It's that time of year again!! Time to start breaking out the annual college previews. Yes, this is a Notre Dame blog, but we also love all kinds of college football all over the nation. As was the case last year, we relied heavily on the good people over at VegasInsider.com for providing us with a bounty of over/under win totals. Always fun to take a look at those, and I plan on spraying around multiple bets on over/under totals before the season starts.
We'll start this year with the Big East conference, and we're going to try to keep things fresh this year by looking at the league from a number of different perspectives. I also wanted to add in a little fantasy spotlight since it seems like more and more people are starting to see the light and embrace college football fantasy leagues.
Let's get to the preview....
League Overview: Not a very good year for the Big East in 2008. The league champ (Cincinnati) gets blown out in the Orange Bowl, the perennial power (West Virginia) might have made a serious mistake with its head coaching hire, the up and comer (South Florida) hit a major speed bump that might have derailed its path to becoming a powerhouse, the bottom has fallen out for a school that played in a BCS bowl just a couple years ago (Louisville), and the darling of 2007 (Rutgers) is facing a major rebuild only two years later. Oh, and there's always the possibility of Big Ten expansion that could steal away a team and the persistent rumors that the Big East's automatic BCS bid could be in jeopardy if the league doesn't find some answers. Other than that, everything is going great in the Big East.
Not everything is bad in the league of course. There's parity up and down the league, Syracuse could be on the rise, UConn has steadily built itself into a competitive program, and there are actually quite a few good coaches in the Big East. I actually enjoy watching the brand of Big East football that we've seen the last few years. It's a little more wide open and innovative than what you see in the Big Ten for example.
The key for the league in 2009 will be to continue building up some of these fledgling programs (USF, Pitt, Cincy, Rutgers, etc) with the hope that a couple of them break out over the next few years.
Over/Under Win Totals from VegasInsider.com:
West Virginia - 8.5
Rutgers - 8
South Florida - 8
Pitt - 7.5
Cincinnati - 6
Connecticut - 6
Louisville - 5
Syracuse - 3.5
Best Bets (aka bets that won't clean out your online account):
West Virginia - UNDER 8.5 wins
West Virginia is still one of, if not the most talented teams in the Big East, but I can't shake the feeling that they just hired the next Larry Coker. How many times have we seen an assistant take over a loaded program and do well for a year or two before the bottom starts to fall out?? Even last year was somewhat of a disappointment considering that they had an all-time great player in Pat White. Everyone was talking about 10-11 wins for them, and they ended up going 8-4 with a bad loss at home to Cincy and a loss to Pitt in the season finale. If not for Pat White's incredible performance in the Meineke Bowl to carry the 'Neers to a win over North Carolina, it would have been a really shaky debut for the Bill Stewart era.
We almost need to create an "All Stars" group for these interim coaches who win a bowl game or a couple NCAA tournament games and then get hired on as the full time coach even though they're completely in over their head. You could call it the "Brian Ellerbe All Stars" or the "Larry Coker All Stars" or the "Mike Davis All Stars" or any other number of guys. There are so many examples of coaches who have won a major head coaching job just by being in the right place in the right time and by winning the support of their current players. Memo to athletic directors. Never hire a coach just because your players want to keep him around.
WVU had a chance to keep their momentum going after Rich Rodriguez by hiring a big time up and coming coach to take over in Morgantown, and they went out an hired a 56 year old first time head coach whose only claim to the job was that he was lucky enough to be retained by Rich Rodriguez as a quarterbacks coach.
Perhaps I will be completely wrong, but my gut tells me that West Virginia is going to take another step back this year. Noel Devine is back and Jarrett Brown can probably emerge from Pat White's shadow as a good spread quarterback, but I think that program will continue to lose some momentum. They are a lot closer to being a 6 win team than they are to becoming a top 10 team again in my opinion. This program is officially Bill Stewart's program now, and that might not be a good thing.
I think WVU will stumble down the stretch, fall short of the 8.5 number, and Bill Stewart will enter 2010 with a very warm seat.
Cincinnati --- OVER 6 wins
FREE MONEY ALERT!! Always feels good to get that first one out of the year. If you want to make a little money this year, please get yourself to your nearest casino or online sportsbook and bet the "over" on Cincy's win total. I had this one in last year's preview, and I'm guaranteeing it again this year. Cincy is going to leap past that 6 win total with no problem.
Where is the respect for the Bearcats?? VegasInsider had them at 7 wins last year, and they won 9. I think they were at 6 wins in 2007, and won 9. And yet they're still listed at six wins?? I know it's Cincy and that they were a MAC type team within the last five years, but it might be time to start paying attention to what is going on in Clifton these days.
I know UC has lost some serious talent on the defensive side of the ball, so I won't gloss over their issues entirely. UC's defense was probably the best they've had in recent memory, and you could argue that the seniors who "graduated" last year represented the best class in the history of the school. Four guys were drafted in the NFL from their defense last year, and ten starters total are gone. A pretty devastating loss for a program that isn't exactly busing in loads of four and five star players every year.
But there are some big reasons for optimism in the Queen City this year. Quarterback Tony Pike has the ability to be drafted in the 2010 NFL Draft and might end up being the MVP of the Big East this year. Pike came out of nowhere, but he's got some big time ability. At 6'6", 225 pounds with really good mobility, it might be blasphemy to say it, but he reminds me a lot of Brady Quinn. A big guy with good instincts who is dangerous when he gets out of the pocket. Tony Pike is now entering his second year as the starter, and I expect him to be even better this year.
In terms of finding a guy to throw the ball to, the Bearcats have the best receiver in the league in Mardy Gilyard. Not even debatable. Gilyard is an absolute stud and probably should have gone pro after last year. I'm pretty sure he couldn't read "My Pet Goat," but he can burn just about any DB in the country and capped off a monster year with a big game against Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl. Gilyard will be a first day NFL pick next year, and probably will be giving Roger Goodell headaches for many years after.
The other reason to be bullish about the Bearcats in 2009 is Mr. Brian Kelly. The man who could probably run for Mayor in Cincinnati and win. The man who presides over the only good thing going in the Cincinnati sports scene these days besides Xavier basketball. The man who has brought enthusiasm and passion to a program that never had any reason to be excited before. The man who has made UC football fans believe that they really can be a big time football program, and that they might even someday be on par with that school up in Columbus.
Words cannot even begin to describe how much Brian Kelly has meant to the UC football program. Yes, Mark Dantonio helped stabilize the program to some degree from the depths of the Rick Minter era, but Brian Kelly has taken this program to another level. He is recruiting players that never even considered the idea of going to UC in the past, and he has laid the groundwork for dramatic improvements in the facilities for the football program. If you were to tell me ten years ago that Cincy would be building an indoor practice facility for the football program, I would have laughed you out of the room. An indoor practice field?? They were lucky to even have an OUTDOOR field!! And yet Kelly has raised the money to get it done.
I know Brian Kelly has become a whipping boy of sorts from ND fans who don't think he should ever be considered for the ND head coaching job, but the man is not going away anytime soon. All he has done is go 157-57-2 in 19 years as a head coach, win two national championships at the D-IAA level, win the MAC at Central Michigan within three years after taking them over when they were a doormat, and go 21-6 in two years at Cincinnati and win the Big East title. Maybe he doesn't have the coaching pedigree that you'd see out of a big time coach, but the guy is a winner and a motivator and an intense coach. Cincy is not going to go in the tank this year because of a few personnel losses.
And if Weis melts down again in 2009, I think Brian Kelly ends up on the radar again as the next head coach. I think we'll try to go big for an Urban Meyer type, but who knows if that actually goes down. I don't necessarily think he should be the top candidate, but I think we could do a lot worse than Brian Kelly. All of this is hypothetical of course, but it could easily become a very hot topic again if we stumble out of the gate early.
Cincy has a tough nonconference schedule that includes Fresno, Oregon State, and Illinois along with some tough road trips to Rutgers and Pitt and USF in Big East play, so I do not necessarily think they'll win 9+ games again this year. But I do think they can get back to a bowl game and set themselves up for more success in the future. Anything beyond that would be gravy.
Coach in trouble: Steve Kragthorpe
I just googled "Steve Kragthorpe," and the first few things that come up in the search are "Steve Kragthorpe hot seat", "Steve Kragthorpe resigns," and "Steve Kragthorpe fired." Yikes!! Not the type of descriptions that you want to see next to your name when you get "googled." But hey, at least people are googling him! So he's got that going for him.
I don't know what has happened with this guy. Was he just a complete fraud at Tulsa??? Kragthorpe went 17-9 there and seemed to be a real up and coming coach. I don't want to rattle another hornet's nest with those wacky Tulsa fans, but maybe some Tulsa fan could come on here and tell us what the story is with Coach Kragthorpe. Was he overrated at Tulsa??
All I know is that Tom Jurich is a really good AD and that he loved Kragthorpe. To me, that is what makes Kragthorpe's failure so shocking.
Louisville has road trips to Kentucky and Utah (bold scheduling!) in September, so they could really dig themselves a hole early. It wouldn't even really knock my socks off if Louisville lost to Indiana State in their opener.
Maybe Kragthorpe turns it around, but there are too many rumblings of massive discontent to make me think he can right the ship. Louisville might never get back to the glory days of the Bobby Petrino era (Bobby P can flat out coach), but they are capable of being a decent program. I think they'll decide that they can do better than Kragthorpe if he has another bad year.
Best nonconference games:
West Virginia - 9/19 at Auburn and 10/1 Colorado --- I'll give credit where credit is due to the Mountaineers. Home and home series with Auburn and Colorado is not too shabby. If you're in the Big East, this is what you should be doing to get some respect around the nation. Playing Eastern Kentucky and Youngstown State does nothing for you. That Auburn game is going to be big for both West Virginia and Auburn. If Auburn loses that game at home, Gene Chizik could be on the hot seat by the end of his first month.
Connecticut - 9/12 North Carolina and 11/21 at Notre Dame -- Just a general observation, but the Big East teams deserve some commendation for their nonconference schedules. UConn is basically signed up for 10 road games with ND since their "home" games are at Foxboro where I'm guessing 75% of the fans will be ND fans. And a home and home with UNC is solid.
South Florida - 9/26 at Florida State 11/28 Miami -- HEAVYWEIGHTS!! How about South Florida signing up Florida State and Miami in the same year?!
Honestly, I've generally had the attitude that a Big East team should never get a chance to play in the title game even if they go undefeated, but I actually would make an exception for USF if they pulled it off this year. Look at their schedule:
9/12 at West. Kentucky
9/19 Charleston Southern
9/26 at Florida State
10/3 at Syracuse
10/10 OPEN DATE
10/24 at Pitt
10/30 West Virginia
11/7 OPEN DATE
11/12 at Rutgers
11/28 Miami (FL)
12/5 at Connecticut
Two heavyweights, five road games, a good nonconference schedule, and a fairly decent Big East slate. If you beat Miami and FSU in the same year and run the table in the Big East, that's good enough for me. Congrats USF. You have my approval to play in the title game. Now you just have to go undefeated.
Cincinnati - 9/19 at Oregon State and 11/27 Illinois -- Good work by the UC athletic department to get these two games lined up. If UC could go 1-1 in these two games, that would be a good showing. That Cincy-Illinois game will be very telling when it comes to comparing the Big East and the Big Ten. If UC whips Illinois, couldn't you make the argument that the Big East is at least somewhat on par with the Big Ten??
Pitt - 9/26 at NC State and 11/14 Notre Dame -- Potential statement game for Pitt at NC State. I expect them to be an underdog in that game, so that would be a pretty big win if they pull that off.
Syracuse - 9/5: vs. Minnesota and 9/19: Northwestern -- Two big opportunities for Syracuse to put themselves on the map with wins over middle of the road Big Ten teams. I'm really pulling for Doug Marrone to turn around the Cuse, and I'd love to jump on their bandwagon early if they pull off an upset in either or both of these games. On paper, there's no reason that they couldn't win those games at home. If that happens, it's a great sign for the future of the Syracuse program.
Worst nonconference schedule: Rutgers -
9/26 at Maryland
10/10 Texas Southern
10/23 at Army
Cmon Rutgers!! Three DI-AA teams and Army> I know you got Maryland in there, but how do you go to your fans and tell them that they're paying for home games with Howard, FIU, and Texas Southern?? I didn't even know Texas Southern was a real school. I thought they were the school from "Necessary Roughness."
That's really bad. Keep in mind that Rutgers balked about playing a series with ND. I understand why they didn't want to do it (no home games in the 10 game series), but the alternative is god awful. You should not be allowed to play three DI-AA teams in one year.
Since fantasy college football usually involves only a couple teams from each conference, I'm only going to address the guys on teams that we're using for my fantasy league this year. For the Big East, we're using Pitt, West Virginia, and South Florida. So if you're wondering about Syracuse's running back situation, I got nothing for you this year.
Pitt: The only guy to really get excited about from a Pitt standpoint is Jonathan Baldwin. I think he's got a Plaxico Burress type game about him right down to the off the field problems. He could be the type of guy who only has 50 catches but ends up with 12 touchdowns or something like that. Depends on if he's got his head on straight and if Stull can actually get him the ball. Definitely someone to keep an eye on for a late round receiver pick.
From what I'm reading, true freshman Dion Lewis is going to be the starting running back right out of the gate. No idea if he can hold up at only 5'8, but it sounds like he's going to be the man. Probably the guy you gotta draft if you're looking for some RB depth.
Under no circumstances should Bill Stull be on anyone's roster even as a backup QB.
South Florida: I have no clue why our executive committee decided to use USF as a team, but the only guy I'd even be looking at is Matt Grothe. And Grothe is one of those guys who turns out Craig Krenzel numbers. You don't get fantasy points for blood stains on the jersey and nicks on the helmet. So I don't see him as a viable fantasy QB option.
Apparently this Mike Ford dude is an SEC talent who ended up at USF, so maybe he ends up as a surprise fantasy player. I don't know, I can't see him being a fantasy starter outside of a bye week since Grothe usually ends up doing all the running for USF (mostly on broken plays). USF doesn't really run the ball that well.
West Virginia: Noel Devine is obviously a good back who will be drafted somewhere in the first couple rounds, but only four touchdowns last year. That's kinda weak for a guy who probably would be a number one back on a fantasy roster. His production is sort of sporadic since you never know how many carries he's going to get. I never like having those types of guys on my team. Give me a horse who I know is getting 25 carries every game.
He also wasn't quite as dangerous a receiver as I thought he'd be. Compare his numbers to what a true stud like Jahvid Best or Shady McCoy did last year. I don't know, I think there are a lot of guys out there I'd feel better about in the 2nd/3rd round than Noel Devine.
Jarrett Brown could be a little bit of a sleeper at QB, but more as a backup than as a #1 starter. I'd definitely take a chance on him as my bye week quarterback over several SEC quarterbacks. If he can run, he can put up some numbers.
The only other guy I'd keep an eye on is this Jock Sanders guy, but he's currently under suspension. I'll predict he's playing on opening day though. Mountaineer football!! Anyone with a pulse can play there.
Most intriguing teams in the league:
Rutgers - I went with Rutgers here because I'm curious to see where their program heads over the next five years. I think they have the potential to be a pretty strong program in the Big East, but there's so many uncertainties. How long will Schiano be there?? And if they get consistently good, will the Big Ten come calling and steal them away??
I really like Schiano as a head coach. I like how they play, and he's a tough coach. I think he's one of those guys who could very easily take the next step up at a good program and really make some noise. I still think Miami should go after him hard again if/when they get rid of Randy Shannon. And I think he's gotta be somewhere on Swarbrick's list of people to talk to if Weis doesn't get it done in 2009 or 2010.
Rutgers has lost a lot of players though. All their best offensive skill players are gone. If Schiano can hold down the fort and keep them in the 8 win range this year, that would be an impressive job.
South Florida -- The "South Florida will be the next powerhouse in college football" talk has died down considerably in the last two years. I'll admit that I drank the kool-aid a little bit and was even temporarily excited to see them pop up on ND's 2011 schedule, but now I'm sort of ambivalent about them. USF really hit the wall last year. It's hard to take them seriously when they lost 49-16 to Rutgers at home.
USF has the talent and the Big East is there for the taking, but it all comes down to wins. Are they going to rise back up and win 9-10 games this year or float along at 6-7?? Looking forward to seeing them at Florida State in late September.
Quick note on their current team. Matt Grothe and George Selvie are still at USF?!? My god, have they taken every class ever offered at USF by now?? I thought both those guys were seniors two years ago.
Team to beat: Pittsburgh
Yikes! If Pitt is the class of the Big East, the league has some problems. I do think the Panthers are the team to beat in this league this year though. Their defense is going to be pretty strong with all of their d-linemen back. For the most part, their defense held up last year. If their offense had done anything, they would have beaten Oregon State in the Sun Bowl.
Offensively, I don't know what their plan is to replace LeSean McCoy (who was the closest thing to a one man team in college football last year), but Pitt does have most of its offensive line back. And Bill Stull! I'm not sure a quarterback has ever inspired less confidence than Bill Stull. He was awful last year, and he actually had weapons and pretty good line play. If he can't play better, Pitt is staring at another 7-8 win season. If he makes a mini-leap, the talent is in place to win the Big East.
On an unrelated note, Philly Eagles fans, get excited about the LeSean McCoy era. I love that guy. I'm predicting that he slowly nudges Brian Westbrook aside over the course of the 2009 season.
Wannstedt gets a lot of heat as a bad coach, but it's hard to really give him too much flak about the job he's done. I keep hearing that Pitt is this sleeping giant, but I think of them as a second tier city school that's not all that attractive to recruits. The fact that Wannstedt won 9 games last year at Pitt is pretty impressive. The guy took over a very average program, and has made them pretty good. He's not Urban Meyer or anything, but at least his teams compete. Their lines are good, and he keeps them in games. Is he a bad strategist?? Potentially. Does he make some boneheaded moves?? Yes. But couldn't Pitt do a lot worse than Wannstedt?? They could easily have a Gregg Robinson type guy right now who's churning out 3-9 seasons. Wannstedt has recruited pretty well thus far, and he's winning games. Good for him.