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Big East 2012 conference preview

Big East 2012 Conference Report
Are Teddy Bridgewater and the Cardinals for real? Can Skip Holtz's Bulls take that next step? Is Temple ready to play with the big boys? Zac Ellis answers that and more in his 2012 Big East conference preview. For more coverage, visit our preseason content archive.

Note: The projected standings reflect the author's opinion, not SI.com's.
 
How They'll Finish
 
 ConferenceOverall
Louisville5-210-2
Rutgers5-28-4
South Florida4-38-4
Pittsburgh4-37-5
 
 ConferenceOverall
Cincinnati4-37-5
Connecticut3-45-7
Syracuse2-55-7
Temple1-64-7
 
Offensive MVP
 
QB
Teddy Bridgewater
2011 stats: 191-of-296 COMP, 2,129 YDS, 14 TD, 12 INT
2012 projection: 275-of-383 COMP, 2,952 YDS, 24 TD, 15 INT
Bridgewater made a splash in 2011 as the Cardinals' first true freshman starting QB since 1976. After taking over in Week 3, Bridgewater helped Louisville secure a share of the Big East title with wins in five of the final six regular season games. The team returns an experienced offensive line as well as a talented crop of wideouts in Eli Rogers and DeVante Parker, positioning Bridgewater for a big year.
Glicksman: Bridgewater looking to build on breakout year
 
Defensive MVP
 
LB
Khaseem Greene
2011 stats: 140 TOT , 14 TFL, 3.5 SACK, 2 FF
2012 projection: 160 TOT, 19.5 TFL, 5 SACK, 4 FF
The Big East's 2011 co-Defensive Player of the Year opted to return to Rutgers as a fifth-year senior. Greene reeled off a league-leading 141 total tackles last year -- 12th nationally and fifth in Rutgers history -- in his first stint at weakside linebacker after moving from safety. The 6-foot-1, 230-pounder broke his leg in December but will lead a Knights defense that returns eight starters and led the league in fewest points allowed in 2011.
Greene headline SI.com's preseason All-Big East Team
 
Impact Freshman
 
RB
Rushel Shell
2011 stats (high school): 2,312 YDS, 28 TD
2012 projection: 750 YDS, 7 TD
The No. 3 running back prospect in the country, Shell nixed offers from the likes of Alabama and Ohio State to stay close to home. Shell set a state record with 9,078 career rushing yards at Aliquippa (Pa.) Hopewell, the same high school Pitt legend Tony Dorsett attended. Shell's commitment continued the legacy of homegrown talent in the Panthers' backfield, and he could provide a spark while star Ray Graham returns from injury.
 
Coach On The Hot Seat
 
Doug Marrone
Last season: 5-7 (1-6 Big East)
Career at Syracuse: 17-20 (6-5 Big East)
It's unlikely any Big East coach needs to lose sleep over his job security, but if anyone has something to prove, it's Marrone. Last season the Orange looked primed for a second straight bowl berth after a 49-23 shellacking of West Virginia gave them their fifth win of the year, but they went on to lose five straight to end the season and miss postseason play. This year, Marrone's squad is picked to finish seventh in the conference, so the coach needs to show he has his alma mater heading in the right direction with the ACC looming.
 
Three Key Nonconference Games
 
USC vs. Syracuse (at MetLife Stadium)
Saturday, Sept. 8
3:30 p.m. ET, ABC
The Orange took a beating from USC in a 38-17 loss in the Coliseum last September.Now the Trojans venture east to take on Syracuse at the Meadowlands in East Rutherford, N.J. Bowl eligible once again, USC will likely be in striking distance of a No. 1 ranking, so the Orange will need a stellar performance in a pivotal year for coach Doug Marrone.
 
Arkansas at Rutgers
Saturday, Sept. 22
TBD
The kickoff of a home-and-home series between Rutgers and Arkansas will be the first meeting between the two programs. Quarterback Tyler Wilson and the Razorbacks' offense will be dangerous once again, while the Knights boast the Big East's best defense. Something's gotta give in a game that could put a mark on Kyle Flood's first year as head coach in Piscataway.
 
Florida State at South Florida
Saturday, Sept. 29
TBD
As a redshirt freshman, B.J. Daniels threw for 215 yards and two scores in the Bulls' 17-7 win over the 'Noles in Tallahassee in 2009. Three years of starting experience later, the veteran Daniels will lead South Florida against a visiting Florida State squad in a battle for Sunshine State bragging rights.
 
Three Key Conference Games
 
Rutgers at South Florida
Thursday, Sept. 13
7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
The first conference game for both teams could provide early answers to two of the league's biggest questions: Can new coach Kyle Flood pick up where Rutgers left off under former coach Greg Schiano? And can South Florida finally take the next step and escape mediocrity under Skip Holtz? In last season's thriller, Rutgers erased a 10-point deficit to top USF by a field goal in overtime and attain bowl-eligibility.
 
Louisville at Pittsburgh
Saturday, Oct. 13
TBD
Pittsburgh may not be a favorite for the Big East title, but Louisville would be best served not overlooking the revamped Panthers. Pitt has won four straight over the Cardinals, including last season's 21-14 victory without the services of injured tailback Ray Graham, who tore his ACL two weeks earlier. With a healthy Graham and new coach Paul Chryst heading up the offense, can the Panthers put together a mid-season surprise?
 
Louisville at Rutgers
Thursday, Nov. 29
7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
Neither program could ask for a more high-impact finale, as this meeting could end up determining the Big East title. Rutgers came into last season's matchup on a four-game winning streak atop the conference before Louisville emerged with a 16-14 victory, which paved the way for its share of the Big East championship.
 
Five Key Questions
 
What can we expect from the Kyle Flood era at Rutgers? Rutgers has talent, but the Knights' future is uncertain thanks to a last-minute coaching change in February. When Greg Schiano bolted to become coach of the NFL's Tampa Bay Buccaneers days before National Signing Day, the promotion of assistant Kyle Flood shoved the Scarlett Knights into a new era. The schemes haven't changed on either side of the ball, but eight new coaches on Flood's staff solidify a feeling of change around the program. Still, a dominating defense returns from a nine-win season in 2011, and Flood and his players say now is the time to win a league championship, something Schiano never did in his 11 seasons in New Jersey.
Can Temple hang with the big boys? Temple may not make up for the league's loss of West Virginia, but after a seven-year absence, the Owls return to the Big East on the tail end of a successful MAC swan song. First-year coach Steve Addazio led Temple to a New Mexico Bowl win over Wyoming and a 9-4 season in 2011. But the Owls lost their main offensive threat in underrated running back Bernard Pierce, four of five starters on the offensive line and their top three tacklers, so a shocking first season might be too much to ask before restocking the cupboard.
Can South Florida finally contend for the Big East crown? South Florida coach Skip Holtz can't seem to get the monkey off his back when it comes to expectations. USF lost seven of its final eight games in 2011 after starting 4-0, including stumbling to 1-6 in Big East play. The Bulls haven't finished above .500 in-conference since 2007. This fall the experience is there: Holtz's crew returns 17 starters, including dual-threat senior quarterback B.J. Daniels, who enters his fourth year and whose 3,186 yards of total offense last season ranked fourth all-time at USF. This could be the Bulls' chance to live up to the hype and sneak into the conference title picture.
Who will emerge as the surprise of the conference? With new coach Paul Chryst in tow, the Pittsburgh offense could raise some eyebrows. Chryst helped build some of the nation's most potent rushing attacks while coordinator at Wisconsin, and the Panthers boast a deep crop of running backs, including Ray Graham and freshman Rushel Shell. Meanwhile, only two seasons removed from its 2010 Big East title, Connecticut returns its own power 'back in Lyle McCombs as well as eight returning starters on defense. And for Cincinnati to repeat last season's 10-win success, it will need to make do without departed quarterback Zach Collaros.
What's the future of the Big East conference? Conference realignment shifted the Big East's landscape more significantly than any other league. After this season Syracuse and Pittsburgh will head to the ACC, while the Big East will add six new members for the 2013 season: Boise State, San Diego State, Houston, SMU, Memphis and Central Florida. Despite the upcoming additions, many still think the league is on life support, especially with its BCS automatic-qualifying status set to disappear with the new playoff in two seasons. The Big East could use a strong year before its new look hits the field in 2013.
 
Big East Video Preview
Debate: Does the Big East have a true BCS contender?
Source: SI
Andy Staples and Stewart Mandel discuss the Big East's outlook, including the best bet to finish ranked.
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