Notre Dame Football & Big East Conference Preview

If there’s two entities that get more play than they should in the college football media it’s the University of Notre Dame and the Big East Conference. The two are connected in more ways than hype (in the case of Notre Dame) and a guaranteed major bowl slit (in the case of the Big East). ND not only plays basketball and other sports in the Big East, it’s a part of that conference’s chain of command when it comes to lining up postseason bowl slots. So TheSportsNotebook ties the two of them together as we continue our preview of the 2012 college football season.

Notre Dame has gone 8-5 two consecutive seasons, although last year saw all eight wins come in the regular season and the bowl loss was a good game against a solid Florida State team. If we didn’t have to have national championship or BCS conversations about the Irish every time they come up, we could quite easily take the optimistic view. Notre Dame returns it starting quarterback, Tommy Rees, though he’ll be suspended for the September 1 season opener in Ireland against Navy. ND has three senior starters on the offensive front and a quality running back in Cierre Wood to run behind them. While the team must replaced departed receiver Michael Floyd, I felt he was overrated to begin with and in either case the passing game is head coach Brian Kelly’s specialty. Notre Dame will move the ball through the air.

It’s defending the pass that’s going to be the problem in South Bend. The Irish are breaking in a young secondary. They’ll be improved up front with a veteran front seven and against a softer schedule that might be enough. But if some teams go overboard scheduling patsies, Notre Dame, undoubtedly in deference to NBC, goes too far the other way. The Dublin opener against Navy is no picnic, and neither are games with Pitt, Boston College, Purdue, BYU, Miami and Stanford. Oh, and let’s not forget Michigan and Oklahoma, both teams who figure prominently in early national championship discussion. Notre Dame has a history of coaches winning a national title in their third year, with Ara Parseghian, Dan Devin and Lou Holtz all turning the trick. If Kelly continues his regular season improvement and wins nine against this schedule just get his bust ready and put it in the College Football Hall of Fame that also resides in South Bend.

In the Big East…

West Virginia is gone to the Big 12 after sharing the league title, earning the automatic BCS bid and then temporarily shutting up those of us who don’t believe the Big East merits such status, by hanging 70 points on Clemson in an Orange Bowl win. Where the Big East will fit into the new-look college football world that begins next year with the four-team playoff format is anybody’s guess, so the teams left need to take this opportunity to get a major bowl bid while the getting is good. And the race is anybody’s to take.

Louisville is one of the early preseason favorites and that’s fair. The Cardinals are well-coached under Charlie Strong, they have four starters back in the offensive line along with quarterback Teddy Bridgewater and the entire secondary returns. The problem? A preponderance of youth everywhere else, and even in the areas where starters come back. Bridgewater is a sophomore, as are four starters on the offensive line and two more in the defensive backfield. Asking a team this young to close out a championship run is asking a lot.

Pitt & Rutgers welcome new coaches to the scene. Paul Chryst ran the high-powered Wisconsin offense that went to the Rose Bowl the last two seasons and now at Pitt he’s got a senior quarterback in Tino Sunseri and his entire complement of skill position players, including running back Ray Graham back in the fold. But with a rebuilt offensive line and defense, the Panthers don’t have the substance to go with the flash (though as a Wisconsin fan who loves Chryst and nine-year resident of the city of Pittsburgh, this team is my sentimental favorite). Rutgers saw Greg Schiano leave to take the Tampa Bay Buccaneers coaching job and Kyle Flood takes over an offense that’s underclassmen-heavy, and a defense that’s going to need some re-tooling but up front and in back.

UConn, South Florida and Syracuse all have the potential to make some noise and fill the leadership vacuum in this league. UConn has an 1100-yard rusher in Lyle McCombs back and three returning offensive lineman to pave his way. Tight end Ryan Griffin is a solid talent and can bail the offense out on third downs. Defensively the back seven all returns, so if head coach Paul Pasqualoni (who won this league at Syracuse with Donovan McNabb in the late 1990s) can find a quarterback and toughen up the defensive front the Huskies can take the BCS bid for the second time in three years.

South Florida had a disappointing year in 2011 under Skip Holtz, but the respected head coach is just putting his mark on the program and like UConn, the Bulls have a quality back seven on the defensive side, and a havoc-wreaking defensive end in Ryne Giddens. They’ve also got a veteran, albeit inconsistent quarterback in B.J. Daniels and a decent offensive line. Syracuse also had a losing year in ’11, a step backward after returning to bowl play in 2010. The Orange return senior quarterback Ryan Nassib, who will be protected by a pretty good offensive line led by tackle Justin Pugh. The skill positions need to be recast, but the defense is experienced.

Cincinnati & Temple have possibilities, but also problems. The Bearcats have a veteran secondary and a manageable front seven. They also return Munchie Legeaux at quarterback, not listed in the annuals as a returning starter, but who got substantial playing time last year. But Legeaux has to be consistent and top running back Isaiah Pead must be replaced. Temple has been welcomed back to the league after rebuilding their program in the MAC, but just about everybody except quarterback Chris Coyer has to be replaced.

PREDICTION: I lean Syracuse to win the conference championship because I respect Doug Marrone and think he has a little bit more than Holtz at South Florida, who would be my second choice. Louisville will be in the race to the final week of the season and continue their upward ascent. Strong’s a year away from a really big year. If Notre Dame football doesn’t quality for a BCS bowl game—which they won’t—they move into the Big East’s bowl process. The Champs & Belk Bowls are the next two on the ladder, each against ACC opponents. ND went to the Champs game last year, so that bowl will settle for South Florida, while the Irish go to Charlotte for the Belk.