Kickoff for the 2012 college football season is just around the corner. However, plenty of unanswered questions remain around the nation for every team. Injuries, quarterback battles and players that need to step up to make a run at the conference title will all be under the spotlight over the next couple of weeks.
The Big East's 10 Biggest Storylines to Watch in Fall Practice
1. Will this finally be the year USF’s quarterback gets some help?
Since 2006, the Bulls’ offense has rested almost solely on the shoulders of dual-threat quarterbacks B.J. Daniels and Matt Grothe. The Bulls haven’t had a 1,000-yard running back since 2005 and has never had a 1,000-yard receiver. Darrell Scott’s 814 rushing yards was a step in the right direction last season in taking some of the weight off Daniels, who quietly had the best season of his career in 2011. Scott left early for the NFL Draft, so USF is back to looking for a second playmaker on offense. Demetris Murray is back after rushing for 1,036 yards the last two seasons, and Lindsey Lamar has bulked up to try to translate his dynamic special teams ability to running back. The biggest room for improvement, however, could be at wide receiver. Sterling Griffin missed four games with a broken foot, but he still led the Bulls with 530 receiving yards and 43 catches.
2. Is Pittsburgh’s Ray Graham 100 percent?
Before suffering a torn ACL in the 35-20 win over Connecticut, Graham was well on his way to a 1,000-yard season and was one of the top running backs in the nation. Without him in the lineup, the Panthers managed to score over 25 points only once over the last five games. New coach Paul Chryst developed some of the top rushing attacks in the nation at Wisconsin and should continue that trend at Pittsburgh, provided the offensive line improves in 2012. Graham did not participate in spring practice, allowing sophomore Isaac Bennett to impress the coaching staff. The competition will only increase in the fall with the arrival of top recruit Rushel Shell. All signs point to Graham returning for fall camp, but with Bennett and Shell capable options, Chryst and coordinator Joe Rudolph can afford to bring him along slowly. Even if Graham is limited early in the year, expect the senior to rank among the Big East leaders in rushing yards.
3. Can Kyle Flood Keep Rutgers On Track for a Big East Title?
Losing Greg Schiano to the NFL was a huge blow to a program that emerged as a consistent bowl team in the Big East. Rutgers went 12-43 in the five years prior to his arrival, but Schiano led the Scarlet Knights to five seasons of at least eight victories in the last six years. New coach Kyle Flood has been with Rutgers since 2006, so he’s certainly familiar with the ins and outs of the program. However, there’s no guarantee this will be a smooth coaching transition. Flood has no head coaching experience and also has a handful of new assistants. Rutgers finished 2011 by winning four out of its last five games and is picked by most to finish in the top four of the conference. If Flood can build off what Schiano started, the Scarlet Knights have a chance to win the Big East title in 2012. However, there’s plenty of skepticism surrounding the program, especially with a first-year coach and a team with quarterback question marks. It’s important for Flood to put his stamp on the program this fall and keep Rutgers in the mix for a Big East title.
4. Can Cincinnati continue its momentum on defense despite a change in leadership?
A year after Cincinnati finished seventh in the Big East in total defense and eighth in scoring defense, the Bearcats were in the top-10 nationally in rush defense, sacks and tackles for a loss in 2011. Meanwhile, the Bearcats improved from 14 takeaways, a Big East-low, to 33 takeaways in 2012. Illinois gobbled up co-defensive coordinator Tim Banks, leaving John Jancek in charge. Jancek won’t have defensive stalwarts like JK Schaffer and Derek Wolfe, so senior pass rushers Walter Stewart and Dan Giordano and an experienced secondary will need to be the foundation of the D. Depth is a bit of a question, and the defense will have less of a margin of error with the offense rebuilding around a new quarterback.
5. How will Teddy Bridgewater play out the entire season as Louisville’s starting quarterback?
The sophomore quarterback from Miami is so symbolic of Louisville’s future, it’s easy to forget he didn’t make his first start until the fourth game of the season and then lost his first three starts to Marshall, North Carolina and Cincinnati. Through the final six games of the regular season, Bridgewater led the Cards to a 5-1 finish, completing 68.3 percent of his passes for 1,146 yards with eight touchdowns and four interceptions during that span. That all unraveled in the bowl loss to NC State when Bridgwater threw three interceptions and took five sacks. Leading the Big East favorites means Bridgewater -- plus his sophomore receivers DeVante Parker, Michaelee Harris and Eli Rogers -- will need to take the next step to be a consistent, conference championship-caliber performer.
6. Was last season a hiccup in the rebuilding process at Syracuse or a return to the bad old days?
The optimism around Doug Marrone’s first two seasons is a little more cautious. A year after Syracuse found its way back to a bowl game in 2010, the Orange slid back into its losing ways, going 5-7 in 2011 with a five-game losing streak to end the season. The question is if Syracuse will pick up where it left off at the end of 2011 or if that was minor speed bump on the way back to respectability. Syracuse still has a talent gap with the top of its conference and especially against non-conference opponents USC and Missouri. But last season included some bad luck including injuries to key players and suspensions. It’s been a quieter offseason for Marrone, so the Orange should be more focused on improving a defense that ranked last in the Big East and an offense that ranked 90th nationally.
7. How Will Montel Harris Fit in at Temple?
If he’s healthy, Harris will be a huge addition to Temple’s offense. Bernard Pierce was the Owls’ workhorse over the last three seasons, accumulating 663 carries and 3,570 yards. His decision to enter the NFL Draft was a setback to the offense, as expected starter Matt Brown lacks ideal size to be an every down back. However, Harris should be a perfect complement rusher. He is the NCAA’s active career rushing leader with 3,735 yards on 787 carries in 40 games with Boston College. Harris has battled knee issues since late in the 2010 season and was dismissed from the Eagles after spring practice. If healthy, the senior should finish near the top of the Big East in rushing. Temple isn’t the most prolific passing team, so Harris and Brown will have to carry the offense. However, the lack of a proven passing attack and offensive line question marks could prevent the Owls from matching last season’s 30.6 points a game average.
8. Who Will Win the Quarterback Battles at Cincinnati, Connecticut and Rutgers?
Cincinnati, Connecticut and Rutgers each finished spring practice with an uncertain situation under center. The Bearcats are leaning with junior Munchie Legaux, but senior Brendon Kay is pushing for time. Legaux started the final three regular season games in relief of Zach Collaros and finished with 749 passing yards and five touchdowns. However, Legaux’s 47.4 completion percentage shows he still needs a lot of work as a passer. Connecticut’s passing offense was the worst in the Big East last season and desperately needs a jumpstart in 2012. Junior college recruit Chandler Whitmer had an impressive showing in the spring game and is expected to edge Johnny McEntee for the No. 1 spot. Although Whitmer should upgrade the passing attack, he has no experience on the FBS level. Rutgers should be the best team out of this trio and returns two experienced quarterbacks: Chas Dodd and Gary Nova. Dodd started more games last year (eight), but Nova threw for more touchdowns (11). Both quarterbacks could see time in 2012, but Nova should have the inside track at the No. 1 spot.
9. Who’s in and who’s out on the Connecticut defense?
Connecticut has talent on defense. We feel safe in saying that (Big East's Top 50 Players for 2012). However, we have some questions about the Huskies’ personnel on D. First, what kind of improvement can the Connecticut pass defense expect from a healthy Blidi Wreh-Wilson, one of the Big East’s best cornerbacks? With Wreh-Wilson out for part of last season last season, three opponents passed for at least 430 yards agains the Huskies (Western Michigan, West Virginia and Pittsburgh). The pass defense -- which includes three returning starters in the secondary plus Wreh-Wilson -- should be better, but now Connecticut might be more worried about the rush defense. First-team defensive tackle Kendall Reyes is gone, as is fellow starter Twyon Martin. Veterans Shamar Stephen, an eight-game starter in 2010, and Ryan Wirth will try to anchor a front seven that ranked fourth nationally against the run.
10. Can Pittsburgh’s Offensive Line and Tino Sunseri jell in 2012?
After allowing 64 sacks last season, Pittsburgh’s offensive line can only get better. It’s unfair to blame just the line, as quarterback Tino Sunseri often held the ball too long, and former coach Todd Graham’s high-octane offense was a bad fit with the personnel. New coach Paul Chryst was one of the nation’s top offensive coordinators during his time with Wisconsin and should bring immediate improvement to this unit in 2012. The line returns three starters and should get a boost with the return of guard Chris Jacobson from injury. Sunseri should benefit the most from Chryst’s arrival, and there’s no shortage of playmakers around him with Devin Street, Mike Shanahan and tight end Hubie Graham returning. The Panthers should have a strong rushing attack, but contending for a Big East title will depend heavily on how quick the line and Sunseri can pickup the new scheme and improve from last year. Fall practice will be critical for Chryst, as he looks to find the right mix in 2012.
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