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Which Team is Louisville's Biggest Challenger in the Big East for 2013?


Louisville is a heavy favorite to win the Big East/American Athletic Conference in 2013. With quarterback Teddy Bridgewater returning, along with one of the conference’s best defenses, the Cardinals have a good opportunity to finish the season with a perfect 12-0 mark.

While Louisville is a clear No. 1, there’s a lot of debate about which team should be projected to finish second.

Cincinnati, UCF and Rutgers are the most likely candidates for the No. 2 spot, but there’s plenty of division among early preseason predictions.

The 2013 college football season is still over 100 days away, but it’s never too early to start talking predictions and expectations for each team going into 2013.

Athlon Sports’ official college football top 25 countdown for 2013 will begin in early May. With the top 25 and predictions in mind, Athlon’s editors will be debating some of the hottest topics from the preseason throughout April and May. 

Which Team is Louisville's Biggest Challenger in the Big East in 2013?

Mark Ennis, College Football Contributor, (@Mengus22)
It might surprise some to see this, but if I had to name the team most likely to challenge Louisville for the Big East title next year, I'd say it'll be one of the newcomers: UCF. These transitions to new leagues don't always go well. West Virginia got a bit of a rude awakening in the Big 12, and Temple struggled mightily in year one of the Big East as well. Still, there are reasons to believe UCF will hit the ground running in the Big East. First, the schedule. The Knights don't play Cincinnati, and get Rutgers, (new) rival South Florida, Connecticut, and Houston all at home. They do have to travel to Louisville, but even then, they get 13 days to prepare for the Cardinals and their Friday night game in October. Second, UCF returns quarterback Blake Bortles, who quietly had a fantastic 2012 season, throwing for 3,059 yards and 25 touchdowns. It also helps that Bortles returns several of his top receiving targets and Storm Johnson at running back. Third, UCF was looking at playing the 2013 season with no chance of a conference title or a bowl game. However, with the rather stunning upset of the NCAA, the postseason ban was lifted and now George O'Leary will have a chance to win a conference title and reach the postseason. Fourth, UCF might be in somewhat new territory, but it enters an America Athletic Conference with one of the more stable head coaching situations. All but three other programs in the conference will be in their first or second year under a new head coach. The stability at Central Florida should pay off with a successful initial season in a new league and make them the biggest contender to Louisville in 2013.

Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
With 13 starters back – including potential All-American quarterback Teddy Bridgewater – it’s hard to see any team threatening Louisville in the final American/Big East standings. I like UCF as a sleeper team to watch in the conference title picture, but I have to go with Cincinnati as the No. 2 team in the Big East/American. 

The Bearcats return 13 starters, and quarterback Brendon Kay played well over the final five games of 2013. Cincinnati is solid in the trenches, including an offensive line that could rank among the top 10 in the nation. The biggest concern is the coaching transition, as Tommy Tuberville looks to put his own stamp on the program. New offensive coordinator Eddie Gran is regarded as an excellent recruiter but has never served as a playcaller for a full season. Considering Gran’s lack of experience as a coordinator, along with Tuberville’s conservative tendencies in the past, how will that mesh with personnel that was recruited to run a spread attack?

Cincinnati’s schedule in conference play does have a few obstacles, including a Nov. 16 road date at Rutgers. However, with the strength in the trenches, and Kay’s performance at the end of 2012, I think the Bearcats will be Louisville’s top competition in 2013.  

Mark Ross (@AthlonSports)
Louisville may be the overwhelming favorite in the newly minted American Athletic Conference, not to mention a potential darkhorse national title contender, but the Cardinals won't win the inaugural AAC title in a cakewalk. While I think both UCF and Rutgers will be solid teams, the one I expect to push Louisville the most is Cincinnati. The Bearcats have a new head coach in Tommy Tuberville, but he's no stranger to success, as he's been a winner at his previous stops in both the SEC (Ole Miss and Auburn) and Big 12 (Texas Tech).

Tuberville has a decent amount of talent and experience returning, which should help the transition to the new coaching staff and offensive and defensive systems. On offense, the entire line is back among the seven offensive returning starters, while two starters from each level of the defense (line, linebackers and secondary) also is back. The Bearcats' offense has a budding playmaker in junior running back Ralph David Abernathy IV, although he may not fit the mold of the power running back Tuberville has preferred during his coaching career. The starting quarterback situation also will have to be settled, but both candidates, Brendon Kay and Munchie Legaux, are seniors and have starting experience.

If anything, the Bearcats' non-conference schedule - Purdue, at Illinois, Northwestern St., at Miami (Ohio) - should help the offense and the defense get more acclimated to their new systems and coaching staff, allowing both sides of the ball the opportunity to be clicking on all cylinders by the time conference play begins in October. The toughest league tests for Tuberville's team appear to be at the end with consecutive road games against Rutgers and Houston in November leading into the Dec. 5 showdown with Louisville. That game is on the Bearcats' home turf on a Thursday night and, if everything goes well up to that point, this Cincinnati team may have the chance to see that Louisville finishes its final season in the Big East/AAC without a conference title, and more importantly, a second straight BCS bowl berth.

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