Scouting the Big East

VandyMania's Howell Peiser continues with his expert look at the football conferences. Today we will take a look at the Big East Conference.

Big East Conference Preview

 

The Big East lost its top three programs in the last two seasons and appeared on the verge of losing their BCS bowl guarantee for a short time. My ratings show this league to be below the Mountain West in overall strength, but the MWC has no BCS guarantee, while this one still does.

After the theft of Miami, Virginia Tech, and Boston College, the league did some thieving of its own, taking Louisville, Cincinnati, and South Florida from Conference USA. The new football alignment won't be as strong as the original league, but it should be more exciting with higher scores and more passing.

 

The league held its media event in Mid-July, and the official poll picked Louisville to win the conference title in their first year in The Big East. The vote was nearly unanimous. Pittsburgh was picked second, followed by West Virginia, Syracuse, Connecticut, Rutgers, South Florida, and Cincinnati.

 

My ratings agree with the top two picks, and then I have a logjam after that. I show teams three through six to be almost equal.

Half of the league (UL, Pitt, WVU, and 'Cuse) get four home field advantage points, while the rest get the minimum three.

 

1. Louisville            PiRate: 109              HFA: 4

 

The Cardinals led Miami at the Orange Bowl last October with less than a minute to play. Had they hung on to pull off the upset, they would have finished 11-0 and more than likely would have bumped either Utah or Texas from the BCS lottery. When they dominated Boise State in the Liberty Bowl (everywhere except the score), they proved they were truly a national power. Imagine a Utah-Louisville Fiesta Bowl last year; the first to 60 would have won, maybe!

 

The Cardinals have enough horses returning to go with some excellent replacements for last years' seniors; UL will continue to dominate in their new digs. On offense, nine players with past starting experience will try to live up to last year's eye-popping numbers, as Louisville missed averaging an even 50 points per game by just three points. Coach Bobby Petrino's attack troops commandeered 539 total yards per game, rushing for 250 and passing for 289. They were held to just 28 points by one opponent (Kentucky in the opener), and they topped 40 points nine times.

 

Piloting the SR-71 offense is quarterback Brian Brohm. Last year, he played enough to toss 98 passes and completed 67.3% for 819 yards and six touchdowns. His brother Jeff, a former standout at UL, is his quarterback coach. Brohm has an excellent group of speedy, good hands receivers to chuck the pig. Montrell Jones, a former Tennessee Vol, is a big play receiver. He's the guy a quarterback looks for on 3rd and 10. Joshua Tinch can take a short pass and turn it into a 70-yard touchdown play. Broderick Clark may be the fastest of the bunch and must be respected on the deep routes. On the bench, Harry Douglas may actually be the best deep threat. With this type of depth, The Cards can send a man deep on every pass pattern and wear out opposing DBs.

 

Petrino uses the two tight end set several times a game. He has a couple of quality guys in Gary Barnidge and Scott Kuhn. Barnidge can do it all, while Kuhn is more of a pass catcher than a blocker.

 

The running game is stocked full of talented players. Michael Bush and Kolby Smith should share most of the load this year. Bush rushed for 734 yards (5.6 avg), while Smith averaged 9.4 yards per rush thanks to multiple breakaway runs. As an added bonus, Smith is an excellent blocker and can play fullback when the Cardinals utilize one.

 

The offensive line should continue to dominate defenses. Big Kurt Quarterman (6-05 348) joins All-American prospects Jason Spitz and Travis Leffew and All-Big East prospect Renardo Foster.

 

The Cardinal defense made huge strides last year reducing the points allowed from 28 to 20. There are some holes to fill, but as long as they hold opponents under 30 points, Louisville can win any game.

 

The front four will play second fiddle to nobody in the Big East. Elvis Dumervil recorded 10 sacks last year and requires double team blocks on drop back passes. His counterpart Brandon Cox is considered the next superstar on this team. Tackles Montavious Stanley and Amobi Okoye are both strong and quick for their position.

 

The linebacker corps features leading returning tackler Brandon Johnson, who finished 2004 with 84 tackles (seven for loss), four passes broken up, and two interceptions. Joining him are Abe Brown and Matt Sanders. Brown picked up six sacks on dogs and blitzes.

 

The lone question mark is the secondary. If it develops into a cohesive unit, The Cards could very well run the table and possibly have an outside chance to go to Pasadena. William Gay is the lone holdover.

 

Kicker Art Carmody was perfect on extra points and hit 80% of his field goal attempts.

 

2. Pittsburgh          PiRate: 106              HFA: 4

 

Welcome Back! No I'm not talking about an old TV show from the 1970's starring Gabe Kaplan. Head Coach Dave Wannstedt returns to his alma mater where he captained the 1973 Panthers.  Former coach Walt Harris left Wannstedt a full stable of horses, and Pitt could challenge Louisville for the Big East marbles.

 

Wannstedt has indicated he wants to utilize more four wide receiver sets this season, and because of that, he has moved one of his tailbacks to wide out. Marcus Furman made the switch earlier this year, and the results have been impressive. Furman compliments a trio of excellent pass catchers. Greg Lee pulled down 68 passes for 1,297 yards and 10 scores. He should be a first day draft pick in 2007. Joe DelSardo is more of a possession receiver. Derek Kinder is a reliable third receiver.

 

The tight end position isn't going away; Pitt will still rely on one and sometimes two TEs. Erik Gill is one of the best blocker/receivers in the NCAA. Last year, he nabbed 25 passes for a spectacular 17.3 average per catch. Tiny 190-pound safeties get nightmares about having to stop Gill and his 6-05/270 body coming at them at full speed.

 

Throwing the ball to this bevy of receivers is Tyler Palko. The southpaw completed 56.2% of his passes last year for 3,067 yards and a fantastic 24/7 TD/Int ratio. He must stay healthy, as there is little experience behind him.

 

The running game will improve on last year's pitiful average of 98 yards per game. New offensive coordinator and former Panther QB Matt Cavanaugh will emphasize the run more this season. Leading the way are Raymond Kirkley, Brandon Mason, and true freshmen LaRod Stephens and Rashad Jennings. When the Panthers go with a fullback, Tim Murphy, Kellen Campbell, and true freshman Conredge Collins will provide the extra blocking and occasional deceptive run. Collins is the son of former Pro Bowl back of the New England Patriots Tony Collins.

 

The offensive line takes a back seat to no other Big East team. Tackles Mike McGlynn and Charles Spencer and guard John Simonitis are as good as any blocking trio on the East coast.

 

Pitt's defense allowed 24 points and 395 yards in 2004. Those numbers should stay about the same this year. Two starters return to the interior line. Tackle Thomas Smith and rush end Charles Sallet need to have big years in 2005. Sallet must improve on his three sack season of 2004 or sophomore Chris McKillop will take over the job.

 

Middle linebacker H.B. Blades wears number 51, the number worn by the best ever at that position, Dick Butkus. Last year, he led the Panthers with 108 tackles and nine tackles for loss, plus three interceptions and two sacks.

 

Three starters return to the secondary. Cornerbacks Bernard "Josh" Lay and Darrelle Revis could be the best pair in the Big East. Lay earned All-Big East honors last year. Revis is the Tasmanian devil in pads. Free safety Tez Morris is like having your secondary coach on the field with you when you play. He has the most game experience of any current Panther.

 

Pitt should easily match and more than likely exceed its 8-4 record of 2004.

 

3 (tie). Syracuse                PiRate: 97                HFA: 4

 

Here's to you Mr. Robinson, 'Cuse fans love you more than you will know--that is until you go 6-6 like Paul Pasqualoni did last year. After a season as defensive coordinator at Texas, Coach Robinson gets his first head coaching job. In year one, the Orange defense should give up less than 29 points and 427 yards per game like it did last season. Nine starters return from last year, although a couple of them could find they have been replaced.

 

Up front, defensive tackles Kader Drame and Tony Jenkins combined for 80 tackles. End James Wyche is the star of the defense. Last year, he combined 5 1/2 sacks and 10 tackles for loss with 68 total tackles. Wyche is both strong and fast and has NFL future star written on his resume.

 

All three starting linebackers return this year. Middle LB Jerry Mackey led the 2004 Orange with 106 tackles.

 

The secondary still has positions up for grabs. Cornerback Tanard Jackson is sure to start, but after that it's anyone's guess. The Orange defense permitted better than 60% of enemy passes to be completed last year, so there is room for improvement.

 

The offense still has positions up for grabs, mainly in the receiving corps. The leading returnee is Steve Gregory, but he is now a cornerback. None of the current wide outs have much game experience, so this could be a learning year.

 

Perry Patterson recently won the starting quarterback job over Joe Fields. This is a continuation of last year's QB battle, as Fields began the year as the starter and surrendered the job to Patterson. Patterson has the potential, as he has a cannon for an arm.

 

Damien Rhodes was a co-starter in 2004 at tailback. He rushed for 870 yards at a 5.7 clip, earning 2nd team All-Big East honors. The depth behind him is untested; so, if he goes out with an injury, Syracuse could be in trouble.

 

The Orange offensive line returns three starters. Center Steve Franklin and guard Jason Greene have All-Big East potential.

 

Look for Syracuse to score fewer points but give up fewer points and find themselves in about the same boat as 2004.

 

3 (tie) Rutgers                    PiRate: 97               HFA: 3

 

We owe this great game of football to this school. Rutgers invited downstate rival Princeton up one November afternoon in 1869 for a little game. They became the then all-time winning college team a couple hours later after beating The Tigers 6-4. Princeton got their revenge a week later 8-0 on their home field, ending Rutgers' season at 1-1. It would be seven more years until RU fielded a team above .500 (1-0 in 1876).

 

Could this be the year Coach Greg Schiano returns the Scarlet Knights to the top-side of .500? For his sake, it better be, or he may be looking for another situation. Rutgers returns more starters than any other Big East team. If Rutgers is to win six or more games and become bowl eligible, the offense must carry the load. Last year, RU scored 24.5 points per game while totaling 394 yards per game (311 through the air).

 

Quarterback Ryan Hart returns after tossing for 3,154 yards at a 65.1% clip. He threw too many interceptions (19) and must cut down on that number for the Knights to move up in the standings.

 

Hart has his three top weapons from last year returning. Split end Tres Moses, tight end Clark Harris, and fullback Brian Leonard combined for 65% of all RU catches. Added to the trio is Shawn Tucker, who led Rutgers with 50 receptions in 2003.

 

The 2004 rushing stats were even worse than Pittsburgh's. RU averaged 83 yards per game and just 2.5 yards per rush. Sacks really didn't affect these numbers either. Leonard led the way with 732 yards from his fullback spot. Now 100% healthy, he should have a better season.

The offensive line has two potential All-Big East players. Guards John Glass and Jeremy Zuttah can are excellent pass blockers.

 

Rutgers has an excellent shot at finishing above .500 for the first time since 1992.

 

5 (tie) West Virginia                     PiRate: 95                HFA: 4

 

West Virginia is looking at a mountain of a rebuilding season in 2005. Eight offensive and six defensive starters depart from a team that went 8-4 in 2004. Head Coach Rich Rodriguez lost most of his contributing skill players on offense, as well as four starters from his front six on the defensive side.

 

Making problems worse for the Mountaineers has been a rash of minor injuries during August workouts. Three key tailbacks and both of the expected starting wide outs have been victims. Added to the woes is the fact that Rodriguez has yet to finalize his opening depth chart with many spots still up for grabs just a little more than a week before heading to Syracuse. This could be a long year in Morgantown. Luckily for them, there are some weak teams below them in the ratings, giving WVU multiple chances to win games.

 

Let's start with the offense where most of the skilled positions are still not settled. Red shirt freshman quarterback Pat White appears to have nudged past sophomore Adam Bednarik, but he has not secured the starting job. Neither has been consistent in practice so far.

 

The expected co-starters at tailback are Jason Colson and Pernell Williams, but both have missed practices with injuries. True freshman phenom Jason Gwaltney has also been inured and missed practice forcing fullback Owen Schmitt to get reps at tailback.

 

The Mountaineers have two healthy tight ends vying for the starting position. Josh Bailey and Brad Palmer will be used more for their blocking ability than pass catching ability.

 

At the wide out spots, Dwayne Thompson and Brandon Myles had been given the starting spots, but they too have been injured and missed practices. Rayshawn Bolden is an adequate third receiver.

 

There are no injuries at slot back, but Darius Reynaud and Vaughn Rivers are fighting it out at one slot, while Joe Hunter and true freshman Jeremy Bruce are in a dead heat at the other slot.

 

The chaos on offense will certainly be a factor in the early season. It costs WVU a few points.

 

Defensively, the depth chart is mostly settled. The Mountaineers fielded a solid defense last year, but lost some key players. West Virginia uses a 3-3-5 formation. Up front Ernest Hunter is the lone returnee. He can play any of the three spots in the interior.

 

Kevin McLee leads an inexperienced trio of linebackers. Jeff Noechel and Jay Henry round out the group.

 

The secondary must get along without current Tennessee Titans rookie Adam "Pac Man Jones." Jones led the Mountaineers with 76 tackles, seven passes broken up, and three interceptions. He also was the teams return man averaging 14.6 yards with a TD on punts and 23.4 yards on kickoffs. His replacement at cornerback is the one spot still up for grabs on this side of the ball. Needless to say, there will be quite a drop-off. Bandit safety Mike Lorello recorded nine tackles for loss in 2004. Spur safety Eric Wicks joins free safety Jahmile Addae and cornerback Anthony Mims to round out the rebuilding secondary. Expect more than 200 yards per game allowed this year.

 

If the pieces don't fall together in September, WVU is in danger of falling from four losses to just four wins. Don't expect a fourth consecutive bowl game.

 

5 (tie) Connecticut                       PiRate: 95                HFA: 3

 

Coach Randy Edsall has done wonders in seven short years in Storrs, bringing this program from I-AA to I-A creampuff to I-A bowl team. The former Yankee Conference member now has more than 30,000 season ticket holders.

 

The Huskies will take a small step backward this season as they must rebuild an offense that produced 429 yards and 30.3 points per game last year. The new quarterback will either be Matt Bonislawski or red shirt freshman D.J. Hernandez. They must replace Dan Orlovsky who threw for over 10,000 yards in his career and became a draft pick of the Detroit Lions. A relatively easy schedule gives UConn a fair chance at recording yet another winning record and second straight bowl bid.

 

The chief weapons of this offense will be tailbacks Cornell Brockington and Terry Caulley. Last year, Brockington raced for 1,218 yards and 11 touchdowns. Caulley missed the 2004 and the second half of 2003 with a knee injury. He rushed for 1,247 yards as a freshman in 2002 and was on his way to another 1,000-yard season in 2003 before sustaining the injury.

 

UConn might utilize a fullback more this year, and red shirt freshman Lou Allen will be the man for the job.

 

Jason Williams and Brandon Young figure to be the starting wide receivers. Williams caught 44 balls for 661 yards last year, including one that went 90 yards for a touchdown. His sub-4.3 speed will force defenses to play loose on his side. Young is quite speedy as well. Tight end Dan Murray can catch the ball in a crowd and run a deep route. He is used more as a receiver than as a sixth interior lineman.

 

The offensive line returns just two starters and may give up more sacks this year. Guard Craig Berry and tackle Grant Preston could emerge as All-Big East caliber linemen.

 

The defense is in a little better shape. The interior line features two outstanding players in end Shawne Mayne and tackle Rhema Fuller. Mayne recorded 5.5 sacks and another five tackles for loss.

 

James Hargrave is the lone returnee at linebacker. He is also the leading returning tackler with 88 including 11 for loss.

 

The secondary will sorely miss cornerback Justin Perkins and his 12 passes broken up and five interceptions. Ernest Cole and M.J. Estep become the leaders this year.

 

A big offensive weapon is return specialist Larry Taylor. Last year he returned 24 punts at a 14.6 yard average and one touchdown. He returned 12 kickoffs for a 31.3 average and another score.

 

7. South Florida                 PiRate: 86                HFA: 3

 

This program didn't even exist 10 years ago, but Jim Leavitt has done wonders here. The Bulls join the Big East at the wrong time. They are a year or two away from being good once again.

 

Quarterback Pat Julmiste returns to the fold, but he may not be the starter this season. Auburn transfer Courtney Denson may beat him out. Julmiste completed only 47.8% of his passes last year with seven touchdowns and eight interceptions. Denson never played QB at Auburn, as he was used as a defensive back in his one year on the Plains.

 

Tailback Andre Hall rushed for 1,357 yards last year, averaging 6.5 yards per carry. In the USF offense, Mike Ruegger lines up as either a fullback or tight end depending on the formation. He's a hard as nails blocker.

 

Johnny Peyton and S. J. Green return as wide receiver starters where they both caught 22 passes last year. Jackie Chambers will join them as the third wide receiver. Peyton is just a sophomore, but already pro scouts are looking at him. His exceptional speed and 6-05 frame makes him an excellent deep threat who can out-jump a defender for the ball.

 

Two veteran players anchor the offensive line. Center John Miller joins guard Chris Carothers to form a formidable blocking tandem.

 

The defense should be somewhat improved, especially in the back seven spots. Two linebackers form the heart of the stop troops. Stephen Nicholas had 97 tackles with 11 for loss along with five passes broken up. Patrick St. Louis contributed 61 tackles.

 

This year's starting secondary had one interception, and that belonged to the one player who didn't start last year. Free safety Danny Verpaele is the stalwart of this group. An added bonus would be the healthy return of Mike Jenkins. He batted away nine passes in limited action before going out with an ankle injury.

 

The defensive line gave up only 3.7 yards per rush in 2004. Tackle/End Tim Jones was a star on the line in 2003. He chose to red shirt last year so he could spend his senior season in the Big East. Terrence Royal is an athletic end who recorded 10 tackles for loss last year.

 

Even though USF looks to have more talent this year than last, a killer schedule with non-conference games at Penn State and Miami of Florida will keep them from improving or matching last year's 4-7 record.

 

8. Cincinnati                      PiRate: 84                HFA: 3

 

Bearcat head coach Mark Dantonio begins his second year at Cincinnati after posting a 7-5 record and Ft. Worth Bowl victory over Marshall. At the end of year two, it's a good bet he will have an overall losing record in the Queen City. Cinti lost 16 starters from last year's squad. Included in this group are the quarterback, a 1,000-yard rushing tailback, and a 1,000-yard receiving wide out. Only one starter returns to the offensive line. On the other side of the ball, the interior line and line backing units have been depleted, and the secondary returns two of four 2004 starters.

 

Quarterback Dustin Grutza will try to replace all-time leading passer Gino Guidugli who threw 26 touchdown passes last year. Grutza won the Offensive Scout Team Player of the Year in 2004. Grutza's best asset is his intelligence.

 

Bradley Glatthiar is a power runner who can pick up the first down on 3rd and two inside the opponents' 20-yard line. He rushed for 315 yards at a 4.4 clip. Doug Jones returns as the starting fullback. He has excellent blocking abilities and can come out of the backfield and catch the ball.

Tight end Brent Celek combines excellent blocking skills with above-average receiving skills. He can run the dangerous middle routes and catch a ball in a crowd knowing he is going to get a hard shot in the ribs. His ability to run to daylight after making the catch gives him a shot at making All-Big East this year. Joining Celek are wide outs Derrick Ross and Bill Poland.

 

The offensive line returns just one starter in tackle Steve Eastlake. He has started every game the last two years.

 

The defense will more than likely give up some heavy numbers in the yardage and points allowed department. Last year's stop troops yielded 27 points and 341 total yards. End Adam Roberts returns to lead the defensive line. Roberts registered 32 tackles with four going for losses in 2004.

 

The linebacker corps was so depleted that fullback Jon Carpenter moved over to defense and won a starting job.

 

Safety Dominic Ross (Derrick's brother) led all returnees with 37 tackles last year. He joins Haruki Nakamura to form a solid inside part of the secondary.

 

The Bearcats will struggle in 2005 and may have trouble winning more than two games.

 

If All Games Were Played September 1st

(in other words, these ratings are only good for the first week of the season)

(and predicted records may move a team up or down due to HFA)

 

Team                         Conf.             Overall

Louisville                     7-0                  11-0

Pittsburgh                   6-1                   9-2

Connecticut                4-3                   7-4

Syracuse                     4-3                   5-6

Rutgers                        3-4                   6-5

West Virginia             3-4                   5-6

South Florida              1-6                   3-8

Cincinnati                    0-7                   2-9


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