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Spring football: The Post-Pat Era, more burning Big East questions

Since Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College bolted for the ACC, the Big East's automatic BCS bid has turned into one of the more popular arguments against college football's system for placing teams in its elite postseason games. Maybe that's because the Big East has failed to produce a BCS at-large team since the series began in 1998.

So when Mountain West officials began chirping recently about revamping the system to give that league an automatic bid, some groused that the conference should just get the Big East's bid. That would never happen, especially considering the Big East boasts far more attractive media markets than the Mountain West. Still, it's an interesting thought.

So, in honor of Big East basketball, which could have as many as three No. 1 seeds in this year's NCAA tournament, we're examining the relative strength of Big East football by seeing how the conference would have fared if the top 64 bowl teams were seeded last season. This is how a selection committee might have seeded the teams before last season's bowls, so LSU fans can save the angry e-mails complaining about the Tigers being seeded below Chick-fil-a Bowl blowout victim Georgia Tech.

No. 1: Oklahoma, Florida, Texas, USCNo. 2: Alabama, Texas Tech, Penn State, Ohio StateNo. 3: Utah, Boise State, TCU (the mid-majors always get stiffed), CincinnatiNo. 4: BYU, Oklahoma State, Georgia Tech, GeorgiaNo. 5: Oregon, Michigan State, Virginia Tech, PittNo. 6: Missouri, Boston College, Northwestern, FSUNo. 7: Ole Miss, Iowa, Oregon State, NebraskaNo. 8:West Virginia, Cal, Georgia Tech, ArizonaNo. 9: LSU, Rice, Tulsa, MarylandNo. 10: Ball State, East Carolina, UNC, RutgersNo. 11: Kansas, UConn, Wake Forest, HoustonNo. 12: Clemson, USF, Central Michigan, Air ForceNo. 13: Notre Dame, Western Michigan, Nevada, KentuckyNo. 14: Vanderbilt, Minnesota, South Carolina, WisconsinNo. 15: Southern Miss, Louisiana Tech, Fresno State, BuffaloNo. 16: Troy, Colorado State, Florida Atlantic, Hawaii

The committee would have seeded the league champ (Cincinnati) below multiple SEC, Big 12 and Big Ten teams and alongside a pair of Mountain West teams. Of the automatic bid leagues, only the ACC champ (Virginia Tech) would have been seeded lower, but since the Hokies beat the Bearcats, 20-7, in the Orange Bowl, that doesn't carry much weight.

Overall, the Big East compares similarly to the ACC, but it lags behind the other automatic-bid leagues. As with the ACC, an elite team or two will need to emerge if the Big East wants to earn some respect. That brings us to the first of five burning spring practice questions for the Big East.

Believe it or not, West Virginia -- even without Pat White -- has a chance to roar back this year. Fifth-year senior Jarrett Brown could have transferred, but he waited patiently behind White for his chance. Brown, who, unlike White, throws better than he runs, will give the Mountaineers a different look on offense. He and tailback Noel Devine will have to work behind a young line, but the offense won't have to carry this team.

That's because unlike last spring, when the Mountaineers had to find eight new defensive starters, defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel brings back seven starters and will spend most of the spring trying to build depth. That number doesn't include fifth-year senior Reed Williams, who led West Virginia in tackles in 2007, took a medical redshirt last season and should return to the starting lineup this season. The defense went through its growing pains last season, but the young starters didn't quit. That perseverance, plus their experience, should allow Mountaineers defenders to flourish this season. "We struggled early in the year, but those kids stayed after it and showed a lot of good qualities in terms of being able to stick with things and not getting frustrated," Casteel said last week. "We got better as the year went on. We're hoping that we can build on that this spring."

Coach Jim Leavitt created the Bulls from scratch 12 years ago, and he has taken them from I-AA to Conference USA to the Big East thanks to a relentless drive and a fertile recruiting base. It's an amazing achievement, but it's time USF took the next step. The Bulls will be the more athletic team in every conference game they play, but it's up to Leavitt and his staff to lead them to a conference title.

That's not so easy when there's a revolving door in front of the football office. Defensive coordinator Wally Burnham, an excellent football mind who can also recruit, left last month to take the same position at Iowa State. That's a parallel move, if not a step down. Meanwhile, Leavitt demoted offensive coordinator Greg Gregory for interviewing for the tight ends job at Florida, so Gregory left for South Alabama.

Leavitt promoted wide receivers coach Mike Canales to offensive coordinator, so Canales will get the honor of directing fourth-year starting quarterback Matt Grothe (8,157 career passing yards, 42 touchdown passes, 2,085 rushing yards, 23 rushing touchdowns). Grothe will be playing behind a line with four new starters, but receivers Jesse Hester and Carlton Mitchell can get open quickly. Meanwhile, Joe Tresey, who got fired at Cincinnati when coach Brian Kelly decided to switch to a 3-4, will take over the Bulls' defense. Defensive end George Selvie remains the headliner, but Tresey will have to find new starters at both outside linebacker positions and in two secondary spots.

The change comes at an opportune time, because the Bearcats must replace 10 defensive starters. Kelly became a fan of new coordinator Bob Diaco when Diaco worked on Kelly's Central Michigan staff in 2005. Diaco was set to take over for Bob Pruett as Virginia's defensive coordinator when Kelly called.

Diaco basically has a blank slate. Aaron Webster, who started the final 10 games last season at strong safety, is Cincinnati's most experienced defender. Safety Drew Frey, who was lost for the season after suffering a broken arm in September, should be ready to play. Meanwhile, a familiar name will try to win a job at outside linebacker. Demetrius Jones, Notre Dame's opening-day starter at quarterback in 2007, has moved to defense after spending a season buried on the Cincinnati offensive depth chart. With Tony Pike firmly entrenched at quarterback, Kelly decided Jones needed a chance to play. Who knows? Jones may follow in the footsteps of Connor Barwin, the Bearcat who moved from tight end to defensive end before last season and wound up leading the Big East in sacks.

Kragthorpe has more losses in two seasons (13) than predecessor Bobby Petrino had in four (nine). Petrino didn't leave Kragthorpe with an ideal situation -- don't look so shocked -- but the shelf-life on that excuse grows short. Yes, Kragthorpe had to dismiss 21 players for disciplinary reasons during his first two seasons, but he also has had three recruiting classes to bring in his own players. Six assistant coaches left the program this offseason. Defensive coordinator Ron English left to become the head coach at Eastern Michigan. His replacement, linebackers coach Bill Miller, bolted for Kansas shortly after his promotion. Offensive coordinator Jeff Brohm got canned, and now Kragthorpe will call the plays for a new starting quarterback (probably junior Tyler Wolfe or juco transfer Adam Froman).

Kragthorpe tried to spin the turnover last week. "What ends up being really beneficial is you kind of take things back to the ground floor," he said. "You start to re-teach everything. You're not only teaching your new players like you normally would, but you're re-teaching everything with your coaches. It forces you to go back to a grass-roots approach and look at all the things you're doing." Unfortunately for Kragthorpe, this is year three. As the years go by, the ground floor begins to look like rock bottom.

The program that gave us Jim Brown and Donovan McNabb has fallen on hard times. It will take a special coach to overcome the lethal mix of apathy, a poor recruiting base and the 10-37 debacle that was the Greg Robinson era. The good news for the Orange: Marrone could be that coach. The former Saints offensive coordinator is a Syracuse alum. He's a Bronx native who should know how to wring recruiting blood from the turnip that is high school football in New York. He's also an incurable optimist. "Our biggest challenge as coaches is to change the culture of the way we think," Marrone said last month as he introduced his first recruiting class.

That class should give the Orange reason to hope. Despite having only six weeks to recruit, Marrone signed two former Louisville commitments (defensive end Brandon Sharpe and safety Shamarko Thomas) and swiped offensive guard Zack Chibane from USF. The first step toward beating those programs regularly on the field is beating them on the recruiting trail. Before those signees arrive, Marrone will have plenty of work to do with Syracuse's current players. This spring, he will be without All-Big East defensive tackle Arthur Jones, who underwent surgery last month to repair a torn pectoral muscle. Receiver Mike Williams, who missed the 2008 season because of a university suspension related to an academic cheating allegation last spring, will return. Williams, who caught 60 passes for 837 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2007, spent last fall at Springfield (Mass.) Technical Community College. After meeting all the conditions laid out for him, Syracuse allowed him to re-enroll.

MORE BURNING QUESTIONSPac-10: Who has the edge in the USC QB battle?ACC: Will VaTech emerge as a national player?Big 12: Who's poised to challenge OU and UT?Big East: Can West Virginia win without Pat White?Big Ten: How will Michigan recover from a 3-9 debacle?SEC:Lane Kiffin can talk, but can he actually coach?THE REST:What has Charlie Weis done to save his job?

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