No school had more to lose than UConn when the ACC robbed the Big East of Miami, Virginia Tech and, eventually, Boston College. All the Huskies had invested in their move to Division I-A -- including a $90 million stadium -- was in jeopardy. But all's well that ends well.
The Big East weathered the storm, and UConn ended up benefiting when the league asked the Huskies to join one year early. Instead of having to wait until 2005, UConn dives into the Big East this season.
"We've taken a big step forward," Huskies coach Randy Edsall said.
After four years as an independent, UConn is excited about the prospect of competing in a BCS conference, even if the landscape has been significantly altered. The Huskies have an opportunity to make a splash nationally with four Big East games slated for either ESPN or ESPN2, including an unusual Thanksgiving Day morning contest at Rutgers.
"We know there's a great opportunity upon us," UConn quarterback Dan Orlovsky said. "But we also know there's a great challenge ahead."
The Huskies return 13 starters from a team that went 9-3 in '03 and felt it had done enough to warrant an at-large bowl invitation that never came. UConn comes into this season riding a five-game winning streak and has won 13 of its last 16 games dating back to 2002. The Big East offers the Huskies an opportunity to put a stamp of legitimacy on the program.
"We still feel like it's us against the world," senior defensive end Tyler King said. "We finished 9-3 and people said they respected us, but they didn't. We didn't get into a bowl. We didn't receive the national recognition we felt we deserved. We still have a chip on our shoulder. We have something to prove."
OffenseOrlovsky enters the season second in the nation in touchdown passes (61) among active Division I-A quarterbacks. The 6-foot-5 senior threw a school-record 33 touchdown passes in '03 and now has two-plus years of experience as a starter.
Even if running back Terry Caulley (1,247 yards in 2002 as a true freshman) doesn't make it back from a knee injury, the Huskies will run the ball effectively. Cornell Brockington can be explosive, as evidenced by a 144-yard average and 10 touchdowns the last three games of 2003. Chris Bellamy averaged 159 yards in another three-game stretch.
Converted quarterback Keron Henry should be the leader of a receiving corps that has talent but questionable durability. Henry is big (6-2, 220) and dangerous after the catch. The offensive line returns four of five starters from last season, when Orlovsky was sacked only 10 times.
DefenseThe loss of three starters on the defensive line may make the Huskies vulnerable.
"That's probably the biggest question mark that we have on our whole football team," Edsall said.
Only King (eight sacks) returns up front, and he will likely be double-teamed regularly. Tackles Rhema Fuller and Deon McPhee got playing time in reserve roles last season, but end Shawn Mayne is completely untested.
"We have to go out and prove that we're not a liability and that we're going to be an asset to the team," said King.
The secondary is also an area of concern. Cornerback Justin Perkins, who had six interceptions last season, is poised for a big year. But Allan Barnes started only three games at the other corner, and free safety M.J. Estep has never started.
The linebackers will be the strength of the defense. Maurice Lloyd, Alfred Fincher and James Hargrave are extremely active, and delight in dishing out punishment.
SpecialistsThe Huskies will rely on freshman Shane Hussar to be the punter and, possibly, freshman Tony Ciaravino to be the kicker. Hussar replaces Adam Coles, who left as the school's all-time leading punter. Ciaravino will compete with sophomore Matt Nuzie, who struggled last season -- 11-of-21 on field goals, including 3-of-13 beyond 29 yards.
UConn hopes Tyvon Branch, the national scholastic indoor 60-meter champion, can juice up the return game. The Huskies were last in Division I-A in punt returns (4.7 yards) in '03.
Final AnalysisThough the Huskies are 2-12 vs. current, former or future Big East teams in four seasons as a I-A program, UConn has notched wins against teams from four BCS conferences -- Indiana (Big Ten), Iowa State (Big 12), Wake Forest (ACC) and Rutgers (Big East).
UConn opened a new, 40,000-seat stadium a year ago, but the Big East is a big step up.
"I don't think there's anyone associated with the program that is going to back down or be fearful of anyone," Orlovsky said.
The Huskies enter the season on a five-game winning streak and are 13-3 in their last 16 games. With a schedule that includes woeful Army and Buffalo and rebuilding Duke (at home), the Huskies have a decent chance to finish above .500 and get to a bowl.