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Football Predictions: A Second Slice
Tier 1: West Virginia; South Florida
West Virginia conversation start with offense. Steve Slaton is may be in the NFL now, but the explosive Noel Devine remains in the backfield, and Pat White remains their electrifying dual–threat QB. White had 1725 yards and 14 scores through he air, with another 1335 and 14 with his legs. And then there's the line, which won't lose a beat. All of which overlooks a couple of flaws: (1) the defense isn't special, with the secondary needing a complete make–over; and (2) coach Rich Rodriguez has gone, replaced by Bill Stewart. West Virginia should roll again in the early part of the season before some more challenging late road games. Another double–digit season is possible, and if Pitt and USF aren't the contenders we think they are, the Mountaineers might finally book that National Championship Game trip.
Great changes are afoot in the Sunshine State. The likes of USF, UCF and FAU are starting to nibble at the recruiting of Florida, FSU and Miami. Right now, it is fair to rank USF behind only the Gators for Floridian football prowess. The running game took the ball into the endzone 30 times last season, and both leading rushers and four lineman will be involved again. USF have one of several impressive Big East defenses, with both safeties returning, the much–touted George Selvie at DE, and speed throughout. The key player, if the Bulls wants to upstage West Virginia, is QB Matt Grothe, who in passing terms is still trying to turn the corner. If the touchdown passes increase and the interceptions decrease, the final week trip to West Virginia could have major bowl implications.
Tier 2: Pittsburgh; Rutgers; Cincinnati; UConn
Picking Pittsburgh as a top 25 team requires not just faith, but faith in Dave Wannestedt, who has never succeeded in building a team up, but at the Chicago Bears, Miami Dolphins and so far Pittsburgh Panthers has overseen the shift from contender to also–ran. Belief in a Pitt breakthrough in 2008 requires the kind of faith that earned Wannstedt a three–year contract extension after failing to land a winning season after his first three in Pitt. It also requires faith that Rutgers, Cincinnati and UConn have all had their moments in the spotlight and will now dutifully go back to losing. None of the above applies. I understand the logic of picking Pitt as a top team — Wannstedt's NFL pedigree allows him to recruit NFL–friendly talent from one of the countries top football states — but so far there's little evidence that he knows how to nurture talent. QB Bill Stull has almost no college experience, and receiving corps is still wet behind the ears. Both starting tackles are gone. So offensively, sophomore RB LeSean McCoy will be carrying the load. The defense sees several returning starters from a good side, especially at linebacker, where everybody is back including Scott McKillop. I certainly see the potential for a breakthrough because of a schedule that could have the Panthers at 6–0 before they hit Rutgers. But Top 25 off the back of a 5–7 season?
UConn went 9–4. Now they might be out to do it again, thanks to a roster that returns nearly every starter on each side of the ball, although defense is their suit. The pass defense, special in 2007 may be merely capable this season (despite outstanding corner Darius Butler), but the rest of the defense is packed with talent. The kicking game also back. QB Tyler Lorenzen is something of a ho–hum proposition, but the rushing game could push 2000 yards this time around. UConn will be a physical team on 2008.
Rutgers aren't headed quietly back into oblivion anytime soon, although they may slip a little. The line is shuffling, QB Mike Teel and receivers like Tiquan Underwood will be relied on more than in previous years, and Ray Rice left for the NFL. But the defense may be the best in the Big East, featuring many of last year's starters — and they already had replacements ready for the others. Rutgers will terrorize opposing backfields again after logging 40 TDs last season. The schedule is not easy, with Fresno State to open and North Carolina to follow. They are away to WVU, Pitt and USF. Rutgers will fight for bowl eligibility.
As I write, Ben Mauk is still trying to get back to being a Bearcat, but assuming the former quarterback continues to be denied eligibility, Cincinnati must try and repeat their 10–3 success in 2007 without him. In his place, Cincy will go with Dustin Grutza, who had notable snaps in '05 and '06. He has the receivers, but the line has undergone a reshuffle. The defense is opportunist, and has two elite corners in DeAngelo Smith and Mike Mickens. It could be a beast, but I can't agree with those that still have the Bearcats in the top 30 because both lines are unproven. They'll win plenty of games this year, but this is a muddy old Big East this year, with everybody likely to knock everybody else off (which is becoming something of a tradition in this conference).
Tier 3: Louisville
The only Brohm left in Louisville is coordinator Jeff after the departure of QB Brian. Also gone: receivers Harry Douglas, Mario Urrutia and Gary Barnidge. So, cue the running game, you would think. Except George Stripling and Anthony Allen left the program. Good luck to senior QB Hunter Caldwell, finally given his moment. After last season's 6–6 disappointment, a 7–5 record is credible, but to grab that winning record the defense has to show up. Also gone from last year's team is kicker Art Carmody, suggesting that the close losses of last year won't be any easier to turn into close wins this time around.
Tier 4: Syracuse
Syracuse are in Tier 4 only because there is no Tier 5. The fall of Syracuse from the era of Dick MacPherson and Paul Paqualoni is about as easy to comprehend as quantum physics. Once upon a time, Miami, Boston College and Virginia Tech used to be in the Big East, before jumping ship to the ACC. Syracuse too were expected to go, but... well, you don't need a history lesson. In all, coach Greg Robinson is 7–28 at Syracuse, and all you want to know is will it get better any time soon? Let's find the upside: they should be able to run, and they should be able to stop the run. Now the downside: they can't pass and they can't stop the pass. Last year they won two games. This year might be yield just one. It's still a long, long way back into the rest of the Big East.