The wide open Big East, a Jimmy Clausen forecast and much more
We're now into the fifth month of the Great Rich Rodriguez-West Virginia Spitting Contest, with the two sides reaching the "discovery period" of the school's lawsuit to collect a $4 million buyout from its former coach.
One day, hopefully sooner than later, the conflict will resolve itself the same way nearly all civil cases resolve themselves: In an out-of-court settlement. Rodriguez will pay a significant but reduced amount of the original buyout, and at last, the good folks of West Virginia can go back to concentrating on football. Unfortunately, that might not prove to be any more comforting.
Stewart, why is everybody ignoring the Mountaineers again this year? If you look at their record over the past three years (not to mention the dismantling of the beloved Sooners in the Fiesta Bowl) they have one of the highest winning percentages in the nation. How long can you ignore that they are on their way to being a national title contender year in and year out?
Jared: Did you miss the news that the Mountaineers' coach left for Michigan and took nearly the whole staff with him? I can't imagine that you did seeing as it's been written about in the papers there nearly every single day for five months. I'm sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but West Virginia's run as a national power is likely down to its last days.
Sure, other successful programs have survived the loss of their architect just fine. Miami kept winning national titles long after Howard Schnellenberger put the Hurricanes on the map, starting with Jimmy Johnson. It took two tries, but Florida eventually found a worthy heir (Urban Meyer) to the legacy left by Steve Spurrier. And Les Miles has obviously kept the ball rolling at LSU since Nick Saban bolted.
But notice, all those schools went out and hired an experienced, sought-after head coach. West Virginia hired Bill Stewart. He seems like a good enough fellow, and he did lead the Mountaineers to that big win over Oklahoma (though with Rodriguez's now-departed offensive coordinator, Calvin Magee, calling the plays), but the chances of him maintaining the program's recent level of success are about as high as leaving a party at Lindsay Lohan's place with your fur coat in tact.
As I wrote at the time, Stewart's hiring was a foolishly impulsive decision made by an already suspect set of West Virginia administrators still high off the emotional Fiesta Bowl win just hours earlier. They took a now-nationally prominent program and put it in the hands of a guy whose only head coaching experience was a three-year, 8-25 stint at VMI that ended in his resignation over the use of a racial slur; and a guy who, of the nine assistants on West Virginia's staff, was the only one Rodriguez did not feel compelled to offer a job at Michigan. (As a result, the only remaining holdovers from Rodriguez's regime are Stewart and defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel.)
I'm sorry to say it, but this is not going to end well. Which brings us to this subject. ...
Do you think Pitt has a chance to knock West Virginia out as the Big East champs this year? I see LeSean "Shady" McCoy having a huge year now that there may be an offense around him. Last year, teams were lining up eight and nine guys in the box because there was no passing game and he still ran for 1,300+ yards and 14 TDs.
Here's where we get into an ever-dicey subject, which is, what is the definition of a preseason poll? Most people seem to treat them as "predictions" -- i.e., this is what the final poll will look like come Jan. 8. Personally, I treat my preseason poll as a "starting point," based on how the teams finished last season and who they have coming back. What happens from there is up to them.
With that in mind, West Virginia is the highest-ranked Big East team in my preseason poll because, quite simply, the Mountaineers deserve it. They've won 11 games for three straight seasons and they return the most explosive quarterback-tailback tandem in the country in Pat White and Noel Devine. They lost too many other key players, particularly on defense, to start in the top 10, but top 15 is perfectly justified.
That said, if you were to ask me, "Who do you predict will win the Big East," I would say ... probably not West Virginia. Much of that is based on my aforementioned lack of faith in the Bill Stewart regime and the entirely realistic possibility of that program suffering a Louisville-type implosion (though that would more likely come next year), but it's also because there are a whole bunch of other Big East teams sitting on the verge of a breakthrough. I'm just not sure which one it will be.
Pittsburgh is certainly one of those teams. As inexplicable as the then-4-7 Panthers' Championship Saturday upset in Morgantown seemed at the time, the result wasn't entirely fluky. (Remember, Pitt also beat 10-3 Cincinnati prior to that.) The Panthers' defense was tremendous all season, finishing No. 5 nationally in yards allowed, and anyone who's watched McCoy knows he's an All-America-caliber back. The problem, as Pete noted above, was the absolute lack of a passing game. It's no guarantee, but the return of last year's opening-day QB Bill Stull and All-Big East WR Derek Kinder from injuries could help solve that.
Meanwhile, Cincinnati is not going away, and in fact should field a better overall team than it did last year if former starting QB Dustin Grutza can adjust to Brian Kelly's spread offense. Connecticut returns 17 starters from a team that very quietly shared the Big East title with West Virginia last season. Rutgers will not be going away just because Ray Rice did. And South Florida, if it can ever maintain any level of consistency, has shown it can play with just about anyone.
So the short answer to Pat's short question is, the Big East is wide open.