Now that major college football has a four-team playoff, the Big East is fighting for an opportunity to be visible enough for inclusion. Automatic qualifier status, which the Big East currently has, will be done with in 2014. Replacing it is the “contractual tie-in” game, which the Big East currently doesn’t have.
That’s due in large part because the conference doesn’t have a well-known football brand worth the TV dollars. West Virginia was the Big East’s best representative and the Mountaineers are gone to the Big 12. Now, the league hopes the likes of Boise State can pick up where WVU left off. The Broncos won’t be joining until 2013, however.
Looking ahead to the 2012 season, here’s how the Big East should shake out:
(Let it be known that I reserve the right to change my mind at any time without notice.)
1. Louisville (last season: 7-6; lost Belk Bowl)
The Charlie Strong hire has been met with praise since he arrived in Louisville three years ago. For the most part, it’s understandable. Strong has paid his dues and been around the coaching circuit more than a couple of times. But anyone can lose to Kentucky and FIU. The Cardinals need to build on the 38-35 win against West Virginia last season. Now that the Mountaineers are out of the Big East and into the Big 12, there’s no excuse not to win the conference. — not with the talent Louisville returns, not with the one-year opportunity the program has before Boise State, San Diego State, Houston and Central Florida join the mix.
2. South Florida (last season: 5-7)
More than Louisville, South Florida has run out of reasons why it can’t win a conference title. Say it with me: location, location, location. Skip Holtz is a likable guy so I want him to succeed, but 8-5 will only get a coach so far in a very winnable league. Quarterback B.J. Daniels is back for his
10th final year and he desperately needs to improve on his consistency. USF’s non-conference schedule has two tough games against Florida State and Miami, but the Bulls should be able to compete for a Big East title — which of course are famous last words.
3. Rutgers (last season: 9-4; won Pinstripe Bowl)
Kyle Flood inherits a Rutgers program that has made significant strides under Greg Schiano. Yet, for all that Schiano’s done, the Scarlet Knights still haven’t brought home so much as a share of a conference title. Rutgers has a chance this year, but the quarterback battle between Gary Nova and Chas Dodd could be the deterrent as neither played particularly well last year.
4. Cincinnati (last season: 10-3; won Liberty Bowl)
Charlie Strong will get a lot of the attention this year because Louisville is favored to win the conference, but Butch Jones is the Big East’s best coach. Jones took the Bearcats from 4-8 in his first season to 10-3 last year and a bowl win over Vanderbilt. Will Jones have the same kind of year in 2012? It’s going to be hard without quarterback Zach Collaros and former Big East offensive player of the year, Isaiah Pead, but Jones should get enough wins though to draw the interest of a bigger program.
5. Pitt (last season: 6-7; lost BBVA Compass Bowl)
Like B.J. Daniels at USF, it feels like Tino Sunseri‘s been at Pitt for the most of the past decade. He’ll have a new head coach — his third in as many years — in former Wisconsin offensive coordinator Paul Chryst. The hiring of Chryst feels more natural, as opposed to Todd Graham, who was never a good fit for the Panthers. The biggest boost for Chryst is getting running back Ray Graham back from a season-ending injury. Graham racked up nearly 1,000 yards in eight games last year.
6. Syracuse (last season: 5-7)
The highlight of Syracuse’s 2011 season was a 49-23 dismantling of West Virginia. After that, it was all downhill with five straight losses to end the year 5-7. Like other Northeastern programs, Syracuse just isn’t what it used to be and the talent in that area doesn’t support programs like it did a couple of decades ago. Doug Marrone is a good enough coach that he might be able to have some success here and there — that doesn’t change much in the ACC, either — but the Orange leaves the Big East on a low note.
7. Temple (last season: 9-4 in MAC; won New Mexico Bowl)
It’s back to the old stomping grounds for Temple after an eight-year hiatus. The Owls re-enter the league as an improved program and not the one unceremoniously shown the door after the 2004 season. However, Temple will struggle this year because of the turnover on the offensive coaching staff coupled with the loss of running back Bernard Pierce.
8. UConn (last season: 5-7)
It was an underwhelming first year for Paul Pasqualoni‘s return to the college ranks. Then again, the Huskies reached their ceiling with a Fiesta Bowl appearance against Oklahoma following the 2010 season. You can pretty much count on UConn to do one thing consistently: run the football. Lyle McCombs, at just 166 pounds, was able to churn out 1,100 yards last season. With the passing game once again a questionable area of the offense, McCombs will be counted on once again.
Interested in our other 10 conference projections along with Division 1-A (FBS) Independents? View ’em all below by clicking the individual links or our projections landing page HERE. And don’t forget to check out CFT’s preseason Top 25.