Wednesday, August 19, 2009

College Football Insiders Preview: Big East


It may not possess the talent pool of the SEC, school recognition of the Big Ten, or National Championship contenders of the Big 12, but the Big East isn’t the cream-puff conference that many in the college football world believe them to be. Whether it’s the rapidly developing programs, the top of the line post-season record, or recent success in its BCS appearances, the Big East has established itself as a football conference to be reckoned with. The competitiveness and depth of the league has made for an exciting conference race down the stretch each year, and 2009 should be no different.

The Favorites: South Florida & West Virginia:
This season, a legitimate case can be made for five different teams winning the conference. But when the two deepest and most athletic teams meet in Raymond James Stadium in Tampa Bay on October 30th, it should determine who wins the conference title. Losing Pat White is more than just a setback for West Virginia—not only did they lose their leading passer, scorer, and the two-time Offensive Conference Player of the Year (2007, 2006), they lost the face of the program and the undisputed team leader. The good thing is that White’s former backup, Jarrett Brown, has not only won both games he started in his career, but has never a lost a game in which he entered with the lead. Even though the senior doesn’t bring the security Pat White did at quarterback, he does instill some confidence because of his mobility, which makes him a more than capable fit in West Virginia’s system. Running back Noel Devine put together a sophomore season in which he rushed for 1,289 yards at 6.3 yards per carry. Between his big play ability and the athleticism of returning wide receivers Alric Arnett and Jock Sanders, West Virginia has the offensive firepower to win a conference title. The Mountaineers also return six starters from a defense that held opponents to only 17.0 points a game, the best in the conference led by a strong defensive line. South Florida has captured the attention of the nation for two consecutive seasons by breaking into the top 10 in the polls. However they haven’t been able to maintain that momentum past mid-October, collapsing down the stretch each time including losing four of their last five in 2008. What will it take this year for the Bulls to break free from this pattern of feeling, but not overcoming the pressure? Discipline, discipline, discipline. From being the most penalized (111) team in the league to the ill-advised throws made by Matt Grothe, South Florida has given away games and wasted red-zone opportunities far too often in recent seasons. The key again this year offensively rests on the shoulders of Grothe, who must curb his interceptions (18 touchdowns, 14 interceptions in 2009). His mobility and arm strength make him both a Unitas Award and Big East POY candidate. Helping Grothe is an athletic group of running backs (led by Mike Ford) and wide outs (Jessie Hester, Dontavia Bogan, A.J. Love and Carlton Mitchell). The defense contains star athletes, again led by defensive end George Selvie, the conference sack leader in 2007, as well as defensive backs Jerome Murphy and Nate Allen.

The Contenders: Cincinnati & Pittsburgh: Last year’s champion Cincinnati brings back what might be the most proven quarterback in the conference, (Tony Pike), the top wide-receiver (Mardy Gilyard) and a solid rushing tandem (John Goebel and Jacob Ramsey). However, on the other side other ball, the Bearcats only return one starter and are very unproven at linebacker. Pittsburgh must be mentioned as one of the candidates to win to the conference because of a returning defense that was outstanding in the second-half of last season. Led by junior defensive end Greg Romeus, who has the most sacks of any returning player in the conference (he finished third in 2008), and second-team All Big East cornerback Aaron Berry, Pittsburgh returns seven defensive starters. But the quarterback play last year for the Panthers was simply awful. Both quarterbacks Bill Stull and Pat Bostick are sure to make it difficult for the Panthers to win games against tough defenses and after losing superstar half-back LeSean McCoy, they may have to rely too much on freshman running backs Dion Lewis and Chris Burns for offensive punch.

The Sleeper: Rutgers: If there’s one thing for sure, it’s that the Scarlet Knights have an offensive line that can bring them to the promised land in Miami (site of the Orange Bowl). Returning all five starters from last season, Anthony Davis leads a colossal front-five that will undoubtedly give running backs Kordell Young, Jourdan Brooks and Joe Martinek the space they need for a strong ground attack. What Rutgers does lose is their quarterback Mike Teel and stud wide-receiver Kenny Britt, as well as speedster Tiquan Underwood. They do return Tim Brown who caught 27 balls for 565 yards, and will rely on highly touted recruiting classes of the past two years. The Knights may not have the meat and potatoes front like West Virginia, or the talented South Florida secondary, but they do return spectacular tackling linebacker Ryan D’Imperio and very solid cornerback Devin McCourty on defense. In such a compact conference, the schedule for Rutgers works heavily in their favor. Not only do they play four conference home games, which only half the teams in the league do, but by far their toughest conference games are at home. If they are in the driver’s seat down the stretch, home field advantage in games versus South Florida and West Virginia late in the season could be enough to squeeze them into the Orange Bowl.

Offensive Player of the Year: QB Tony Pike (Cincinnati) vs. QB Matt Grothe (South Florida) vs. RB Noel Devine (West Virginia): Bearcat quarterback Tony Pike threw for 2,407 yards and 19 touchdowns last season. He is projected to surpass those numbers this year since he is expected to start from the get-go. Cincinnati’s offense scheme gives Pike the opportunity to put up some serious stats, and having the best wide receiver in the conference (Mardy Gilyard) doesn’t hurt either. Matt Grothe’s mobility and cannon arm are sure to put up top passing/rushing numbers in the conference. If he keeps his interceptions to a minimum and his Bulls are competing for a Big East title, don’t be surprised if Grothe becomes the favorite for the award. Noel Devine’s sophomore season wasn’t a slump, but seemed a bit that way because the expectations were so high. With Pat White gone, look for offensive attention to shift toward Devine. His numbers last year were excellent as he averaged 99.2 yards a game. More touchdown conversions will equal a better chance for the offensive player award.

Honorable Mention: QB Jarrett Brown (West Virginia), RB Victor Anderson (Louisville), RB Jordan Todman (Connecticut), RB Mike Ford (South Florida), WR Mardy Gilyard (Cincinnati)

Defensive Player of the Year: DE George Selvie (South Florida) vs. DE Greg Romeus (Pittsburgh):
When healthy, George Selvie is an All-American. His junior year was a bit if a disappointment as he had to deal with a foot injury and constant double-(and triple-) teams from opponents. But this year, with a more experienced line and a clean bill of health, Selvie is likely to return to his dominant form. His sack numbers should once again reach double-digits. Selvie isn’t just a tremendous pass rusher but relentless at stopping the run. Out of Pittsburgh is Greg Romeus who, like Selvie, is a strong pass rusher. The big man racked up 7.5 sacks last year and the second team all-conference selection is likely to have another strong season for the Panthers. He should compete with Selvie for the conference sack lead.

Honorable Mention: DT Arthur Jones (Syracuse), LB Scott Lutrus (Connecticut), LB Ryan D'Imperio (Rutgers), CB Aaron Berry (Pittsburgh), FS Nate Allen (South Florida)

Breakout Seasons: RB Delone Carter (Syracuse) & WR Jessie Hester (South Florida):
Plagued with injures for the past two seasons, Delone Carter has barely seen the field since his freshman season in 2006. In his short career, Carter was able to raise eyebrows in upstate New York despite a lack of touches and a less than impressive offensive line. In the eight games that he was the lead ball carrier as a freshman, Carter rushed for 664 yards, averaging 5.2 yards per carry. He’s shown a nose for the first down marker and, occasionally, the ability to take over drives. With an improving O-Line and a new offensive scheme, don’t be surprised to see Carter among the conference leaders in yards and touchdowns. This could be the year the Bulls get that complete season from a wide-out as senior Jessie Hester returns as the team’s leader in receptions (54) and yards (579). Hester is a skillful player and came along very nicely down the stretch while the rest of the team struggled. In the past, USF has mixed and matched their pass targets so much that it has been difficult for one player to break out…that will change this season.

Best Pro Prospect: Arthur Jones, Syracuse: He isn’t Warren Sapp. He isn’t Kevin Williams. He isn’t Tommie Harris. He’s just Art Jones, which is pretty darn good. It is difficult to compare the 291-pound defensive tackle to past greats at his position. He isn’t the widest, but plugs in holes. He isn’t the fastest, but finds a way to catch runners up-field. He isn’t the most explosive, but constantly disrupts the quarterback. Jones is constantly making an impact when he is on the field, and his tackling skills will have him playing football at the next level. The fifth-year senior gives opposing quarterbacks fits, and he’s also an aggressive run stopper, one who recorded a total of 20.5 tackles for a loss in his past two seasons despite being the main focus of the opposing offensive line each week. But what makes Jones such a valuable prospect is his versatility. He can be a pass rushing tackle in a 4-3 or a more focused run stopper—he has tremendous discipline and is scarcely out of position. His combination of quickness and stoutness gives him the ability to perhaps play the outside in a 3-4 scheme. Either way, Jones will find a spot on an NFL team and make an impact. He is coming off shoulder surgery, but coaches have stated that his rehab has gone splendidly. If there is a reason to watch any Syracuse football games this season, it’s to watch Jones thrive in the attacking defense the new coaching staff has implemented.

College Football Insiders’ Picks:

Conference Champion: South Florida:
Winning out in a three-team tiebreaker and heading to the Orange Bowl for the first time in school history will be South Florida. Unlike season’s past, the Bulls will finally live up to all the pre-season hype. The system tweaking by newly hired offensive (Mike Canales) and defensive coordinators (David Blackwell/Joe Tresey) will make the difference in 2009.

Offensive Player of the Year: Noel Devine, West Virginia: The explosive back will be among the leaders in all-purpose yards by the season’s end. Look for him to vastly improve his touchdown mark of four from a year ago.

Defensive Player of the Year: George Selvie, South Florida: George Selvie
looks to become only the second Big East player to win two defensive player of the year awards (Corey Moore of Virginia Tech won in 1998 & 1999). If it wasn’t for injures Selvie might be in a NFL camp right now. Needless to say, he is a pro prospect that will flourish in his senior campaign.

Photo Credit: WVU Sports Communication, University of Pittsburgh, USF Athletics Communications