The Notebook is back after an Irene-induced interruption, so we pick up the pace on college football previews to make it in time for the Thursday night opener (Wisconsin-UNLV, 8 ET ESPN or Miss State-Memphis, 7:30, FSN). Today's previews are the Mountain West and Big East, plus a wrap on our NFL team previews with the Steelers.
MOUNTAIN WEST PREVIEW
The Mountain West is at the pivot point in its young history right now, as it welcomes Boise State into the league, while saying goodbye to BYU and preparing to part ways with TCU who bolts for the Big East after this season is done. With the Big 12 & Pac-12 probably targeting new members, the MWC can’t be all that comfortable. But for 2011 they have a solid conference race and the possibility of making waves on the national stage.
Boise State and TCU have been the pride of the non-BCS leagues the past two years and outside of their one game against each other (the 2009 Fiesta Bowl won by Boise) they have only lost one game between them, the Black Friday shocker last November when Nevada stunned Boise. It’s created a little rivalry between Broncos and Horned Frogs and they’ve had to fight for the affections of the BCS bowl selectors and voters and now they can not only face each other on the field but go at it all year in a round-robin conference competition.
The early edge needs to go to Boise State. The Broncos are absolutely loaded on defense, especially in the front four and I’m looking for a dominating unit. The offense brings back lefty gunslinger Kellen Moore, and while he has to break in some new receivers he still has Doug Martin in the backfield and a respectable offensive line. Later this week we’ll look at the season opener against Georgia in more detail, but for now we can safely say this program should win the Mountain West in its first year of membership.
TCU is in rebuilding mode, with a very young offensive line and having to replace Andy Dalton at quarterback. The defense will still be good, but not dominating the way it was in 2009-10 and not enough to carry them to a conference title. I think the real threat to Boise this year comes from either San Diego State or Air Force. The Aztecs lose head coach Brady Hoke to Michigan, but a team that finished third in the league and dismantled Navy in a bowl game is fantastic in both lines, has a very good quarterback in Ryan Lindley, a quality runner in Ronnie Hillman and a back seven good enough to win. I look for them finish second. Air Force is going to be solid defense and has Tim Jefferson at quarterback and Asher Clark at fullback back to key the triple option. The Falcons sneak into third.
The Boise, TCU, San Diego State and Air Force quartet stand sharply above the bottom four in what is a two-tiered league. UNLV has a lot of defensive issues, as will be apparent when they open the season Thursday night in Wisconsin. Colorado State went 3-9 last year and nothing suggests improvement this time around. New Mexico has an experienced secondary, but the starting point is the one win they got in 2010, while Wyoming has a solid front four led by end Josh Biezuna, but plays a freshman at quarterback and will struggle all season long.
Sociologists might not like the sharp class divide between the upper and lower parts of the Mountain West, but there will be some good football played in this league—at least as good, if not better than the BCS-qualifying Big East—and Boise will win the league and get a major bowl spot.
BIG EAST PREVIEW
After living in Pittsburgh for eight years (1999-2007), I’ll admit I developed something of a fascination with the constant agony the Pitt football and basketball teams put their fan base through. If it’s not the football team missing an extra point and then letting Cincinnati go the length of the field to cost them a Sugar Bowl bid in 2009, it’s the basketball team losing to Villanova by a bucket with the Final Four at stake or committing a silly foul to cost them an NCAA game against Butler last year. To me, Pitt has become the Chicago Cubs or the pre-2004 Boston Red Sox. You know they should win and you know they won’t. And it’s more of the same this year, because as I look at the Big East football race, it seems like Pitt’s to lose.
The Panthers have a new coach in Todd Graham, who did a good job at Tulsa and inherits a solid defense, a veteran offensive line and a quality quarterback in Tino Sunseri. This is in a conference that’s never any great shakes to begin with and really shouldn’t have an automatic BCS slot, and even by those standards, every other contender is flawed.
West Virginia will score points with versatile Geno Smith at quarterback and a tough offensive line, but they will give up plenty too. South Florida is young in both trenches and B.J. Daniels is too up-and-down behind center. Syracuse is going in the right direction but is too young defensively. Louisville made a surprise run to 6-6 and a bowl game, but apart from the secondary they are too young to hope for any more than holding steady this year. Rutgers collapsed last season, and while they should be better with Chas Dodd throwing to Mohamed Sanu, they aren’t conference title material. UConn went to the Fiesta Bowl last year and returns nine offensive starters. But one of them isn’t league MVP Jordan Todman and the architect, Randy Edsall, is off to Maryland. Cincinnati offers some intriguing possibilities. The Bearcats have explosive skill talent with Zach Collaros at quarterback, Isaiah Pead in the backfield and D.J. Wood at receiver, but a young offensive line needs to give that talent the opportunity to succeed.
There’s also a lot of coaching turnover in the league this year. In addition to Graham, West Virginia begins a new era with Dana Holgorsen and UConn has recycled old Syracuse boss Paul Pasqualoni. This is after Butch Jones replaced Brian Kelly at Cincinnati and Doug Marrone took over at Syracuse last season and Charlie Strong got the Louisville job.
I really want to pick Pitt, but I just can’t make myself pull the trigger anymore. The Panthers are going to lead the discussion of the conference all year, win eight or nine games, which is a lot in this league, but in the end, they’ll find some way to cough it up. In the world of Pitt football, the ground ball still gets under Buckner’s legs, Steve Bartman still takes the foul ball away from Moises Alou in the eighth inning and the Panther fans go home heartbroken. Of all the challengers, I like Cincinnati’s chances of fixing their problems the best and take the Bearcats to be this year’s forced entrant into the BCS party.
PITTSBURGH STEELERS PREVIEW
The Notebook’s run through all 32 NFL teams concludes today with our look at the team whose six Super Bowl rings are the most of any team and who has captured the AFC crown two of the last three years, including 2010. Consistency is the hallmark of the Pittsburgh Steelers and there’s no reason to think Coach Mike Tomlin won’t keep that going this year.
Pittsburgh wins because of an aggressive defense built around one of the truly great linebacker quartets in the game. With James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley on the outside, and James Farrior and Lawrence Timmons on the outside, veteran defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau can attack from any angle and isn’t shy about doing so. Nose tackle Casey Hampton ties up blockers well and behind them all is roving strong safety Troy Polamulu, whose big-play capability made him Defensive Player of the Year last season and he’s one of those rare defensive players who’s a genuine scoring threat when he gets his hands on the ball.
Ben Roethlisberger doesn’t put up big numbers at quarterback, but he seems to make his best throws when they count the most—a 50-yard strike a 3rd-and-long to beat Baltimore in last year’s playoffs being one prominent example and another wild scramble and pass to beat the Ravens in a regular season game that decided the AFC North title being another. These elements—the linebackers, Polamulu and Roethlisberger are enough to make the Steelers a contender, but there are problems beyond that which must be addressed if they are going to win another Super Bowl.
The offensive line is a problem, with only second-year center Maurkice Pouncey being really reliable and preventing the development a true power rushing game that was also the hallmark of the best Pittsburgh teams. There’s good receivers with Hines Ward and Mike Wallace—and they make a nice tandem with Ward being the possession guy and Wallace being the deep threat, but in today’s NFL if you can’t dominate with the run you need to be able to go to a three-receiver set consistently and I don’t think the Steelers skill position personnel is suited for that. The secondary is also a weakness beyond Polamulu. As much as Pittsburgh blitzes, you’d like to have steadier play at the corners than they get.
Tomlin will again have the Steelers in contention, but I have a tough time seeing a Super Bowl in this team’s future.
*It's Closing Week at Saratoga as the track runs through Labor Day, while Del Mar out west is set to wrap it up September 7. Live racing resumes Wednesday. Visit Bloodhorse.com for updates on the doings here and at major tracks around the country.
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