August 7, 2005

Big East is starting over

The Big East recovery process begins now.

After going through last year with just seven members and being hammered by critics most of the way, the conference has gone through the dramatic change it has been waiting for ever since Miami and Virginia Tech chose to leave two years ago.

The new eight-team league looks much different than its predecessor. Long-time members Boston College and Temple aren't around anymore either. Three new schools take their place, including potential flagship program and national power Louisville, as well as Cincinnati and South Florida. Connecticut, one of the fastest rising programs in Division I-A, joined last year.

Pittsburgh, Rutgers, Syracuse and West Virginia are the schools that remain from the league's inception in 1991. But the Panthers and the Orange will be starting new eras of their own after hiring new coaches Dave Wannstedt and Greg Robinson, both former NFL coaches.

There is a lot of speculation about how competitive the revamped league will be. Will anyone be able to stop Louisville? Can the second- and third-place teams compare to their counterparts in other BCS conferences? Are Cincinnati and South Florida ready for this level of play?

Regardless of what answers materialize, the season promises to be exciting. Louisville had the top-ranked offense in the nation last season, producing an average of 539 yards and nearly 50 points per game. Rutgers (No. 6) and UConn (No. 10) were among the nation's top 10 in passing offense. Pittsburgh returns the league's top quarterback-receiver tandem in Tyler Palko and Greg Lee, and Robinson is installing a West Coast offense at Syracuse.

THE FAVORITE: Louisville

Despite losing a handful of stars to the NFL, the Cardinals are expected to dominate in their new league and possibly make a run at the national title game.

Fourteen starters return from a team that was a three-point loss to Miami away from an undefeated regular season and a BCS game. The Cardinals finished 11-1 and ranked in the top 10 of both major polls in 2004.

Sophomore quarterback Brian Brohm, the 2004 Conference USA Rookie of the Year, will take over the offense and inherit a handful of weapons to work with. Junior running back Michael Bush (6-3, 250) looks poised for a big season after rushing for 734 yards, while splitting carries with two other backs, in 2004. Broderick Clark, Montrell Jones and Joshua Tinch are all proven receivers.

The schedule also is particularly favorable. Pittsburgh, which was picked to finish second in the preseason media poll, must travel to Louisville. So do the toughest nonconference opponents, North Carolina and Oregon State.

THE SLEEPER: South Florida

Ignore the Louisville loss last season and do the same with the Bulls' No. 7 spot in the preseason media poll. The Cardinals will be doing just that. The Bulls are the only team in the league to have beaten Coach Bobby Petrino's program in the last two years (a 31-28 double-overtime thriller in 2003).

Expect a couple of more big upsets this fall from coach Jim Leavitt's program, which reeled off six straight winning seasons before falling to 4-7 in 2004. Leavitt says senior Andre Hall is the best running back he has worked with in 26 years of coaching and he could rush for more than the 1,357 yards he piled up on the ground last season. Pat Julmiste is returning at quarterback and four-star recruit Carlton Hill could make an impact right away. The entire receiving corps is also back.

The defense struggled down the stretch last season, but eight starters return, including star middle linebacker Stephen Nicholas.

PROGRAM ON THE RISE: Pittsburgh

No one is expecting a return to the glory days of the late 1970s and early 1980s for the Panthers program just yet, but making this league a two-team race and contending for a league title every year are real possibilities.

Wannstedt, a former Pitt offensive lineman, inherits a talented and experienced team with 16 returning starters. The Panthers should have little trouble scoring points with Palko, who looked like one of the nation's top quarterbacks down the stretch last season, and Lee, who made 68 catches for 1,297 yards in 2004.

A foundation of talent is already being set behind those stars. Wannstedt and his staff already have landed 11 verbal commitments from the class of 2006, including two four-star prospects and a handful from talent-rich Western Pennsylvania - an area in which former coach Walt Harris had trouble.

PROGRAM ON THE SLIDE: Cincinnati

This is the wrong time for the Bearcats to be moving up to a better quality league. After a 7-5 season and their first bowl game in more than a decade, they are back in rebuilding mode.

Only seven starters return and coach Mark Dantonio said this is the least amount of experience he has dealt with in 25 years of coaching. Gino Guidugli, arguably the top quarterback in school history, is gone, along with 1,000-yard rusher Richard Hall. The entire linebacking corps and the top five tacklers must also be replaced.

Immediate help is not on the way either. Dantonio's latest recruiting class barely cracked Rivals.com's top 100 team recruiting rankings (tied for No. 94) and Cincinnati has yet to land any verbal commitments from the class of 2006. With a talent-rich state in Ohio to draw prospects from and a move to a BCS conference, the recruiting front will improve, but the Bearcats are a couple of years away from being a real contender in the Big East.

TOUGHEST SCHEDULE: Syracuse

The Orange are the only team in the league besides the Cardinals who didn't set up a game with a Division I-AA opponent. By the end of Robinson's first year, he may wish that wasn't the case.

There is no time to tweak the new West Coast offense or experiment with personnel. The Robinson era starts in the Carrier Dome against West Virginia and two weeks later they host Virginia. But the road games that are the real concern. The Orange are heading to Florida State, Pittsburgh, Notre Dame and Louisville.

MARK YOUR CALENDAR: Pittsburgh at Louisville, Nov. 3

This nationally televised Thursday night matchup could be the signature game the revamped Big East needs. It probably will decide the league title and will be the start of an annual league rivalry.

The two programs haven't faced each other since 1994, but they are each putting together the pieces needed to contend for a BCS game every year.

UPSET SPECIAL: Rutgers over Illinois, Sept. 3

The Scarlet Knights have a solid chance of upsetting a Big Ten team to start the season for the second straight year.

They return some of the Big East's top offensive skill players from a team that beat Michigan State 19-14 in 2004. Quarterback Ryan Hart is prone to throwing interceptions, but he is dangerous when he finds a rhythm, and 1,000-yard receiver Tres Moses is one of the nation's most underrated players.

If Hart and Moses can make some big plays early in Champagne, Ill., Ron Zook's debut with the Fighting Illini could end up being a big disappointment.

REMEMBER THIS NAME: Brian Brohm (Louisville)

Meet the Cardinals' next great quarterback. Last season, Brohm arrived at Louisville as a highly ranked recruit and managed to split significant playing time with the nation's top-rated passer Stefan Lefors. Now, the offense is all his.

With a powerful and explosive back in Bush and a collection of proven receivers, look for Brohm to put up some impressive stats right away, and his play will largely determine the Cardinals' national title hopes.

Other names to watch: Terry Caulley (UConn), Ryan Neill (Rutgers), Perry Patterson (Syracuse).

INSTANT IMPACT: Jason Gwaltney (West Virginia).

There is talk in Morgantown of Gwaltney rushing for 1,500 yards in his first college season. Mountaineers coaches have reportedly told the highly ranked recruit, who turned down offers from USC and other elite programs, that if he can win the starting job he will be given a chance to break the NCAA freshman rushing record.

Those type of numbers might be unrealistic, but the 6-foot-1, 230-pouder from North Babylon, N.Y., will play a big role in Rich Rodriguez's offense right away and be a star before too long.

Other names to watch: Joe Akers (Connecticut), Nate Harris (Louisville), Lavar Lobdell (Syracuse), Rashad Jennings (Pittsburgh).


PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH:

1. Louisville
2. Pittsburgh
3. South Florida
4. West Virginia
5. Connecticut
6. Syracuse
7. Rutgers
8. Cincinnati


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