Big East spring preview: A league of mystery

The Big East makeover has started.

West Virginia already has hit the road, fleeing for the Big 12, and Pittsburgh and Syracuse likely are playing their final seasons in the league. There is a big influx of teams in 2013, including Boise State, but for this season at least, the Big East will have just seven teams.

That means each league school will have six nonconference games. Given that WVU didn’t leave until earlier this month and schools don’t have much time to find a replacement, you can bet one or two of those nonconference games for each team is going to be a real dog.

West Virginia’s departure also opens up the conference race. The Mountaineers would’ve been the prohibitive favorite to win the league; now it’s anybody’s guess as to who will wear the crown. In that regard, fixing holes this spring could be huge this fall.

Here’s a look at the Big East’s seven schools as they prepare for spring practice.

Spring practice opens: March 1
Spring game: April 17 (spring game April 14)
Buzz: This is a big spring for coach Butch Jones, whose Bearcats went 10-3 last season. But Cincinnati lost a ton of offensive talent, most notably TB Isaiah Pead and QB Zach Collaros. The Bearcats also need three new starting linemen. Junior Munchie Legaux, who started four games when Collaros was injured last season, needs to prove this spring he can be a competent passer. Cincy’s stout rush defense was one of the nation’s biggest secrets last season; the Bearcats ranked sixth against the run, but they will miss Ts Derek Wolfe and John Hughes, MLB J.K. Schaffer and FS Wesley Richardson. The Bearcats also ranked first in tackles for loss and second in sacks, but Wolfe’s departure means a huge hit for those categories. It appears Cincinnati will be much smaller up front, so that bears watching this spring.
Spring practice opens: March 13
Spring game: April 21
Buzz: The offense needs a lot of help and an infusion of playmakers. TB Lyle McCombs is a nice building block, but will he get enough help? The Huskies must replace two starting offensive linemen and need two or three receivers to step to the fore; one of those needs to prove he can be the go-to guy. Quarterback remains an issue, too. UConn was excellent against the run last season (fourth nationally), but the pass defense needs improvement. Both starting tackles have to be replaced, so the run defense likely will suffer. Safety is a trouble spot, as well.
Spring practice opens: March 21
Spring game: April 14
Buzz: With West Virginia’s departure to the Big 12, the Cardinals appear likely to go into the season as the Big East favorite. It’s vital that a feature back emerges this spring; too often last season, Louisville struggled to run. QB Teddy Bridgewater also needs to take better care of the ball; he threw 14 TD passes and 12 picks as a true freshman last season. The receiving corps should be fine, and the same goes for the line. Still, the defense seems likely to lead the way again. The secondary was shaky last season, but the group has a lot of potential and should be noticeably better this spring. The Cardinals need some new pass rushers to emerge, and depth at tackle looks as if it could be an issue.
Spring practice opens: March 15
Spring game: April 14
Buzz: Another year, another coach for the Panthers, who are on their third head man in as many seasons. Exit Todd Graham (to Arizona State) and enter Paul Chryst (who had been offensive coordinator at Wisconsin). After Graham switched from a pro-style offense to a spread look, Chryst will switch back to a pro-style scheme. The offensive line could be an issue, as three new starters are needed. The biggest question about the offense is the health of TB Ray Graham, who suffered a torn ACL in the eighth game. He will miss spring drills, but Pitt coaches are hopeful he can return in the fall. Six new defensive starters are needed; the front seven is a huge question for the new staff.
Spring practice opens: March 27
Spring game: April 28
Buzz: New coach Kyle Flood had overseen the Scarlet Knights’ offensive line, and he has some work to do with that group. Rutgers frequently was inept running the ball last season, and it would help if a rebuilt line can jell quickly. Junior TB Jawan Jamison had two big games down the stretch and looks to be the answer at that position. Quarterback remains a concern; Chas Dodd and Gay Nova shared the position last season, but is either truly that good? WR Mohamed Sanu, who turned pro a year early, will be missed. The defense should be a good one, though T Justin Francis and FS David Rowe will be missed. Developing line depth is important this spring.
Spring practice opens: March 20
Spring game: April 21
Buzz: The rushing attack was weak last season, and improvement in that facet has to be the spring priority. The Orange lost its best lineman (G Andrew Tiller) and TB Antwon Bailey, so the going could be tough. Syracuse also needs a new starting quarterback and a new starting tight end. The back seven on defense should be OK, but the line needs three new starters. Coaches also need some consistent pass rushers to step up.
Spring practice opens: March 21
Spring game: April 21
Buzz: The Bulls started out like a house afire last season, opening 4-0. But they one only once more all season, making this a pivotal spring for third-year coach Skip Holtz. The rushing attack seems to be an annual problem, and this spring, the Bulls have to rebuild their line and find a new feature back. QB B.J. Daniels also needs to show he can be a consistent passer, and it would help his cause if someone stepped up as a legit go-to receiver. The defense generally was solid last season, especially against the run. Linebacker is a position of strength, but tackle and safety look a bit iffy. The Bulls definitely need to find some playmakers in the secondary.

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