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Teams to Watch - Big East

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South Florida

-- State of Program (SOP): Skip Holtz enters his third season in Tampa, looking to lead his team back from last year’s dismal performance down the stretch where the Bulls lost 7 of their last 8 to finish with their worst record since 2004. Why are so many people pumped about USF and their chances at challenging for a Big East title in 2012? First off, even though they were 1-6 in Big East play last year, they actually outgained their opponents by an average of 27 ypg! Setting aside the Pitt loss which was somewhat predictable as they headed into that game 4-0, their final 7 losses were by a combined 28pts! They lost to Louisville by 10, while 4 of the other 5 were by a FG, with the last one by 6. As you can see, few plays here or there and we could be talking about a highly touted Bulls team heading into 2012 – trust me on one thing, the sharp handicappers are well aware of this and will take advantage early on this coming season.

-- Strongest unit: Front 7. Five of their top 8 DL return, along with all 3 starters on the second level which will lead to one of the strongest front 7’s in the Big East, if not the best. The unit is led by DeDe Lattimore, a stud WLB who will be on the short list for national awards this year with a strong USF season as he is coming off 94 tackles, 13 tfl, and 7 sacks. There isn’t a weakness in the front 7.

-- Biggest area of concern: Offensive backfield. Senior QB BJ Daniels is back for one more season, and the hope around Tampa is the light will finally go on, and the talented QB will play consistently well this coming campaign. Daniels is very talented, but has struggled at times passing the ball – Holtz has worked with him on film study to help his decision making, and drills to improve his accuracy which they both hope pay off when the real bullets start flying in September. There is perhaps more pressure on Daniels and the passing game because the RB situation isn’t looking strong in the sense of proven returning production – there is talent, but how will they produce is the question.

-- Upside: Double digit wins. Hey, why not? You saw the #’s from last season, so many close losses – who is to say they will not regress back towards the mean, and get all the breaks in 2012? Its surely possible, especially considering the talent they have defensively, and at QB – so long as he can realize it all. Playing in the Big East helps, but playing Miami, FL and Florida State won’t – but USF gets sky high for those matchups and will give both schools all they can handle. FSU comes to Tampa while they visit Miami – that could not have worked out any better.

-- Downside: 8-4. Anything less than an 8 win season will have the folks in Tampa grumbling and unhappy. With 15 starters back, a QB that is entering his 3rd season starting, and all the bad breaks last season, wins are needed and they are needed in bulk.

-- Bottom Line: This has to be the season USF realizes their goals, and wins the Big East and appears in a BCS game finally. Bully on the block WVU is gone, and most other BE programs are re-tooling to say it nicely – USF is the most talented team in the conference, and has to play like it.

Pittsburgh

-- SOP: Another coaching change for the Panthers, this time the short lived tenure of Todd Graham ends – thankfully to most Panther fans – and in steps Paul Chryst, former OC for the Wisconsin Badgers. This move seems like a much better fit, especially football style wise, as Chryst will bring in more of a blue collar, rushing oriented pro style offense back to the Steel City. There is a decent amount of returning talent to work around, especially on offense as the skill positions, but how long will the transition take?

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-- Strongest unit: RBs – if all everything RB Ray Graham can return 100% in time for the opener, this unit will be all set to shine – and it’s a key unit for the ’12 Panthers. Backup Isaac Bennett impressed this spring in place of Graham, and 5 star rookie Rushel Shell is also pressing for playing time. If Graham doesn’t come back fully healthy it will still be a talented group, albeit greener & less experienced. The secondary is also extremely solid returning 3 starters and welcoming a pair of former Michigan Wolverines in S Ray Vinopal and CB Cullen Christian.

-- Biggest area of concern: LBs. On a positive note, with the defense shifting back to a 4-3, only 3 LBs will be needed – however, they head into this season losing 4 seniors from last year including all-star and leading tackler Max Gruder. There is also a serious lack of size in the unit, with nobody in the rotation checking in north of 220lbs. That could be a huge issue, especially with a DL that isn’t known for being stout vs. the rush, and in a conference like the Big East.

-- Upside: I do feel there is serious upside for this year’s Panthers, as the new coaching staff by itself will add value and strengthen some of the team’s weaker areas, such as the OL. In a season where this team got the breaks and played consistent, I could see them winning the Big East. But keep in mind during OOC play they face Virginia Tech at home, and travel to Notre Dame so a dream season where they win double digit games is not going to happen – not yet.

-- Downside: the team takes a little longer than hoped adjusting to the massive scheme changes and they miss out on a bowl invite. There is too much experience, especially at key positions such as QB, to have this occur in a likely scenario, but this is the “downside” projection so it is possible, but I wouldn’t say probable.

-- Bottom Line: Pitt is finally on the right track after a series of errors hiring head coaches. Chryst will bring the team back to the city, and the city will resume backing them. This year we should see a competitive Panther team that will be in the mix for a Big East title when November rolls around – so long as they can get solid production from Graham, and they buy into the new system.

Louisville

-- SOP: Hard to imagine there is a better situated program in the Big East than Louisville, who is now entering year 3 under Charlie Strong. Coming off a three way tie atop the Big East standings in 2011, led by an electric freshman QB Teddy Bridgewater, the Cardinals look to keep that strong play going – and the recruiting Strong is accomplishing certainly will make that task all the easier. With West Virginia out of the picture, a team they have lost to 4 of the last 5 years, they along with USF now appear to be the top dogs in the conference – until further reshuffling takes place.

-- Strongest unit: Defense. This unit returns 8 starters from 2011 and appears firmly on track to be the top defense in the Big East. All three levels are solid, led by the front 7 that helped guide Louisville to the #10 vs. rush and #21 sacks rated defense in the country. Although the secondary has a lot of talent, it underperformed some last year yielding twice as many TD passes as INTs – however, with a year of experience under their belt, that unit should only improve this season.

-- Biggest area of concern: RB & Special Teams. Aside from the ST unit breaking in a new P & PK, and the fact Ville was last in the Big East last season in kick coverage, the RB unit is a cause for concern as there is no feature back on the roster, and the staff would far prefer to use one workhorse vs. a committee. The Cardinals only averaged 3.4 yards per carry last season, a # that must increase for them to challenge for a Big East title.

-- Upside: 9-3, Big East title. Playing in the Big East means 5 OOC games, an area Louisville rarely doesn’t challenge itself in – and this season is no different with matchups vs. Kentucky, North Carolina and @ Southern Mississippi. Their BE campaign kicks-off October 13th @ Pitt, but only features 3 road games with @ Syracuse & Rutgers being the other two. Conference wise it’s a favorable slate that could lead to a Big East title.

-- Downside: 7-5, low level bowl bid. The other side of playing a strong OOC slate is the fact you could lose a few games that you could have won with different, easier scheduling – which could happen the Ville this year. This scenario assumes a 3-2 OOC record, with a 4-3 Big East slate losing to Pitt, USF and Rutgers.

-- Bottom Line: Louisville clearly made the right hire with Charlie Strong, hard to argue with his results thus far. With sophomore QB Bridgewater leading the offense, and a strong defense that returns most of its key pieces from 2011, a Big East title and BCS bowl bid are the end goals in Cardinal Country. At the end of the day, although I feel they will challenge and be in the mix, they will fall just short of a conference championship, but it will be another solid season and potentially something big could be in the cards for 2013/2014, depending on conference affiliation.

  
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