Saturday, June 21, 2008

2008 Big East Preview

West Virginia
Seemingly one win away (at home no less) from positioning themselves to play for the MNC, the Mountaineers choked away a home game against Pittsburgh. To further make it a December to not remember, their head coach, Rich Rodriguez, headed for Michigan not long after the loss. Despite the turmoil, the Mountaineers proved their mettle in the Fiesta Bowl by shocking favored Oklahoma. Can they keep the positive momentum going and play in a BCS bowl game for the 3rd time in 4 seasons?

While Rich Rodriguez, a fine coach, is no longer on the sideline, the offense he helped create remains. While running back Steve Slaton, fullback Owen Schmitt, and wide receiver Darius Reynaud will be missed, the maestro of the attack, senior quarterback Pat White does return. White ran for over 1300 yards last season and his passer rating of 151.40 ranked 9th in the nation. While a player the caliber of Steve Slaton will surely be missed, he carried the ball only once in the team’s shredding of Oklahoma. All told, over the final 3 games of his collegiate career, Slaton amassed only 20 carries and netted 63 yards. Noel Devine should be able to replicate his performance in 2008, especially behind an experienced offensive line that returns 4 starters—3 of which are seniors. The passing attack may suffer a bit with the loss of Reynaud, but the rushing game should be improved as long as White and Devine remain healthy.

What a lot of folks probably failed to realize about West Virginia circa 2007, was that defense was every bit as good as the offense. The unit finished 8th nationally in scoring defense and 9th in total defense. Beginning in game number 3 against Maryland, they held 5 straight opponents below 300 yards of total offense. For the season, they held 7 of their 13 opponents under that number, and only 2 squads topped the 400-yard mark (Cincinnati and Oklahoma). Unfortunately for head coach Bill Stewart, this year’s unit returns only 4 starters. Defensive end Johnny Dingle and linebacker Marc Magro, the team’s two leading sackers (combined 17) are gone. Every starter in the secondary save Quinton Andrews is gone. The defense will not fall off the face of the Earth, but it will likely slip to the middle of the pack in the Big East.

Prediction: For another season at least, West Virginia is the top team in the Big East. Their offense should once again be dynamic, but the defense will probably give away a conference game somewhere down the line (likely at Louisville). They also travel to Colorado in an early season non-conference affair that should not be taken lightly. Then in late October, in a marquee Thursday night game, they host SEC power Auburn. If they take both of those, they may still get into the MNC with one conference loss. A BCS bid is the likely path this team takes, but 2009 will tell us whether or not Stewart is the team’s long term answer at coach or whether he was just caught in the afterglow of an impressive Fiesta Bowl romp.

Normally an 8-win season in New Jersey would be celebrated by parades and talked about for years. Ah, but the times they are a changing. No longer a Big East doormat, Greg Schiano raised the expectations and the talent level for the Scarlet Knights. No longer content to merely qualify for a postseason game, the Knights now seek to participate in a New Year’s Day or BCS bowl. With the loss of Ray Rice, the bread and butter of the offense, can Rutgers rebound from a somewhat disappointing season and recapture their success from 2006?

Last season it appeared quarterback Mike Teel elevated his game to a new level. After posting a passer rating of 120.60 in his first season as a starter, Teel made an incredible leap to 145.37 in 2007. In 2006, he was 69th in the nation in passer rating and last season he was 17th. That’s quite a one-season jump. But did he really improve? The table below lists Teel’s numbers against BCS opponents in 2006 and 2007. For all intents and purposes, those numbers are identical. In 2007, Teel inflated his numbers by shredding Buffalo, Navy, Norfolk St, Army, and Ball State. He completed 63.9% of his passes, averaged an unfathomable 13.7 yards per attempt, and threw 11 touchdowns versus just 3 interceptions against those undermanned squads. So the Scarlet Knights lose Ray Rice, and their quarterback’s improvement has proven to be inconsequential. How can they be picked to finish 2nd?

The biggest difference between Rutgers in 2006 and Rutgers in 2007 was luck and turnovers. In 2006, Rutgers was 3-1 in one-score games and had a turnover margin of +11. In 2007, they were 2-2 in one-score games and had a turnover margin of -6. The Knights turned the ball over 20 times in 2006 and 25 times in 2007. However, in 2006, they gained 31 turnovers from their opponents (tied for 10th in the nation), while in 2007, they only managed to create 19 turnovers (tied for 94th in the nation). That variability in turnovers was the single biggest difference in Rutgers transforming from an elite 11-2 team to a solid 8-5 one.

In 2008, much like 2006 and 2007, the play of the defense will determine how high Rutgers can climb. The offense will likely be very similar to the 2006 and 2007 versions even sans Ray Rice. It will roll over the patsies, but struggle with the big boys. The defense, though solid in 2007, should be even better in 2008. Rutgers finished 17th nationally in total defense in 2007, after a 4th place finish in 2006. Unlike Teel, last year’s unit did not just pad their stats against also-rans. In Big East play, they finished 3rd in yards allowed, behind Pitt and West Virginia. That unit returns 8 starters in 2008, including the top-3 tacklers. The line, linebackers, and secondary each lose one key contributor, but overall the unit should be stronger than last season’s version. Plus, the odds are in favor of the defense forcing a few more turnovers than the paltry 19 they accumulated last season. If the fates allow them to improve significantly in that area, this year’s defense could rival the one from two seasons ago.

Prediction: Rutgers does face 4 Big East road tests in 2008, so calling for a conference title is a dicey proposition, but a split on the road (West Virginia, Pitt, Cincinnati, and South Florida) would keep the Knights in contention. Non-conference play includes clashes with 3 overmatched teams (Army, Navy, and Morgan State), and two intriguing battles with Fresno State and North Carolina to open the season. Winning at least 4 of 5 non-conference games is a given, so the Knights have a real shot at getting to 10 wins in either the regular season finale against Louisville or the bowl game.

Last season was a nightmare for the Cardinals. Fresh off a 12-1 campaign capped by an Orange Bowl victory, much was expected in 2007. The Cardinals won their first two games with relative ease, but there were concerns when they gave up 42 points and 555 yards to Middle Tennessee State. After that the wheels came off. Louisville was not able to string together consecutive wins at any point after their 2-0 start. To make things worse, the Cardinals were no longer invincible at Papa John’s Stadium. The Cardinals had not lost a home game since 2003, yet they suffered two home defeats in 2007, including one to woeful Syracuse. The primary culprit in Louisville’s fall from grace was the defense. The Cardinals went from 40th in total defense in 2006 to 84th in total defense in 2007. The offense remained stout and kept the team in most games cranking out 488 yards per game (6th in the nation).

Can the defense rebound in 2008? In fairness, the Cardinals did seem to improve as the season wore on. While the defense was still a bit below average at the end of the year (the yards per game totals would have ranked 62nd for the entire year and the yards per play would have ranked 79th), it was far from the horrendous unit of the first 6 games. The good news for the defense is that it probably won’t be as bad as last season thanks to simple regression. A performance that terrible is simply very difficult to sustain over the long haul. Secondly, while Steve Kragthorpe is considered an offensive coach, his defenses at Tulsa were solid most of the time. In 2008, the Cardinals return only 5 starters on defense, so a host of newcomers will have to get the defense back on the right track. The primary area Louisville needs to shore up is the pass rush. After finishing 3rd in the nation with 44.5 sacks in 2006, the Cardinals had only 17 in 2007 (102nd in the nation), with no player amassing more than 2.5.

The defense needs to rebound, and the offense needs to maintain. Unfortunately, that will be hard to do with the loss of 7 starters including quarterback Brian Brohm, running back Anthony Allen (transfer), receivers Harry Douglas and Mario Urrutia, tight end Gary Barnidge. The Cardinals do return 3/5ths of their offensive line and a quarterback with some experience. Subbing for an injured Brian Brohm in 2006, Hunter Cantwell started 2 games, leading the Cardinals to wins over Kansas State and Middle Tennessee State. He won’t match Brohm’s production, but as a senior he should provide above average service under center.

Prediction: Louisville’s defense should be a little better and their offense should be a little worse in 2008. So why will they finish so high? For starters, the Cardinals have 4 Big East home games. In addition, one of their road games is at Syracuse. That should be good enough for a winning record in the league. Outside the conference, they tussle with Kentucky in their annual intra-state rivalry. Unfortunately for the Wildcats, they lose a host of offensive playmakers and must travel to Papa John’s stadium. In fact, the Cardinals play 4 of their 5 non-conference games at home, with the only roadie coming against former Conference USA foe Memphis. The chance for a hot start is definitely there, with 6 of the first 7 games at home. If Louisville can knock off South Florida at Papa John’s in late October, they will likely start 8-0 (next game at Syracuse), before facing a tough road game against Pitt. 2008 will do wonders for Kragthorpe’s job security at Louisville.

South Florida
The Bulls seemed to be on the verge of something special last season. They opened the season 6-0, with victories over Auburn and West Virginia, and rose to number 2 in the nation. A 3-game losing streak, by a combined 15 points followed, and the Bulls were an afterthought. They closed the regular season with 3 straight wins and found themselves facing the Oregon Ducks in the Sun Bowl. Despite being a touchdown favorite over a team struggling to score without its starting quarterback, the Bulls were ambushed for 56 points and over 500 yards in a 5-touchdown loss. That loss took some of the luster off the Bulls otherwise stellar season. Now with a surplus of returning talent (particularly on offense), can the Bulls continue their upward trajectory and grab an improbable BCS bid in only their 4th season in the Big East?

Remember the Bulls offense in 2007? With the exception of one player, it’s the Bulls offense in 2008. Every skill position player and 4 of the 5 offensive linemen return. The Bulls had a solid offense in 2007, finishing 43rd in total offense. If there was one weakness for the unit, it was its over-reliance on quarterback Matt Grothe. Of the 5383 yards the Bulls gained last year, nearly 66% (3542 yards) were gained by either Grothe’s arms or legs. Not surprisingly, in the Bulls 3 close losses in the regular season, Grothe received almost no help from his teammates. In the loss to Rutgers, Grothe gained 84% of the team’s total yards. In the loss to Connecticut he accounted for 76%, and against Cincinnati, it was an amazing 95%. In those two games, the Bulls running back committee of Mike Ford and Benjamin Williams gained 130 yards on 40 carries (3.25 yards per rush). As long as Grothe continues to get so little support from his teammates, the Bulls will struggle to consistently gain yardage.

Defensively, the Bulls were very good in 2007. That is until the Sun Bowl debacle. Before that game, the Bulls were ranked 17th in total defense. After that game they slid all the way to 28th. That game was an aberration, as the Bulls never allowed more than 437 yards before Oregon ripped them for 533. Still, that unit will regress some in 2008 as they lose 5 starters including linebacker and family man Ben Moffitt, and star corners Trae Williams and Mike Jenkins. The defense will also likely struggle to force as many turnovers as they did in 2007, when they led the nation (tied with Cincinnati) with 42.

Prediction: The Bulls seem to be a solid darkhorse contender to win the Big East and possibly even the MNC. That is until you look at their schedule. If they can get by Kansas in mid-September, they stand a good chance at opening 7-0. However, 3 of their final 5 games are on the road, including games against Louisville, Cincinnati, and West Virginia. Its long odds for them to take 2 of those let along all 3. Couple that with some major regression from the defense, particularly in the turnover department, and the Bulls don’t have the trappings of a Big East champ. For the 4th straight year, the Bulls will finish with 4 Big East wins and 3 Big East losses.

Last season the Bearcats began the season 6-0 and climbed into the top 15. They ended up with their highest win total since 1951 and for the first time in history, finished the season ranked. That’s a tough act for head coach Brian Kelly to follow, and in all likelihood, this year’s team will not match last years in win output.

The major difference between Cincinnati in 2006 and 2007 was turnovers and schedule. The 2006 squad finished 61st in total offense and 31st in total defense. The 2007 squad was 30th in total offense and 50th in total defense. The offense improved (almost entirely through the air) and the defense regressed. Yet amazingly, the defense allowed almost a point fewer per game despite allowing about 40 more yards per game. How? Of course, the answer is a combination of turnovers and schedule. In 2006, the Bearcats forced 23 turnovers (tied for 67th in the nation). In 2007, they forced 42 (tied with South Florida for tops in the nation). In 2006, two of their non-conference games were in Columbus against Ohio State, and in Blacksburg against Virginia Tech. Ohio State, you may remember, played for the MNC and Virginia Tech finished 10-3. In 2007, their non-conference schedule included only one bowl team—Oregon State. Those two factors explain the majority of the difference between Mark Dantonio’s final mediocre season and Brian Kelly’s moon shot first campaign.

In 2008, its time for the Bearcats to pay the piper for all their dancing in 2007. The non-conference slate is beefed up with a trip to Oklahoma to play the Sooners. Quarterback Ben Mauk, the maestro of last season’s air attack is likely finished after the NCAA denied his appeal for a 6th year of eligibility. Senior Dustin Grutza or Notre Dame transfer Demetrius Jones will attempt to fill his prodigious shoes if he is unable to play. The Bearcats do return the full compliment of their starting receivers and 3 of their offensive linemen, but expecting the offense to match last season’s performance is folly. The defense returns 6 starters, including stud corners Mike Mickens and DeAngelo Smith (combined 14 interceptions in 2007), but will not be nearly as good at forcing turnovers in 2008, and will likely certainly allow more points per game than last season.

Prediction: Believe it or not, Cincinnati beat the same 4 Big East teams in 2006 and 2007 (South Florida, Rutgers, Connecticut, and Syracuse) and lost to the same 3 teams (West Virginia, Louisville, and Pitt). A 3rd consecutive Big East record is possible, but highly dubious. Besides Oklahoma, the non-conference slate is soft enough to predict 4 wins (although the Friday night tussle at Marshall may be more difficult than expected), and with 4 Big East home games, the Bearcats should be back in a bowl game for the 3rd straight season.

Entering year 4 of the Dave Wannstedt, the Pitt Panthers have yet to accomplish much. They’ve won 16 games and lost 19, losing at least 6 each season, without a winning record. They have had some big wins, like last season’s shocker against then 2nd ranked West Virginia. They also beat bowl-bound Cincinnati teams in both 2006 and 2007. Unfortunately, there have also been some real WTF games. In Wanny’s first season, they lost to an Ohio team that finished 4-7. In 2006, they blew a 17-point 4th quarter lead and lost to Connecticut in double OT. They also lost to Navy in 2007. In that game, the Panthers allowed 331 yards to the Midshipmen on the ground. In their other 11 games they allowed an average of 112 yards rushing. Each loss cost the team a shot at a bowl bid. With a soft non-conference schedule, and perhaps the league’s best running back, Pitt should end their bowl drought in 2008.

That aforementioned best back in the Big East is sophomore LeSean McCoy. McCoy rushed for over 1300 yards in 2007, and topped the 100-yard mark 7 times. He has a long way to go to catch Pitt’s all-time leading rush Tony Dorsett, but two more similar seasons will leave him all alone in 2nd place. Along with McCoy, both starting receivers and his fullback, Conredge Collins, return. Quarterback Pat Bostick is also back for his sophomore season, but he will be challenged by Bill Stull, who actually started the opener last season before being lost for the year with a thumb injury. As a team, Pitt had a pretty poor passing offense in 2007, finishing with an efficiency rating of 113.69 (94th in the nation). With defenses keying on McCoy, and simple regression to the mean, the offense should be better in 2008.

The Pitt defense was the real story of 2007. Until their dynamite performance against West Virginia, it had gone relatively unnoticed. Yet the team finished 5th nationally in total defense, permitting only 298 yards per game. In the 11 games against teams not coached by Paul Johnson, the Panthers allowed an amazing 280 yards per game. That unit brings back 7 starters in 2008, but does lose perhaps its best player, defensive end Joe Clermond. Clermond had 10.5 sacks last season to lead the team. Despite the loss of Clermond, the Panthers may actually improve in the amount of points they allow per game. Last season the Panthers finished 5th in total defense, yet only 42nd in scoring defense. The primary reasons were the offenses inability to move the ball (108th in total offense) and the defenses inability to create turnovers. The stout defense gained only 19 turnovers in 2007 (94th in the nation). Barring some poor luck, the Panthers are likely to see more of their opponents drives end with turnovers.

Prediction: Pitt still has a long way to go to be a legitimate threat in the Big East. The offense should improve upon last year’s performance, but that has more to do with how awful they were last season than with any high hopes for the unit this year. The Panthers have a chance to run the table in non-conference play, and should win 4 of 5 at worst (Bowling Green, Buffalo and Iowa come to Pittsburgh, while the Panthers travel to Navy and Notre Dame). In conference play, the Panthers have some very winnable road games (Connecticut, Cincinnati, and Syracuse), but their home schedule is brutal (Rutgers, Louisville, and West Virginia). The Panthers won’t have a winning Big East record, but they will get back to a bowl game.

To say this is not what fan’s envisioned when Greg Robinson was lured away from the NFL is an understatement. The Orange have won only a pair of Big East games in 3 seasons. In addition, of their 7 total wins, 3 have come against MAC also-rans. The defense has had its share of issues, but the real problems have been on the offensive side of the ball. The offense has scored 20 points or more in 10 of the teams 35 games. They have been held to single digits 8 times, and their high-water mark for points per game in any season is 17.4 (accomplished in 2006). Is there hope for the Orange in 2008? Can they right the ship somewhat, or is Robinson a dead man coaching?

Before delving into all the negatives of the Orange offense, it would be wise to highlight one thing they did marginally well in 2007. Behind the passing of quarterback Andrew Robinson, the Orange posted their best team pass efficiency numbers of the Robinson era. And that’s where the praising shall end. The biggest problem for the offense in 2007 was their latent inability to run the football. The Orange ran for 63 yards per game in 2007 (ahead of only Texas Tech). They averaged 2.01 yards per rush (dead last in the nation). That is due in part to the prodigious number of sacks they allowed (54—ahead of only Notre Dame), but their leading rusher averaged only 3.34 yards per rush. Its not a surprise then that the likely starting running back for the Orange will be true freshman and hyped recruit Averin Collier. With 3 linemen back to block for him along with Robinson’s top 2 receivers back, the Orange should average !gasp! over 20 points per game for the season.

As bad as the offense was in 2007, the defense was plenty bad too. The Orange finished 111th in total defense and 104th in scoring defense. They netted only 9 sacks on the year (tied with Toledo for dead last in the nation). The good news is the Orange have a good number of players returning on that side of the ball (between 6 and 7 starters). The bad news is those players obviously weren’t too good in 2007. One good omen for the Orange defense is that they can likely count on creating a few more turnovers. They gained only 14 in 2007 (114th in the nation).

Prediction: There will be no miracles here in 2008. This is likely Robinson’s final season unless something miraculous does happen. The Orange have two very winnable non-conference homes games against Akron and Northeastern. In conference play, they are fortunate to host the league’s other weak team, Connecticut. That should add up to 3 wins, and an upset here or there could have them tying the record for wins in the Robinson era.

Going into their regular season finale in 2007, the Huskies actually controlled their own destiny in regards to a BCS bowl. Had they beaten West Virginia, they would have played in either the Fiesta or the Orange Bowl. As it were, West Virginia exposed a very flawed team and filleted their defense to the tune of 66 points and over 600 yards (over 500 on the ground). Following that defeat, the Huskies proceeded to expose more flaws in a bowl loss to Wake Forest in which they barely topped 200 yards of total offense. A lot of regression is in store for the Huskies in 2008. However, with an upset or 2, they could get back to a bowl game.

Why are the Huskies do for changes in fortune in 2008? Connecticut had a solid 3-1 record in one-score games in 2007. Their turnover margin of +14 was tied for 7th in the nation. Teams with an outstanding turnover margin one season often decline the next. The Huskies had 4 Big East home games in 2007 This year they have only 3. The Huskies had 9 non-offensive touchdowns last season (their opponents had only 3). That’s a net gain of about 42 points for the Huskies. The referees gifted them two games last season. Against Temple, an Owl player was clearly inbounds in the end zone with the go-ahead score in the closing seconds, yet was ruled out of bounds. Against Louisville, Larry Taylor signaled for a fair catch on a punt return, yet was allowed to advance it 74 yards for a touchdown in a 4-point win. The Huskies were extremely fortunate to win 9 games and tie for the Big East crown last season. They were actually outgained by 50 yards over the course of the season. In Big East play, the only team with a worse yardage differential was the Syracuse Orange.

Connecticut does return a host of talent (17 total starters), but those players should be thought of as coming from a below-average team instead of from a championship caliber team. Connecticut has the potential to surprise with so many starters back, but in this case it’s hard to envision them winning more than 2 conference games.

Prediction: The non-conference slate includes some very winnable games (Hofstra, Temple, Baylor, and Virginia), which is crucial because the Big East slate does them no favors. Their home games should all be challenging (Cincinnati, West Virginia, and Pitt), and the road games in any league are always a tussle. Connecticut has reasonably high expectations for this season that could easily be dashed. However, any rash decisions, such as firing Randy Edsall should be avoided. The Huskies need only look to upstate New York to find out what firing a decent coach can do to your program without a suitable replacement.

Predicted Records:

No comments: