Big East slipping

By: Oscar Mattingly | Saturday, August 29, 2009

Rutgers will be led by QB Domenic Natale.

Usually perceived as the sixth of the six BCS conferences, the Big East typically has been a bit better than that – until last year. With a very average Cincinnati team as league champion, the Big East slipped to seventh out of six – with the non-BCS Mountain West Conference jumping in front of the Big East.

This could be another year of parity, with only UConn, Louisville and Syracuse not having legitimate hopes for a conference title. And that could mean, as usual, the Big East will end up feeding on itself. That makes playing ‘over/under’ win totals an interesting proposition.

Over/under win totals are from and only count the regular season.

Rutgers – 9 wins

The Scarlet Knights won 27 games the last three years with Mike Teel under center. However, Teel and his top two targets – Kenny Brutt and Tiquan Underwood – are gone. Now it’s senior Domenic Natale’s turn to run the show. The Knights should rely on a running game that returns its top four backs, though none rushed for more than 550 yards a year ago. They will be working behind an offensive line that returns virtually intact.

The defense, led by all-league linebacker Ryan D’Imperio, returns six starters. The line should be strong as well, but the secondary is inexperienced. 

LIKELY WINS: Howard, Florida International, at Maryland, Texas Southern, at Army, at Connecticut, at Syracuse, at Louisville

UP FOR GRABS: Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, South Florida, West Virginia

NOTEWORTHY:  The non-league schedule is a joke and the conference slate is a gift, with the rest of the conference contenders coming to Piscataway. Plus, Pittsburgh comes in on a short week when Rutgers has a bye and South Florida comes to Jersey in November.

West Virginia – 8 1/2 wins

So Pat White doesn’t have a seventh year of eligibility? OK, he wasn’t in Morgantown for six years. It just seemed that way. The pressure of replacing him falls on the shoulders of Jarrett Brown, who completed 73 percent of his passes and averaged 4.7 yards per carry in mop-up duty for White last season. Talented running back Noel Devine, who averaged 6.3 yards per carry on his way to 1,289 yards last season, as well as veteran receivers Alric Arnett and Jock Sanders, will take the pressure off Brown.

The Mountaineers return seven starters - plus stud linebacker Reed Williams returning from a season lost to shoulder surgery - to a defensive unit that allowed 17.0 points per game, their best number in nearly a decade. West Virginia has won at least eights games for seven straight years, including last year’s 9-4 campaign.

LIKELY WINS:  Liberty, at Syracuse, Marshall, Connecticut, Louisville

UP FOR GRABS: at Auburn, Colorado, at South Florida, at Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, at Rutgers

NOTEWORTHY:  With four league road games – instead of three for some teams – the Mountaineers drew a tough lot. Three of those road tests are against teams in the mix for the title.

Pittsburgh – 8 wins

The Panthers return a league-best 15 starters, including solid senior quarterback Bill Tull. But the reality is that LeSean McCoy took his talents early to the NFL and his primary backup graduated. True freshman Dion Lewis, a 5-foot-8 speedster, seems the likely candidate to fill McCoy’s big shoes. Lewis will be working behind an experienced line.

The defense hasn’t been great in recent years, but with seven starters returning, this could be a team that wins with defense. The linebackers need to find someone to make tackles. However, with a line led by defensive end Greg Romeus and a secondary that features star corner Aaron Berry, it should be a lot easier.

LIKELY WINS:  Youngstown State, at Buffalo, at Louisville, Syracuse, Cincinnati

UP FOR GRABS:  Navy, at NC State, at Rutgers, South Florida, Notre Dame, at West Virginia

NOTEWORTHY:  The extra Big East home game is offset by the fact that the Panthers, who haven’t reached double-digit wins this century, have to go to Rutgers and West Virginia.

South Florida – 8 wins

What Pat White was to Morgantown, Matt Grothe is to Tampa. The dual-threat quarterback – he was the Bulls’ leading rusher and passer – last year is headed into his fourth year as a starter. He’s already led South Florida to 26 wins.  Receivers Carlton Mitchell and Jessie Hester and a strong offensive line could help the Bulls step up from their 27.6 points per game a year ago.

The defense should improve with defensive end George Selvie, the conference’s most disruptive force, leading the way.

LIKELY WINS:  Wofford, at Western Kentucky, Charleston Southern, at Syracuse, Louisville, at Connecticut

UP FOR GRABS: at Florida State, Cincinnati, at Pittsburgh, West Virginia, at Rutgers, Miami

NOTEWORTHY:  The Bulls draw the other four Big East contenders in succession, though they have a bye before heading to Rutgers.

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