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May 2, 2008

Big East finds respect difficult to earn

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com.
Previous mailbags
April 25: Sooner fans worried
April 18: Florida State's legacy
April 11:Product of weakness?

Big East teams get a bad rap.

The elitists who follow more-heralded leagues often look down on the Big East because of its geography, its numbers and its perceived weakness.

No doubt, the Northeast - where most of the Big East is located - won't be confused with Baton Rouge on game day. And its eight-team membership makes the Big East the smallest of the "Big Six" conferences. In addition, most teams in the league don't have a glorious football history, so even the best Big East teams often are dismissed as beneficiaries of a weak schedule.

But that's not really the case. Last season, Big East teams posted non-conference victories over Auburn, Mississippi State and Oregon State, all of which won bowl games.

So wouldn't it stand to reason that a Big East team that defeats a good SEC or Pac-10 opponent in a non-conference game then would be a tough opponent in a conference game?

Detractors have a point in that Big East teams play only seven conference games, so its teams still can schedule other, easy non-conference opponents. But what if a Big East team plays an SEC contender and goes on the road to face an improving Big 12 opponent that played in a bowl last season?

At least one does. And if it gets through those games unscathed, it should be considered a legitimate title contender, regardless of the conference in which it plays.

OLIN'S MAILBAG
Two games for a title shot

West Virginia travels to Colorado this season and plays host to Auburn. How do you see the Mountaineers doing in those games? Will the altitude be a factor in Colorado? I feel West Virginia has an excellent chance at playing for the national championship this season.

Bill in Bealeton, Va.
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My opinion could change based on what happens during the season, but as of early May, I'd expect the Mountaineers to split those games.

Auburn should be good in 2008, and if Kodi Burns flourishes in offensive coordinator Tony Franklin's version of the spread, the Tigers could be very good. The Tigers always are fast on defense, and that doesn't figure to change with seven starters returning from a unit that ranked sixth in the nation a year ago. Add in that coach Tommy Tuberville hired former Pittsburgh defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads, who was last seen devising a plan that limited West Virginia to 183 yards in a 13-9 upset last season, and that could be a tough game for WVU.

The Mountaineers will be good, too. Any team with Pat White and Noel Devine is a force with which to be reckoned and the likely Big East champion. But there were significant losses on defense, which is the reason I'm apprehensive about West Virginia reaching the championship game.

Still, I'd expect the Mountaineers to prevail in Boulder on Sept. 18. The Buffaloes are improving, but won't have dealt with the kind of speed they will see from West Virginia.

The altitude could be an issue, and Colorado worked hard this spring on a no-huddle offense to try to capitalize on that. But usually it's only an issue if the visiting team makes it one. In the past two seasons, Colorado is 5-7 at home.

Positive signs on Chapel Hill

After enduring a 4-8 season this past fall, I'm eager for good news about my North Carolina Tar Heels. With Greg Little emerging as a solid running back, Hakeem Nicks and Brandon Tate performing well at wide receiver and a strong defense led by five-star tackle Marvin Austin, I have reason to believe that this season's Tar Heels will win at least seven or eight games in a relatively weak ACC. What areas do you think the Tar Heels need to improve upon if they are to make my bowl dreams a reality this season?

David in Richmond, Va.
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The quarterback situation in Chapel Hill remains unsettled, but aside from that, all signs are positive.

Little showed at the end of last season how productive he can be when he rushed for 243 yards in the last two games. And six of the Tar Heels' losses came by a touchdown or less, so if two of those close games go the other way this season, then voila ! it's bowl time.

Coach Butch Davis played a bunch of freshmen last season, and has 10 offensive starters and six defensive starters returning. Sophomores tend to be better than freshmen, so there's no reason not to expect North Carolina to continue to make progress and make a postseason appearance.

But this season's schedule appears more difficult than last season's, with Rutgers, Connecticut and Notre Dame among the non-conference opponents.

Will Pryor play?

I don't know what the feeling around Columbus is, but I've got to believe coach Jim Tressel is going to have to let Terrelle Pryor play or use both he and Todd Boeckman like Florida did with Chris Leak and Tim Tebow. I know there is a good future, but I feel like now is the time to make a move - especially with USC the third week of September.

Steve in Ohio
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I don't know what the feeling around Columbus is, either. But I know Jim Tressel is one of the five best college football coaches in America, and how he chooses to use Pryor likely will be a wise decision.

That said, I would anticipate that he will use Pryor in much the same way Florida coach Urban Meyer used Tebow two years ago as a change of pace and in certain strategic situations.

Pryor obviously has tremendous ability, and I think Tressel will use all the resources available for another run at a national championship. But I don't expect Boeckman's role to be diminished. The Buckeyes are absolutely loaded again, and having a senior quarterback always is a plus. Boeckman, though, has to improve. He was solid most of last season, but struggled some down the stretch.

He will need to play well if the Buckeyes are going to have a chance to win at USC in September.

Eight in '08?

Yes, we did have the No. 1 recruiting class in the nation for 2008, and we will really start to see the impact of the '08 class in '09. But do you see Alabama winning eight games or more this season?

Truck in Chattanooga
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Considering the Tide posted seven victories in '07, including their bowl win, I'd be stunned if they didn't manage at least eight wins in '08.

Alabama will be better in its second season under Nick Saban, and I think quarterback John Parker Wilson will, too. Besides, any team returning 10 starters on offense and seven on defense has to be expected to improve.

There are issues at receiver and linebacker that could be helped by the incoming freshmen class. But until the problems there are solved, I don't think Alabama can win the SEC West.

Can Auburn contend?

I haven't heard anything that even hints to Auburn being a contender in the SEC West. Why aren't the Tigers getting the credit they deserve from the media and the rest of the college football nation? It makes me sick.

Mike in Auburn, Ala.
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Maybe we're just listening on different frequencies because everything I hear is how strong Auburn will be in 2008.

The defense could be awesome and the offense will be exciting, but the schedule is brutal with LSU, Southern Miss, West Virginia, Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama on the slate. But at least the Tigers get four of those games at home.

Auburn seems set to post nine or 10 victories, which it seems to do every season now. But I'm still picking LSU to win the West.

Gophers hoping

Minnesota has had decent years recently, but never could win the big games when it had the talent to at least contend. But, hey, Illinois sure surprised me, and probably many others last season. So could the Gophers get there with Tim Brewster in place, or are we in for another Glenn Mason who did gain some respect for the program but never anything worth noting.

A.J. in Minneapolis
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So how patient are you, A.J.? Remember, Illinois endured consecutive two-win seasons before breaking out with nine victories last season.

Minnesota's 2007 season was horrendous by anybody's standards, but Brewster bounced back with a recruiting class that was ranked No. 17 in the nation and included seven four-star prospects.

That No. 17 class ranking was the third-highest class among Big Ten schools (Ohio State was fourth, Michigan 10th) and was rated much higher than any Minnesota class in the past five years. The Gophers' best class in that span was 37th in 2003.

Of course, highly rated recruiting classes don't guarantee victories, but they definitely enhance the possibilities. Brewster's ability to assemble a top-20 class after a one-win season was remarkable, and he'll probably continue to recruit well because he's so upbeat and positive.

Heck, after one recent conversation with Brewster, I wanted my son to play for him. And my son is 4.

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.



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