CINCINNATI, OH - OCTOBER 15: Teddy Bridgewater #10 of the Louisville Cardinals throws a pass during the game against the Cincinnati Bearcats at Paul Brown Stadium on October 15, 2011 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Teams are ranked in order of predicted finish.
1. Rutgers Scarlet Knights: 9-3 (5-2) - Rutgers should be considerably better on offense despite the loss of receiver Mohamed Sanu. The skill position talent, owing to strong recent recruiting, is the strongest in the Big East. The offensive line is finally on the upswing again, and quarterback Gary Nova has firmly seized the starting job. Defensively, the Knights lose standout tackle Justin Francis, but return four or five of the best ten defensive players in the conference. If there's a question mark here, it stems from dealing with a brand new coaching staff. It remains to be seen how that plays out over time, but barring historic futility, any backsliding is more likely to be gradual than immediate.
2. Louisville Cardinals: 9-3 (5-2) - The Cardinals are the preseason favorites, but their Thursday night November showdown with Rutgers is in Piscataway (dun dun dun), and the Cardinals were fortunate to benefit from multiple self-inflicted mistakes by Rutgers in last season's victory. That's not to knock the Cards, who drastically improved as the season progressed in 2011 as their inexperienced roster figured things out; it's just that RU was very young too. Teddy Bridgewater should be the best player in the Big East though, and that factor can trump all others when it comes down to the wire in close games. Louisville should look better in OOC play, but a better conference scheduling draw will swing this one to Rutgers. A big start will be important with a jump to the Big XII conference still arguably a possibility.
3. South Florida Bulls: 8-4 (4-3) - I like the majority of the USF roster, I really do. Their defense is top 25-caliber, and can hang with the likes of Rutgers and Louisville all day. B.J. Daniels though; how many other players have there been in recent memory where there was such a wide disparity between reputation and production? Yes, this is the same player who beat Notre Dame and Florida State, and then proceeded to blow every important conference game. USF has strong talent though, and won't be nearly as bad in close games this fall as they were last year, even if some of that owed to self-inflicted mistakes. Expect more of the same for USF- they were the hot preseason media pick for seemingly the umpteenth year in a row, and should see a hot start in September (not not not looking forward to playing them in Tampa that early.) They could well upset the perennially-overrated FSU, only to get tripped up by UL, and really start to nosedive in that late-season stretch against Miami, Cincy, and Pitt.
4. Cincinnati Bearcats: 8-4 (4-3) - Eh, this is the team that it wouldn't be a huge surprise if they badly underachieved. Brian Kelly's influence has finally faded from this roster, and while he has had mixed results at best at Notre Dame, there's no denying how brilliant and effective Kelly was with the Bearcats. Butch Jones engineered a nice bounceback season in 2011, but I really don't have the faintest clue what to expect now that signs point towards them moving more in a spread option direction. Besides not having Pead and Collaros any longer, their defense was only average, and seemingly heavily skewed towards graduated seniors Derek Wolfe and J.K. Schaffer.
5. Pittsburgh Panthers: 7-5 (4-3) - With savvy observers finally wise to USF's annual follies, Pitt has steadily risen from a genuine sleeper pick to an arguable favorite in the conference. On paper, the logic makes enough sense. Todd Graham's no-huddle attack was a poor fit for this team from the ultimate blue collar, lunch pail town. Tino Sunseri and their offensive line are, well, challenged, but their flaws were exacerbated by playing in such a bad scheme. Ray Graham is the best player in the Big East when healthy, and with Paul Chryst turning them into another Wisconsin, I-formation team that runs the ball down people's throats, they could quickly transform back into resembling their Wannstedt-era teams with better coaching. I bought this reasoning for a while, but a few points give me pause. Tino was just that bad last season, as was the OL, and injuries to the latter haven't helped their case. Even more worrisome on that front are a plethora of injuries on defense, especially in the linebacking corps. This team still has a ridiculous amount of talent at the top of its roster, but depth is sorely-compromised as a result of their never-ending coaching turmoil from the past year in advance. Chryst seems like a great fit here, and they could well surprise, but the margin for error is going to be very small.
6. Temple Owls: 6-5 (3-4) - The Owls are the true sleeper this season. It's true that they lost quite a bit, but you know what, think of how Al Golden rebuilt this team in the first place. He signed all the players from New Jersey and Pennsylvania every year that had talent but were either very raw, or didn't have the grades/discipline track record that would be expected at a major conference school. That was still the case up through their most recent class, which is why I'm not too concerned about all of their turnover. There are plenty of guys ready to step up to replace everyone they lost, and Montel Harris is a nice late replacement for Bernard Pierce if he can stay healthy. What the heck is with only playing four OOC games though?
7. Syracuse Orange: 4-8 (2-5) - Good lord, that schedule. Is Daryl Gross trying to get Doug Marrone fired? The Orange roster, as usual, lost a lot of players to attrition over the offseason, and fall camp was not kind again either in the injury department. That's with depth already the biggest problem here. They should not still be in the position of having to load up on junior college players on a yearly basis this far into Marrone's tenure; that does not bode well at all for his future. Depth and a general lack of team athleticism remain stumbling blocks, although there are a few signs for optimism, like the return of receiver Marcus Sales from suspension, and dynamic freshman Ashton Broyld. This is more of a 6-6 team, but they're just going to get hammered by playing the schedule from hell. The injuries will keep piling up again, and it's going to be yet another cold and miserable winter at home in Syracuse come December.
8. Connecticut Huskies: 4-8 (1-6) - How, how, how does everyone in the media not see this program for the profound trainwreck they are turning into? The emperor has no clothes! The emperor has no clothes! Is it that Randy Edsall and Maryland (they play this year! fun!) are making the Huskies look competent in comparison? Paul Pasqualoni badly mismanaged his offense last season, choosing to grab one or two additional wins with the horrid Johnny McEntee instead of throwing one of their younger freshmen into the fire. It should come as little surprise that Michael Nebrich transferred come the fall. That might have more to do with JUCO signee Chandler Whitmer, but really, is there any reason to expect that even with big upgrades at QB and WR, UConn won't have the worst players in the conference at those positions by a considerable margin? Now the bounty that Edsall left on the OL and defense has thinned, and although they may extract a measure of revenge against the Terps, there is seemingly little otherwise that will bring joy to what is certain to be a downright miserable season. Pasqualoni and George DeLeone are dragging this program back to the stone ages, and the disgraceful, inexcusable, indefensible hire of Coach P out of the doldrums continues to look worse by the day. That only makes Rutgers not taking the UConn game last season look even worse in retrospect, but it won't matter now with how bad these guys are going to be.
Offensive Player of the Year - Teddy Bridgewater, Louisville
Defensive Player of the Year - Khaseem Greene, Rutgers
Special Teams Player of the Year - Cameron Saddler, Pittsburgh
Rookie of the Year - Nate Smith, Temple
Coach of the Year - Charlie Strong, Louisville