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August 11, 2009

Parity not earning Big East any respect

MORE: Big East preseason unit rankings

Big East coaches tout the competition at the top of the conference as one of the league's strengths. Three-quarters of the teams go into the season with realistic expectations of winning the title, and four teams received first-place votes in the preseason media poll.

That kind of parity, though, doesn't necessarily earn national respect. The Big East earned the dubious distinction of being the first automatic-qualifying BCS conference to be left out of the preseason coaches' top 25. Cincinnati, West Virginia, Rutgers, Pittsburgh and USF received votes, but all five were behind three teams from the Mountain West, a conference seeking an automatic berth into the BCS.

It's easy to figure out why the Big East has no "it" team going into the season. For the first time since the conference reorganized, its champion lost in the BCS when Virginia Tech defeated Cincinnati 20-7 in the Orange Bowl. The most successful team in the conference since 2005 - West Virginia - must replace perhaps the best player in school history, Pat White.

Cincinnati and USF are the only league teams who enter the season without questions at quarterback. The defending champion Bearcats have stability on offense but must replace 10 starters on defense. Meanwhile, the Bulls have the league's best defensive player and most experienced quarterback, yet they must avoid the midseason collapses that have marred the past two seasons.

Pitt emerged as a shaky preseason favorite, but the Panthers have a long list of questions. Who will replace running back LeSean McCoy? Is Bill Stull a Big East-championship quarterback? And who will take over for tackling machine Scott McKillop at linebacker?

All signs point to an exciting conference race from week to week, but that doesn't guarantee the rest of the country will care enough to go along for the ride.

THE PLAYERS

BEST OFFENSIVE PLAYER: Cincinnati WR Mardy Gilyard. He was the most explosive weapon in Brian Kelly's offense last season, catching 81 passes for 1,276 yards and 11 touchdowns. All that came despite having to work with three starting quarterbacks; how will he fare in a full season with Tony Pike? Gilyard, a senior, is a good kick returner, too.

BEST DEFENSIVE PLAYER: USF DE George Selvie. After a breakout sophomore season, Selvie's numbers slipped to 13.5 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks last season. Those are respectable totals for just about anyone else, but they didn't come close to his '07 campaign. Facing double- and triple-teams on a regular basis, Selvie is the most respected defensive player in the Big East.

OFFENSIVE PLAYER ON THE SPOT: USF QB Matt Grothe. He has been the face of USF's program since the move to the Big East. He too frequently has had to carry the Bulls' offense on his shoulders, but he must become more consistent if USF is going to win the conference title.

DEFENSIVE PLAYER ON THE SPOT: Pittsburgh LB Adam Gunn. After missing all but one game last season with a fractured vertebra in his neck, Gunn has little time to get his bearings in 2009. Pittsburgh needs Gunn, a sixth-year senior, to take over for Scott McKillop at middle linebacker. A former starter at strongside linebacker, Gunn has the experience to be up to the task.

PLAYER WITH THE BIGGEST SHOES TO FILL: West Virginia QB Jarrett Brown. Bill Stewart would have trouble coming up with a better succession plan for Pat White, one of the best players in school history. Brown is a fifth-year senior who has seen time as a starting quarterback in Morgantown. He won't be the same running threat as White, but he should be able to open up the passing game.

BREAKOUT OFFENSIVE STAR: Pittsburgh WR Jonathan Baldwin. Pittsburgh is the only school to have two different receivers win the Biletnikoff Award (Larry Fitzgerald and Antonio Bryant). Baldwin has that kind of potential, but the Panthers' quarterbacks will have to hold up their end of the bargain. As the No. 2 receiver in a run-first offense, Baldwin caught 18 passes for 404 yards last season.

BREAKOUT DEFENSIVE STAR: Cincinnati E/LB Curtis Young. The Bearcats need more than just one breakout star on a defense that returns only one starter. Young is a good bet to finally put together a full season after playing as a backup in 2006 and '08 (he was ineligible in '07). In the Bearcats' new 3-4 defense, he'll be an outside linebacker/defensive end hybrid, and coaches expect him to be a playmaker.

BEST OFFENSIVE NEWCOMER: Pittsburgh RB Dion Lewis. Lewis enrolled early, went through spring practice and grabbed a spot in the rotation to replace LeSean McCoy. At 5 feet 8 and 190 pounds, Lewis is a small and elusive back - not exactly a clone of the bigger, stronger McCoy.

BEST DEFENSIVE NEWCOMER: Cincinnati SS Drew Frey. He's not really a newcomer, but he is a redshirt freshman - a third-year freshman, at that. Frey missed all of 2007 and all but four games in 2008. He is 100 percent after recovering from last season's broken arm.

MOST OVERRATED PLAYER: USF QB Matt Grothe. He has led the Bulls in passing and rushing for each of the past three seasons. But he struggles with consistency. He has 47 career touchdown passes but also 42 interceptions; he has thrown 14 picks in each of his three seasons. One reason he has been inconsistent is that he has been asked to do too much. New offensive coordinator Mike Canales needs to find a way to take some of the pressure off his quarterback.

MOST UNDERRATED PLAYER: West Virginia CB Brandon Hogan. After one year at the position, Hogan is an all-conference candidate. He moved from wide receiver last season to become the starting cornerback. After recording 60 tackles and seven pass breakups last season, Hogan should be even better in his second year on defense.

THE COACHES

COACH ON THE HOTTEST SEAT: Louisville's Steve Kragthorpe. Three years is the new five for coaches and that's bad news for Kragthorpe, who is 11-13 in two seasons at Louisville. He wanted to clear out some bad apples left over from the successful Bobby Petrino reign, but that could be his undoing. Depth and defense have been problems for the Cardinals. Kragthorpe, now his own offensive coordinator, has the least-heralded group of quarterbacks Louisville has seen in several seasons.

BEST COACHING STAFF: Cincinnati. Brian Kelly's two seasons have been the best back-to-back seasons in school history, with 22 wins and a Big East title. All of that has happened despite a transition from Mark Dantonio's hard-nosed, power game to Kelly's spread offense. Defensively, Kelly took a risk by replacing successful coordinator Joe Tresey (now at USF) with Bob Diaco in an attempt to adopt a 3-4 scheme.

BEST OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Cincinnati's Jeff Quinn. It says something about the offenses in the Big East that a coordinator who doesn't call plays (Kelly calls the plays) is the league's best. Pittsburgh's Frank Cignetti, West Virginia's Jeff Mullen and Syracuse's Rob Spence have had success at previous stops but haven't proven themselves in the Big East.

Cincinnati at Rutgers, Sept. 7

USF at Florida State, Sept. 26

Pittsburgh at Rutgers, Oct. 16

USF at Rutgers, Nov. 12

West Virginia at Cincinnati, Nov. 13

Notre Dame at Pittsburgh, Nov. 14

Pittsburgh at West Virginia, Nov. 27

USF at Miami, Nov. 28

West Virginia at Rutgers, Dec. 5

Cincinnati at Pittsburgh, Dec. 5

BEST DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: West Virginia's Jeff Casteel. He was one of the holdovers from the Rich Rodriguez era. Pitt and Rutgers get credit as the best defensive teams in the Big East, but the Mountaineers led the conference in scoring defense last season. In addition, West Virginia finished ahead of both in pass efficiency defense and ahead of Rutgers in run defense.

THE GAMES

GAME OF THE YEAR: Cincinnati at Rutgers, Sept. 7. No individual game late in the season stands out, given how wide open the Big East will be this season. That's why the opener in Piscataway, N.J., will be so intriguing. The game pits Cincinnati's flashy spread offense against Rutgers' intimidating defense.

TOUGHEST SCHEDULE: West Virginia. In non-conference play, the Mountaineers have home games against East Carolina and Colorado - two teams that beat West Virginia last season - along with a road trip to Auburn. The Mountaineers play four Big East road games, three against contenders. The toughest home game is against Pitt, which has won two in a row against West Virginia. The last time the Panthers visited Morgantown, they knocked West Virginia out of a likely spot in the BCS national title game.

EASIEST SCHEDULE: Rutgers. The opener is a doozy, but the Scarlet Knights have time to recover. A trip to middling Maryland is the only road game in the first half of the season. The non-conference schedule includes two Football Championship Subdivision programs, along with Army, Florida International and the Terrapins. And the league road games are against the consensus sixth-, seventh- and eighth-place teams in the conference: Connecticut, Louisville and Syracuse.

MOST EMBARRASSING GAME: Indiana State at Louisville, Sept. 5. It's tough to imagine that Howard at Rutgers doesn't qualify, but this game manages to do that. Indiana State has won once - once - since Oct. 2, 2004. This is one of the few certain wins on the Cardinals' schedule.

FIRST TEAM OFFENSE
QB Tony Pike, Cincinnati, 6-6/210, Sr.
RB Victor Anderson, Louisville, 5-10/190, Soph.
RB Noel Devine, West Virginia, 5-8/175, Jr.
WR Jonathan Baldwin, Pittsburgh, 6-5/225, Soph.
WR Mardy Gilyard, Cincinnati, 6-1/187, Sr.
TE Nate Byham, Pittsburgh, 6-4/265, Sr.
T Anthony Davis, Rutgers, 6-6/325, Jr.
T Jeff Linkenbach, Cincinnati, 6-6/311, Sr.
G Art Forst, Rutgers, 6-8/310, Soph.
G Zach Hermann, USF, 6-3/313, Jr.
C Ryan Blaszczyk, Rutgers, 6-4/295, Sr.
FIRST TEAM DEFENSE
E George Selvie, USF, 6-4/245, Sr.
T Arthur Jones, Syracuse, 6-3/291, Sr.
T Mick Williams, Pittsburgh, 6-1/280, Sr.
E Greg Romeus, Pittsburgh, 6-6/270, Jr.
LB Ryan D'Imperio, Rutgers, 6-3/245, Sr.
LB Scott Lutrus, Connecticut, 6-2/241, Jr.
LB Reed Williams, West Virginia, 6-1/228, Sr.
CB Aaron Berry, Pittsburgh, 5-11/180, Sr.
CB Jasper Howard, Connecticut, 5-9/174, Jr.
FS Nate Allen, USF, 6-2/206, Sr.
SS Dom DeCicco, Pittsburgh, 6-2/230, Jr.
FIRST TEAM SPECIALISTS
K Jake Rogers, Cincinnati, 6-3/205, Jr.
P Rob Long, Syracuse, 6-4/175, Jr.
KR Mardy Gilyard, Cincinnati, 6-1/187, Sr.
PR Jasper Howard, Connecticut, 5-9/174, Jr.

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



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