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Big East Week: Binding Picks, Contenders (So to Speak)


Big East predictions brought to you by Marginally Applicable Moments From the Halcyon Third Season of The Simpsons. "The third season of The Simpsons: driving blockbuster ticket sales 15 years later. Where's our money?"
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1. West Virginia
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I was skeptical last summer about Pat White and Steve Slaton's freshman brilliance, or at least the residual momentum going into `06, coming as it did over just half a season and against mostly sketchy defenses and in a little more than a quarter against a potentially lethargic Georgia group that figured out the Mountaineer spread by the middle of the second quarter. They weren't all that competitive against Virginia Tech; the Louisville win was suspicious. We've seen West Virginia shine for a season (1988, 1993) and quickly fade back into the mire, or the caves, or whatever. The point is, no two WVU teams had ever finished in the January polls in consecutive seasons. That streak would end, but for a mythical championship contender? Two straight top ten finishes, all of a sudden? No.

Well, fool me once, shame on you, etc. I was right about Louisville winning the conference, but I have eyes. And once they saw Maryland reamed for 38 points in the first half, and  Louisville's defense tagged for 540 yards with Slaton regularly on the bench, and Slaton and White dice up Pittsburgh (again) for 639 total yards and six touchdowns in one night - running, throwing, whatever, just the two of them and a superbly disciplined line - resistance, as they say, was futile:

Those were only the Thursday night games, and the Mountaineers' persistent presence on week nights is a symptom of their biggest obstacle to a mythical championship run, even bigger than the departure of o-line coach Rick Trickett or a sometimes sketchy defense - I'm sold on the invincibility of the offense, as long as its stars are healthy, but the Big East still isn't likely to command enough respect from voters to overcome an undefeated Texas, Oklahoma, Michigan or any team from the SEC, should it come down to that. But I like this team's track, and it has a great opportunity (the toughest non-conference game is at Maryland) to put itself in prime BCS position. With respects to McFadden/Jones and Davis/Spiller, White and Slaton are the most fearsome combo in the country, running a perfect system for their huge talents, and they're going to get another shot at bigger game than Louisville before they move on. As long as UL is adjusting to a new coach and visiting Morgantown, it might as well be now.

Marginally Applicable Moment From the Halcyon Third Season of The Simpsons Says:
"Well, Bart, what did you learn in karate class today?"

"Well, um... today we learned how to rip out a man's heart and show it to him before he died."

"Heh heh heh, that'll learn him!" - (Homer and Bart, "When Flanders Failed")

2. Louisville
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As I said Friday, whatever suparlatives apply to West Virginia's offense apply equally to Louisville's, which is the strategic antogonist of WVU in its pass-first focus but one of its very few equals in terms of sheer production. What White and Slaton are to defensive coordinators as runners, Brian Brohm and his receivers are in the passing game, yet the Cardinals were still balanced enough at the same time to finish second in the Big East in rushing. The repeal of the ridiculous clock rules will push them back over 40 points per game, easily.

2004 Recruiting rankings say: "At least we were right about one elite quarterback."
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But there's the great unknown in Steve Kragthorpe, who has everyone's respect coming from Tulsa but still can only hope in the short-term to sustain the momentum Bobby Petrino built. It's some wave he rides in on, though; there's probably not another quarterback I'd rather have right now than Brohm going into West Virginia for the defining game of the season on a Thursday night. If the defense inspires even half as much confidence by the start of November, I might consider revising this call in the Cards' favor.
Marginally Applicable Moment From the Halcyon Third Season of The Simpsons Says:
"Come on boys, break it up. That belly ain't getting any pinker." - (Bart to bullies, "Separate Vocations")

3. Rutgers
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My initial thoughts on Rutgers before I looked at it very closely were along the lines of "Eh, won a lot of close games, kind of a fluke." But though the Knights did win their share of close games, they did it in sufficiently un-flukey fashion for my tastes to inspire some optimism for a repeat. Ray Rice is a less specatcular version of White and Slaton, a freshman star who proved his staying power with a legiitmately elite encore as a sophomore, and even if Mike Teel's not the guy to take Rutgers' offense anywhere near the league's Big Two for overall firepower, he is extraordinarily well-protected (Rutgers allowed eight sacks all of last season) and demonstrated enough improvement at the end of his first season as starter with the addition of eligibility-addled receiver Kenny Britt to keep RU in every game with this defense. The secondary might have an issue here and there, but who has time to challenge it? Greg Schiano's defense has been one of the nation's most aggressive and sack-happy each of the last two years.
Marginally Applicable Moment From the Halcyon Third Season of The Simpsons Says:
"Magic Johnson!? [picks up the phone] Y'ello?"

"Is this really Homer Simpson?"

"Yeah."

"Wow. Homer, I just used our last time-out to call and congratulate you on averting that nuclear holocaust."

"Uh Magic, What if people think a guy's a hero, but he was really just lucky?"

"Don't worry. Sooner or later, people like that are exposed as the frauds they are."

"Oh. Thanks, Magic." - (Homer and Earvin "Magic" Johnson, "Homer Defined")

4. South Florida
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I've written twice in the last month about the warning alarms USF sets off as an underdog whose preseason bubble has been over-inflated by a couple stunning upsets, hopefully at least reminding the Bull bandwagon why it was the wins over Louisville and West Virginia the last two years were so stunning to begin with. But it should be at least as telling that - close as Phil Steele claims he came - nobody pulled the trigger on USF as a major contender for the Big East title; despite the lip service to that end, every outlet keeps the Bulls fourth in the league (the exception, Steele, only has them third). In reality, Matt Grothe's since-heralded freshman season equalled 2005 as the lowest-scoring here since USF moved up from I-AA in 2001. With a better running game (based on the projected contributions of ex-Alabama signee Mike Ford), that might improve, but the defense also loses its longtime bellwether, Stephen Nicholas, and this is too crowded a league for improvement on last year's eight wins.
Marginally Applicable Moment From the Halcyon Third Season of The Simpsons Says:
"First, let me assure you that this is not one of those shady pyramid schemes you've been hearing about. No sir. Our model is the trapezoid!" - (Seminar speaker, "I Married Marge")
Update [2007-8-6 10:12:1 by SMQ]:

And the rest...

5. Cincinnati
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A person in the right mindset could find plenty of reasons to take a flier on Cincinnati: the defense is the most experienced in the league in terms of career starts, and potentially one of its best if improves again on anywhere near the level it did from ‘05-’06; it delivered probably the single best performance by any Big East team last year in a four-touchdown rout of Rutgers, and beat darling South Florida 23-6; the quarterback job will be won by one of two guys who have been around the proverbial block, adversity-wise, and not the same block; and the new coach comes from rejuvenating a nondescript passing game and winning an improbable conference championship at his last stop. For the determined, there’s fuel for that torch.

Just don’t blame me when it flickers and dies where it left off last year, at seven wins, none of them likely to match the Rutgers game for raised eyebrows (measured in terms of total inches removed from the top of the eyelid). The difference in making a little noise during a run at the polls and in settling in for the International Bowl after a season of predictable frustration is finding some success against at least one or two of the best teams on the schedule. For Cincinnati, that means Louisville, West Virginia and Rutgers, a collective it’s managed to beat only once in six tries its first two years here; South Florida, on the other hand, is 3-3 against the league’s upper echelon since the move from C-USA.

That can change, but why should it? Cincinnati is a great bowl bet because it plays Miami (Ohio), San Diego State, Southeast Missouri State and Syracuse, but the season’s decisive game in the end – does UC make a bowl? Finish above .500? – is likely to be against Pitt in October.

Marginally Applicable Quote From the Halcyon Third Season of The Simpsons:
"Maybe it's the Champale talking, but I think you're pretty sexy."

"Really? It must be the champale talking." – (Marge and Homer, "I Married Marge")

6. Pittsburgh
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Here’s the Panthers’ big problem, besides Dave Wannstedt, in general, and having to endure another evening of certain humiliation at West Virginia: who’s going to play quarterback? If it could begin to answer that, I might consider giving Pitt a shot at something better than 6-6, based on the rest of its offense (especially the receivers, always a strong suit here). As long as the depth chart longs for the guiding hand of an oblivious true freshman, though, and one of the worst four or five run defenses in any BCS conference is breaking in three new linebackers, forecasts call for doom and doom.

Last ride of the Wannstache?
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Going back to the metric against the best of the conference: Pitt is 0-6 against Louisville, West Virginia and Rutgers the last two years, losing by an average of 19 points. You might at some point be solicited for respect for tiny running back LaRod Stephens-Howling, based his 1,100-yard sophomore season (that’s total yards, rushing and receiving), but Pitt’s rushing average against those three and South Florida? Forty-eight yards per game on two per carry, and now there’s no Tyler Palko to pick up the slack (or make a passable attempt to, anyway. Or at least a fiery, emotional attempt that produces great numbers amid wider failure. For now, it’s just failure). Wannstedt is going to have to pull out some stops to save his job, and I can’t think of any coach – maybe Chan Gailey? Al Groh? Any other excessively risk-averse NFL refugee? – with a worse track record of that sort of creativity.
Marginally Applicable Quote From the Halcyon Third Season of The Simpsons:
"How could this happen? We started out like Romeo and Juliet, but it ended up in tragedy." – (Milhouse, "Bart’s Friend Falls In Love")
7. Connecticut
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UConn typically has something to recommend it, i.e. Dan Orlovsky’s prolific three-year run at quarterback, or a top ten defense in 2005, but the brief tide the Huskies rode to nine wins in 2003 and the Motor City Bowl in ‘04 seems to have permanently waned – there’s nothing misleading about last year’s 4-8 finish, or the lowest point of Randy Edsall’s tenure, the six-point November loss to Syracuse, the Orange’s first and only Big East win under Greg Robinson. The defense more or less fell off the planet across the board, especially against the run (105th nationally), and the leading passer has been moved to receiver in favor of a JUCO transfer.

The Huskies can hold their breath for a bowl run on the merits of a) reversion to mean defensively (last year’s atrocities set back three years of steady, significant improvement), b) sustainable health (44 starts lost to injury in ‘06, according to Steele) and c) Donald Brown, who had almost 700 yards in the last five games as a redshirt freshman, including 200-yard games against Pittsburgh and, much more impressively, Rutgers. But the Huskies still lost four of those five, and only beat Pitt on a gutsy two-point attempt in double overtime.

Marginally Applicable Quote From the Halcyon Third Season of The Simpsons:
"Your superior intellect is no match for our puny weapons!" – (Alien overlords Kang and Kodos, "Treehouse of Horror II")
8. Syracuse
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Man, I dunno, maybe it’s inflated by the 457 yards (10.2 per carry) it allowed at West Virginia, but the first thing Syracuse has to do to even consider moving out of the cellar is stop somebody from running. The only way you’re going to get anywhere allowing 5.3 per carry (that’s vs. the conference; 4.8 overall) is if your offense matches that itself, but Syracuse didn’t match that number even once last year, not even against Miami, Ohio, or UConn, and lost its top running back for the season in the spring. Part of that dismal effort was the incredible number of sacks allowed by the line, 45 overall and at least four in seven different games, more than all but three other teams anywhere. Welcome to the lineup, Andrew Robinson.

Something nice, per respect for my mother: the margin of defeat in Big East games last year was better by about a field goal than in Robinson’s first season (only 15 points, down from 17.5, thanks to the shocking upset of UConn) and young receivers Mike Williams and Taj Smith are viable big play threats (19 per catch between them, seven touchdowns, and Smith had a 48-yard run at Illinois before missing the last seven games), if Robinson has any time to get them the ball.

Marginally Applicable Quote From the Halcyon Third Season of The Simpsons:
"The worm has turned, has it not, my tin-plated friend? Look at you! You were once so proud. Now feel the wrath of the left hand of Burns!" – (Mr. Burns, using a left-handed can-opener at the mall, "When Flanders Failed")

or

"All the years I've lobbied to be treated like an adult have blown up in my face." – (Lisa, "Lisa’s Pony")