***CINCINNATI (8-5 overall, 4-3 in conference in 2006)
*Returning Starters: 14 with six on offense and eight on defense.
*Summary: Mark Dantonio led the Bearcats to a 8-5 mark in 2006, including a 27-24 win over Western Michigan in the International Bowl. Dantonio left Cincinnati for Michigan State and Brian Kelly was named the new head coach. Kelly coached the team to the bowl win. The schedule sets up well for a good start, with three of the first four games at home.
Kelly will be changing the offense from a rushing offense to a spread formation. Last year's statistical numbers really don't apply for the 2007 Bearcats. Dustin Grutza will be the man in charge of the new offensive philosophy. Grutza will have to improve on his nine touchdowns to 13 interceptions ratio if Cincinnati wants to put the ball in the air more. Wake Forest transfer Ben Mauk could push Grutza for snaps. Dominick Goodman is the top returner at wide receiver, nabbing 40 balls for 452 yards and five touchdowns in 2006. Three starters have to be replaced on the offensive line.
The Bearcats weren't bad on defense, ranking 31st overall last season. Cincinnati returns all four starters along the defensive line. Last year, the group was 25th in run defense. DE Trevor Anderson had six sacks and 13 TFL in 2006. CB Mike Mickens is one of the top corners in the conference and had three interceptions last season.
The Bearcats will have their hands full on special teams leading up to the opener. Cincinnati lost their punter and kicker to graduation. Goodman averaged 26 yards a return on kickoffs.
*Impact Players: QB Grutza (1,632 yards, 9 TD's), WR Goodman (452 yards, 5 TD's) and CB Mickens (2nd team All-Big East in 2006).
*Key Games: September 6th vs. Oregon State, October 6th at Rutgers, October 13th vs. Louisville and November 17th at West Virginia.
***CONNECTICUT (4-8 overall, 1-6 in conference in 2006)
*Returning Starters: 13 with seven on offense and six on defense.
*Summary: Connecticut ended the 2006 by losing three straight, including a 48-17 drubbing at the hands of Louisville. The biggest win was a double overtime 46-45 victory over Pittsburgh. A 3-0 start is not out of the question with Duke, Maine and Temple lined up the first three contests. The Huskies also have Louisville and Rutgers coming to their place.
UCONN did one thing well last year on offense: run the football. Connecticut ranked 13th in the country in the category, averaging 182 yards per game on the ground. Donald Brown is coming off a fantastic freshman season, running for 896 yards and seven touchdowns in 2006. Three starters return on the offensive line to make holes for Brown. At the quarterback position, Dennis Brown and junior college transfer Tyler Lorenzen should battle for the right to start. UCONN ranked 110th last year in passing offense. D.J. Hernandez, who played quarterback last season, moved to wide receiver in the spring.
The Huskies were 81st in total defense in 2006. UCONN has to replace both defensive tackles, a linebacker and two safety spots. Leading tackler Danny Lansanah is back at linebacker after totaling 99 tackles last season. CB Darius Butler returns in the secondary after interception four passes last year.
Special teams could be a problem. Gone are the kicker, the punter and the best return man from the 2006 team.
*Impact Players: RB Brown (896 yards, 7 TD's), LB Lansanah (99 tackles, 9.5 TFL and 4 INT's) and CB Butler (4 INT's).
*Key Games: September 22nd at Pittsburgh, October 13th at Virginia, October 19th vs. Louisville and November 3rd vs. Rutgers.
***LOUISVILLE (12-1 overall, 6-1 in conference in 2006)
*Returning Starters: 12 with seven on offense and five on defense.
*Summary: The Cardinals were a three-point loss at Rutgers away from playing Ohio State in the national championship. Instead, Louisville had to settle for a BCS appearance in the Orange Bowl, where they beat ACC champion Wake Forest 24-13. Bobby Petrino left to take the Atlanta Falcons job and in his place Steve Kragthorpe assumes control of the program. A monster game on November 8th looms at West Virginia and the Cardinals end the year at home against Rutgers.
Louisville had one of the top offenses in the nation last season, ranking 4th in scoring offense at 37 PPG and 2nd in total offense at 475 yards a contest. It should be more of the same in 2007 with quarterback Brian Brohm back. Brohm threw for over 3,000 yards and tossed 16 touchdowns to five interceptions last season. WR Harry Douglas is back and looking to notch his second straight 1,000 receiving season. Last year, Douglas caught 70 passes for 1,265 yards and six touchdowns. Three offensive linemen return to the mix for an offense that was 12th nationally in running the football but two spots on the right side must be filled.
Louisville was 17th in scoring defense and 40th overall in 2006. Five starters are back on this side of the ball. LB Malik Jackson registered 16 TFL and nine sacks last season in addition to 57 tackles. Pressure was the key last year for the Cardinals. The defense ranked 2nd in the country in sacks with over three a contest. The secondary could be a concern with only FS Latarrius Thomas back as a starter. In 2006, the pass defense was 80th, allowing 215 yards per game through the air.
*Impact Players: QB Brohm (3,049 yards, 16 TD's), WR Douglas (1,265 yards, 6 TD's) and LB Jackson (16 TFL, 9 sacks).
*Key Games: September 29th at N.C. State, October 27th vs. Pittsburgh, November 8th at West Virginia and November 29th vs. Rutgers.
***PITTSBURGH (6-6 overall, 2-5 in conference in 2006)
*Returning Starters: 13 with eight on offense and five on defense.
*Summary: In head coach Dave Wannstedt's second season with the Panthers, the team finished .500 and did not make a bowl appearance. All in all, it was a disappointing year, highlighted by a double overtime loss to Connecticut. Pitt has non-conference tilts against Michigan State and Virginia and must go to Rutgers, Louisville and West Virginia.
The Panthers could put some points on the board in 2006, ranking 14th in scoring offense at 31 PPG. But Pitt must replace Tyler Palko, who tossed 25 touchdowns last season. Junior Bill Stull and red shirt freshman Kevan Smith are in a battle for the job. Stull's experience amounts to being the backup as Palko started 35 straight games. WR Derek Kinder caught 57 balls for 847 yards and 6 TD's in 2006 while Oderick Turner added 660 yards and eight TD's. Four starters are back on the offensive line and will make room for RB LaRod Stephens-Howling to rumble. Last year, Stephens-Howling ran for 893 yards and nine TD's.
The big problem with the defense last season was stopping the run. The Panthers ranked 107th nationally in the category. Thankfully for Pitt, experience reigns on the defensive line as all four starters are back. This might be good or bad because of last year's problems. DE Joe Clermond totaled 5.5 sacks and 16.5 TFL in 2006. All three linebackers need to be replaced, including Big East Defensive Player of the Year H.B. Blades. CB Kennard Cox is the only starter back in the secondary. There isn't one defensive player returning who totaled more than one INT last season.
Conor Lee was 12-of-14 kicks in 2006, including a perfect 10-for-10 from 30 yards and out. A new punter needs to be found but KR Lowell Robinson helped Pitt rank 9th nationally in returns. Robinson took a 97-yard return to the house for a score last season.
*Impact Players: RB Stephens-Howling (893 yards, 9 TD's), WR Kinder (847 yards, 6 TD's) and WR Turner (660 yards, 8 TD's).
*Key Games: September 15th at Michigan State, October 27th at Louisville, November 17th at Rutgers and December 1st at West Virginia.
***RUTGERS (11-2 overall, 5-2 in conference)
*Returning Starters: 14 with seven on offense and seven on defense.
*Summary: Rutgers was one of the surprises of the 2006 college football season. The Scarlet Knights were 11-2 under Greg Schiano and whipped Kansas State 37-10 in the Texas Bowl. Another solid season could be in store for 2007. Rutgers has eight home games, including a October 27th date vs. West Virginia. The Scarlet Knights end the year at Louisville in what could be for the conference championship.
The philosophy was simple in 2006 on offense for Rutgers: give the ball to running back Ray Rice. The 5-9, 200-pound back delivered with a 1,794-yard, 20 touchdown season. The Scarlet Knights were 15th last year in rushing offense and with Rice and three starters back on the offensive line, the ground attack should be fine. Rutgers does have to replace FB Brian Leonard, the heart and soul of the last season's team. QB Mike Teel returns but will have to improve on a 55 percent completion percentage and 12 touchdowns to 13 interceptions. Both wide receivers are back but this group relies on Rice and the running game to open the field up.
The Scarlet Knights were 4th in total defense in 2006, holding opponents to just 252 yards a contest. Two starters return on the line, including tackle Eric Foster, who had 14 TFL and six sacks last year. DE Jamal Westerman totaled eight sacks and 13.5 TFLs a year ago. Two holes must be filled in the linebacker core but three starters are back in the secondary. Last season, Rutgers was sixth nationally against the pass. Courtney Greene, who intercepted four balls in 2006, is the leader of this group.
Kicker Jeremy Ito returns and was best known for his game-winning field goal against Louisville. Holes at punter and both return positions must be addressed.
*Impact Players: RB Rice (1,794 yards, 20 TD's), DT Foster (14 TFL, 6 sacks), DE Westerman (13.5 TFL, 8 sacks) and S Greene (82 tackles, 4 INT's).
*Key Games: September 29th vs. Maryland, October 27th vs. West Virginia, November 17th vs. Pittsburgh and November 29th at Louisville.
***SOUTH FLORIDA (9-4 overall, 4-3 in conference)
*Returning Starters: 16 with eight on offense and eight on defense.
*Summary: The Bulls will look to continue the momentum gained in 2006. South Florida went 9-4 in 2006, including a 24-7 victory over East Carolina in the PapaJohns.com Bowl. Louisville and West Virginia both come to the Bulls' home this season. A non-conference road date September 8th at Auburn should tell just how good South Florida will be this year.
The Bulls were middle of the road in the national offensive categories. Rising star Matt Grothe will look to better these numbers in 2007 in the spread offense. The junior quarterback threw for over 2,500 yards and 15 touchdowns and completed 63 percent of his passes. Grothe also was the team's leading rusher with 622 yards and scored another nine times on the ground. Four starters are back on the offensive line and RB Benjamin Williams will look to be the beneficiary. Williams ran for 436 yards and four touchdowns in 2006. Taurus Johnson is the top receiver back after catching 37 balls for 494 yards and two touchdowns.
The Bulls were 25th in total defense and 18th in scoring defense last season. MLB Ben Moffitt was the team's leading tackler in 2006 with 112 stops, including 11 TFL. The defensive line should be productive as three starters return. DE Chris Robinson has seven sacks as a freshman. In the secondary, Trae Williams and Mike Jenkins are both back at the cornerback spots. Williams had seven interceptions last season and will be one of the better defensive backs in the league.
Delbert Alvarado was 5-for-9 in kicks last year, including a long of 56 yards. Justin Teachy returns as the punter after averaging 38 yards per boot. Taurus Johnson averaged 22 yards per return on kickoffs.
*Impact Players: QB Grothe (2,576 passing yards, 622 rushing yards, 24 total TD's), LB Moffitt (112 tackles) and CB Jenkins (7 INT's).
*Key Games: September 8th at Auburn, September 28th vs. West Virginia, October 18th at Rutgers and November 17th vs. Louisville.
***SYRACUSE (4-8 overall, 1-6 in conference in 2006)
*Returning Starters: 10 with six on offense and four on defense.
*Summary: Syracuse made some progress in 2006. The Orange went from zero conference wins in 2005 to one last season. Head coach Greg Robinson is going to have to show some results in his third season. Washington and Iowa are on the non-conference schedule but Rutgers and West Virginia both come to the Carrier Dome.
The offense was abysmal in 2006. Syracuse was 110th in total offense, 102nd in scoring offense, 103rd in passing offense and 97th in rushing offense. Six starters are back to improve the dreadful numbers. QB Andrew Robinson doesn't have much experience, only throwing eight balls in 2006. But the passing game can't get any worse than it has been the past few seasons. Running back Delone Carter, who rushed for 713 yards last year, is out for 2007 with a dislocated hip. Curtis Brinkley gained 571 yards last season and will pick up the slack. Three starters return on the offensive line. In 2006, the group was 116th in sacks allowed. Tight end Tom Ferron caught a team-best 30 balls for 351 yards and two touchdowns and should help Robinson and the air attack.
The Orange weren't much better on defense. Syracuse was 107th in total defense, allowing 400 yards per game. Only four starters return. The stud of the group is DE Jameel McClain, who registered 9.5 sacks and 14.5 TFL in 2006. However, three new linebackers must be found in the starting lineup. Free safety Joe Fields picked off four balls last season and should highlight the secondary group.
Patrick Shadle is back after making 16-of-18 field goal attempts last year, including everyone from 39 yards and in.
*Impact Players: RB Brinkley (571 yards, 2 TD's), DE McClain (9.5 sacks) and FS Fields (76 tackles, 4 INT's).
*Key Games: September 8th at Iowa, September 22 at Louisville, October 6th vs. West Virginia and October 13th vs. Rutgers.
***WEST VIRGINIA (11-2 overall, 5-2 in conference in 2006)
*Returning Starters: 16 with eight on offense and eight on defense.
*Summary: West Virginia capped a 11-2 year with a come-from-behind 38-35 victory over Georgia Tech in the Gator Bowl. However, anything less than a BCS appearance this season might be considered a letdown. The big contest is on October 27 when the Mountaineers travels to Rutgers. Don't sleep on the September 28th game at South Florida. The Bulls beat WVU 24-19 in Morgantown last year.
West Virginia was 100th in passing offense in 2006. But this was not a problem because the Mountaineers had one of the most dynamic rush attacks in the nation. WVU was second in rushing offense, averaging over 300 yards per game on the ground. QB Pat White and RB Steve Slaton are back and both are Heisman Trophy candidates. White accounted for 31 touchdowns last season and over 2,800 yards of total offense. Slaton ran for 1,744 yards and 16 touchdowns and together these two are hard to stop. All-American center Dan Mozes is gone but three starters return to the group. The Mountaineers don't throw the ball a lot but Darius Reynaud caught 39 balls for 520 yards last season.
Putting points up on the board wasn't a problem for WVU. It was stopping the opposition at times that halted the Mountaineers championship dreams. West Virginia was 109th in passing defense in 2006 and 62nd nationally in total defense. In the three biggest contests last year, WVU allowed 39, 44 and 35 points. S Quinton Andrews led the team last year in tackles with 80. Andrews also intercepted five passes. In the Mountaineers 3-3-5 scheme, FS Eric Wicks was tops last season with seven sacks. If this group can just slow down opponents, the offense shouldn't have a problem outscoring teams.
*Impact Players: QB White (1,655 passing yards, 1,219 rushing yards, 31 total TD's), RB Slaton (1,744 yards, 18 total TD's) and S Andrews (80 tackles).
*Key Games: September 13th at Maryland, September 28th at South Florida, October 27th at Rutgers and November 8th vs. Louisville.