4th: Virginia Tech
If the forces of karma have any interest at all in college football, Virginia Tech will go 0-11, and Marcus Vick will leave the football program and become a traveling romantic poet.
Assuming however that the justice-administering forces of the universe have things to worry about other than college football, Tech should return to dominance this year. You know things are going well for Tech when a 10-4 season is considered a down year.
All four of those losses did come in the Big East, though, putting them in a tie for fourth place and earning them a trip to the San Francisco Bowl where they beat Air Force 20-13. The Hokies return 17 starters, including 9 on defense, and none of that is even counting Heisman candidate Kevin Jones at RB. Bryan Randall is the starter at QB, but having Michael Vick's little brother behind him on the depth chart has to be a little unnerving. Ernest Wilford is a stud at WR, and the offensive line should be oustanding.
The defense wasn't up to normal Tech standards last year, but the good news is that just about everyone from that defense gets another crack at it. Injuries killed them, and assuming they can avoid that problem in 2003, they will be solid all the way through, and could be one of the nation's best. The line will pressure opposing QBs as well as stuff the run, the linebackers are all fast, and the secondary behind CB DeAngelo Hall will be the strong point. The Tech defense is especially tough at home, where opposing offenses always consider taking a knee on every play, just so they can leave Blacksburg as quickly as possible.
Tech's toughest game could be one on a Wednesday night, against a rival opponent in an atmosphere that would make a Scottish soccer match seem like Romper Room. WVU fans once dropped a cardboard garbage can on an assistant coach, and that was just because they won a football game. What will happen when a team comes to town that helped to leave the future of the WVU football program up in the air, I don't want to speculate.
3rd: West Virginia
Ridiculous traffic on the way to Charlotte and a 48-22 beatdown capped WVU's 9-4 Big East runner-up season last year, and the earlier the Wisconsin game comes, the better, because Mountaineer fans cannot wait to get the Continental Tire Bowl out of their heads.
Playing the role of Avon Cobourne and Quincy Wilson this year will be Quincy Wilson and Kay-Jay Harris. Both of them getting close to 1,000 yards is not out of the question. Rasheed Marshall has been called one of the nation's fastest quarterbacks, but the production of the wide receivers remains a big question mark, as does the rebuilt offensive line.
Defensively, there is a lot of speed and not much size, but the same problem existed last year, and the Mountaineers were in the top quarter of the nation in rushing defense. Grant Wiley returns as one of the Big East's best defenders. The secondary should be solid behind Brian King, Lance Frazier and Pac-Man Jones.
Hopes are high in Morgantown, and it won't take very long for the Mountaineers to find out how good they are, as Wisconsin comes to town for the first game of the year. Even if they are able to improve from last year, the competition in the Big East figures to be better all-around this year. Winning 8 games and still finishing 4th in the conference is a possibility.
Pitt could be the Big East's best chance for the conference title to not be won by a Swofford-loving money-grubbing program hellbent on destroying an entire football conference.
Fifteen starters return to a team that went 9-4 and dominated Oregon State in last year's Insight Bowl. Rod Rutherford and Larry Fitzgerald are stars on offense, and will hook up to torch the defense of every other Big East team at least once. Fitzgerald is a legitamite Heisman candidate. Kris Wilson is almost as dangerous on the other side. Senior RB Brandon Miree should improve on his 943 yards from last year.
Things look pretty solid defensively, too. They lost a couple of studs on defense in Torrie Cox and Gerald Hayes, but they do return seven starters. Claude Harriot is an All-American candidate at defensive end.
As much as I'd love to work up some hate for Pitt, it's much harder to do now that Miami and Virginia Tech have forsaken the entire conference, and Syracuse and BC tried to do the same. Comparatively, Pitt makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside. Usually at this time of year, I feel like shoving Walt Harris into the Allegheny River, but now, I feel like giving him a hug. It's strange how crisis can bring people together. I'm sure all of that will change, though, as Pitt establishes itself as one of the nation's top programs, as they seem poised to do. The new facilities, an excellent coach, some attention-grabbing players, and this could be the year that Pitt begins a run as a Top-10 program.
The bad news for the Hurricanes is that they have some huge holes to plug at QB, RB, WR and DL. The good news is that they are Miami.
The Canes might not miss a step at running back, but that's only if Frank Gore is 100% back from a knee injury. Most reports say that he is, in fact, a lot of people believe he'd be starting this year even if Willis McGahee stayed at Miami. Brock Berlin has won the starting QB slot over Derrick. At WR, there is an overall lack of experience, and the one returning starter, Kevin Beard, is coming off major knee surgery. The offensive line will be its massive and talented self, and Kellen Winslow could actually be a tight end Heisman candidate.
Defensively... well, there's good news, and there's bad news. All seven starters are back at linebacker and DB after being the nation's best team against the pass last year. For the 'Canes, that's good news, for the rest of the Big East, it's not so good. What may be good for the rest of the Big East, though, is that the entire defensive line is gone from last year. There is no truth to the rumor that Miami is considering putting Donna Shalala at nosetackle in an effort to enrage and frighten opposing offensive linemen.
The question marks are there, but considering the talent that flocks to the Miami football program, the answers may be there, too. Yes, Miami will start the season as a national title contender, but with the question marks they have, and the solid teams at Pitt and VT, not only are they not a clear-cut favorite for a national title, they're not even the clear-cut favorite in the Big East.