The Big East is often dismissed among football circles as a basketball conference, but the truth is that the eight-team league has had a lot of success on the gridiron. Every school but Syracuse has had a season of at least nine wins since 2006, everybody but 'Cuse and Louisville has made a bowl game in each of the last two seasons, and the schools have seen 45 players taken in the last two NFL drafts. But even when Cincinnati ran the table last year, they received no significant consideration to make the national championship game. So what can the Big East do to get some football respect? Can Cincinnati defend its back-to-back conference titles? How does this apply to me, as a Houston sports fan? Here are the answers. Also, since the Big East is the smallest football conference at just eight teams, we'll throw in the independents in this preview, as well.
1. West Virginia Mountaineers
2009 record: 9-4 (5-2 Big East)
Projected 2010 record: 12-0 (7-0, appearance in National Championship game)
Wait, what? Yep, I like WVU to run the table, and get a shot at the national title. I don't have any other teams in BCS conferences running the table, which I think would get the Mountaineers in the championship game. How do they get there? They need sophomore QB Geno Smith to step up and improve upon the numbers put up by the departed Jarrett Brown. (2 pass TD, 6 INT in team's four losses, Brown's top rushing performance after week three was just 43 yards.) If Smith steps up, you've got one of the top RBs in the nation in Noel Devine, a great O-line, and one of the best defenses in the country. Tough road games include LSU, Connecticut and Pittsburgh, but I think West Virginia successfully takes on all comers.
WVU has never faced Houston, and lost 24-0 to Rice in 1964, in the schools' only meeting.
West Virginia's Houston connection: Oliver Luck, former Houston Oilers QB and Houston Dynamo GM, recently took over as athletics director at WVU.
2. Cincinnati Bearcats
2009 record: 12-1 (7-0 Big East)
Projected 2010 record: 9-3 (5-2)
What to watch for: How smooth is the coaching transition from Brian Kelly to Butch Jones? Can QB Zach Collaros be as effective playing all season as he was as a part-timer (93/124, 10 TD, 2 INT) in 2009? He has a fantastic receiving corps to throw to. How effective will the defensive line be with the loss of Alex Daniels and Ricardo Mathews?
Cincinnati has a lot of experience facing the Houston Cougars, including some meetings when the Bearcats were in C-USA. Houston has won 13 of the schools' 21 match-ups, but Cincy has won the last three games. The Bearcats beat Rice in their only meeting in 1974.
Cincinnati's Houston connection: Bearcat alumnus Connor Barwin recorded 4.5 sacks as a rookie for the Houston Texans last year, after being drafted by the club in the second round.
3t. Connecticut Huskies
2009 record: 8-5 (3-4 Big East)
Projected 2010 record: 8-4 (4-3)
What to watch for: With all of the talent coming back, can the Huskies finally break through the 8-9 win glass ceiling of the last three years and truly burst through onto the national stage? Can one quarterback stay healthy, win the starting job, and improve upon the Huskies' passing numbers? Who replaces RB Andre Dixon (1,093 rush yards, 4.6 ypc, 14 TD) alongside returnee Jordan Todman (1,188, 5.1, 14)?
UConn has never faced Houston or Rice. However...
Connecticut's Houston connection: The Huskies host Texas Southern on the 11th of September this year. The Tigers lost a pair of games against 1-A competition last year by a combined score of 100-0.
3t. Pittsburgh Panthers
2009 record: 10-3 (5-2 Big East)
Projected 2010 record: 8-4 (4-3)
What to watch for: I hate picking against the ultra-perceptive Phil Steele, and he straight up loves the Panthers in 2010, but I'm not quite sure what he sees in them. Sure, after struggling for three years, head coach Dave Wannstedt has led Pitt to 19 wins over the last two years, including back-to-back 5-2 seasons in the Big East. And yes, Dion Lewis is one of the top five running backs in the nation. But the Panthers are breaking in a new QB and will have a hard time duplicating the numbers they put up in the passing game last year with Bill Stull, Lewis' numbers will probably take a hit with an inexperienced O-line, and the defense has its fair share of question marks. And for good measure, they have to face UConn, South Florida and Cincinnati on the road.
The Panthers got swept in a home-and-home with Rice in the early 1950s, and split a home-and-home with the Cougars in the mid-'90s.
Pittsburgh's Houston connection: The Panthers' secondary could be relying heavily on H-town in the near future, as they have recently brought in Saheed Imoru of Alief (Navarro J.C.) and Houston native Kolby Gray (Cy Falls).
3t. South Florida Bulls
2009 record: 8-5 (3-4 Big East)
Projected 2010 record: 7-5 (4-3)
What to watch for: With all sorts of talent returning on offense, and a new coach I have a lot of respect for in Skip Holtz (previously of ECU), I really wanted to pick the Bulls to have a breakout year. But non-conference roadies at Florida and Miami loom large, and they have to face the two best (in my mind) Big East teams on the road (WVU, Cincy). There are some pretty significant losses on defense, as well. Expect some big things from this team by the time QB B.J. Daniels graduates, though.
The Bulls have never faced Rice, but swept two games comfortably against Houston in 2001-02.
USF's Houston connection: Virtually the entire staff at USF is made up of coaches the Cougars would like another shot at. Holtz brings a bunch of assistants with him from ECU, the school that edged out the Cougars in the C-USA championship game in 2009. The Bulls' defensive coordinator is Mark Snyder, who was the head coach at Marshall back in 2008, when the Thundering Herd scored a win over Houston that was not only embarrassing, but also painful, as wide receiver Patrick Edwards suffered a horrific leg break in that game. (Due to running into a poorly-placed cart belonging to the Marshall band, no less.)
6. Rutgers Scarlet Knights
2009 record: 9-4 (3-4 Big East)
Projected 2010 record: 7-5 (3-4)
What to watch for: Usually one would expect a team to improve with the return of talented starters at QB (Tom Savage) and RB (Joe Martinek). The boys from New Jersey also benefit from the majority of a very good defensive line (3.6 ypc allowed, 40 sacks) returning. The offensive line and back seven on defense are question marks, however, and the conference schedule is pretty brutal, with Rutgers facing four of their top five Big East foes on the road.
Rutgers has never faced Houston or Rice.
Rutgers' Houston connection: The Scarlet Knights faced Kansas State in the 2006 Texas Bowl at Reliant Stadium. They scored a 37-10 victory, the first bowl win in their program's history. They've won a bowl game each of the three years since then.
7. Syracuse Orange
2009 record: 4-8 (1-6 Big East)
Projected 2010 record: 4-8 (1-6) I'm not exactly going out on a limb picking the Orange to repeat their 1-6 conference campaign. They've put up that same record four years running.
What to watch for: Where does the passing game go after the Greg Paulus experiment? The former Duke basketball player completed a staggering 67.7% of his passes, but had fewer touchdowns (13) than interceptions (14). More importantly, who is going to run the ball? Returning 1,000 yard rusher Delone Carter's status is up in the air amidst some legal issues, and backup Averin Collier is an academic casualty. At least the defense looks fairly set for the Orange.
The Orange avenged a 42-15 beat-down at UH in 1970 with a 30-17 Liberty Bowl victory in '96. They have never faced Rice.
Syracuse's Houston connection: The city of Houston has been something of a black cat for former Syracuse quarterbacks. In 1987, Don McPherson won the Davey O'Brien, Johnny Unitas and Maxwell awards with the Orange, and finished second in the Heisman voting. His NFL career was short-lived, however, ending in 1990 after he spent the year backing up Warren Moon for the Houston Oilers. More recently, former Syracuse signal-caller Donovan McNabb lost his job with the Philadelphia Eagles to Cougar alumnus Kevin Kolb.
8. Louisville Cardinals
2009 record: 4-8 (1-6 Big East)
Projected 2010 record: 3-9 (0-7)
What to watch for: Will the Cardinals be able to rely primarily on one guy to throw or run the ball? Three players threw for 450+ yards last year, and while Victor Anderson's 473 rush yards led the team, he was actually third on the team in rush attempts. Even if those issues get smoothed out, the defense might struggle, with its top four tacklers gone.
Louisville has split 12 games with Houston, dating back to 1962. The Cardinals have won five of the last six games in the series, however, scoring a combined 131 points the last two times the schools have met. Louisville has never faced Rice.
Louisville's Houston connection: The Cardinals and Cougars, aside from being C-USA rivals for nearly a decade, share a recent history of producing prolific QBs who struggle to find success in the NFL. And the Houston Texans have a history of making poor decisions at the QB position in the draft. So it was the perfect storm when, in 2003, the Texans chose Cardinal alumnus Dave Ragone in the third round. Ragone has as many career NFL touchdown passes as I do, and is currently coaching.
The Bottom Line
Noel Devine is conference player of the year, and a Heisman finalist as the Mountaineers run the table and play for the national championship.
2009 record: 10-4
Projected 2010 record: 10-2
What to watch for: What can QB Ricky Dobbs do for an encore after his 27 rush TDs broke Navy's 92-year old school record? With every significant rusher back, and a more experience O-line in front of them, will anybody be able to stop Navy's triple option attack? On the flip side, with just two returning starters in the front seven on defense, will the Midshipmen be able to stop opponents from running the ball?
Navy suffered a 35-0 shutout at the hands of Houston in the 1980 Garden State Bowl, the only time the two schools have met. The Middies have split 12 games all-time with Rice, including a 1958 Cotton Bowl victory. Last year, Navy rolled up 471 rush yards against the Owls, and needed just three pass attempts to pick up a 63-14 victory. The Cougars and Midshipmen had been slotted to play each other in the near future, but for reasons that vary depending on who you ask, the series was canceled.
Navy's Houston connection: The service academies always tend to recruit from across the country, and the Houston area has done its part to supply young men to the Midshipmen football team, and by extension the American military. A big tip o' the cap to Travis Keating (The Woodlands College Park), Austin Beaty (Friendswood High), Colin Renton (Woodlands High), Alexander Teich (Caney Creek), Bo Snelson (Pasadena Memorial), Alex Doolittle (Langham Creek) and Drew Kinsella (Kingwood). Continue to make us proud, boys.
Army Black Knights
2009 record: 5-7
Projected 2010 record: 8-4
What to watch for: The two big questions are (in some order) can Army go to its first bowl game since 1996, and can Army beat Navy for the first time since 2001? The eight wins I'm predicting answers the first question. See The Bottom Line below for the answer to the second. I'm a big fan of head coach Rich Ellerson, in his second year after coming over from Cal Poly, and I think he'll have a lot of success here. Every significant rusher is back for the Black Knights, including sophomore QB Trent Steelman (lifetime member of the all-name team), and the offensive line returns four senior starters. The defense looks equally primed for a great season, with its top six tacklers returning, including Army's all-time sacks leader in Josh McNary (Clear Lake).
Army has faced Houston seven times, from 1998-2004, when the Black Knights were a member of Conference USA. The Cougars won five of those contests. Army has a win, two losses and a tie all-time against Rice.
Army's Houston connection: Ditto what we said about Navy. Thank you Lyle Beloney (Seven Lakes), Steven Erzinger (Lamar), Max Jenkins (Langham Creek), Josh Jones (Robert E. Lee), Richard King (Klein Forrest), Chad Littlejohn (Deer Park), McNary, Todd Miller (Strake Jesuit), Jon Neill (The Woodlands) and Matt Villanti (Seven Lakes) for all that you have done and continue to do for this country.
Notre Dame Fighting Irish
2009 record: 6-6
Projected 2010 record: 4-8
What to watch for: ND is a trendy pick to have a big season under first year head coach Brian Kelly. Mark May has them winning ten games. And I just cannot, for the life of me, understand why. Sure, the Irish return nine starters on defense, but it's a defense that wasn't very good last year. Their schedule is brutal. And oh, by the way, they lose Jimmy Clausen and Golden Tate, who basically comprised their entire offense last year. I do not get all the Notre Dame love. Somebody, please explain this to me. Is "Charlie Weis is stupid, Brian Kelly is a genius" the entirety of the thought process?
The Fighting Irish have swept four games all-time against Rice, dating back to a 55-2 stomping in 1915. Seriously. The only time Notre Dame has faced Houston was the 1979 Cotton Bowl, which the Fighting Irish won 35-34.
ND's Houston connection: That fateful '79 Cotton Bowl has gone down in the lore of both schools involved. It is known to ND fans as the "Chicken Soup Game", in which Irish QB Joe Montana fought off the flu with an in-game bowl of chicken soup, and led a 23-point comeback in the final 7:37 to earn a Notre Dame victory, capped off by a last-second TD pass to Kris Haines. The game is known to UH fans as "that game where Kris Haines caught the ball five yards out of bounds, and it was ruled a touchdown anyway."
The Bottom Line
Army defeats both Air Force and Navy to become the surprise winner of the Commander-In-Chief's trophy.