Pittsburgh the favorite; UofL picked seventh

NEWPORT, R.I. – If the results of the conference's annual preseason media poll are any indication, no one can really be sure what to expect with regard to the 2009 BIG EAST title.

In a poll that saw four different teams earn multiple first-place votes and the top five teams separated by just 35 points, Pittsburgh emerged from a tight field as the favorite to take the 2009 BIG EAST championship.

The Panthers received eight of a possible 24 first-place votes to finish with 161 points in the poll of media representatives from each of the eight BIG EAST markets. Pittsburgh returns 14 starters from last year's squad, which was one of the most improved teams in the nation, with a particularly veteran presence on the offensive and defensive lines. In addition, Dave Wannstedt's squad returns a pair of veteran quarterbacks in Bill Stull and Pat Bostick and boasts a potential breakout star in wide receiver Jonathan Baldwin.

West Virginia, which has won the BIG EAST title twice in the last four years, was a close second in the poll with 151 points and five first-place votes. The Mountaineers finished tied with Pittsburgh and Rutgers for second in the BIG EAST last year and were 9-4 overall, with three of the losses coming by a combined 10 points, including two in overtime. Head coach Bill Stewart welcomes back eight starters on defense, including veteran middle linebacker Reed Williams, and has one of nation's most explosive offensive players in running back Noel Devine.

With 144 points, Cincinnati was tabbed third in the preseason poll, despite the Bearcats' receiving as many first-place votes as Pittsburgh. Brian Kelly's group enjoyed a magical year in 2008 as Cincinnati won the outright BIG EAST title and played in a BCS bowl game for the first time in program history. The Bearcats return big-play quarterback Tony Pike and wideout Mardy Gilyard – the 2008 BIG EAST Special Teams Player of the Year – but will have to find a way to replace 10 departed starters on defense.

USF received three first-place votes and was fourth in the poll with 130 points. Head coach Jim Leavitt has had the Bulls ranked in the national top 10 in each of the last two seasons and a return trip could well be in store thanks to the return of all-America defensive end George Selvie and quarterback Matt Grothe, who is poised to become the BIG EAST's career leader in total offense.

Rutgers was chosen fifth in the poll with 126 points, just four points behind USF. Greg Schiano's Scarlet Knights will have to replace impact players at quarterback and wide receiver, but All-BIG EAST tackle Anthony Davis leads a veteran offensive line that should rank among the nation's best in 2009.

Connecticut was pegged for sixth in the preseason poll with 74 points as the Huskies lost four players in the first two rounds of the 2009 NFL Draft, including the nation's leading rusher in Donald Brown. Randy Edsall has proven to be a master at developing talent, however, and the Huskies turn to veteran linebacker Scott Lutrus to lead a consistent and talented defense.

Louisville was picked seventh with 51 points as the Cardinals enter the year in the unfamiliar position of being unproven at quarterback. Head coach Steve Kragthorpe will turn to standout running back Victor Anderson – the 2008 BIG EAST Rookie of the Year – to shoulder much of the load to keep the Louisville offense in its regular place among the nation's best.

Syracuse was slotted eighth in the preseason balloting. Doug Marrone enters his first year as head coach at his alma mater and will look to wide receiver Mike Williams and a veteran offensive line to get the Orange back on track.

2009 BIG EAST Football Preseason Media Poll

1. Pittsburgh (8)161
2. West Virginia (5)151
3. Cincinnati (8)144
4. USF (3) 130
5. Rutgers 126
6. Connecticut 74
7. Louisville 51
8. Syracuse 27

First place votes in parentheses.

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