The Big East deserves nothing less than graphs and 2,500 words. Except for you, UConn. Except for you.
For six months, college football writers have been previewing, and previewing, and re-previewing college football. You might have read it, but, like most students, you have forgotten it. Now, just eight days shy of the season, you haven't studied, and are completely unprepared for the test. Don't worry. Our Anti-Preview won't prepare you, but once the season starts everyone's totally wrong about everything, anyway. Take that, nerds!
THE BIG EAST'S CURRENT STATUS: The BCS conference every compact car driver loves. It's so tiny it can fit in your pocket, with just eight teams, though it will offer a Mini Clubman-sized Big East next year with the addition of TCU. TCU, while certainly Big enough, is East only when compared to Boise, though we're all past the concept of geography now in college football. Hawaii or Sendai University could be next, and you should be prepared for this.
The Big East is also like a compact car in that in collisions with much larger vehicles, it does not hold up well. Sure, it was 4-2 during Bowl season last year. No one can or should take away wins against Kansas State, Southern Mississippi, Clemson, and Kentucky. You also don't want people to know these were the four teams you beat, since four knockouts is four knockouts whether you're getting them in a gym full of trained fighters or a kindergarten school yard. A win is a win, bros. Scoreboard!
The larger issue for the Big East--see lack of durability in collisions--is that they're besieged on all fronts. Externally, the conference is a continual target for other conferences looking to expand and steal the more profitable teams away form the Big East, with fans of the SEC and Big Ten discussing Big East membership the way college freshman regard long distance relationships. ("Well, she says she's taken, but it's the Big East, man. Game ON.") Internally, the schools fight for breathing room with basketball programs and suffer from the often malicious hiring decisions of their athletic directors. This is not an exaggeration: Steve Kragthorpe, Dave Wannstedt, Greg Robinson, and Bill Stewart are all members of the recent Big East coaches club, and even when relatively successful were less than compelling operators at their respective schools.*
*Greg Robinson was never successful at anything at Syracuse. He did beat Charlie Weis, though. Life is an unending buffet of horror, but the fair part is that we all get our turns at the trough.
Still, things are looking up for the Big East overall. There's evidence and everything. Syracuse is the most inspiring of the rebuilds in the conference, with Doug Marrone bringing the conference's worst program in the 2000s back to bowl eligibility in his second year. USF avoided a potential disaster after the Jim Leavitt firing by hiring Skip Holtz, another established program shepherd, while West Virginia weathered a scandalous power struggle between its coach Bill Stewart and coach-in-waiting Dana Holgorsen and came out miraculously intact and stable.
Sure, UConn went retread in hiring Paul Pasqualoni, but even then they hired someone with a deep understanding of how to function in the Big East. They also passed the all-important Dick Jauron test, a simple test of whether you made a good hire of a football coach at any level. "Did your school hire Dick Jauron?" If the answer is "no," you did at least one thing right.
The things you can pretend to know for the Mini Cooper (with a busted taillight) of conferences, and everything you need to know about them, follow.
Under new management this year. Switched from old boy Bill Stewart, who insisted you smile at each customer as they came in the shop, and now under district manager Dana Holgorsen, who doesn't care what you do as long as you make your quarterly numbers, and who will then happily celebrate your hard work with a sixer of Nat Lite in the back room.
THINGS YOU CAN PRETEND TO KNOW: Holgorsen is one of college football's only real live offensive savants, having put both Houston and Oklahoma State into the top five offenses nationally in the past five years. He has a quarterback, Geno Smith, who is more than capable of making the reads and throws of Holgorsen's slightly tweaked Air Raid offense, and the potential for at least one serious offensive threats in Tavon Austin. If one receiver really separates themselves from the others, don't be surprised to see them catch passes until their gloves burst into flames: once Justin Blackmon caught Holgorsen's eye at Oklahoma State, he caught 111 passes for over 1,700 yards in 2010.
The defense has been one of the nation's most consistent under Jeff Casteel, and Holgorsen has spent a lot of the offseason trying to bridge the gap between two halves of a very divided coaching staff. Not that he's telling them what to do:
"I get in there, because I don’t know what the heck they’re talking about anyway."
Holgorsen also used the word "bullshit" as a verb properly with SI, capped his first week as coach by skydiving and crashing on a most ungainly landing, and got here by fighting off accusations planted by his predecessor of festive misbehavior in casinos. WE TOLD YOU THE BIG EAST WAS MORE INTERESTING.
SEASON CRUX: The season finale and possible built-in conference championship game against USF.
THINGS YOU CAN PRETEND TO KNOW: "Losses on the defensive side of the ball could make a repeat performance of last year's bowl campaign a challenge." That sounds smart, so say that a lot. Doug Marrone is still attempting to make tasty fajitas from the scraps of chicken skin and feet Greg Robinson left in the walk-in, so cut Syracuse some slack. The fixins could be better, but there's no shortage of effort, and where there's effort and something like talent there is always hope.
Offensively, don't mention Marcus Sales at wide receiver, because he's off the team after an arrest involving his brother and some legally prohibited "sales." Talk instead about how Ryan Nassib is "surprisingly effective," because that lets people know you acknowledge both his lack of mind-blowing skills and excellent use of what he's got. Then just say "blue-collar" a lot, because with UConn's Randy Edsall gone Doug Marrone may now assume ownership of the conference's "Most Blue Collaringest" Coach. In conclusion: blue collar lunchpail all-effort motor blue collar lunchpailness.
(Fun note! Blue collar means you don't have anyone fast enough to stretch the field on a consistent basis.)
SEASON CRUX: If Syracuse trades wins and losses one for one excluding the D-1AA games, then that game against Cincinnati at home on November 26th looks more or less like the spot where they can punch a ticket to the Pinstripe Bowl, aka THE DOUG MARRONE CLASSIC. That's not the name of the bowl game. (Yet.)
THINGS YOU CAN PRETEND TO KNOW: One home game in 55 days! Just say that whenever you express skepticism about South Florida's chances of winning the Big East, because they really do embark on a stretch in the middle of the season where they play Pitt, UConn, Rutgers, Cincy, and Syracuse with but one tiny home date in the middle. This is because playing on the road is hard, something all experts assume based on football players' noted fear of loud noises and drunk people.
You should also pretend to have a detailed study of B.J. Daniels, whose primary strength and weakness as a player is that he has great legs, and thus makes things up. Surprise! B.J. Daniels has just rolled out and stolen a TD in the redzone by running in for six on a busted play. Surprise! He has just thrown into triple coverage, and is now running hopelessly after a laughing DB. With an, um, "developing" offensive line and no real receiving threats, just mention Daniels' unpredictability, and then suggest USF punt a lot. They can do this because their defense is among the best in the conference, and because Skip Holtz has no problem kicking his way to a win.
Conclude by making a joke about how South Florida does not contain the city of Tampa, and voila! You have a South Florida preview.
SEASON CRUX: If they play caution ball and get within striking distance of a Big East title, the season finale against West Virginia at home. If they drop a muffler and catch on fire before even reaching the onramp, That game could be important for other, more dreadful reasons: evening up the record to .500 and maintaining bowl eligibility.
THINGS YOU CAN PRETEND TO KNOW: Hey, Cincinnati. Remember 2008 and 2009? Mardy Gilyard diving into the stands and hugging children he'd reduced to tears with his athletic talent, and also with the pain of hitting them with the crown of his helmet unintentionally? Scoring a thousand points a game? Making a BCS bowl! Never mind what happened in that BCS bowl, because life's about the journey, and not really about results, especially if you happen to really really want to forget those results.
Cincy should win more than four games this season. They still have Zach Collaros, who when not limping around with a bruised knee the size of a rotting grapefruit is an excellent spread QB. They have the venerable Isaiah Pead, the only man in the Big East who is both a 1,000 yard back and his own giggle-inducing statement. They have three new offensive linemen! Wait, that's not a good thing. Offensive linemen are not like cars or televisions. You want some age on them, and you probably shouldn't mention this when talking positively about Cincinnati.
Defensively, they return all four starters in the defensive backfield. These starters spent most of 2010 chasing wide receivers like forlorn and penniless fat children chasing ice cream trucks, but again, be positive: they're all definitely there, and they're definitely coming back. The line's nice, though, so you should probably talk about that, and then patch up any holes in your argument by saying some bromide like, "Butch Jones says the team is all on the same page now." People love to hear how everyone's on the same page.
SEASON CRUX: At Pitt on November 5th. If they've rounded into shape after a tough early schedule with games against NC State and Tennessee, then they should be in full swing at this point. If not, then a final tough conference run through the Big East starts here and starts badly.
THINGS YOU CAN PRETEND TO KNOW: Okay, first, Dave Wannstedt is not coaching this team anymore, and that should raise the level interest in any conversation by 100 percent because your partner will stop making the wanking motions they make when the hear "Dave Wannstedt." Then clarify that Pitt hired Mike Haywood, former Miami of Ohio coach, and then had to fire him after he was arrested on a domestic battery charge, but then got Todd Graham from Tulsa. Explain that this all made no sense to you, either, but that it seems to have worked out because, again, you no longer have to watch Dave Wannstedt football.
Mention that Graham runs an offense devoted to "scoring points," and is not a fan of "50-yard field goals" like his predecessor. Talk about how Tino Sunseri, the QB who struggled in Pitt's staid 1983 pro-style attack last year, has adjusted well to the frenetic pace of Graham's new aggressive spread attack. Note a relatively seasoned offensive line, the solid if unspectacular receiving corps, and then harp on how they're going to run no less than 8,000 plays a game.
Then to sound really authoritative, move to the defense and question the move to a 3-4, which while taking advantage of Brandon Lindsey in the rush end spot will also take some adjustment on everyone else's part. (See Alabama and Georgia's early struggles in moving to the alignment, particularly on third down situations.) The combination could make for some seriously entertaining if inefficient football: an offense running wind sprints down the field, only then yielding to a defense that alternates between haymaker shots on quarterbacks and some growing pains in a new scheme. (Read: busted plays and some very uneven likely points-allowed totals.)
SEASON CRUX: The game with Cincinnati on November 5th? We have no idea if this is really the most important game in the season, but we do know that these two teams will play ping-pong with an over/under of 94 in this game, and that's enough to make us want to watch.
THINGS YOU CAN PRETEND TO KNOW: Hey, there, Louisville! You're looking fresh and charming. We mean really fresh, as in losing large chunks of the team that turned around the Kragthorpe-induced program slide last year with a win in the St. Petersburg Bowl. Only three offensive starters and six defensive starters return, so when discussing Louisville just mention the "promise of new things!" not "oh hell this roster is filled with large infants." The schedule's forbidding, too: mention trips to Kentucky, North Carolina, Cincinnati, West Virginia, UConn and South Florida, and then mention it might be hard for even Charlie Strong's superb coaching staff to eke more than seven wins out of this schedule.
Then again, they're not lacking for sunshine, or for a replacement at running back for the departed Bilal Powell since Victor Anderson appears to be recovered from a long streak of injuries. Play up the diverse receiving options, or the skills of All-Big East safety Hakeem Smith. Talk a lot about "learning," and how they'll "play a lot better at the end of the year than at the beginning," because as inexperienced as this team is, the first part of the season could resemble a series of extremely hostile tryouts for Louisville. Try to avoid saying patronizing things like, "Aw, widdle baby Cardinals," even though the temptation will be strong because AWWW WIDDLE BABY CARDINALS SO CUUUUTE--
SEASON CRUX: If they beat Kentucky in week three, a victory over Marshall on October 1st would give them four wins and a good down payment on bowl eligibility. They'll need it: it's nasty the rest of the way.
THINGS YOU CAN PRETEND TO KNOW: Rutgers went 1-6 in the Big East last year, had their worst offensive line in recent memory (and ohhh, just read that sentence with a timeframe of 20 years or so, and really think about how bad that is). They nearly lost to Florida International. They won four games and looked like Rutgers pre-Schiano revival, and were a ghastly red blight of a football nightmare. Let's never talk about 2010 Rutgers again.
So they return four starters off that offensive line. It was a horrible offensive line, yes, but look at the positives: they'll be prepared for the horror this time. For some reason or another, Greg Schiano saw a flat-lining offense and called for Dr. Frank Cignetti, former Pitt offensive coordinator, to revive the patient. Nevermind that Cignetti oversaw the Big East's second most underachieving offensive unit by potential in Pitt last year. When you're in the midst of a severe medical emergency, even a podiatrist looks like a trauma surgeon sometimes.
And yeah, the defense loses 21.5 sacks from the line, and ... how about we just don't watch Rutgers this year, and if we turn around in November and say, "Well, hey, look at you, five wins and driving for bowl eligibility! Gimme a roster: it's time to learn some names!" If that happens, you should learn something about Rutgers football in 2011. Until then, just look away, and marvel that Greg Schiano didn't bail for greener pastures sooner.
SEASON CRUX: September 24th vs. Ohio University. Not Ohio State: OHIO. Really, it's come down to beating the MAC to maintain dignity, Rutgers. Don't screw this up. Don't make it weird.