For those of you sick of reading about the holy trinity of Big East football -- Louisville, West Virginia and Rutgers -- I'm here to help.
It's not all songbirds, mountain men and scarlet fever. Yes, those traditional Big East powers (of the moment) have played football for approximately 340 years and won 59 conference titles. Only five of those championships have come in the Big East, but you get the point.
|An opposing assistant called QB Matt Grothe a 'freshman Joe Montana' last fall. (US Presswire)|
Some Big East coaches probably have whistles older than South Florida's program. Considering the Big East's recent shape-shifting, that alone qualifies the Bulls for contender status.
Yesterday's perennial loser can be today's national title contender. Ask Rutgers, then ask Rutgers about its experience in Tampa last year. The Scarlet Knights hung on for a two-point victory.
Call South Florida an annoying 10-year-old. In Year 11 of its existence (seventh in I-A), it opens as the team no one is talking about in the Big East, maybe not even in Tampa.
Is it too much to suggest this is a program that has the look of Miami in the early 1980s? A team that could run the table and get to -- swallowing hard here -- the national championship game? Someday?
OK, I won't go that far -- yet. But South Florida does look like it will be, eventually, the next big thing in the state of Florida and in the Big East.
|1. West Virginia|
|4. South Florida|
|Team to beat:|
|Steve Slaton, West Virginia|
|Eric Foster, Rutgers|
|Coach of the year:|
|Rich Rodriguez, West Virginia|
That's right, I just kind of called out Miami, Florida State, the past two Big East champions and the state university of New Jersey.
Now I'm going to tell you why South Florida is the dark horse to win the Big East this season -- and beyond.
• Jim Leavitt. The 50-year-old coach has been around since 1997, when the program was created. Even Bobby Bowden can't say that. The South Florida football offices started in trailers. The stories were buried deep in the sports section.
You still can't pick Leavitt out of crowd of elementary math teachers, but the dude can coach. Ask Kansas State and Alabama (twice), which have taken runs at him. Leavitt now looks like a lifer in Tampa. That puts him in Bowden territory. He's only 20-something years and 280-something victories behind. Well, that and two national championships.
Yes, I just compared Jim Leavitt to Bobby Bowden. Now I need to sit down and open a window. I've got the vapors.
• Momentum. For the second time in five seasons, South Florida is coming off a nine-win season. Only Louisville and West Virginia in the Big East have done that in that time span. That's weird because the Bulls have upset those two teams in the past two seasons. Louisville in 2005, West Virginia last season. Point is, this is a program on the rise.
• The schedule. Friendlier than an Applebee's hostess, considering. There's a Week 2 trip to Auburn, but after that most of the tough games are at home -- North Carolina, West Virginia and Louisville. There are 10 wins in there somewhere.
• Back-to-back bowl games. In West Virginia's 10th season, there was no Internet. In South Florida's 10th season, it won the Papajohns.com Bowl. In West Virginia's 10th season, it went 3-2 and got shut out by Washington and Jefferson. In its 10th season, South Florida went 9-4, winning four of its final five to get to a bowl sponsored by a pizza company's website. Dough!
• South Florida already leads the Big East in weather. Every year. Forever. Or until the ACC decides to expand again.
• The quarterback. Matt Grothe was a "freshman Joe Montana" in 2006. That's how one anonymous defensive coordinator described the Big East Rookie of the Year. Yeah, I wouldn't allow my name to be used with that quote either but the kid is good, at least the salvation of last season. He led the Bulls in both passing and rushing. If Leavitt can find a tailback to take the load off Grothe's legs, he'll be even better.
• Speaking of tailbacks, Leavitt might have two, both Alabama refugees. Never mind that neither ever stepped on the field for the Tide. Mike Ford didn't qualify at 'Bama, went to prep school for a year and now is ready to make good on Leavitt's assertion that Ford, from Sarasota, is one of the best running backs to come out of the state of Florida. Jamar Taylor has a one-year-old in his native Lakeland. Lately, he decided he'd rather be closer to the kid and his ailing mother than in Tuscaloosa. Taylor is seeking a hardship transfer waiver from the NCAA to become eligible immediately.
|Mike Teel could be the difference between Rutgers finishing first or third. (US Presswire)|
• Look for Trae Williams' numbers to go down this season. That's what happens when quarterbacks stop throwing to your side. Last season the All-Big East corner intercepted seven passes and broke up nine more. The other side of the field won't be any easier for opposing quarterbacks. Mike Jenkins broke up 15 passes. Together they might be the best set of shutdowns in the country.
• Dan McCarney. Leavitt is tickled about his new defensive line coach. McCarney led Iowa State for 12 seasons. More impressive: McCarney lasted 12 seasons at Iowa State. No school in I-A has gone as long without winning a conference title -- 96 years. That's back to the Cyclones' 1911 Missouri Valley co-championship.
Back to Mac. Somehow in those dozen years he was able to 1) win nine games in 2000; 2) almost beat Florida State in 2002; and 3) get the Cyclones within a missed field goal of the Big 12 North title in both 2004 and 2005. McCarney was fired after last season but here's the thing: That's as good as it gets at Iowa State, folks.
McCarney can sit on his deck every night with a cigar and a drink and thank God he got out of Ames with his career intact. How hard can it be working with the nation's No. 25 defense? Recruit to that league-leading weather? Become the next big thing in Florida? Jimmy, Danny and Co. are coming for you, Bobby. But first, the Big East.
Steve Slaton, West Virginia, RB, Jr.: A funny bone kept West Virginia from winning the Big East. Yep, that was pretty much it. On a disastrous November night at Louisville, Slaton lost two crucial fumbles after he was banged on the elbow. Slaton is still living with the shame and intends to improve on his numbers (fourth in Heisman voting, 1,744 rushing yards).
Eric Foster, Rutgers, DT, Sr.: How important is Foster? The school claims he is the school's first (first-team) All-American of the modern era. One of Greg Schiano's impact players from Florida, Foster was the anchor of a top 10 defense.
Predicted order of finish
|Dave Wannstedt's seat at Pitt is getting warmer. (US Presswire)|
2. Louisville: Brian Brohm stayed for his senior year, which made all the difference. There's a lot less pressure on Steve Kragthorpe, who inherits a national title contender.
3. Rutgers: If quarterback Mike Teel makes even marginal improvement, the league is totally up for grabs. Everything else seems to be in place. Ray Rice is a Heisman candidate.
4. South Florida: So when is the upset coming? Last season, the Bulls stunned West Virginia and won nine games. This year there are 16 starters back, including a budding star in Grothe.
5. Cincinnati: Brian Kelly is one of those up-and-coming coaches whose next job will be in the Big Ten. For now he has parlayed success at Central Michigan into a job where he can win right away. Wake Forest transfer Ben Mauk brings immediate depth at quarterback.
|2007 Conference Previews|
|Sun Belt||Big 12|
6. Pittsburgh: Which way you headed, Wanny? Without a proven quarterback and six new starters on defense, Dave Wannstedt is on the hot seat. Watch roadies at Virginia and Michigan State. They will be an indicator of his future.
7. Connecticut: Speaking of the hot seat, Randy Edsall is 3-11 in his past 14 Big East games. Things have gone steadily downward since a nine-win season in 2003.
8. Syracuse: Speaking of hotter seats, Greg Robinson has one Big East victory in two seasons. There are only 10 returning starters, which might be a good thing.