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August 8, 2008

Big East ready to challenge West Virginia

MORE: 2008 Big East Unit Rankings

Watch out, West Virginia. The rest of the Big East senses chum in the water.

Rich Rodriguez and the Mountaineers played a major role in "saving" the conference after the exodus of Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College to the ACC. However, the rest of the league isn't going to spend any time lamenting the changing of the guard in Morgantown.

Relative newcomers USF, Cincinnati and Connecticut are anxious to put their stamp on the league, while Pittsburgh is primed to reassert itself as a nationally relevant program.

Make no mistake: West Virginia still is the favorite with Pat White returning to run all over Big East defenses. First-year coach Bill Stewart must help heal the wounds left by Rodriguez's messy departure as well as defend a Big East title.

Still, the rest of the league may sense opportunity - starting with USF and Pittsburgh. Both beat the Mountaineers last season, with the Panthers ending West Virginia's hopes for a title-game appearance. Both have built their foundations on defenses. USF is looking for offensive playmakers to complement quarterback Matt Grothe, and Pitt must find answers in the passing game.

Meanwhile, Connecticut and Cincinnati quietly put together program-defining seasons. The Huskies won a share of the league title, but proved they still have a long way to go by losing 66-21 to West Virginia. The Bearcats won 10 games in the first season under rising-star coach Brian Kelly, but they went only 4-3 in the conference.

Louisville and Rutgers must replace players who took their programs to unprecedented heights in Brian Brohm and Ray Rice.

Rounding out the Big East is Syracuse, whose players likely will be playing to save coach Greg Robinson's job this season.

THE PLAYERS

BEST OFFENSIVE PLAYER: West Virginia quarterback Pat White. New coordinator Jeff Mullen wants to diversify the offense to take advantage of White's improving abilities as a passer. That could make White an even more dangerous weapon. He completed two-thirds of his passes last season and cut his interceptions despite more attempts. In case you forgot, he also has rushed for more than 3,500 yards in his career.

BEST DEFENSIVE PLAYER: USF end George Selvie. Selvie is the first consensus All-America in school history and could become the first to receive that honor twice if he has another season like he did in 2007. He led the nation with 31.5 tackles for a loss and finished with 14.5 sacks.

OFFENSIVE PLAYER ON THE SPOT: Rutgers quarterback Mike Teel. He came into his own last season, passing for 3,147 yards, but he struggled mightily in losses to Cincinnati and West Virginia. He faces additional pressure this season as the focal point of the offense now that tailback Ray Rice is gone.

DEFENSIVE PLAYER ON THE SPOT: Louisville tackle Earl Heyman. He has played tackle and end in his career, but seems likely to play inside this season. No matter where he plays, Louisville needs production from this senior to improve its sieve-like defense. He came in as a four-star recruit but has only 3.5 career sacks.

PLAYER WITH THE BIGGEST SHOES TO FILL: Louisville quarterback Hunter Cantwell. Cantwell backed up Brian Brohm for the past three seasons, waiting for his chance to start. Now that he is Louisville's starter, he must replace a 10,000-yard passer in one of the most critical seasons in school history. No pressure here.

BREAKOUT OFFENSIVE STAR: West Virginia tailback Noel Devine. Steve Slaton left early for the NFL, leaving the explosive Devine to step in. As a freshman, Devine averaged 8.6 yards per carry and topped 100 yards in two of the last three games.

BREAKOUT DEFENSIVE STAR: Pitt end Greg Romeus. Romeus was a Rivals.com Second-Team Freshman All-America last season, when he finished with 11.5 tackles behind the line of scrimmage as a part-timer. He will be a full-time player this season with the departure of Joe Clermond. Here's a scary thought for Big East offensive tackles: Romeus played only one year of high school football.

BEST OFFENSIVE NEWCOMER: Pitt wide recevier Jonathan Baldwin. The five-star receiver was the highest-ranked recruit to sign in the Big East this year. He should make an immediate impact in a passing game desperate for playmakers. He'll compete with veterans Derek Kinder and Oderick Turner for time in the receiver rotation.

BEST DEFENSIVE NEWCOMER: Rutgers linebacker Manny Abreu. Abreu would've seen ample time last season as a true freshman, but he suffered a season-ending hip injury in the second game. After redshirting, he opened camp as the starting strongside linebacker and has bulked up to 6 feet 3 and 245 pounds.

THE COACHES

COACH ON THE HOTTEST SEAT: Pitt's Dave Wannstedt. Granted, the days probably are numbered for Syracuse's Greg Robinson (7-28 in three seasons). But this is a critical season for Wannstedt, who returns a load of talent off a 5-7 team. If he can't reach a bowl this season, when can he? Wannstedt has not coached a team to a postseason appearance since taking the Miami Dolphins to the playoffs in 2001.

BEST COACHING STAFF: Cincinnati. Think Brian Kelly is a newcomer to the college football scene? Think again. He won two Division II championships at Grand Valley State (Mich.), won a MAC title at Central Michigan in 2006 and last season led Cincinnati to its first 10-win season since 1951. His assistants aren't household names, but it's hard to argue with results. Not only does Kelly's energy rub off on the entire program, he and his staff keep finding ways to surprise.

BEST OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Cincinnati's Kelly. Jeff Quinn, Kelly's right-hand man since 1991 at Grand Valley State, has the offensive coordinator title, but Kelly is the primary play-caller. He's also an excellent quarterback coach. Dan LeFevour and Ben Mauk were virtual unknowns before Kelly got ahold of them.

BEST DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: USF's Wally Burnham. Burnham has been able to do what few have done in recent years: shut down West Virginia. His defenses have held the Mountaineers to fewer than 20 points in each of the past two seasons while producing a first-round pick at cornerback (Mike Jenkins) and an All-America at end (Selvie).

ASSISTANT WITH THE BEST CHANCE TO BE A HEAD COACH THIS TIME NEXT YEAR: Louisville defensive coordinator Ron English. Let's put it this way: It's probably him or no one, unless there's another Bill Stewart situation looming. English's path to a head-coaching position hit a snag after the transition in Michigan, but if he can get anything out of this Louisville defense, he should be on several athletic directors' speed dials.

THE GAMES

GAME OF THE YEAR: USF at West Virginia, Dec. 6. It's tempting to call West Virginia's tussle with Pitt on Nov. 28 the game of the year, but this one could be for the conference title. USF has been a thorn in West Virginia's side the past two seasons. What would happen if the Mountaineers dropped another critical season finale at home?

Kentucky at Louisville, Aug. 31
Fresno State at Rutgers, Sept. 1
Cincinnati at Oklahoma, Sept. 6
Kansas at USF, Sept. 13
Auburn at West Virginia, Oct. 23
West Virginia at Connecticut, Nov. 1
Pittsburgh at Notre Dame, Nov. 1
West Virginia at Louisville, Nov. 22
West Virginia at Pittsburgh, Nov. 28
USF at West Virginia, Dec. 6
TOUGHEST SCHEDULE: Cincinnati. If the Bearcats win 10 games again this year, Kelly should be coaching in Paul Brown Stadium, not Nippert. Cincinnati must visit three teams that played in BCS bowls last season West Virginia, Oklahoma and Hawaii. Also included in a seven-game road schedule are games against Big East co-champ Connecticut and in-state rival Miami University.

EASIEST SCHEDULE: Louisville. The Cardinals' schedule lends itself to a rebound season, with eight home games and an uninspired non-conference schedule. Kentucky and Kansas State are the toughest games outside of the Big East. At least the token Division I-AA opponent, Tennessee Tech, is led by former I-A coach Watson Brown. The Cardinals' only road game before November is against Memphis.

WORST NON-CONFERENCE SCHEDULE: Connecticut. The Huskies are a two-time winner for softest non-conference schedule in the league. Connecticut still plays Virginia and Temple, but trades Duke, Akron and Division I-AA Maine for Baylor, North Carolina and I-AA Hofstra. Someone in the football office is taking scheduling tips from the preseason NIT.

BIGGEST MISMATCH: UT-Martin at USF. Louisville-Tennessee Tech and Connecticut-Hofstra are embarrassing, but at least those games are somewhat regional. UT-Martin went 4-7 last year and 4-4 in the Ohio Valley Conference. No one will confuse this game with Tennessee-Florida.

THE PROGRAMS

PROGRAMS ON THE RISE: Pittsburgh. Pitt's 13-9 upset of West Virginia last season validated the first three years under Dave Wannstedt. Despite going 5-7 in '07, Pittsburgh is a legitimate conference contender with Heisman hopeful LeSean McCoy. Wannstedt has done enough in recruiting to ensure the Panthers once again will be a factor in the league race.

PROGRAM ON THE DECLINE: Louisville. The Cardinals might get worse before they get any better. The Bobby Petrino-to-Steve Kragthorpe transition was tougher than originally thought. More than 20 scholarship players have left the team either by choice, by coach's choice or because of injury since spring 2007. That kind of mess isn't resolved easily.

IN THREE YEARS, USF WILL BE THE BEST TEAM IN THE CONFERENCE: If the loss of Rodriguez doesn't cause West Virginia to slip, the loss of White will. USF takes one more step in the right direction each season, and there's no reason to think the Bulls will slow down. Jim Leavitt has an always-strong recruiting base at his disposal, and the Bulls' profile will only grow.

FIRST TEAM OFFENSE
QB Pat White, West Virginia, Sr.
RB LeSean McCoy, Pittsburgh, Soph.
RB Noel Devine, West Virginia, Soph.
WR Kenny Britt, Rutgers, Jr.
WR Marcus Barnett, Cincinnati, Soph.
WR Derek Kinder, Pittsburgh, Sr.
T Anthony Davis, Rutgers, Soph.
G Greg Isdaner, West Virginia, Jr.
C Eric Wood, Louisville, Sr.
G Ryan Schmidt, USF, Sr.
T Ryan Stanchek, West Virginia, Sr.
FIRST TEAM DEFENSE
E Greg Romeus, Pittsburgh, Soph.
T Terrill Byrd, Cincinnati, Sr.
T Arthur Jones, Syracuse, Jr.
E George Selvie, USF, Jr.
LB Scott Lutrus, Connecticut, Soph.
LB Tyrone McKenzie, USF, Sr.
LB Scott McKillop, Pittsburgh, Sr.
CB DeAngelo Smith, Cincinnati, Sr.
CB Mike Mickens, Cincinnati, Sr.
SS Quinton Andrews, West Virginia, Jr.
FS Courtney Greene, Rutgers, Sr.
FIRST TEAM SPECIALISTS
K Pat McAfee, West Virginia, Sr.
P Kevin Huber, Cincinnati, Sr.
KR Max Suter, Syracuse, Soph.

MORE: 2008 Big 12 Unit Rankings

David Fox is a national college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dfox@rivals.com.



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