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Big East Week: Choose Your Bandwagon Carefully

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Two teams:

Team A vs. Team B
8-5 '06 Record 9-4
3-5 vs. .500 Teams 3-4
4-3 vs. Conf. 4-3
21.7 Off. PPG vs. Conf. 20.7
20.1 Def. PPG vs. Conf. 19.0
16 Returning Starters 16
3 All-Conference* 1
5-1 Last 6 Games 4-2
W, 23-6 Head-to-Head L, 23-6
? Preseason Buzz ?
* - Returning first or second-team all-conference, offense and defense

One of the above teams is universally projected in the top half of the Big East, floated as a darkhorse for the conference title by every outlet, appears in the top 25s by Phil Steele and The Sporting News and would seem a virtual lock for its third straight bowl bid. The other is picked near-unanimously to fall short of a bowl game and is fortunate, really, that somebody (Street and Smith’s) thinks it might even finish fifth in the conference; everywhere else it’s picked sixth. TSN ranks this team 81st nationally.

Can you match the team with its summer hype? No peeking...

The optimistic projections fall to South Florida, as you might have guessed, whose resume going into the season is represented by Team B. The team in the left side of the column was a little tougher, so give yourself a gold sticker (and what the hell, a lollipop) if you pegged Team A as Cincinnati. Could you tell the difference?

The sweet taste of winning the International Bowl lingers, but fails to satisfy. You only want more.
- - -
I’m not trying to suggest the Bearcats are better than South Florida, though they did wallop the Bulls 23-6 last year in Cincinnati, or that they’ll necessarily finish ahead of USF or even beat them again in Tampa in November. In a league this jammed from the top down, somebody has to finish fifth, or, with Pittsburgh in the mix, sixth, and it could easily be Cincinnati. The USF love would make more sense if it had some history behind it. But both Cincy and USF are tradition-poor C-USA refugees from large metro areas with a similar track record of fringe success for most of this decade. Relative to the Big East’s Big Three last year, both stunned a cruising giant – South Florida ostentatiously sunk West Virginia’s BCS ship, a week after Cincinnati buried Rutgers’ undefeated season beneath a four-touchdown A-bomb – and came close against another (USF against Rutgers, a two-point home loss, and UC in a six-point defeat at Louisville). Both teams finished strong in November and won never-before-seen December bowl games in far-away places like Toronto and Birmingham. If South Florida had played Ohio State and Virginia Tech in back-to-back weeks in September, as the Bearcats did, instead of Florida International and Central Florida, the overall records would be the same, too.

So why such unanimity, and such large disparities between the projected fates of two teams that look so equal? Why zero buzz about the Bearcats’ returning talent?

The two obvious differences are at quarterback, where – although Cincinnati returns leading passer Dustin Grutza, a decent scrambler who started ten as a sophomore – Matt Grothe’s budding YouTube legend and the longstanding suspicion that USF is incubating a Florida-fed powerhouse has propelled the Bulls into the ever-churning mill of next big things, and in organizational stability, where Tampa native and coach-for-life Jim Leavitt is the antithesis of first-year Cincy hire Brian Kelly, in his third different location in five years.

Automatically dismissing Cincinnati’s recently stagnant offense as "rebuilding" in a new scheme, though, would be a mistake, not only because Kelly installed his scheme in time to win the bowl game, or because his last offense at Central Michigan was a creative, explosive chart-topper that won the MAC championship with a redshirt freshman trigger man, but because Cincinnati also brings back a veteran quarterback with all three of his starting receivers, one of whom, Derrick Stewart, led the Big East in yards per catch (20.5 on 33 grabs) after failing to qualify as a freshman was dismissed from the team in June. Er. The passing also features the x-factor of Ben Mauk, who never got his shot during an injury-plagued stint at Wake Forest but did throw for a ridiculous 17,000 yards in high school [Stop. Read again. Do the math] and expects to unseat Grutza with his only remaining season of eligibility.

That’s a rather blah point, though, when departed Nick Davila was responsible for the Bearcats’ best passing games last year (including the entirety of the win over Rutgers) and even adding a full field goal per game to the scoring average would only push the number into the realm of ‘mediocre.’ What really intrigues me about Cincinnati, amid all the talk of South Florida’s undeniable upward mobility, is how much better the Bearcats were in ‘06, a year after a painfully young team was regularly massacred. I covered this in April, when I posited the ‘Cats looked like a good candidate to repeat as eight-game winners:

More than a third of the eventual starting defense in 2005 was made up of freshman, and another three were sophomores, so the results were a very kitten-like 400 yards and 31 points per game allowed and not very surprising. This is why, if they're underclassmen, you want ten starters back on one side of the ball, no matter how bad they were last year:
Cincinnati Defense
Category 2005 (Rank) 2006 (Rank)
Returning Starters 3 10
Rushing 180.4 (90) 107.5 (25)
Yards Per Carry 4.4 (-) 3.7 (-)
Pass Efficiency 131.5 (83) 109.2 (20)
Yards Per Attempt 7.6 (-) 6.2 (-)
3rd Down Stop % 39.0 (67) 33.5 (32)
Sacks 24 (60) 31 (38)
Interceptions 7 (102) 14 (41)
Total Yards 401.6 (78) 309.2 (31)
Scoring 31.4 (96) 19.6 (36)
A careful analysis followed concerning short yardage conversion rates and the vast improvement of the defense in creating long yards-to-go situations on third downs. Riveting stuff, naturally, and a harbinger of continued success with eight third-year starters back, five of whom have been first or second team all-Big East in one of their first two seasons.

Now, take all that and let your darkhorse sentiments ride with the Amazin’ Grothe, if you’d like – I might be doing the same – but don’t let the buzz, or YouTube, or whatever fool you: the magazines’ perceived gap between USF and Cincinnati is still closer than the experts think. Yo!