Football picksSeptember 1, 2005

2005 College Football Preview – Big East

2005 College Football Preview: Big East
By Avery Smith
Sports Central Columnist
Reprinted with permission from
Sports Central

The Big East Conference has gone through many changes. Miami, Virginia Tech, and now Boston College have defected from its ranks. The conference has lost some of its luster, but will still feature competitive and talented teams. Which teams will be the class of the conference? Let’s find out.

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5) Rutgers (Projected Record: 6-5; League: 3-4)
The Scarlet Knights have always been a team that has found away to pester the elite teams in the Big East. With Miami, Virginia Tech, and Boston College now gone, Rutgers has the opportunity to step into a more dominant role in the conference. It won’t happen this season, but I do feel that they are talented enough to get earn a winning record and just maybe their first bowl game in 26 years.

The offense is led by Ryan Hart, the Scarlet Knights’ senior quarterback. Hart is an experienced field general who has excellent options through the air. Tres Moses and Shawn Tucker will be one of the best receiver tandems in the conference. Hart also has a very viable option at tight end with Clark Harris. Harris is a huge target with very soft hands.

The running game is still a concern for head coach Greg Schiano. Clarence Pittman is the projected starter, and is somewhat of an enigma. He has not produced as the coaching staff would like, but the hope he can turn it around and have a good season. Another aspect of the offense that the Scarlet Knights will have to improve on is consistency. They turned the ball over far too much, and if they are to be successful, the interceptions and fumbles have got to cease.

The main concern for this team will be improving their defense. Rutgers’ rankings against the pass and the rush are similar to what I would shoot at St. Andrews — just downright atrocious. The defensive line has got to generate more pressure on the pass-happy teams in the conference. Ryan Neill, Rutgers’ top defensive end, should excel there has he has proven to be able to get to the quarterback in the past.

The linebackers will also have to play much better in 2005 if this team is to be bowl-bound. The talent is not at the level that it needs to be to dominate, so these guys will have to play as a unit if they have any chance. The secondary is in the same boat, and now that they are more experienced, they should be able to stop teams from throwing at will.

There are far too many question marks for me to pencil this team into Tempe come next January. If Rutgers can improve their rushing attack, and their consistency on offense, they will surprise people. The defense has got to keep this team in games, and play as a unit as well. It should be an interesting season and hopefully a historic one, as well.

4) Syracuse (6-5; 4-3)
Last season, the Syracuse Orange played the spoiler role perfectly by trouncing Boston College, 43-17, and ending the Eagles’ hopes of a Fiesta Bowl bid. This year, the Orange hope to improve and regain their winning form.

When Syracuse has the ball this year, fans should notice some changes in their schemes. The Orange have ditched their traditional sets and implemented the West Coast Offense. This offense is based upon precision and timing, so Perry Patterson, their starting quarterback, must improve his consistency and can not throw more interceptions than touchdowns again this year.

The running back position should be reliable as Damion Rhodes is very talented. He torched Boston College in the aforementioned matchup, and I think he could have a banner year. Rhodes has a very good offensive line in front of him, so 1,000 yards should be easily attainable. Unlike the running game, there is no real standout among the receiving corps, so either Tim Lane or Rice Moss must have a breakout season and contribute.

The defense will have a lot of work to do as they were 101st in the nation last year. The Orange have addressed this issue over the offseason, and hired Greg Robinson. Robinson is an experienced NFL guru who will add instant creativity and stability to a unit who needs it sorely.

Robinson will feature what he calls his “attacking 4-3” defense, a system that applies much more pressure on the quarterback and relies on strong linebackers and ends. Orange fans will be happy to know that their linebackers should excel in the attacking 4-3. Kellen Pruitt, Jerry Mackey, and Kelvin Smith are the projected starters, and all three of these guys can get the job done. Depth is not a concern for the linebackers as this area is by far the strongest overall in the defense.

Where Robinson and the Orange should be concerned is the secondary. These guys gave up a ton of passing yards last year, and got embarrassed on national TV against Georgia Tech last year in the Champs Sports Bowl. The corners have gained experience by playing together last year, but I’m just not sure if it will be enough. Coach Robinson and Syracuse fans have to hope that this new attacking style of defense will be enough to carry their uninspiring secondary.

Orange fans will definitely have to exhibit a high level of patience with this year’s squad. The West Coast Offense has proven to be a set of schemes that have not yielded early results. Plays are very long to call out and susceptible to errors, especially in a hostile environment. If the Orange can grasp it quickly, they may just be a national sleeper.

3) West Virginia (7-4; 5-2)
The Mountaineers have had quite the bipolar 2004-2005 in their athletic program. On paper, their football team had BCS hopes, but underperformed at 8-4, and lost their bowl game. Their basketball team was supposed to be “middle of the pack” in the conference, but caught fire in the Big East tournament, and proceeded to make a huge splash during March Madness.

This year, the expectations will be toned down a bit in Morgantown, as the team is rebuilding. The offense has been decimated due to turnover and there are many more questions than answers. The quarterback position is still somewhat undecided, and the receivers are young and inexperienced.

One area that West Virginia fans will still see success is the running game. Jason Colson is the real deal and he will excel, and continue the string of highly skilled Mountaineer running backs. The offensive line is experienced and will open up plenty of holes for him, Pernell Williams, and highly-touted freshman Jason Gwaltney.

On defense, Wocka, Wocka (Adam “Pac-Man” Jones) is gone, but the defensive backs in Morgantown will still excel. The secondary is the strength of this team, and I see Mike Lorello and Jahmile Addae having even better years than they did last season. The linebackers are decent, but depth has to be a concern for Rich Rodriguez. The defensive line has more depth, and the starters do have some talent.

This year’s team will be one that should be in a lot of games. The defense will bend, but not break, and keep them in games. The running attack should chew up tons of possession time, but what will they do on 3rd-and-13. The passing game is a huge question mark, and has to be addressed. I’m sure whoever gets the nod at quarterback will have enormous pressure to deliver. If the Mountaineers are able to balance their offensive attack, this team could easily win the conference.

2) Pittsburgh (8-3, 5-2)
The Panthers backed into the Fiesta Bowl last year and played like a team that didn’t deserve to be there. They got smashed 35-7 by a far superior Utah team who showed them exactly how good they needed to be in order to be among college football’s elite.

That game cost Walt Harris his job, and along the Allegheny, public opinion is divided as to whether he should have been fired for a guy whose best player couldn’t even stop smoking marijuana. Dave Wannstedt, Pitt’s new coach, must produce much better results than he did in the NFL or he will be shown the door again.

Wannstedt prefers to run a team with a bruising, physical attack. Unfortunately for him, the Panthers are a team based much more on finesse and timing. Tyler Palko, the Panther quarterback, is an excellent leader on the field with a super left arm to match. Palko has his favorite target Greg Lee back at wideout. He’s a physical guy at 6-2, and has the speed to go deep, as well. This guy just might be the best at what he does in America.

The running game is the only real question mark for the Pitt offense. They were 105th last year on the ground, and at times it seemed as if they were only moving the ball that way because they had to. That will certainly change this season, and with Raymond Kirkley skills, and Dave Wannstedt’s schemes, the yards should pile up.

The defense is talented, but must translate some of that raw physical ability to success on the field. H.B. Blades will be a guy who will make a name for himself again this year. He will anchor a linebacking unit that should be the best in the country. There is no concern as far as depth — the Panthers have five guys who can start at any time.

The secondary and defensive lines are both areas that must show improvement this year. Josh Lay is a super corner and will shut down his side of the field. Unfortunately, opponents will just throw to the other side. Darrelle Revis or Darnell Carter will have to elevate their game this year and unify the strength of the defensive backs.

The defensive ends have got to improve on a team that provider a lackluster pass rush at best. Pitt fans have to hope that the lack of experience that this unit suffers from can be overcome by their talent level. The coaching staff will substitute freely until they can find the guys who can deliver the most efficient pass rush.

It looks like this will be a good year for first-year head coach Dave Wannstedt. Walt Harris did not leave the cupboards bare, and a bowl game is just about a certainty. What is uncertain is how he will run this team on offense. He will undoubtedly try to increase the number of reps for his running backs, and improve the ground game. If he’s smart, he will make sure that the ball gets to Greg Lee’s hands, as well, as the passing attack can do tons of damage.

1) Louisville (9-2; 6-1)
There hasn’t been this much buzz in Louisville in regards to a sport besides basketball since a guy named Clay [Muhammad Ali] won the Olympic Gold in Rome, and there’s good reason. This Cardinal football team could easily run the table. Unfortunately, due to some inexperience, they could also disappoint, as well. I’m hedging my bets by saying that they’ll win the conference, but go to Tempe instead of Pasadena.

The offense will go through some transition with Brian Brohm taking over for all-world quarterback Stefan Lefors. If Brohm displays the poise and talent, along with even half of the leadership that Lefors provided, he will be superb. There are high expectations for him, but he has the physical ability and the smarts needed to be a legend.

Another guy who will impress is Michael Bush. He was a former all-state quarterback who has been converted into a 250-pound running back. He has been able to retain his mobility and quickness at the weight and can of course pack a powerful punch. I really think he can run over 1,500 yards this season if he gets a good volume of carries. His 5.6 yards per carry average last year was outstanding, and he is a superb outlet and screen guy, as well.

Speaking of outlets, the Cardinals have a slew of talented options at wideout. Montrell Jones, Joshua Tinch, and Broderick Clark are all seniors who can get open and make plays. Jones and Clark are the home run hitters, and Tinch is an extremely valuable possession guy. Louisville also has a super tight end in Gary Barnidge. He’s only a sophomore, but he’s got great hands and I expect him to get a lot of work, especially in the early going.

Any time you have a team that grabs so many headlines on offense, the defense is sure to be forgotten about. If opposing teams make that same mistake, they will be in for a surprise. The Cardinals were 15th in total defense last season, and although I don’t expect them to be that high this year, they have a unit that can make things happen.

Mike Cassidy, Louisville’s defensive coordinator, lost three starters from his secondary last year. Anytime there is upheaval amongst the defensive backs, continuity is always a problem. These guys will have to gel quickly, or opponents will take advantage and throw early and often. William Gay is the only upperclassman in the unit, and his speed and experience will be vital in order to stem the tide.

The linebackers are serviceable with Abe Brown and Brandon Johnson looking to ease the loss of Robert McCune. These guys are both upperclassmen who can have the lateral movement and strength needed to make a ton of tackles. I think these guys are both underrated and should perform well as a team.

The defensive backs will be extremely important for this year’s team. They will have to put an increased amount of pressure on the quarterback to offset the talent deficiencies in the secondary. They will also have to maintain their level of success from last year against the run. I don’t know if they will be able to do both, but with talents like Elvis Dumervil and Montavious Stanley, they will make a solid attempt. Depth should not be a problem so long as the injury bug doesn’t run rampant. I think that if another guy such as Brandon Cox can emerge as a star that just might make the difference and solidify this unit.

Louisville has the talent and the coaching to be the class of the Big East. Brian Brohm is a Heisman hopeful waiting to happen and offensively this team is a juggernaut. Michael Bush will chew up the clock, and the defense should not let them down. This team may be vulnerable to an early season upset, but they just might run the table. The Cardinals seemed to have turned the corner and are on the verge of establishing a perennial winner. America, we’d better get used to these guys, so let’s at least pronounce the name right. It’s LOU-A-VULL, and they’re your Big East conference champs.

This article was reprinted with permission from Sports Central.

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