Pitt also received 22 of the possible 24 first-place votes--tying the highest-number of first-place votes set by a team (Louisville, 2005). The toughest thing for a head coach, in this position is keeping the players focused, keeping the confidence to play like a first-place team, but also making sure their heads don't get too big.
"Our guys are smart enough to know that they're one of maybe five teams in this room that can win the conference," Wannstedt said.
Five teams? Wonder which five teams Wannstedt is referring to, and why it‘s not all eight teams? Here's a closer look at the preseason Big East poll, and some reasons for why each team was picked where they were, which will maybe help answer that question.
From an outsiders perspective, it's the obvious star power returning. The Panthers have leading rusher Dion Lewis back, leading receiver Jon Baldwin back, as well as co-defensive player of the year Greg Romeus back.
While the Panthers do have a lot of key players gone from last year's team (Bill Stull, John Malecki, Mick Williams, Gus Mustakas, Aaron Berry), they have built up a lot of quality depth at these key positions--some which may even be better this season (cornerback). The quality depth is why despite losing so much, the voters were impressed by what Wannstedt has stockpiled on the recruiting trail.
Here's the really interesting thing about Cincinnati being second. It is a logistical pick, because they are the two-time defending Big East champions, and they still will be Big East champions until someone else knocks them off. Despite receiving the second-highest amount of points behind Pitt, they didn't earn any first-place votes.
Cincinnati lost Tony Pike and Mardy Gilyard, but return Zach Collaros and Armin Binns, in those respective places. Binns tied for the Big East lead in touchdown receptions last year, with 11. Collaros already has four starts to his credit. Last year, the Bearcats had to replace 10 starters on defense, showing no ill effects. This year, they only have to replace five.
Cincinnati's biggest loss was losing head coach Brian Kelly to Notre Dame. Kelly left his team to fend for itself in a one-sided loss to Florida in the Sugar Bowl. Former Central Michigan head coach Butch Jones was brought in to replace Kelly. Ironically, Kelly also came from Central Michigan, as Jones replaced him there as well. The Bearcats will still be tough. In his tenure at Central Michigan, Davis led the Chippewas to their first AP Top 25 ranking--something Kelly didn't even do while he was there. He also led them to a program-defining win over Michigan State in East Lansing last September.
Kelly may be gone, but the Bearcats brought in someone who has also proven he can win some big games too.
T-2. West Virginia
West Virginia also received 140 points in the poll, but unlike Cincinnati, they received one first-place vote. They have history on their side. Since 2002, West Virginia has not finished lower than second in the conference. Like Pitt, they return both their leading rusher (Noel Devine) and receiver (Jock Sanders). On top of that, they return four of five starters on the offensive line.
On defense, the Mountaineers return three All-Big East performers (LB J.T. Thomas, CB Brandon Hogan, S Robert Sands). On top of that, the also return all three starters on the defensive line (Julian Miller, Chris Neild, Scooter Berry).
Was second an accurate pick for the Mountaineers? They return more players in key positions than both Cincinnati and Pitt. The true test of how far this team will go, and if they're capable of finishing in at least second-place for a ninth season in a row, will hinge on how well quarterback Geno Smith does. Smith played in five games last season, and takes over as the new starter at quarterback.
The Huskies received 131 points in the poll, and also received one first-place vote. There's a lot of excitement in Storrs about this year's version of the Huskies. Why? For one, they return 17 of 22 starters from a team that won its last four games. One of those wins was a nice benchmark for the Big East, a bowl win over South Carolina.
All five of Connecticut's losses tallied up for a total of 15 points. Two touchdowns and a field goal would have given the Huskies an unbeaten season. Keep in mind this team led Pitt 21-6 in the fourth quarter, before Pitt staged one of its more impressive comebacks in recent years.
Both Zach Frazer and Cody Endres return at quarterback, both with significant experience. Jordan Todman also returns at running back. He shared the workload with Andre Dixon last year, yet still ranked third in the conference behind Lewis and Devine in rushing.
That November 11 date with Pitt is looking more like a good showcase for the conference--a Thursday night game between two teams that could be unbeaten in conference play at that point. The Huskies have a chance early in the season to be flag carriers for the Big East, with an opener at Michigan.
The Scarlet Knights are young, but have some talent on the rise. Despite losing first-round picks Anthony Davis and Devin McCourty, the Scarlet Knights should still be able to earn its sixth consecutive bowl bid.
Overall, Rutgers returns 14 of 21 starters, including sophomore quarterback Tom Savage and running back Joe Martinkek. Despite being a sophomore, Savage already has the most starts of any Big East quarterback entering this season.
The Bulls have a new coach in Skip Holtz, who comes to South Florida after winning back-to-back Conference USA championships the last two seasons. With the additions of first-year coaches Jones at Cincinnati, Holtz at USF, and Charlie Strong at Louisville, coaching alone is more competitive in this conference, than it was last year.
Despite finishing sixth in the conference last year, the Bulls had five All-Big East players on that defense they must replace. If they finished sixth with that crew, perhaps they may finish lower than this predicted sixth-place spot, having to replace all those players.
Holtz has his work cut out for him, but proved in his career at East Carolina he can win some big games. In the 2007 and 2008 seasons alone, Holtz led the Pirates to wins over North Carolina, Boise State (ranked No. 24 at the time), Virginia Tech (17th at the time) and West Virginia (8th at the time). He also has a young quarterback in B.J. Daniels, who stepped in admirably when Matt Grothe was lost for the season. Daniels went on to average over 211.9 total yards of offense a game, and led all Big East quarterbacks with 772 yards rushing.
With a player like Daniels to build around, and a proven ability to coach his teams up Holtz might be able to steal a few, but having to replace so much on defense--that never helped the Bulls achieve anything last year--it might be a couple years before the Bulls make a move.
Doug Marrone has Syracuse going in the right direction. It's hard to believe that not long ago, Syracuse owned Pitt. The tides have turned, but after winning seven of the last eight in this series, Pitt has to be cautious of when Syracuse is going to wake up. Based on defense alone, they might be able to make a move into sixth place. They return nine starters from a defense that ranked sixth in total sacks last year, and 13th in rush defense.
As far as recruiting, when Bethlehem (PA) Liberty receiver Jarrod West didn't get in to Stanford, he quickly turned his attention to Syracuse. West won't be a Biletnikoff Award finalist right away--but he's the kind of recruit that lends the program some credibility. He should be able to help right away, to a team that already returns quarterback Ryan Nassib, two of its top three rushers from a year ago (Antwon Bailey, Averin Collier) and three of their top four receivers.
Charlie Strong already has already put his stamp on recruiting for the Cardinals, already snagging 15 verbal commitments for 2011, a class that already ranks second in the conference behind Pitt. Among those 14 commits are three players from Florida, and two each from Alabama and Georgia. These are areas that Strong relied on heavily as a defensive coordinator at Florida.
As for the present, Strong has some question marks at quarterback--three different players started for the Cardinals last year, with hopefully one that will emerge. Victor Anderson, the running back who was the Big East rookie of the year in 2008, was limited with some injuries last year. If he can return to form, that could help dig the Cardinals out of this hole. Since Strong is defensive-minded, a good ground game is what he is looking for to control the tempo.
Strong will have to put his stamp on this defense in a hurry. The Cardinals finished seventh in points and yards allowed. On top of that, they still have to replace six starters from that unit that gave up so much.