Posted: Friday August 12, 2005 11:31AM; Updated: Friday August 12, 2005 11:32AM
Converted tailback Michael Bush and the Cardinals could take the Big East by storm.
Andy Lyons/Getty Images
Team on the rise
Team on the decline
Most favorable schedule
Coach on the hot seat
Greg Schiano, Rutgers
Newcomer to watch
Rashad Jennings, RB, Pittsburgh
Game of the Year
Pittsburgh at Louisville, Nov. 3
By Stewart Mandel, SI.com
The Big East really was as bad as it looked last season. In the league's first year without Miami and Virginia Tech, promising teams at West Virginia and Boston College choked down the stretch, allowing Pittsburgh, in what was supposed to be a rebuilding season -- with a lame-duck coach, no less -- to sneak into the BCS, where the Panthers were promptly smoked by Utah.
Even with yet another team (BC) leaving, the conference will be better this year, though certainly not back to its pre-ACC raid level. Louisville, one of the hottest programs in the country, should gain instant credibility. While most of the Cardinals' 11 wins last season came against weak Conference USA competition, their impressive performance in defeat at Miami erased any doubts as to whether Bobby Petrino's team can be a national pretender. Louisville won't have as easy a time of it this year, but should field another ultra-powerful offense.
If anyone can stand up to the Cardinals, it's the Panthers, who return the bulk of what was truly a young team last season and are now under the direction of former NFL head coach and Pitt alum Dave Wannstedt. If anyone else emerges as the champion, it will be a surprise. West Virginia, after losing 14 starters, and Syracuse, with new coach Greg Robinson, are both teams in transition. Upstart Connecticut must replace four-year QB and NFL Draft pick Dan Orlovsky. And Rutgers, though it should field its best team in years, still only won one conference game a year ago.
Stewart Mandel's Projected Standings (Overall record in parentheses; ties are broken by projected head-to-head outcome)
It's a testament to Louisville's recruiting that the Cardinals' explosive offense will hardly miss a beat despite losing top-ranked passer Stefan LeFors, star receiver J.R. Russell and RB Eric Shelton. QB Brian Brohm, RB Michael Bush and a deep receiving corps will fill the void, though they may not overpower some Big East foes. The middle of Louisville's defense is a concern after losing LB Robert McCune and two key safeties.
Wannstedt and offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh are emphasizing a more balanced, pro-style attack, so the emergence of freshman tailback Jennings in the spring certainly helped. The Panthers certainly won't waste the dynamic passing tandem of QB Tyler Palko and WR Greg Lee, though. Pitt returns several veterans on defense, including the entire secondary, but it needs to tighten up against the pass.
Fifth-year coach Rich Rodriguez faces the biggest rebuilding job since he first arrived, having to replace his longtime staple at quarterback, Rasheed Marshall, with someone completely inexperienced, as well as star WR Chris Henry and CB Adam "Pac-Man" Jones. The Mountaineers should have a strong running game once again, led by Jason Colson. The D-line is deep, but the linebackers and secondary have some holes.
New coach Greg Robinson had an instant impact on Texas' defense last season and should do the same with the 'Cuse, which returns nine starters, including elite pass rusher James Wyche. The Orange's offense, however, may struggle while adapting to Robinson's West Coast scheme. Damien Rhodes is an all-conference caliber tailback, but quarterback remains a question and the O-line and receivers sustained significant hits.
Fresh off the first bowl in school history, the Huskies lose their star passer, Orlovsky, and two of their best receivers, but the backfield is still stacked, with former 1,000-yard rushers Cornell Brockington and Terry Caulley both returning. UConn's defense performed admirably in its first year in the Big East and brings back seven starters, but star LBs Alfred Fincher and Maurice Lloyd are not among them.
It's bowl game or bust in Schiano's fifth season, especially after tumbling to 4-7 after a 4-2 start last season. The offense took flight last year, and 3,000-yard passer Ryan Hart, all-purpose FB Brian Leonard and 1,000-yard receiver Tres Moses all return. The defense was atrocious in '04, but with nine returning starters, including star DE Ryan Neill, there's no reason why they can't get over the hump.
Jim Leavitt's eight-year-old program took a step back last season, falling from nine wins two years ago to just four in '04, and moving up in conference presents another challenge. The good news is, the Bulls have a bona fide stud at running back in 1,357-yard rusher Andre Hall, and the passing game should be better. The bad news is, the defense gave up 32 points per game last season and now must face tougher competition.
New coach Mark Dantonio proved he was the right man for the job last season, rallying the Bearcats from a 2-4 start to a 7-5 finish, but even he can't overcome a roster with just six returning starters. UC will basically be starting from scratch, having to replace four-year QB Gino Guidugli, 1,000-yard rusher Richard Hall, all-conference DEs Trent Cole and Andre Frazier, leading tackler Tyjuan Hagler and its top three receivers.