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Big East preview: Once more, with feeling

This is the final season for the Big East as an eight-team league and with Pittsburgh and Syracuse as conference members; they are leaving for the ACC next summer.

The Big East has lost a lot of national luster the past few seasons, and its premier program, West Virginia, departed this summer for the Big 12. To replace WVU, the league added Temple from the MAC. Temple was booted out of the league after the 2004 season for, basically, being lousy. It's too bad for the Owls that they are rejoining the league in a rebuilding season. Last season's squad would've contended for an upper-division finish; this season's will be lucky to avoid last place.

The Big East will be a 12-team football league in 2013, with Houston, Memphis, SMU and UCF arriving from Conference USA as full-fledged members and Boise State and San Diego State coming aboard from the Mountain West as football-only members.

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Louisville coach Charlie Strong looks to have the best team in the Big East this season. (AP)

This season, Louisville looks to be the team to beat, which would continue a remarkably quick resurgence for the Cardinals under third-year coach Charlie Strong. Strong and his staff have used their connections to bring in numerous high-level recruits from Florida, including sophomore QB Teddy Bridegewater.

While the Cardinals are the preseason favorites, they are by no means a lock. (WVU, on the other hand, would have been a lock. Indeed, WVU would've been favored to have an unbeaten record in league play and to reach a BCS bowl.) USF, Rutgers and maybe even Pittsburgh should contend for the crown.

USF needs more offensive consistency. Rutgers needs more offense, period. Pitt will need to adapt to its third offensive scheme in as many seasons as Paul Chryst takes over as coach after the short-lived Todd Graham "era."

The order of finish

1. Louisville; 2. USF; 3. Rutgers; 4. Pittsburgh; 5. Cincinnati; 6. Connecticut; 7. Syracuse; 8. Temple

The players

Best offensive player: Pittsburgh RB Ray Graham. Graham ran for 958 yards and nine TDs last season despite missing the final five games with a torn ACL. He should be a great fit in Chryst's pro-set offense. Graham is a rugged inside runner who also possesses a burst around the edge. He's also a

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Khaseem Greene made the move from safety to linebacker last season and turned into a star for Rutgers. (AP)

dangerous receiver out of the backfield.
Best defensive player: Rutgers LB Khaseem Greene. We're keeping the "best" picks in the same family, as Greene is Graham's half-brother. Greene made the move to linebacker from safety last season and turned in an all-league campaign. He made 141 tackles, and had at least 10 stops in eight games. He added 14.5 tackles for loss, four quarterback hurries and two forced fumbles. He is part of a solid group of linebackers for the Scarlet Knights.
Offensive player on the spot: USF QB B.J. Daniels. Daniels is back for his final go-round with the Bulls; he is entering his fourth season as the starter. Daniels is athletic and can make plays with his feet. But he never has been consistent; he can look great on one play, clueless on the next. To be fair, his supporting cast has been lacking. If USF is to contend for the league title, he must become more consistent. If he finds that consistency, he could win league MVP honors. Defensive player on the spot: USF E Ryne Giddins. Giddins, a junior, is a hometown kid who arrived amid a ton of hype about his pass-rushing ability. But he hasn't really stood out, even in this league. He has 11 sacks in his career but does look primed for a breakout campaign. USF has good tackles and the best group of linebackers in the league, so if the Bulls can mount a consistent pass rush, all the better. And Giddins is the key to the pass rush.
Breakout offensive star: Louisville WR Devante Parker. Parker had 18 catches last season as a true freshman, with six going for touchdowns. He is big (6 feet 3/205 pounds) and athletic, and look for him to become a more physical receiver this season. He had trouble with press coverage last season. He has the ability to go deep but also is effective on crossing patterns. Parker's importance has increased because projected starting WR Michaelee Harris was lost for the season last week with a torn ACL.
Breakout defensive star: Rutgers SS Lorenzo Waters. Waters played sparingly last season as a true freshman, but should be one of the Scarlet Knights' hardest-hitting players this season. In spring practice, Waters was all over the field, making plays in coverage as well as coming up and stopping the run. He will be playing next to 2011 first-team All-Big East selection Duron Harmon, and the pair has the chance to be the best safety tandem in the league.
Best offensive newcomer: Connecticut QB Chandler Whitmer. The Huskies' passing attack was anemic last season, putting way too much pressure on TB Kyle McCombs. In an effort to ramp up the passing game, coach Paul Pasqualoni has anointed Whitmer, a JC transfer, as the new starting quarterback. Whitmer threw for 3,022 yards and 25 TDs (but also 14 interceptions) for Butler Co. (Kan.) CC last season. Whitmer signed with Illinois out of high school and redshirted in 2010 before moving on to junior college last fall. He has the potential to be a 2,500-yard passer, which could be enough to give the Huskies the type of balanced offense that would earn a bowl bid.
Best defensive newcomer: Rutgers E Darius Hamilton. Hamilton was a recruiting coup for new Scarlet Knights coach Kyle Flood. He was a five-star prospect and the No. 11 player nationally, and is the highest-rated prospect to sign with Rutgers since the current version of Rivals.com started in 2002. Hamilton had 21 sacks as a senior for a powerhouse Ramsey (N.J.) Don Bosco program. Rutgers has some good ends but none with Hamilton's upside, and it seems a certainty he will make an impact this season.

The coaches

Coach on the hottest seat: Syracuse's Doug Marrone. No one in this league really sits on a hot seat, but this season will be big for Marrone, whose program is moving to the tougher ACC next season. When Marrone took over after the 2008 season, Syracuse hadn't had a winning record since 2001. Marrone led

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After a solid season in 2010, Doug Marrone's team regressed last season. (AP)

the Orange to eight victories in 2010 and things were looking up. But Syracuse slipped back to five wins last season, when the Big East might have been as down as it ever has been. The league doesn't look all that strong this season, either, so Marrone will be feeling the heat if he can't get Syracuse on the plus side of .500. The offense was lacking last season, putting too much pressure on a defense that eventually crumbled. The offense looks as if it will lack playmakers again, which bodes ill.
Best coaching staff: Louisville. Strong and his guys quickly have turned around the Cardinals' fortunes. Louisville had had three consecutive non-winning seasons when Strong took over. The Cardinals had a winning record in his first season, then shared the league title last season. This season, they are the preseason favorite to win the league. The question now for Louisville is how long Strong will stay.
Best offensive coordinator: Cincinnati's Mike Bajakian. Bajakian is entering his third season at UC and has guided offenses that have finished first (2010) and second (2011) in the league in scoring and first (2010) and third (2011) in passing. He formerly was at Central Michigan, where he oversaw Dan LeFevour-led offenses from 2007-09. Bajakian, 37, spent three years (2004-06) with the Chicago Bears as an offensive quality control coach.
Best defensive coordinator: Pittsburgh's Dave Huxtable. Huxtable, 55, is in his first season at Pitt, but has been a college assistant since 1982. He was linebacker coach at Wisconsin last season and moved to Pitt along with Chryst, who had been the Badgers' offensive coordinator. Huxtable is a former defensive coordinator at UCF, North Carolina and Georgia Tech, and also has worked at, among other stops, East Carolina and Oklahoma State. His defenses at UCF were among the best in Conference USA and were extremely sound when it came to fundamentals.

The schedules

Game of the year: USF at Louisville, Oct. 20. This looks to be a game that will match the league's two best teams and thus could decide the league title and the Big East's BCS berth. Toughest schedule: Syracuse. The Orange play four non-conference games against Big Six conference opponents, which is tied for the most in the nation with FBS newcomer Massachusetts. Two of those are on the road, including a November trip to Missouri, and the two at home are against Northwestern and USC. There are four league road games and just three Big East games at home, and the Orange play four of their last five on the road. The one home game in that span is against Louisville, the preseason pick to win the league.
Easiest schedule: Cincinnati. While there is a tough non-conference game against Virginia Tech in Landover, Md., two FCS teams and two MAC teams make up the rest of the non-conference schedule. There are just three league road games and none of them are back-to-back. There isn't a true road game until Oct. 20, and three of the four games in November are at home.
The 10 best conference games:
10. USF at Temple, Oct. 6
9. Pittsburgh at Syracuse, Oct. 5
8. Pittsburgh at Cincinnati, Sept. 6
7. Cincinnati at Louisville, Oct. 13
6. Rutgers at Pittsburgh, Nov. 24
5. Pittsburgh at USF, Dec. 1
4. Louisville at Pittsburgh, Oct. 13
3. Rutgers at USF, Sept. 13
2. Louisville at Rutgers, Nov. 29
1. USF at Louisville, Oct. 20
The 10 best non-conference games:
10. Louisville at Southern Miss, Sept. 29
9. Louisville at FIU, Sept. 22
8. Syracuse vs. USC in East Rutherford, N.J., Sept. 8
7. North Carolina at Louisville, Sept. 15
6. USF at Miami, Nov. 17
5. Pittsburgh at Notre Dame, Nov. 3
4. Virginia Tech at Pittsburgh, Sept. 15
3. Temple at Penn State, Sept. 22
2. Florida State at USF, Sept. 29
1. Rutgers at Arkansas, Sept. 22

The preseason All-Big East team

First-team offense
QB Teddy Bridgewater, Louisville
RB Ray Graham, Pittsburgh
RB Lyle McCombs, Connecticut
WR Alec Lemon, Syracuse
WR Devin Street, Pittsburgh
TE Ryan Griffin, Connecticut
T Kaleb Johnson, Rutgers
T Justin Pugh, Syracuse
G Chris Jacobson, Pittsburgh
G Adam Masters, Connecticut
C Mario Benavides, Louisville
Defense
E Walter Stewart, Cincinnati
T Aaron Donald, Pittsburgh
E Trevardo Williams, Connecticut
LB Sam Barrington, USF
LB Khaseem Greene, Rutgers
LB DeDe Lattimore, USF
LB Sio Moore, Connecticut
CB Adrian Bushell, Louisville
CB Logan Ryan, Rutgers
FS Jarred Holley, Pittsburgh
SS Hakeem Smith, Louisville
Special teams
K Kevin Harper, Pittsburgh
P Pat O'Donnell, Cincinnati
KR Ralph David Abernathy, Cincinnati
PR Matt Brown, Temple
Second-team offense
QB B.J. Daniels, USF
RB Matt Brown, Temple
RB Jawan Jamison, Rutgers
WR Sterling Griffin, USF
WR Anthony McClung, Cincinnati
WR DeVante Parker, Louisville
T Quinterrius Eatmon, USF
T Martin Wallace, Temple
G Austen Bujnoch, Cincinnati
G John Miller, Louisville
C Ryan Turnley, Pittsburgh
Defense
E Ryne Giddins, USF
T Scott Vallone, Rutgers
E Jesse Joseph, Connecticut
LB Steve Beauharnais, Rutgers
LB Preston Brown, Louisville
LB Michael Lanaris, USF
LB Marcus Spruill, Syracuse
CB Kayvon Webster, USF
CB Blidi Wreh-Wilson, Connecticut
FS Calvin Pryor, Louisville
SS Justin Gildea, Temple
Special teams
K Maikon Bonani, USF
P Cole Wagner, Connecticut
KR Jeremy Deering, Rutgers
PR Nick Williams, Connecticut

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