In order to get the jump on Tuesday's official media poll, here are my preseason Big East predictions, listed in order of predicted conference record.
1. Pittsburgh (6-1)
Bill Stull was an efficient passer last year, but he was mostly a productive of an elite supporting cast. Who knows how good Tino Sunseri will be, but he'll probably be able to put up all-conference numbers merely through the presence of Jonathan Baldwin and Dion Lewis. The Panthers need to replace a top playmaker in Dorin Dickerson and a few other assorted holes, but Dave Wannstedt has recruited very well over the past few years and many good younger unknown players are ready to assume larger roles. The biggest red flag here would be any ongoing uncertainty over DE Jabaal Sheard's legal troubles.
2. Cincinnati (5-2)
Anyone who watched the Bearcats flail against Florida knows had crucial Brian Kelly was to this team. Kelly was a truly elite coach, and single-handedly worth 1-2 wins on his own. They won't have a decisive coaching advantage any longer, but Butch Jones at least proved at Central Michigan an ability to not immediately Kragthorpe away (yes, it is now a verb) all of Kelly's success. The offense loses Tony Pike and Mardy Gilyard, but could very well be even more explosive due to their excellent WR depth and improved recruiting over the past few years. The line is a question mark though. Combined with a coaching downgrade and an underwhelming defense, they're certain to take a step back. Not as much as the preseason prognosticators are predicting though.
3(t). West Virginia (4-3)
Bill Stewart is a wonderful human being, but probably should not be a head coach for a major conference football program. The hire initially looked like an insane, ill-conceived overreaction to beating Oklahoma in relief of the vilified Rich Rodriguez. Little from the past two years has dispelled that notion as the inexplicable losses started to pile up. Yes, they had some early recruiting momentum, but that seems to be gone now too with Doc Holliday leaving for Marshall and several high-profile defections this year.
Rodriguez left a loaded roster in Morgantown, and all the signs are in place for this to be the year where the wheels finally started to come off. While they should again be very good on defense, true sophomore quarterback Geno Smith only played a few snaps in garbage time, and then proceeded to miss spring practice with an injury. Noel Devine is indeed ridiculous, but even that crazy mite will be of little comfort when Stew proceeds to start running this once-proud program into the ground.
3(t). Rutgers (4-3)
The only conference team that can compete with Pittsburgh on pure talent, but this is one of the more inexperienced groups in the conference. They have the best league quarterback in Tom Savage, but very little depth behind him, and any hopes of a competent backup would require sacrificing their #1, all-conference receiver. The offensive line was awful last year, and needs to show that 2009 was a one year aberration and get back to their previously stellar play. Defense could be even better this year, with gains in the front seven making up for loss of Devin McCourty in the secondary. Probably the most volatile of all the conference teams, with entire season pegging on Savage's health and OL improvement. Scenarios run the gamut from being a legit contender to middling. Probably the preseason favorite in 2011.
3(t). Connecticut (4-3)
Usually when you think of UConn football and Randy Edsall, the first thing that comes to mind is ball control and stifling defense. That wasn't the case in 2009 though, as the Huskies ranked 27th in scoring offense under a new offensive coordinator, but fell to a horrific 85th in pass efficiency defense. I think that was a one year aberration and they'll be back to form on that side of the ball. It wouldn't be much of a surprise to see the Husky offense regress though. This is a good team, one that I was ahead of the pack on last year actually, but Zach Frazer will torpedo their viable conference title hopes finally getting the hook mid-year.
Why exactly did everybody in Storrs spend the offseason pretending that Zach Frazer was a good quarterback? Even The UConn Blog concedes that backup Cody Endres is far more accurate and effective. Frazer almost lost to Ohio and Notre Dame before single-handedly blowing the Rutgers game. He was only moderately effective against Syracuse and USF, before being limited to handoff duty in the bowl win over South Carolina. I'll concede too that Kashif Moore and some of their other receivers are on the rise, but they'll also badly miss Marcus Easley, even if he did come out of nowhere last year. Oh yeah, it'd also help to find a decent kicker.
6 (t). Syracuse (2-5)
It's hard to get a handle on the Orange. QB Ryan Nassib looked good in limited minutes last year, and they have some promise at the skill positions. The Cuse offense was dramatically better (in an extremely limited sample size) after Doug Marrone took over playcalling duties. They have a frightening lack of depth though, and another offseason of mass turnover likely points towards more growing pains in the fall. My head says they'll need another year of rebuilding, but there's enough intrigue here to warrant a second look.
6 (t). South Florida (2-5)
USF has finished sixth in the Big East for two straight years, so I'm perplexed as to why they've been the recipient of so many rosy preseason predictions. Granted, Jim Leavitt was an atrocious head coach (with a sideline demeanor best characterized as "raging psychopath"). Skip Holtz may be an upgrade, but Leavitt's firing went hand in hand with mass roster turnover. The Bulls lost one starting receiver for the year with an ACL tear, and another is a question mark recovering from a broken ankle. Throw in losing Jason Pierre-Paul, Nate Allen, and Kion Wilson (George Selvie and Jerome Murphy are easily replaced) on defense and its going to be a very long year on that side of the ball. They have some talented replacements ready to step in, but those players generally don't have as much experience as their counterparts at say, Pitt or Rutgers.
8. Louisville (1-6)
Cardinal fans are happy just to have Charlie Strong start the process of rebuilding at this point. There's some upside if Victor Anderson can bounce back to his stellar 2008 form, but they'll first need to find a capable quarterback. The best option is probably to throw Zack Stoudt into the fire in order to learn on the job and be better positioned for 2011 and beyond.