By John Antonik for MSNsportsNET.com
May 14, 2007
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – Big East football has never been better. The conference is coming off the most successful season in its history in 2006 with all five of its teams winning their bowl games, including Louisville’s victory over Wake Forest in the Orange Bowl and West Virginia’s triumph over Georgia Tech in the Gator Bowl.
||West Virginia QB Patrick White is one of four Heisman Trophy candidates hailing from the Big East Conference this year.
Bill Amatucci photo
Big East teams produced a 37-8 record against non-conference competition last year and were second to the SEC in non-conference winning percentage. The Big East was also 14-7 against schools from other BCS leagues.
This year, the Big East has the most legitimate Heisman Trophy contenders (four) of any other BCS conference including two from the same team (West Virginia’s Steve Slaton and Patrick White). Based on their returning players, Louisville, West Virginia and Rutgers should each be ranked in the preseason Top 15 with South Florida also receiving Top 25 recognition.
“I think the Big East is a lot better, and I think it’s perceived as being better now than it has been in several years,” said West Virginia coach Rich Rodriguez. “We had a couple of tough years a few years back, when we had some schools leave and brought some new schools in, but I think last year with three schools finishing in the Top 12 and with really every team in our league having a large number of players coming back, the Big East will be as strong as it has been in a long, long time.
“We’re not a big league – we’ve only got eight teams, and some of those schools don’t have a long tradition because Division I-A football is relatively new (to them), but I think from top to bottom we’re as strong as anybody,” Rodriguez added. “We just don’t have the depth and obviously the tradition that the SEC and the Big Ten or leagues like that would have.”
Here is an early bird look at some things to pay attention to in the Big East this fall:
5 Conference Games To Watch
1. Louisville at West Virginia (Nov. 8)
Like Oklahoma-Nebraska for all those years in the Big Eight, the battle for the Big East title looks like it could be an annual affair between the Cardinals and the Mountaineers. Last year’s game at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium was the highest-rated Thursday night game ever on ESPN and the second-highest rated regular season game in network history (4.9 million households). If both teams are undefeated when the Cardinals head into Morgantown on Nov. 8, this game could break the record.
2. Rutgers at Louisville (Nov. 29)
Rutgers’ upset victory over Louisville was one of the most talked-about regular season games in college football last year and helped raise the profile of Greg Schiano’s Scarlet Knight program. However, Rutgers must go back to Louisville in 2007 where they last lost 56-5 to the Cardinals in 2005.
3. West Virginia at Rutgers (Oct. 27)
West Virginia has only lost to Rutgers three times in the last 27 years and all three times the games were played in Piscataway. Guess where this year’s game is being played?
4. Louisville at South Florida (Nov. 17)
The biggest road win in South Florida football history came last year when the Bulls knocked off West Virginia in Morgantown. USF’s best home victory in school history was its shocking 45-14 blowout of the No. 9-rated Cardinals in 2005. USF coach Jim Leavitt usually has a good plan for stopping high-powered offenses and could have another successful recipe ready for the Cardinals when they travel to Tampa on Nov. 17.
5. Pitt at West Virginia (Dec. 1)
The fact that it’s the Backyard Brawl, the fact that it’s the last regular-season Big East game of the year on Dec. 1, and the fact that these two teams have been playing longer than anyone else in the Big East will always make this an important and interesting conference game.
5 Non-Conference Games To Watch
1. South Florida at Auburn (Sept. 8)
South Florida gets to go on the road and face an Auburn team that will once again contend for the SEC West title along with LSU. The Tigers rarely lose at home and USF is trying to build on the momentum of a 2006 campaign that saw the Bulls beat their first Top 10 opponent on the road (West Virginia) and also win their first bowl game (East Carolina).
2. Syracuse at Iowa (Sept. 8)
Syracuse isn’t expected to contend for a Big East title this year, but the Orange will take the crown in 2007 for playing the toughest non-conference schedule facing Washington from the Pac-10, and Illinois and Iowa from the Big Ten. The Orange nearly knocked off the Hawkeyes last year, losing in overtime in the Carrier Dome.
3. West Virginia at Maryland (Sept. 13)
After owning West Virginia for the first three years of Ralph Friedgen’s reign in College Park, Maryland has lost the last three games to West Virginia including last year’s contest in Morgantown. Maryland has traditionally been West Virginia’s non-conference measuring stick to having big seasons and this year could be no different.
4. Louisville at North Carolina State (Sept. 29)
Louisville isn’t loaded with BCS non-conference heavyweights and a Sept. 15 game at Kentucky may turn out to be a bigger trap, but the Cardinals will be tested on the road against a remodeled N.C. State Wolfpack program that is now being guided by Tom O’Brien.
5. Oregon State at Cincinnati (Sept. 6)
The Bearcats get an early-season look at an Oregon State team that could finish near the top of the Pac-10. The Beavers don’t have an experienced quarterback for 2007, but the nucleus from the team that knocked off USC is returning. A Cincinnati upset would give new coach Brian Kelly’s program a major boost.
5 Big East Players To Watch
1. Brian Brohm, QB, Louisville
New Louisville coach Steve Kragthorpe believes Brian Brohm can complete 70 percent of his passes this year. Last season, Brohm completed 63.6 percent of his throws for a conference-best 3,049 yards with 16 touchdowns. The senior is already the owner of an Orange Bowl ring and is playing this year for the chance at a national championship before getting ready for a long NFL career.
1a. Patrick White, QB, West Virginia
Patrick White is one of the most dynamic quarterbacks in college football and showed his real worth to the Mountaineers in the Gator Bowl when a deep thigh bruise forced All-American running back Steve Slaton to the sidelines. All White did was single-handedly engineer a two-TD second-half comeback to beat Georgia Tech, 38-35.
1b. Steve Slaton, RB, West Virginia
Steve Slaton has put up big numbers his first two seasons at West Virginia and many believe he will challenge Arkansas’ Darren McFadden and USC’s John David Booty for the Heisman Trophy this year. His most impressive statistic: Slaton has scored 37 touchdowns in just 23 career games.
1c. Ray Rice, RB, Rutgers
If not for sharing the limelight with Steve Slaton, Ray Rice would be the headline back in the Big East. In 2006 he ran for 1,794 yards and scored 20 touchdowns as one of college football’s workhorse runners. Folks in New Jersey think Rice may be even more effective this year if the Scarlet Knights can improve their passing game.
5. Matt Grothe, QB, USF
The Big East’s total offensive leader in 2006 with 3,198 yards, Matt Grothe’s freshman campaign was one of the most productive in Big East history. Brian Brohm is the league’s best passing quarterback and Patrick White is the Big East’s best running QB, but Grothe is probably the best at doing both.
5 Big East Players You Might Not Know
1. Mike Ford, RB, USF
If you are not a recruiting junkie you’ve probably never heard of Mike Ford because he didn’t play last year, but the 6-foot-1-inch, 215-pounder could be the final piece to South Florida’s offensive puzzle. The school’s highest-rated recruit has already made a splash in its Green and Gold game, and could be the ball-controlling, power runner Jim Leavitt has been searching for to go with his stout defense.
2. Peanut Whitehead, DE, Louisville
Louisville lost its big-time run-stopper Amobe Okoye to the first round of the NFL draft, but the Cardinals have another impact defender waiting in the wings in sophomore Peanut Whitehead – one of the South’s top recruits two years ago. Last year as a freshman, the defensive end posted four sacks and five tackles for losses in 10 starts.
3. Keilen Dykes, DT, West Virginia
While most of the attention has gone to West Virginia’s playmakers on offense, the key to the 2007 season could wind up resting on the shoulders of Dykes and a Mountaineer defense that allowed 32 points per game in the second half of last season. Dykes has the talent and size to be a big-time enforcer up front.
4. Aaron Berry, CB, Pittsburgh
One of Pitt’s top defensive recruits two years ago, the speedy Berry replaces first-round draft pick Darrelle Revis at cornerback.
5. Tim Brown, WR, Rutgers
Kenny Britt and Tiquan Underwood are better known, but Tim Brown’s explosive playmaking ability offers Rutgers another dimension to its wide receiver corps. One of the Big East’s fastest players, Brown had 191 yards and three touchdowns in his last two games of the 2006.
5 Big East Newcomers To Watch
1. Noel Devine, RB, West Virginia
Do a search on YouTube and you will find six pages worth of highlight clips on one of the nation’s most exciting high school running backs. The Ft. Myers, Fla., resident has been called a “human blur” and his career has been profiled extensively. A backfield of Patrick White, Steve Slaton and Noel Devine would easily give West Virginia the fastest in college football.
2. Mike Ford, RB, South Florida
The former Alabama recruit wound up spending last year at Hargrave Military Academy before enrolling early at South Florida, where he turned heads in the spring game. He ran for more than 2,800 yards at Sarasota High School as a senior in 2005.
3. Woodny Turenne, DB, Louisville
The No. 1-rated junior college player in the country by Rivals.com, Woodny Turenne is a potential lock-down corner who could find a spot in the Cardinals defense this fall. The Visalia (Ca.) College of the Sequoias All-American made official visits to Florida, Washington State and Oklahoma State before choosing Louisville.
4. Anthony Davis, OL, Rutgers
It’s very difficult for an offensive lineman to earn playing time as a true freshman, but Parade All-American hometown product Anthony Davis has the size (6-6, 350) and the credentials to do so. It also helps that Rutgers has a spot open along the offensive line this fall.
5. Pat Bostick, QB, Pittsburgh
Other than offensive linemen, true freshmen quarterbacks have the toughest time coming in and playing right away. But touted signal-caller Pat Bostick may be asked to do so with the departure of Tyler Palko, which has left a big void behind center for the Panthers.