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Posted: Tuesday March 10, 2009 1:42PM; Updated: Monday March 16, 2009 3:33PM
Andy Staples Andy Staples >

Spring football: The Post-Pat Era, more burning Big East questions

Story Highlights

Without Pat White, WVU hopes an experienced D will separate it from the pack

Steve Kragthorpe feels the heat at Louisville; Doug Marrone ushers in a new era

USF and Cincinnati adjust to new coaches and schemes after offseason changes

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Coming off a medical redshirt season, fifth-year senior Reed Williams will play a key role for a West Virginia defense banking on experience and perseverance.
Coming off a medical redshirt season, fifth-year senior Reed Williams will play a key role for a West Virginia defense banking on experience and perseverance.
Chris Livingston/Icon SMI
Big East spring football schedule
School Start Spring game
Cincinnati March 31 April 25
Connecticut March 17 April 19
Louisville March 8 April 17
Pittsburgh March 19 April 11
Rutgers March 10 April 18
Syracuse March 23 April 18
USF March 9 April 11
West Virginia March 24 April 18
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Since Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College bolted for the ACC, the Big East's automatic BCS bid has turned into one of the more popular arguments against college football's system for placing teams in its elite postseason games. Maybe that's because the Big East has failed to produce a BCS at-large team since the series began in 1998.

So when Mountain West officials began chirping recently about revamping the system to give that league an automatic bid, some groused that the conference should just get the Big East's bid. That would never happen, especially considering the Big East boasts far more attractive media markets than the Mountain West. Still, it's an interesting thought.

So, in honor of Big East basketball, which could have as many as three No. 1 seeds in this year's NCAA tournament, we're examining the relative strength of Big East football by seeing how the conference would have fared if the top 64 bowl teams were seeded last season. This is how a selection committee might have seeded the teams before last season's bowls, so LSU fans can save the angry e-mails complaining about the Tigers being seeded below Chick-fil-a Bowl blowout victim Georgia Tech.

No. 1: Oklahoma, Florida, Texas, USC
No. 2: Alabama, Texas Tech, Penn State, Ohio State
No. 3: Utah, Boise State, TCU (the mid-majors always get stiffed), Cincinnati
No. 4: BYU, Oklahoma State, Georgia Tech, Georgia
No. 5: Oregon, Michigan State, Virginia Tech, Pitt
No. 6: Missouri, Boston College, Northwestern, FSU
No. 7: Ole Miss, Iowa, Oregon State, Nebraska
No. 8: West Virginia, Cal, Georgia Tech, Arizona
No. 9: LSU, Rice, Tulsa, Maryland
No. 10: Ball State, East Carolina, UNC, Rutgers
No. 11: Kansas, UConn, Wake Forest, Houston
No. 12: Clemson, USF, Central Michigan, Air Force
No. 13: Notre Dame, Western Michigan, Nevada, Kentucky
No. 14: Vanderbilt, Minnesota, South Carolina, Wisconsin
No. 15: Southern Miss, Louisiana Tech, Fresno State, Buffalo
No. 16: Troy, Colorado State, Florida Atlantic, Hawaii

The committee would have seeded the league champ (Cincinnati) below multiple SEC, Big 12 and Big Ten teams and alongside a pair of Mountain West teams. Of the automatic bid leagues, only the ACC champ (Virginia Tech) would have been seeded lower, but since the Hokies beat the Bearcats, 20-7, in the Orange Bowl, that doesn't carry much weight.

Overall, the Big East compares similarly to the ACC, but it lags behind the other automatic-bid leagues. As with the ACC, an elite team or two will need to emerge if the Big East wants to earn some respect. That brings us to the first of five burning spring practice questions for the Big East.

Can anyone run away with this league, or will the teams continue to cannibalize one another?

Believe it or not, West Virginia -- even without Pat White -- has a chance to roar back this year. Fifth-year senior Jarrett Brown could have transferred, but he waited patiently behind White for his chance. Brown, who, unlike White, throws better than he runs, will give the Mountaineers a different look on offense. He and tailback Noel Devine will have to work behind a young line, but the offense won't have to carry this team.

That's because unlike last spring, when the Mountaineers had to find eight new defensive starters, defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel brings back seven starters and will spend most of the spring trying to build depth. That number doesn't include fifth-year senior Reed Williams, who led West Virginia in tackles in 2007, took a medical redshirt last season and should return to the starting lineup this season. The defense went through its growing pains last season, but the young starters didn't quit. That perseverance, plus their experience, should allow Mountaineers defenders to flourish this season. "We struggled early in the year, but those kids stayed after it and showed a lot of good qualities in terms of being able to stick with things and not getting frustrated," Casteel said last week. "We got better as the year went on. We're hoping that we can build on that this spring."

Will South Florida ever take advantage of its talent edge?

Coach Jim Leavitt created the Bulls from scratch 12 years ago, and he has taken them from I-AA to Conference USA to the Big East thanks to a relentless drive and a fertile recruiting base. It's an amazing achievement, but it's time USF took the next step. The Bulls will be the more athletic team in every conference game they play, but it's up to Leavitt and his staff to lead them to a conference title.

That's not so easy when there's a revolving door in front of the football office. Defensive coordinator Wally Burnham, an excellent football mind who can also recruit, left last month to take the same position at Iowa State. That's a parallel move, if not a step down. Meanwhile, Leavitt demoted offensive coordinator Greg Gregory for interviewing for the tight ends job at Florida, so Gregory left for South Alabama.

Leavitt promoted wide receivers coach Mike Canales to offensive coordinator, so Canales will get the honor of directing fourth-year starting quarterback Matt Grothe (8,157 career passing yards, 42 touchdown passes, 2,085 rushing yards, 23 rushing touchdowns). Grothe will be playing behind a line with four new starters, but receivers Jesse Hester and Carlton Mitchell can get open quickly. Meanwhile, Joe Tresey, who got fired at Cincinnati when coach Brian Kelly decided to switch to a 3-4, will take over the Bulls' defense. Defensive end George Selvie remains the headliner, but Tresey will have to find new starters at both outside linebacker positions and in two secondary spots.

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