As a new college football season approaches, many experts believe that there is a short list of teams destined for postseason glory, leaving everyone else to elude the dust cloud left by those few national powerhouses.
But as ESPN's Lee Corso says, "Not so fast, my friend."
After a memorable 2008 campaign for most of the NCAA's gridiron greats, the preseason title expectations seem to go through Austin, Texas, or Gainesville, Fla.
But there are teams out there not named the Longhorns or Gators that could do some serious damage as well. We’ll kick things off with the teams from the Big East.
With the loss of signal callers Pat White (West Virginia) and Mike Teel (Rutgers), backfield studs LeSean McCoy (Pitt) and Donald Brown (UConn) and the departure of the last of Bobby Petrino's lingering talent pool from Louisville, the talent in the Big East just isn’t the same as it has been in past years. But don't fret, Big East fans. There are still a few familiar faces in the conference that just might save the day.
1. Matt Grothe, QB (Senior), South Florida
Here's a guy that just two years ago led the Bulls to a No. 2 national ranking. His 872 rushing yards in 2007 were second among Big East quarterbacks (Pat White was No. 1) and seventh overall in the conference (behind the likes of running backs Ray Rice, McCoy, White, Steve Slaton and Brown, all of whom were first-day NFL draft picks). Grothe can also get it done in the air, as he completed 63.2 percent of his passes last season, racked up a 135.8 pass efficiency, and led the conference in total yards with 3,502. Look for Grothe to shine utilizing deep threat Carlton Mitchell and slot option Jessie Hester.
2. George Selvie, DE (Senior), South Florida
Coach Jim Leavitt must have left Santa a little something extra by the tree last Christmas, because Selvie's announcement that he would return for his senior season has to be the ultimate gift from the gridiron gods. Here's a guy whose 14 solo sacks in 2007 were tied for second in the nation with Ohio State's Vernon Gholston and Chris Long of Virginia. They were only both among the top six players selected in last year's NFL draft. Teams keyed in on Selvie in 2008, as he tallied just 13 1/2 tackles for loss and 5 1/2 sacks, but look for his first-round talent to resurface in 2009.
3. Noel Devine, RB/WR (Junior), West Virginia
Devine showed flashes of his greatness as a freshman behind Pat White and Steve Slaton in 2007, but he really came into his own in 2008, as his 1,289 rushing yards were third in the Big East behind only McCoy and Brown. Devine also averaged 118.2 total offensive yards per game on the ground and through the air last season, tallying 1,539 total yards, which was good for fifth best in the conference. Now a full season after the Rich Rodriguez era has passed at West Virginia and with White finally out of the picture, look for Devine to be an impact player all over the field for the Mountaineers.
4. Tim Brown, WR (Senior), Rutgers
Coach Greg Schiano has some huge holes to fill with the losses of standout junior receiver Kenny Britt and senior Tiquan Underwood. Britt led the Big East in receiving yards (1,371), receptions (87), receptions per game (7.3) and average yards per game (114.3) in 2008. Underwood's 12.4 yards per catch also provided instant first downs and an experienced option in tight game situations. Though not as impressive as Britt, Brown definitely opened some eyes as he reeled in 27 catches for 565 yards and six scores last season. Likely the most productive of the three senior wideouts on the Scarlet Knights roster, look for Brown to be a key part of Rutgers’ success in 2009.
5. Mardy Gilyard, WR (Senior), Cincinnati
Gilyard will be a huge part of the Bearcats' offense if they hope to repeat as Big East champs in 2009. Though not as flashy or highly touted as some of the nation's top receivers last season, he produced on par with some of the NCAA's best. Gilyard led the Big East with 11 touchdown receptions in '08, while finishing second to Kenny Britt in receiving yards (1,276) and receiving yards per game (91.1). Gilyard also finished third in the conference with 81 receptions. The graduation of bookend receiver Dominick Goodman may or may not bode well for Gilyard, as Goodman was third in the Big East with 1,028 yards and second in the conference with 84 receptions last season. His departure definitely provides more opportunity for Gilyard, but it will also require the emergence of a secondary target to take some defensive pressure off Gilyard.
6. Jarrett Brown, QB (Senior)/Coley White, QB (Freshman), West Virginia
With weapons on offense like Devine and Jock Sanders, the Mountaineers are always in the hunt, especially in a wide open Big East. Why list two quarterbacks on a players-to-watch list? Jarrett Brown is the heir apparent to the departed Pat White at this point, and did a decent job managing West Virginia's spread offense when White missed games due to injury. But here's the thing: The Mountaineers have managed to steal another talented member of the White family from the traditional SEC recruiting grounds. Redshirt freshman Coley White (6-foot, 174 pounds) is said to have the same speed and intangibles as his big brother, only he's said to have better passing ability than Pat. Yes, there are at least two other signal callers on the WVU roster. But this just has the makings of Mr. Brown looking over his shoulder until a turn for the worse has him replaced by the younger White. When it all comes down to it, who can run a Pat White offense better than someone who modeled his game after Pat White? Note to mention having the same mother.
The 2009 edition of the Big East is the definition of a tossup. The usual suspects atop the conference standings have all lost key players, bringing those top squads back to the rest of the pack.
For starters, both Connecticut and Pittsburgh lost their feature running backs. The situation is heightened by the fact that Donald Brown accounted for 74 percent of UConn's rushing yards and 45 percent of the team’s total yards last season. LeSean McCoy shouldered a hefty load for the Pitt Panthers, as well, accounting for 82 percent of their rushing yards and 34 percent of the squad's total in 2008.
The Huskies’ saving grace is they led the conference in rushing defense and were second in the Big East in pass defense. Despite losing some key defensive contributors from 2008, UConn is left with something to build on: The Huskies had four of the Big East's top 25 tacklers, and all four are returning.
Rutgers, West Virginia and defending conference champion Cincinnati are all in the process of replacing key components of their offense. All three teams have solid options at skill positions, but Rutgers and West Virginia are both looking for new signal callers. Tony Pike was solid for Cincy in ‘08, but there is a definite need for a second go-to receiver if the Bearcats are to make a second straight trip to a BCS bowl.
South Florida's Matt Grothe is now the most tenured quarterback in the conference, and he is going to be a vital part of the Bulls’ hopes of taking the conference crown in 2009. With George Selvie anchoring the defense, there should definitely be opportunities for Grothe to produce. The question remains, will he return to his 2007 form, or will it be a lackluster year for a team with loads of potential?
Louisville falls in the same category as Rutgers and West Virginia in trying to replace a senior quarterback. Hunter Cantwell never had the success of Brian Brohm in a Cardinals uniform. Cantwell's senior campaign was very inconsistent (to say the least) as he matched his 16 touchdowns with 16 interceptions. On top of tapping a new quarterback, the need to establish a go-to option on offense is a necessity. Victor Anderson ran for 1,047 yards last year which laid a solid offensive foundation to build on, but the Cardinals leading receiver in 2008, Doug Beaumont, accounted for just 750 yards and no touchdowns. Coach Steve Kragthorpe modeled a system similar to that of Bobby Petrino's modified spread, but other receivers must step up for Louisville to have any chance.
Syracuse has been on a wave of crests and troughs for the past 10 years or so. There was Donovan McNabb and Marvin Harrison, and then there was a lag period. In comes Walter Reyes, who racked up rushing yards with ease and showed flashes of former Syracuse great, Jim Brown. Curtis Brinkleyprovided the lone spark last season, as he rushed for 1,164 yards (fourth best in the conference). But with Brinkley now a member of the San Diego Chargers, there's a need for the Orange to establish a new leader.
Enter defensive tackle Arthur Jones. Jones is on the preseason watch list for the 2009 Outland Trophy, the award for the nation's best interior lineman. Jones tallied 60 tackles and 3 1/2 sacks in 2008, and after undergoing successful pectoral muscle surgery in February, Jones is looking to make the most of bypassing the NFL draft to return to the Orange for his senior season.
Another note to keep track of is the quarterback battle between sophomore Ryan Nassib and former Duke point guard Greg Paulus. Paulus graduated high school in 2005 as both the top high school quarterback prospect and top point guard prospect in the country, and turned down football offers from the University of Miami (Fla.) and Notre Dame to play point guard at Duke. Paulus also shares the distinction with Minnesota Twins catcher Joe Mauer as players who chose to not immediately pursue a football career after being named Gatorade National High School Football Player of the Year.
Whichever signal caller comes out on top of the battle to replace Cameron Dantley at quarterback, he’ll definitely have his work cut out for him. Syracuse ranked either last or next to last in every Big East offensive category last season except for rushing offense. And with the loss of Brinkley, who accounted for 65 percent of Syracuse's rushing yards, the Orange have a long road ahead before they can hope to contend.