincinnati, Rutgers, and South Florida at home.
The job done by Butch Jones this season was simply amazing, taking a 4-8 team to ten wins in one season. The biggest changes were on the defensive side, which returned every starter in 2011. The defense loses four starters, but it's on offense where they'll be hurt going into next season, losing Zach Collaros, Isaiah Pead, DJ Woods, and three starters from the offensive line. Munchie Legaux played well in his limited time as the starting quarterback, though, and if he progresses even slightly, Cincinnati should have a chance to win more often than not. The Bearcats must travel to Morgantown and Louisville, but they do get Rutgers at home.
The Scarlet Knights also had a breakthrough season, going 9-4, and finished 4-3 in the Big East. The defense, typical of Greg Schiano, was tough and physical and will only lose three starters from 2011. The offense, which already had struggled enough last year, loses their biggest contributor in Mohamed Sanu, who is leaving early for the NFL, as well as three starters from the offensive line. I think, though, that Gary Nova, can be the game manager they need in Piscataway to perhaps break through to the BCS - especially if the defense can continue to be as good as they are. They'll get Louisville at home, but will have to travel to West Virginia and Cincinnati.
At this point, it's really anyone's guess as to the order of finish for Pitt. But the Panthers, more so than anyone below them, return the most talent and despite the coaching change, have the players equipped to run this system as opposed to the past season where the team simply could not consistently run the offense. The offensive line remains the biggest question, as does linebacker and quarterback, but with Chryst's pedigree and the staff and recruits coming with him, Pitt should finish somewhere in the middle. They also get Rutgers, Louisville, and West Virginia at home, which should help.
6) South Florida
When will people finally realize not to pick South Florida to finish near the top of the Big East? Since they joined the conference, the story with the Bulls has always been the same: Pick up a marquee non-conference win early on only to collapse once conference play starts. So it should've been no surprise that USF started 4-0, with a win at Notre Dame to open the season, and ended up losing seven of their last eight games, making it the first time since USF joined the Big East that they failed to qualify for a bowl game. B.J. Daniels will be back for his senior season, but I don't trust this team to contend in the Big East. If they do, I'll be the first one to say I was wrong, but until then, it's fighting to get out of the cellar for USF. Not making things any easier, their road slate is tough as they have to travel to Louisville, West Virginia, and Cincinnati.
These last two are really interchangeable, but I'll give the Orange a slight nod over UConn. After reaching a bowl game and winning eight games in 2010, Syracuse backpedaled to a 5-7 record, including five straight losses to end the season after blowing out West Virginia. The Orange will lose eight starters on offense, which, when you think about it, can't be that bad as the Orange weren't that great on offense to begin with this season. But they lose playmakers Van Chew, Alec Lemon, Nick Provo, Antwon Bailey, as well as standout LB Chandler Jones. That's a lot to replace for a team that struggled this season, but maybe the turnover will do something for the Orange. Plus, their game against UConn is at the Dome, which is maybe the only reason why I think they'll finish ahead of the Huskies. They also get Pitt and Louisville at home.
I think the Huskies will improve in Paul Pasqualoni's second season, but how much is the question. The quarterback position is still a mess and without improved play there, I don't think they can compete. I still expect the Huskies' defense to be a strong unit, but their pass defense has to improve. The running game should be as strong as always with Lyle McCombs back for his sophomore season. Can UConn do enough offensively to surprise some teams in the conference? They get WVU, Pitt, and Cincinnati to come to East Hartford, but outside of the Panthers, all of the other likely beatable opponents for Connecticut are on the road.