This year, the PiRates reveal that the Big East starts the season with a tiny average rating advantage over the MWC. Three teams rate as above average, while three more teams are about average.
The official media poll picked West Virginia to edge Louisville for first with Pittsburgh narrowly edging Rutgers for third (a virtual tie). After that, there was a large drop to South Florida at five and Connecticut at six, and then another drop to Cincinnati at seven and Syracuse in last place. The PiRate ratings completely differ.
1. Louisville Cardinals
PiRate: 114 National Ranking: 18 HFA: 5
The Cardinals are loaded with talent in many areas, but inexperience in a couple of areas could prevent them from going undefeated and having an outside chance at the BCS Championship Game.
The offense will be exciting every week as it averages about 45-50 points and 500-550 yards per game. The defense has a chance to be better than last year, but even if it surrenders less than 23.8 points per game (2005's avg.), Louisville could still lose one or two times.
Let's start with the explosive offense. Brian Brohm will be a first round draft choice in next spring's NFL Draft if he decides to forego his senior year. Last year, before he injured his ACL, he threw for 2,883 yards and 19 touchdowns with a 68.8 completion percentage. If he is fully healthy, he could top 3,500 yards and 25 touchdowns this year.
As good as Brohm is, tailback Michael Bush is even better. I think he rates ahead of Adrian Peterson for best running back in I-A. Last year, Bush rushed for 1,143 yards with 23 touchdowns! He averaged 5.6 yards per carry. He combines power with speed, much like Eddie George. Also like George, Bush is a weapon on passing plays, as evidenced by his 21 receptions for 253 yards.
Louisville has two other excellent runners in George Stripling and Kolby Smith, both of whom could possibly rush for 1,000 yards if given the opportunity. Last year, these two combined for 1,144 yards on 186 rushes (a higher average per carry than Bush).
As if these star skill players weren't enough, UL has the top receiver in the Big East. Mario Urrutia has no peer in the Big East. His 2005 stats showed an average of 21.5 yards per catch and seven scores. Look for a 1,000 receiving yard season from him. Helping keep the pressure off Urrutia will be Harry Douglas who grabbed 27 passes at a 16.9 yard average.
The offensive line is the lone question mark. It's not like the Cards don't have talent here, they just don't have national title talent (like Texas and Southern Cal had last year). Center Eric Wood and guard Kurt Quarterman are quite strong.
When Louisville needs three points, they have one of the best kickers in Art Carmody, who booted 14 of 16 field goal attempts through the uprights, including a perfect five for five from beyond 40 yards.
Louisville may give up fewer points this year, but it won't be because they are better defensively than last year. The Cards lost the human sacking machine when Elvis left the building, er stadium. Elvis Dumervil registered 20 tackles behind the line on enemy quarterbacks and 23 total tackles for loss. He found time to intercept a pass and knock away four others. UL still has a talented defensive line with tackle Amobi Okoye leading the way. End Zach Anderson should approach double digit sacks and 15 stops for loss.
The linebackers are in even better shape with two stars returning. Nate Harris and Abe Brown made 21 stops behind the line in 2005 and should improve on that number this year.
The secondary has two strong cornerbacks who can cover man-to-man without much help. Rod Council will shut down most receivers he faces, while William Gay can be left alone on an island and defend with his world-class speed.
Punter Todd Flannery averaged almost 41 yards per punt last year. He won't be appearing all that often this year, maybe just 30 times.
The Cardinals do not face a team on their schedule that they cannot beat. The toughest opponents, Miami and West Virginia, must come to Papa John's Stadium. Kansas State and Pittsburgh provide the toughest road opposition. Louisville has won 16 of 17 home games during the Bobby Petrino era. They should run the table at home. However, I expect them to stub their two at least once on the road. Still 11-1 and a probable Orange or Sugar Bowl berth will be a successful season.
2. West Virginia Mountaineers
PiRate: 113 National Ranking: 20 HFA: 5
All summer, I have heard and read how West Virginia's schedule is tailor-made for a 12-0 season and chance at the National Championship. The recently released national poll ranked them number five to start the season. I just don't buy it. The Mountaineers have too many holes on defense and a road date at Louisville on Thursday, November 2. They will not win that game unless UL has numerous injuries by then.
That said, WVU will have another fine football team and will play in a bowl game. Their offense will remind people of an Ohio State or Michigan offense during the Woody Hayes and Bo Schembechler era. In the 21st Century, I prefer to call it 4 yards and a cloud of finely crushed rubber.
The leader of the rushing brigade is Steve Slaton. He's coming off a 17 rushing touchdown season in which he gained 1,128 yards. Coach Rich Rodriguez has the luxury of having an old-fashioned fullback who can both block and run the ball. Owen Schmitt carried 48 times last year and never was stopped at the line of scrimmage. He gained eight yards per carry! When your fullback can do that, how can opposing teams key on the tailback?
Now for the piece de la resistance: quarterback Patrick White would have been credited with a 1,000-yard rushing season if the NCAA counted sacks separately from rushing (the NFL is wise enough to figure that sacks are not running plays). White is probably the fastest quarterback in I-A football. Don't think he is one dimensional; he completed 57% of his passes last year. Backup Adam Bednarik is a better short passer, and he completed 73.3% of his throws, most of which could be described as the passing version of four yards and a cloud of crushed rubber. However, WVU will have to do without his services after the cousin of iron-man Chuck Bednarik suffered a season-ending shoulder injury requiring surgery.
All the contributing receivers return this year, so WVU could exceed their average of just 117 yards per game (why pass when you can run the ball 52 times for 272 yards?). Brandon Myles is the main man; he is the best deep threat, who can take the safeties away from run support.
The Mountaineer offensive line is the closest thing to the old Green Bay Packers of the 1960s. You won't see many teams pulling their linemen and leading the ball carriers at the perimeter point of attack, but WVU has mobile big men doing just that. Guards Ryan Stanchek and Jeremy Sheffey will be playing the parts of Jerry Kramer and Fuzzy Thurston. Playing the very important part that made Jim Ringo an all-Pro will be center Dan Mozes. He will garner support in the Remington Trophy voting.
You have just read one half of the WVU preview, and it looks like they should dominate everybody they play, right? Well, I'm sure you've heard that defense wins championships. That's where this team will come up short. The Mounties lost too much talent in the secondary, and teams like Louisville will dissect that weakness.
The front three will take a backseat to nobody. Nose tackle Pat Liebig is strong and tough. He should hold his own as the anchor of the 3-3-5 defense. Returning starters Craig Wilson and Keilen Dykes should improve on their 12 stops for loss.
Linebackers Jay Henry and Kevin McLee are the top returning tacklers. McLee is a star with future NFL aspirations.
The secondary gave up over 200 yards passing last year and a 60% completion mark. That so-so performance may be impossible to replicate this year as graduation took away three star pass defenders. Safety Eric Wicks is the only returnee.
West Virginia has the best return specialist in the Big East. Antonio Lewis averaged 19.6 yards per punt return with a touchdown, and he could easily match that mark this year. I wouldn't be surprised if he returned a kickoff all the way too.
Last year, the Mountaineers scored 32.1 points and surrendered 17.8 points per game, finishing a surprising 11-1. A team that began the season struggling to beat 1-10 Syracuse lost only to Virginia Tech and looked better as the season progressed. This year, I expect the point differential to fluctuate more in WVU's favor, but that will come about due to more blowout wins. Unfortunately, Louisville is waiting for revenge. The Pittsburgh game is on the road, and the Panthers will be tough in this backyard brawl. Possible pitfall games against Maryland and at East Carolina and Mississippi State provide too many opportunities for a loss. The Mountaineers will win at least nine regular season games, but 11-1 is the maximum they can hope for. That one loss will probably cost them a chance at a BCS bowl.
3. South Florida Bulls
PiRate: 103 National Ranking: 53 HFA: 4
The Bulls used a strong defense to surprise a lot of experts last year. USF won six games, including a skunking of Louisville, and played in the Meineke Car Care Bowl, where they held North Carolina State to just 14 points. Unfortunately, their offense failed to score in that game.
This year the offense should be better, and the defense should be as good if not a little better. It adds up to a jump in the standings. And, if you are looking for a surprise team to root for, USF could shock the nation with a 10-0 start!
USF will use a no-huddle spread offense this year and pass the ball much more than they did last season. Coach Jim Leavitt is still undecided on who will start at quarterback, but Pat Julmiste appears to have the slight lead for opening the season number one. Julmiste still has a ways to go before becoming a top-rate BCS quarterback. He is more of a runner, so he could eventually lose his job if he cannot run the new offense. Redshirt freshman Matt Grother could be the man to make the Bulls run.
And now for the reason why USF will throw the ball more this year: they are loaded with talent at the wide out position. Returning contributors Amarri Jackson, Jackie Chambers, and S.J. Green caught 59 passes at close to 13 yards per reception. To this group comes the addition of LSU transfer Amp Hill, who could be as good if not better than Urrutia at Louisville.
The running game will not match last year's 203 yard average. Andre Hall and his 1,374 yards have moved on. Ricky Ponton, Moise Plancher, and true freshman Keeley Dorsey should split the reduced number of carries.
What will ultimately curtail USF's offense will be an inexperienced line. If the new guys cannot protect the passer, the offense could bog down and force the defense to stay on the field too long. The one true star is 2nd Team All-Big East tackle Thed Watson.
The defense has one question mark unit and two top-flight units. The worrisome group is the line, where only nose tackle Richard Clebert returns as a starter.
The linebackers and secondary are seven of the quickest pursuing players in college football. All three starting linebackers return and Ben Moffitt, Patrick St. Louis, and Stephen Nicholas were the top three tacklers last year (264 stops, 40 for losses).
The secondary returns ¾ of last year's starting quartet, one which limited opponents to 51.9% completions and just 165 yards per game. Safety Carlton Williams defended five passed while finishing fourth on the team with 66 tackles.
USF's schedule opens the door for a 10-0 start. Those games, in order, are: McNeese State, Florida Int'l, at Central Florida, at Kansas, Rutgers, UConn, at North Carolina, at Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and Syracuse. If the defense continues to dominate games and the offense shows some spark of life, it could happen. The final two games are the rub; the Bulls close on the road with Louisville and West Virginia. I think USF will win their first five conference games but not all 10 prior to the two-loss finish. Look for 5-2 in the Big East and 8-4 overall, which could send them to the Sun Bowl.
4. Pittsburgh Panthers
PiRate: 99 National Ranking: 61 (t) HFA: 4
Dave Wannstedt's first season coaching his alma mater was not a terrific one, as the Panthers disappointed their fans with a 5-6 record. Pitt's offense disappeared many times last year, failing to reach 300 total yards three times. The Panthers lost to Frank Solich's Ohio Bobcat team on national television. With the Steelers returning the Lombardi Trophy to steel town, Pitt needs to find something to attract fans to Heinz Field on Saturday. When Terry Bradshaw and company were acquiring four rings in the 1970's, Pitt had Tony Dorsett running his way into the record books with 6,500+ rushing yards. The 2006 Panthers are lacking a marquee player.
Quarterback Tyler Palko was supposed to be that big star, but the offense just didn't click last year. Still, he completed 56.6% of his throws for 2,392 yards and 17 touchdowns. He could rebound with a year like 2004 and top 3,000 yards and 25 touchdowns.
Pitt hasn't been a rushing power as of late, and last year the averaged 117 yards on the ground per game. 30 sacks had a lot to do with it, and when you remove those sacks, Pitt averaged close to four yards per rush. LaRod Stephens-Howling (try announcing that name on a breakaway run) and Conredge Collins should split the load out of the I-formation.
The receiving corps lacks a real game-changer, and that should continue to haunt the Panthers this year. Wide out Derek Kinder and tight end Darrell Strong are good possession receivers who won't force secondary coverage to spread out vertically. Wannstedt will have to hope a couple of true freshmen contribute right away.
Four starters return to an above-average offensive line. Guard John Simonitis and tackle Mike McGlynn both top 325 pounds and can hold off most defenders.
The Panthers gave up only 22.1 points and 338 yards per game last year, but they couldn't slow down the big two in the Big East. Louisville gained 467 yards and scored 42 points, while West Virginia gained 492 (451 on the ground) and scored 45 points. This year, Pitt rivals USF for the best pass defense and has a much better front four to edge out the Bulls for best overall defense.
H.B. Blades is a sure first day NFL draft choice next year. The middle linebacker may be a bit short at 6-0, but he can hit hard and play pass defense like a safety. The son of Bennie Blades, H.B. led the Panthers with 121 tackles and added seven defended passes. Fellow ‘backer Clint Session spent most of 2005 recovering from an injury, but in 2004, he registered 91 tackles.
The secondary features All-Big East cornerback Darrelle Revis who defended 13 passes last year, picking off four.
The line is strong at end, where Charles Sallet and Chris McKillop patrol the perimeter. They teamed up for 12 stops for losses.
Like USF, Pittsburgh faces the top two Big East teams at the end of their season. Unlike the Bulls, the Panthers host both West Virginia and Louisville. While I don't expect them to win both, they could win one of these and decide who does win the Big East. Look for Pitt to move back over the .500 mark and play in a December bowl.
5. Rutgers Scarlet Knights
PiRate: 98 National Ranking: 66 (t) HFA: 4
After starting quickly in 2003 and 2004 and faltering at the finish, the University of Joisey finally held together and finished with a winning record last year, advancing to the Insight.com Bowl and giving Arizona State all they could handle before falling 45-40. Rutgers has more than enough talent to challenge for another bowl bid this year, but an unkind schedule could doom them to the lower side of .500.
The biggest area of concern is at quarterback, where career passing leader Ryan Hart graduated. The two contenders for the job will not approach Hart's numbers. Mike Teel has some experience, but he is prone to throwing interceptions. He has a cannon for an arm though. Jabu Lovelace will contend for playing time. He is the better runner.
No matter who ends up starting, his number one job will be to hand off to one of two backs and fake a bootleg. Rutgers has an exceptional one-two punch in fullback Brian Leonard and tailback Raymell Rice. The two combined for 1,860 yards last year. Rice ran for 1,120 yards (5.7 avg.) and scored five times, while Leonard ran for 740 yards (4.3 avg.) and scored 11 times. The complement each other well.
RU lost their top receiver from 2005, but the Knights return everybody else. Tight end Clark Harris is a 1st team all-conference star; he caught 38 passes in 2005 for 584 yards. Joining Harris at receiver are Shawn Tucker (32-484) and Willie Foster (8-129).
The line has above average players across the board, led by tackles Jeremy Zuttah and Pedro Sosa.
Rutgers should be more athletic on the defensive side this season. The defensive line is top notch and could help RU top 50 sacks. Tackle Ramel Meekins dumped quarterbacks nine times last season and threw backs for losses six more times. End Jamal Westerman came off the bench to record 6.5 stops behind the line.
Middle linebacker Devraun Thompson finished 2005 with 97 tackles with eight for losses. He also disrupted four passes. Qunitero Frierson and Terry Bynes also return after registering 72 tackles, seven for losses.
The secondary has some excellent players, but they gave up too many plays last year. Safeties Ron Girault and Courtney Green amassed 202 tackles and eight defended pass.
Rutgers far and away has the best all-around special teams in the Big East. Kicker Jeremy Ito made all 40 PATs and 20-27 field goals, including two from 50 or more yards. Punter Joe Radigan placed close to 30% of his punts inside the 20 yard line and still averaged 39.3 yards per punt. Return man Willie Foster returned both a punt and kick for a touchdown.
Rutgers still lacks the quality depth that other Top 25 teams have, but if you just look at the starting lineups, they can match up with anybody. The Knights open the season at North Carolina; since they should be near full strength for that one, depth concerns shouldn't be that much of a factor (unless it is 90+ degrees).
The next three games should result in wins, as RU hosts Illinois, Ohio, and Howard. If they are 4-0 at this point, chances are good they will win at least two more and become bowl eligible once again. Figure on a 5-7, 6-6, or 7-5 season.
6. Connecticut Huskies
PiRate: 98 National Ranking: 69 (t) HFA: 4
5-6 isn't that bad for a rebuilding season, and Connecticut just missed out on a win against Rutgers that could have given them another winning season in 2005. Like Rutgers, UConn has several quality starters, but depth is a major issue. Just a few injuries could make enough of a difference to turn a 7-5 team into a 4-8 team.
The Huskies return seven defensive starters from the Big East's top stop troops. UC gave up just 139 yards rushing and 158 yards passing per game (just 46.6% completions) last year, holding opponent to 19.2 points per game.
Two starters return from the defensive line. Tackle Rhema Fuller earned 2nd team All-Big East honors, and end Dan Davis recorded nine stops for losses.
Linebacker Danny Lanasanah led the Huskies with 80 tackles with 11 behind the line. He also contributed to the pass defense by defending seven passes.
Three starters return to one of the top 10 pass defenses. Cornerbacks Tyvon Branch and Darius Butler defended 18 passes with six interceptions. Safeties M.J. Estep and Marvin Taylor combined for 99 stops.
Butler returned 10 kickoffs last year with an average of 33.8 yards; he took one back the distance.
Seven starters return on the attack side. Matt Bonislawski (the better passer) and D.J. Hernandez (the better runner) should both see significant playing time at quarterback.
Terry Caulley and Lou Allen return at tailback where they combined for 1,040 yards rushing and fullback Deon Anderson will open holes for both of them.
Tight end Dan Murray and wide receivers Brandon Young and Brandon McLean give the Huskies three talented starting pass catchers. The trio caught 66 passes. Caulley is a valuable pass-catching weapon as well.
The offensive line had numerous problems last year, both on and off the field. That area should be improved this season. Guard Immanuel Hutcherson is the best blocker.
Connecticut should contend for bowl eligibility this year. The schedule has them hosting Rhode Island, Wake Forest, Navy, Army, West Virginia, Pitt, and Syracuse. They should win at least four of these games. On the road, UConn plays Indiana, South Florida, Rutgers, Syracuse, and Louisville. They should do no worse than 2-3 in these games. Call it a 6-6 season at worst and 8-4 season at best.
7. Cincinnati Bearcats
PiRate: 94 National Ranking: 82 HFA: 3
The move from Conference USA to the Big East was too much for a rebuilding Bearcat team. After going 7-5 in 2004, UC finished just 4-7 last year. This year finds the red and black returning the most starters of any Big East team, but Cinti is still at least a year away from thinking about contending for a title.
Dustin Grutza returns to pilot the offense. Last year, he completed 56% of his passes for 1,799 yards and 11 touchdowns (+ 11 int). The sophomore should see his yardage go up by a couple hundred and interceptions go down.
Grutza will benefit from the return of his top two pass catchers. Earnest Jackson and tight end Brent Celek made 59 catches and scored six times.
Cincinnati returns their entire stable of running backs. Bradley Glatthaar led with 620 yards, while Greg Moore supplied 297 rushing yards.
The offensive line is in need of a shot in the arm. The Bearcats suffered through 40 sacks and averaged just 125 rushing yards per game. The strength of this unit is at tackle with the return of Digger Bujnoch
Only one starter is missing from the 2005 defense, but the Bearcat defense will still be generous. The secondary returns leading tackler Haruki Nakamura who also defended six passes. Cornerback Mike Mickens batted away 14 passes and picked off another.
Linebackers Corey Smith, Kevin McCullough, and Anthony Williams all return; the trio combined for 20.5 stops behind the line and now adds the services of former Ohio State Buckeye Freddie Lenix.
The defensive line returns ends Trevor Anderson and Terrill Byrd plus tackle Jon Newton.
A schedule that includes road games against Ohio State and Virginia Tech out-of-conference and Louisville and West Virginia in conference play is too much to ask of the still young Bearcats. The remaining eight games should be split evenly between wins and losses. 4-8 seems about right.
8. Syracuse Orangemen
PiRate: 88 National Ranking: 98 HFA: 5
Greg Robinson's first year in Syracuse was a painful one, guiding the Orangemen to a 1-10 record. That one win was against 1-10 Buffalo. Year number two will be better than last year, but not good enough to avoid the basement. Syracuse returns the fewest starters of any Big East team; they are the only team in the league that lost over half of their starters.
The offense should score more points this season after struggling last season. The ‘Cuse averaged less than 14 points per game and only gained 258 total yards per game.
Quarterback Perry Patterson completed just 47.6% of his passes for 1,504 yards. Former starter under Paul Pasqualoni, Joe Fields, completed just nine of 28 passes last year. He is a much better runner than Patterson.
Speaking of running, Syracuse rushed for 107 yards per game, the lowest amount in many years. Damien Rhodes departs after gaining 77% of the rushing yards. Curtis Brinkley and Paul Chiara should share the load this year.
Two of the Orangemen's three principal receivers from last year return. Rice Moss and Tim Lane finished with 359 and 341 yards respectively, combining for 53 receptions.
The offensive line had a tough time adjusting from an option-I formation to a spread formation that relied on more passing. Guard Carroll Madison and center Justin Outten are the returning starters here.
The defense improved ever so slightly last year, giving up two fewer points per game and more than 50 fewer passing yards per game. Even with defensive mastermind Robinson directing the stop troops, don't expect SU to set the woods on fire this year. Six of the top eight tacklers from a year ago are no longer around. That list of departures also includes the best pass defender and best two pass rushers.
Among the returning players are middle linebacker Kelvin Smith and safety Dowayne Davis, who combined for 162 tackles and defended 10 passes. Cornerback Tanard Jackson stopped seven passes.
Syracuse is deeply entrenched in last place in the Big East. This year's schedule doesn't help their plight, as the Orangemen must play at Cincinnati and at Rutgers, two teams they would have possibly beaten at home. Home field advantage won't help them against Pittsburgh, Louisville, Iowa, and maybe Connecticut.
The Orangemen should top last year's 1-10 record, but not by much. 2-10 could be all she wrote.
Next Up: The Atlantic Coast Conference—Will Miami have enough players to begin the season or will they all be suspended? Will Larry Coker be permanently suspended at the end of the year, and is Butch Davis in-line to come back?
Sources: The official Big East website plus the eight individual school websites.
The Newark Star Ledger