Very Early 2012 Big East Predictions

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Teddy Bridgewater has Louisville on the rise in 2012.

<p> Athlon releases its very early predictions for the Big East Conference for 2012.&nbsp;</p>

By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)

(Published January 16th, 2012)

Very Early 2012 Big East Predictions

1. West Virginia

Key Returnees: QB Geno Smith, RB Dustin Garrison, WR Tavon Austin, WR Stedman Bailey, C Joe Madsen, NT Jorge Wright, LB Jewone Snow, CB Pat Miller, S Terence Garvin, S Darwin Cook

Key Losses: LT Don Barclay, DE Bruce Irvin, DT Julian Miller, LB Najee Goode, CB Keith Tandy, S Eain Smith

Where will the Mountaineers play next season? That’s the big question surrounding the Big East and Big 12 early 2012 predictions. With West Virginia’s 2012 conference home up in the air, Athlon will include the Mountaineers in both articles (Big 12 and Big East) until the court case is sorted out.

If the Mountaineers are in the Big East, they will be the preseason favorite once again. Quarterback Geno Smith and one of the nation’s top receiving corps will anchor a high-scoring offense. The biggest question mark facing West Virginia’s offense next year will be the offensive line, which loses tackle Don Barclay and struggled to open up rushing lanes in 2011. Running back Dustin Garrison suffered a significant knee injury in Orange Bowl practices, leaving his status for spring practice as uncertain. 

West Virginia’s defense was dealt a huge blow when defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel decided to join Rich Rodriguez at Arizona. Casteel was one of the nation’s most underrated defensive minds and will be missed next year in Morgantown. Replacing defensive linemen Bruce Irvin and Julian Miller will be the top priority for coach Dana Holgorsen and the new defensive coordinator, but overall, this unit should suffer much of a drop-off next season.

2. Louisville

Key Returnees: QB Teddy Bridgewater, C Mario Benavides, DE B.J. Dubose, DT Roy Philon, LB Preston Brown, CB Adrian Bushell, S Hakeem Smith, S Calvin Pryor

Key Losses: RB Victor Anderson, WR Josh Bellamy, TE Josh Chichester, DE Greg Scruggs, LB Dexter Heyman

The Cardinals had some heavy losses to replace coming into 2011, but even with several young players stepping into key roles, they shared the Big East title with West Virginia and Cincinnati. Coach Charlie Strong is bringing in another solid recruiting class, which will only add to the talent coming back to Louisville in 2012.

Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater took his lumps (12 interceptions) this season, but finished with 2,129 yards and 14 passing scores. Bridgewater will be one of the top passers in the Big East next year, especially if a young group of receivers continues to improve. The offensive line has to be better next year, but will benefit from a full year from center Mario Benavides, who missed the first three games of 2011 due to knee surgery. The rushing attack ranked 93rd nationally, and must show improvement if the Cardinals want to win the conference in 2012. 

Strong’s background on defense has helped Louisville rank 18th nationally in points allowed in each of the last two seasons. And the 2012 defense could be even better, especially with cornerback Adrian Bushell and safety Hakeem Smith returning. The Cardinals also have a handful of promising freshmen and sophomores on the depth chart that will be ready for an increased role next year.

3. Rutgers

Key Returnees: RB Jawan Jamison, WR Mark Harrison, WR Quron Pratt, RT Kaleb Johnson, DT Scott Vallone, LB Khaseem Greene, LB Steve Beauharnais, CB Logan Ryan, SS Duron Harmon

Key Losses: WR Mohamed Sanu, LG Desmond Wynn, RG Art Forst, DE Manny Abreu, DT Justin Francis, FS David Rowe

Coming off a 4-8 record, the Scarlet Knights were picked near the bottom of the Big East in most 2011 preseason polls. However, coach Greg Schiano turned things around, leading Rutgers to its fifth season of at least eight wins in the last six years. Quarterbacks Chas Dodd and Gary Nova finished 2011 with very little clarity as to who will be the starter when spring practice begins. The passing game was dealt a blow when receiver Mohamed Sanu declared for the NFL Draft. Running back Jawan Jamison had a solid freshman campaign, posting 897 yards and nine touchdowns. Jamison, Jeremy Deering and Savon Huggins will lead the rushing attack next year, which will likely be the focal point of the offense with uncertainty involving the passing attack. The offensive line showed some improvement from 2010, but still needs work going into next year.

Rutgers led the Big East in total, scoring and pass defense this season, and the defense should be near the top of the conference in 2012. Losing Manny Abreu and Justin Francis is a blow to the defensive line, but tackle Scott Vallone will be one of the top linemen in the Big East next year. Linebacker Khaseem Greene suffered an ankle injury in the Pinstripe Bowl win over Iowa State and may miss a portion of spring practice. Even if Greene is limited in the spring, it shouldn’t affect his availability for the 2012 season. All four starters are back in the secondary, including All-Big East returnees in safety Duron Harmon and cornerback Logan Ryan.

4. South Florida

Key Returnees: QB B.J. Daniels, WR Sterling Griffin, DE Ryne Giddins, LB DeDe Lattmore, LB Mike Lanaris, LB Sam Barrington, CB Kayvon Webster, S Jon Lejiste

Key Losses: RB Darrell Scott, LG Jeremiah Warren, C Chaz Hine, DT Keith McCaskill, CB Quenton Washington, S Jerrell Young

The Bulls appeared to be a contender for the Big East crown through the first month of the season, posting a 4-0 record with a win over Notre Dame in the opener. However, South Florida failed to capitalize off that early momentum, losing seven out of its last eight games to miss the postseason for the first time since 2004.

Problems on both sides of the ball contributed to the 5-7 record, but South Florida isn’t too far off contending for a Big East title. Six of the seven losses were by 10 points or less, including three that were decided by a field goal. Quarterback B.J. Daniels is back next season and threw for a career-high 2,604 yards in 2011. Running back Darrell Scott decided to bolt for the NFL, but Demetris Murray returns after rushing for 503 yards in 2011. The receiving corps will get a boost from a full year from Sterling Griffin, who missed four games due to an ankle injury in late October.

Defensive coordinator Mark Snyder departed for Texas A&M, but the defense figures to be one of the best in the Big East next year. Defensive end Ryne Giddins returns after registering 5.5 sacks and picking up second-team All-Big East honors in 2011. All three starters return in the linebacking corps, including promising sophomore DeDe Lattimore. Two starters must be replaced in the secondary, but strong safety Jon Lejiste and cornerback Kayvon Webster are solid building blocks for the new coordinator.

5. Cincinnati

Key Returnees: QB Munchie Legaux, WR Kenbrell Thompkins, WR Anthony McClung, DE Walter Stewart, DE Dan Giordano, LB Maalik Bomar, CB Cameron Cheatham, SS Drew Frey

Key Losses: QB Zach Collaros, RB Isaiah Pead, WR DJ Woods, LT Alex Hoffman, OG Randy Martinez, DT Derek Wolfe, DT John Hughes, LB JK Schaffer, FS Wesley Richardson

Cincinnati’s Butch Jones earned the Big East’s 2011 Coach of the Year honor and he will certainly have his work cut out for him in 2012. The Bearcats will be replacing several key contributors, but don’t expect this team to slip too far in the standings.

Quarterback Zach Collaros and running back Isaiah Pead have finished their eligibility, leaving a gaping hole in the backfield. Quarterback Munchie Legaux started three games this year, but needs work as a passer. George Winn, Jameel Poteat and Ralph David Abernathy IV will all likely see carries as the Bearcats attempt to replace Pead’s production. Three starters depart on the offensive line, including All-Big East selections in guard Randy Martinez and tackle Alex Hoffman. Although Cincinnati suffered some key losses on offense, if Legaux shows improvement as a passer, this offense should remain in the top half of the Big East.

A big reason for Cincinnati’s turnaround from 4-8 in 2010 to co-Big East champs was the play of the defense. The Bearcats finished second nationally with 3.5 sacks per game and forced 33 turnovers. This unit suffers some key losses, but there is enough returning to expect similar production next year. Ends Dan Giordano and Walter Stewart combined for 11 sacks this season and will anchor the line in 2012. Replacing linebacker JK Schaffer and tackle Derek Wolfe will be the toughest assignment for the defensive staff.

6. Pittsburgh

Key Returnees: QB Tino Sunseri, RB Ray Graham, WR Devin Street, WR Mike Shanahan, DE Aaron Donald, CB K’Waun Williams, S Jared Holley, S Andrew Taglianetti

Key Losses: RG Lucas Nix, DE Brandon Lindsey, DT Chas Alecxih, LB Max Gruder, CB Antwuan Reed

Todd Graham came to Pittsburgh with many promises, including the installation of a high-octane offense. Unfortunately for Pittsburgh, Graham never really fulfilled the promises from his opening press conference and decided to bolt for Arizona State after one year. Wisconsin offensive coordinator Paul Chryst was picked as Pittsburgh’s next coach and one that the administration hopes can stick around and provide some much-needed stability.

Chryst’s specialty is on offense, which is where the Panthers need a lot of work in 2012. Quarterback Tino Sunseri had a mediocre 2011 season, throwing 10 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. Although Sunseri’s play wasn’t great, he didn’t have a lot of help from an offensive line that allowed 64 sacks. Running back Ray Graham also suffered a season-ending knee injury in late October, which was another setback for an offense looking for playmakers. Sunseri and Graham both return for 2012, along with receivers Devin Street and Mike Shanahan. Chryst’s pro-style offense should be a better fit for Sunseri and the offensive line, but whether or not that translates to wins remains to be seen.

Pittsburgh finished 2011 ranked 35th nationally in total defense, but must replace a handful of key contributors. The Panthers lose linemen Chas Alecxih and Myles Caragein, while linebacker Brandon Lindsey also departs. With three starters returning, the secondary should be improved, but this unit will have more pressure on its shoulders, especially with the defense losing some of its top pass rushers.

The Panthers aren’t short on talent, but adapting to their third coach in three seasons won’t be an easy transition. Considering what’s coming back and the coaching situation, Pittsburgh will be the toughest team to peg in the Big East preseason predictions.

7. Syracuse

Key Returnees: QB Ryan Nassib, WR Alec Lemon, OT Justin Pugh, LB Marquis Spruill, LB Dan Vaughan, LB Dyshawn Davis, SS Shamarko Thomas

Key Losses: RB Antwon Bailey, WR Van Chew, TE Nick Provo, RG Andrew Tiller, DE Chandler Jones

After posting eight wins and a Pinstripe Bowl victory over Kansas State, Syracuse seemed poised to contend for the Big East title in 2011. Instead of taking another step forward under coach Doug Marrone, the Orange slid back to the cellar of the Big East with a disappointing 5-7 record.

If Syracuse wants to get back to a bowl game in 2012, there will be several question marks to answer in preseason practices. Quarterback Ryan Nassib is a good building block on offense, but the team loses running back Antwon Bailey and All-Big East guard Andrew Tiller.

The Orange ranked last in the Big East in total and scoring defense, while finishing sixth in rush and pass defense. Although this unit will have a handful of returning starters, the departure of end Chandler Jones to the NFL Draft is a significant loss. Marquis Spruill, Dyshawn Davis and Dan Vaughan form a solid trio at linebacker, while the secondary figures to be improved with nearly everyone coming back. Developing a pass rush and shoring up the run defense is going to be critical to Syracuse’s defensive success in 2012.

8. Connecticut

Key Returnees: RB Lyle McCombs, TE Ryan Griffin, DE Jesse Joseph, DE Trevardo Williams, LB Sio Moore, LB Jory Johnson, LB Yawin Smallwood, CB Dwayne Gratz, CB Blidi Wreh-Wilson, S Jerome Junior, S Byron Jones

Key Losses: WR Kashif Moore, WR Isiah Moore, LT Mike Ryan, C Moe Petrus, DT Kendall Reyes, DT Twyon Martin, K Dave Teggart

After posting four consecutive seasons of at least eight wins, Connecticut suffered its first losing since 2006 last year. If the Huskies want to get back into the postseason or the top half of the Big East standings, getting improved quarterback play is a must. Johnny McEntee finished with 2,110 yards and 12 passing scores, but missed a lot of throws. Coach Paul Pasqualoni is attempting to fix this area by recruiting JUCO prospect Chandler Whitmer and freshman Casey Cochran. The rushing attack will remain strong with Lyle McCombs returning, and the receiving corps will get a boost from Clemson transfer Bryce McNeal.

Defense has been a strength in recent years for the Huskies and this group should remain solid in 2012. Replacing tackles Kendall Reyes and Twyon Martin will be priority No. 1 for coordinator Don Brown, but the linebacking corps should be among the best in the Big East, while a healthy year from Blidi Wreh-Wilson at cornerback should boost the pass defense.

Considering the Huskies could struggle to score points, losing All-Big East kicker Dave Teggart is a big blow to the special teams.

Related 2012 Content:

2012 Heisman Trophy Candidates

Very Early Preseason 2012 College Football Top 25

Athlon Roundtable: Who are the BCS National Title Contenders in 2012?

What To Expect from the Crimson Tide in 2012?

What To Expect from the LSU Tigers in 2012?

2012 SEC Schedule Analysis

Three Teams on the Rise in 2012

Three Teams Sliding Back in 2012

Top Non-Conference Games to Watch in 2012

CFB Conferences: 

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