Big East Preseason Media Poll
The Big East is the smallest of the so-called major conferences with eight teams, allowing its members to play more out-of-conference matches than any other league. Thus, it's refreshing to see that only seven of the Big East's 41 OOC games are against FCS schools.
The conference is deep with less than 11 power points separating the top seven teams. The computer (about the computer) projects those schools to win 26 of the 30 OOC games scheduled against FBS teams. Syracuse, however, remains a distant weak link.
Regardless of losing head coach Rich Rodriguez to Michigan, and RB Steve Slaton to early entry in the NFL Draft (3rd round, Houston Texans), West Virginia is expected to lead the pack and contend for the national championship. The Mountaineers return three-fourths of their starters and lettermen from a team that went 11-2 last year and would have played in the BCS title game were it not for an inexplicable 13-9 upset loss at home to Pitt in the final regular season game. QB Pat White, a preseason candidate for multiple awards, leads the list of returnees.
Rodriguez built West Virginia into a consistent winner in his seven seasons in Morgantown. His predecessor, Don Nehlen, couldn't accomplish that task in 21 campaigns. Rodriguez was 60-26 with four Big East titles in his last five years, posting 11 victories in each of the last three seasons.
Bill Stewart, the associate head coach under Rodriguez, was named interim head coach two days after Rodriguez bolted for the Maize and Blue. The morning after leading West Virginia to a 48-28 Fiesta Bowl rout of Oklahoma, the "interim" label was removed.
The predicted undefeated season won't be easy to come by as the non-conference schedule includes visits to Colorado and East Carolina, and a home date with Auburn. The computer forecasts seven Mountaineer victories by fewer than 8 points, five of which are under 5 points. Of those seven tight contests, five are Big East conference matches. Games against Auburn, Cincinnati and South Florida would be projected losses if they were being played away from the friendly confines of Milan Puskar Stadium.
(NOTE: The last first-year coach to go undefeated and win a national title was Larry Coker with the 2001 Miami Hurricanes).
Cincinnati and USF are the top candidates to challenge West Virginia's conference supremacy. The Bulls actually begin the season with a slightly higher power rating than the Mountaineers, 80.80 to 80.53. The Bearcats are approximately two points behind South Florida and West Virginia.
Brian Kelly nabbed Big East Coach of the Year honors in his first season with Cincinnati as the team improved from 8-5 to 10-3. QB Ben Mauk is gone, but previous two-year starter Dustin Grutza is in the fold, along with Notre Dame transfer Demetrius Jones. Like the other top seven teams in the Big East, several games figure to be nail-biters. Projected losses in road games at Oklahoma and West Virginia are by less than 7 points.
Jim Leavitt, the only head coach USF has ever known, briefly had the Bulls at No. 2 in the BCS Standings last year. He returns every starter except for a pair of NFL draft pick cornerbacks, Mike Jenkins (1st round, 25th pick, Carolina) and Trae Williams (5th round, Jacksonville). The largest spread in USF's three forecasted defeats is 2.72.
Connecticut, Pitt, Rutgers and Louisville are bunched-up at 4th through 7th with power ratings that range from 69.63 to 73.53. The actual finish of those teams could wind up in any given order.
Last season, Randy Edsall guided the Huskies to a Big East co-championship; Dave Wannstedt's defense at Pitt was particularly strong down the stretch; and Greg Schiano put Rutgers in its third consecutive bowl game.
This year, the computer has UConn taking three of its four losses by no more than 4 points; the Panthers starting 8-1 before losing their final three games; and the Scarlet Knights making a 4th straight bowl trip.
As for Louisville, off-field problems and disciplinary issues contributed to a 6-6 plummet in 2007 under first-year head coach Steve Kragthorpe. Many felt sorry that QB Brian Brohm's senior season became such a mess, especially after the Cardinals were a consensus preseason Top 10 pick. Brohm has moved on to Green Bay (2nd round, NFL draft), adding to the difficulty of forecasting Louisville's prospects in '08. The computer's 5-7 projection puts all seven losses under 8 points, and three of those defeats have margins under 3 points (Kentucky, Connecticut, and Pittsburgh). The Cardinals begin the season with 6-out-of-7 games at home where they won 20 straight before Syracuse pulled off a massive upset last September.
Syracuse has encountered nothing but misery since cutting Paul Pasqualoni loose after a 6-6 bowl season in 2004. Under Greg Robinson's guidance, the Orange have 7 overall wins and just 2 conference victories in three seasons. Other than the upset at Louisville, the only Syracuse victory last year as a 20-12 home squeaker over Buffalo. The forecasted mark of 1-11 in 2008 includes a winless conference record, 10 double-digit defeats, and five losses by more than 25 points.