This is the last hurrah for the old Big East football conference. Actually it’s the postscript to the last hurrah, since the conference has been re-named the American Athletic Conference, following the departure of the basketball-only schools to rebuild the Big East brand on the hardwood.
But this coming college football season is still a last hurrah in a different sense—even as four new members arrive, this is thThis e last season in the league for Louisville and Rutgers, and those two teams—particularly Louisville—along with Cincinnati, are clearly the tone-setters in the race for what’s still an automatic BCS bowl berth in 2013.
ALL ROADS GO THROUGH LOUISVILLE
The University of Louisville is on a tremendous athletic run any way you slice it. They won the NCAA Tournament in basketball. They made the College World Series in baseball. The football team won the Sugar Bowl in the 2012 college football season, and is primed for more.
Teddy Bridgewater is the junior quarterback and Heisman Trophy candidate. Bridgewater is indeed “all that”, with 27 touchdowns against just eight interceptions. He completed over 68 percent of his passes and racked up over 3,700 yards in the air.
Don’t think, though, the ‘Ville is all about the quarterback. Bridgewater was seriously limited at the end of last season due to a wrist injury and Louisville still won a big road game at Rutgers to secure the conference championship.
This is an offense with a solid receiving duo in DeVante Parker and Damian Copeland. They welcome back Senorise Perry, the running back who was having an excellent season until he got hurt after ten games. It speaks volumes to the program head coach Charlie Strong has built that he won his biggest game (Rutgers was the finale) with his star quarterback limited and his star running back out.
That’s what happens when you’re tough in the line, and Louisville brings back three starters on the offensive front. The defensive front seven returns four starters, all of whom are seniors. The secondary is experienced. Oh, and Strong’s specialty is coaching defense.
Thus, we have a team with star talent offensively, and is deep and well-coached on defense. A team that’s proven it can survive if its stars are banged up. If there’s any reason not to pick Louisville to win this conference championship I can’t fathom what it might be.
HOPING FOR A BREAK
Rutgers and Cincinnati just have to plug along, have nice seasons and hope something goes awry in Louisville, and in fairness, this is a league that’s become known for unpredictability over the course of its existence.
The Scarlet Knights though, have a serious rebuilding project on their defensive back seven. While the line will be solid on both sides of the ball, defense was this program’s calling card in 2012, and they won’t be able to c carry the load this time around.
Nor will the offense pick it up. Even with the vet O-Line, they lose the conference’s best running back in Jawan Jamison, and quarterback Gary Nova is a perpetual disappointment. If you don’t believe TheSportsNotebook’s college football coverage, tune in to my Monday podcast over at Prime Sports Network, where host Greg DePalma is a Rutgers fan and will likely spend our Mondays this fall aggravated at Nova.
Finally, what does it say about the Rutgers program that they couldn’t close out Louisville last year when the Scarlet Knights had the game at home, Bridgewater banged up, got an early lead and still lost. The subhead here is titled “hoping for a break”, but I’m not sure how Rutgers would think they could ever get more breaks than happened last year, and it still wasn’t enough.
Cincinnati has a more realistic chance at upending Louisville. The Bearcats hired Tommy Tuberville to come after Butch Jones left for Tennessee. Tuberville has both quarterbacks from last year back, with percentage passer Brendan Kay and versatile-but-erratic Munchie Legeaux. All five offensive linemen are in the fold, and the left side of that line has two All-Conference blockers. Cincy is going to score points.
It’s whether Tuberville can piece together a defense that will define this team’s ultimate success. There’s only one starter back on the line, but two of the newbies are seniors, so perhaps the transition can be made quickly. Middle linebacker Greg Blair is all-conference and the secondary should at least be decent.
Most important is that Tuberville has all year to put this together—they don’t play Louisville until December 5 and that came will be in Cincy. I wouldn’t pick the Bearcats to do it, but it will be fun watching them try.
BRINGING UP THE REAR
UConn, South Florida and Temple are all in various stages of transition and just biding their time for this league to take on yet another new look in 2014…
South Florida: I like the new hire of head coach Willie Taggart, who turned Western Kentucky into a winner. The cautionary note is that Skip Holtz won at East Carolina, but couldn’t sustain it at a higher level of play. We’ll see what happens with Taggart, but with an offense in need of complete rebuilding, don’t expect much this year.
UConn: Paul Pasqualoni has been the coach here for two years and reminded us of why Syracuse lost patience and let him go. The Huskie program hasn’t gone to a bowl since Randy Edsall led them to the BCS and the Fiesta Bowl in 2010 and then left for Maryland. The defense and running game look like they should be okay, but Chandler Whitmer has to cut down on the interceptions if UConn is going to get six or seven wins playing that style.
Temple: The Owls had to rebuild last year and only won four games, but head coach Steve Addazio still had a good enough reputation to get the Boston College job. There’s still more rebuilding yet for new man Matt Ruhle, but with only six seniors in his entire starting lineup, Ruhle can build for better days in 2014.