RALPH D. RUSSO
AP College Football Writer
Three years into Charlie Strong’s rebuilding project, Louisville is favored to win the Big East.
The Cardinals’ rapid rebirth is a tribute to Strong’s ability to recruit and restore order to a program that was in disarray and to the parity that exists in the Big East heading into its season of transition.
Syracuse and Pittsburgh are leaving for the Atlantic Coast Conference next season and a half dozen schools are set to join the Big East, including Boise State. And, hey look, Temple is back in the Big East, eight years after getting booted from the league.
Off the field, the long-term future of the conference is uncertain.
On the field, the immediate future is just as muddled.
Louisville, which finished last season on a 5-2 run, was an overwhelming choice to win the league in a preseason media poll. The Cardinals have 17 returning starters, including sophomore quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. They also have only nine seniors and before last year hadn’t had a winning Big East season since 2006, when coach Bobby Petrino took them to the Orange Bowl.
Louisville is ahead of schedule, a team on the rise, but still the favorite.
“It’s tough to balance,” center Mario Benevides said. “Being a senior, and being a guy who’s been through the tough times, and there’s been a lot of those, it’s exciting for me. But at the same time, we understand what got us here.”
Traditionally the Big East rarely follows expected form.
Last season, West Virginia — since departed for the Big 12 — went to the BCS from the Big East, but had the same 5-2 league record as Louisville (which was picked seventh in the preseason) and Cincinnati (picked fifth). Rutgers contended for the title after being picked last.
In 2010, Pitt was the favorite, but Connecticut (picked fourth) went to the BCS.
Such is life in a league with no dominant teams.
South Florida, in Year 3 under Skip Holtz, went 1-6 in the conference last season but was picked second behind Louisville.
Quarterback B.J. Daniels is back — yet again — to start for the Bulls. Even Holtz jokes that Daniels has been at USF “since 2002.” In a league lacking stars, the multitalented Daniels has the skill and experience to swing a tight conference race the Bulls’ way.
“All the ups and downs, highs and lows of my career, that’s all helped me become a better person, a better football player, and hopefully this last year, my senior year, I can put it all together and have a really good one,” he said.
A look at the conference:
SOUTH FLORIDA — Key players: QB B.J. Daniels, DE Ryne Giddins, WRs Sterling Griffin and Andre Davis, LB DeDe Lattimore, CB Kayvon Webster. Returning starters: 8 offense, 7 defense.
Notes: USF went 4-1 in nonconference games, including a season-opening victory at Notre Dame, but finished the season 1-7 with six losses by 10 points of less. … The Bulls led the conference in rushing last season at 182 yards per game and return three starting offensive linemen. … Tricky early season test: at Nevada on Sept. 8, then open conference season at home against Rutgers on Thursday, Sept. 13.
PITTSBURGH — Key players: QB Tino Sunseri, RB Ray Graham, S Jarred Holley, DE Aaron Donald, WR Mike Shanahan, WR Devin Street. Returning starters: 8 offense, 4 defense.
Notes: Coach Paul Chryst replaces Todd Graham, who left after one season at Pitt to take over at Arizona State. Chryst had been the offensive coordinator at Wisconsin, directing an attack that was one of the most potent in the nation. … If Graham is healthy, he should thrive in the new offense. He ran for 958 yards in eight games, but tore a knee ligament that ended his season. He might not be ready for the opener. … Sunseri threw 10 TDs and 11 interceptions last season.
RUTGERS — Key players: LB Khaseem Greene, RB Jawan Jamison, CB Logan Ryan, DT Scott Vallone, QBs Gary Nova and Chas Dodd, WR Mark Harrison. Returning starters: 7 offense, 8 defense.
Notes: Coach Kyle Flood takes over for Greg Schiano, who left just a few days before signing day to become Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach. Flood had been Schiano’s assistant head coach since 2009 … The Scarlet Knights have been searching for stability at quarterback for several years. Dodd and Nova shared the job last year, but Flood has to hope the highly touted sophomore Nova can take it and hold it. … Rutgers plays four road conference games and three at home. Those road games include trips to USF, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati.
CINCINNATI — Key players: QB Muncie Legaux, DE Walter Stewart, RB/KR Ralph David Abernathy IV, LB Malik Bomar. Returning starters: 4 offense, 7 defense.
Notes: Legaux started three games last season when Zach Collaros was injured and showed flashes of dynamic talent as a runner and passer. … Butch Jones appears to be a coach on the rise. As it did with Mark Dantonio and Brian Kelly, Cincinnati might have a hard time keeping its coach for the long haul. … Abernathy is the grandson of Ralph David Abernathy Jr., the late civil rights leader and close associate for Martin Luther King Jr.
LOUISVILLE — Key players: QB Teddy Bridgewater, C Mario Benevides, S Hakeem Smith, CB Adrien Bushell, RB Dominique Brown. Returning starters: 8 offense, 9 defense.
Notes: Bridgewater was the Big East’s newcomer of the year, and he was joined by several other fresh faces on the Louisville offense last season. The Cardinals’ top two receivers were freshman Eli Rogers and redshirt freshman Michaelee Harris. OG Jake Smith was a freshman All-American. … Louisville allowed 7 yards on punt returns last season. … Strong, who was defensive coordinator for two national championship teams at Florida, had a defense that ranked 10th nationally against the run in 2011.
CONNECTICUT — Key players: QB Chandler Whitmer, RB Kyle McCombs, DE Trevardo Williams, CB Blidi Wreh-Wilson, TE Ryan Griffin. Returning starters: 7 offense, 8 defense.
Notes: Paul Pasqualoni’s first season with UConn was marked by a problem the Huskies have had for years: Not enough production in the passing game. Whitmer, a junior college transfer who started his college career at Illinois, was announced as the starter heading into preseason practice. … McCombs became the latest UConn rushing star, running for 1,151 yards and seven touchdowns. The 5-foot-8, 166-pound sophomore was a grinder, averaging 4.2 yards per carry.
SYRACUSE — Key players: QB Ryan Nassib, WR Alec Lemon, DT Jay Bromley, S Shamarko Thomas. Returning starters: 5 offense, 7 defense.
Notes: The Orange slid back into last place in the conference last year after winning a bowl game the year before under coach Doug Marrone. Another step forward will have to come against one of the toughest nonconference schedules in the country. Syracuse opens at home against Northwestern, plays USC a week later in New Jersey at MetLife Stadium, and has road trips later to Minnesota and Missouri. … With a big season (3,026 yards), Nassib can become Syracuse’s career leader in yards passing.
TEMPLE — Key players: DT Levi Brown, RB Matt Brown, QB Chris Coyer, K/P Brandon McManus. Returning starters: 4 offense, 5 defense.
Notes: High-energy coach Steve Addazio and the Owls are pumped to be back in the Big East. Temple was in the Big East from 1991-2004, but never won more than four games. Poor attendance was given as the reason it was removed from the league. The Owls under Al Golden and now Addazio are no longer laughingstocks, but with only nine returning starters it’s a tough time to step up in competition from the Mid-American Conference.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.