Published November 20, 2014
The Big East has three new coaches facing three drastically different challenges.
At Cincinnati, Butch Jones is again following Brian Kelly and trying to keep a good thing going. Skip Holtz has the task of mending a South Florida team fractured by scandal. As for Charlie Strong, his job is to rebuild Louisville, a program that has plummeted since peaking four years ago.
How each new leader responds could have a major effect on the league title race, because while none of these teams are considered favorites, the Big East has proved to be a conference where teams can quickly rise and fall.
Cincinnati can attest to that. The Bearcats are coming off consecutive Big East titles and BCS appearances, unprecedented success for a program that in the past had considered a minor bowl bid a major accomplishment.
It was no surprise that Kelly outgrew the Bearcats and became the coach at Notre Dame after the 2009 regular season. And it wasn't much of a surprise that Cincinnati went back to Central Michigan, where they found Kelly, to find their next coach.
Jones took over for Kelly, his friend and former boss, at Central Michigan and the Chippewas never missed a beat, winning 27 games in three seasons.
Now again his job is to build upon the foundation laid by Kelly.
"There's different pressure, but also as a coach you want the expectations that surround your football program," Jones said.
Jones runs a similar spread offense so expect the Big East's highest scoring team in '09 to remain a headache for the league's defensive coordinators, especially with the return of quarterback Zach Collaros. The junior was a revelation filling in when Tony Pike was injured last season, passing for 1,434 yards and running for 344 more.
It wouldn't be a surprise if Cincinnati challenges league favorite Pittsburgh for a third straight Big East crown.
While Cincinnati's coaching transition was seamless, South Florida's left some scars.
The Bulls dismissed Jim Leavitt, the only coach in the program's 13-year history, after he was accused of mistreating a player and then not being truthful with the university when it investigated the incident.
The Bulls hired Holtz away from East Carolina, where he had won two Conference USA titles, to replace Leavitt. What the son of college football Hall of Famer Lou Holtz found was a team divided.
"We walked into a program where there was a lot of adversity," Holtz said. "There were a lot of players that were hurt. There was a lot of healing that needed to take place."
South Florida has been a perennial contender in the Big East, with flashy nonconference victories against Auburn and Florida State to its credit in recent seasons, but the Bulls have yet to win a Big East title.
Louisville was at the top of the conference just four years ago, winning the Orange Bowl under coach Bobby Petrino.
Petrino left after that season, leaving behind a program that turned out to be far more fragile than it looked. Steve Kragthorpe replaced Petrino but couldn't keep the Cardinals from sliding.
Now it's Strong's job to reverse course. The longtime defensive coordinator for Florida was probably long overdue for a shot to guide his own program.
The Cardinals need a major infusion of talent.
"You've got to recruit well. You've got to coach the fundamentals," Strong said. "You've got to get the kids to believe in themselves and the U."
A capsule look at the Big East in predicted order of finish:
CONNECTICUT — Key players: QB Zach Frazer, RB Jordan Todman, LB Scott Lutrus, LB Lawrence Wilson. Returning starters: 8 offense, 8 defense.
Notes: Coach Randy Edsall is in his 12th season at UConn, somewhat of a surprise considering his name often is mentioned as a candidate for other jobs, such Kansas and Notre Dame last year. .... Schedule sets up nicely even though Huskies play four league road games. Pittsburgh, West Virginia and Cincinnati all come to Rentschler Field. ... Frazer, a Notre Dame transfer, gives Huskies their best QB since Dan Orlovsky left Storrs.
PITTSBURGH — Key players: RB Dion Lewis, DE Greg Romeus, WR Jon Baldwin, S Dom DeCicco. Returning starters: 5 offense, 6 defense.
Notes: Lewis was the league's offensive player of the year as a freshman, running for 1,799 yards and 17 scores. ... Romeus was the defensive player of the year, and passed up a chance to enter the NFL draft and be an early round pick ... QB Tino Sunseri entered preseason practice atop the depth chart. ... Last four games, in consecutive weeks, are at UConn, at USF, home for West Virginia and at Cincinnati.
CINCINNATI — Key players: QB Zach Collaros, WR Armon Binns, LB Jake Schaffer. Returning starters: 7 offense, 5 defense.
Notes: While the offense will have a very similar look under Jones, the Bearcats' defense goes from a 3-4 to a 4-3 scheme. The defense relied heavily on making big plays last year and when the sacks and turnovers didn't come the unit gave up yards and points in bunches late in the season ... WR Vidal Hazelton, a USC transfer, should help make up for loss of star Mardy Gilyard.
WEST VIRGINIA — Key players: RB Noel Devine, WR Jock Sanders, S Robert Sands. Returning starters: 7 offense, 9 defense.
Notes: QB Geno Smith, a sophomore, is a first-year starter but a touted prospect with some game experience after backing up Jarrett Brown last year ... Devine averages a touchdown every 17 times he touches the ball ... Sept. 25 game at LSU is getting plenty of hype around Morgantown this offseason.
RUTGERS — Key players: QB Tom Savage, WR Mohamed Sanu, S Joe Lefeged. Returning starters: 6 offense, 6 defense.
Notes: Among the three offensive line starters to be replaced are OT Anthony Davis, a first-round NFL draft pick ... Savage completed 52 percent of his passes with 14 TDs and seven interceptions as a freshman. He has the potential to develop into the finest passer in school history. ... Soft nonconference schedule includes Norfolk State, FIU, Tulane and Army.
USF — Key players: QB B.J. Daniels, RB Moise Plancher, DT Keith McCaskill. Returning starters: 10 offense, 5 defense.
Notes: Daniels was pressed into service as a freshman when Matt Grothe was injured early last season. He responded with an up and down season, but showed that he's got plenty of talent, running for 772 yards and passing for 1,983. ... Daniels expects less designed quarterback running plays under Holtz. .... Six of the Bulls' top seven tacklers from last season are gone.
SYRACUSE — Key players: RB Delone Carter, LB Derrell Smith, LB Doug Hogue. Returning starters: 5 offense, 6 defense.
Notes: Orange made good strides in Doug Marrone's first season as coach, even though they won only four games, but still much work to do ... Sophomore Ryan Nassib takes over at quarterback. ... Orange good news to start preseason. Carter, who was suspended last semester and did not participate in spring practice after being charged with misdemeanor assault, will be returning to school and the team.
LOUISVILLE — Key players: RB Victor Anderson, WR Doug Beaumont, KB Brandon Heath. Returning starters: 7 offense, 6 defense.
Notes: Adam Froman and Justin Burke vie for quarterback job though neither looked particularly promising last season. ... Anderson missed spring practice with a shoulder injury but is expected to be the main ball carrier for the Cardinals. ... Cardinals recorded only 21 sacks last year. Expect Strong to figure out a way to up that total.