Football 2000 Preview:
Big East Preview: Strong at the Top
by Will Stewart, HokieCentral.com, 8/24/00
The Big East has earned more respect as a conference lately, but the league is in danger of squandering those gains this year. The Big East is strong at the top this year with Miami and Virginia Tech, but underneath, there is a disturbing lack of quality teams.
Take the defenses -- please. Last year, the Big East had the following nightmare rankings for some of its defensive units (the rankings include bowl games):
For WVU, things don't figure to get much better, because the Mountaineers only return 3 defensive starters, while Pitt returns 5 and BC 6. Temple and Rutgers are, well, Temple and Rutgers.
At the top, you have the defenses of Virginia Tech, Syracuse, and Miami which were ranked 3, 9, and 19 last year. The Orangemen and Canes figure to be good again on defense -- they return 7 and 8 starters, respectively. The Hokies are a bit of a question mark, but will probably still be Top 25 in defense (even in 1997, when the defense faded late, they were ranked Top 25).
Now take special teams. Temple is the only Big East team that returns both its punter and placekicker. Every other Big East team lost at least one of those players, and in many cases, the losses were painful (Tech graduated all-time Big East and VT leading scorer Shayne Graham, and Syracuse graduated all-time leading scorer Nate Trout). As a whole, the league will be shaky here.
But if you want to talk offenses, well, the Big East is loaded here. Michael Vick is the Heisman Trophy frontrunner, Miami is stacked with quality running backs and receivers, Pitt returns their receiving duo of Latef Grim and Antonio Bryant, WVU returns the Big East's leading rusher in Avon Cobourne, and Boston College brings back All Big-East first team running back Cedric Washington.
It should be a wild year in the Big East, with plenty of offense, except when Miami, Syracuse, and Virginia Tech are shutting down teams. Here are HokieCentral.com's picks for the Big East race.
The Big East Race
(Note: notes and statistics about returning starters are taken from the Eastern edition of Athlon Sports College Football Preview. I'm at their mercy, so if their info is wrong, don't blame me!)
Okay, okay, so in a June 28th News and Notes update, I gave my picks for the Big East race, and for some insane reason, tabbed Pitt as the #6 team, while placing Boston College 3rd. I call it insane because I really think that Pitt, in the long run, is going to be a better team than BC, and that Pitt's Walt Harris is a better coach than BC's Tom O'Brien.
Uh, what? I'm sorry, did you say something? Oh, okay, you're right -- what kind of idiot starts off a Big East preview by talking about Pitt and BC? I will put them aside for now and talk about the two top dogs: Miami and Virginia Tech.
First of all, let's go over my picks again. Here they are:
I took a little heat (but not much) for picking Miami to win the Big East this year over the Hokies. But as I said on the message board, I'm simply going with the law of averages. How many years in a row can the Hurricanes (even the Butch-Davis coached Hurricanes) continue to turn the ball over five times a game and make stupid mistake after stupid mistake against the Hokies? Sooner or later, the sun shines on every dog's butt, and it's got to be the Hurricanes' turn some time.
After all, technology stocks, in particular the dot-com stocks, roared up and up and up for literally years, and eventually, the bearish analysts who predicted their downfall were correct. Well, eventually, everyone who picks the Canes to beat the Hokies will be right once. This is the most likely year.
But you know, even though my rational mind admits that the time for the Canes to finally beat the Hokies is fast approaching, my Hokie fan mind looks at Miami's complete lack of team discipline, inferior conditioning, and poor game-day coaching and says, "You know, maybe this streak can go on forever."
And if the Canes don't beat Tech this year, then when? According to Athlon, the projected starting lineups for the Canes feature 19 juniors and seniors, most of whom have already seen significant playing time in prior years. And these are talented ball players we're talking about, not hacks who showed up on no one's recruiting lists.
By contrast, the Hokies are (relatively speaking) woefully young and thin on defensive and special teams, two units that have historically clobbered the Canes and which last year provided the breakaway points in a close game.
So, it's more likely than not that the Canes will knock the Hokies off in their November 4th Orange Bowl clash. But given Miami's penchant for not getting the maximum out of its players, and for not focusing well at all during games, and given that the Hokies have an experienced offense led by a guy named Vick, I could be wrong. I hope so.
So those are my #1 and #2 picks. Now for 3-6.
The 3-6 group includes (in alphabetical order), Boston College, Pittsburgh, Syracuse, and West Virginia. Most media outlets are predicting that BC and Syracuse will share the #3 and #4 spots, and that WVU and Pitt will share #5 and #6, with most saying that WVU will finish 6th.
So HC, in the person of me, Will Stewart, is a little off the wall in predicting Pitt to be #6. And why did I do that, given that I like Pitt's attitude and talent, and I think that Walt Harris has them on the right track?
Well, here's my thinking, in order from #3 to #6:
3.) Boston College
The Eagles finished 8-4 last year, including two hammer jobs from VT (38-14) and Colorado (62-28) to close the season. They narrowly escaped some mediocre opponents, and let Miami come back on them in Boston, in a game the Eagles really should have won.
My pregame remarks before their game with Tech last year rightfully led to reader to think that I really didn't have much respect for the Boston College program and didn't think they had a chance against Tech.
So why pick them third this year?
Well, the answer lies not so much in what BC has (a good offensive line, a senior QB, stability in the coaching staff, and some good recruiting classes), as in what the other teams they're up against donít have. Let's take a look at the other three in this pack.
4.) West Virginia
The Mountaineers lost 8 starters from a defense that was horrible to begin with, finishing 97th in the country last year. So why in the world would I pick them to finish fourth in the Big East?
Why? How about this reason: just because.
Just because I think you can't keep Don Nehlen and his staff down, and just because the Eers have an experienced offensive line in front of last year's leading rusher in the Big East, Avon Cobourne. And because I saw projected starting QB Brad Lewis play well against Tech last year in a pressure situation.
They've got holes in the kicking game and, as noted, the defense, but they've also got Syracuse at home, and I think they'll shock the Orangemen on the way to their fourth-place finish. I also think WVU will knock off Pittsburgh on the road (ay caramba, with that WVU defense against Pitt's offense? I'm really going out on a limb here). They'll drop the home game against BC, though, and that will put them in fourth in the Big East.
Sure, they've got a great defense. They return seven starters from a unit that finished 9th in the country last year (including the bowl games). But the Orangemen have a hole the size of Donovan McNabb's legend at quarterback, where no less than four candidates are jockeying for position. Not to mention that their coaching staff is mediocre (except when Coach P is coaching against Beamer in the Carrier Dome -- then he's pretty good). And I think those two things will keep them out of the Big East top 4.
Syracuse has a home game against Pitt that they'll win, but the Dome will provide no comfort when Miami and Virginia Tech come calling, and the Orange will drop road games at Boston College and West Virginia, as well. That will land Syracuse in fifth place in the Big East.
Ah, now we get to Pittsburgh. The Panthers went 5-6 last year, including 2-5 in the Big East, and I think they won't do much better than that this year.
Oh, they'll be good. They've got an awesome receiving tandem in Grim and Bryant, and a take-your-pick quarterback combo of Turman (a senior) and Priestley (a junior). And they've got a bright young coach in Walt Harris, who is clutching a contract extension in his hands that is freshly signed and will take him through the 2006 season as Pitt's coach.
But they don't have the 22 seniors that left after last season, they don't have continuity in the coaching staff (five assistants left after last season), and they don't have a home stadium (Pitt Stadium was torn down, and the Panthers will play in Three Rivers Stadium this year). They also don't have many starters returning to a defense that finished #91 in the country last year.
I feel that all those factors will combine to hold the Panthers down for one more year. The 2001 season may be their breakout year, when they return the entire defense, and lose just five starters on offense (one of whom is Turman, and Priestley can step in for him).
The Panthers will beat Temple and Rutgers, but they'll drop a road game at Syracuse, and "home" contests to WVU and Boston College. Combine that with losses to Miami and Tech, and they'll be near the bottom of the league, in the number 6 spot once again.
Yep, they'll finish last in the league, again. Who cares in which order? One day, I would love to see one of these teams do something memorable (something other than beat VT in Lane Stadium), but I don't see it happening this year. Actually, I donít see it happening ever, which is why it will be a pleasant surprise when it does.
And if that sounds like I got lazy and skipped analyzing them, then go to the head of the class, because you're right.
Will Stewart is the founder and General Manager of HokieCentral.com. He writes the News and Notes section, game previews, and game reports for HC.
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