The Pitt Panthers have the best tailback in the Big East. They have the best wide receiver in the Big East. And they have the best defense in the Big East.
So it’s safe to assume that the Panthers are the favorites to actually win the Big East, right?
Well, sure, so long as you trust coach Dave Wannstedt, that is. Wannstedt, whose tenure in Pittsburgh has been marked both by steady improvement and seemingly inevitable letdowns, seems to have his best chance yet at bringing the Panthers their first Big East title since 2004.
Can he actually deliver?
Well, find out here, in my 2010 Big East preview.
1. Pittsburgh Panthers (Prediction: 10-2)
In Dion Lewis, the Panthers have the best tailback in the Big East ... and quite possibly the best overall back in the country. After rushing for 1,799 yards and 17 touchdowns as a true freshman (breaking Tony Dorsett’s freshman record in the process), Lewis will be the centerpiece of an offense that also features All-American candidate Jonathan Baldwin at wideout. So, yes, the offense will be solid. The heart of this team, however, is the defense—a physical, talented unit paced by a powerful front four. DE Greg Romeus and his linemates can pressure the quarterback without any blitz help, which is a real luxury. If the Panthers can knock off Utah in their opener, an undefeated season isn’t out of the question.
2. West Virginia Mountaineers (Prediction: 10-2)
All eyes are on Geno Smith down in Morgantown. Last season, senior Jarrett Brown had the unenviable task of taking over for the great Pat White. Brown, not surprisingly, wasn’t quite as good as White. And while it’s not likely that Smith will be, either, the kid certainly has potential. Maybe more importantly, he'll have TB Noel Devine lining up behind him, which will make his life a whole lot easier. Devine is a gamebreaker, and he's sure to make a few highlight reel-worthy runs, but if the ‘Eers are going to challenge Pitt for the league crown, it’s going to the defense leading the way. Nine starters are back, including first-team Big East selections at linebacker (J.T. Thomas) and in the secondary (Robert Sands, Brandon Hogan).
3. Cincinnati Bearcats (Prediction: 9-3)
Tony Pike is gone. But so what? You could make a pretty good case that Zach Collaros is actually the better quarterback, and this year, he’s going to get his shot to prove it. Though playmaker/spiritual leader Marty Gilyard is gone, the Bearcat offense returns a ton of talent, including wideouts D.J. Woods and Vidal Hazelton, tailback Isiah Pead and most of the offensive line. The defense needs to be rebuilt, however, and then there’s that other tricky issue: Super-successful coach Brian Kelly is gone, leaving Butch Jones with one heck of a challenge: Keeping Cincy in the Top 10.
4. South Florida Bulls (Prediction: 9-3)
The Bulls are this year’s Big East darkhorse. Former East Carolina head coach Skip Holtz takes over for Jim Leavitt, who did a fine job building the program but eventually lost his way (and his team). Holtz will bring a much-needed fresh voice to Tampa, and figures to take this program to the next level. That “next level” could be achieved as early as this year. The defense has some holes, but the offense might be the best in the Big East. Ten starters are back, including dual threat QB B.J. Daniels (772 rushing yards, 1,983 passing yards in 2009) and three of last year’s top four receivers. The Week 2 trip to Florida could be a nightmare, but after taking on West Virginia and Cincy on the road, the Bulls get Pitt at home on Nov. 20.
5. Connecticut Huskies (Prediction: 8-4)
Connecticut is essentially Rutgers North. Coach Randy Edsall, like Rutgers’ Greg Schiano, has done a fine job in building his program into a contender. But also like Schiano, he hasn’t been able to get his team over the top. After an 8-5 season in 2009, though, this might be the year the Huskies break through. QB Zach Frazer and TB Jordan Todman (one of the most underrated players in the league) return to power the offense, and the defense should be able to overcome an inexperienced secondary with the help of a solid front seven featuring DE Greg Lloyd. The schedule is tricky, though: After opening the season with a trip to Michigan, the Huskies hit the road to take on a better-than-you-think Temple squad in Week 3. Upset alert.
6. Rutgers Scarlet Knights (Prediction: 6-6)
Let me just say this right off the bat: Greg Schiano’s achievements at Rutgers have been grossly overstated. I will give him credit, of course, for taking a bad program and turning into an average program. But that’s as far as I’ll go. And here’s why: He’s 55-55 in 10 years at Rutgers. He’s 2-7 against the Top 10. He’s 4-16 vs. the Top 25. Oh, and there’s this: He’s yet to win the Big East. Or a decent bowl game, for that matter. That won’t change this year. Just 12 starters return from last year’s 9-4 squad, and while QB Tom Savage and TB Joe Martinek are among them, the offensive line needs to be rebuilt. The Knights also have their four toughest league games on the road: At Pitt, at USF, at Cincy, at West Virginia.
7. Syracuse Orange (Prediction: 5-7)
Here’s the good news, ‘Cuse fans: Doug Marrone actually looks capable of turning this program around. Here’s the bad news: He needs more time. After showing modest signs of improvement in 2009 (4-8, including a nice win over Northwestern), this team should make more strides in 2010. The offense remains a work in progress, but 10 starters are back on defense, including such legit talents as LB Doug Houge and SS Max Suter. The non-conference schedule is, shall we say, "light." Six wins isn’t impossible.
8. Louisville Cardinals (4-8)
Charlie Strong has his work cut out for him. The former Florida defensive coordinator has inherited a program that Steve Kragthope allowed to wither on the vine; the Cardinals have fallen so far, so fast, that it’s easy to forget that they actually went 12-1 as recently as 2006. They won’t be going 12-1 again anytime soon. There are a few key returnees on offense, including promising TB Victor Anderson, so the Cards should improve on last year’s miserable 18.1 points-per-game scoring average. The defense is inexperienced, though. Strong will need a few years to rebuild it.