Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett
The deadline for underclassmen to declare for the NFL draft is a distant memory. Signing day is in the rear-view mirror. So now it's time for our pre-spring 2009 conference rankings.
And I thought the Big East was hard to decipher in 2008. I submit that no league is more difficult to sort out right now than this one. As many as five teams can be considered serious contenders, and you can make just as strong a case for each team to be ranked fifth as you could first.
Anyway, here's my best estimation (read: wild stab) at it. I suspect these will look different after we get a look at spring practices.
1. West Virginia: When in doubt, go with the most successful program of the past few years. Actually, that's not why I'm picking the Mountaineers here. I think they have the fewest question marks of any team right now. Yes, Pat White is gone, but Jarrett Brown has been a solid quarterback in relief the past couple of years. Virtually the entire defense is back, and there is a host of playmakers for Brown to find. That's good enough for the slightest of nods.
2. Cincinnati: Putting my faith in Brian Kelly here. The Bearcats lose all but one starter on defense, but they still have a lot of firepower left on offense, including perhaps the league's best quarterback in Tony Pike. I'm guessing the two-time Big East coach of the year will have his defense up to speed by mid-October.
3. Rutgers: Can momentum carry over from a previous season? The Scarlet Knights, who will enter 2009 riding a seven-game winning streak, sure hope so. There's a lot of good, young talent on this team. Still, with so many major contributors gone -- including Mike Teel, Kenny Britt and Courtney Greene -- it looks to me like Rutgers is a year away from claiming the league's BCS bid.
4. Pittsburgh: At the beginning of January, I would have told you Pitt was the prohibitive favorite to win the 2009 Big East. Then LeSean McCoy turned pro. The Panthers probably should be higher than this, but until I see signs this spring that the quarterback play will be improved, I'm curbing my enthusiasm.
5. South Florida: You'd probably expect to see the Bulls higher on this list, given the return of quarterback Matt Grothe and defensive end George Selvie for their senior seasons and the influx of new talent. Yet I refuse to have much confidence in this team until it plays consistently for a full 12 games and rises to the competition of the Big East. Plus, there are several question marks on the offensive line and in the secondary.
6. Connecticut: Randy Edsall's team is continually and criminally underrated, and I hate to put the Huskies this low. But when you consider that Donald Brown, Cody Brown, Will Beatty and Darius Butler are gone from a team that won only two conference games a year ago, I have a hard time seeing how UConn is going to be better in '09. Perhaps the new no-huddle offense will do the trick.
7. Syracuse: Doug Marrone should be able to pull off a surprise or two in his first season at the Syracuse helm. This was a really young team that was starting to mesh at the end of last season, and the offense has to improve.
8. Louisville: The Cardinals lost their last five Big East games in 2008, and it might be a while before they end that slide.