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Big East Preview

   by Matt Fargo - 08/24/2009

The Big East Conference used to be one of the top leagues in the nation with national powerhouses including Syracuse, Virginia Tech, Boston College and Miami, Florida. The latter three defected to the ACC while the Orange have turned into one of the worst teams in the country. As far as a BCS conference, the Big East is clearly the weakest of the six as proven by this year’s AP Preseason Poll where not one Big East team placed in the top 25. No matter the outcome, the winner gets to play in a BCS Bowl and will likely take the place of a more deserving team. There is no clear cut favorite this season so it should be interesting.

West Virginia Mountaineers 9-4 SU, 4-8 ATS, 5-7 O/U

Summary: A lot of people are saying West Virginia is in for a fall with the loss of quarterback Pat White and there is no doubt his presence will be missed. However, when you have a running back such as Noel Devine as well as a replacement quarterback such as Jarrett Brown who has waited three years for his opportunity, things are ok. Brown is a better passer than White but he also possesses the ability to run so the Mountaineers are going to open it up more but will be able to move it on the ground still. The defense was solid last season and will be good again. The Mountaineers finished 11th in scoring defense and bring back 18 players who have had at least one start.

Schedule: The non-conference schedule hurt West Virginia last season as it went 2-2 against FBS schools and it gets the same four teams again this year and the results should be better. The Big East slate is tough with four road games including three tough ones on the road at South Florida, Cincinnati and Rutgers. The Mountaineers do get Pittsburgh at home for this year’s ‘Backyard Brawl’.

Bottom Line: With the top half of the conference showing a lot of parity, I look for the team that has the least amount of question marks and that is clearly the Mountaineers. The offense will be just fine and the defense will be strong again so it is hard to go against the nice balance. The conference schedule does them no favors but West Virginia is 16-5 on the road the last four years.

Betting Forecast: West Virginia is 7-13-1 ATS in the Big East the last three years but look for a reversal as expectations are lower meaning better value in the lines.

Pittsburgh Panthers 9-4 SU, 6-7 ATS, 5-8 O/U

Summary: Head coach Dave Wannstedt is entering his fifth season in Pittsburgh and he has yet to put his identity on this team. He led the Panthers to their first bowl game last season and that resulted in a 3-0 loss to Oregon State. The pieces are there to contend for the Big East title and another bowl game is likely but Pittsburgh needs to take a big step forward. The loss of tailback LeSean McCoy is a big blow to the offense that has no real leader at quarterback. Bill Stull and Pat Bostick have started plenty of games but neither has been able to take games over. Someone has to step up behind center as the defense, as good as it is, won’t be able to carry the load all season.

Schedule: The non-conference schedule is very manageable with games at Buffalo and North Carolina State and at home against Navy and Notre Dame. While all of those could be won, all could be lost at the same time. In Big East play, the Panthers have to travel to Rutgers but host Cincinnati and South Florida. The big game is at West Virginia and that could very well decide the championship.

Bottom Line: Wannstedt is 25-23 at Pittsburgh but he has just one season that finished above .500 and that was last year. The team needs to carry that momentum into this year or Wannstedt could be out. The Panthers return the most starters of any team in the Big East but without a quarterback that can lead and a running game that has to start over, the title might be out of grasp.

Betting Forecast: Pittsburgh is 2-6 ATS as a home favorite and 7-2 ATS as a road dog the last two seasons. I expect to see close games once again this season.

Rutgers Scarlet Knights 8-5 SU, 7-4-1 ATS, 5-7 O/U

Summary: Rutgers is almost in the same boat as Pittsburgh is. The Scarlet Knights have issues on offense and it starts at the quarterback position as they need to find a replacement for Mike Teal. Also gone is the best receiver Rutgers has ever had in Kenny Britt. Those two positions and how they are filled will be the key to the season. The running back by committee is back along with the entire offensive line and that is a big bonus. The defense was solid last season and will be good again as six starters are back. Rutgers has gone to four straight bowl games and that string likely will not be broken this year.

Schedule: Rutgers has one of the best schedules in the conference. Five of the Scarlet Knights first six games are at home including the opener which is the Big East opener as well against Cincinnati on Labor Day. A loss there could be detrimental. Rutgers also gets Pittsburgh, West Virginia and South Florida at home and the two non-conference road games are at Maryland and Army.

Bottom Line: The new offense will need to produce right away as Cincinnati invades newly remodeled Rutgers Stadium in Week One. A win there is huge but a loss is just as big. With the ease of the schedule, the Scarlet Knights could run the table in the conference but the teams ahead of them has more talent and that is usually the overall deciding factor. This is still a program on the rise.

Betting Forecast: Rutgers is 2-6 ATS as a road chalk the last four seasons and now that the public has noticed, I see that record getting worse as it will be overvalued again.

Cincinnati Bearcats 11-3 SU, 6-7 ATS, 7-6 O/U

Summary: Cincinnati is the reigning Big East Champions but it will be tough for the Bearcats to repeat. They arguably have the best quarterback in the conference with Tony Pike, the best receiver in the conference in Mardy Gilyard as well as three solid running backs. The problem is on the other side of the ball as the Bearcats lost 10 starters on defense. The last time so few returned was in 2005 when three returned and Cincinnati allowed 402 ypg and 31.4 ppg. I don’t think it will be that bad but one returning starter is tough to recover from. The Bearcats will be in the mix because no other team is showing signs of being able to pull away so if any year a defense needs to be rebuilt, this is it.

Schedule: The schedule doesn’t do the Bearcats any favors either. They start the season at Rutgers and then after playing SE Missouri St. at home, they have to travel to Oregon State and then host Fresno State the following week. Cincinnati does get West Virginia at home right before a bye week but it closes at home against Illinois and then the season finale at Pittsburgh.

Bottom Line: It is tough to move the defending champion down to fourth place in this weak conference with so many weapons on offense but the defense simply has too many question marks. There is experience with six seniors so it won’t be starting from scratch but with a tough opening part of the season, it will take time for the chemistry to build.

Betting Forecast: Cincinnati is 4-1 ATS under head coach Brian Kelly following a loss and that success should continue as that is all coaching and he is one of the best.

South Florida Bulls 8-5 SU, 5-7 ATS, 5-7 O/U

Summary: South Florida made it all way to number two in the country in 2007 but it has not been the same team since then. In the 20 games after that 5-0 start the Bulls are just 11-9 which is certainly respectable but expectations have not been met. Matt Grothe is coming off another very average season and for the Bulls to make a move up, he needs to improve immensely. He has 29 touchdowns and 28 interceptions which is unimpressive to say the least. He can run which is a big plus. On defense, the Bulls return All-American George Selvie at defensive end and the unit should be solid once again. Because of the parity, the Bulls cannot be counted out.

Schedule: The schedule is night and day for South Florida. It starts the season with games against Wofford, Western Kentucky and Charleston Southern, two of which are FCS teams and another in its first year at the FBS level. The Bulls also face Florida St. and Miami, Florida to balance that out somewhat. The Big East slate is average as it has two games at home and two on the roads against the other four top teams.

Bottom Line: There has been talent in place for a few years for the Bulls to make it to the next level. They were thought to have finally broken through when they hit #2 but fell off fast and they have not recovered. This is the last season for Grothe and Selvie so this could be the final chance for some time. Now it must overachieve to get to that sought after conference championship.

Betting Forecast: Last season snapped a three-year run of a positive ATS record but expect a bounceback this year. Underachievers tend to reverse out the following year.

Connecticut Huskies 8-5 SU, 6-6 ATS, 7-5 O/U

Summary: Connecticut is the sixth team that suffered huge losses from last season. Two-time 2,000-yard rusher Donald Brown is off to the NFL leaving a huge void in the backfield. The Huskies hope a new offensive style will soften the blow as they hired Joe Moorhead as offensive coordinator and he will be implementing an up-tempo hurry up scheme that will give this team a whole new look. Leading that offense will either be Zach Frazier or Cody Endres, both of whom saw action last season but combined for a 2/9 touchdown/interception ratio. The defense was great last year, finishing 6th overall, but a weak schedule certainly helped that.

Schedule: Connecticut will have a tougher road this season even though Rhode Island is on the schedule. The other four non-conference games are against Ohio, Baylor, Notre Dame and North Carolina, the first three taking place on the road. As far as conference action, the Huskies have to travel to Pittsburgh, West Virginia and Cincinnati but the other four Big East games are at home to soften some of the blow.

Bottom Line: The loss of Brown is probably the biggest one player loss that any team in the conference sustained. His production cannot be duplicated although Andre Dixon is a solid replacement. A new system takes time to become successful and it will be tough for Connecticut to have a lot of accomplishment with it this season. The bowl run of two straight seasons could be over for the Huskies.

Betting Forecast: Connecticut is 8-3 ATS as a road favorite under head coach Randy Edsall and it is favored at Ohio in Week One.

Louisville Cardinals 5-7 SU, 4-7 ATS, 6-5 O/U

Summary: It has been a disappointing two-year run for Louisville and head coach Steve Kragthorpe and it probably won’t get much better this season. After nine straight bowl games for the Cardinals, they have not made it to the postseason for the last two years and that is likely extended this season. Kragthorpe cannot be totally blamed however as injuries have played a big part in the lack of success as has the fact that over 20 players have left the program. He did a big turnover of the coaching staff heading into this season and he replaced defensive coordinator Ron English, who left for Eastern Michigan, with former Utah St. head coach Brett Guy. Things need to improve sooner rather than later or it may be time for Kragthorpe to move on as well.

Schedule: The schedule is extremely tough early on. Following its opener against Indiana St. and then a bye, Louisville faces Kentucky and Utah on the road followed by Pittsburgh and Southern Miss at home. It does not let up as the next two games are on the road so the Cardinals could feasibly be 1-6 before hosting Arkansas St. Two of the last four games are at West Virginia and at South Florida.

Bottom Line: With a schedule like this, it will be hard for Louisville to make much progress. Kragthorpe is squarely on the hotseat and we will see if he gets a fourth year to turn things around. This is the first year in a long time that the Cardinals have not had an established quarterback which will make things even harder. A couple early season upsets are exactly what Louisville needs.

Betting Forecast: Since going 15-2 ATS as a home chalk from 2004-2006, the Cardinals are 2-6 ATS in that role the last two seasons and that likely continues.

Syracuse Orange 3-9 SU, 5-6 ATS, 6-4-1 O/U

Summary: Because of all the parity in the conference and the fact that no team is projected to run away with anything, Syracuse has a chance to surprise. The Orange have the most favorable schedule in the conference but that likely is likely not going to translate into a winning season. It was a long four years under head coach Greg Robinson and Syracuse is hoping one of its own can turn this program around. Doug Marrone was the offensive coordinator in New Orleans so he certainly knows his offense as does his offensive coordinator hire Doug Spence. Syracuse finished 114th in total offense last season so it really cannot get any worse.

Schedule: The reason for the easiest schedule in the conference is that the Orange have eight home games compared to just four on the road. Seven of the first eight games are at the Dome so good things may happen if momentum is built. The one road game in there is at Penn St. while some home games include Minnesota, Northwestern, West Virginia and Cincinnati so it certainly isn’t a cakewalk.

Bottom Line: Robinson clearly was not the man for the job and one can only hope he did not drive the program too far into the ground. Syracuse does have seven starters back on each side of the ball and there is talent but it is at least a year away from moving up. The good news there is that of the entire two-deep roster, there are only seven seniors out of the 44 total players.

Betting Forecast: Syracuse is 2-7 ATS the last two seasons in non-conference games after going 16-4 ATS the previous four years. We will see more success this year.

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