1. WEST VIRGINIA
I'm not trying to be a homer here. WVU has enough question marks at defensive back and on the offensive line to keep this from being a no-brainer pick. The flaky schedule, with two Saturday-Thursday, one Saturday-Friday and one Friday-Thursday turnaround, won't help from a continuity standpoint. And the snake pit awaiting WVU at Louisville won't be a walkover either. Still, the returning talent, overall, is the best in the league.
I certainly won't discount Louisville's chances of beating WVU, although I'm not as bullish on it as my man Michael McCammon is. However, the Cards, while piling up gaudy win totals the past few years, don't have a lot in the way of marquee victories to hand their hats on. (West Virginia isn't overloaded there either, but the Georgia game certainly trumps anything on UL's resume.) On the other hand, UL is the one team in the league capable of outscoring WVU in a shootout. One other negative is a seeming lack of focus against lesser teams – something that leaves the Cards more vulnerable to upsets.
No, this is not a trendy pick. For years, I've discounted the "sleeping giant" view of Rutgers, and continually picked them where they belonged – at the bottom of the league. No more, however, as the Scarlet Knights are finally becoming a solid program with the ability to knock off a Top 25 team. In order to make this pick a reality, Rutgers has to get off to a good start against its out-of-conference foes to build momentum and confidence for the conference season. My bet is they will, as a solid running game and an improving defense could give them the base they need for back-to-back bowl trips.
This is almost a default pick. If the other four league schools weren't in sizable rebuilding projects, I'd easily put one or more of them in front of the Panthers, who are restructuring their program as well. However, Pitt has enough returning players (good ones) and a schedule that's conducive to a good start, if it can get by Virginia in the opener. It also has WVU, Louisville and Rutgers at home. What hurts the Panthers, and drops them below Rutgers, is a football adage – if you can't stop the run, you can't consistently win. Pitt will have to show it can do that in order to move into the league's top three, and while its recruiting class was rated highly by many, there might not be enough early help to stem that tide.
The Huskies were devastated by injuries a year ago, which killed their chances for a winning season and a bowl berth. Outside a repeat of that, UConn should be in the hunt for postseason play again this year. The competition at quarterback must be settled (much of it precipitated by last year's march to the training room) but that could be a good thing for the team and the program. UConn only has one short week (and that's just a one-day loss of preparation) all year, and their nicely balanced schedule gives them a good shot to attain at least a 3-4 league mark.
6. SOUTH FLORIDA
While USF has been garnering some attention as a program on the rise, this year's squad already has a number of problems. Eight members of the recruiting class failed to qualify, and thus did not enroll this fall, which certainly has to cast a bit of a pall over the program. Add in the loss of USF's one star offensive player (RB Andre Hall) and continuing problems at quarterback, and it looks like the Bulls will have trouble scoring. A defense that was very good a year ago also suffered a couple of key losses. There are numerous starters returning, but the Bulls won't sneak up on anyone they way they did on Louisville last year. If USF is to finish higher in the standings, it will have to make hay early, as season ending trips to Louisville and West Virginia could provide a dispiriting end to the season.
If I had enough guts, I'd pick the Bearcats sixth. I think they will be improved in 2006. Head coach Mark Dantonio appeared to lay a good foundation with last year's team, even though the record wasn't outstanding, and UC returns a number of starters from that squad. Two things, however, hold me back. The first is UC's tough early schedule, which includes Ohio State, Virginia Tech Pitt and Louisville by mid-October. Although only half of those games are conference tilts, UC could be battered, and 0-2 in the league, by the time it gets to some conference games it can win. While the Bearcats do appear headed in the right direction, the path to a winning conference record probably won't yield results this year.
I want to pick the Orange higher. Really, I do. But until they solve their quarterback problems, scoring points will be a problem. (If this sounds like USF, you've been paying attention.) The college game revolves around the QB position – if you have one that can make plays, you have a chance. That's a big reason West Virginia and Louisville ride atop the Big East rankings, and why teams like Syracuse, UC and UCF are fighting to stay off the bottom. Yes, the Orange can field a good defense again, and although "defense wins championships" it can't win games when the offense can't score 14 points or keep it off the field for more than two minutes at a stretch. Syracuse also starts off the conference season with the brutal stretch of Pittsburgh, at West Virginia and Louisville, so an 0-3 start following what could be a tough out of conference stretch might mire the Orange in the basement early on.
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