The Horn continues its conference-by-conference analyses with a preview of the Big East.
The Big East has been the revolving door conference as of late and looks to continue that trend at the end of this season.
TCU backed out of their commitment to the conference and joined the Big 12 with West Virginia following suit. Pitt and Syracuse have announced their intent to leave the Big East for the ACC starting in 2013. That same year Houston, SMU, UCF, Boise State and San Diego State (how is that East?) will enter the conference. Navy is set to join the Big East in 2015 which would bring membership to twelve and maybe, kind of, sort of legitimize the conference.
For now there are eight teams in the Big East and the 2012 picture is a little murky. Four teams have a strong shot at the conference title with two more having semi-hopeful, but not overly realistic, chances. The last two are better off waiting for basketball season.
Projected Record: 10-2 (6-1)
Key Players: LB Khaseem Greene, CB Logan Ryan, LT Kaleb Johnson
X-Factor: The passing game
Look out for: RBs Jawan Jamison and Savon Huggins
The Scarlet Knights have been positioning themselves for a run at the Big East title for a number of years and this year should be yet another step in the right direction despite the apparent lack of offensive reliability.
Rutgers offense was crippled last season by a lack of performance on the line. This year the line is more experienced, and if sophomore LT Kaleb Johnson can repeat, or improve on, his impressive freshman season it will allow the Knights to unleash their two-headed monster of a running attack.
Watch for RBs Jawan Jamison and Savon Huggins to be the bread and butter of this unit due to a questionable QB situation. It still isn’t clear whether sophomore Gary Nova or junior Chas Dodd end up under center but whoever wins the battle will have a group of talented receivers to throw to. Rutgers needs a leader at QB, and this year that means playing smart and taking a little pressure off the run. The passing game, and the offense over all, doesn’t have to be outstanding for the Scarlet Knights to win games because of how they look on the other side of the ball.
The Rutgers defense has the potential to be suffocating. There is a bevy of talented players up front that will need to create pressure in order to keep the Scarlet Knights from having to blitz too much. Senior linebacker Khaseem Green is a machine, and if he is fully recovered from the leg injury he suffered in the Pinstripe Bowl, he should be flying all over the field. CB Logan Ryan leads a secondary that certainly has enough talent to get the job done in the Big East.
The schedule for Rutgers includes some tough road games at South Florida, Arkansas, Cincinnati and Pitt. However, aside from Arkansas, the non-conference slate isn’t intimidating with a trip to Tulane and home games against Howard, Kent State and Army. The best news for the Scarlet Knights is that the season closer against Louisville will be a home game. I expect that match-up to essentially be the Big East championship game.
Projected Record: 10-2 (6-1)
Key Players: QB Teddy Bridgewater, SS Hakeem Smith, CB Adrian Bushell
X-Factor: Offensive production
Look out for: QB Teddy Bridgewater
Most people questioned Louisville coach Charlie Strong’s mental health last year when he fielded a team of primarily inexperienced underclassmen. That team of youngsters got the Cardinals to a three-way tie for the Big East crown, and now Coach Strong has a young and experienced team with which to try and earn a title they can have all to themselves.
Louisville will be looking to an improved passing game led by quarterback Teddy Bridgewater to put points on the board this season. Bridgewater has a pair of talented wideouts in DeVante Parker and Michaelee Harris that can help stretch the field and allow their running game to blossom. The Cardinals want to run the ball more effectively this season and they have a stable of backs to do it with. At the conclusion of spring drills four players were listed as co-starters at RB, but offensive coordinator Shawn Watson isn’t a running back by committee kind of guy, so one of the four RBs will have to step-up and win the job this summer. If Louisville can balance out their attack and get the offense to carry more of the load they should find success in 2012.
On defense Louisville’s power is in the secondary. SS Hakeen Smith and CB Adrian Bushell will lead a group that has some depth and could force opposing teams to abandon the long ball. If the front seven can take care of business then the Cardinals should have a stingy defense that can keep them in games and maybe even win them some, which will be a huge help to an offense that is trying to find its groove.
The schedule isn’t overly kind to the Cardinals especially when it comes to their non-conference games. They get Kentucky at home to start the season but play back-to-back road games at the end of Sept. against FIU and Southern Miss. Within the Big East Louisville will play host to South Florida, Cincinnati, Temple and UConn while traveling to face Pitt, Syracuse and Rutgers.
Just as it was for Rutgers, keep an eye on that last game. All football fans should have the Nov. 29 game in New Jersey circled on their calendars because both teams will be bringing nasty Ds to the party. It’s going to be a war.
Projected Record: 8-4 (4-3)
Key Players: DE Walter Stewart, SS Drew Frey, WR Anthony McClung
Look out for: RB George Winn
The Bearcats are rebuilding this year. No wait, they are reloading. Or are they recalibrating? Whatever you want to call it, Cincinnati is in a precarious situation this season. Their roster is peppered with talent but there are some big questions about who is going to step into the holes that exist. Despite those holes Cincinnati could still compete for the Big East championship.
The entire offensive backfield is a mystery right now. Either Munchie Legaux or Brendon Kay will be the quarterback though the Cincinnati faithful should hope that Legaux earns the spot because he is a better raw talent than Kay.
The feature back will likely be George Winn, though sophomore Jameel Poteat could seriously challenge for playing time. WR Anthony McClung is the only sure thing the Bearcats seem to have going for them offensively. They lost two of their best linemen but they should still be capable up front. If the winner of the QB battle can get McClung the ball and take some pressure off of Winn and Poteat in the backfield Cincinnati should be able to move the ball against most teams.
The key to the Bearcat defense will be the interior of their line. They lost both Derek Wolfe and John Hughes at DT, but their replacements Camaron Beard and Jordan Stepp are highly talented. If Beard and Stepp play well it will give DE Walter Stewart the ability to break loose and make plays. The secondary is good enough to get the job done in what looks to be a run heavy conference with SS Drew Frey leading the pack.
Cincinnati gets some help from their schedule, which has them playing Pitt, Virginia Tech, Rutgers and South Florida at home. They only play four road games the whole year with the only tough trip being to Louisville. If the Bearcats can put the puzzle together and avoid making mistakes they have the potential to be in the running for the Big East title at the end of the year.
Projected Record: 8-4 (4-3)
Key Players: RB Ray Graham, DT Aaron Donald, FS Jared Holley
X-Factor: Third new coach and system in three years
Look out for: WR Devin Street
Pittsburgh has been a turnstile of coaches in recent history. Paul Chryst is at the helm now and with a new coach comes a new system which means a learning curve. If the Panthers can grasp the new scheme quickly they have the talent to cause some trouble in the Big East.
On offense Pitt is all about the run. Senior RB Ray Graham exited last season early with a knee injury and if the Panthers are going to run the ball effectively they need Graham at 100%. Potent sophomore Isaac Bennett has been one of the stars of spring and will be able to effectively share some of the running load. If the run falters though, Pitt will turn to WR Devin Street who looks ready to explode into a massive year. Street can help generate enough of a passing threat to bring a smidge of balance to the offense, and if Graham is ready to rumble a smidge cold be all Pitt needs.
Up front on defense DT Aaron Donald will get a lot of attention from opposing linemen which will help Pitt’s young defensive ends. Sophomores Bryan Murphy and T.J. Clemmingshave tons of potential but since they sat out the whole 2011 season they will have some rust to knock off before they are playing up to snuff. FS Jared Holley and CB K’Waun Williams are the stars in the secondary and the linebackers are a mystery. The Panthers defense will live and die with the front four this season, but if the back seven can contribute enough to ease the workload a bit then Pitt will be able to contain most offenses they will face.
The Pittsburgh schedule isn’t overly frightening despite road trips to Cincinnati, Notre Dame and South Florida. They get Rutgers and Virginia Tech at home which will make those games more manageable.
Looking at the calendar and the talent they have Pitt is a team that could go anywhere from 4-8 to 11-1. I’ve taken the middle road and put them at 8-4. Paul Chryst is putting a system in place that could be very successful for the Panthers for years to come…if he sticks around that is.
Big East Projections
Rutgers (10-2, 6-1)
Louisville (10-2, 6-1)
Cincinnati (8-4, 4-3)
Pittsburgh (8-4, 4-3)
Temple (7-5, 3-4)
South Florida (7-5, 3-4)
Connecticut (6-6, 2-5)
Syracuse (2-10, 0-7)