Big East preview: Surviving league-play grind will have big-time BCS payoff

by | College Football Blogger
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Ray Graham and Pitt will try to win the Big East title before leaving to the ACC. (US Presswire)  
Ray Graham and Pitt will try to win the Big East title before leaving to the ACC. (US Presswire)    

No Big East teams have even opened fall camp, yet the on-field product is the most certain aspect of Big East football as we enter the official start of the 2012 preseason.

Currently the league is searching for a new full-time commissioner, and anticipates naming someone by Labor Day. The conference is also in the midst of negotiating their next media rights deal, expected to be the first major task for the new commissioner.

The conference is also staring down the possibility of entering the new postseason format in 2014 without an automatic bid or financial relationship to one of the bowl games in rotation for the national semifinal.

If you listen to senior associate commissioner Nick Carparelli, even that uncertainty should not be a concern.

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"We are barely three months into a process that will not take effect until two-and-a-half years from now," Carparelli said at the Big East Media Day earlier this week. "The BCS Oversight Committee has made it clear that there will be palace for all deserving conference champions and that there will be a fair distribution of revenue with the new conference format.

"We have every confidence they will follow through."

A 2012 Big East team can not directly influence the decisions of the BCS Oversight Committee. They can, however, play a role -- albeit minuscule -- in the marketability and value of the conference in media rights negotiations. Carparelli referenced the competitiveness of the conference, particularly late in the season. The associate commissioner said the wide-open nature of the league makes for "compelling television."

"In each of the three years, the Big East BCS bid was not won until the final week," Carperelli said. "Just last year, with two weeks left in the season, six of our eight schools had a chance to win a share of the conference title, and four had a chance to win our BCS bid."

That competitiveness down the stretch is unique to the Big East -- the only eight team conference with a BCS automatic bid. The seven game conference schedule is back-loaded for most teams, with only a few early season exceptions. The high stakes, round-robin schedule, and lack of separation between the teams create a wide-open conference race that can only be described as a grind.

2011 showed us that the Big East grinder will tear up teams with high expectations. USF entered league play 4-0 and nationally ranked after a season-opening win at Notre Dame. The Bulls got beat 44-17 by Pittsburgh in their Big East opener and went on to lose seven of their final eight games. But 2011 also showed us that the grinder can also give second life to a team. Charlie Strong's young Louisville team was able to turn around a 2-4 start by winning five of their next six games and earning a share of the conference title.

Teddy Bridgewater set a Louisville freshman passing record with 2,129 yards. (US Presswire)  
Teddy Bridgewater set a Louisville freshman passing record with 2,129 yards. (US Presswire)    
But the conference play grinder also has very little room for error. Three of the last five Big East tiles have been split or shared, with the last two being three-way ties. While there could be almost no separation between the teams at the top of the standings, the separation in the reward is great. Just ask Big East co-champions West Virginia, Cincinnati, and Louisville. The Mountaineers held the three-way tiebreaker and earned a bid to face -- and eventually dismantle -- ACC Champion Clemson in the Orange Bowl. Cincinnati, on the other hand, went to the Liberty Bowl while Louisville was invited to the Belk Bowl.

Never has the value of that BCS bid seemed higher than after the Mountaineers' Orange Bowl victory. West Virginia rode the momentum of that historical rout all the way to the Big 12, where they are a legitimate dark horse conference title candidate for 2012. Think about that -- the Mountaineers needed a last-second field goal in the last game of the regular season to beat South Florida and earn a share of the Big East title. Now they are mentioned in the same breath as Texas and Oklahoma.

Big East favorites Louisville and Rutgers have no (currently announced) plans to split the Big East, but with five teams joining the league and two on the way out after the season -- the Big East will essentially be a brand new conference for everyone in 2013.

So this is an opportunity, in 2012, for a team to step forward and use the Big East BCS automatic bid to launch their program into the league's new era. From a numbers perspective, the probabilities of reaching an elite bowl game will never again be as high as they are for the eight Big East teams this season. Unless a team runs the table in league play -- which has only been done twice in the last nine years -- it will take some luck to survive the Big East grinder.

Chip Patterson's predicted order of finish:

1. Louisville: Big East Rookie of the Year Teddy Bridgewater was one of 11 true freshmen to start at least one game in 2011, and now that group returns with a chance to earn a share of back-to-back Big East titles for the first time since current Arkansas head coach John L. Smith led the Cardinals to Conference USA titles in 2000-01. The Cardinals defense is expected to be solid once again after giving up only 20.1 points per game (second in the Big East) last season. Preston Brown moves to the middle linebacker held down by now-graduated Dexter Heyman, and the front seven will get plenty of help from a secondary that returns Hakeem Smith and Adrian Bushell. The schedule is mostly favorable, except for the regular season finale at Rutgers -- a game that could determine the Big East title and BCS bowl bid.

2. Rutgers: The Scarlet Knights have defense set. The line will have four-year starter Scott Vallone paving the way for Darius Hamilton -- New Jersey's top-ranked prospect in 2012. The linebackers have Big East Defensive Player of the Year Khaseem Greene, four-year starter Steve Beauharnais, and the secondary is headlined by Logan Ryan and Duron Harmon -- both all-conference picks in 2011. The questions on offense begin under center, where Kyle Flood says he will name either Chas Dodd or Gary Nova the starting quarterback "7-10 practices" from the season opener at Tulane on Sept. 1. At running back, Jawan Jamison won the starting role from touted recruit Savon Huggins last season, but there is no guarantee he has the position locked up in 2012. Wide receivers Brandon Coleman and Mark Harrison were productive opposite Mohamed Sanu, but need to step up in the absence of the Big East's all-time reception leader.

3. South Florida: Skip Holtz joked that BJ Daniels has been the Bulls' quarterback "since 2002," but the maturation of the Bulls' offense will not be funny to opponents at all. A lot of the raw talent around Daniels -- including Daniels, himself, at times -- has another year of experience under their belts, which should eliminate some of the crucial mistakes that kept USF from a bowl game. The Bulls lost five games by six points or less, making those mistakes even more frustrating at season's end. Former Kansas State defensive coordinator Chris Cosh inherits one of the best linebacking corps in the league in DeDe Lattimore, Sam Barrington, and Michael Lanaris. The Bulls get Rutgers at home early in the season, a potential upset that could make USF a dark horse title candidate with a tie breaker in the bag.

4. Pittsburgh: Paul Chryst brings the downhill rushing attack back to Pittsburgh, and if Ray Graham can stay healthy there is no reason to think he won't be able to repeat the same type of production -- 964 yards and nine touchdowns in just eight games -- he had before suffering a season ending knee injury against Connecticut. Third-year starting quarterback Tino Sunseri struggled in Todd Graham's system, but the new scheme and returning his top five receivers from 2011 -- including All-Big East pick Devin Street -- should help as well. A scheme change and only four returning starters on defense is lenity cause for concern, but the group back is exceptional. Aaron Donald should continue to terrorize quarterbacks, Jarred Holley is one of the league's best safeties and Dan Mason makes his return after missing all of 2011 recovering from a horrific knee injury. The talent is elite, but the depth and transition issues could keep Pittsburgh from competing for a Big East title in November.

5. Cincinnati: One of the things that made the Bearcats a top 25 scoring defense nationally in 2011 (20.3 points per game) was an uncanny ability to make the right play at the right time. Sometimes a turnover, sometimes a sack or big stop on third down -- it seemed like Cincinnati always had an answer. More often than not, seniors Derek Wolfe and JK Schaffer were involved in the play. This year defensive ends Dan Giordano and Walter Stewart, along with safety Drew Frey, are those seniors. Munchie Legaux does not have an established running game to lean on, so it will be on the defense and a group of veteran receivers -- Anthony McClung, Kenbrell Thompkins, and tight end Travis Kelce -- to help a revamped offense find its new rhythm.

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6. Connecticut: The bread and butter of Connecticut's team will be a bruising rushing attack and hard-nosed defense. Sio Moore and Blidi Wreh-Wilson lead a back seven that returns every starter from 2011, while All-Big East selection Travardo Williams and Jesse Joseph bookend the defensive line. Kendall Reyes' presence will be missed at defensive tackle, but Huskies' fans are hoping Ryan Wirth rises to the occasion. Sophomore running back Lyle McCombs will be counted on for another 1,000 yard rushing season, with questions at quarterback and wide receiver headed into fall camp. The team should be tough to beat, but the schedule doesn't do them any favors for the conference standings. The Huskies play four Big East games on the road, including Rutgers, USF, and Louisville.

7. Syracuse: Ryan Nassib continues to improve his numbers, but Orange fans would rather see those yards translate to points more often. Syracuse finished next-to-last in the conference in scoring offense, something that played a huge role in losing the final five games of 2011. The return of wide receiver Marcus Sales will help add a big play compliment to Alec Lemon and enhance the passing game, but there is no established replacement for Antwon Bailey. If the linebackers and secondary can stay healthy, the defense should see an improvement as well. It will take a strong performance in conference play to get the Orange back to the postseason, after opening the season with Northwestern, USC, and a trip to Missouri on Nov. 17.

8. Temple: After Steve Addazio led Temple to nine wins and a bowl victory, there was plenty of deserved reasons to celebrate. Unfortunately, it may take a season or two to get back there. New competition, and only nine returning starters on both sides of the ball make Addazio's second season as head coach significantly more challenging. Dual-threat quarterback Chris Coyer will have to the keys to the offense after earning MVP honors in the Owls bowl win, and will look to recreate that dominant rushing attack with former Boston College running back Montel Harris and Matt Brown. The Owls top ranked defense from 2011 loses its top four tacklers, but most of the rotation from the two-deep return.

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