Louisville Cardinals Are Early Favorites to Win Closely Contested 2012 Big East Title

Louisville Cardinals Are Early Favorites to Win Closely Contested 2012 Big East TitleFew BCS conferences have been rocked harder than the Big East, which is now far and away the weakest conference among the big boys. West Virginia, which won the Orange Bowl last season, has left for the Big 12. TCU, which was supposed to join the Big East, opted to join the Big 12 instead. Syracuse and Pittsburgh are around for this year but will soon leave for the ACC.

About the only good news is that Boise State agreed to join the conference next season along with Houston, SMU and Central Florida. Those additions are important, but it will take some time for the conference to rebuild its credibility.

For now, the 2012 race for the Big East is expected to be very close. The longest shot is 25-1 UConn, which is relatively small considering that conferences like the Pac 12 and Big Ten have 100-1 underdogs Colorado and Minnesota, respectively.

Louisville has the best chance to win it all, at 9-4 odds, followed by Cincinnati at 5-2 and South Florida at 7-2. Pittsburgh and Rutgers (13-2), Syracuse and Temple (20-1), and Connecticut (25-1) round out the conference.

The Louisville Cardinals are favored, a stunning turnaround from where they were a few years ago. In just two seasons, Charlie Strong has cleaned up the program. Now along with Big East Rookie of the Year Teddy Bridgewater's quarterbacking, the Cardinals are in very good shape. Their stingy defense gave up only 20.1 points per game last season.

This is a team that started 11 true freshmen last season and still earned a share of the Big East title. The Cardinals will be aiming to do at least that again since the team they shared the title with — West Virginia — is no longer in the conference.

While Louisville may be favored, though, the Cardinals aren't significantly better than Cincinnati, South Florida, Pittsburgh or Rutgers, so expect this to be a tight race the entire way through.

Cincinnati appears to have found another gem of a coach in Butch Jones, and the Bearcats will be a challenge this season. The offense is rebuilding, but the defense was in the Top 25 in the nation last season (20.3 points per game), and there's little reason to think it won't be as reliable again. If quarterback Muncie Legaux, who started three games last season when Zach Collaros went down, can make the offense work, the Cats could easily come out on top in the Big East.

Meanwhile, the Bulls have a good case for the title as well. They're a year further in the Skip Holtz era, and quarterback B.J. Daniels has another year of experience under his belt. The offense was inconsistent last season but flashed its potential. The Bulls lost five games by six points or less, so if they can score a few more points to back a stellar defense, they could be a dark horse.

Pittsburgh's case is built around running back Ray Graham, who ran for 964 yards and nine touchdowns in just eight games last season. The problem is Tino Sunseri's quarterbacking and the meek passing game. Only four starters return on defense, and with a regime change at head coach to Paul Chryst, this team could require an adjustment period — even if the elite talent is on the roster.

As for Rutgers, this team should have the best defense in the Big East with four-year starter Scott Vallone and Darius Hamilton, who was New Jersey's top-ranked prospect in 2012. At linebacker, the Big East's Defensive Player of the Year, Khaseem Greene, returns with four-year starter Steve Beauharnais. In the secondary, Logan Ryan and Duron Harmon are back after being all-conference picks in 2011. The question is the offense, which is breaking in a new quarterback and is transitioning after waving goodbye to receiver Mohamed Sanu, the Big East's all-time receiving leader. Throw in the fact that head coach Greg Schiano bolted for the NFL's Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and the Scarlet Knights have their own set of questions to answer.

The Big East isn't a conference for pretty offense. Old-school, rugged football will dominate, but even without the conference's big-brand names, this group will still provide an entertaining race to the end.