The Big East may be characterized more by who's leaving than who's winning what during the 2009 season. Two conference coaches are potential candidates for major jobs elsewhere, both of which could be open by year's end. Brian Kelly at Cincinnati is coming off a conference championship and Orange Bowl bid. And a guy with a name like Kelly hailing from the Midwest, think he might not be attractive to Notre Dame if Charlie Weis can't get it done? And at Rutgers, Greg Schiano's star has slipped a bit in the last couple seasons, but he remains a viable replacement candidate for Joe Paterno if two longshots happen--the school goes outside the program for a successor, and Joe Pa actually hangs it up.
That landscape illustrates a basic reality of Big East football--this is a midmajor conference in BCS Conference clothing. There's nothing on the merits that suggest the Big East champ should get an automatic ticket to a major bowl while a team from the Mountain West must run the table (this same problem would likely apply to playoff selection, lest this turn into another Bowls vs. Brackets debate). But that's the system we have and given the clout of Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese, it's not changing anytime soon. So who's coming out of this league in 2009?
West Virginia is the conference's showcase program, but there's been plenty of parity. Four different teams have earned the automatic BCS bid the last five years, and having bashed the league's participation in the party, I should note that they are 3-2 in those games. The Moutaineers will again be in the mix, but again it's going to be a wide-open race around them.
Cincinnati has a lot of rebuilding to do in its attempt to repeat. The Bearcats must replace ten defensive starters. While they still have explosive quarterback Tony Pike calling the shots and he will be supported by a respectable running game, I doubt they'll be able to stop anybody at a rate sufficient to win another championship. If Kelly wins seven games and goes to another bowl in an obvious rebuilding year, that would be a great testimony to the program he's building. West Virginia is the reverse. They look pretty good on the defensive side, but the departure of Pat White is just the most notable piece of an offense that must be completely revamped. If given the choice, I prefer a vet defense to a vet offense, so I like WVA over Cincy if it comes down to Perennial Power vs. Defending Champ, but there are other teams out there that are more complete.
The Dave Wannstedt era at Pitt has not been a huge success to date. Keep in mind that Wanny did not inherit a bare cupboard in the Steel City, taking over for Walt Harris when the Panthers were coming off a Fiesta Bowl season in 2004. But he has beaten West Virginia twice, and he won nine games in '08. Even with star runner LeSean McCoy gone, he's got the tools to do it again this season. His defensive line, keyed by standout end Greg Romeus is the lynchpin of a strong overall unit, and with three starters back on the offensive line he has the foundation of an offense. Not enough of a foundation to get to the top, but enough for another good year. An interesting non-conference test will come September 26 when Pitt goes to N.C. State.
UConn is a program whose star is on the rise, and they're coming off a winning season of their own. Here we have another team that will make some noise, but come up a little short. The Huskies' strengths are their secondary, and the offensive line, led by William Beatty, but they graduated two All-Conference defenders and are breaking in a new quarterback. Zach Frazier transferred in from Notre Dame and the BCS hopes in Storrs will rest heavily on him.
Both Pitt & UConn have to be aiming for at least the Gator Bowl on New Year's Day. The Jacksonville-based game is tacitly committed to the Big East runner-up. By 'tacitly' I mean, that they can also choose amongst Notre Dame and the fourth option out of the Big 12 as an opponent for the ACC runner-up. There are limits on how frequently the Gator can choose out of the Big 12, and since they picked Nebraska last year, that option is off the table in 2009. That means the Big East is also in a race with Notre Dame for a high-profile spot on January 1. Pitt & UConn each play the Irish head-to-head.
In 2006, Rutgers was the Cinderella story everyone loved. The Scarlet Knights pushed into November unbeaten. But they faded and a loss at home to Cincinnati foretold that it would be Kelly, rather than Schiano who got his team to the BCS first. Rutgers has remained competitive though, and is coming off a year that saw them close with a rush. After a 1-5 start ushered in an expensive new stadium, Schiano's team won their last six, and then beat surging N.C. State in the Papajohns.com Bowl. They're back and loaded for bear this season. All five offensive linemen are back. The defense is stocked with upperclassmen in starting roles. They have a new quarterback in Dominic Natale, but he is a senior. And with his top four backs returning behind him, Natale has enough weapons to make sure his fellow paisan, Schiano, finally breaks through in 2009.
Rounding out the league, South Florida won a bowl game last season and has gunslinger Matt Grothe back at center. With little else to work with, the Bulls should conjure up memories of Dan Marino's Dolphins in the late 1980s--a lot of flash, not many wins. And games against Western Kentucky and Charleston Southern, ones that won't count towards bowl eligibility will hinder their efforts to reach the postseason. Louisville has fallen hard since winning the Orange Bowl following the '06 season and seeing Bobby Petrino leave for the NFL. Neither Petrino nor the 'Ville has done much since. And Syracuse got its place in the national spotlight for its upset win at Notre Dame last November, but they got the attention because they were horrible prior to that. They look a little better this year, but there's still a long way to go.
There you have it. I am picking Rutgers to win the '09 Big East title, with Pitt & UConn close behind and Cincy and West Virginia also going to bowls. Circle Labor Day on your calendar. Rutgers hosts Cincinnati in the first big conference test any of the contenders face.
Up next: ACC Preview on Tuesday