The Pi-Rate Ratings

August 24, 2016

2016 Southeastern Conference Football Preview

Our final conference preview has become an annual conclusion to this 10-day preseason opening to the PiRate Ratings’ football coverage. In every instance since moving from radio to print, the Southeastern Conference has been our preseason number one league, and in most years, the top-rated team has been the overall number one team in the nation. This year, our PiRate Ratings show the top two teams in the league to be number one and number two nationally to begin the season, and the third best team is number four nationally.

In recent seasons, the West Division has been several points better than the East Division. While overall, the West is still better than the East, the difference is not as obvious as in past seasons. In fact, the number one team to begin the 2016 season is the Tennessee Volunteers from the East Division. Coach Butch Jones has been quietly building the Big Orange back to a point where they were in the late 1990’s, the late 1960’s, and during the reign of the great General Robert Neyland.

In 2015, Tennessee lost four times in games they could have won with a little better offensive line and a little more depth in the defense. The Vols have that this year. The team that won its last six games by an average of 22+ points per game is about a touchdown better this season. A four-game stretch between September 24 and October 15 will determine if this team can run the table and play for the SEC Championship. The Vols begin this tricky trek by hosting Florida, a team that Tennessee finds a way to lose to every year. Then, back to back road trips to Georgia and Texas A&M should be the two easier games of the four. FInally, the annual rivalry game against Alabama comes at home this year, and Tennessee would be a 3-6 point favorite if that game were to be played this weekend. After a week off, the road to the finish presents no major impediments with five games that could be won by an average in excess of 30 points per game.

Tennessee has powerful talent in every unit. Quarterback Joshua Dobbs will be one of the top 10 players at his position in the next NFL Draft. Dobbs completed 60% of his passes with a 15/5 TD-Interception ratio, but he averaged just 6.5 yards per attempt. That number needs to go north of 7.0 this year. Dobbs will have some famiiar receviers returning this year, led by the Josh’s (Malone and Smith), who teamed for 13.2 yards per reception on 54 catches last year. There is depth behind this duo, plus the Vols have talent at tight end in Ethan Wolf.

The running game will be solid with the return of Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara. Hurd gained close to 1,300 yards and Kamara added almost 700 last year, and if the two stay healthy, Tennessee could top 225 yards rushing and passing this year.

Making the offense more efficient this year is a no-name blocking corps. There is experience and depth here, but it is the one potential fly in the offense’s ointment.

The Orange have star talent in the defensive trenches, at linebacker, and in the secondary. Up front, end Derek Barnett was one of five SEC defenders to record double-digit sacks last year. He will team with Corey Vereen on the other side of the line, and the two should team for at least 15 sacks and another 15 hurries.

Jaleen Reeves-Maybin led UT with 105 tackles last year, including six sacks and 14 total tackles for loss. The weakside linebacker will team with Darrin Kirkland to form a dynamic duo in the second line of defense.

The secondary is deep and talented, with four returnees from last year that teamed to 34 defended passes. Opponents barely completed 50% of their passes last year, on par with Alabama’s defense.

When Tennessee was a dynasty in the 1930’s through the 1950’s special teams were very special indeed. General Neyland’s teams were noted for blocking punts, punting the ball a long distance with excellent coverage, and a high kick and punt return average. The Vols may have the number one special teams unit in the land this year with a top-rated punter, kicker, kick returner, and punt returner.

The race for second place in the East should come from the other two annually successful teams in the division. Georgia returns a lot of talent, especially on the attack side, but they begin anew with Coach Kirby Smart. Smart has never been a head coach, but former Alabama assistant coaches have a rather good history of success. The Bulldogs have some issues, namely a quarterback issue where a true freshman, an inexperienced junior, and a senior, who has started at two Power 5 schools are competing for the starting job. Top high school recruit Jacob Eason may be a major star in a couple years, but he may not be the best fit to lead this team as a true freshman. Junior Brice Ramsey has a rocket thruster on his throwing arm, and he can throw the ball down the field quickly, but not always where it should go. Senior Greyson Lambert is more of a game manager with experience, and he is likely to get the nod to start the first game.

The Bulldogs have two running backs capable of topping 1,000 yards rushing when healthy, but the problem has been that neither has been healthy. Nick Chubb may be ready to start the season, but he might not be 100%, while Sony Michele may not be ready. Coach Smart is preparing for the opener as if neither will be able to play, and that makes Georgia 7-10 points weaker than if the two stars were totally healthy.

Smart is a defensive genius, and he will mold the Bulldogs into a strong and cohesive unit this year. However, they may not gel until the second half of the schedule, and with North Carolina, Ole Miss, and Tennessee coming in the first half, UGa may be out of the race early.

Florida won the East Division in Coach Jim McElwain’s first season. McElwain, the former offensive coordinator at Alabama and head coach at Colorado State, has less experience returning to Gainesville this year than his friend and former co-worker has in Athens, but the Gators have a year of experience in his system, which equalizes the two rivals. The winner of the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party is likely to decide second place with a better than small chance of besting Tennessee for the top spot. The Gators will go as far as new quarterback Luke Del Rio (Jack’s son). The Gators should have a decent passing game with three capable receivers, led by Antonio Calloway, who averaged nearly 20 yards per pass reception last year.

The Gators may be a little weaker in the defensive line this year, but the back seven is strong. How well they can stop the stronger running games will determine if they can contend for the division crown.

After the top three, the other four are fairly evenly matched, and they could finish in any combination. Of the four teams, Vanderbilt has the highest initial PiRate Rating, but the Commodores have an unfavorable schedule this year with road games against Kentucky and Missouri probably leading to losses, and leaving the Commodores with just one winnable SEC game. Third year coach Derek Mason should field another competent defense, but once again a weak offense will prevent the Commodores from winning consistently.

Missouri has had so many issues on and off the field in the last 16 months, and now the Tigers start over with a new coach in Barry Odom. Odom is a defensive wizard, having improved defenses at every stop, and he has brought in former Oklahoma quarterback Josh Heupel to run the offense. Because the Tigers’ roster has changed a lot since the end of Spring Practice, it is hard to get a real gauge on their true identity this year. What figured to be one of the strongest defensive lines in the league took a major blow when two expected starters were dismissed. The offensive line took a hit with the unexpected loss of their only experienced lineman, but then Missouri picked up a “free agent” from Memphis in Michael Stannard, who should start immediately at guard.

Kentucky begins the season with the sixth best rating in the East, but the Wildcats have the best chance of the four second division teams of breaking through with a bowl eligible season for fourth year head man Mark Stoops. If they cannot get to six wins, there may not be a year five for Stoops. The concern is finding a capable passer to throw to a stable full of quality receivers so that defenses will play running back Boom Williams more honestly. Drew Barker has to prove he can be an SEC quarterback, as the Wildcats have not had consistency here since Andre Woodson played a decade ago. Kentucky will have to outscore opponents to win, because their defense is somewhat suspect to start the season.

South Carolina begins the year as the obvious choice for number seven in the division and number 14 overall. The Gamecocks went 3-9 last year with just one conference win, and they face a bigger rebuild than any team in the league. First year head coach Will Muschamp did not fare well in his final two years at Florida, going 7-12 in his last 19 games after beginning his career 22-9. The Gamecock offense could struggle to score 20 points per game and gain 350 yards, and their defense might regress from last year’s 28 points and 430 yards allowed. If USC drops the opener at Vanderbilt, they may struggle to win a conference game. There are some gimme non-conference games on the schedule, which should allow Carolina to win three times without a conference opponent going down.

Now to the West. Usually, this is the spot where we tell you how easy the path will be for Alabama to win the division, the league, and the national title. This year, we thought we would offer you something different, as we have another team to place that burden upon. It surprised us too when we placed all our data into our algorithmic equations, and the computer spit out somebody other than the Crimson Tide as the top team in the division. That honor goes to LSU this year.

The Tigers could have begun this season with a new coach, as Les Miles was on a very warm seat last December. The Tigers’ big guys decided to stick with him for another season, as they knew the Bayou Bengals had a stockpile of quality talent returning. When you have Leonard Fournette at running back, the tendency is to hand him the ball 35 times a game and take your chances, and then when you throw the ball, look for Fournette in the flats or short zones. This gave the Tigers 23 touchdowns last year, but somebody else must help take off some of this load. It’s one thing to have a back carry the ball 300 times in the Pac-12, but against the brutal defenses in the SEC week after week, that method doesn’t do so well.

That’s where having two highly skilled wide receivers come in, and Miles must remember that Malachi Dupre and Travin Dural are eligible to receive passes. This tandem averaged more than 17 yards per catch last year, but they need to see more passes thrown their way, as they combined for just 71 receptions.

Therein, lies the rub. Somebody has to throw the ball relatively close to these guys’ hands, and in recent years, finding a quarterback to do just that has been somewhat difficult. Junior Brandon Harris has the potential to be that guy. Harris played injured in the second half of 2015, and his production fell off the table. He is healthy once again, and his passes look sharp so far in August. Backing him up will be former Purdue starter Danny Etling, who could challenge for playing time if Harris takes a step back.

Defensively, LSU could look more like their great 2011 team. The Tigers are loaded in the line, at linebacker, and in the secondary. New Defensive Coordinator Dave Aranda made Wisconsin the best defensive team in the Big Ten, and he has more than enough players with J.J. Watt’s collegiate talent level to guide the Purple and Gold to the top of the stop charts in the top league in the land. Up front, Gavin Godchaux forces more than one offensive lineman to keep him from penetrating into the backfield, and this frees up the linebackers. End Lewis Neal is a multi-tool defender, able to put QBs on the turf and able to cover the short passing zones. He is a potential All-American this year.

Aranda’s starting Wisconsin linebackers recorded 229 tackles last year, and he didn’t have a player the equal of Kendell Beckwith or Arden Key. Look for these two stars to record crazy defensive numbers this year, and Key might become one of the best blitzing ‘backers in the nation.

We’ve saved the best for last. There is not another secondary outside of the NFL that can match the quartet in Baton Rouge. It begins with Jamal Adams, who led the Tigers with four interceptions last year from his safety spot. Cornerbacks Kevin Tolliver and Tre’Davious White cover receivers like gloves. Free safety Rickey Jefferson covers a lot of real estate between the sidelines, and this group should give the Tigers the extra impetus to get over the hump this year and edge out the big crimson-colored rival.

Don’t count Alabama out, just because they lost enough talent to start an expansion franchise in the NFL. The Tide does not rebuild; they reload, and Coach Nick Saban has enough talent to win the national title again if the younger players play mistake-free.

Alabama still plays somewhat old fashioned, blood and guts football, so the running game is very important to the overall offense. Without Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry and top backup Kenyan Drake, there is no way this year’s team can come close to matching last year’s production, even with a strong offensive line opening holes. Those 50-yard touchdown bursts last year will become 7-12 yard excellent gains this year, and that will keep the offense from matching the 35 points per game of last year.

Add to the minor troubles the fact that a new quarterback must replace the highly underrated Jake Coker, who completed 67% of his passes last year and averaged almost eight yards per attempt. Cooper Bateman started just one game last year, and it was the only one ‘Bama lost. He may not be the eventual starter, as true freshman Jalen Hurts has impressed offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin enough to be considered a co-number one at this point in the preseason.

It is imperative that a QB emerges that can throw the ball, because the Tide has the best wide receiver group in the league, and they are going to need to throw the ball more this year in order to open up holes for the running game. Calvin Ridley, ArDarius Stewart, and Robert Foster should all play for pay one day, and they make the receiving corps one of the best in the nation. What may keep them from teaming for 200 receptions is lackluster quarterback play.

One need never worry much about the Alabama defense. It has been a long time since the Crimson Tide surrendered 20 points per game or 350 yards per game. As long as they don’t have to face DeShaun Watson, look for the Tide to give up about 15-17 points and 275-300 yards per game even with four of the top five tacklers missing from last year.

One of those returnees led the TIde with a dozen QB sacks last year, and end Jonathan Allen could be a first team All-American this year. Middle linebacker Reuben Foster returns after making eight stops behind the line of scrimmage and breaking up nine passes a year ago. On the back line, it starts with All-American Eddie Jackson at the strong safety position. Jackson tied for the league lead with six interceptions last year.

Alabama’s schedule presents the young Tide player with a challenge that will be a little too much to completely conquer. A neutral game with USC to start the season could give the Tide some confidence, as we believe they can win this one. However, road games against Ole Miss, Arkansas, Tennessee, and LSU will not be easy, and we feel like this team may split these four games. Still, 10-2 isn’t that bad when you consider that most other schools replacing this much talent would be lucky to win three or four games.

After the top two, there really isn’t a lot of distance between the numbers three through seven teams in the West Division. The parity is incredible, and all five of these teams should end up with six to eight wins each. We feel at this point that no team will exceed 4-4 in conference play, and maybe four of the five will come in at exactly 4-4.

The initial PiRate Ratings shocked us by placing LSU so high, but they shocked us even more when the computer spit out Mississippi State as the third highest preseason rating. Personally, all of us here figured the Bulldogs would be picked last in the division, which is what the media gurus said when they voted at SEC Media Days. We cannot obviously tell you why the algorithm gave the Maroon Bullies the nod as the third best East Division team to start 2016, because Coach Dan Mullen has to replace his star quarterback, top two receivers, three excpetional offensive linemen, and six quality defensive starters. Mullen is possibly one of the two or three most underrated coaches in college football, and when faced with a similar rebuilding project three years ago, the Bulldogs managed to win seven games. Their schedule takes Mississippi State to LSU, Kentucky, Alabama, and Ole Miss, four games they could easily lose. Even if they win one of those four, there is no guarantee they will hold serve at home against Auburn, Texas A&M, and Arkansas, so the Bulldogs are just one of a quartet we believe will split their conference games.

We believed that Ole Miss would be the clear choice for third best in the league, but the computer says they are fourth best this year. As long as quarterback Chad Kelly stays healthy and doesn’t try to force the ball in tiny spaces, the Rebels’ offense should do just fine, even without an SEC-caliber running back or a highly-rated offensive line. When Kelly gets the time to throw, he will have some good receivers getting open. Quincy Adeboyejo and Damore’ea Stringfellow will see their numbers inflate by at least 50%, as the Rebels try to replace All-American Laquon Treadwell’s 82 receptions and 1,153 yards. The Rebels averaged 41 points per game last year, but that number will drop by as many as 7-10 points in 2016.

The Ole Miss defense has a lot of holes to fill, but Coach Hugh Freeze has recruited well, and the Rebels have some talented, albeit inexperienced players to fill these gaps. End Marquis Haynes might be the top defensive player in a lower-rated conference, but in the SEC, he’s just above average. Haynes registered 10 sacks and 16.5 total tackles for loss last year, while adding eight QB hurries. Fadol Brown gives Ole Miss a fine bookend to compliment Haynes. The other defensive star is cornerback Kendarius Webster, but the Rebels lost a lot of talent from the secondary. It adds up to another 4-4 team from the West.

Auburn Coach Gus Malzahn began his tenure on the plains with a 12-win season and came within a whisker of winning the national championship. Since then, his Tiger teams have endured through 8-5 and 7-6 seasons, and if the fortunes don’t begin to turn this year, Malzahn could be interviewing for a new situation. The prospects for this year’s team being much improved are slim, because like all five of the little brothers in the West Division, Auburn has too many holes to plug, and at best the Plainsmen will only top last year’s seven-win record by a game. Whether 8-5 is good enough to keep Malzahn’s job is a question to be answered in the early Winter. As of this writing on August 23, Malzahn has yet to decide on a starting quarterback from among three, and the eventual starter will need a lot of first team reps to be ready for the opening game against Clemson. Add the issue of having to replace the running back that was expected to start with three inexperienced and pedestrian candidates, plus the loss of the top two receivers, and Auburn could struggle to score enough points against the teams that score in rapid succession.

Arkansas should have an improved defense in year four of the Bret Bielema era in Fayetteville. However, the offense lost its quarterback, star running back, and one of its two star receivers. Bielema usually produces an incredible offensive line, so we feel like the Razorbacks have the best potential of the bottom five of pulling some surprises and sneaking into the three-hole. However, if the new quarterback cannot get the job done, the Razorbacks also have the most risk of falling into the pit in this division.

Texas A&M has been through some tough times in the last several months. Not one, but the top two quarterbacks left College Station after the final regular season game last year. Two assistants were suspended without pay for making sexually explicit comments to a group of women fans.

Then, the top-rated quarterback in the high school ranks, Tate Martell, who outdueled UCLA QB Josh Rosen two years ago when their high school teams met, decommitted from Aggieland to sign with Ohio State. This led receiver’s coach Aaron Moorhead to issue an ill-advised Tweet, which then forced Head Coach Kevin Sumlin to discipline yet another assistant.

All this dissension cannot be good for Sumlin, who begins the season on a hot seat, and if the Aggies lose the opener at home to UCLA, it could snowball into something much worse. Games at Auburn, against Arkansas in Jerryworld, at home with Tennessee, at Alabama, at Mississippi State, and at home with LSU would then put the Aggies in jeopardy of getting to six wins should the Bruins come to Kyle Field and get the “W” on September 3.

Here is how the SEC Media picked the order of finish at Media Days in Birmingham last month.

SEC East Division
# Team 1st Pl. Total Champ.
1 Tennessee 225 2,167 29
2 Florida 57 1,891 5
3 Georgia 45 1,860 7
4 Kentucky 0 933 0
5 Vanderbilt 2 810 1
6 Missouri 0 807 0
7 South Carolina 2 800 1
         
SEC West Division
# Team 1st Pl. Total Champ.
1 Alabama 246 2,220 223
2 LSU 76 1,984 59
3 Ole Miss 5 1,479 4
4 Texas A&M 3 1,130 1
5 Arkansas 1 1,047 1
6 Auburn 0 890 0
7 Mississippi St. 0 518 0

 

Here are our initial PiRate Ratings for the top league.

Southeastern Conference
East Division        
Team PiRate Mean Bias Average
Tennessee 127.7 121.8 128.4 126.0
Florida 113.5 116.8 111.1 113.8
Georgia 112.5 114.0 112.1 112.9
Vanderbilt 106.9 100.7 105.1 104.3
Missouri 103.0 101.8 102.5 102.5
Kentucky 100.4 102.3 99.2 100.6
South Carolina 99.0 99.3 98.1 98.8
         
West Division        
Team PiRate Mean Bias Average
LSU 127.6 121.1 126.8 125.2
Alabama 126.5 119.0 125.0 123.5
Mississippi St. 120.1 115.9 119.7 118.6
Auburn 114.5 113.8 113.9 114.1
Arkansas 116.4 110.3 114.2 113.7
Texas A&M 112.1 111.4 112.0 111.8
Ole Miss 113.6 107.4 112.1 111.0
         
SEC Averages 113.9 111.1 112.9 112.6

The PiRate Ratings are meant to be used only to predict the outcomes of the next week of games, and are not best used to predict beyond that point. Because we use algorithms that include automatic adjustments by each team based on depth and experience, two different teams can win by the exact score we predict, and their new ratings might change differently.
Thus, using our ratings to predict won-loss records and bowl projections is a bit comical, but then we all need some laughs every now and then. So, laugh away at our projected standings and bowls.

Southeastern Conference Projected Standings
East Division
Team Conference Overall Bowl
Tennessee 8-0 13-0 * Playoffs–Peach
Georgia 5-3 8-4 Citrus
Florida 5-3 8-4 Outback
Kentucky 2-6 5-7  
Missouri 2-6 5-7  
Vanderbilt 1-7 4-8  
South Carolina 1-7 4-8  
       
West Division
Team Conference Overall Bowl
LSU 8-0 12-1 NY6–Sugar
Alabama 6-2 10-2 NY6–Rose
Mississippi St. 4-4 8-4 Texas
Ole Miss 4-4 7-5 Liberty
Auburn 4-4 7-5 Music City
Arkansas 4-4 7-5 Taxslayer
Texas A&M 2-6 6-6 Belk

 
This wraps up the conference previews. Coming later today, we will be posting the updated PiRate Ratings and debut the Retrodictive PiRate Rankings, which is sort of comical, since no games have been played. Our first Retro Rankings of the season are actually predictive in nature, because we simply update last year’s final Retro Rankings in a similar manner to how we update our Predictive Ratings. Nevertheless, the Rankings will make their 2016 debut in this post.

Also, by this evening in the Eastern Time Zone, our webpage will be updated with the latest ratings and rankings as well. You can find this at piratings.webs.com. It is a no-frills just the stats ma’am site with stats and no commentary.

Our regular college schedule once the season begins in earnest is to have the updated ratings posted by Monday afternoon and the predicted spreads of the next week’s games online by Tuesday evening.

For those of you interested in our NFL data, we will have our NFL ratings and predicted spreads for the following week by Wednesday evening.

And, for those of you that promise, and we mean PROMISE, not to use our data to bet and lose your house, car, and family at the betting windows in Vegas, we will issue our JUST FOR FUN money line parlays this year. In theory only, if you actually did use just our parlay predictions last year, you might have come out ahead with a 40% return on investment, but this was most likely an anamoly. If we can convine you any more to this fact, we would not bet one dollar on these fun only parlay predictions. It’s simply all about the math for us analytics nerds. After all, we are a team of professional baseball scouts and sports metric analysts that just happened to play one or more of the big three sports. Our parlay predictions are more like how many play fantasy football just for fun not expecting to win anything.

Did you see the part above about NOT using our free predictions to lose your hard-earned, or even easy-earned money?

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August 23, 2011

2011 Big East Conference Preview

2011 Big East Conference Preview

To some football analysts (so-called experts), the Big East Conference does not deserve and automatic bid to a BCS Bowl game.  Not since Louisville in 2006 has a team from this league won a BCS Bowl and finished in the top 5 in the same season.  It has been four seasons since the league champion won a bowl game (West Virginia over Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl when they had Pat White, Steve Slaton, and Noel Devine).  Cincinnati ran the table in 2009, but they showed they were not up to top tier standards when Florida blew them out 51-24 in the Sugar Bowl.

 

2011 does not look like the season where a Big East team challenges for a national title.  Things should change in 2012 when TCU joins the circuit.  For now, this season should be an excellent one for competition in the middle of the standings.  Last year, three teams finished tied for first at 5-2, and a fourth finished 4-3.  While we believe that one team may win the title going away this year, it isn’t impossible that another logjam at the top of the standings could be in the offing again this season.

 

Pittsburgh

Todd Graham takes over as head coach after winning at both Rice and Tulsa.  In Graham’s five years as a head coach, his teams have averaged more than 37 points per game, 287 passing yards per game, and 475 total yards per game.  In the last five years, Pitt has averaged less than 28 points per game, 208 passing yards per game, and 358 total yards per game.  To say that Panther fans are hyped is an understatement.

 

Graham’s first year at Heinz Field may not be as “offensive” as the fans expect, but there is enough talent to grab a piece of the Big East crown, especially since Pitt’s defense is going to be as good or better as last year’s stellar stop unit.

 

The offense will change from a multiple pro look to more of a spread look similar to that run by Auburn.  Piloting the new no-huddle, hurry-up attack is Tino Sunseri.  Sunseri completed 64.5% of his passes for 2,572 yards and 16 touchdowns last year, but those numbers will look like beginner’s numbers compared to what he should do this season.  He worked hard over the summer and now has better arm strength to go with a little more muscular frame.  Expect big things from Sunseri—maybe 3,500 yards passing and 25 touchdowns, as well as the possibility of national recognition.

 

The Panthers have to replace their leading receiver from last year, but this area is not much of a concern this year.  Mike Shanahan finished second with 49 receptions and 589 yards, while sophomore Devin Street proved to be a breakaway threat while grabbing 25 passes.  He started four times and played some at H-Back and some at wideout.  Hubie Graham will be the H-Back this year now that he is eligible after transferring from Illinois.

 

The running game will not suffer in the new offense.  Graham’s Tulsa teams averaged more than 200 yards rushing per game in his four years there.  Even with the loss of Dion Lewis, Pitt is in good shape here with the return of Ray Graham, who gained 922 yards while averaging better than six yards per try.  The one big question mark on this side of the ball is the depth at this position.

 

The Panthers are in good shape in the offensive trenches with seven quality players capable of starting.  Chris Jacobson is solid at one guard spot with Jordan Gibbs flanked outside him at tackle.  Ryan Turnley will move into the starting spot at center, while Lucas Nix will line up at either right guard or right tackle.  Depending on where Nix goes, either guard Corey King or tackle Greg Gaskin will fill out the line.

 

This offense might have a slight adjustment period getting used to the new offense, but once it gels, Pitt fans will get exactly what they were hoping for.  Pitt has averaged 35 points per game exactly one time in its entire history—1977.  We think this team is capable of achieving that mark in year one of the Graham regime.

 

We are even more optimistic on the stop side of the ball.  Not only is Pitt talented, all three units have quality depth.  This is hands down the best defense in the league, and the only reason Pitt may give up a few more yards and points per game this year is because the new offense will cause an extra 10 plays per game on average, about five more for the defense to be on the field.

 

The Panthers run a hybrid 3-4 defense that looks a lot like the old Oklahoma 5-2 defense of the 1970’s.  Pitt’s second team defensive line may be the second best D-line in the conference.  The first team line is composed of ends Aaron Donald and Chas Alecxih and nose tackle Myles Caragein.  Alecxih produced nine tackles for loss including 7 ½ sacks.  Donald played sparingly as a true freshman and proved to be a very capable pass rusher.  Caragein plugged the middle, allowing the inside linebackers to roam freely.

 

The four-man linebacker crew is without a doubt the best in the league.  Panther linebacker (a glorified term for a walkaway end) Brandon Lindsey could emerge as a Butkus and Bednarik Award contender.  Last year, he recorded 10 sacks and 17 ½ stops behind the line, the latter leading the Big East.  Inside linebacker Max Gruder finished second on the squad with 84 tackles.  His sidekick at the other inside linebacker position is Tristan Roberts, but he is being pushed hard by Shane Gordon.  Look for the two to split time here.  Spur linebackers (a combo linebacker and safety) Todd Thomas and Greg Williams will platoon the position.

 

More riches abound at the cornerback position.  Graham considers three players as regulars, even though just two can start.  Antwuan Reed, K’Waun Williams, and Buddy Jackson should force quarterbacks to look away from the sidelines or throw short.  Safety Jarred Holley led Pitt with five interceptions last year, and he will be joined by bandit safety (a hybrid safety/cornerback) Jason Hendricks.

 

Pitt gave up 19 points and 305 yards per game last year.  We believe those numbers will suffer slightly in the new up-tempo style, but don’t fret Panther fans; your team still has the top defense in the Big East.

 

If the offense can gel and play up to its potential in September, Pitt could actually contend for national honors.  We think the Panthers are a strong favorite to win the Big East with a decent shot at running the table in conference play.  Can the Panthers go 12-0?  It is a slight possibility.  There are four possible roadblocks.  A road game at Iowa could be tough on September 17.  The Hawkeyes are rebuilding, but they are always tough at Kinnick Stadium.  A week later, Notre Dame comes to Steeltown.  It should be the game of the week.  On October 15, Pitt entertains Utah, which is always dangerous.  Then, of course, there is the backyard brawl, and this year, Pitt travels to Morgantown to face West Virginia.  The Mountaineers could be in line to win the Big East with a win in this game, so it should be a great renewal of the rivalry with two teams capable of scoring a lot of points.

 

Cincinnati

We must admit that we were a bit surprised when our computer ratings spat out the Bearcats as the second best Big East team at the start of the 2011 season.  Coming off a 4-8 season under first year coach Butch Jones, the Bearcats will be much stronger on defense, but a rebuilding offensive line will make it hard to duplicate the offensive effectiveness of recent years.

 

The Bearcats are well-equipped at the offensive skill positions.  Quarterback Zach Collaros is one of four or five highly accomplished passers in the league.  Collaros passed for 2,902 yards and 26 touchdowns last year while finishing second on the team in rushing.

 

Isaiah Pead returns to his running back spot after gaining 1,029 yards at a 6.6 yards per attempt rate.  He did not start every game, so he could push that number over 1,200 yards this season.  True freshman Jameel Poteat could see extensive action in a backup role.

 

Bearcat receivers finished one-two in receptions in the Big East last year, and number two is back for an encore.  D. J. Woods was good for 57 catches and 898 yards with eight touchdowns.  Junior college transfer Kenbrell Thompkins should inherit the spot vacated by Armon Binns.

 

It is the blocking corps that worries us and makes us wonder if our computer didn’t byte on a bad bit when it calculated Cinti’s rating.  Only two starters return to the line.  One of those is tackle Alex Hoffman, a 2nd Team All-Big East selection last year.

 

UC averaged 27 points and 417 yards per game last year.  We expect those numbers to drop a little bit this year.  Look for 24-25 points and 375 yards.

 

After Pittsburgh, the Bearcats may have the best defense this season (West Virginia may have something to say about that).  The top 11 tacklers and 17 of the top 18 from 2010 are back.  15 players that started at some point will contend for the 11 starting positions.

 

The four-man defensive line will be strong.  Tackles Derek Wolfe and John Hughes will be tough to run on, while end Brandon Mills will contend for the conference lead in sacks and tackles for loss.

 

J. K. Schaffer and Maalik Bomar led the team with 111 and 70 tackles respectively.  The two linebackers combined for 17 ½ tackles for loss.

 

In the backfield, UC is stocked with depth albeit not quite up to par with the secondary at Pitt.  The Bearcats did not stop many passes last year, and if they are to live up to this rating, they must improve on their 2010 showing.  The entire two-deep returns and adds juco star Maclcolm Murray, who could crack the starting lineup by the season opener.  True freshman Trenier Orr is working his way up the depth chart.

 

The Bearcats gave up 28 points and 370 yards per game last year.  It should be easy besting those numbers this year with all the experience and depth.  If UC can shave a touchdown and 50 yards off those numbers, they might be able to live up to our lofty expectations.

 

Cinti’s non-conference schedule features two very winnable games, one possible trap game, and two games against teams that should be favored to beat the Bearcats.  All five of these games precede the Big East schedule.  If UC is 4-1 headed into the off week of October 8, the rest of the league better beware.  The Bearcats host West Virginia, but they must face Pittsburgh and South Florida on the road.  A 5-2 league mark is possible.

 

West Virginia

Welcome back to our prime time soap opera.  In today’s episode, Bill tries to go behind Dana’s back to spread nasty rumors and get him fired, but he gets caught and Bill loses his job.

 

Yes, that soap opera was no fantasy story.  Former coach Bill Stewart really did try to get his future replacement, Dana Holgorsen, fired by feeding a media source information to try to slander his offensive coordinator.  Instead, it was Stewart that was sent packing.  Holgorsen now ascends to head coach a year earlier than expected.

 

Holgorsen authored the offensive revival at Oklahoma State, after tutoring Case Keenum as OC at Houston and serving on Mike Leach’s Texas Tech staff.  The explosive spread offense used by the Mountaineers during the Rich Rodriguez era will return in spades this year.  However, WVU’s defense will take a major step backward.

 

Geno Smith may not be the running threat that Pat White was, but he has a better arm.  Smith tossed for 2,763 yards and 24 touchdowns while completing 65% of his passes in 2010.  Those numbers led the league in passing efficiency.  WV averaged about 32 passes per game last year; that number could top 40 this year.  Smith could easily top 3,500 yards passing.

 

Smith has three excellent options to fire his passes to this year.  Tavon Austin, Brad Starks, and Stedman Bailey teamed for 101 receptions 1,421 yards, and 16 touchdowns last year.  Starks could lose his starting spot to Ryan Nehlen, and we could see this trio topping 150 receptions, 2,000 yards, and 20 touchdowns this year.

 

Noel Devine is no longer around in the Mountaineer backfield after it seemed like he was there for a decade.  His replacement will be a three-headed monster known as Andrew Buie, Dustin Garrison, and Vernard Roberts.  All three are true freshmen, so there will be a decline at this position.

 

The offensive line had to do some shuffling following the Spring Game injury of 2nd Team All-Big East guard Josh Jenkins.  The best center in the league returns in Joe Madsen.  Don Barclay returns at left tackle after earning 1st Team All-Big East accolades in 2010.

 

The Mountaineers’ offense ground to a near halt at times last year.  In a period of four weeks, WVU scored just 14, 13, and 17 points against three conference opponents.  Expect a dramatic increase in offensive production this year.  The Mountaineers could top 30 points and 425 yards per game in year one of the Holgorsen era.

 

Now, to the defense:  West Virginia’s stop troops were almost as tough as TCU’s last year.  The Mountaineers gave up just 13.5 points, 86 rushing yards, and 261 total yards last year.  This year’s defense is missing five all-conference players and seven starters overall.  Factoring into the equation the real possibility that the new offense will not produce long, time-consuming drives (WVU ran 105 more scrimmage plays than their opponents) and cause this team to defend as much as a dozen more scrimmage plays this year, WVU will not come close to matching their 2010 numbers.

 

One starter returns to the front line of the 3-3-5 defense, but the designated pass rusher from last year gives WVU the equivalent of two starting ends returning.  Julian Miller earned a spot on the 2nd Team All-Big East list after coming up with 14 tackles for loss and nine sacks.  Bruce Irvin led the league with 14 sacks and also made the 2nd Team All-Big East list.

 

The biggest rebuilding will take place in the second line of defense, as middle linebacker Najee Goode is the only holdover.  Goode contributed 8 ½ tackles for loss.

 

The back line is the strength of this side of the ball.  Safety Terence Garvin led the team with 76 tackles.  Cornerback Keith Tandy finished tied for first in the league with 17 passes defended.  Six of those were interceptions, and it earned him a 1st Team All-Big East Selection.

 

How much the defense regresses will determine how far WVU falls in the standings.  They tied for first last year.  We could see them challenging for first again this year, but we believe they will probably come in two games back and in third.  The Mountaineers will pick up three or four non-conference wins (LSU and Maryland on the schedule), so Holgorsen will guide his forces back to a bowl game.

 

Connecticut

2010 was the cherry on top season for the Huskies, as Randy Edsall guided UConn to the conference title and a berth in the Fiesta Bowl.  Edsall left for Maryland, and the new man is former Syracuse coach Paul Pasqualoni.  Pasqualoni won 107 games in 14 years at Syracuse, including four Big East Championships.  The ‘Cuse went to bowl games nine times in the 14 seasons.

 

The cupboard is not bare in Huskietown, but there is quite a bit of rebuilding to do, especially on offense where five starters have departed and one unit has been decimated with the loss of four key parts.

 

That one unit comes on the offensive side of the ball, where UConn already faced some major losses.  Starting Wide receiver Michael Smith led the Huskies last year with 46 receptions and 615 yards.  He was declared academically ineligible.  Three more receivers expected to figure in the mix all quit.  Gone are Malik Generett, Gerrard Sheppard, and Leon Kinnard.  That leaves just six receivers on the roster, and two of those six are nursing minor injuries.  Kashif Moore and Isiah Moore are capable second and third options, but now they will have to become the feature receivers.

 

Just who will throw the passes is still a mystery.  As late as mid-August, Pasqualoni had not settled on a starting quarterback.  True freshman Michael Nebrich appears to have a slight edge over redshirt freshman Scott McCummings, but sophomore Michael Box and junior Johnny McEntee are also in the mix.  Nebrich will probably be under center when Connecticut hosts Fordham on September 1.  Last year’s co-quarterbacks did not produce bang-up numbers, so the eventual starter will not be that far behind what they had and could even be a little better.

 

The news is not as good at the running back position.  Jordan Todman has used of his eligibility after rushing for a conference-leading 1,695 yards with 14 touchdowns.  Number two rusher Robbie Frey is also missing.  Former Southern Cal fullback D. J. Shoemate takes over as the starter after rushing for 115 yards in limited action last year.  Shoemate had a problem holding onto the ball and was relegated to the bench.

 

The brightest spot of the offense is a talented and experienced offensive line.  Center Moe Petrus has been a 1st Team All-Big East pick in the past.  Tackle Mike Ryan made the 1st Team all-conference squad last year.

 

Connecticut will make a lot more mistakes on this side of the ball this season.  The Huskies limited mistakes last year, finishing the season +12 in turnover margin.  Don’t expect a repeat, even with a defense that could be just as good or even better than last year.  Look for about 20-24 points and 275-300 total yards out of this offense.

 

If the Huskies can plug some holes at linebacker, the defense could be a major plus in 2011.  UConn gave up 22 points and 367 yards per game last year, but it was a hit or miss season.  Against the weaker teams, the defense shut them down.  Against the stronger teams, the defense faltered.  Oklahoma, Michigan, Rutgers, and West Virginia combined to gain 1,864 yards (466/g), while the other nine opponents totaled 2,904 yards (323/g).

 

In the trenches, tackles Kendall Reyes and Twyon Martin return as starters.  They combined for 15 stops for loss.  Reyes was able to intercept two passes and knock away four others.  End Jesse Joseph returns after leading the team with 8 ½ sacks and 12 tackles for loss.

 

The secondary returns intact with cornerbacks Blidi Wreh-Wilson and Dwayne Gratz looking to top their production of 2010 when they teamed for 20 passes defended.  Safeties Jerome Junior and Harris Agbor round out the secondary.

 

Only one experienced player returns at linebacker, and a freshman could actually become one of the new starters.  Sio Moore is the lone holdover from last year.  He was selected to the All-Big East 2nd Team after he recorded 110 tackles with 11 ½ stops for loss.

 

It is hard to predict what we believe the defense will allow this season.  It all hinges on what the offense does.  If Shoemate can hang onto the ball and produce a year similar to what Todman produced, Connecticut could control the clock, and the defense could be okay.  If the offense never gets untracked and cannot keep the defense off the field, the defense could take a step backward even with all the returning players.  We believe in finding a happy medium and will call for numbers just a little weaker than last season.

 

UConn benefitted from having a lot of scoring punch in their special teams last year.  Kicker Dave Teggart connected on all 36 of his point after attempts as well as 25 of 31 field goal attempts.  He was two for two beyond 50 yards.  Kick Returner Nick Williams averaged an eye-popping 35+ yards per return with two touchdowns.  Both specialists return and could be a major factor once again.

 

The schedule will save the Huskies this year.  The non-conference slate includes games with Fordham, Vanderbilt, Iowa State, Buffalo, and Western Michigan.  The Huskies will do no worse than 4-1 in these games.  With Syracuse, Rutgers, and Louisville visiting Rentschler Field, UConn will win the two conference games they need to return to a bowl game.  It will not be a BCS Bowl this year.

 

South Florida

The Bulls finished 3-4 in league play last year, 3-4 in 2009, and 2-5 in 2008.  They have finished with winning records the past three years thanks to a non-conference record of 16-2.  Second year coach Skip Holtz lost half of his 2010 starters, but his main returnee is causing him sleepless nights.

 

Quarterback B. J. Daniels is nursing an injured hamstring.  The third year starter does not have much depth backing him up.  Without him, USF is not going to move the ball through the air and will be less predictable on the ground.  Daniels did not have a stellar sophomore year after having a breakout year as a redshirt freshman.  If he cannot go at the start of the season, backup Bobby Eveld will get the nod.  Eveld completed 56% of his 75 passes, but behind him are a couple of true freshmen who are not ready to play at the BCS level.

 

Holtz’s top receiver from last year has used up his eligibility.  Dontavia Bogan led the team with 47 receptions, 19 more than the next guy.  That guy was Evan Landi, who returns after averaging close to 14 yards on his 28 receptions.  Former starter Sterling Griffin missed all of last year, and he should give Daniels or Eveld a decent second option.  Griffin caught 14 passes in 2009.

 

The backfield shows promise even if it does not return its starter from last year.  Demetrius Murray returns after rushing for 542 yards and four scores, but he could be supplanted by former Colorado Buffalo top recruit Darrell Scott.  Scott is eligible after sitting out last year.

 

The offensive line has to replace three starters.  The two returning starters are guards Chaz Hine and Jeremiah Warren. 

 

USF averaged 24 points and just over 300 yards per game last year.  It was considered a major underachievement.  Even with the loss of personnel and the injury to Daniels, we have to believe that the Bulls will be able to better those stats.  Look for 25-28 points and 325-350 total yards in 2011.

 

The defense has some holes to fill as well.  Gone are last year’s top tackler and tackler for lost yardage, co-top sack producer, and top passes defender.  Six starters return, and defensive coordinator Mark Snyder should find enough talent to mold a decent stop unit.

 

The biggest rebuilding job is in the trenches where three of four defensive linemen must be replaced.  Nose tackle Cory Grissom is the lone returnee.  At about 320 pounds, he can control two gaps on the line, but he will not make many tackles.  The true star of this unit is likely to be end Ryne Giddins.  In limited action as a redshirt freshman last year, he made six tackles for loss with 3 ½ sacks.

 

Linebackers Sam Barrington and DeDe Lattimore return after combining for 134 stops.  At the Sam Linebacker position, Reshard Cliett and Curtis Weatherspoon are likely to share reps this year.

 

The secondary is in good hands with the return of three starters, but none of the trio can be considered a game-changer.  Cornerback Quenton Washington recorded 59 tackles last year, but he only intercepted one pass.  Free safety Jerrell Young intercepted three passes to lead the team in 2010.

 

The Bulls don’t open the season with a cupcake like other teams.  They face Notre Dame in South Bend.  Other non-league tilts include three cupcakes—Ball State, Florida A&M, and UTEP.  The Bulls host Miami in November, and who knows how the Hurricanes will be playing by this point of the season.  They could even be facing the “death penalty” and players could be jumping off ship by this time.  Even if USF finishes below .500 in the league this year, they can return to bowl eligibility once again.

 

Syracuse

Coach Doug Marrone pulled off the biggest surprise of the league last year.  His Orangemen beat South Florida, West Virginia, Cincinnati, and Rutgers to finish with SU’s first winning Big East record since 2004.  The Orangemen played in their first bowl since that season and defeated Kansas State in the most exciting bowl game of the season—the inaugural Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium.

 

SU won with their defense in 2010, but that defense was decimated by graduation losses.  Only five starters return, and one of those will miss the first game and maybe more.  All is not gloom and doom, because they get back two key players that missed most of last year.

 

It is the secondary where all this good and bad news resides.  Free safety Phillip Thomas suffered a broken jaw and will miss at least the season opener.  Thomas is the leading returning tackler with 92.  Shamarko Thomas returns to the strong safety position.  He finished fourth with 67 tackles last year.  The two players returning from injuries should be the starting cornerbacks.  Kevyn Scott has 17 starts under his belt, while Ri’Shard Anderson saw action in seven games two years ago as a freshman.

 

Two new starters will open up at linebacker, one of whom could be a true freshman.  Marquis Spruill is the lone returning starter; he registered nine tackles for loss in 2010.

 

Up front, two defensive linemen return.  End Mikhail Marinovich recorded just three sacks and needs to improve on that number.  His counterpart, Chandler Jones, is the star of the stop side.  Jones earned 2nd team all-conference honors after recording four sacks, 9 ½ total tackles for loss, and five additional QB hurries.  He also knocked away four passes.

 

After giving up just 19 points and 300 yards last year, look for those numbers to head south in 2011.  We foresee the ‘Cuse giving up 23-28 points and about 340 yards per game.

 

The offense really did not improve much upon 2009’s production, increasing scoring by just a point per game while actually gaining fewer yards.  This year, The Orangemen should produce the most points and yards in at least seven years. 

 

There is one big distraction as this team enters fall drills.  Speedy receiver Marcus Sales is suspended indefinitely following a drug arrest.  His trial does not begin until February of 2012, so he could play the 2011 season.  Whether or not Marrone allows him to participate is another question.  Sales had 26 receptions with a 16 yard average per catch.  Syracuse still has some quality receivers on hand.  Van Chew led the team with 41 receptions.  Alec Lemon caught 32 passes.  Both players should add to their totals this season.  Tight end Nick Provo is a proven option in the middle, and he should see more passes come his way this year after grabbing 33 receptions.

 

Quarterback Ryan Nassib returns for his junior season, his second as a starter.  Nassib passed for 2,300+ yards with 19 touchdowns.  Nassib will throw more passes this season, and he should top 2,500 yards.

 

The running game will miss star back Delone Carter, who departs after rushing for more than 1,200 yards last year.  Antwon Bailey rushed for 554 yards and a couple of scores with a 4.9 yard per carry average.  He is strictly a speed back, so when SU needs to pound the ball and convert short yardage situations, expect true freshman Adonis Ameen-Moore to see a lot of action.

 

Four starters return to the offensive line, led by tackle Justin Pugh.  Pugh earned 2nd Team All-Big East accolades last year.  Guard Andrew Tiller could be on the cusp of making an all-conference team.

 

Syracuse is known for having great place kickers.  Ross Krautman is the current top kicker in the Big East.  He nailed 18 of 19 field goal attempts last year, including 6 of 7 from beyond 40 yards.

 

We see the ‘Cuse averaging about 24-27 points and 325-350 yards per game this year.  They will fall in the conference standings, but there is still a chance the Orangemen can become bowl eligible for the second consecutive season.  Four of five non-conference games are winnable, with Wake Forest, Rhode Island, and Toledo visiting the Carrier Dome.  A visit to Tulane is winnable as well, while the trip to Southern Cal should be a losing proposition.  The Orangemen should only need two conference wins to get to six.  Rutgers, USF, and Cincinnati visit the Carrier Dome.  SU could win two of those games.

 

Rutgers

After five consecutive winning seasons and four consecutive bowl wins, the Scarlet Knights took a step backward last year, finishing with just four wins.  RU coach Greg Schiano made some changes, gutting the Spread Formation and bringing in former Pitt offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti.  The Knights will switch back to a pro-style offense this year.

 

Rutgers’ biggest problem on offense last year was pass protection.  The offensive line gave up an unbelievable 61 sacks!  That is no typo.  Louisville dumped RU QBs nine times.  Army’s double eagle flex did the trick eight times.  The number was seven for both Pitt and Cincinnati.

 

Cignetti was a quarterback coach with the Saints and 49ers, and he will spend extra time tutoring RU quarterback Chas Dodd.  The sophomore started the final eight games and passed for 1,637 yards and 11 touchdowns.  Should Dodd need to be replaced, two freshmen could be in line as the next two options. 

 

If Dodd can get adequate pass protection, he will have a stable of quality receivers to choose from.  Mark Harrison, Mohamed Sanu, Brandon Coleman, Quron Pratt, and Tim Wright and tight end D. C. Jefferson make the receiving corps as strong as any in the league.  Harrison showed breakaway ability last year when he caught 44 passes for 829 yards and nine touchdowns.  Sanu was more of a possession receiver, and he also caught 44 passses.

 

On paper, the running game appeared to be weak, but it was not so.  Factoring out sacks, the backs averaged 4.2 yards per rush.  Fullback Joe Martinek could be an important key this season.  In the new offense, he will block for a quartet of excellent backs.  Jeremy Deering may miss the start of the season with a head injury, after he averaged 4.6 yards per carry last year.  However, a true freshman may be the featured back this year.  Savon Huggins rushed for 1,891 yards and 35 touchdowns as a high school senior.  Jawan Jamison and De’Antwan Williams will see action.

 

The offensive line has nowhere to go but up, and with four starters returning, it will be improved.  Guard Desmond Wynn is the best of the bunch; his counterpart could be former prized recruit Antwan Lowery over returning starter Art Forst.  Desmond Stapleton and Andre Civil will man the tackle positions, while David Osei will be the new center.

 

Rutgers’ offense should make strides toward becoming powerful this year, but there will be some adjusting with the new offense.  Look for about 25-30 points and 375-400 yards per game.

 

Rutgers will need to outscore opponents to win, because their defense is going to resemble Swiss cheese at times.  The Scarlet Knights gave up 27 points and 375 yards per game last year, and with six key players gone, that number could weaken in 2011.

 

The strongest unit on defense will be at linebacker.  Steve Beauharnais and Khaseem Greene return after teaming for 156 tackles with 8 ½ for losses. 

 

Up front, Rutgers uses a 4-man line, but one of the ends is more of a linebacker than a true end.  Marvin Booker and Ka’Lial Glaud will probably alternate at that hybrid position.  At the other end position, Manny Abreu has a leg up on Marcus Thompson and Micheal Larrow, but as of this writing, Larrow is the only healthy player of the three. 

 

The secondary is deep with average talent.  Cornerbacks Logan Ryan and Brandon Jones will be challenged by Mason Robinson and Marcus Cooper.  Safeties Duron Harmon and David Rowe make this unit deep albeit not outstanding.

 

With an offense that might hold onto the ball a little longer, RU could improve a little bit on the defensive side.  Still, this defense is anything but dominating, and the Scarlet Knights will have weeks where opponents torch them for 30-40 points.

 

The schedule is manageable, and RU could actually eke out enough wins to become bowl eligible.  Non-conference tilts with North Carolina Central, Ohio U, Navy, Army, and North Carolina are all winnable, but four of those opponents are dangerous. 

 

Louisville

Charlie Strong’s first year at UL was a success; he guided the Cardinals to a 7-6 record and bowl win.  If he repeats that effort in 2011, he should receive votes for National Coach of the Year!

 

UL has endured major losses on both sides of the ball, and it looks to us as though the Cards are headed back to the basement this year.

 

Just three starters return to an offense that was credible but not spectacular a year ago.  The Cards’ two-man quarterback tandem both moved on, and the new quarterback figures to be Will Stein.  Stein threw a grand total of 14 passes last year, completing nine for just 72 yards.  True freshman Teddy Bridgewater is the QB of the future.

 

Stein has some talent at the receiver position.  Josh Bellamy is an All-American trash-talker, but he may be able to back it up.  He snatched 29 passes and scored five touchdowns last year.  Andrell Smith and Michaelee Harris will be aided by promising true freshman Eli Rogers.

 

The big loss on offense is at running back, where Bilal Powell leaves after rushing for more than 1,400 yards and 11 touchdowns.  Victor Anderson replaces Powell; he rushed for 286 yards last year.

 

The offensive line has just one returning starter, and he is center Mario Benavides.  No other offensive lineman on the roster has ever started a game, so the Cards could have some troubles moving the ball this season.

 

After averaging 26 points and 370 yards a game last year, the drop could be as far as 17 to 20 points and 300-325 yards this season.

 

While seven starters return on the defensive side, the Cards took a major hit on this side of the ball with the departure of six of the top 10 tacklers.  The biggest concern is in the trenches, even though three starters return.  Ends B. J. Butler and Greg Scruggs combined for just 37 tackles, and Butler missed Spring Practice with an injury.  The Cards will miss designated pass rusher Rodney Gnat and his team-leading nine sacks.

 

Linebackers Daniel Brown and Dexter Heyman combined for 14 ½ tackles for loss, but neither will challenge for 1st Team All-Big East honors.

 

Safeties Hakeem Smith and Shenard Holton led the Cards with 88 and 74 tackles respectively.  They combined for just one interception.  Cornerback appears to be a major liability.  Johnny Patrick was high NFL draft choice after leading the conference with 17 passes defended.  Expected starter Darius Ashley was picked up twice on DUIs and is indefinitely suspended. 

 

Louisville will have a difficult time avoiding the Big East cellar.  However, there is still a small chance the Cards could become bowl eligible.  The non-conference slate gives them a small chance to win five games and a decent chance to win four.  UL plays Murray State, Florida International, Kentucky, Marshall, and North Carolina.  If they can win at least four of those five, they could go 2-5 in the league and repeat at 6-6 in the regular season.

 

2011 Big East Conference Media Poll

Team

1st Place Votes

Points

West Virginia

21

188

Pittsburgh

2

162

South Florida

1

151

Syracuse

 

98

Cincinnati

 

96

Connecticut

 

76

Louisville

 

60

Rutgers

 

33

 

 

2011 Big East Conference PiRate Ratings

Team

PiRate #

Prediction

Pittsburgh

111.5

7-0/11-1

Cincinnati

108.7

3-4/6-6

West Virginia

106.6

5-2/8-4

Connecticut

102.1

3-4/7-5

S. Florida

101.4

5-2/9-3

Syracuse

94.8

2-5/6-6

Rutgers

94.5

1-6/6-6

Louisville

92.2

2-5/5-7

 

August 16, 2010

2010 Big East Conference Preview

Go to www.piratings.webs.com where we beat the spread 60.4% in 2009!

 

2010 Big East Conference Preview

 

Today, we begin coverage of the BCS Conferences.  The Big East gets little respect from among the “Big Six” leagues, and the last two BCS Bowl seasons have instilled that opinion.  Undefeated Cincinnati fell in the Sugar Bowl to Florida by 27 points last year and by 13 points to Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl the year before.  West Virginia lost to Florida State in the Gator Bowl.  On the bright side, Pittsburgh, Connecticut, South Florida, and Rutgers won their bowl games last year.

The Big East race figures to be exciting this year as five teams could vie for the conference title.  The next two could surprise a few teams.  Only Louisville figures to have no chance of becoming bowl eligible.

Note: The PiRate Ratings are not meant to be used to predict the outcome of future games.  They are usable only as a basis for the current week’s games.  We do not use these ratings to make our selections.  They are only a starting point.  The predictions given below, as for every college conference and NFL division, are not taken from the ratings themselves.

Predictions

Pos Team B E Overall
1 Pittsburgh 6-1 9-3
2 West Virginia 6-1 10-2
3 Connecticut 5-2 9-3
4 Cincinnati 4-3 7-5
5 South Florida 4-3 7-5
6 Rutgers 2-5 6-6
7 Syracuse 1-6 4-8
8 Louisville 0-7 3-9

 

BCS Bowl: Pittsburgh

Champs Sports Bowl: Notre Dame (contractually allowed to take any BE bid)

Meineke Car Care Bowl: West Virginia

Pinstripe Bowl: Connecticut

PapaJohns.com Bowl: South Florida

St. Petersburg Bowl: Cincinnati

 

 

Team By Team Breakdown

 

Team Cincinnati Bearcats
               
Head Coach Butch Jones
               
Colors Red and Black
               
City Cincinnati, OH
               
2009 Record              
Conference 7-0
Overall 12-1
               
PiRate Rating 110.8
               
National Rating 35
               
2010 Prediction              
Conference 4-3
Overall 7-5

 

Offense: The Bearcats lost a lot of manpower, most notably their head coach.  Brian Kelly left the Queen City for Notre Dame.  New head man Butch Jones has done this before.  He replaced Kelly at Central Michigan in 2007. 

Jones inherited Dan LeFevour from Kelly at CMU.  He inherits Zach Collaros here.  Collaros replaced Tony Pike in the middle of the season after Pike was injured, and Collaros completed 75% of his passes and gained an amazing 11.6 yards per attempt with 10 touchdowns to just two inteceptions!    Expect him to be one of the leading runners in this offense, as he rushed for better than six yards per attempt.  Collaros will be one of three league quarterbacks competing for 1st Team All-Big East honors.

The receiving corps is missing its leader from a year ago.  Mardy Gilyard will be catching Sam Bradford’s passes this year in St. Louis after grabbing 87 balls for almost 1,200 yards last year.  Look for Armon Binns to top 80 catches this season.  He caught 61 passes for 888 yards and 11 touchdowns.  D.J. Woods had 51 catches as a third option last year, and he should help free up space for Binns.  Tight end Ben Guidugli is a better pass receiver than run blocker, and he should catch at least 30 passes this year.

The running game was not a strength last year.  UC rushed for just 166 yards in their last three games.  Starting tailback Isaiah Pead rushed for over 800 yards, but he is actually more valuable as a pass receiver coming out of the backfield.

The offensive line returns three starters, including a pair of all-conference guards in Alex Hoffman and Jason Kelce.

The Bearcats scored 39 points per game last year.  While they won’t repeat that output, they could still lead the Big East in offense.  We figure they should score about 30-33 points and produce 400-425 yards of offense.

Defense: It was a “Tale of Two Seasons” for UC on this side of the ball in 2009.  After surrendering 15, 3, 18, 20, 13, 17, 10, and 7 points in their first eight games, they gave up 45, 21, 36, 44, and 51 in their final five.  They lost six starters from this side of the ball, so opponents could beat the Bearcats in multiple shootout games.

Three defensive line starters must be replaced.  The lone returnee is tackle Derek Wolfe, who recorded five sacks and three other stops for loss.  Both new starting ends saw a lot of action last year; Brandon Mills and Dan Giordano combined for 15 stops behind the line, so this unit isn’t as inexperienced as it looks.

Two starters return at linebacker.  J.K. Schaffer had 100 tackles, and he proved to be an excellent pass defender.  He had three interceptions and knocked away three other passes.  The loss of leading tackler Andre Revels will hurt.

The secondary could be a liability this year.  UC gave up 63.6% completions and 230 yards last year.  They lose their top pass defender, so teams could pass them silly.

The Bearcats will give up more points and yards this year.  Expect their defensive numbers to fall to 26-30 points and 400-425 yards allowed.

Schedule: UC should equal their 2009 loss total in the first week of the season.  The Bearcats venture to Fresno State.  FSU nearly beat them last year at Nippert Stadium.  Other non-conference games include Indiana State and Miami (Ohio) at home, North Carolina State on the road, and Oklahoma at Paul Brown Stadium (The Cincinnati Bengals’ home stadium). 3-2 is the best they can do in these games.

In the Big East, UC hosts South Florida, Syracuse, Rutgers, and Pittsburgh.  They could force a multiple-team tie at the top at 5-2 if they can upset Pitt or West Virginia, but we believe their defense will be too generous.  Call it another winning season and bowl bid, but the bowl will be before New Year’s Day.

Team Connecticut Huskies
               
Head Coach Randy Edsall
               
Colors Navy and White
               
City Storrs, Ct
               
2009 Record              
Conference 3-4
Overall 8-5
               
PiRate Rating 113.2
               
National Rating 27
               
2010 Prediction              
Conference 5-2
Overall 9-3

 

Offense: Connecticut football gets no respect.  They are the Rodney Dangerfield’s of the BCS.  The Huskies are known for their basketball.  They compete in the greater New York City Metro area, where football is all about the Giants and Jets first, Rutgers second, and everybody else third.

Any defense that fails to give UConn respect this season will be licking its wounds on Sunday morning.  The Huskies are loaded on this side of the ball with most of their weapons from 2009 returning plus the addition of a summer transfer escaping the Kiffin Circus.

Coach Randy Edsall has spurned offers to move elsewhere, and he has methodically built the Huskies into a 21st Century version of Woody Hayes’ Ohio State “Three yards and a cloud of dust.”  Connecticut can pound the ball up the middle and slant off-tackle from their shotgun spread offense with the same results Hayes got from his full-house T in the 1950’s and I in the 1960’s and 70’s.

The Huskies had two, 1,000-yard backs last year—Jordan Todman and Andre Dixon.  Dixon departs, but fret not Husky fans; enter Southern Cal transfer D.J. Shoemate, who will not have to sit out a year.  Shoemate is not only a big punishing runner, he is a great pass receiver.  Shoemate and Dixon will give UConn another great tandem and should combine for more than 2,500 total yards and 30+ touchdowns.

Those two cannot do it alone.  They have to have room to run, and the Huskies have an exceptional blocking wall up front, buoyed by the return of four starters.  This unit is the class of the league, and they will provide those holes for UConn to lead the league in rushing.

If any improvement can be made in the passing game, Connecticut could emerge as league champions.  Quarterback Zach Frazer was highly regarded when he signed out of high school with Notre Dame.  The senior should enjoy his best season this year as the full-time starter.  He completed just 53.2% of his passes last year and he was intercepted nine times (4.1%).  Backup Cody Endres is more of a pure passer, but he doesn’t have the wheels Frazer has.

The biggest concern on this side of the ball is an inexperienced receiving corps.  Kashif Moore is the leading returning pass catcher, but he only caught 22 passes.  However, one of those catches was perhaps the top touchdown reception in the country.  He took an off-target pass on the sideline and caught it one-handed, scoring without breaking stride against South Carolina in the PapaJohns.com Bowl.

Connecticut won’t look flashy, but the Green Bay Packers won a lot of championships by not being flashy.  Expect the Huskies to top 200 yards per game on the ground and approach 400 total while topping 30 points per game.

Defense: An offense that churns out rushing yards and eats the clock tends to make an average defense look much better.  With three starters returning to the defensive line and two to the linebacking corps, the Huskies should continue to play well on this side of the ball.

One player missing from the line is 2nd Team All-Big East linebacker, move to end, Greg Lloyd.  A knee injury has forced him to take a medical redshirt.  Trevardo Williams will take his place; he saw action in all 13 games last year.  He’ll join Jesse Joseph, Kendall Reyes, and Twyon Martin to form a formidable, but not spectacular, front line.

The second line of defense returns the team’s number one and three tacklers.  Lawrence Wilson and Scott Lutrus should both earn 1st Team All-Big East honors this year after teaming for 170 tackles, 16 ½ for losses, including 8 ½ sacks.

The weak spot of this defense will be the secondary, as two all-conference players have departed.  Cornerback Blidi Wreh-Wilson had six broken up passes and one interception.

The pass defense will be what keeps the Huskies from winning the conference championship this year.  Still, this is a team capable of topping last year’s 8-5 season.  The five losses came by 2, 3, 4, 4, and 2 points.

Schedule: The opening game will be very interesting, as UConn travels to the Big House to take on Michigan.  That game should be a toss-up.  The other four non-conference games should be wins, as the Huskies host Texas Southern, play at Temple, and then host rebuilding Buffalo and a weak Vanderbilt team.

The Huskies get the top two Big East teams at home, facing West Virginia on Friday, October 29 and Pittsburgh on Veterans’ Day, Thursday, November 11.  The schedule sets up perfectly for Connecticut to win both of these games; they precede West Virginia with lowly Louisville and get a week off to prepare for the Panthers.

If the passing game develops at all, and the secondary gets enough help from the pass rush to be just average, you could be looking at the next Big East champions.  We’ll go with 9-3 and a trip to Yankee Stadium for the first Pinstripe Bowl.

Team Louisville Cardinals
               
Head Coach Charlie Strong
               
Colors Red and Black
               
City Louisville, KY
               
2009 Record              
Conference 1-6
Overall 4-8
               
PiRate Rating 95.1
               
National Rating 74
               
2010 Prediction              
Conference 0-7
Overall 3-9

 

Offense: Just a few years ago, Louisville wasn’t far from becoming the next Florida State.  Then Coach Bobby Petrino’s offense was the best in the nation, scoring 50 points per game en route to an 11-1 season in 2004.  Two years later, UL finished 12-1 and won the Orange Bowl.

Things changed in the three years Steve Kragthorpe coached the team.  The once mighty offense crashed and burned, falling all the way to 18 points and 334 yards last year.  Enter a new head coach.  Charlie Strong comes in after serving as Florida’s defensive coordinator.  He will try to institute Urban Meyer’s spread offense here.

Strong made a great move in bringing in former UNLV head coach Mike Sanford to run the offense.  Sanford was Utah’s offensive coordinator when Meyer was there.  Unfortunately, Strong could not bring Alex Smith with him.

Three players are competing for the quarterback job, and if the coaches know who will start, they are not letting on.  Adam Froman, Justin Burke, and Will Stein have been alternating snaps in practice.  True freshman Dominique Brown was an option quarterback in high school, and he could be tried at other positions.  However, for now, he will be in the mix here.  No matter who lines up behind center for the opening game, don’t expect anything Earth-shattering.

The running game has a chance to develop into something with the healthy return of Victor Anderson.  Playing only in eight games and never really fully healthy, he gained 473 yards and scored five times. 

Two of last year’s starting wide outs graduated, leaving lone holdover Doug Beaumont and tight end Cameron Graham as the only two experienced receivers.  Neither will remind anybody of Harry Douglas.  Of the new starters, watch for giant 6-9 wide out Josh Chichester to be utilized in short yardage and goalline situations where he the ball will be tossed in the air for him to jump up and take.

The offensive line is the strength of this offense, as four starters return.  There aren’t any all-stars here, but there is a lot of depth.

Look for Louisville to struggle at times in this new offense.  They will have to rely too much on the running game, and another injury to Anderson would be too much to overcome.  Expect about 16-20 points and 325-350 yards.

Defense: This is the reason Louisville will stay in last place for the third straight season.  The Cardinals actually improved defensively the last two years, but since the offense regressed even more, the won-loss record worsened.  Only four starters return on this side of the ball, and even with the defensive acumen of Coach Strong, he will not be able to mold UL into a fantastic defense this year.

The defensive line lacks talent, but has some experience.  The only quality player up front graduate, so this will be a major liability this year.

Don’t expect much better performance from the linebackers.  Only one of three starters returns, and the two who graduated were the top two tacklers.  It would be a major plus if Southern Cal transfer Jordan Campbell actually showed up on campus before the season began.  He could lead the Cardinals in tackles and form a decent one-two-three punch with Antwon Canady and Dexter Heyman. 

The secondary has a chance to be better than average, especially if former Michigan signee Demar Dorsey can become eligibile.  Dorsey could start from day one.  Returning regular Johnny Patrick and new starter Anthony Conner give the Cards a nice set of cornerbacks.

Louisville has a long road ahead before they rebuild enough to return to the plus side of .500.  Expect baby steps in year one of the Strong administration.  The Cards will give up 28 points and 375+ yards per game.

Schedule: As usual, UL opens with Kentucky for the Governor’s Cup.  The Wildcats have won the last three, and they should make it four in a row.  UL then gets Eastern Kentucky at home, and the Colonels gave both Indiana and Kentucky fits last year.  A road game against Oregon State could get ugly, and then after a week off, a road game against Arkansas State should give the Cards a second chance at a win.  Memphis comes to Papa John’s Stadium the following week, and the Tigers will treat this like a bowl game.  It will be hard fought.  It will also be UL’s last chance at a win this year, as they are clearly the weakest team in the Big East.  They must play at Syracuse and Rutgers, the teams that should finish in 7th and 6th place.

Team Pittsburgh Panthers
               
Head Coach Dave Wannstedt
               
Colors Blue and Gold
               
City Pittsburgh, PA
               
2009 Record              
Conference 5-2
Overall 10-3
               
PiRate Rating 110.5
               
National Rating 37
               
2010 Prediction              
Conference 6-1
Overall 10-2

 

Offense: Since returning to his alma mater, Coach Dave Wannstedt has been a recruiting monster.  The Panthers have not signed so many talented players since Jackie Sherrill patrolled the sidelines in the early 1980’s.  Last year, Pitt topped 30 points per game, and even though they lost a majority of their starters, there is enough talent returning to make this another successful season on this side of the ball.

Let’s start with the player that earned 2nd Team All-American honors as a true freshman.  Dion Lewis drew comparisons to the great Tony Dorsett after rushing for 1,799 yards and 17 touchdowns.  He found time to catch 25 passes for another 189 yards.  Backup Ray Graham injured his knee in a scrimmage over the weekend.  If he is okay, expect him to get a few more carries this year.  He rushed for 349 yards, and actually averaged a tad more per carry than Lewis.

The backs may have to shoulder the load this year, because the Panthers will be breaking in a new quarterback after losing Bill Stull to graduation.  Sophomore Tino Sunseri has limited experience, but he’s got a rifle for an arm.

The receiving corps took a minor hit with the departure of the numbers two and three receivers, but top man Jon Baldwin returns after averaging nearly 20 yards on 57 receptions.  Wannstedt likes to throw to his tight ends, and he has two youngsters with a lot of promise in Mike Cruz (6-5, 270) and Brock DeCicco (6-5, 235).

The offensive line is strong at tackle, but the inside blockers are untested.  Lucas Nix and Jason Pinkston could both make all-conference teams (Pinkston was 1st Team All-Big East in 2009), but three new starters must be found at center and guard.

Even with the questions in the blocking wall, we think the Panthers will continue to move the ball with force.  The backs will run the ball off tackle, and the passing game will continue to stretch the defense vertically.  Look for 26-30 points and 375-400 yards.

Defense: The stop side has improved the last three years, and Pitt gave up just 19.8 points per game last year.  The Panthers led the nation in quarterback sacks with 47 and return most of the players who contributed to the great pass rush.

One cause for concern is the status of star end Greg Romeus.  He led the Panthers with eight sacks last year, but as of this writing, he has seen only limited action in practice due to muscle spasms.  He should be okay for the regular season, but this will be a story to follow as September draws near.  Jabal Sheard had five sacks, and he gives Pitt the best pair of ends in the league.

Three outstanding linebackers comprise the second line of defense.  Greg Williams, Max Gruder, and Dan Mason may not be 1st team All-Big East material yet, but any of the three could earn 2nd team honors this year.

The secondary benefits greatly from having the best pass rush in the nation up front.  The only question mark on this side of the ball is at cornerback where two new starters will line up.  Both Antwuan Reed and Ricky Gary saw a goodly amount of action last year, but neither will match the production of Aaron Berry (11 passes defensed).  Safeties Jarred Holley and Dom DeCicco both picked off three passes last year and knocked away three others.

Look for another stellar year on this side of the ball.  The Panthers might give up a few more points and a dozen more yards per game this year, but their schedule is much tougher.  Call it 21-24 points and 325-350 yards allowed.

Schedule: It starts with a road trip to Utah, where the Utes usually win out-of-conference games.  The following week, they host FCS power New Hampshire.  After a week off, they host the Miami Hurricanes.  After a breather at home with Florida International, they travel to Notre Dame.  By this point, Pitt will be out of the national title picture because they will be 3-2 or 2-3 (we say 3-2).  Once conference play begins, Pitt should be 3-0 when they visit Connecticut on Thursday, night, November 11.  We believe they will lose that game, and they will have to sweep their final three games to win the title.  They close with South Florida on the road, West Virginia in the backyard brawl, and Cincinnati on the road.  It is a very tough closing four games, but we believe Pitt has the talent to go 6-1 in the league and earn the BCS Bowl bid.

Team Rutgers Scarlet Knights
               
Head Coach Greg Schiano
               
Colors Scarlet and White
               
City New Brunswick, NJ
               
2009 Record              
Conference 3-4
Overall 9-4
               
PiRate Rating 96.6
               
National Rating 65
               
2010 Prediction              
Conference 2-5
Overall 6-6

 

Offense: Last year’s 9-4 season was a bit of a disappointment in New Brunswick.  Rutgers was supposed to contend for the conference title, and they opened the season with a 47-15 loss to Cincinnati when then starting QB Domenic Natale threw three interceptions in the first half.

This year’s offense could take another step backward.  Quarterback Tom Savage returns after taking over the starter’s role in the second half of that awful first game, but he will have a tough time passing this season behind an inexperienced offensive line.

Only two starters return to the offensive line; one of those lost was guard Anthony Davis, the 11th overall player in the NFL Draft.  There is not much experience here either.  Tackle Art Forst is an all-star, but he’s the only star up front.

The receiving corps lost a stud in Tim Brown.  Brown led the Scarlet Knights in receptions, yards, yards per catch, and scored three more touchdowns than the rest of the receivers combined!  There is still talent remaining with Mohammed Sanu.  Sanu caught 51 passes and can get open deep.  He also lines up behind center in the Wildcat Formation, and he was tough to stop.

Rutgers has dropped from 32.8 to 29.0 to 28.8 points per game the last three seasons.  Look for that downward slide to continue.  Call it 24-27 points and 325-350 yards this year.

Defense: The defense was a bright spot for this team after the disastrous opening game.  In the other 12 games, RU gave up less than 16 points and less than 290 yards per game.

Three starters return to the defensive line, including end Alex Silvestro, a 2nd Team All-Big East selection.  Three of the second four return and saw a lot of action, so this unit will once again be strong.

There is room for improvement in the linebacking corps, after the Knights lost their star Mike ‘backer to the NFL.  Antonio Lowery is the best of the group, but he won’t make the 1st or 2nd team all-conference squad.

The secondary loses a first round NFL pick, so it will be tough for this group to match last year’s success.  Opponents passed away from Devin McCourty, and his replacement could be a freshman.

Look for Rutgers to give up 20+ points this year and 320-340 yards.  It will be a weaker defense, but not weak.

Schedule: The Knights will get off to a 2-0 start with games against Norfolk State and Florida International.  After a week off, they host North Carolina, who could have some major issues.  Game four with Tulane should be a breather.  The other non-conference game is against Army at the new Meadowlands Stadium.  Rutgers could go 5-0 outside the league, and they should be no worse than 4-1.  The conference record won’t be as rosy.  Road games with Pittsburgh, South Florida, Cincinnati, and West Virginia are almost sure losses.  Connecticut and Syracuse won’t be easy wins, or wins at all, at home.  The Knights could be 1-6 in league play, but more likely 2-5.  With the easy non-conference schedule, they should squeak into a bowl at 6-6.

Team South Florida Bulls
               
Head Coach Skip Holtz
               
Colors Green and Gold
               
City Tampa, FL
               
2009 Record              
Conference 3-4
Overall 8-5
               
PiRate Rating 106.1
               
National Rating 44
               
2010 Prediction              
Conference 4-3
Overall 7-5

 

Offense: Skip Holtz did not have a flashy offense as head coach at East Carolina, so don’t expect the Bulls to look like Cincinnati.  Holtz’s teams played solid, hard-nosed football and rarely beat themselves.

Holtz gets a solid, hard-nosed quarterback in year one in Tampa.  B. J. Daniels is just a sophomore, but he may already be the best quarterback in the league.  He should top 1,000 yards on the ground and 2,000 yards through the air in his first full year as the starter.  If he can grasp the new offense and play to his potential from game one, there is no reason not to think he will be 1st Team All-Big East.

Holtz benefitted from having running backs like Chris Johnson at ECU, but he won’t have a future NFL star on the roster this year.  He’ll have to mold a running game around Daniels and backs Moise Plancher and Demetrius Murray. 

USF will stuggle somewhat at receiver.  A. J. Love might have been a real star this year, but even if he returns from an ACL injury in October, he will not be 100% at any time.  Sterling Griffin may have become the major threat with Love out, but he too is out until October with an ankle injury.  He too won’t be near 100%, and he could redshirt this year.  Dontavia Bogan will have to carry the load, and he is not good enough to catch 80 passes for 1,000 yards.

The offensive line returns all five starters, led by center Sampson Genus.  The opened holes for the running game to average 4.4 yards per carry, but they were not the best pass blockers, giving up 38 sacks.

USF will struggle at times this year, because their offense will be one dimensional, at least until one or both of their star receivers can return.  Look for about 23-26 points and 330-350 yards per game.

Defense: How much weaker will this side of the ball be this year?  They lost four NFL draft picks.  Their top five tacklers are gone.  They lost almost 70% of their sack-makers and 77% of their pass interceptors.

The one bright spot is the hiring of Mark Snyder as defensive coordinator.  He was the head coach at Marshall, and prior to that he was the defensive coordinator for Ohio State (they won their national title during his tenure).

Up front, the Bulls return their starting tackles, but both ends must be replaced.  Those ends were 1st and 7th round draft picks and combined for 10 sacks and 26 stops for loss.  Their replacements have potential, but hardly any experience.

The leading returning tackler starts at Will linebacker.  Sabbath Joseph made 48 tackles and broke up four passes.  Both of the new starters saw considerable action last year, so this unit is in good shape.

The secondary cannot replace Nate Allen and Jerome Murphy, two first day draft choices.  Those two combined for 162 tackles, eight interceptions, and 12 passes broken up.  Expect opposing quarterbacks to throw for as much as 50 yards more per game against USF.

This is going to be a tough first year for Holtz in Tampa.  His familial motivational skills should be good enough to produce a couple of inspired performances, but expect USF to give up 23-27 points and 325-350 yards.

Schedule: Holtz will definitely start his USF career at 1-0, as the Bulls get Stony Brook at home.  He will then endure his first loss the following week at Florida.  After a week off, the Bulls will move to 3-1 with breathers against Western Kentucky and Florida Atlantic.  A November 27 game at Miami will give the Bulls a second out-of-conference loss.  They will need to go 3-4 in the Big East to become bowl eligible for the sixth consecutive year.  We think they will win four league games, and if the two star receivers can return and contribute something close to 100%, they could win an extra game.  At 5-2, they could also end up in a multiple tie for first.

Team Syracuse Orange
               
Head Coach Doug Marrone
               
Colors Orange
               
City Syracuse, NY
               
2009 Record              
Conference 1-6
Overall 4-8
               
PiRate Rating 101.7
               
National Rating 56
               
2010 Prediction              
Conference 1-6
Overall 4-8

 

Offense: Second year coach Doug Marrone has the Orange pointed in the right direction.  SU may have to take a detour for one year, because their offense lost six starters. 

Quarterback Ryan Nassib may be better only than whoever starts at Louisville.  The sophomore saw limited action last year behind former Duke basketball star Greg Paulus.  Nassib completed just 52.9% of his passes, many of those being short tosses.

The receiving corps is in the same shape; it is maybe better than one other league team.  Alec Lemon and Marcus Sales both caught fewer than 30 passes last year, and neither has breakaway potential.  Marrone moved defensive back Dorian Graham to receiver, and he plans on using tight ends Nick Provo and David Stevens a lot more this year, possibly going deep over the middle.

The running game returns a familiar face in Delone Carter.  Carter rammed forward for 1,021 yards and 11 touchdowns.  Antwon Brinkley will supplement Carter. 

The offensive line has some reworking to do.  Only two player return to the starting five.  They will be asked to block more for the run, and multiple double team blocks could break the bulldozing backs through for several four and five yard gains.  The ‘Cuse will run the ball between the tackles to force safeties to creep up, and then they will throw deep to the tight ends.  It could be just successful enough to allow the Orange to surprise a team or two.

We believe SU will score about 20-24 points and 325-350 yards a game this year.

Defense: Expect big improvement on this side of the ball, maybe enough to give SU a chance at bowl eligibility.  Nine Starters return after SU improved last year by almost five points per game.

Leading the charges up front is end Chandler Jones, who made 10 stops behind the line.  The entire second unit returns, so there should be some good depth here.

The linebacking corps could have been the best in the league, but Will linebacker E. J. Carter transferred to North Carolina State.  Sam linebacker Doug Hogue and Mike linebacker Derrell Smith return after combining for 154 tackles, 16 sacks, 10 ½ other tackles for loss, and seven passes defended.

Three experienced starters return to the secondary, and two others who saw starting time return as well.  This was a weak spot last year, as the ‘Cuse gave up 65% completions and 235 yards per game.  This group might get burned occasionally by long gains, but they will come up with more big plays this season.

Look for continued improvement overall on this side.  Syracuse will give up 23-26 points and 320-340 yards per game.

Schedule: The Orange won three non-conference games last year, and they should do so again this year (a small chance for four).  They play at Akron and Washington to start the season and host Maine and Colgate the next two weeks.  They close the season at home with Boston College.  They host Louisville in conference play, but it will be difficult (not completely impossible) to find another conference win.  We’ll call for SU to equal last year’s record, but we are not in agreement here.  One of us five believes this is a 7-5 team.

Team West Virginia Mountaineers
               
Head Coach Bill Stewart
               
Colors Navy and Old Gold
               
City Morgantown, WV
               
2009 Record              
Conference 5-2
Overall 9-4
               
PiRate Rating 112.9
               
National Rating 29
               
2010 Prediction              
Conference 6-1
Overall 10-2

 

Offense: The Mountaineers’ offense has suffered some since Rich Rodriguez left for Michigan.  Coach Bill Stewart tweaked the offense, and the production dropped by two touchdowns and 90 yards.  Even though he has enjoyed back-to-back 9-4 seasons, WVU fans expected more.  The Mountaineers have a ton of talent, especially on the defensive side this year.  They should contend for the conference championship.

The offense goes through the legs of running back Noel Devine.  Devine should be an early round draft pick next year.  Even though he was banged up last year, he rushed for 1,465 yards and 13 touchdowns, averaging 6.1 yards per carry.  He’s a threat to break one every time he touches the ball.  When WVU needs a crucial yard or two or gets close to the goal line, fullback Ryan Clarke is the man to do the job.  He ran the ball 60 times for 250 yards and scored eight touchdowns. 

The Mountaineers have a new quarterback this year, but Geno Smith should be able to equal the production that last year’s QB, Jarrett Brown, had.  Former star QB Pat White’s younger brother Coley could see some time as well.

The receiving corps needs to find a breakaway threat to stretch the defense for Devine.  Leading receiver Jock Sanders averaged less than 10 yards per catch last year.  Tavon Austin could be the answer.

An experienced offensive line with four starters returning should open holes and protect the new quarterback and provide better rushing and passing numbers.

Look for the Mountaineers to top 30 points per game this year and gain about 400 total yards per game.

Defense: WVU uses a 3-3-5 alignment, and their front three is beefy and experienced, and there is quality depth.  End Julian Miller is a sack machine, picking up nine last season.  He made five other tackles for loss.  The Mountaineers should record 30+ sacks this season.

The top two tacklers return to their linebacking positions.  Pat Lazear and J. T. Thomas combined for 154 tackles, 13 stops behind the line, and eight passes defended.

Four starters return to the secondary, led by two 1st Team All Big-East performers.  Cornerback Brandon Hogan broke up 11 passes and intercepted one last year, while free safety Robert Sands led the team with five picks and eight others broken up.  Rover safety Sidney Glover is equally effective against the run pass.

West Virginia has one of the top two defenses in the league.  Look for the Mountaineers to give up 17-21 points and 300-325 yards per game this year.

Schedule: The schedule is a bit tricky because four of the Mountaineers five non-conference opponents are hard to figure out this year.  There is no mystery to a home game with Coastal Carolina.  A Friday night, 9/10, game at Marshall will be tough.  Marshall coach Doc Holliday knows this team well having been the chief recruiter here.  The following Saturday, WVU hosts Maryland.  Terp coach Ralph Friedgen will more than likely be on a very hot seat at that point, and it could be a must-win game for them.  WVU then goes on the road to LSU.  Les Miles’ seat is even hotter than Friedgen’s, and a loss to WVU will probably seal his fate.  After a week off, the Mountaineers host UNLV, a team in transition with a capable quarterback.  We believe WVU can go 4-1 in these five games.  The Mountaineers have four conference home games, and they could be 5-0 when they go to Pittsburgh on the day after Thanksgiving.  The Backyard Brawl could decide the league title.  We’ll say this team will finish 6-1 but lose the tiebreaker to Pitt.

Coming Tomorrow: The Atlantic Coast Conference has six teams capable of landing in the Top 25.  Could a Memorial Day weekend party in Florida affect the outcome?

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