West Virginia’s out. Temple’s in.
The Big East’s constant state of transition begins again this season with more changes to come in 2013. Just as this round of Big East realignment begins with a trick, so does the season for the Big East.
Only seven Big East teams are in play this week with Cincinnati delaying its opener until next week. More Big East teams are playing FCS programs (three) than are playing major conference foes (two). Next week will be more exciting with Pittsburgh-Cincinnati on Thursday, plus three Big East vs. power conference teams among the highlights in Week Two.
For now, most the Big East is working to figure out its personnel in the opening week. Here are the key storylines to watch.
Big East's Top Storylines to Watch in Week 1
1. Is Louisville ready to handle expectations?
Coach Charlie Strong complained last season his team had trouble handling success, which isn’t a surprise for such a young team. The Cardinals are still young in 2012 with 25 freshmen and sophomores on the two-deep depth chart, including nine projected starters. They’re a little more seasoned than a year ago, but will it make a difference this season. Handling success will come later. Handling expectations will come now. Since the 31-24 loss to NC State in the bowl game, Louisville has been a near unanimous pick to win the Big East. Louisville is a two-touchdown favorite at home against a Kentucky team that scored five offensive touchdowns away from Lexington last season. If the Cardinals struggle in the opener, the rest of the Big East will look to pounce.
2. How will Syracuse assemble its offense?
Star left tackle Justin Pugh is out. Leading receiver Alec Lemon was hurt for most of preseason camp. And the Orange have a logjam at running back. Quarterback Ryan Nassib ran hot and cold last season, completing 69.7 percent of his passes with 14 touchdowns and one interception in Syracuse’s five wins. Conversely, he completed 58.1 percent of his passes with eight TDs and eight picks in Syracuse’s seven losses. Northwestern isn’t the easiest opener, but the Wildcats ranked 80th in total defense a year ago. USC this is not -- that comes in Week Two.
3. What does the Kyle Flood era look like at Rutgers?
Rutgers’ trip to Tulane is yet another game a Big East team should win in the opening weekend. This road trip will be of interest merely to see someone other than Greg Schiano coaching the Scarlet Knights. Flood was on Schiano’s staff since 2005, the first season in a run of six bowl games in seven years, so Rutgers won’t change overnight. But how will the defense perform without Schiano calling the shots? New defensive coordinator Robb Smith has been on the staff for three years. On offense, will Flood have as quick a hook as Schiano did if newly named starter Gary Nova struggles. Rutgers may have what it takes to win the Big East, but first-time head coach Flood is a notable question mark.
4. Will Ray Graham play for Pittsburgh? If not, what will we see from Rushel Shell?
Graham’s status for the opener against Youngstown State has been questionable, but he’s been healthier late in camp since recovering from the torn ACL that kept him out of the final five games last season. Presumably, Pitt won’t need Graham to defeat the Penguins. Will Paul Chryst hold Graham to keep him healthy for Cincinnati on Sept. 6 and Virginia Tech on Sept. 15, or will he give Graham a chance to test his knee in game action? If Graham is out, backup Isaac Bennett will be the primary back, but it’s also likely Pitt will play highly touted freshman Rushel Shell.
5. Has the Syracuse defense returned to form?
Doug Marrone shook up his defensive staff after the Orange ranked last in the Big East in in total offense and scoring defense last year. Coordinator Scott Shafer is still in charge, though. Shafer led the defense’s turnaround in 2010, when Syracuse ranked seventh nationally in total defense. Syracuse’s personnel should be improved in 2012 with more experience at linebacker and cornerback and more depth and speed overall. The arrival of junior college defensive end Markus Pierce-Brewster has given Syracuse the flexibility to move returning starter Deon Goggins between end and tackle. On the other side of the ball, Northwestern has a new starting quarterback (Kain Colter), but the Wildcats have been one of the Big Ten’s better offensive teams in recent years. Northwestern ranked second in the league in total offense (420.8 yards per game) last season.
6. Will anyone emerge at running back for the Cardinals?
Strong would prefer to have one running back get into a rhythm for Louisville as workhorse Bilal Powell did two seasons ago. That never occurred last year as Dominique Brown, Vic Anderson and Jeremy Wright all topped at least 70 carries. The Cardinals averaged a lackluster 121.5 rushing yards per game with 13 total touchdowns on the ground as a result. This season, Brown and Wright are back in the mix along with junior Senorise Perry. The Cardinals would prefer to see a feature back emerge against Kentucky.
7. What will the running back rotation look like at Temple?
Temple returns to the Big East for the first time since 2004 with a running back seeing the field for the first time since Oct. 1. At Boston College, Montel Harris rushed for 3,735 yards and 27 career touchdowns. He joins a team that has proven it can win games with two running backs and limited contributions in the passing game, but that was in the MAC. Harris will team Matt Brown (914 yards last season) in the Temple backfield, which also includes mobile quarterback Chris Coyer. The opener against Villanova could give us a glimpse at the best run game in the Big East.
Week 1 Big East Predictions
Week 1 Big East Games
UMass at UConn
Villanova at Temple
N’western at Syracuse
Youngstown St at Pittsburgh
Chattanooga at USF
Rutgers at Tulane
Kentucky at Louisville
by David Fox
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