Louisville Football: Who Challenges Cardinals for a Big East Title?

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Teddy Bridgewater hopes to lead Louisville to the Big East title in 2012.

<p> Louisville Football: Who Challenges Cardinals for a Big East Title?</p>

The college football season is a couple of months away, but the countdown to 2012 has officially begun. Athlon Sports’ 2012 preseason annuals will be hitting newsstands in early June and its official top 25 countdown will begin on May 1. Picking the order of finish in each conference and compiling the top 25 is no easy task. Each day leading up to the release of No. 25 on May 1, Athlon’s editors will tackle some of the top preseason debates and question marks facing the teams and conferences for 2012.

Mark Ennis, Manager of Big East Coast Bias (@Mengus22)
I'm tempted to say that this is finally the year that South Florida puts it together on both sides of the ball and contends for a Big East title. After all, the Bulls return virtually everyone on both offense and defense. Nevertheless, until B.J. Daniels plays consistently and can make plays throwing the football, the Bulls will never be able to compete with the upper echelon teams in the Big East or outside the conference. The team most likely to challenge Louisville for the Big East title in 2012 is Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights return most of the offensive line, a solid stable of running backs led by Savon Huggins who should have a much better sophomore season, a talented receiver in Mark Harrison, and the new coaching staff seems determined to pick a quarterback and stick with him.

Add to it that the defense returns almost entirely intact from a unit that finished first in the Big East in total defense and scoring defense and Rutgers can play with just about anyone. When new head coach Kyle Flood sprinkles in some of his highly rated freshmen like defensive end Darius Hamilton or wide receiver Leonte Carroo, he should have more than enough pieces to compete for the Big East title. Obviously there will be an adjustment period for the players to get used to the new coaching staff, but, Flood is not a totally new voice and he knows the team he's inheriting. Even if the Scarlet Knights struggle in the early non-conference schedule, they'll have their footing in time for Big East play and will be a tough out for the rest of the league.

It also helps that Rutgers gets Louisville at home in the final week of the season on Thursday night on national TV. Will it give Rutgers fans a repeat of 2006?

David Fox (@DavidFox615)
Louisville is probably the prohibitive favorite in the Big East after tying for the league title with a young team last year and riding that momentum into 2012. The Cardinals biggest challenger will be either USF of Pittsburgh. The Bulls have loads of talent on defense, especially at linebacker with Sam Barrington and DeDe Lattimore. Quarterback B.J. Daniels keeps improving incrementally. I wonder if this will be a breakout season. Then again, we say this about USF it seems every year, and each season the Bulls disappoint in October and November. USF bottomed out last year by finishing on a 1-7 slide, losing six of those games by a touchdown or less. The Bulls can’t be that unlucky again. I also think Pitt will be a sneaky good team in the Big East with a chance to play for the title. The Panthers should have two key players on offense healthy this season in offensive lineman Chris Jacobson and running back Ray Graham, who was the league’s best player in the first eight games. The offensive line was a mess, and Tino Sunseri took more sacks than any quarterback in the nation. With Paul Chryst installing an offense more suited to the personnel than Todd Graham’s, Pittsburgh should be more consistent on that side of the ball.

Braden Gall (@BradenGall)
If conventional wisdom holds true — which is usually never the case with the Big East — then Louisville will be the unanimous pick to win the conference in 2012. South Florida, Pitt and Rutgers appear to be the top challengers to the Cards. The Bulls have the most continuity at quarterback and on the sidelines. Pitt has a bright young star now leading the ship in Paul Chryst and should be much healthier in 2012. But I will go with the clear-cut best defense in the league a year ago and pick the Scarlet Knights. The schedule sets up very nice for Rutgers with only one sure loss on the slate in the first nine games. If Rutgers can go into USF (where they are 2-1 all-time), then there is no reason to think the Knights won’t start 8-1 (at Arkansas is the only loss). The final three weeks will be tough (at Cincinnati, at Pitt, Louisville) but they get the Cardinals at home in the season finale and potential defacto Big East title game. The loss of Greg Schiano will hurt the program long term, but the hard-nosed residue he left behind, packaged with the best recruiting class in school history, will allow this team to compete for a conference title in 2012. Beyond this year, I have major concerns.

Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
I think Louisville is clearly the top team in the Big East for 2012, but the debate gets interesting at No. 2. Before Greg Schiano left Rutgers, I thought the Scarlet Knights had a chance to push the Cardinals for the No. 1 spot. However, the coaching transition may cost the Scarlet Knights a game or two, and the quarterback position is still a question mark. I'm intrigued by Pittsburgh, but the offensive line and quarterback issues make me hesitant to pick them behind Louisville. Even though South Florida went 1-7 in its final eight games last year, the Bulls are my pick to be Louisville’s top challenger in the Big East next season. South Florida returns 13 starters and most importantly, six of its seven defeats came by a touchdown or less. Quarterback B.J. Daniels has a chance to put together his best season at South Florida, especially with a deep group of receivers and a solid offensive line returning. New coordinator Chris Cosh did a good job of improving Kansas State’s defense and there’s plenty of talent for him to work with in 2012. I thought Skip Holtz would have the Bulls in contention by now, but this should be the year the pieces fall into place for South Florida as it will be the biggest threat to Louisville in 2012. 

Patrick Snow (@AthlonSnowman)
I’ll go with South Florida, even though the Bulls’ recent league play has been lackluster. As far as the rosters and returning talent goes, USF is the clear choice here. However, coach Skip Holtz must get his team over the mental hurdle of playing well against non-conference opponents but flopping versus the Big East. The Bulls have not had a winning record in league play since 2007, but I believe that will change during the 2012 campaign for several reasons. Quarterback B.J. Daniels is solid dual threat who threw for over 2,600 yards last season, and his receiver group is deep and talented. USF probably has the top offensive and defensive lines in the Big East, and the Bulls return a great linebacking trio in DeDe Lattimore, Mike Lanaris and Sam Barrington. I also think that veteran coordinator Chris Cosh, who recently led Kansas State’s defense and coached with Holtz for five years at South Carolina, will make a positive difference with a loaded unit in Tampa. With a little more consistency and better special teams play, the Bulls will challenge Louisville in the Big East.

Where will Athlon predict Louisville, South Florida, Rutgers and Pittsburgh to finish in the 2012 Big East final standings? Check back on May 1 as the 2012 Top 25 countdown will be released one team a day. 

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